This year, I turn 45 years old. Come April 26 of this year, I will, technically, be in the Autumn of my life. Seems impossible to be true, but it’s a numbers game, folks. The projected average life-span of a caucasian male, from a middle-class upbringing, born in the early 70’s is 90 years. That puts me smack dab in the middle of my run. By all accounts, I should be having a mid-life crisis. I’m not. I don’t think. Though I do often find myself pondering amorphous thoughts, such as - “Where will I go from here?” “Is this all there is?” “What am I meant to do?” “Am I destined to be as important as I have always believed I am?” “What does that even mean?” And other fun, anxiety producing, existential detours. However, tonight it dawned on me … “What if the answer to your future lies in examining your past?” On the tail of my mother’s unfortunate demise and subsequent Earthly departure, and in the throws of the very sudden, and recent decoupling of my father’s soul from his fleshy companion, I find myself looking at life in an entirely different way. For the first time in my life, I am without any other guiding life-forms. I mean, my relationship with my parents has been hands-off for decades, but they were at least always there. And, yes I have my siblings, but that’s a different kind of thing. More like friends who can’t recall not knowing one another. But no more parents? Well, it happens to the vast majority of us, but that makes it no less an important moment. I’m not in deep mourning. I’ve had a, I guess you could say, pragmatic view point on death for a long time now. It happens and if you prepare yourself for the inevitability long before it’s a reality, then you can start preparing by making the relationship as healthy, loving, fun and transparent as possible. If you don’t do that, you’re bound to be lambasted.
In addition to a sudden, and jarring reviewing of how to lead the remainder of my adult life, I find myself suddenly recounting many, distant memories from my childhood. Some fond, some terrifying, some embarrassing … many embarrassing, some sweet, some outstandingly exciting, and all in the most vivid of forms.
I was blessed. I had amazing parents, often stretched to the max (as can be expected with 4 children on modest salaries) they never fell short of providing for us. There was never a lack of food, empathy, compassion, love, hilarity, trips to the lake, support, encouragement, entertainment, kitties … you name it. And a playground of a neighborhood to grow up in with unlimited woods, basketball games, hill climbing, and bends in the creek. Let’s get this ball rolling.
I’m going’ in. Care to tag along?
Let’s see, an early traumatic event in my life. Hmmmm. So many to choose from. Hmmmm.
"Harry Houdini and hot cocoa"
I grew up in an idilic place. You talk to anyone who’s traveled and they’ll tell you, “Upstate NY is gorgeous.” It’s true. I lived in a little valley on the south side of Amsterdam NY, which is a small city hovering somewhere around 18,000 people, and located on the NYS Thruway about a 35 minute drive west of Albany, the capital. The Mohawk river runs through it, as well as the world-famous Erie Canal, on which my great grandfather was a mule skinner. I had a street that was so deserted, day or night, you could play an entire inning of whiffle ball, or at least one down of touch football (Ooh! That just reminded me of another traumatic event in my life) before any car came through. We had a cunning tactic in the case of imminent vehicular transgressions; someone would just yell, “CAR!!!” It was a perfect plan, never failed, we were clearly child geniuses here. I digress. There were many other amazing things of which to partake. I had a daredevil friend who lived up the street and owned a three-wheeler (a mechanized suicide machine, later to be outlawed). The ice cream truck came by after dark. The basketball hoop was in my drive way. My grandparents lived across the driveway. Pops could fix anything mechanical. Gramma cooked homemade Italian food that was literally the best you’ve ever had. No. I’m serious. Pan fried meatballs and home made pasta every Sunday. She’d hand out a tray of these meat balls with forks stuck in ‘em. They became affectionately known as “Italian lollipops.” My parents’ house, the one I was born, grew up, and lived in my whole life had a large backyard that ended at the banks of the South Chuctanunda Creek. So fishing, skipping rocks, harvesting really good clay for molding, frogging, fishing for cray fish, and just wasting long summer days hiking to a swimming hole, all were on the menu.
But the winters were the BEST!! I said I lived in a little valley. Well the hill to the west was my Lake Placid. Jerry B (my daredevil friend) and I made a sleigh ride run that was so treacherous that people eventually stopped coming over to even ride with us. Alongside the downhill was a bob sled run. For real. There was an old irrigation ditch that formed a half pipe shaped indentation in the side of the hill and when the water froze in it, it literally became a bob sled run. To the side of the downhill was the aerials arena … well you get the point. Then if you cross the street and traversed the Mancini Flats, you’d come to the banks of the creek where, if you were up early enough, you’d see Dave and Phil Sorette preparing the ice for a day of ice hockey and skating. We even ran a lead out from the house and hung a light from the tree. It was there that it happened.
Backing up a week, the Harry Houdini movie was on one night. If you’re unfamiliar, Harry Houdini was a famous magician, and one of the world’s most well-known defiers of death. In this one particular scene (and honestly, I don’t recall anything else from the movie) he’s lowered into a frozen river, hand-cuffed, entirely in a sack which is chained closed with multiple locks, in a steamer trunk. Except the chain breaks and the trunk falls through the ice, and sinks in the river. He manages to escape the chains and sack and whatnot, even the trunk, but then is still trapped under the ice and the current has taken him. So he spends the next couple of days swimming under the ice of the river looking for an exit, breathing only the air that is trapped in the 4 inch pocket between the ice and the water.
I … Could …. Not … Shake the vibe of that scene. I was very young, had an overactive imagination and I think probably suffered from claustrophobia, so this was some next level shit for me.
Ok, fast forward a week, and here I am, out on the ice, not yet the master of the blade that, I would soon become, and found myself headed, uncontrollably, toward the boundaries of the rink that was carefully tended by our neighbor boys. I sailed past the boundary and immediately heard that there was water rushing under the ice and that the ice was gradually thinning and starting to creak. Then crack. And thennnnnnnn … swoosh, I was in. The freezing cold water was flowing fast around me. The South Chuck had me in it’s icy grip and it was going to put up a fight. Now this is no ordinary creek. When spring thaw hits, this things rages at around 9 feet deep and sweeps large boulders down in its path. It’s a sound you grow up with in that neighborhood. 24/7, during the thaw, is just a continuous thundering of a deluge of water and large rocks smashing against one another. For weeks! Back to the scene where we left it, in the distance I can hear my sister Diana, “Nicky! Nicky don’t go over that way!” I sense a bustle and concerned energy focused directly at me from all who were on the ice that day. All of the sudden I realize this is not going well. The water instantly penetrated, and a deep, paralyzing cold struck like a good blow to the shin. You know. Sharp, stinging, you can’t concentrate on anything else, pain. Instantly I find myself in the head of the man himself… “What would Harry do?” Rule #1 When trapped in ice - Relax, you can’t think clearly if you’re in a state of panic. Rule #2 - Start undoing locks and removing chains ASAP, cuz the trunk is filling with water and … well, none of that was true, so just back to Rule #1. I was barely given a chance to enter my self-induced state of calm when the next thing I recall, I’m being yanked from the water and carried back to the banks. I recall hurried, nervous response scenarios being put into place. My crew. What a crew. Good in a pinch, like if you sprain your ankle roller skating, or dislocate your finger doing a back flip off of the neighbor’s barn. Also, proximity came to mind. I’m thinking, “Thank God the house is so close.” I get handed up from the bottom of the bank and now my older brother Frank is on the scene. Gruff, sarcastic, witty, and kind of sadistic, (in that teen boy way) he was eldest and he knew best. “They’ve called in the A-team. I’m gonna make it.” I’m whisked up the porch stairs and into my mother’s capable hands. She’s there to greet me with some comforting words and a brisk stripping, from me, of my sopping, half-froze winter outer-apparel from K-mart. I’m finally in the warmth and controlled confines of my childhood home, and Mom is tending to every need of a terrified, and often over-coddled, 5 year old. Slowly the trauma from the incident began to subside. I’m wrapped in a warm blanket, wearing some pajamas that are fresh from the oven, cause that’s how MY mom rolled. They were warming in there for a half hour prior to when we were even due back in. I’m watching Bob Ross and am knee deep in some hot cocoa and Honey Maid cinnamon graham crackers.
It was quite an ordeal, one that I would have been sure to regale friends (who were actually there to witness it all) and relatives at various family gatherings with for years to come had it not been for the honorable, if not calloused intervention of my brother when he retold the story of how I fell through the ice into water that was ankle deep, and then screamed, and ran back to the house in my skates crying and throwing a hissy fit about how “I had been dragged under the ice and nearly drowned … like, (wait for it) HARRY F-ing HOUDINI!!!”