2. Ice Fishing
January, 1949. A brilliant, sunny, freezing, Saturday morning on the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. I was 9 years old and Dennis, 10. We were excited, staring out over the icy glare at a tiny wooden ice fishing hut about 200 yards from shore. Our father, Thomas Edward Shea, was unloading fishing gear, whiskey, and food from the station wagon. He was excited too. He paused and took a long pull on a silver flask, said "Ahhh..." and pulled his lips back, baring his teeth.
"Men, that was bracing. That was needed for a morning this cold. These are men's matters from here on in, nothing for your mother to be concerned about. Or Pinky. This is ice fishing now."
It was Earl Willand's ice fishing hut. Earl couldn't pay my father for some legal work so he offered him the use of the hut for the winter. At the time, my father was living near by in Wolfeboro with his second wife, Pinky, in a converted barn on his late father's estate. He and my mother were two years divorced. Den and I were visiting for the weekend.
"Donny, get the rods and bait. Den, you take the food hamper."
We walked to the end of a short pier. My father stepped off onto the ice and turned to lift us down. He was a big man, 6 feet tall, 200 pounds.
"Don't be scared. This ice is more than a foot thick."
My father took another pull on the flask. He hadn't shaved that morning, and his thinning hair was sticking out at odd angles. He looked wild and happy as he walked along over the black ice under the freezing sunshine.
The hut was larger than it looked from shore, maybe 10 feet square, with a stovepipe poking through the roof. Inside, a rough table stood against one wall, under the only window and behind the pot bellied coal stove in the center of the room. In each corner, square holes had been cut through the floor and then through the ice. A canvas camp chair sat beside each hole, along with a bait can.
The hut smelled cold and good, like coal and fish and wood.
"All right men. God Damn! Isn't this something? Isn't this okay? Let's fire up the stove! Donny, get some coal. There's a bin behind the hut. Den, cut up some bait for those cans. Let's see if we can't find some big old bass hiding out down there!"
He upended the flask and took another hit. He moved about with happy purpose, unpacking ham sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper, building and lighting a little nest of paper and sticks to kindle the coal. He helped us bait and set the lines. Soon, the stove was glowing and our coats and wool overshirts were in a pile on the floor.
"Men, it's time you learned to take a drink of whiskey. Now, this is definitely not a concern of Pinky's or your mother's. This is between men. Is that understood?"
My father lifted a quart whiskey bottle from the hamper. He poured a half-inch into two paper cups and filled a third. He handed the first two cups to Den and me. I was excited and a little scared. I knew drinking whiskey was very important to my father. I knew he used to fight about it with my mother, which is why they divorced.
"Sip it, men. Learn to drink like gentlemen."
The first sip tasted terrible. It burned my throat and made my eyes tear. Then, a minute later, it made my stomach warm. The second sip tasted terrible and made me feel wonderful, free of fear and close to my father and full of understanding. Now I knew why he wanted this stuff. The third sip finished my cup. I looked around at my brother and my father sprawled around the warm stove in that wonderful hut and I felt like laughing. Things felt so... right!
The line jerked in Den's corner, tinkling the attached bell. My father leaned over, seized the rod, and began to play out the line.
"Den, you've got one of the bastards!" he said.
"One of the bastards! One of the bastards!" yelled Den, hopping up and down. "Dad, let me do it! Give it to me!" He grabbed the rod and the fish began to pull him toward the hole.
"It's strong!" Den screamed. He jerked the line, and I watched it go slack. Den stared at the line in disbelief.
"You lost it," said my father. "It's okay. You have to play the fish. You have to let it out and reel it back gently. That was a big bastard."
"Big bastard," Den repeated. His face looked crushed. He looked like he was going to cry.
"Well, men, that was a disappointment. Life sometimes serves up disappointments. God knows I've disappointed your mother from time to time. Tell you what. Because of that disappointment, I'm going to give us all another little drink. How about that?"
It sounded great to me, shared manly solace, but Den didn't look convinced. My father poured the whiskey and handed the cups around.
He unwrapped two ham sandwiches, thick with mustard and butter, and handed us each a half.
"It was really strong, Dad. It was pulling me into the hole!"
"It was a big bastard, Den! Wasn't that something? God Damn!"
Den was smiling again, and then laughing. I was sipping away like a gentleman and eating my sandwich and feeling a little dizzy but pretty damn fine. Then it began to feel very warm in the hut. I told my father I wanted to go outside to cool off.
"You okay?" he asked.
"Yeah. Fine," I said.
My father shepherded me through the door. Outside, it was very bright and cold. The horizon seemed to be spinning slowly and I was having trouble balancing. I stood swaying and blinking in the glare.
Suddenly, my stomach seized up and I leaned over and vomited my whiskey drenched ham sandwich onto the black ice.