Tag Archives: broken ice

The Branch of Friendship

Winters in New England will always have a special place in my heart.  As a young boy growing up in the 50’s and 60’s then world was my playground, and my sandbox was full of snow.  Lots of snow.  Nor’easters would pile up 2,3 even 4 feet of snow at a time, and we always knew how to utilize that snow to our advantage.

Sledding was at the top of our list.  The toboggan usually came out first because it would tamp down the snow as we barreled down the rolling hills behind our house.  My brother and I would gather up the neighborhood gang and head through the field and up the hill.   Looking back, I am guessing it was about a quarter mile to the top end of the field.  Actually, it was two fields, on just to the left of the other with a wide path leading between them. 

Once at the top, most of us would sit on the toboggan with anticipation of a great run.  My brother and his friend Booby were the oldest two, so they got the back seats and the job of getting us started.  Pushing on the last persons back, we began the decent slowly and as we gained speed they jumped on and settled down.  I was often in the front steering, a position that I loved.  The speed of the taboggan slowly increased and I began to anticipate the turn into the next field.

Urging everyone to lean to the left, I grabbed the front of the taboggan and tilted it left.  As the others leaned, the sled started to turn as we picked up speed, heading toward the path between the fields.  Timing had to be almost perfect to avoid allowing down the ever-charging piece of wood that held us above the ground. 

Once I could see we were going to make the run OK, t was time to start planning the next one.  We went through the path and into the other field, and I yelled out “Lean right”.  The snow went flying past us as the edge of the wooden device cut into the snow, still keeping up speed.  I took hold of the curved front end and started to tilt it once more, and that taboggan yielded to my command.  We straightened into the field and headed toward the bottom of the hill, cheering and laughing as we made our way.  Before we knew it, we are at the bottom, another successful run completed.  Although it only took about 30 seconds, it seemed like an eternity.  Then back up the hill we would go for another round.

One of the other people on that sled was my best friend David.  We had met a few summers before as I was riding my bike down the street.  I had not seen him before as he stood there alone in his front yard.  As I ode by, I cried out “Hey, you want to be my friend?”.  “Yes” was the reply.  I turned my bike around, sped into his driveway and dropped my blue bike on the ground.  Walking over to him, I said “Hi, my name’s Pete!”.  I’m David” he replied.  A friendship was started.

David and I had bigger sledding aspirations than just a taboggan, and they came to fruition on the second hole of Wachusett Country Club.  The walk was long from our house – about a mile through the woods. But it was worth it every time.  Pulling our double runner sleds behind us, we went down the path, over the brook, past the old shelter house and then through the woods until we got to the second green.  Then over the brook and up the steep hill to the top of the descent. 

The second hole was a long par 5.   The fairway started out level, then slowly started to slope downward for the first 250 or so yards.  From this vantage point, you could not see the green below. The slope increased more and more as you headed toward the green, and the last 100 yards or so sometimes seemed like it stood straight up and down.  In retrospect, it was probably about a 35% grade, which is pretty steep.  At the bottom of the hill stood a creek, it’s banks about 5 feet across.  The depth of the creek was also about 5 feet.  There was a small shabby bridge in the center with a large, much sturdier bridge for golf carts on the right side of the fairway.  From the creek, there was a gently upslope to an elevated green.  A beautiful golf hole – a surreal sledding place.

We would trudge our sleds to the very beginning f that slope, 400 yards from the green.  A running push was required, followed by a quick belly-flop onto the deck of the sled.  It was not unusual to have a nice frozen crust on the top of the snow, as the top layer would melt during the days sun-made heat and then freeze up again at night.  The sled would make its way to down the ever-increasing slope and we could light with excitement at the ride which was to come.  As the sled picked up speed, we had to make a decision – jump the creek or head to the bridge.  Often, we had to make that decision quickly because the melting and freezing process had turned that east facing slope into sheer ice.

Most people would say to take the smart route and head to the bridge.  This was definitely the smartest and safest route.  It was still a wild, fun run each time.  However, jumping the creek brought extra advantages.  If you did not lose speed, it was easy to get over the creek, past the green and head back down the trail through the woods.  The challenge of speeding through the woods was unmatched in the annals of double runner sledding in our neighborhood.

This day, conditions were perfect for a huge run.  As I came down that sheer ice, there was no doubt in my mind.  Jump the creek and go for the record.  David followed me as I barreled full speed ahead to the bank.  My sled was full throttle and I cleared the creek with no problem, as did David.  I barely lost any speed as I headed over the green and saw the opening at the other side, heading down the path through the woods.  Now the task was dodging trees, as the trail was only about 3 feet wider then the handlebars f the sled, and it weaved like a river through a farm field.  I held on tight as David slowed behind me and kept going. Dodging one tree after another at full speed, I came up the shelter and then the bridge over the small creek in front of it.  I was amazed at how little speed I had lost at this point, so I kept going up the slight incline that led into the backyard of another friend.  I could hear David shouting me on as I went. “Go. Pete.  Get the record.” He cried out.

After the last snowfall, some of the bigger kids in the neighborhood had transformed the back of this friends’ house into a bobsled run of sorts.  The had built up the walls and smoothed down the edges of the run so it had extra speed all the way down to the next creek.  The run itself was aa sledding experience which we all enjoyed day after day.  I was about to enter that bobsled run I had enough speed.  Excitement began to build as I realized my sled was going to make it into the chute.

When I hit the top of the small hill and looked ahead, the bobsled run stood before me.  Its walls seemed huge as I entered it, the double runners hitting that hard-packed surface and not cutting in.  Once again, my speed picked up as the chute took control, guiding me as I went.   I just had to stay inside the walls.  Speeding faster and faster, I curved my way through two more back yards, over the bridge that crossed the creek and up into the deep snow of the field that had nor prepared for any sled.

As I closed to a stop, I could hear David, then others cheering for the run I had just accomplished.  Fear never entered my mind as I sped down that hill, through the woods, over the creek and down the chute to the longest run anyone had made.  At least three-quarters of a mile, and perhaps a full mile of sheer delight.  No one would ever do that again, at least not that I can remember. 

With all the excitement that sledding provided, nothing would prepare me for what happened on a January afternoon in 1960.  Fresh fallen snow blanketed everything in sight as the sun roamed low in the sky with dazzling brilliance.  My friend David and I were dressed warm enough. Snow pants, heavy coats, mittens and stocking caps made us snug and happy.  We were all geared up for an afternoon romp in the deep New England snow.  The world was our playground whether it was sledding, or a toboggan, a snow ball fight or building forts in mounds made by the snow plow.  We spent hours outside at a time, best friends making the most of a winter day.

This day we headed out through the farm field across from his house.  We climbed over the wire fence that was meant to keep intruders out.  A slow slope was easy to navigate as we scampered across the field. The ground was covered with waist deep snow which made the adventure more interesting.  We trudged our way down to an old farm pond about 200 yards from the road.  The ice-covered pond was windswept with snow, making the ice on top look rugged and not suitable for skates.  There was a large willow tree on the south side of the pond.  The dangling branches of the willow flowed down almost to the ice.  There were also a few small white birch trees near the water’s edge. They looked feeble and about ready to fall onto the ice, the heavy wet snow bending them down.  As I reminisce, I realize what a picturesque place it was.  A regular Currier and Ives setting.  With the two of us standing by the edge of the ice, and you could have a Normal Rockwell painting sure to inspire.

We made around to the west side of the pond and noticed there was a small opening in the ice about 100 feet from the shore.  Since we loved playing games and were both great competitors, we decided to have a contest.  An old stone wall was near the water’s edge, broken down by years of wind and wear.  This left many small, medium and large rocks sitting around the shore. We decided to see who could throw the most rocks into that hole.  David went first, and he just missed the small target.  The rock he threw bounced across the ice halfway to the other shore.  My first try wasn’t any better as it skipped the same direction.

After several more attempts, we realized this game was harder than we thought it would be.  I came up with a plan to make it easier and more interesting.  Why don’t we throw some of the bigger rocks out there  and see if we can make the hole bigger, so we would have a bigger target?  David liked that idea, and we started picking up the rocks we thought we could throw far enough to make a difference.  This required more strength, and often we had to heave them out there.  It was working great and the hole was getting bigger with every rock we threw.  Soon it was about 6 feet across, and David said that’s good enough.  We now had a target we could easily hit with the smaller stones.  He started picking them up and throwing the, hitting the hole every time.

I disagreed.  I had to outdo him, and the only way to do that now was to make the hole even bigger then he had.  I searched around for the right rock.  This was no throwing rock, at least not from that distance.  I had to get much closer to get this rock near enough to break the ice and make the hole bigger.  I picked it up and started out on the ice to make sure I could get it close enough to heave it into that hole.  I was about 10 feet from the hole when I heard a noise of cracking ice.  Before I could retreat, the slab of ice beneath me gave way.   I dropped the rock as soon as I felt myself going down, but it was too late., I was suddenly in the frigid water, my heavy winter clothes dragging me down into the pond.

Scared was not the right word.  I quickly started flapping my arms to try and get to the surface.  I was a good swimmer, so did not have too much of a problem getting up.  Some of the gold water had been gulped up, but I was OK at this point.  I got to the surface and out my arms up on the ice in front of me only to have it give way.  Plunging back down into the water a second time was not what I had anticipated.  The ice was supposed to hold me up!

Now my coat was wet all the way through and it was harder to get back to the surface the second time.  As I lunged upward with my arms, I was able to get above water and put my arms up on the ice again, only to have it give way once more.  Oh my, down I went again.  I was running out of strength.  I had heard the stories – third time up is usually the last.  Panic set in.  I had no idea what was going on up above as I floated downward that second time, trying to get up the strength for one last pass at the surface. 

David was frantic on the shore, and all I can do is give you his account of what he did.  When he saw me go under, he yelled out to me, but of course I did not hear him.  Ten he saw me surface and the ice break beneath me and knew I was in trouble.  As he surveyed the area, he saw those old birch trees leaning down from the snow.  He quickly ran over and grabbed one of them, pulling it up with some supernatural strength for the moment.   He saw me go down for the second time and knew he didn’t have a moment to lose.  With that tree in hand, he sprawled across the ice and put the tree right over the hole where I was.  Tears welled up in his eyes as he knew he had to get this right.

I had no idea the tree was there.  I mustered up all my strength to get to the surface one more time, and there it was.  That branch was right where I needed it.  I heard David yell out to grab it and I did.  He held on and so did I as he dragged it back toward the shore.  Some ice still broke beneath me, but finally I arrived on the surface of the ice and crawled as he dragged, I was exhausted and elated.  He was shouting for joy.  But I was also quickly turning into ice as we finally got to the shore and hugged each other.  The house was 200 yards away across a snow filled field an over the fence

It took forever, it seemed, to get there.  The snow was waist deep and I was completely soaked.  I was freezing.  David went before me, trying to open up a trail through the snow.  He tamed the snow down to make a path so I could get through easier.  Following the same path we had come down on made it easier.  I was getting bluer and bluer as we went, shivering all the way. My body and my clothes felt like they were turning to ice as I moved.  We got to the edge of the field and climbed over the fence, heading across the street. We got to his house and ran inside.

“Mom, Mom, Peter fell through the ice” David cried out.

His Mom came running out and quickly had my clothes off and a towel around me.  Oh, that felt so good.  I was blue all over my body, but quickly started to warm as David’s mom gave us hot chocolate and delicious hot-cross scones.  It took a while, but finally I was warm enough to get dressed, and David gave me some of his clothes to wear.  Once I was warmed to a normal state, we took the ¼ mile walk to my house.

My Mom greeted us as we walked in the door and gave me a quizzical look.  “Do you have David’s clothes on?”

I simply said “Yes, Mom.  All of them.”  And then we told her what had happened.

After high school, David joined the Army.  It was the middle of the Vietnam war, and he decided that he wanted to fight for his country.  He went on to become a ranger in the army, and a 1st Sargent.  God only knows how much that incident that day prompted him to take on such a daring life, but I’m sure it did in some way.  He changed his name to Jason during this time because he wanted to forget the childhood he had in his mother’s home.   Before he got back to the states, he committed his life to a higher calling then that. He accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.

I, on the other hand, went the opposite direction.  There was no discipline in my life, and I fell into a well of lust, booze and drugs.  They took over my life.  For the next 5 years after high school my existence was a blur of parties and missed opportunities.  I had received a full ride to a great technology school on my grades and blew that chance because of drugs.  They even gave me a second chance, but I threw it away.  I was whirling out of control.

Then came my 5th high school reunion.  Lo and behold, David was there, now Jason.  We talked and talked.  We spent time together after that night.  He tried to tell me about Jesus, I didn’t want to listen.  But our friendship was renewed and we vowed to keep it going.  For two years, we corresponded as I stayed at home in my drug filled life and he travelled to Florida, met a girl and moved to Iowa.  We wrote to each other regularly and he would send a scripture address each time, forcing me to look it up.  After two years I finally went to Iowa to visit Him. There, I accepted Jesus as my Savior as well.  Jason saved my life a second time.

Jason and I are still best friends 55 years later.  He has suffered a lot of depression and PTSD because of the two wars he served in.  Sarin gas and Mustard gas both have eaten away his body.  During these years, I have talked him down from suicide several times.   I think of it as returning the favor of him saving my life twice.  Now I am upon life, and he is the same.  Putting our trust in our Savior above is what keeps both of us going.  We talk almost every day and are closer now than we have ever been.  We reminisce a lot about those days and many of the other things that we have been through together.  I am so thankful for his friendship and that God has kept us close, despite some very hard times between us.  It’s a friendship that will last a lifetime.