Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado
He was just a little kid, about 5 years old, skinny as a rail and smart as a whip. It seemed like every time I turned around, he was looking up at me with big, curious blue eyes that always seemed to say, “Please take me along.” A real pain in the ass, if you looked at things in that sort of way, or so it might have seemed all those years ago.
It was some sort of a half-baked, daytime Christmas vacation party, one of those affairs that start out with good thoughts and progress downhill from there. Family friends were visiting from out of town and to further the confusion, I’d had a friend spend the night, all in an effort to ensure that everyone had a memorable and festive respite from the real world. The head count before our ill-fated expedition left the house was four, until my little brother made a compelling case that was hard for anyone to turn down, including my mother, so five of us ended up heading out into an overcast day that hovered around 20 degrees below zero.
Before we returned home, one of us would be in a life threatening situation and the rest of the group in serious angst over a seriously flawed chain of events. How hard could it be for a group of kids (all 10 or 11, with one 5-year-old) to get in trouble in the middle of 1,200 acres of ranch land? Our adventure went exceedingly well, with yours truly breaking trail through about 2 feet of soft, fluffy snow, until we got to the edge of Woody Creek, about a half-mile from the house.
Still waters run deep, say the poets, but the fast-moving currents of mountain streams can be dangerously deceptive, as well, and with the flair of unthinking kids who should have known better, we decided to cross the ice-covered creek. My brother’s apprehension should have been apparent before we began our crossing, and maybe it was, but got ignored in my own focused euphoria. In his attempt to fit in with the older kids, he had no hesitation in bravely stepping onto the ice and joining us in the dangerous crossing. In a rare display of intelligence, we put him between a couple of us older kids, just to be on the safe side.
Preordained misfortune didn’t strike, naturally, until we had reached the ugliest section of water, and even then, the ice couldn’t suddenly break under anyone except my little brother Steve. It happened very quickly, and I’ll never forget turning around to see him, in almost instantaneous slow motion, begin to slide below the ice and disappear into the fast moving, dark water.
A quick grab with our arms pulled him from under the crystallized water just as all but his head disappeared beneath the deadly covering. Had we missed, there would have been no second chance. In my desperation to save him, I got my upper body soaked pulling him out, as did the other kid nearest him, but there was no time to worry about our individual predicaments as my brother’s face exemplified the seriousness of this emergency situation. It was of paramount importance to get him (and us) back to the house as quickly as possible.
Almost immediately, his clothes were frozen solid, his legs unable to propel his small body through the deep snow, and as we carried him near the house, Steve became semi-conscious from the cold. Upon our arrival, the adults took over with their life-saving procedures, while the rest of us wondered how something so deadly could happen so quickly.
My little brother died about 30 years ago, a young man in his prime, not from falling through the newly-formed ice on a mountain creek, but from the eccentricities of life that can sometimes consume those of us most vulnerable. And even though he’s dead and it’s an impossible thought, ironic at best, I’d sure like to apologize for almost killing him that day, long ago.
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