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Rated: E · Short Story · Other · #795779
A New Year's Day Celebration for the gang.

         “Where is everybody?”, thought Joe as he squirmed to find a comfortable position on the five gallon bucket. “It's 3:00 AM. They should be here by now.”

         Glancing around him he saw nothing but the moonlight sparkling on the snow and ice. It was a big clear night and the moon and stars looked brighter than he had seen them in a long time. The silhouettes of the mountains in the distance gave great contrast to the huge plain of ice and snow before him. Except for the yip of a red fox and the occasional call of an owl, he saw nor heard no other living thing. Once, on a night like this, not too far from here he had heard a bobcat cry on the ridge behind him. The sound burned itself into his memory and even now thinking of it causes the hair to rise on his neck. He was alone, not that he hadn’t been alone on the ice at night before. In fact he rather liked being here at night. The winter stillness when everything is blanketed in snow had a calming affect. It freed up his mind and when your mind is free it can soar, going places never imagined before. The quiet was interrupted only by the sound of the "Gods playing nine pin" as Washington Irving would put it.. Joe knew it was only the expansion of the ice he was standing on.He also knew there was twenty feet of cold dark water beneath that ice. It started at the far end of the valley and traveled the length of the lake, a distance of 4 miles, to where Joe sat. On time, by lantern light, he had actually watched the crack form beneath his feet as the rumble went by. It sounded just like a ball rolling down the alley at the local Ibowling lanes. Joe knew, with twelve inches of ice there was nothing to worry about. Still, there was a sense of apprehension. Yes, he liked being here alone, most of the time, but not today. It was New Years Day and he shouldn't be alone..

         For seventeen years they had met here on this windswept piece of ice. The first group arrived around three in the morning, an hour or so after the bars closed. Toboggans would be unloaded from trucks and all sorts of gear would be lpiled on them and they would pull them out onto the ice. The hiss of Coleman Lanterns and the roar of the gasoline powered ice auger would break the stillness and quiet. There were usually four or five of them at this point and don’t misunderstand, they were not drunk from the New Year’s revelry. In fact, few of them drank. They got their intoxication in other ways. As day broke, more would arrive. It varied from year to year. That first year there had been only the four of them. By the tenth year there must have been forty by noon. There were children laughing and playing on skates. The toboggans that had been used to pull the gear onto the ice were reassigned to more traditional duty on the surrounding hills. The Coleman stoves were fired up and the smell of sauerkraut, pork and venison kielbasa permeated the air. Little Jim brought his boom box and it was always tuned to the local radio station that played polka music all day long. At anytime you could see two or three people doing a polka on the ice. Little Jim called it the “Fish Dance”.

          And yes, amidst all the excitement, an occasional yell of “Flag!” would pierce the frigid air and like soldiers under surprise attack, everyone would scatter for their assigned posts. Whoever owned the “flag” that had just popped, (a signal that a fish was present), would start running for it. If it was Joe’s flag, Goose would run for the bait, Little Jim, the gaff, and Skitch, the skimmer. Like a well-oiled machine, the first group would converge on the waving flag just moments behind Joe. The group that arrived behind them would be the “gallery”, eager to see what would emerge from the hole once the hook had been set. Throughout the day this scene would repeat itself, sometimes producing a fish, sometimes not. It made no difference how it went. Fishing had become secondary to this group.

         At times it resembled a small city on the ice. There were complete families there, and complete strangers. Fishermen would wander from other sections of the lake to see what all the hullabaloo was about. They would be welcomed with a “Happy New Year!” and plied with hot chocolate, Christmas cookies, venison jerky and whatever other delicacy had been sledded out onto the ice. Often they would return the next year, bringing a buddy or two with them along with their own food to share. Even the local Fish Warden would usually show up during the day. He brought with him coloring books for the children and a not so stern reminder that we better make sure we took everything with us when we left. That said, he would join us for a while in story swapping before leaving to complete his duties.

         At 2:00 PM, the pots of pork, kielbasa and sauerkraut that had been simmering all morning were opened. Goose would climb on top of a five gal bucket and once everybody had gathered round, he would offer up thanks for all that we had and hope for a healthy and prosperous New Year. Goose wasn’t particularly religious, but one year, after a particularly bad year for him, he just started doing that and we liked it so he continued.

          This year, in the dark, with his lone Coleman lantern hissing, Joe glanced nervously at his watch. Its luminescent dial said 3:45 AM. “Where were they?” he wondered again. The lantern sitting next to him hissed and pulsed as if to answer, “They’re coming.” At 4:05 AM, the first of six pairs of headlights crested the ridge across the valley. He breathed a sigh of relief. Year eighteen was about to begin.
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