Last week’s trip down memory lane with the dog handler story got me thinking about some of the other really cool adventures I’ve participated in. One of them was an ice rescue exercise.
That’s right. I suited up and took the plunge into an icy pond at the residence of the late Ray Evans, longtime fire chief in Dryden. The exercise was a collaboration of a number of area fire departments. It was March of 2004. I wrote a news story about it, and a week later, wrote about my experience in this space here.
This was published in the March 10, 2004 issue of Tri-City Times:
Okay, so it’s a little bit weird, sitting on the bumper of a rescue vehicle, taking off my shoes while an Attica Twp. firefighter holds the gathered ends of a rubbery suit and helps me stuff my feet into it.
Coat off, scarf removed, the kindly firefighter hoists the ungainly suit up over my legs and helps me thread my arms through the sleeves. He tugs on the ends so I can stick my fingers where they belong in the attached gargantuan-sized gloves.
Expertly, he reaches down and yanks up the zipper, pulls the skintight hood over my inch-and-a-half of hair and tugs the zipper a little more.
I haven’t been dressed by anyone since I was about four years old, and that person was my mom. So yeah. It feels a little weird.
“You won’t want to pull that flap over until you’re ready to go in,” the old pro cautions, tugging on a flap of rubbery material near the neck area of the suit. “It’s kinda tight and uncomfortable.”
“Going in” means plunging into an icy pond through a hole that had been cut in it the day before. Already I know the tricky part is making it to that hole without tripping because the boots attached to the one-piece suit feel big enough to fit Sasquatch.
Actually, I’m somewhat relieved by that. When I’d earlier learned that I’d be invited to suit up and take part in the rescue training exercise, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to yank what I clearly pictured to be a tight-like-a-glove wetsuit over my rather thunderous thighs. How was I to know the special “Mustang suits” come in ‘one-size-fits-all’ and now that I was in one, it was obvious that ‘fits all’ meant very large men.
“Here,” says my new wardrobe man, gently lifting my right foot onto his lap. “Let me put these ankle weights on you. They’re so you can keep your legs underneath you so you can have some control.”
Uh oh. There’s a chance I won’t have control of my limbs? Did I just sign on for one big, huge, wet, chilly embarrassment-fest?
“You won’t even feel one bit cold,” says Lt. Tim Dougherty of the Attica department. “In fact, you actually sweat in these things they’re so warm.”
I’m not too sure about that but I decide to take his word for it, although he’s still dressed in his firefighting gear.
Another smiling young firefighter hooks a rope to my waist and like a dog on a leash—er—like a duck on a string, I’m waddling out to the hold in the pond praying I won’t trip.
“Have you ever been in ice water before?” the handsome lad grins. I think he’s getting a kick out of this.
Talking gently the whole time, he says I should just take my time and sit at the edge of the hole and stick my feet in the water like he’s doing.
“And then when you’re ready, you just slide in,” he says, slipping into the icy water with ease.
What the heck. I do the same.
Suddenly, I’m a cork. I’m a bobber. I’m a semi-out-of-control buoy rocking wildly about.
“You have to hug your arms and legs to your chest to release the air from the suit,” instructs my smiling, totally in control, deflated fishlike friend.
“Maybe it’s easier if you just float on your back and hook your legs under the ice and try it,” he says tactfully.
He’s right. It’s working. Deflated, too, we move on to what will happen when I’m rescued.
Before long, another yellow-suited firefighter propels himself with ice picks across the frozen pond and joins us in the water. Like my original companion, he talks gently, with kindness and respect about what all is going to happen.
Before I know it, I’m strapped onto the shuttle and flying across the ice, being reeled in by firefighters on the shore.
Unhooked, I trudge back to the wardrobe guy/extremely nice firefighter, who unflaps, unzips, and helps me get out of the suit.
I actually regret it. The exercise was so much fun I want to do it again.
Later that night I think about all the firefighters from Attica, Dryden and Metamora who gave up the better portion of a Saturday to practice saving lives. I think about how professional they are, how caring, how knowledgeable, how brave. And while the word has undergone a self-imposed ban from my vocabulary, it is the only one I can think of to describe them: Awesome.
Email Catherine at firstname.lastname@example.org.