Roach: The men of the ice

The following email was sent last November to a select group of Chicago men.
Ice fishing on a lake

The following email was sent last November to a select group of Chicago men. What I communicated to my friends can now be released to the public.

Gentlemen,

Last night I was able to see many of you in celebration of Mike and Shirley’s anniversary. Such a celebration is testimony to staying together through good times and bad.

But that message seems to have been lost on The Men of the Ice.

Long ago, in 1993, we first gathered to venture out onto the frozen waters of Northern Wisconsin. And honest assessment would reveal that we had absolutely no idea how to ice fish. Although the notion of fishing through ice seemed fun and whimsical for a bunch of Chicago media fancy boys, the truth is that you were woefully ignorant.

Remember that none of you knew how to dress. As you recall one of our gang showed up wearing a Members Only jacket and loafers, which aside from being a fashion crime also has minimal insulation properties. Two of you went to the Lincoln Avenue Army Navy store and purchased hazmat suits, which offered even less thermal protection from the elements, although you were well-prepared for a chlorine gas leak.

I still recall taking you all to a Minocqua men’s store and helping you buy wool pants, thermal underwear and Sorel boots. It felt like I was taking the kids to a back-to-school sale.

I also remember the moment I wheeled the SUV packed with beer and sundries out on the ice that first Saturday morning with temperatures in the teens. Your faces blanched as you screamed in unison, “What are you doing? You are driving on a damn lake!” Each of you prepared to leap from the car thinking we would begin falling through the solid water, ignorant of the fact that in deep winter in Northern Wisconsin, with a lake frozen two feet thick, you can drive an Abrams tank on the ice.

I would also remind you that we fished through ice on the coldest day in Wisconsin history: Feb. 4, 1996. It was 55 below zero. We made a conscious decision to do something spectacularly ill-advised. We caught one fish, but we were obstinately proud of sitting on a frigid lake on the coldest day in living memory. What man isn’t proud of surviving something that no sane person would ever do? Let us all remember that on that frozen day, Mike declared that if he died first, we had his permission to eat him. If that is not true friendship, what is?

And then there was the night when Larry attempted to back up the icy hill and T-boned my SUV parked at the top of the rise. Five years gone and Larry is still explaining how it happened. And we still laugh.

But sadly, after 25 years of camaraderie, our ice fishing trip threatens to become a memory of a bygone era. Because of schedules and life’s dramas, we have had spotty attendance. We have even skipped a year. Yes, we have stories to tell, but lame excuses threaten to relegate our fabled trip to the ash heap of history.

Perhaps we have become too old. Infirm. Enfeebled. Perhaps the couch at home provides an excuse when once it did not. Or worse yet, could it be that age has shrunk our world? Have the years made us timid, when once we were brave?

Like our great democracy, The Men of the Ice have stood strong in the face of adversity. For a quarter of a century we triumphed over dangerous driving conditions, spotty fishing, speeding tickets consistently given to those with Illinois license plates, restaurants that don’t serve vegetables on fish fry nights and the coldest damn day of the last century.

But with dwindling attendance, could it be that, like our great nation, The Ice Men’s greatest threat has come from within? That we have become fat, complacent and fearful of winter’s bite?

I refuse to believe that we are cowards, that time has ground us to a nub. That we no longer care to laugh together. Eat together. Freeze together. I believe that The Men of the Ice can and must ride again.

Mount up, I say! History calls to us. Let us convene once again this February. For winter is coming.

I am happy to report that the above email worked. The trip is on for this weekend.

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at johneroach@mac.com.

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