Falling Through the Ice

Photo by Bryan Rodriguez on Unsplash

Dropping out of college and moving to Wisconsin to follow my family seemed like a splendid plan. I was attending university in West Virginia and floundering—oh if I’d only majored in English as my secret heart wanted, but no. I chose pre-med. I wasn’t just floundering; I was lost and drowning.

I grew up in California, Hawaii, and the southern part of the east coast. When I was 14, we moved to West Virginia, where there was regular snow and winter. I liked it. It was such a change to have 4-seasons. 

My dad began his second career and transferred to Milwaukee. I had been a military brat, and home had never been a place–it was a group of people. My floundering became frantic when my folks left. 

I moved. 

I didn’t understand about Wisconsin winters. I thought winter was winter–a sort of uniform experience.

Oh my.

I moved in October. There was already snow on the ground. Deep snow. Cold snow. It was the winter of 78-79. Some of you may remember the gawdawful spectacle that Ma Nature put on. Snow to the rafters, subzero, blizzard after blizzard.

If I could have gotten my car unstuck from the snowdrift it was then parked in, I would have left.

Folks in Wisconsin remarked that it was a rather brutal winter, but it didn’t stop anything. Events weren’t canceled. The Super Bowl parties continued during a blizzard. I was astonished at how much clothing I had to wear to be merely miserable instead of dying of hypothermia. And that was indoors.

What really astonished me, though, was ice fishing. 

I thought those people insane. Wisconsin has many lakes, and we lived on Pewaukee Lake–about 40 minutes west of Milwaukee. I would be on my way to work and see those people out on the lake in the early morning. Little shacks. Big coats and fishing rods and nets.

I can’t imagine a love of fishing and/or a love of fresh fish enough to sit on a frozen lake in windy subzero temperatures. And I love a good fish fry. But, um, no.

Just no. 

Folks would snowmobile on the lake. And even take their cars out there. 

I had once fallen through the ice–in northern Michigan. I was a stupid little girl who had grown up on beaches. I didn’t understand that it took a while for ice to get thick enough.

I was communing with nature–a 12-year-old hippie wannabe. Lost in the romantic thoughts of a precocious preteen, I walked onto the ice and heard that sound that I now associate with pure terror. 

I plunged into the lake. 

My floundering became frantic.

My God.

There are no words for that kind of cold. Just. No. Words.

I was alone but fortunate. It wasn’t deep, and I was able to wade out. My coat dripping and my body one gigantic shiver.

I ran as fast as I could through the snow to my aunt and uncle’s house. I was the only person there. I had been left alone at my request. 

Peeling off my clothes until I was naked, I stood over the heating vent in the bathroom. I couldn’t get warm. 

I tried to turn the thermostat up. I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I hadn’t grown up with thermostats. The furnace finally came to life and blasted me with warm air. I found a blanket. And dry clothes. 

Using still frozen fingers, I made hot chocolate. 

I eventually warmed, but it seemed like eons passed before I could move my hands without pain.

That experience scarred me.

I couldn’t drive past those ice fishing people without worrying about them. Some of them were so far out, and Pewaukee Lake was deep.

So very deep.

And there they sat with their little shacks. Little holes cut in the ice. Big coats. Coats that could drag them down under the ice if it cracked. Courting death. And I didn’t understand why they did it.

I still don’t.

I remember the cold of that lake in Michigan.

This has been a long winter. The last two years have just been surreal. I feel like I fell through the ice of life. I’m out now. Warm and dry. Wary, but also optimistic.