In the winter of 1950, I lobbed a rubber ball off the kitchen wall. The aroma of spaghetti sauce filled the room and nook. I slid across the linoleum floor and chased my seven-up ball. I never could reach more than ‘foursies.’
Mom, housebound by Gig Harbor’s record blizzard, tired, 24 inches of snow or not, frozen bay or not, decided to get outside. Didi, my grandpa, sat at the metal-legged kitchen table in the nook and sipped a small glass of red wine. An overhead schoolhouse light lit his Croatian newspaper, which sprawled flat as he clasped his glass. Dad was down at Pete’s tavern. No relief for mom.
She herded my brother, then me, and checked newborn Theresa napping on the other side of the breakfast nook table. Mom layered me with a shirt, sweater, wool coat and mittens. A red wool cap stretched over my tender ears as I stretched to reach the porch light switch. “I want to do it!” But Markey snuck from behind and flipped the light switch. He slammed the door and trounced across the lapstrake-boarded porch, thumping down the steps. The tongue and groove boards covered with salt needed new paint and nails. He skipped the four-boarded staircase and launched into the snow-covered sidewalk, landing on his feet, and rushing to the car.
Mom commanded, “Watch Theresa.” My fourteen-year-old sister JoAnn whined. She wanted to go. “Stir the spaghetti sauce.”
Didi mumbled, “Yes” beneath his breath, taking a sip.
I hopped, thump, thump, thump onto the shaky porch, down the wood-planked shoveled steps. My runny nose began to freeze. Crunch, crunch, crunch in the snow, my brother Markey trudged quickly towards the old bare wood garage with an attached woodshed. I stretched my legs to match his. At eight, his footprints spaced themselves too far for me. Mom jingled her keys. She kept to the shoveled walk avoiding the deep snow paths of my brother and me. If I had a carrot stick, I could be a snowman when I reached the rust-bucket car. Snow dust covered my clothes.
Markey shoved me to the center of the front seat of our 41 Dodge. “Shotgun!”
“Stop it!” I whined and shoved back. I wiped my nose on his sleeve. I yucked him. He wacked and slugged my shoulder. “Owwww! Mom… Markey hit me!” She opened the door and glared at Markey. He stilled.
Her foot on the floor pedal starter, the engine rolled, slow at first, then cranked as it rumbled to life. Our breaths steamed the windshield until the rackety heater fan cleared it. The brakes squeaked. The Dodge slid down Novak Street, turned left onto Harborview and circled along the bay to the Peninsula Yacht Basin, a long dock with a marina at its end. Gig Harbor Bay was filled with netsheds and purse seiners, now sealed in ice as they waited for next summer’s salmon season. Slightly lit houses lined the bay and crawled up forested hillsides into the low-hung clouds. I could only see upward since my head was below the bottom of the windows. An occasional streetlamp and rooftop were all I could see. Markey rubbed his window to look out at the bay; then, he cranked it down. The frozen air circulated inside.
“Oh boy,” Markey shouted outside into the neighborhood, “we’re going to ice skate!” The street was empty. We didn’t own skates.
“Mommy, what’s ice skating?” I asked. “Can we really walk on ice? I’m hot. Where are we going? I can’t see anything. I’m hot.”
“You’ll see.” Her eyes were fixed on the road. She clenched her jaw under her white scarf tied under her chin and over her jet-black hair. Her long camel coat draped to the floorboards. Black shoes worked the clutch, the brake, the gas. “Markey, roll the window up!” Her strong perfume filled the air.
Our Dodge slipped and spun. Crusted snow chips sprang to sidewalks from the tires. Mom feared the drive. Harborview Drive wrapped the stilled harbor and tire tracks grooved to the head of the bay. Then, we parked, half into the traffic lane in north Gig Harbor.
The ice on Gig Harbor’s Bay was 14 inches thick at its head while it thinned towards the mouth from tidal action. In January, dark clouds hung our frozen bay.
“Markey, you stay close. Don’t go running off.” Mom grasped my mitted hand as we centered on the dock.
Scrunch, scrunch, scrunch, my feet made footprints in the path. Children squealed and squeaked. The distant sounds grew closer as we scrunched our way to a marina ramp. The Peninsula Yacht Basin pier reached into deep water. It held the only ramp down to water level. There, the bay’s ice stayed solid beyond the beaches, where tidal movement broke the thick ice into shambles. A Texaco sign lit a small fuel shack office. Inside, smoke wisped and floated. Three men lounged as they watched the activity on the floats and ramp. Mom squeezed my hand, gripped the frozen steel handrail and towed me. Down I stumbled. Down I tripped. Down I landed on the wood raft. Barnacle flesh oozed and stank ice scraping along the creosote pilings. Dim streetlamps along the floats lit the nearby frozen boats and rafts.
“Markey, slow down, be careful!” Mom yelled to my brother. “Don’t go running off!” Markey skidded onto the bluish ice field and vanished into the darkness. He ran. The Voyager, an extra-large purse seiner that was almost tuna boat-sized, was dimly lit and held by an icicled anchor chain. Skaters circled it and pushed red flares attached to hockey-like sticks. Mom tightly gripped me when she stepped on the ice. I cried out. I became her brace from falling. She leaned on me, lifted me and towed me.
Echoed screams delightfully flowed from children as they wandered near us. The Hi, How are Ya’s? Ain’t this fun’s? People sang. Big kids towed little kids in snow sleds or pushed them in cardboard boxes. Many fell. Two kids spun a third on a wooden kitchen chair. A smiling toss spun him and spilled him. Yachts locked in the marina stalls stood quietly waiting for the spring thaw.
I stamped my feet and tried to pull away. I dangled with Mom’s grasp. Coldness seeped into my shoes. “Mom, let me go! I want to play! Let me slide!”
“Oh, oh, oh, be careful, don’t slip.” She crushed. Her breath fogged the dark sky. We stood only a few feet away from the wooden rafts.
The skaters pushing road flare sticks disappeared in the distant darkness. Red fireflies crisscrossed and weaved towards the bay’s mouth. Away from the marina light, it made sense, yet the darkness looked foreboding.
Markey accelerated and skidded near and far. His red plaid jacket and ear flaps flopped from side to side. He slipped to all fours and smiled as he spun past us. I shuffled my feet, slid and swung with mother’s arm, tugged and tugged. She held tight.
Mom shouted, “Don’t get wet! Stand up, Markey!” He accelerated for another long slide without falling. “You’ll get cold.” Even then, he showed his football star future at Peninsula High School by keeping his balance. I wanted to follow my brother. My feet kicked out from under me. I whirled and squirmed. When I get older, I’m going to get down on the ice and play all day.
“Mom, Mom, Mom… let me go, let go, let go,” I said. She didn’t respond. More noise, laughter, falling and shrieking in the distance. “Mom!” Time was running short. “Mom… let go; I want to play.” I dangled. With her glare, without hope, I quieted. Perhaps, she would let go if I were good.
“Markey… Markey… come here, we’re going home.” Mom yelled.
I was still in tow. My brother hopped and slid, not wanting to leave.
“No,” he said. “Boy, it’s cold on my feet.” He spun his feet in place.
“Come on, let’s go; Kenny’s getting cold.”
“I’m not cold, Mom,” I protested, “Just let me slide once, Mom, just once.”
Oh, no, we moved; I struggled to get free for the last time. Desperately, I gripped the handrail to keep her on the landing. We started up the ramp.
“One more slide, Mama,” Markey yelled, hopping and skipping along the marina walkway.
He took one last, long slide. Near the pier, he eyed two snow-crusted logs floating across the face of the pier as a buffer to hold the ramp and raft away from the overhang.
I watched Markey as he sprung for a big jump on the logs. Bang! Crack! He crashed through the thin ice shell.
“Arrgg!” He shouted and plunged into the water. He flayed his arms on the ice to break the plunge. Mother released me. She turned, and took full strides down the ramp. The ramp bounced. I hung to the railing.
Finally! I thought. Finally, I was free, free to move, oh, so wonderful. I moved. I freely moved, but I stood. My brother floundered. Then I knew what ice was — not solid. I could fall through it. I saw it. Instantly, I knew my mother’s worry. Instantly, I saw the water under this frozen world.
“Markey, Markey!” Her coat flayed open. Eyes focused on Markey. She readied to jump and stretch to reach him. A nearby crowd silenced.
With one great push by his legs and arms, Markey sprang on the edge of solid ice. He crawled towards her. Wetness slowed him. Dark seawater splashed in the hole. The logs weren’t there. He faked a laugh, crawled farther and cast an artificial smile towards Mom. Trouble with Mom, for sure.
Two grown men scrambled down the ramp and lifted me to the landing; nobody noticed me while Mom was with Markey. I sprang for the Voyager. Off I scurried to slip and slide. Finally free! The cold bit to my knees. It was great. Smiles on my face, I looked back with glee towards Mom and Markey. “Look, Mom, look at me…. wheeee!”
Mother glared at my pesky brother, lifted him to his feet, slapped the water off his legs, and whacked his behind. The smokers looked down off the pier, smiling. I’m sure they thought, Serves you right, kid. Or Listen to mama, while other men pulled both of them away from the open water hole.
“You’re all wet. Look at you!” Then she hugged him.
Happily, I slid on the ice around the wooden floats. Wow, this was fun. I wanted more. Then, it was over.
Mom pointed directly at me. I saw a firm and intolerant gesture. Mothers rule. I hurried, once more I slid, then scurried and bounced up the ramp in front. She collared my brother.
Quickly, I leaned out over the pier’s edge and gazed into the broken crust. Eerie blackness rippled of nothingness, a dark hole of water. Its mouth opened wider as if it invited the next boy to jump.
Markey was lucky.
Mom herded and kept me from the edge of the pier and pulled Markey back to the car as he dripped from wetness. Snow print to snow print, I hopped and romped to the car.
My brother shivered and whined. “It’s soooo coooold-d-d…” His teeth chattered.
The Dodge rumbled to life. Mom revved the engine to start the heater working, but it wasn’t much use in sub-freezing weather. The frosted windshield had to thaw for a peek-a-boo view. I didn’t care. I happily bounced on the back seat cushions, rubbing the windows to view the frozen bay as we hurried home.
“I slide on the ice,” I said. My moment of freedom had been short. It became the only time I walked on the ice of Gig Harbor Bay though I discovered frozen ponds and puddles in later years. Never again did Gig Harbor bay freeze solid enough to skate.
It was fun except for the brother part.
Ken Malich writes and lives in Gig Harbor, Washington. His family initially settled in the harbor in 1910 and is a third-generation descendant. His first attempt at publishing a story was developed from his memory when he was four years old. He grew up in a fishing family and fished until he worked for the Navy at Bremerton as an engineer after receiving a degree from the University of Washington. He was elected to the city council and served four terms. He’s married to his wife Barbara and has a son, Matthew.