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Learning to pray

by William Cleary

I don't like to talk about the times I almost died as a kid. It scares me to remember. Like stumbling on a tree root once while chasing a friend and opening my eyes as a car's front tire came to a halt a foot from my nose. Or like the weird driver that picked me up coming home from school after dark who tried to fondle me and I screamed him out of it. I hate those memories.

But I don't mind talking about, when I was 14, going skiing one night down the hill above the Milwaukee River with Ray Wagner. Ray was wild and liked to take chances, and once I helped him burn six old Christmas trees all at once in someone's back yard, and another time we bought gasoline and set it on fire.

But skiing at night down the hill and coasting out on to the snow-covered ice of the Milwaukee River was pretty tame for us until Ray noticed in the moon light the open water way out beyond the ice. We could hear it gurgling, a rushing dark mystery. We were alone out there. Ray started to tiptoe on and on toward the gurgling sound even though the ice got thinner and thinner as he walked, then it even began to crack a little. He made a mark with his ski top, then slid slowly back toward me. "Beat that," he said.

"I'm not crazy," I said, but just thinking about it got me excited. I'd just get one inch beyond him, I thought, and I started sliding slowly out across the ice. In the moonlight I saw his mark out there, and reached out with the ski, and suddenly I was neck deep in freezing water and ice.

"Ray!" I screamed, and turned toward his moon-lit shape, and trying to climb out but the ice broke and broke under my elbows. Suddenly old Ray was there, leaning on his sideways ski, took my frozen hand and hauled me up on to the ice.

"Jesus Christ," I shuddered, "I gotta get home," and stood up, not feeling cold just wet, wet, wet, wet chest, wet legs, wet shoes.

I instantly left Ray and the skis behind, and started jogging and sloshing across the dark ice toward the shore. Then up the hill I went slipping and sliding, through the woods, with about two miles to go. My clothes began to make loud noises as they froze, and my pants scraped crazily against each other at every step like fenders rattling on a junkyard Ford.

But I was startled to feel not cold but hot inside my coat. Nature was fighting off the freeze with a pumping heart. Sweat started to run down my face and legs as never before or since. I was bubbling with energy as I ran, thrilling inside my frozen clothes because in a rush of realization, I knew surprised -- I was going to make it.

As I finally jogged around a corner into Santa Monica Boulevard, the lights of home beckoned. The bulb over the back entrance was on, and when I pushed open the door, my mother was right there. I don't remember any words, but she quickly yanked my icy clothes off me one by one with the bath water running in the background, gloves first, then hat, sweater, shirt, pants, underwear, socks, , and in a minute I was in the water, rolling around in the sweet warmth, beside myself with relief that I was alive. I could smell macaroni and cheese and soon I was dry and in my night gown and socks. My teeth chattering with the excitement, I bit down into a spoonful of the comforting soft sweet pasta.

Seven sets of eyes, all extra-wide, looked at me. 'What happened?" my most talkative sister asked.

"I fell in the river," I said. "We were skiing.

"Who were you with?"

"Ray."

"Is he all right?"

"Sure, he didn't fall in. I ran all the way home."

"What a jerk you are," said my oldest brother.

"Your clothes are a pile of ice" said my littlest brother, his jaw slack..

My mother said: "I just put them all into the bath tub. You could have froze, Billy."

"No, I was hot, I was sweating." I kind of shouted it.

"You're kidding," she said.

"It's weird," I said. "As all my clothes turned to ice, my body heated up. I was covered with sweat inside, covered with ice outside." Tears came to my eyes and ran down my face, what for, I didn't know.

My father handed me his handkerchief smiling in silence. Then he looked at me and said: "We're glad you're alive, Billy. Say your prayers tonight."

And believe me, I did. I mean, I think I did. I hope I did. #



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