Saturday, November 14, 2009

That Place (no. 1)

So you’re thinking right now that you’re the hottest dangler on the ice.


The best back-checker?


The hardest hitter?


A brick wall in the nets?


Goal scorer extreme?


Ok …

A really nice person?


A really attractive individual?


Poof! Me neither, but I walk with wood every day. I hold my head high by my accomplishments but am humbled by my failings. Shit, I’m only human. Ehh?

I don’t just judge myself by my physical form and capabilities, but also by my emotional spirit. Does that mean that underneath it all, under all that rabble-rousing – on and off-ice shenanigans, I’m just a weak-kneed pantywaist?

Ha! I don’t think so. No sirree! And you shouldn’t think that way of yourself either.

I’d guess that if you’re reading this than more than likely you’re a puckster like myself. Or maybe you’re just one heck of a hockey fanatic. So … that aspect of our lives is one of our attributes. There is something chivalrous about our sport and I think God made it that way.

This past week another great group of guys were inducted into the hall of fame. Watching these activities and games this past week also allowed the sportscasters to talk to us about how the bigwigs feel about the current injuries plaguing players these days. It seems as though head bashing – high hits – are taking guys out. What’s the cause of all of this? What is an equitable remedy? You know, I don’t know. Skate with your head up? That would be my first suggestion. Don’t take hitting away from the game. It makes the game. Are too many players coming out of the ranks of playing with face cages and that facial protection it provides. Have these players also habitually had to look down more because of the restrictive visibility near their feet? Possibly.

I remember playing some lunch time pickup some years back. During a rest on the bench one of the young pups that was there with me said “You play full check don’t you?”

I said, “Yeah, I used to. Why do you ask?”

He said, “Cuz you never look down.”

Hmmmm … could our old yell at the refs ‘pull your head out’ be now updated to a yell at our favorite players ‘get your head up’? Could be, could be. Let’s just not over-regulate this vigorous game.

Good stuff – hockey! I love it. I live it. And I’ve been beat up by it. Where do we go from here?

I know a place. I like to think that it’s a secret spot. Some place that nobody else knows about. It’s in the back woods, all protected by a berm and heavy brush. You normally can’t see the berm because the brush is so thick. I don’t think it’s natural. Probably dug out by a bulldozer years ago – or maybe even earlier by Native Americans. It could be a glacial pot hole, but I don’t think so because of the fully surrounding berm.
So, it’s sort of a pit that fills up with water. More than a pond, almost a lake. Heavy stands of trees shelter and shade its edges from the north and west. But it gets the morning sun just fine.

It isn’t very deep so it doesn’t support fish. Dang! But frogs call it home and deer visit it quite a bit. I see their trails more than I see them.

I don’t know if it’s the gravel bottom or what, but there is very little vegetation growing in the water. There aren’t any reeds growing in it and no muskrat mounds to be seen. I’m pretty sure that during a good winter that it freezes up right solid.

I’ve skated on it a few times.

That place, you see, is about a half hour hike in from a dirt road up the other side of the river from here. I came upon it while doing some soul searching quite a few years back.

My grandpa had died. He lived too far away for me to afford getting to his funeral. I was just a young adult and still pretty wet behind the ears. Green? Yeah, real green, that was me.

It was my first encounter with death. Or at least the death of someone I really knew. We weren’t real close, but I loved the man deeply. He let me taste and test his home brews when I was just a kid. He showed me how to pitch horseshoes back in the alley. He was a good guy and enjoyed his port wine while sitting at the kitchen table listening to sports on the radio and talking to his parakeet Petey.

I guess my emotions had gotten the best of me as I parked the car and started walking into the woods. I was deep in thought trying to contemplate the meaning of his death. He was my dad’s dad. And I wasn’t the oldest grandson but I was the oldest that carried the Wheats name. It made me wonder what my obligation was to my name. There aren’t a lot of us Wheats in the world and surely my debt would be due.

So I walked and I walked. I stumbled over deadfall tree limbs and protruding rocks. Yeah, I had my head down a lot trying to keep from falling, but when I’d come to a clearing and the sun would hit me I’d look up and cry to my Lord with questions I couldn’t voice. There were tears, yes, and I’d wipe them away with my soiled hands. My face must have been a grungy mess as I think back now.

There wasn’t any real path, just deer trails I’d follow until I’d come to a clearing then head out again trying to keep the sun to my left so that I’d eventually find my way back. Eventually I stood at the bottom of the berm and thinking that it was a small hill I climbed up it seeking a spot fully in the sun to sit and try earnestly to pray with some sense of mind. Fat chance of that happening as I was now just fully torqued.

But I climbed up and discovered the pit of water on the other side. I was in awe of its beauty and the solitude of the spot. I knelt down and tried to talk to my grandpa and God I guess. They didn’t talk back. I was calmed by the one-sided conversation just the same and later laid back and looked up to the sky. Pale blue with wisps of high clouds like goose down blowing from a torn jacket.

I fell asleep only to wake up with very large ants crawling all over me including my grungy face. They startled the crap outta me. Don’t really favor insects, you know you guys.

I jumped up and ran on out of there. No revelation, no answers – some peace and some satisfaction in discovering a secret silent place.

A place that I could visit again if I needed too.

But a place that I wouldn’t want to share.

Why is that? That we sometimes become so selfish of our places of refuge?

I don’t know, but I went back a few times over the years. A couple of young ladies broke my heart along the way and I had to visit that place and really quiz the Big Guy why life had to be such a big bucket of cold piss. Oh yeah, I was hurt and definitely bent outta shape. Again I did all the talking. Nuts!

And then I met my honey and I didn’t have much reason to traipse off into the backwoods again for lots and lots of years. Although she gave me reason to sit on that berm again but it was to praise and rejoice as she survived her second bout with cancer and the chemotherapy treatments. Yes, God is good!

But somewhere in between these visits, my ma died. I didn’t deal with it well. My grief was suppressed and I was more angry than sad. She passed away in late March and it wasn’t until the following January that the grief crippled me and I finally had to go visit that place. Dad suffered greatly and now finally his sadness was mine also.

You know, she used to come with Dad to watch Jingles, Bronzy and me play hockey. She loved those Outlaws – didn’t like our drinking so much – but loved us just the same. She’d holler at the refs and opposing players. She was a good fan. God bless her. She was there when I broke my arm and she was there when my eye almost was poked out. Somebody else gave her a ride home, cuz I remember Dad took me to the hospital both times.

She beat me as a kid. But what the hey? I deserved it I’m sure. She worried up a storm after the hospital called that time I had my motorcycle accident. I moved back home for a while after that one.

The year after her death, sometime around Christmas my emotions just started taking over more and more. My work was suffering – I was turning into basket-case.

So, early one Saturday morning I decided that I’d go out to that pit in the woods. There was somebody that I needed to talk to. It was a brisk, cold morning and I decided that I’d try to go for a skate while I was out there. Maybe it would make me feel better. I grabbed my Bauers, a stick, stuck a puck in my coat pocket and hit the road. I didn’t figure that there’d be an easy place to park out there so I threw a shovel in the truck – there’d be snow to shovel in order to get off the road.

The old dirt road had been plowed maybe once during the season and the going was slow. I got to the other side of the river and decided that I probably didn’t need to do any shoveling. It looked like no one else had been on the road for weeks so I just pulled as far over to the right as I could. The off road tires would get me out of here later.

I think, ‘Gee, there’s no deer trails visible now.’

The woods were all snow covered. I had to figure out how to get out there strictly on memory. Help me out here Ma.

It took most of an hour, but I found that place eventually. I fell down a bunch of times and used my stick as a poking feeler to probe for deep snow and buried limbs that would have trapped my feet. But I was here – at the base of the berm.

And damn it, I was mad. I screamed, “Ma, why’d ya have to die. Why do I have to feel so guilty about it? God this just isn’t right!” I ranted and I raved and eventually just sat down in the snow and cried my heart out for a good fifteen minutes or so. She had always made me feel so mad at her when I was younger, but I had loved her just the same. It was so much conflict.

Again, it was just me talking. I got no response.

Finally I got a grip on things and decided that I felt much better and should give the ice a skate. I used the stick to help me struggle up the berm. When I got to the top I screamed out in anguish.

What in the world was I thinking? There was no exposed ice – it was all snow covered. I swore and threw my stick and skates back down the slope, sat down on my butt and slid back down myself. I swore some more and picked up my gear and started walking back out via the tracks I made coming in.

I hadn’t taken more than ten steps when I got hit with a wind. A hot wind. I kept walking. By the time I had taken ten more steps the snow wasn’t crunching anymore. It was all mush but only as I stepped. Everywhere else ahead of me was crisp undisturbed snow, but my tracks and my steps were melting right down to fall leaves and dirt.

I stopped and pulled my stocking cap off because I was getting really hot. I unzipped my coat too. I’m thinking that this is just too weird. I took my mittens off and while stuffing them in my pockets I glanced over my shoulder back towards the berm I had just slid down. All of the snow on the berm for as far as I could see was melted and gone. What in the world was going on?

Curious, I walked back to the berm and climbed up it and looked down into the pit below. Damned if all the snow was gone. I could see a skim of water on top of the ice below. What had just happened? There is snow all around and I’m in the middle of some sort of focused heat wave.

I ponder the situation – quite confused. Why is it so hot? It’s freakin January for Pete’s sake. It was twenty below last night and now all this snow around me is melting. Melting? Phooey, it’s gone!

I do a spin-o-rama atop of the berm there and just sit my ass right back down again. As butt meets berm my nose tingles. The moisture in my nose just crystallized. There was a snap and all the sweat in my hair froze too. I think my right hand had frozen to the rock that it lit upon.

Oh my rolly jolly sweet cookies! Have I been smokin rope again or what? Did someone slip me a hit of Sidney Australia cuz I must be dreamin? The sky was pink and then it rippled rainbow before ending up back to that brilliant blue of winter. And I’m friggin freezing.

I looked down into the pit and there was a sheet of unmarred glaze ice. Pristine. I stood up again and the puck dropped out of my pocket. It rolled down and slid out onto the ice.

Oh my goodness I’ve got to lace em up. God bless this place! Ma, this skate’s for you!

I sit back down and unlace my boots – one at a time and replace them with a Bauer. I grab my stick and butt scoot down the slope to the ice. I kneel on one knee checking the ice to make sure it is what it is then get up on both feet as I whistle and stride off after the puck. Crisp, sweet ice. And so quiet out there I could hear the edge of each blade cutting the ice. So surreal. Like one of those scenes in an action movie where everything stands still except the action hero, or the bullet, or whatever.

I don’t have any nets to shoot at so I skate and I stick handle. I cut left, I cut right, I cut right again. Perfection! I switch to backwards winding up to the right and drive into forward with all cylinders firing. I’m on fire. This is the greatest skate ever. I’m ecstatic, I’m in the zone and the sky is going all rainbow on me again.

A few minutes later, while about as far away from my boots as I can get on this sheet of ice, I turn hard to the left and kick the puck up from behind me and lose it for a second. I look down and I get bumped.

Whoa! Some big bruiser just came up along side of me and leaned in. Where did he come from?

He didn’t say a word. Neither did I. But he skated off with the puck and I wanted it back. A game of keep-away ensued. A test of our skills? Or was it just a test of my skills? I could never quite get it. So frustrating. He’d deftly handle the puck within my reach to taunt me and then pull it away before I could touch it. And skate? Like the wind, he could. But silent – I couldn’t hear him cutting the ice. Was this dude supernatural? Mon Dieu! Is this God on ice? Or maybe one of his angels? Who is he, Viz Clortho, the keymaster of Gozer or what?

He came out of nowhere. He skates in silence. And his skills are more than superb.

This whole morning has been totally bizarre. I needed the healing from the death of my ma but this was something else. So much more. My mind went into overdrive and I started hyperventilating. I got whoozy and passed out.

When I came-to he was standing spread eagle over the top of me and said, “You doing ok Wheats?”

I tried to lift my head off the ice and whispered, “Who are you and how do you know my name?”

He chuckled and said, “Well I’ve been sent to help you out. My names Mark L’Ours,” as he reached a hand down to help me up.

“L’ours?” I said. “What does that mean?”

“Ha, ha!” he laughed again. “It means the bear. And you’ve had enough for the day. Let me help you up and get you back over to your boots. I’ve been listening to you and now it’s time for you to go home.” It was more a command then a suggestion.

No more was said until I had my boots back on. He had stayed on the ice and now asked if I minded that he hung onto the puck.

I said, “Sure why not, you hung onto the dang thing nearly the whole skate anyway. Yeah go ahead, keep it.”

He turned and skated off yelling back over his shoulder, “See ya around Wheats. Maybe the Outlaws could use me, ehh?” And chuckled some more.

About fifty yards out he just vanished. I’m baffled. What in the world just happened to me. I began to shiver and looked to the heavens as snow started to fall. It was a long walk back to the truck. I guess I’ll walk with wood. I’ve been to that place and back.

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