”We’ve been down to the river fishing lots of times. What could be the big deal if we went down in the winter”?
It is a wintery Saturday afternoon in Fargo; not a bad day for North Dakota in January; a few degrees above “0”, dry and still; didn’t really feel all that cold by Dakota standards.
Mom answers the phone, “Eddie, it’s your friend Donnie on the line”. At the ripe old age of 11, I didn’t get phone calls; kids just didn’t use the phone in the old days I guess. “Hi, Donnie, ¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬your mom let you make a phone call?” Ignoring me he says, “Eddie, let’s go out and do something. I don’t know what but anything is better than sitting in the house playing jacks with my sister.” “Mom, Donnie wants to go out and do something, is it OK”? “As long as you take your brother Jerry along and you behave yourselves”, was her warning answer. ‘Behave ourselves? How on earth can anyone get in trouble with all that snow out there?
Mom finds wild Jerry; he’s only 8, and she takes on the job of getting us ready to ‘go-out-in-the-weather in a ‘Fargo winter’. This ‘getting ready’ is an always-the-same set of clothes that only mountain skiers would understand. Goulashes, over a set of warm socks and leather shoes, long johns, ‘padded’ pants, not the poofy girly pants but you know, – padded canvas, a warm sweat shirt or wool sweater. Our coats are long, down to the thighs, with fluffy white sheep wool on the inside and a waterproof canvas on the outside. All this with a wool cap and earmuffs, no goggles. After all mom’s fooling around, we are finally ready to go!
Donnie is already out in front of his house waiting for us and in that short time, he’s gotten one of his ideas, “Let’s go down to the river and see how frozen it is, OK?”
The river had always been a summer fishing place where us kids went lots of times but we never went down there in the winter. Without the folk’s permission, we decided to go. The “river” is the big Red River and it is just 4 long blocks down through the neighborhood. As you get closer you can see this block wide flood area that is kinda like a crumby park. It is usually quiet and empty; today it is a lonely place, lots of snow and still. We three kids are the only ones there. Somehow I’m feeling alone in this ‘deserted and noiseless’ place.
Nearing the river, Jerry is excited; he has never seen the river before, he is only 8. “Wow, look at that, you can walk half way across”, he yells as he sees the ice going out from the shoreline. I had been fishing at the river for the past two summers but young Jerry had never been allowed to go. I look out across this wide river and most of it is covered by ice. But shouting at us in this frozen silence of winter, the middle is open, rough, and roaring. The black water, running fast, is frightening/dangerous; not at all like it is in the summer. ”Hey Eddie, Jerry shouts running onto the ice, it’s really bumpy and there isn’t much snow on it, watch!” Jerry’s excitement will not slow down. “Eddie, why isn’t it smooth like the skating rink?” I ignore him, – shaking my head, – gonna be a looong day.
This is a new thing for us down at the river in winter and we are slowly learning things. ‘Things’ like the ice is frozen right to the ground at the shoreline. ‘Things’ like you can actually run on the river ice without fear of falling down. And one other ‘thing’, the ice gets thinner when you go near the middle. Why isn’t it the same thickness all the way across, I wondered?
Lots of times Donnie, he was 12, was the one who made the choices when he was with us; that’s who he was. Today, each of us is doing our own fun kid stuff. Donnie shouts out far away from shore, “Watch me, I can take big steps and bend the ice into big waves, kinda like walking on a giant piece of that red inner tube rubber we make rubber band guns with”. He is making BIG pouncing steps running ahead of Jerry and me. We are having a good time but no matter how I shout at Donnie, “Get closer to shore, that ice is really thin out there”, his happy-go-lucky reply is always, “Come-on out here with me you beg scardy-cats, this is really fun!”
He’s get’en crazier and crazier. He comes to a small tree sticking out of the ice but it right-a-way makes a turn so it is bent flat above him over the ice, – just about as high as he can reach. Without a blink he takes two big steps, jumps up, grabs the skinny tree and starts swinging. Everything is OK until ………….……………. he lets go. The thin ice cannot hold his weight when he drops back down ……… he crashes right through. Lucky, he spreads his arms in time to keep from going under and being pulled away by the fast rushing water below. Donnie is screaming at the top of his lungs, “Eddie, it’s trying to pull me under”! Jerry has run up the hill about 20 feet above the river; he too starts SCREAMING in TOTAL panic; his shouting bouncing off the frozen zone of silence! I’m there on solid ice and Donnie is out there some 40 feet away screaming, banging his arms and breaking the ice around him; almost right away he has a small pond of water around him; that water has to be freezing cold!
I run up the bank to the first tree in sight and brake off a low branch. I can’t break it loose! It is taking forever to break that dumb branch off. I twist it, I turn it! The darn bark just won’t let go! The branch does not want to leave the tree! FINALLY it comes loose and I tumble head over heels down the bank holding onto the branch for dear life. Whew! I’m back down at the river. Got to get out there on the ice and stretch this darn branch out in front of me. ”Donnie, stop waving your arms and grab this stick”, I shout. Donnie is really scared. He reaches for the end of the branch and breaks it off. “It’s too skinny” he screams, wildly pounding and breaking the ice in front of him. “Its all we’ve got, be more careful”, I scream back. Why or why did ever I hand him the skinny end of the stick? He takes the branch again, this time more carefully. “OK, hold the stick and start breaking the ice in front of you, DON”T LET GO OR BREAK THE STICK”, I scream. For what seems like a forever, Donnie finally gets to thicker ice and climbs out on top. He must weigh 150 pounds; it was not only that giant overcoat and the many-layers of wet clothing but his overshoes are filled to the brim. “No time for anything Donnie, we’ve got to get you home and quick or you’re gonna freeze”. Now safe, it was fun to be in charge of Donnie for a change.
With each 100 feet we stumble, Donnie’s clothes get stiffer and stiffer. By the end of the first block Donnie’s weak voice begs, “Eddie, I can’t feel my hands or my feet, let me take my overshoes off, they’re too heavy”. “Donnie, the water will keep your feet warm, we’ve got to hurry”, is my only reply. By the third block the only piece of him that could bend or move is his hip joints. White ice has formed over all his outer clothes; he is starting to look fake, like some kind of ‘ice man’ made for the movies. Beside his stiff arms and stiff legs, he can’t even move his head; touching his coat is like leaning against a tree trunk. “Eddie, I’m soooo cold, am I gonna die?” Donnie, just keep walking, we’re almost home”. Eddie, I can’t walk, my coat is too hard”. If it had been 5 instead of 4 blocks to his house I know he’d have fallen down and we’d of had to just drag him along over the snow like a tree log.
It takes forever but we finally get to his house. Knock, Knock; Donnie’s mother opens the front door. “We’re back, Donnie got a little wet I think,” are the only words that I dare speak. Total panic overtakes her face as she stares down at her son with real ice frozen on his skin. Maybe it isn’t so much panic as it is anger, I can’t tell. Her eyes are popped open, a completely stern look covers her face and her jaw shut tight, – she is really MAD! Her body and hands shake and she’s just staring down at him. Her very first and only words are, “Donnie, do you still have our Food Ration Stamp Book in your coat”? Donnie is too frozen to answer; Jerry and I turn and ran for home; I couldn’t believe that those dumb stamps could be all that important. We didn’t dare go near Donnie’s house for the next 2 weeks. He survived the cold water; I’m not too sure if he survived his mother’s anger.
P.S. Look back at the title. During WW II everything under the sun was rationed. Everything from tires to gas to food. Food was broken down into groups like the red stamp’s for ‘meat’, that included lard and butter. Others were for sugar and vegetables.
by Edwin G. Roche
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