Friends on Ice

Friendships ebb and flow in mysterious ways

It is that weekend.

For seventeen years I have hosted a gathering for my Chicago media elite friends in the frigid wasteland of
northern Wisconsin. For three days we are not husbands, fathers, bosses or employees. We simply exist. As guys.

We go off the grid, and onto the ice.

The original intent of the escape was mass self-irony. Not one of us had ever been ice fishing. Standing outside in the cold trying to pull a fish through a hole was an alien act. Which is why, as men, we did it.

To indicate how unprepared the city boys were for the wilds of Vilas County, buddy Mike arrived wearing a thin Members Only jacket and loafers sans socks. In his arms he carried a large bowl of bean soup his wife had lovingly prepared for us.

It was difficult to figure which act was more troubling: going sockless in the single-digit temps or bringing a pot of beans to a male gathering. Mike’s blue feet and a post-soup cacophony akin to an Olympic fanfare were equally disturbing events.

Two of the other guys, Rino and Ron, thought they were smart. They stopped at an Army surplus store in Chicago and purchased what they presumed was warm-weather gear. They were actually Korean War HAZMAT suits with no insulating properties whatsoever.

Because we were neophytes, and would become wolf bait within ten minutes if left alone on the ice, we did one smart and rare thing. We hired a guide.

George was a sweet, grizzled Vietnam vet who had hunted and fished the North Woods since the day he returned from the jungle. He selected the lake, drilled the holes and waited for the urban dandies to drive onto the ice. Then he dropped the baits while we reclined on plastic chairs, beer in hand, hoping to spy the bobbing red flag. It was both a glorious and pathetic activity.

The trip has made for unending laughter and the occasional epiphany. One of the guys had an openly troubled marriage. On a Saturday morn he went for a walk alone on the lake as the snow fell quietly. He returned to the cabin, stepped inside, shook the snow from his shoulders and declared, “I am tired of being miserable. I am going to leave my wife.”

And he did.

Through the years time and reality have intruded on our trip.

Mike was diagnosed with cancer and is successfully fighting the bastard. Varying combinations of business tensions have added drama to the trip, only to dissipate after the first beer and become comedic fodder after the second.

Unfortunately, those tensions mounted and became too toxic, to the point that we have not made the trip in two years.

Friendships ebb and flow in mysterious ways. Not all annual trips last forever.

Some friendships have a season that ends.

But this year we are trying again. Johnny, an irrepressible cat, has been the catalyst. So we head to the wilds once more, though one of our brothers has decided not to attend. A hatchet that refuses to be buried. So be it.

Friendships have a delicate chemistry. They can be memorable and outrageously funny, but the bonds shift and change.

So to the woods we traipse, knowing the constants that bind us; guys of a certain age, with similar talents and tastes. Men who have married and fathered children. Done remarkable and stupid things.

At its core, this escape was always and is still about friendship. For whatever reason over the years, we have found ourselves to be great company for three straight days. We’ve shared the therapy that seventy-two hours of nonstop laughter can provide. Can’t say that about just any group of guys.

Get the wrong crew and there will be bodies on the carpet in an hour.

As life lumbers on, I find myself wistful about friendships, particularly the older ones that have managed to endure.

Sure, these trips can be a hassle. There is food to buy, schedules to coordinate, egos to juggle.

But when you consider all the time and effort we waste on meaningless acts, surely it is worth three days to preserve a few friendships.

Even if it means standing on the ice for five hours.

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Comments? Questions? Write .

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