Day 2 still writing! Thanks to those of you that showed support of my first little post, believe it or not it was a little overwhelming… now, it appears, the pressure is on.
This story is true and one that you have probably heard before, but maybe with not as much detail as I will provide here. It is about the second time I almost killed myself (and my friends).
January 2003. I can’t recall the exact date anymore, which is ironic as it very well could have been engraved 6 feet above my head for all of eternity. I was a senior in high school at the time and the night started like any other weekend night for anyone in high school… telling your parents a half truth about what you will be doing that night away from home (I know I will pay for these little lies when I have teenagers of my own). I don’t think that I went out with the intention of not doing what I said I was, but there was a party happening and, well, there isn’t a whole lot for an 18-year-old in Brainerd, MN.
We went, there were 6 or 7 of us in total (including my girlfriend Jenni, now wife, and my best friend since 1st grade). We piled into my jeep which, full disclosure here, I hated. It had a stupid visor with 5 orange lights across the front, why was it there? It served absolutely no purpose except for being a source of ridicule among my friends. Anyway, we arrived at a cabin that belonged to the grandparents of someone I did not know. Of course, no grandparents were there as it was January and below zero weather. I was dubbed the designated driver for the night.
The driveway was a long narrow lane that had been plowed recently, so there were tall snow banks on either side. There was only enough room for a single car to make it through. Naturally we were one of the first cars to arrive; we pulled straight into the turn around adjacent to the garage where the majority of the, uh, festivities would be taking place. It must have been 8 or 9 when we arrived and it was already bitterly cold. The kind of cold that makes your nose hairs freeze as soon as your face is exposed and makes your ears burn. We hustled toward the garage where the country music was loud enough that all conversations had to be shouted. It was, in fact, a party. I don’t remember much from the party except for not wanting to stay, I wasn’t a big fan of 90% of the people there (I’m sure those people would tell you they didn’t want me there, so why was I?). Also, I remember seeing the biggest beer bong I had seen at that point in my life (Aaah, high school in Brainerd), I have since seen bigger. For the record, I had 1 beer that night and when it became clear that we wouldn’t be crashing at the cabin, I stopped drinking.
After a few hours passed, I made it clear it was time to go. The party had grown extensively since we originally arrived. Cars were parked single file down the narrow lane (of course no one car pooled per usual in the Brainerd Lakes Area), which meant that exiting the way we entered was not possible. Luckily, this cabin was right on Pelican Lake or was it Lake Edward? We will get to that…
Since we had arrived early, we had a straight shot to drive right on the lake which we could then take to the public access, easy. We piled in, our group had now been reduced to 5 (the beer bong had claimed the other 2 in our party). Jenni in the front seat and 3 of my buddies in the back (2 of which were groomsmen in my wedding). Now, this hasn’t occurred to me until right now, but my buddy whose house I was supposedly staying at was not in the jeep (beer bong got ’em)… I don’t know where we were headed exactly, but we were leaving come hell or, in this case, high water.
Now, I am not a big believer in signs from above but before we got to the ice there was a big bank and as I tried to drive over it we got, er, stuck. Literally, the jeep was resting on its frame (think teeter totter). Was something telling us to stay off the ice?
Panic struck, as I am one to do, I immediately went to worst case scenarios… irreparable damage to the jeep, dents, or we would need a tow and my lie would be exposed. But drunk teenagers are nothing if not resourceful and next thing you know we had a crew of guys behind pushing as we attempted to move forward. After about a half hour it jumped forward and we were free. Finally we were leaving and the crisis was averted, relief. If there was ever a time for Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” this was it and that is what was playing as we drove out on the ice (not exactly “My Heart Will Go On” which might have been more fitting but, hey, I was a closet Titanic fan back then). I remember glancing at the compass/temperature display and seeing the it display -11 degrees outside, cold.
All we had to do was find the public access. The argument in the back seat flared up regarding what lake we were actually on (imagine if your GPS could get into a drunken argument with itself about where you should be going). Edward, no Pelican, no Edward, etc. We were actually on Pelican. It was decided that if we went around the next point ahead of us that we would then find the public access to the lake and be on our way to who knows where. As we started around the point to what looked like the public access there was a pause to decide if we could make out exactly where it was. Then, from the back seat I hear, “this don’t look right.” There was a big bump then, a nose dive, and a crash as the icy water washed up onto the windshield.
Panic, that is the only way I can describe it. We had plowed through the thick sheet of ice at a 45 degree angle so that the rear doors could be open, luckily, the guys in the back were able to step out on to the with barely getting wet. Next, a sound that I don’t think I will forget was, Jenni screaming scared for her life and I put her there, more panic. See, we couldn’t open the front doors and the water was up to my lap at this point. It became clear at this point that Jenni needed to get out the back and luckily one of the guys from the back (this story’s hero as far as I am concerned) came back in and grabbed Jenni by the collar and pulled her out of the sinking car, relief.
The final task was getting myself out. At this point the water is at my chest but I don’t remember feeling the cold. Getting out through the back as everyone else did was not an option in my mind so I made the decision to exit through the drivers my window. Somehow, the car still had power, the lights were on, the radio was playing and the window rolled down to allow more water to start pouring through the window. I attempted to pull myself out of the jeep when I realized that I was still wearing my seat belt, more panic. I fumbled with numb fingers in the water to unhook the seat belt and being, again, to pull myself out on to the ice. This was to the helpful suggestions from everyone on the ice of, “get out!” (the best advice I have ever received). I managed to get completely out of the jeep as the driver side window disappears under the sheet of ice, numbingly sweet relief.
The power in the jeep stayed on for at least 45 seconds longer until the lights went off and we were left under the cold, clear open night sky. By the time we made it back to the cabin the sweatshirt I was wearing was frozen into a piece of plywood on my chest (I remember knocking on it, it was that cold). Turns out the jeep went through in a channel merely 15 feet from shore in about 6-7 feet of water, deep enough for 95% of the jeep to be under the ice. There are times I fixate on what it would have been like if the window didn’t roll down or I couldn’t get the seat belt off, anxiety.
None of us were hurt, which is something that I am thankful for every day. Rarely a week will go by that I don’t think about that night and I get that familiar pang of panic. More than anything I am thankful to the hero of this story, Andy. You saved the love of my life and I am forever in your debt.
The only payment that Andy ever asked for was the 3/4 case of Busch Light that was in the back seat which we recovered the next day after the jeep was pulled out of the water. And if you ask him today, he will tell you, “that beer was ice-cold.”