In my memory, my childhood is broken down into three sections. In many ways, these are three different people that seem almost strangers to each other, yet all of their memories are mine. The first are the early years that ended when we moved to Bemidji. These memories are spotty and disjointed, but the ones I still recall are very strong. The next phase is when we moved to Bemidji the summer I turned five until the divorce when I was eleven. The final stage starts after the divorce in the final months of the 6th grade, until I joined the Army 25 days after I graduated High School.
While the months leading up to the divorce were the worst of my young life, most of my time at the house on Lake Plantagenet was wonderful. We were only about eight miles outside of town, but in the 1970's for a kid under eleven, we might as well have been in the middle of nowhere. We were surrounded by more acres of woods than we could explore and had a lake and river within walking distance.
What made that time even more special, were my friends. Tom Wilson was a year older and his brother Dan was a year younger. They had two younger sisters, Becky and Sally that we would harass from time to time. The three of us were inseparable and this is a story about one of our favorite pastimes, sledding.
The Wilsons lived right across the road from us. Their house was on a steep hill that overlooked the lake. That hill was perfect for sledding and every winter we spent the majority of our time doing just that.
The bank of the lake was between three and four feet above the water, which made for a cool jump onto the ice at the end of our run. When the snow was thick on the lake, it was like hitting a pillow. When it was wind swept, it felt like our vertebra was being compressing. Of course, that didn't stop us. But as we got older, the hill lost some of it's power to thrill, and the three of us came up with more elaborate death defying games to feed our need for adrenalin. One such attempt was on their long wooden toboggan. It was large enough for all three of us, but it wasn't a sled you could steer. You had to aim it and hope for the best. Under normal circumstances, that would be fine, but of course, that was too boring for us. We took it about one hundred yards into the woods parallel to their house and aimed it downhill. Then we climbed in, said our feeble prayers and pretended we weren't scared so the other two wouldn't think less of us.
I read years later about phenomenon called Groupthink. This was a classic example. We pulled our legs in and pushed off. The sled was slow at first because of the deep untouched snow. My fear turned into disappointment as it seemed we wouldn't even get started let alone get up to dangerous speed. We rocked back and forth, digging our hands into the snow trying to get down to solid ground for purchase.
Without warning, gravity overcame the surface tension, and we went from grunting incremental frustration to an express freight train headed straight for hell via large trees that sprung in front of us so suddenly, we didn't have time to scream.
Tom yelled out instructions from the front and we tried to comply, shifting our weight right or left to avoid a head on collision. We bounced off the side of a couple of larger trees and went straight over the top of some brush all the while picking up speed. I was sure we were dead meat when finally we were through the trees and shooting up the ramp shaped bank. There was a feeling of weightlessness and we all had time to look around as we sailed through the air above the snow free ice.
Tom tensed. He seemed to have figured out what I hadn't. The bank on that section of the hill was a couple feet higher than where we normally sledded, and the solid wood toboggan had no shock absorption. We hit flat and hard on the ice. Pain shot up my spine and I saw stars. Momentum carried us a good twenty feet and then we came to a stop. I fell to my right trying to catch the wind that had been knocked out of me.
Still, we were all smiling like idiots as we stood up and looked back at the path we'd taken. Groupthink or not, we all decided that once was definitely enough.
The rest of the year, we stuck to our normal hill that lead down to where their dock was located in the summer. It was a well-worn path and plenty fast, especially in the early spring when the snow would melt a little during the day and freeze into a nice ice coating as the sun headed for the western horizon. Of course, once the ice started melting on the lake, we were supposed to stop sledding down the hill. After all, shooting down a hill directly toward a receding sheet of ice in March was not safe or particular wise.
Yeah you guessed it. We didn't just try it, but we soon created a sled version of chicken. We wanted to see which one of us could get the closest to the end of the ramp shaped bank without bailing off. To make it more interesting, we were using their metal discs because they were faster on ice and supposedly easier to bail off. It was getting dark and we'd all gone down twice. As you might expect, we ditched very early at first, but then we got gutsier, not wanting to bail inside the last person's mark.
I was wearing a pair of knitted mittens my grandmother had made me. We were all a little soaked from the melting snow, and it was getting cold as the sun sunk deeper. The sky looked like it was on fire as the sun eased behind the lazy clouds that dotted the sky like rows of white puffy tombstones. I gripped the two handles tight and swore I would beat Tom's mark. He'd bailed at the bottom of the hill, right before it started to go up again, barely three feet from open air. I gritted my teeth and shoved off. Each run, the surface became more ice than slush and my run was fast. I figured if I bailed right when I reached the bottom of the hill, my momentum would carry me past Tom's mark. Halfway down, my disc hit a bump and spun me around so I was going down the hill backwards. I couldn't see when to jump off and chickened out. I opened both of the hands and dove to my right.
Nothing happened. I was still sliding backwards and Tom was yelling something. My mittens, so caringly knitted with Grandma love, had frozen together, locking me to the handles. I was going to scream, but then I shot passed Tom's mark and was flying through the air as I had done countless times before. This time however, I didn't land on snow or ice, but skipped across the open water like a rock. One, two, three, then I was submerged as I fell back and the disc filled with water. I had just enough awareness to take a deep breath and I was under the surface and heading for the bottom. The water freed my frozen mittens, but my momentum and weight dropped me like an anchor.
I looked up as I sank and saw I had continued out as I went down and was now well under the shelf of ice. When I hit the silty bottom, I pushed away from the disc and tried to swim up to the surface. My water logged boots and coat held me down. I'd become disoriented and started heading the wrong way but I noticed it was black as death and I remembered the sun. I looked around and saw it was lighter to my left. I started to walk in that direction. I leaned forward and pushed with my legs as hard as I could, digging into the muck with my hands.
After an eternity, I was out from under the ice and there was light and open water above me. It was hard to think, but I knew I had to keep moving. A few more steps and my head broke the surface and I blew out hard and then sucked in the fresh sweet air. Tom and Dan were there to help me up the bank. I sat down to catch my breath.
"I'm sorry I lost your disc."
They weren't worried about the disc but we were all worried about getting caught. How in the hell were we going to hide this? I told them I would just head home and chances were good I could get past my mom and dad and into my room without being seen. Most times, I could do it. Dad would be watching TV and Mom would be making dinner. Half the time they never turned around when I came in. I thought my odds were pretty good. Tom and Dan looked dubious, but I was determined, so I started up the hill. From the edge of the lake to my front door, was about four hundred yards, mostly uphill. By the time I got to the end of the Wilson's driveway, I wasn't cold any more. I was sleepy, but not cold. It was full dark and my clothes had frozen hard. I couldn't bend my knees anymore and was forced to just shuffle ahead.
When I got close to my house, our front door opened and both my mom and my dad ran out toward me. I'd been in trouble before, but my dad had never run at me in order to give me a whipping. Instead of swatting my ass, he scooped me up like a sack of potatoes and took me inside. They were both chewing my ass but they also seemed scared. I'd never seen them like this and I thought I should be scared too, but I just didn’t care.
They finished stripping me naked and then they shoved me into a bathtub of what I thought was boiling hot water. I screamed and thrashed, begging them to let me out. My dad held me down. There were tears in my mom's eyes.
After another eternity of agony as all my nerves felt like they were on fire, they finally let me out and wrapped me in towels and rubbed me hard until I was completely dry. They explained that the water was room temperature. My dad had learned about frostbite and hypothermia in Kodiak Alaska when he was in the Coast Guard. Then they put me in bed with an electric heating pad and extra blankets. It was strange, but with all of those blankets and the pad, I felt cold for the first time since I'd left the lake. I shivered so hard I was sure I would shatter my teeth. It felt as if I would never be warm again. Sometime later, my dad said it was ok to let me sleep. I didn't think it would come, I still shook, but eventually it did. Before I drifted off, I heard them talking. Dad didn’t think I would lose any of my fingers or toes, but he would know for sure the next day if any of them turned black.
I dreamt of black, dead fingers.