There wasn’t a lot of blood but that didn’t mean it didn’t hurt. It hurt a lot, actually. The small wound was physically painful but I hurt in other ways that I hadn’t hurt before. My pride was hurt and I wasn’t aware that I had a sense of pride until that moment in my life. The worst was that I felt betrayed by someone who I had placed a lot of trust in. My vision was severely clouded with tears that refused to stop falling from my face to the hard surface of ice below. Hank was my grandfather and he had purposely put me in harm’s way by crashing the snowmobile on the top of the frozen lake.
It was Easter and I was excited about the trip we were taking. We were headed for my grandparents’ house on Doe Lake, a couple of hours north of Toronto. Snow was plentiful this season and I was looking forward to Grandpa taking me out on the Ski-Doo. We didn’t travel to Ontario during the winter months usually . . . it was too dangerous to travel on the icy highways and a six hour drive became a nine or ten hour one. Winter was a fun season back then and full of outside adventures. Sledding, tobogganing, & skating were some of my favorites but snowmobiling was something I didn’t get to do at home. We didn’t have the money for such luxuries and I could not hide my excitement.
I would learn later that Hank was not my blood but he was the only grandfather that I knew. He took an interest in me from the start of my memory and he took the time to ask me questions about my young life. He had a wealth of experience in just about everything it seemed and he was willing to share his knowledge with me if I was willing to learn. He knew stuff and he even seemed to know what I was thinking most of the time. He told me stories about working in sawmills as a young man in places like Kilworthy and Germania. He once took me to a working sawmill and introduced me to a man with missing fingers. He explained later that the man had lost them to a band saw and that there were many others who had lost fingers, hands, and even their lives in those camps. “You have to pay attention to what you’re doing” he had said. “Don’t be reckless.”
After staying the night I woke up to find Grandpa playing solitaire at the kitchen table. It felt like it was still night but he assured me that it was 4:30 am and time to drink hot tea and get my mind working. “A wise man is early to bed and early to rise,” he’d say. He had taught me how to play “Double Solitaire” by the age of eight and there we were, playing and laughing and drinking the queen’s tea. His hands were calloused and his cards were worn thin from the many hundreds of games he had played over the years. The plastic tablecloth protected the wood table from the many spills of drink and there were plenty of burn holes in it from the many cigarettes that had fallen out of his ashtray. He had spent a lot of time at the head of this table and it’s where he did a lot of his thinking. I was a welcome distraction and I knew it. “So, how long are you up for this time, Mike?” he asked. “Just for a week this time,” I answered, as if I was in sole control of all road trips and life decisions. He treated me like an equal in moments like this and I felt like a general in his army.
Hours later, we were blazing a trail in the bush. Kermit White and his adult son, Jerry were driving Ski-doos as well and we were following them down a trail that overlooked a winter wonderland. I was wearing a brand-new pair of gloves that fanned out past my wrists and my snowmobile suit and felt-lined boots kept me plenty warm in the cold weather. I wore a wool scarf over my mouth and nose and the only exposed area was where my eyes looked out the front of my head. Life was grand. I asked Grandpa if I could drive the awesome machine and he said “Maybe later.” I had heard that response before from him and I knew that it could go either way. I held on to the hope that “maybe” would become “yes.”
We took a break from the cold when we returned to the house and Gram served us more tea and a warm lunch. “So, you think you can drive that machine by yourself, do ya?” he asked. “Yes, Grandpa!” I answered. He and Gram seemed to have an argument about then but boyhood prevailed and there we went, wearing the same layers that we had peeled off just an hour before. Gram and Grandpa’s house was just 50 yards from the lake and Grandpa pointed at the snow on ice surface of it. “We’re going to drive on it!” he exclaimed. Hank got on the Ski-doo and I sat behind him like we had before. He drove slowly down the embankment and cautiously onto the ice, which cracked when we first got on. “What’s that sound?” I asked. “The ice is melting,” he answered. “It starts melting about this time every spring, starting along the edge and then on to the middle. If you had come to visit just a couple of weeks later we wouldn’t be driving out here.” He drove on to the middle of the lake and commented on how slippery the ice was today. “Go faster, Grandpa!” I said. He made a turn and then powered the speed up for the return to solid land. The feeling was exhilarating and I told him again that I wanted to drive. He came off the lake in a place down from where we had entered. He was creating a path to follow and this piece of ice cracked also as we drove over it. “You have to be careful on this ice when you get out here by yourself,” he said. I now knew that he had made the decision to let me drive. We continued the circle until we came up on our starting point and then he started another run. “Drive it fast again, Grandpa!” I exclaimed. Hank sped the machine up much faster this time and raced out to the middle of the lake. Just as we got to the furthest point he turned sharply without slowing down. The machine fell over on its side and my ankle got pinned underneath it as it continued to slide on the slippery ice. Grandpa was thrown clear but my body was dragged for what seemed like an eternity and my ankle was hurting badly. Hank ran to where the snowmobile had stopped and worked quickly to shut the engine off and lift it off of my leg. My snow boot was torn open and the foot rest was sticking in my boot. I could tell that the felt was torn also and I thought at first that the foot rest had melded with my foot. Grandpa quickly removed my boot and the removable felt liner. There was blood but it was superficial. No broken bones. A look of relief swept over his pale face and blood finally found its way to his lips as he asked “Are you okay?” I was in disbelief and confused beyond words. He realized that an explanation was necessary and he quickly jumped into his grandfather role. “This ice is slippery and I wanted you to understand how quickly you can get hurt if you drive recklessly. Do you understand?” When I was slow to answer he said “Well, I think you have learned your lesson for today. Are you ready to drive it by yourself?”
He had won my heart. Of course I had learned my lesson and now I was driving a snowmobile by myself! I drove it around that path for a very long time . . . maybe until it ran out of gas. I don’t remember. I do remember Grandpa and Gram having an argument when we were back inside again and I remember the patch that remained on my left boot for the next couple of winters. It was my war wound and I thought about the lesson that I had learned on that cold day every time I wore it.