On Ice After Indoors


For me it was just an interesting morning, but for those who may be more spiritual, maybe there's something more to it. There was a memorial for Al Heppner in Boston yesterday morning at 10:00am at the meet headquarters hotel for the USATF Indoors. I took Sherry Watts' suggestion to heart instead, and opted for a long workout on the Charles River bike trail, starting just before 10:00 to coincide with the memorial service. Normally I would have waited to workout until later after it had warmed up, but I wanted to be out there while the service was going on inside. To the extent that I have one, my God is “out there,” under the sun, in the trees, the grass, the water. (At Sunday school and church I was always the distracted one, scolded for trying to look through the stained glass to see what was going on outside.) And on this day, it was sunny and warm out there (warm for Boston in February, anyway.)
It was an easy workout and there are no decipherable mileage marks on the trail, so I kept occupied by watching people run, dogs playing, squirrels doing whatever the hell it is that squirrels do, etc. I stayed on the Boston/Brookline side and took the trail all the way to its westernmost end. Just before getting to the Northeastern U. boathouse about ½ mile before the turnaround, I was entertained by a woman trying to control her two shelties (kind of like the Minnie Me version of collies) as they chased squirrels, ducks, and each other all over the park. When I was about 100 meters away, the smaller of the dogs went tearing off onto the frozen river to chase a pair of ducks that were in the water just past the edge of the ice. Predictably, it found the brakes to be inadequate as it got toward the edge of the ice sheet and it slid into the water. As Little Lassie bobbed around trying to get itself out, the other dog, a bit larger and possible older and wiser, tip-toed very gingerly towards the edge as it barked encouragement. That didn't last long, as it too wound up in the drink. By this time from about 50 meters out, I said to myself, "oh crap, here it comes..." as the woman walked quickly out towards the edge of the ice to save her pets, seemingly oblivious to the law of physics that says if a 10lb. dog will break through a sheet of ice, so too will a 125 lb. woman. Since I did in fact labor through several semesters of physics, I was already veering off the path towards the river as the inevitable happened. So there she was, flailing around in the river as the dogs tried to claw their way over her to get themselves out. (There’s a reason they call them MAN’s best friend…)
I didn’t notice the 25 ft. retractable leash that she dropped on the way to the dogs—would have come in handy—but I did find a 5’ long board on the shore that seemed like the best thing available in a pinch. I told her to calm down as I bellied my way out to her, pushing the board ahead of me. By this time she was clinging to the ice, but ice being one of the world’s only truly “frictionless surfaces” that physics professors posit to make equation-solving more manageable, she was making no progress whatsoever in getting herself anywhere beyond her armpits in her effort to get out of the water. Laying in 4” of water on top of a sheet of ice, I wasn’t getting much of a grip either, but the board did offer her enough to get herself up to mid-chest level. That’s as far as she got, but it was enough for me to reach out and grab the hood of her down vest. I was able to pull her out up to waist level, but then she became stuck. No amount of pulling could get her further up onto the ice. By this point she was a babbling, incoherent amalgam of teeth-chattering, crying and moaning, so not able to communicate that she was being held by her fanny pack that was lodged under the ice. “Try to relax, well get you out,” I said, wondering who the “we” was that I heard myself talking about. I asked again and again what was holding her under until she finally chattered “f-f-f-fanny pack.” I told her to try to remove it, and when she couldn’t, told her to roll onto her side. That did the trick. As soon as she rolled, her hips levered her legs closer to the surface, the pack was freed, and she popped right out onto the ice. With a few more tugs on her hood she was safely away from the edge. I wanted to go after the dogs, but I wasn’t going any closer to the water until she got her weight off the ice, and it took a lot of convincing to get her move. All the while, I’m belly down in 4” of 32-degree water. When she was a safe distance away I turned to the dogs, but only saw the larger one bobbing slowly eastward. I bellied my way downstream a few feet and was able to get a finger on its collar. The ice was making funny noises, so I didn’t immediately yank the bugger out. As I lay there waiting for the whole sheet to collapse, the other dog, who must have crawled over the woman while I was trying to get her out, started yapping in my ear, running over my back, spinning in tight circles near the edge. It was enough to distract me from thoughts of the ice sheet imploding, so I got another finger on the bigger dog’s collar and was able to pop him out. I backed away from the edge, got up to my feet soaking wet and cold, and helped the woman off the ice and onto a park bench. Before long an elderly couple came along. I asked them to stay with the woman, who seemed to be in her mid-50s, and was by now a bit more coherent than she had been moments before while chest-deep in the Charles. As I was about to racewalk the 500 meters or so back to where I had seen a green parks department vehicle, she thanked me and said, “I don’t even know your name.” I muttered, “um… Dave.” And headed off to get her someone warmer and drier to finish the job of helping her to her car, taking her to the emergency room, or whatever the next step is for someone who just spent 5 minutes floating fully clothed in the Charles River in February. I got the parks people on the case, gave them my name and cell phone number for whatever reason they wanted them, and headed back for the 55-minute cold, wet journey back to my hotel.
As an ardent agnostic and cynic, I was surprised on the walk back that I was thinking about the possibility of Al nudging me to be out there at that time, but I was. Deep down I don’t believe I was “sent there,” but there’s something healing to think that somehow maybe three lives were saved because of Al.



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