From David Anthony Hohol…
Living in the deserts of the Middle East has its drawbacks. Some might not consider it such, but I really did miss winter for the decade plus I lived without it. Years passed without feeling the patter of snowflakes against my lip or the squint of my eyes at the rush a cold wind over my face. When I finally had the chance to watch a winter’s morning sunrise dance across the snow, I knew I was once again home.
Within the realm of my rural Canadian upbringing, after hockey of course, the best part of winter was always ice-fishing. There was no greater joy shared between my grandfather and I, aside for morning chores out behind the barn, than taking the old pick-up for drive out onto the ice. He passed away seven years ago. Sometimes it feels like only yesterday the two of us fished amidst the peace of a winter’s dawn. Sometimes it seems like a thousand years have passed. Allow me to share with you the story of a typical day of grandfather and grandson out on the ice. Perhaps that way, the memory can be taken off to far away place and live just a little bit longer.
I jolt straight up out of a dead sleep, like a jack-in-the-box on speed, and slam my hand down on the snooze button. The small, beat-up clock radio, that’s older than I am, says 4:30 AM. My blurred eyes are almost stuck together and my bed feels like the warmest, safest place on earth. All I need is another five glorious minutes. Then, as suddenly as the alarm, I’m startled awake by my grandfather’s traditional fishing day wake up call. “Drop your cock and grab your socks! We got holes to dig!” he blurts out with a laugh.
Ice fishing with my grandfather always starts monstrously early. Looking like a zombie out of a cheap horror film, I clumsily make my way through the narrow bedroom door, and shuffle my still sleeping feet along the green shag carpet of the farmhouse living room. In the darkness, I slide my hand along the cold, oak paneling to find the light switch, and feel the black electrical tape covering a small crack in its casing, that’s been there my entire life. Once in the bathroom, I immediately turn on the water and stick my head under the tap. The icy water cascades over my face and quickly brings me back from the dead. The almost sweet water comes straight from the well, and is always cold and fresh. I then quickly hop back to my room to get dressed, because I know it won’t be long before my grandfather is outside, warming up the truck.
Before I know it, I’m on my way out the door, armed with coffee and cigarette in hand. The cold air bites my damp skin, as I walk out into the frigid blackness of an arctic January morning in northern Alberta. My breath turns into an icy mist and rolls over my face, as I jump into my grandfather’s reliable, old pick-up. “Look at that sky… nice and clear. Those little bastards are gonna bite today,” my grandfather says with a smile, his gravelly voice always seeming to ring with truths.
We head down the lifeless void that is the highway, and the baron landscape of winter stares at us through the cracked windshield of the Chevy half ton. The only sign of life at five in the morning during the heart of a prairie winter is the wind that whistles through the truck, as we hurtle down the highway at a ferocious one hundred kilometers an hour. The cold and lonely sound of the wind outside the pick-up always makes me feel safe inside the cabin. The subtle smile upon my grandfather’s face always makes me feel warm.
The two-hour ride always goes by quickly, and we reach Floating Stone Lake in what feels like no time at all. As my grandfather and I drive out onto its surface, the truck’s knobby tires crunch and squeak over the frozen ice and snow. A glacial wasteland appears before us, with no signs of existence, except for the frozen over holes of yesterday’s hearty fisherman. Even though we’re still shrouded in darkness, the sun has just begun to cautiously peak over the horizon, and the sky is turning into a hazy gray. The moon, although slowly fading, is still silhouetted in the misty heaven of the dawn. We drive around the frozen lake for several minutes, until my grandfather decides on a spot to fish. It is his firm belief that the place one chooses to fish is the most important decision of the day. He uses the power of deductive reasoning, sixty years of fishing experience, and a lot of good old-fashioned superstition, before finally making his choice. Prior to heading out on to the motionless tundra, I pour myself a piping hot, jet-black coffee. The steam and rich smell of my mug of morning rejuvenation fill the truck’s cabin, and it’s then we venture outside.
When I first step out on to the ice, I always feel as though I’m walking on the surface of a far away planet. The massive lake seems to go on forever, and the silence that surrounds us is deafening. The quiet emptiness, however, is wonderfully beautiful. No matter what, it’s always a good morning, and the world hasn’t quite woken from its wintry slumber. The air is clean, heavy with the scent of freshly fallen snow, and tinged with the scent of the gargantuan evergreens that surround the lake. At dawn, one could almost believe this place was a certain kind of heaven, far removed from civilization and its supposed sensibilities.
As I chase the last drag of my smoke with a sip of hot coffee, my grandfather pops open the banged up tail gate of the pickup. Shortly thereafter, out comes our trusty ice auger. It’s a steel contraption, with spiraling blades at the bottom, and a rotating handle up top. One has to drill their way through nearly four feet of ice under their own power, and my grandfather is always the first to go. After slamming the sharp end of the auger into the snow, he begins to furiously rotate the keenly-edged blades, drilling into the frozen surface below. The auger scrapes and spits, as my grandfather bores deeper and deeper into the ice, until finally, he breaks through. The icy water comes rushing up the hole, and for a moment, looks like a small geyser on the surface of the lake. “An ordinary man of my age would never use anything but a power auger, but then again, I’m no ordinary man!” he says with a satisfying laugh.
My grandfather remained a strong man late into his life. Until his body would simply no longer allow him to do so, he worked with his hands and his back. There’s nothing he enjoyed more than getting up at six in the morning to pack hay bails out to his herd, and to trudge twelve-gallon grain cans to his prize steers that went to market come spring. In many ways, he epitomized an iconic form of masculinity and I looked at him as a vision of strength throughout my entire life as a result.
After my Grandfather finishes, I grab the auger and follow suit. With our holes dug, it’s then time to grab our lines and bait. Juicy, plump maggots are always our number one preference, and my grandfather always seemed to have a strange affinity for these little creatures. After carefully puncturing a maggot onto our hooks, down the line goes, and then all we do is wait. As I look across at my grandfather, the wind begins to pick up for a moment and blows across his time beaten face. A small, yet satisfying smile falls under his thin, gray, neatly trimmed moustache. Sitting on his grain can, he reaches into his three-quarter length, green parka and pulls out one extra mild, king size cigarette. As he puts the smoke in his mouth, I notice his jagged and bent fingers. His hands are like stone figures carved with deep creases and wrinkles, a necessitating result of more than sixty years of back-breaking work. As he exhales his first drag, the smoke bellows from the side of his mouth like smoke from a chimney a on a windy day. After rolling over his dark eyes and finely carved crows feet, the smoke disappears over his head.
My grandfather always amazed me, and at times, I looked at him with awe. I often wondered what it would be like to be old, what I would be like to have all those memories and experiences, to see your children’s children grow into adults themselves, and to have lived through wars and entire eras. It was my grandfather that made me look forward to getting older; it was my grandfather that allowed me to accept my humanity. I will forever be grateful.
My dogmatic state is then suddenly broken, when my grandfather blurts out, “There we go!” and tosses aside his fishing stick to pull the fish up by the line.
Hand over hand, he pulls the line up. When the fish finally reaches the surface of the icy water, he tosses it aside, away from the jagged hole. The fat perch wriggles and gyrates on the snow like a newborn baby, its jaws gasping violently. My grandfather then steps on the tail of the great beast with his big black boot, and with stick in hand, smacks the fish over the head. It’s been put out of its misery. Upon standing up straight, he takes in a deep breath and pauses for a moment, to take in the world around him. His eyes carry with them a twinkle, and as he walks over to his grain can to once again sit down and lower his line, his youthful stride is filled with exuberance. At times, I see a young boy in my grandfather when he’s fishing. It fills me with joy and makes feel close to the man like nothing else in the world.
The ritual of fishing- it’s something, that for all its simplicity, holds resplendent moments of beauty and peace. If I ever earn the profound privilege of some day being a father, and if I’m somehow magically blessed with then seeing my children have children of their own, I would take my grandchildren out for a day on the ice. Not only to teach them the art of fishing, but to tell them stories of their great grandfather and what a great man he was. And I would tell them, even though they’ve never met him, he continues to influence their lives, each and everyday.
On the drive back, the sun is now bright, and the sky is a clear abyss. The sun is never brighter than on a clear winter day. The magnificent rays of sunshine dance like a ballerina on the sea of white that surrounds us. The blinding sky, the howling wind outside the truck, and the side of the road that rushes by us, always puts me in a trance. The conversation between my grandfather and myself varies, but as always, includes some discussion of his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs, and what kind of team the Blue Jays were going to have come spring. Soon we will be home.
As we finally reach the one hundred yard driveway to the farmhouse, the house where both my father and grandfather were born, I’m happy. The farmyard, which was in a deep winter sleep when we left, is now wide-awake. The cats and dogs running about, the rustling of the cattle out by the barn, and as always, my grandmother in the big bay window, watching us pull up the driveway, all bring the farm back to life. As we pull into the yard, the cats and dogs surround the truck like children chasing the ice cream man, in hopes of dining on the fish to small to fry. We then unload the pick-up, and I begin to make my way to the house with the fish we have caught. “Take those to Baba and tell to make sure there’s lotsa garlic, I’ll be in after chores,” declares my grandfather.
No matter how big or small the job, my grandfather always seems to be on the go. As he walks out towards the old, worn down barn that still stands tall and strong, I once again think to myself how one very much embodies the other. They’ve both been worn down by time a little bit, but still do the job they’ve always done. They both still offer protection and warmth from the battles of life, and continue to symbolize strength, responsibility, and endurance that still lives and breathes today. As I reach the front step, I hear my Grandfather say with a chuckle, “Oh boy… if there’s no rest for the wicked, I must be the wickedest man alive,” and I smile, as I place my hand of the steel door knob.
Slowly opening the door to the farmhouse, the only door that has always been there for me to open, I feel the warmth of the kitchen upon my flushed face. At that moment, all seems right with the world and as I take off my snow-covered boots, I know deep in my heart, I’m right where I’m supposed to be.