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Thin Ice

November 25, 2011

Memory is a strange phenomenon, at least for me. There have been some experiences of supposedly great significance that I don’t remember at all (my high school and college graduations, for example). But somehow certain insignificant and seemingly meaningless ones somehow stick in my brain as clearly as if they just occurred the other day. One such memory involves a childhood friend and some thin ice.

I knew Steven all the way through school though we didn’t really have much close contact until junior high school. Ah, yes — Junior high school, the American repository for awkward adolescence. This was a period of time that many of us would just as soon forget. Indeed, much of it has been forgotten on my part (or purposely blocked out) for that very reason. But this particular recollection involving Steven has never left me.

Steven Fields was the poster boy for the young absent-minded professor. He had pasty white skin and unkempt hair so blonde it was virtually white. Fashion was clearly not his focus. Rumpled corduroy pants and a button-down shirt half out of his pants accented with a pocket protector and complemented by his ever-broken glasses were his standard fare. Had we used the word “nerd” back then, he would have been the king. I liked Steven in spite of this. He had a creative mind, was quick to laughter, always shared, and was nice to a fault. It was this last virtue that played a critical role in what occurred.

One of my best friends, Teddy, would walk part way home with me from Roy W. Brown Jr. High. This happened to be the same route Steven took, so we often walked together. The street we went down crossed over a stream that cut through town and was always the source of some form of amusement like bombing leaves floating downstream with pebbles or betting on which stick would pass under the bridge first. Gawky thirteen year old boys really got a kick out of stuff like that.

It was during the winter months, however, that this stream reached its peak of interest. Whenever a cold snap arrived, the stream, which was only a few inches deep, would start to freeze at the edges. If it got cold enough, the ice would cover the whole width of the stream, but never too thickly because of the movement of the water beneath the ice.

On our way home, we would peer over the side of the stone bridge that traversed the stream, checking on the progress of the ice. A debate about whether it was currently strong enough to support us would ensue. The three of us would then make our way down the bank and began doing some preliminary test pushes with a single foot. What followed was always the same.

Either Teddy or I would say, “It seems pretty strong to me, don’t you think?”

“Sure does,” the other would say. “I’m sure it would support us!”

“Yeah! Come on, Steve. Try it!”

Steven would doubt our assessment, but after some weak protest and our continued coaxing, he always took a few furtive steps onto the ice. Inevitably, on about the third step, the ice would break, and Steven would end up with wet shoes and a look of chagrined I-told-you-so on his face as Teddy and I laughed hilariously. It never failed to be the funniest thing we had ever seen. Even Steven would be laughing as he shook his head and plodded back up the embankment, shoes squishing as he went.

The funny thing was, Teddy and I knew darned well that he would go through the ice, and Steven knew we knew, but he would do it anyway. It was similar to Charlie Brown’s repeated episodes of trying to kick the football with Lucy always ending up pulling it away. It seems that we were immersed in some adolescent ritual of acceptance, and though each knew exactly what the outcome would be, we played it out anyway. I suppose Teddy and I were actually taking advantage of Steven’s good-natured willingness, but he embraced his role, and the game went on for an entire winter.

I have never gone to a high school reunion — such gatherings are most definitely not my cup of tea — but I sometimes get the urge to drop by just to see how Steven turned out (though I would think that reunions aren’t his cup of tea either). I imagine that he became successful in some sort of scientific endeavor (he was brilliant in this field during high school), but one never knows. Even more that that, though, I wonder if he too remembers this silly little incident that we repeated throughout that winter. I hope that if he does remember, it is with a smile.

Though only really a flicker in time when the paths of our lives once intersected, memories such as this become part of the intimate connection we sometimes share with others. I suppose it is that which makes them not so insignificant after all.

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