January 28, 2014
I stood on the riverbank last Sunday and watched eleven bald eagles rafting on ice floes. A lone pelican swooped low above open water patches. The sun was blinding. It was sixty-one degrees. I wore a black tee shirt. Walkers on the Great River Road path were dressed in summer apparel. A winter storm was coming but there was no sign of it. The unfreezing river seemed surreal. Watching the thick ice drifts took me back to the night I was baptized in ice and died, on a bitter cold winter night in February of 1995. . .
Sixteen people met on the east side of the Illinois River, 23 miles north of Peoria, for a walk across the ice. We met at a ranger station at six pm. It was twelve below zero. I was dressed in so many layers I could barely move my extremities. We carried coils of rope for emergencies (there had never been one in a decade of the ritual), backpacks with thermoses of hot chocolate and snacks, and flashlights.
We set off in eight pairs, one after the other. The full moon lit the way. The ice cracked and groaned and undulated slightly. It was like walking on a frozen water bed. I was sweating by the time we reached the second of two islands. Barred and great horned owls were calling out territories. Ice bubbles and rime ice covered the ground, a crunchy alien landscape. We smashed bubbles with our boots as we walked north to south on the narrow island.
At ten, we headed back for the ranger station. Not a hundred yards from the island, there was a great crack of ice, like a lightning crack, and Leo, a short, elderly man fell through the ice and disappeared. Johnny fell through next. He was six foot four; he landed on the river bottom, bounced up, grabbed a rope and was pulled out in short order. I was just behind Johnny. I saw the fissure of ice race at me, splitting ever wider, and I plunged into the icy, dark river.
I landed on the mud bottom boots first, my left foot trapped in the funnel cone of a bull spring, an underground seep in the riverbed. My head was above water. Oddly, the river was warmer than the air. People were screaming—except for me. The fight or flight instinct took over and most of the hikers ran back to the island.
Three men stayed and worked at rescuing us, tossing ropes, lying prone on the ice and preparing to pull us out. There was an explosion ahead of me. Leo had fisted his way through the ice and was gasping for breath. He was roped and pulled out. I was roped, but the bull spring held fast. It took all three men to heave and pull me free. My left shin fractured, as did my right wrist. I didn’t know that at the time.
A weeping Leo and I lay next to each other. In seconds, our bodies froze stiff. Ice encrusted my beard, and my eyes and lips froze shut. From that point the only reference I had was sound. The last thing I saw was the Lake of Sleep, on the moon’s surface. Blackness. Yelling.
“They’re in a coma!”
My deceased mother appeared to me. She was dressed in a summer frock and bathed in light. She led a pet wolf on a golden chain across the open water and they sat next to me. Mother, all pale skin and freckles, smiled. The wolf licked my numb face. I was dead in a great light, a cleansing light, washed of pain and travails and broken heart.
Until, gradually, the light began to fade, until I became aware that Martin, a guy visiting from Hamburg, was shouting at me in a heavy German accent: “Chene! Chene! You vill not die! You vill not die!” He repeated the mantra endlessly and pounded my chest, other men trying to stop him. I began to moan. Mother smiled and she and the wolf vanished. I came back. I couldn’t feel a spot on my body. The rescuers shed their coats and piled them on me. I warmed back to the land of the living.
It took another half hour to get me on a sled and back to shore. Leo, Johnny and I were driven to local houses, each of us put in bathtubs of shallow, warm water, each of us screaming in pain as our frostbitten bodies slowly warmed, each of us experiencing our genitals climbing back into our bodies, each of us thinking we now had vaginas.
The three rescuers were taken to a hospital in Peoria. They had severe frost bite. One of them had to have a finger amputated. One of them had gone on the hike to help deal with the grief of losing his wife to breast cancer, a few months earlier. The third man, our leader, would never forgive himself. . .
Last Sunday’s sunset was one of the most beautiful in memory, the blazing orb of the sun sinking in ice, light shards spearing the woods with light. At eight o’ clock the spring-like air was still upon us. At eight-twelve a great roar came from outside. I walked out onto the front porch. From the bluff top, an unseen force howled; I thought a tornado was coming. An empty plastic cat litter pan at my feet lifted up as if by an invisible hand, rotated and floated a few feet before crashing on the ground. I stepped inside and slammed the door. A fifty mile an hour wind bent the trees double and hurled into the house.
By daylight, it was zero. The cold was a punch to the solar plexus. I am still fighting for breath.
I think of Robert Frost’s poem, “Fire and Ice,” a funny rumination about which element is the most desirable in which to die. I know the answer: