Through the Ice, Part I
I was seven. Joe was eight. It was a winter day.
The half-foot of snow that had covered the ground on the weekend before was gone. Each morning and each evening, everything around us had melted and refrozen. This morning we saw it had happened again. The puddles in our yards had turned to ice. The grass turned greenish after a couple hours. By late morning, the soil alternated between feeling frozen solid and being spongy, dark and wet.
Joe and I tried to play games inside, then outside, and eventually decided to do his favorite thing. We went to explore the creek. Permission from Joe’s mother came easy. She usually wanted her kids to make themselves scarce and his father liked to work at the University of Maryland on the weekends. Joe's father studied insects for a living, a profession I could only vaguely comprehend.
I understood that Joe loving snakes was somehow related to his father’s job, though. Every trip in the woods ended up as a search for snakes.
That day, Joe and I hiked up Metzerott Road on the east end. This was a land where no cars ventured even though they could. The only destinations were vacant sections of the public park. We passed the baseball fields and the horse obstacle course. We passed the fishing pond to our right. At this time of year, it was also the skating pond.
The pond had been made when construction workers cut back trees to build our park sections. Someone among them had had the foresight to dig out a pond with an island. Although it was bigger than a baseball diamond and looked planned, it had been an unofficial accomplishment. It didn't appear on park maps. The water in it was shallow enough to freeze over for a month or two, when it became the neighborhood ice-skating rink.
Every winter, the neighbors would check the pond as it iced. When the surface was thick enough for use by adults, the neighborhood agreed it was allowed for children, too. Then scores of people would skate along the natural rink. Anyone who could find the pond and tie on skates was welcomed or at least not driven away, not even if they came from miles off. Some did.
Everyone skated with more or less equal skill. No one knew how to do any tricks more impressive than a figure eight and even then, most of those were done by teenage girls of a certain age and stylishness. They dressed like Peggy Fleming and skated as much like her as they could. Men and young boys, if they skated at all, met at the pond to rough-house on the ice or to play pick-up hockey games.
When Joe and I passed the pond that Saturday, we noticed the frozen glaze on top of it. A week earlier, we had been allowed to skate. We wanted to keep on doing it but my parents gave me a definite no.
"It's not safe," my mother said.
"Didn't you take the scout safety course?" my father asked me. "The den leader said you did."
In school and in scouts, I'd watched safety films on the dangers of falling through ice. They were dramatic in a black-and-white documentary sort of way. The voice-overs sounded authoritative. The holes in the ice looked wide and deep. Moreover, in the scouts, they showed us how to form a human chain. We practiced being heroic rescuers. We linked hands to ankles like in our film so we formed a human ladder of sorts lying horizontal across the ice, which was played in our drill by the den mother's beige carpet. When we used this method, our safety instructors told us, we wouldn't fall through the ice and we stood a good chance of rescuing someone who had.
"But it's still not safe," warned one instructor, who may have been married to our den mother.
"Follow the instructions of the nearest adult," added our den mother.
"Or the oldest kid." The instructor put his hands on his hips and shrugged. There weren't always adults around and he knew it. "You don't have much time. A few minutes, at most, when the water is near freezing."
In the films, schoolchildren lay themselves across the white expanse until the biggest and oldest of them reached a hole in the dark water.
“Let’s try it,” said Joe, meaning he wanted to test the warmed-up ice on our neighborhood pond. I opened my mouth to object. He ran to the edge of the water and slid a few feet across the slick surface. It crackled beneath him. I glanced down. Parts of the ice were transparent.
“My mom said no,” I reminded him. I put one foot onto the surface. It emitted a hollow sound. No cracks appeared, though.
"It's still fine!" Joe skated for three yards on his tennis shoes. Right over the deep parts. The ice made popping sounds but still no cracks developed.
“Your brother said no way.” His brother, John was eleven. Among the neighborhood kids, he was a figure of authority. He got as much respect as an adult.
John had brown hair, not red like Joe. He had muscles instead of being skinny. In all, John seemed like he had always been a much tougher boy than his brother. He also, it seemed to me, picked on Joe an unreasonable amount. When Joe complained or shirked on a job or just kept laughing and playing instead of listening, John hit him.
When I tried to intercede on Joe’s behalf, I discovered that John was effectively made of iron as far as my seven year old body was concerned. He would start pushing Joe down, and I would run in to fight. An elbow or even a mere shrug from John would send me flying.
Once, we younger kids had wandered into the bedroom that Joe and John shared. We saw John was jumping off the top bunk onto the back of his neck and rolling flat. He was doing it deliberately to test his own toughness.
"I want to try," I said. I'd watched it twice. It looked fun, the way John did it.
"Absolutely not," he intoned. He hardly even looked at me.
"Your neck is a matchstick," he replied.
I tried to come up with arguments in response. He refused to hear any. Except, oddly, he tried to persuade Joe to try the trick. Joe was a year older and his neck wasn't any stronger than mine, so it seemed odd. But John wanted Joe to be tougher.
"You've got to be strong, Joe," he said. "You've got to. You have to stop wimping out at things."
Maybe that was why, unlike the other big kids in the neighborhood who pummeled me when I came to Joe’s defense, John seemed to respect the fact that I was trying. Except for once, when I punched him in the nose, he seemed to think that my defense of his brother was proper. He still wasn’t going to permit it. But he made a sort of allowance that was the right thing for a friend to try.
"You two are idiots," he told us eventually. "Get out of here."
"It's my bedroom too," pointed out Joe.
John gave him an annoyed look and stepped toward us. We ran.
We had seen John on that winter morning, too. He had been playing catch in one of the neighborhood yards. He'd noticed us. He’d ordered Joe to stay away from the water. He'd laid on an additional warning against getting lost in the woods. Their mom might want everyone home for lunch and John didn't want to come looking.
"You brother said don't do anything stupid," I told Joe.
"You're scared of the ice, aren't you?" Joe teased.
"It makes sounds, Joe." When it was thick, it never made a noise.
"It's fine." He ran, hopped, and glided for another couple yards to prove his point.
He kept playing on the ice. I kept sliding around the edges near the shore. The surface stopped making weird sounds but I couldn't bring myself to completely trust it. Inspired by a thought, I tried to lure Joe away from the pond.
"Come on, let's go look for snakes," I said.
"There won't be any. It's too cold." He knew what I was trying to do.
"But that's even better if we find them. We can bring them home and your parents will let you keep them. You said so." Joe had acquired knowledge on how to resuscitate hibernating snakes and he was eager to try it out.
“Yeah,” he breathed. His eyes got a faraway look.