Here’s a story about my Father I would like to share with you. It is Christmas Eve here in the United States, and this story is about a Christmas miracle, or two idiots, whichever you prefer.
Long ago, roughly Christmas 1979, my mom, dad, and I traveled to Keystone, Colorado for Christmas. My father had a medical meeting to attend, and the Medical Society he belonged to liked to use school holidays to travel places that were family friendly but nature oriented. They were quite progressive for the time, considering that they found South Padre Island long before the influx of college students. Anyway, someone decided they wanted to take their family along, and go skiing while they were at it.
I remember leaving a day early and driving to Clayton, New Mexico. There wasn’t much in Clayton, New Mexico, but I remember a rather good Mexican restaurant called La Paloma Blanca, and the triceratops in the garden. (Clayton apparently had fossils and someone had put plaster dinosaurs in a white picket fenced area.) I remember staying the night at one of those old cinder block motels, and we couldn’t get the heat regulated right…and ended up sleeping with the door cracked open.
We were headed into a national forest, so my dad though it would be a good idea to buy a Christmas tree at Safeway in Clayton. We had the van with the crazy paint job at the time, so we wrapped the tree in a sheet, and laid it in the middle aisle.
My dad said he thought it looked like a body, and that he hoped we would not get pulled over.
My mother just laughed.
I can remember driving through Colorado Springs early in the morning and hearing the Mormon Tabernacle choir singing Christmas carols on the radio. My parents, who both had good singing voices chimed in. I remember passing this white church with a high peaked steeple, and it really looked like something out of a Christmas card.
My dad had put snow tires on the van, so we wouldn’t have to deal with chains higher up in the mountains. They made a funny sound, like a whirring, humming, purring noise on the pavement. When we got to Loveland pass, and the tunnel, it was snowing so hard it looked like we had entered hyperspace. I remember calling it that too, because the original Star Wars was still a thing, and I felt like Chewbacca, sitting in the navigator’s seat next to my dad.
Christmas Eve, we put the tree up in our tiny studio condo that was located close to Keystone village and the lake. We faced the mountain, so we couldn’t see the Christmas tree in the center of the lake. We drove to Dillon, the closest real town to Keystone, and hunted frantically for ornaments for the tree. My mother had some cranberries and popcorn, so we strung those together to make a garland. I think I found some blue and green glass balls at a Hallmark store so we took those back to the condo with us. We decorated our tree, and my parents had the Murphy bed, and I slept on the couch. I remember Christmas morning, looking out the window, and the snow was coming down so fast, you could not see the mountain…and we were ski in/out right on the mountain, so it was a heavy snow. I remember that the flakes were fat, and as big as silver dollars. I sat there and watched them in amazement, because they were so incredibly large. Our humble tree, with its multicolored lights was reflected in the glass. The image has stayed with me all this time because it was so striking that I almost cannot put it into words.
I was into ice skating at the time, because, Dorothy Hamill, you know? I skated for hours on Keystone lake. My mother sat huddled on a bench all that time, keeping warm under a blanket, while I entertained fantasies of Olympic glory. The Russian women’s speed skating team was there too, and they skated for hours and hours around the south end of the lake. I skated out there too, but I quickly learned that the ice was slushy there, and there were more minnow holes. It was also not as maintained as the area closer to the condos, and the Zamboni did not clean and level the ice as much. I told my mother about it, and she related her story about how she out skated an ice breaker up on Lake Michigan. She also told me not to go out that far anymore, and I didn’t because as pretty as it was, I could tell it wasn’t safe.
My dad and another doctor, I’ll call Dr. White for the purposes of this story,(because I do not know if his family knows what actually happened, or if he even told them.) decided that after their meeting was over that they were going to go ice fishing out on Dillon Lake. My dad had already planned to do this, as he brought along his tackle and rod, and other ice fishing gear. My parents both lived in Michigan, it is where they met. So, winter sports like ice skating and ice fishing were old hat to them. My mom knew he was going, but I don’t think she knew who all was going out there with him from the meeting.
I had skated for close to ten hours that day, and it was getting dark. My mother was clearly getting worried, as I played with my doll back at the condo.
Finally, about seven in the evening, my father shows up, and he’s roaring drunk.
My mother was seriously pissed off. My dad had a awful case of alcohol poisoning, because the altitude had taken effect and made him drunker faster. He collapsed on the bed, managed to convey that he had a story to tell, and fell asleep.
The next day, a very hung over Dr. White and the Dillon county sheriff’s department paid my mother a visit. My dad was still hung over, but he and Dr. White managed to fill out the incident forms.
What happened was this: My father had gone ice fishing as planned but the only other doctor that showed up to join him was Dr. White. Dr. White didn’t have any fishing gear, so he turned up with a bottle of Rock & Rye and a cheerful attitude. He and my dad sat out there on the ice, next to one of the little fishing huts, and swapped surgical stories, gossip, and generally shot the shit with one another for hours. They killed the bottle, and then realized they were both drunk…too drunk to drive. So, in an effort to sober up, they hung around the lake basically idling until one of them could manage the drive. In the meantime, one of the other ice fisherman had gone out onto the ice, and it turned to slush on him. The ice broke and he fell in and my dad and Dr. White saw it happen. Some of the other fishermen out there called the sheriff’s department, but my father and Dr. White decided to rescue the guy. They belly scooted across paper thin ice out in the center of the lake to reach the man. Somebody had given them a rope, and they got it around the guy, and dragged him out of the water. Both of them worked on the guy, because he went into cardiac arrest, and was suffering from hypothermia. They and the EMT’s got the man stable and he was airlifted to Denver for further treatment.
The sheriff said the reason why he didn’t arrest my father and Dr. White for public inebriation was because they probably saved that guy’s life. He said only drunken fools would have attempted that, as the ice in the area was less than an inch thick. He said he honestly thought is was a miracle that the two men were there at the time it happened, that they were both doctors, and just crazy enough to have done what they did. He advised my mother not to be too angry with my dad because both he and Dr. White were heroes.
The expression on my mother’s face was priceless. I honestly don’t know if she wanted to slap my dad, cry, or hug him. Dr. White and my dad were pretty good friends after that. I know my dad trusted him to operate on me when I had to have my appendix removed. My dad sent Dr. White a bottle of Rock & Rye for Christmas every year for a while after that. After all, he and my dad had gone where only drunken idiots and angels would fear to tread.
Somewhere out there, is a man, who fell through the ice that day. He might be long dead by now, as is Dr. White, and my father. But, he was blessed that day to have my dad by his side. I am really proud of my dad for this, as I could have lost my father that day too. But someone was looking out for all three of them out there that day on the ice.
But, that is the way my father was…he was a good man that would selflessly help others. I love you very much, Daddy.