“PSST, Hey,” I whispered in the still dark room. My hand landed on a foot and I shook it gently, “I thought you wanted to go fishing.”
As though he were spring loaded, my son snapped into a sitting position, then leaped from the warm blankets as though he had been shot from a cannon.
My smile was a broad one as he nearly knocked me over to dash for the bathroom and the pile of clothes that waited to keep him warm on our cold adventure.
“The wind is out of the north, remember all your layers,” I advised in a whisper.
The last thing I wanted to do was disturb the still sleeping form of his brothers. One child at a time was my rule on the ice, unless Grandpa planned to join us.
There are far too many things that could go wrong with more than one at my side, besides one on one time is rare when there are five kids in the house.
It was my chance to bond, to discover those little things that makes each member of our clan different. They all see the world differently, and it was my job to find out just what each young pair of eyes soaked in.
Blackness still ruled the sky when my old truck finally rumbled into the boat launch. The youngster in the seat next to me bounced like a wind up toy whose spring had been wound a little too tight.
“Can I drive today, Daddy,” his voice squeaked.
It was a question I had been waiting to hear, and looking forward to.
“You’ll get a chance this afternoon Son,” I confirmed as I pulled into a parking spot near the ramp.
I left the truck run as usual while I stepped out to prep the equipment. I wanted to keep him warm till the last possible second. His tiny fingers, toes, and nose still soft and fragile would be the first to feel the bite of Old Man Winter.
The machine that would transport us across the frozen landscape finally roared to life. It’s deep throaty growl rumbled like a hungry panther.
The sound of that motor was the sound Little Man had been waiting for. He sprang from the truck with his gear bag dragging on the ice covered pavement behind him.
“Lets go Daddy,” he shouted as I topped off his head with a heavy stocking hat.
“Patients, the old girl isn’t ready yet.”
While I closed up the truck he climbed into the drivers position of my old snowmobile. It’s an image that has been burned into my brain for eternity.
At six years old, his arms were just barely long enough to span the handlebars, legs still too little to straddle the seat stuck out wide as he bounced up and down. His thumb lacked the strength to push in the throttle, so his voice took over the task.
“Vroom,” he shouted and leaned into a foreboding turn.
These are the days that do a dad’s heart good.
With a double check of everything, I dropped my helmet onto my head and picked up his.
“Hey,” I hollered to interrupt his fantasy race.
Like a mini- Marine the boy hopped up to stand tall and proud on the seat and accept his crown. He was the prince this day, alone with dad and ready to take on the world.
His head wobbled a bit from the added weight, but he settled into his position on the seat and held his arms out wide. When I climbed on, I felt his little hands clench tight to the sides of my coat, then his helmet pressed firmly into my back.
He was ready.
I eased the throttle and off we went down the ramp and onto the wide open expanse of ice that stretched into the darkness. Our path only lit by the yellowish bouncing light on front of the machine.
The rising sun found us a couple miles off shore tucked in, safe and warm, in the portable shanty we had drug behind us.
As expected, the midday sun slowed the fishing to a point that couldn’t hold the youngsters attention, and his time to drive was at hand.
With just as much energy and enthusiasm as he had that morning, he sat on the growling beast just waiting for my arms to reach around his and push the throttle.
Back and forth we zoomed, not too fast, but quick enough to keep his adrenaline pumping. As we coasted to a stop, my arms fell away and he jumped off, waving his hands in a victory dance as though he had just won the Indy 500.
“Can we go home now,” he asked as his tired body rushed to catch his helmeted head that tipped to the side.
“You got it champ,” I agreed.
Packed and ready to roll, a sense that something was wrong pricked at the back of my brain. With years of playing on frozen lakes under my belt I knew better than to discount the feeling.
I kept myself alert, eyes scanning every which way as I pointed the sled back towards the truck.
It wasn’t until we reached the half mile mark from the launch that I found what my senses had warned of.
For me alone, it wasn’t such a big thing. I had came across this issue a few times before, and was prepared for it. All except for the unpredictable reaction from the little one clutched to my back.
Worry crept into my head and I tried to fight it off. This was going to require my complete concentration, and I had to trust my son to do exactly as I told him. That is a mighty tall order for a six year old who wouldn’t understand the risk involved.
I let the sled roll to a stop, and pinched my elbows tight to my sides, catching his little hands in a grip he could not escape from. His head left its perch on my back and I was sure he could see our dilemma.
I shut down the motor and yelled “Don’t move.”
I stood next to the front of the sled and stared at the thirty feet of open water that separated us from the launch.
“Can you ‘mobile swim Daddy,” I heard from behind me.
I turned as my thoughts reeled over what was about to happen. I was time for a serious talk with my boy.
“No Son it can’t. And neither can we, not in that water.” I searched his face for a reaction.
In that instant I saw it in his eyes, it was a look of faith. Daddy’s always have the answer, and just as long as Daddy was there all would be good. That eased my fears some.
Our helmets hung from the handlebars as I looked deep into those faithful brown eyes. “I need you to listen to me, Okay?”
His little head nodded up and down.
“I need you to sit really still and don’t move. Can you do that?”
A little arm shot up to give me a salute and met his nodding head in perfect time to flip the hat over his eyes.
“Why is there water here Daddy,” came his innocent question.
“The wind has moved the ice, remember our talk about pressure cracks?”
“The wet lines?”
“Yeah, the wet lines.” I confirmed, “This is just a really big wet line.”
“How do we cross it?” His mind was starting to work on a problem far bigger than he realized.
“I’ll show you, but you need to sit tight Okay?”
I rose from my crouch and began to prepare. I had done this before, but alone. Not with the most precious cargo in the world at my side.
I could see my fingers tremble with nerves. Something uncommon for me, yet fully justified this day.
I freed the shanty and gear from the back of the sled and dug out a fifty foot length of rope I kept handy for emergencies.
One end I tied to the gear sled and held the rest of the coil in my hand.
“Stay Put,” I warned as I walked toward the waters edge.
With a mighty heave I flung the rope and watched it unfurl in the air. It’s circles became a wavy line that landed as I had hoped. A good ten feet of rope lay on the ice across the water.
“Time to ride,” I said and handed him his helmet.
“But… our stuff!” he exclaimed.
“Relax, it’s going home with us.” I told him just before I brought the old girl to life again.
Once I felt his hands and head we were off. I had to find a place to cross. The minutes drug on as I followed the pressure crack down the shoreline. It seemed there were many of us fisherman who face the same problem.
Finally I found what I sought, and turned the machine out farther away from shore. One more talk was in order, and my nerves were now on end.
I lined up the sled along my chosen path and shut it down. Off with the helmets for a our final talk.
“Time to go home champ, your driving.”
“Uh… I don’t want to Daddy.”
This time his voice was filled with fear. A very palatable fear.
“We’ve got this, but you need to be in front of me,” I really didn’t want to finish my sentence, “If something goes wrong I want you in my arms, not behind me.”
I have always believed in talking to our kids like they were little mature people, and that day proved the worth of my choice.
“Okay Daddy,” he said as his eyes welled up with tears.
“Put your hands here, and don’t let go for anything,” I instructed.
Gloved fists wrapped around just where I had pointed and I slid his helmet back on, this time triple checking the clasp under his chin.
My last instruction came just before the turn of the key, “We have to go fast, hold on tight.”
I couldn’t take the stalling any longer. The sun already had dipped below the tree tops, and this event was not something I wanted to do in the dark- even alone.
We both wiggled our bodies tightly together as I mashed the throttle wide open. The path before us became a blur of white with an occasional flash of color as we blasted past more than one fisherman on foot.
Suddenly open water appeared next to a pile of shredded ice that had been pushed up above the flat surface as the ice worked back and forth in the wind over the past few days.
I could feel his tiny body press backwards into me as he locked his arms. No doubt he now understood what was about to happen.
I tightened my grip on the bars with my thumb still fully extended on the throttle. With a hard lurch the skis hit the pile of ice to direct Little Man’s eyes to the sky.
In the span of about three seconds, you could hear the motor over rev as our momentum launched us up where only the seagulls wander, then down with a hard impact into the ice on the other side of the water.
My brain flashed through a check list in milliseconds.
– Little Man; still clinging between me and the machine with his head up.
– Sled; still moving and steerable.
-Me; still in one piece, but possibly with soiled shorts.
I eased back on the throttle but didn’t stop until the rope of our abandoned gear lay within reach.
When we stopped, I learned just what had happened inside my little man.
“Let’s do it again,” came the muffled shout from inside his helmet.
Wide, wild eyes could be seen through the shield and his cheeks spoke of a big grin hidden from view.
“Not today, time to go home,” I was more than a little thankful everything had gone so well.
My only concern from that point on- Mama’s gonna kill me!
Finally with the truck warmed and loaded we climbed into the cab. Only one thought needed to be spoken.
“Did you have fun today doing man-stuff?”
“Oh yeah,” Little Man grinned.
“And what’s the rule of doing man stuff,” I asked.
His answer proved to be a bit more adult than I expected…
“I won’t tell Mama about your flying ‘mobile Daddy,” he said and offered his fist up for a manly bump.