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From the Mouth of the River

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The Day the Ice Melts

I’ve been embarrassed more than once in my life. Okay, maybe twice. But this is not about me.

It’s about a friend of mine. He’s passed on now, but he was a great guy for telling stories. He used to come up here from his retirement home down in Arizona. He and his lovely wife would come up each summer and stay a few weeks at a cabin on the Clark Fork River his son owns.

My wife, Lovie and I would go over to visit and have a cook-out whenever they were here.

Dave and Marty, his son and daughter-in-law, would come up from Spokane and play host.

This gentleman, and his son Dave, had spent most of their lives in Michigan, a state known for its hunting and fishing. In fact, back there it’s a religion! They just don’t have any churches dedicated for that purpose.

As I understand it, on opening day of deer season even the schools close, because every kid old enough to carry a gun is out at hunting camp. Dave had told me hunting and fishing stories about growing up in Michigan, but his Dad had stories of almost historic value.

The first time we sat on the bank of the river, staring into the campfire and listening to Dave’s dad tell stories was one of the most fascinating evenings I have spent in a long time.

First, he told a story about his children and grandchildren. Second and third, he told a story about his children and grandchildren. When he started in on this story for the fourth time, I looked around and found myself alone with him. Seems every one else had slipped away and locked themselves in the cabin.

Every year Dave’s mom and dad would come up for their summer vacation in the cabin on the river and every year Dave would invite us over for a cook-out. Now, I know I’m kinda slow, but I finally figured out what was going on. Dave was using me as bait as someone to listen to his dad while everyone else could do their visiting. I really didn’t mind listening to the old man tell his stories because of the excitement on his face as he relived his life back in Michigan.

This started me to thinking, all of our history started out this way. First, something happened. Then someone that was at the event told someone that wasn’t there how it happened. They described what they saw or what they heard. Then it was told over and over again, passed down from person to person for eons.

Surely, those people would not change or elaborate on those stories! But wait, what if they were fishermen? We all know how accurate fishermen’s stories are. Weren’t the Disciples fishermen? I don’t want to even think about that!

Dave’s dad liked to fish and tell stories. You would think a man of his longevity would enjoy telling stories on himself, but they were usually about someone else. But Dave told a story on his dad the other day while we were fishing in Banks Lake for walleye. We had plenty of time to tell stories as we were just fishing, not catching.

Anyway, it seems Dave’s dad had bought a country store and gas station on a nice lake back in Michigan. All the area home and summer cabin owners were their customers, along with any highway traffic. All and all it was a nice business, but there was something slightly unusual that came with the place. Apparently, the old gentleman who owned the store previously had started an annual event that Dave’s dad was compelled to continue because it had sort of become a local tradition and he wanted to remain on good terms with his customers.

Each winter when ice fishing was over and there was a hint of spring, the old man would push a life-sized wooden pop-up flag made from 6x6’s out in the middle of the lake. The flag, made from a bright red pillowcase, was attached to a 2x4 lying across the structure. Attached to the opposite end of the 2x4 was a rope tied to a cinder block and set on the ice. It was a super-sized version of a pop-up used in ice fishing and the theory was that when the ice melted the cinder block would drop into the water, thus raising the flag.

The structure, made from wood, would float and the flag could be seen blowing in the breeze, telling everyone the ice had finally melted. The pop-up was then towed back to shore to await the next winter’s freeze over.

The main reason for this annual procedure was setting on the counter next to the cash register. It was a large fishbowl filled to the brim with money. “Pool money,” money to be won from a pool by the person who could guess the day as well as the time of day the cinder block fell through the ice and raised the flag. For a dollar per entry you could enter as many times as you wanted, right up to and including the day it dropped. The winner would receive one-half the money and the other half would be donated to the charity of their choice. It was something the locals looked forward to every spring, it brought in customers during a slow time of the year, and some lucky person and local charity got a pretty good chunk of money. So in the long run it was worth all the effort involved.

The first year Dave’s Dad ran this event it went off with out a hitch, but the second year it snowed a lot, a lot more than usual and when it came time to move the popup structure out on the ice, he couldn’t find the cinder block buried somewhere in the snow. Looking for something heavy enough to pop up the flag, he finally found an old black bowling ball. Drilling a hole through it, he tied the rope on and set the ball down on the ice.

Spring came and the ice started to melt, first around the edges of the lake and then it began breaking up and getting thinner and thinner. People were buying more and more tickets - it had now gone way past normal break-up. A new fish bowl was added to the counter to hold all the money. Every day now all the people around the lake would show up or call the store to see if they had won.

It was on a Thursday morning at 10 am, with a store full of anxious participants, that Dave’s dad, while looking through a set of binoculars, noticed the popup was floating towards shore, along with the bowling ball, riding right up there on top of the water like a fishing bobber, the flag still hanging down. Apparently every one of his friends around the lake gave him so much hell over it he didn’t want the story told outside of Michigan!

The money? They gave it all to charity and started over the next year with a new cinder block!

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Boots Reynolds Boots Reynolds The "internationally-renowned cowboy artist" Boots Reynolds has moved his comedic interpretation of life into the writing field with his regular column in the River Journal - From the Mouth of the River.

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