Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Cold Weather Stories

3 Weeks Before Storm
Ice Fishing in Texas

By 1981 my cousin Billy Gray, my close friend James Johnson and I had learned enough about striper fishing to land some fair size ones on a regular basis. Billy read somewhere that the really big ones, the record breakers, were mostly taken in very cold weather. I had a cabin at Lake Whitney in central Texas and several bait stores and restaurants in the area displayed pictures of the lake record. And sure enough there was snow on the ground behind the man proudly holding the 39 ½ pound monster.

Billy and I started watching the changes in the weather to make sure we would be ready if cold weather headed our way. The second week in December we got word of a cold front that was to hit on Sunday. Saturday we headed to the lake and got our parkas and fishing gear ready. We were up most of the night drinking beer and going over strategies and different scenarios to be sure we were prepared for most anything that could happen. After a case and a half of Coors we felt positive that we could handle anything. Nothing could go wrong.

We s loaded the boat and started for the lake just after daylight. The temperature was eighteen degrees and falling. Ideal weather for the lunkers!

After launching the boat we headed out of Cedar Creek and turned north toward the main body of the lake. After we had traveled about five miles from the boat ramp a breeze started blowing. The wind speed steadily increased to the point that the bow of the boat began to pitch as it rode up the oncoming waves and then slammed down and hit the water so hard the boat was sprayed and ice began to build up. After about half an inch accumulated on the windshield it was impossible to see through it so we had to sit on the seat backs and look over in order to avoid hitting tree stumps that were sticking up above the water.

The wind picked up even more and our faces and parkas began to accumulate ice. I looked over at Billy and saw that his beard was covered with ice as was the rest of him from the waste up. He must have felt my eyes on him because he turned and look at my frozen condition. Our eyes met and we simultaneously burst into wild, loud laughter.That's when I reallized the hairs in my nose had  tiny frozen needles that felt like cactus thorns poking me. It was great fun but as I sat on the back of the seat I didn’t pay attention to the fact that all of my weight was being supported by my arms and hands which were in turn supported by the plastic steering wheel. The wind increased and after dropping off one particularly large wave the frigid, brittle steering wheel snapped and I feel forward busting my lip on something. I still don’t know what I hit. I can just remember how good the warm blood felt running down my chin.

The wheel became so brittle from the cold that it broke clean away from the nut that was holding it on. There was a momentary loss of control and the boat drifted side ways and took a few big waves over the starboard gunwale so I turned the bilge pump on. Meanwhile Billy found a pair of vice grips in the tool box and handed them to me. I adjusted the tool and clamped it down on the wheel nut and regain some control of the boat.

I turned to Billy and asked, “Do you think we should head back to the ramp?”


“Because these pliers are so short I’m afraid if the water gets any rougher I won’t be able to miss the stumps.”

“Well let’s just get off the main part of the lake and try fishing in the shelter of Juniper Cove.”

“Sounds good. We’ll do it.”

The waves were harder to negotiate than I had anticipated. When we finally got the boat turned I noticed that ice was building up on the hull. It was like the wings of an airplane icing up. The boat was loosing its streamlined shape and began to flounder wildly. “We need to get this thing back to shore, Billy. It is getting heavier by the minute.”

"OK, go for it then”.

So I got back to the ramp as quickly sa I could.

As I eased the bow up to where it barely touched the bottom near the bank, the ice along the shore crunched like glass breaking, and Billy jumped off, ran to the truck and backed the trailer into the water. I slowly drove up on to the trailer while Billy walked out and snapped the winch line to the eye on the bow.

When we started turning the winch handle we could only move the boat up a few inches at a time. I stepped out of the boat on to the trailer and was able to see the problem. The entire hull of the boat, above the water line, had close to an inch of ice on it.

The only reason we were even able to get the boat on the trailer was that it was far enough in the water for it to maintain enough buoyancy to float some of the weight. After securing the bow to the rubber bumper below the trailer wench I pulled the boat and trailer out of the water with the truck and walked back to secure boat on to the trailer with side straps. As soon as I saw the trailer was almost dragging the ground and the axles were starting to bend I got a really sick feeling. The weight of that boat and the odd shape the hull had taken on made me wonder how we were able to make it all the way back safely. It was a miracle.

When we made it back to the cabin the temperature had dropped to twelve degrees and the wind was gusting to around 35 MPH. We parked the boat, secured the cabin and headed to the beer store. From there we would make one more stop to pick up some barbeque and then head home to Burleson so we could watch the Cowboy game.

At the beer store one of the locals hollered,”Hey Dennis. Did y'all see those two dumb asses out on the lake this morning?”

Billy coughed and said, "You mean in a boat?"

"Yes in a boat. Right down there in Cedar Creek by you house.

 With a straight face I replied, “No. You gotta be shitin’ me!”

When we got home the temperature had fallen to eight degrees and we discovered that the last person out of the house the day before hadn’t closed the door properly. It was wide open allowing the cold north wind to blow straight in. The house was freezing cold even though the heater was running. Also, two cats and a possum had decide to take refuge in my temporarily abandoned house.

It didn’t take long to run the uninvited critters out and we got the fireplace going just in time for the kick off. We proceeded to tie on a good buzz and watched the Cowboys whip the Redskins. It was a great game and a day to remember. James missed this fishing trip and I am sure he's glad he did.

  I remember once when Billy and I were talkings about things we had done he said, "There's no need to try to tell anyone about it. They wouldn't believe it!".

Maybe you will believe it:

I am so thankful no one got hurt or in trouble.

                           The Christmas Storm of '83

 In the last month of 1983 a freak storm hit Texas and temperatures stayed below freezing from Dec 21 until Dec 31. That was back before the weather guys had the technology needed to warn folks in advance about big storms. So, the National Weather Service and everyone else got a big surprise when snow blew in from the southwest. Meteorologists have since studied the “Christmas Storm of ‘83” and say that El NiƱo pushed moisture laden air across Mexico and northward into Texas. This air borne swamp then collided with a frigid air mass that was sliding down from Canada, across the central plains and right through the middle of The Lone Star State. This story took place during all this cold weather.

 James Johnson was still in his twenties when all this took place and I had been acquainted them him for just a few years. James and his wife Tonee married when they were very young so he started a family and became a responsible man at an early age. Consequently he skipped right over the “bullet proof” and “invisible” stage of his youth. When we first started hanging out together, he was still careful to avoid situations that might lead to loss of limb or life. He regressed, however, and caught on after a couple more years of our friendship. I’m afraid he may now remain “bullet proof” and “invisible” for the rest of his life.

 When all this bad weather started James and I were about half way between our homes in Burleson and a deer lease near Glen Cove which, by the way, is located right in the middle of The Lone Star State. The snow began and we were surprised but felt no need to turn back because we figured it would only snow a little and then melt the next day. We stayed on course and reached our destination around ten that night. However, the next morning it was still snowing and the temperature stayed below 30 degrees. We started gathering wood to take inside for the fireplace because the old abandoned house where we camped had twelve foot high ceilings and no insulation. We had to keep the fire going so our supplies, including the beer, wouldn’t freeze.

The third day the snow stopped but it began to get colder. James went out to start his dad’s El Camino which we had borrowed, but when he came back inside he had a worried look on his face and said “It won’t start; the battery’s dead.”

“Well,” I said, “I guess we’ll wait until it warms up and if it still won’t start I’ll walk out and find a phone so we can call some body.” James was my guest on this hunt and I wanted him to enjoy himself and trust me with the minor details.

It didn’t warm up the whole week so we spent our days gathering wood to keep the fire going. Also, James shot a deer in case we ran out of food. We cleaned the deer in an old shed behind the house and left it hanging to cool out for a few hours. When we went out to cut up the meat, it had already frozen solid as a rock. We had to use a hack saw to cut it into small pieces that could be stuffed in a big empty ice chest to keep the varmints off.

After we stashed the venison James went inside to check on the fire. I walked around the side of the old house and broke off an icicle that was about two feet long. I started in the door to show it to James and ran into him as he was coming out to get more wood.

“James, I’m going to stab you with this icicle and when it melts there won’t be no finger prints and no murder weapon.”

He looked up with his eyes wide open and simply said, “What-is-wrong-with-you? Can’t you see this is turning into a serious situation?”

“Well, I’d rather not think of it like that quite yet; we’ve still got over two cases of beer left.” Then I walked over to the fire and heaved that long piece of ice into the flames. It hissed and cracked and sputtered until the fire was nearly out. I looked at James and he just shook his head and hurried over to revive the fire. His face started to show the desperation he was feeling. He had an expression like you’d imagine being on the face of a person who was stranded in a blizzard with a maniac. I was worried about his concern over what I considered a minor inconvenience. He didn’t speak a word until later that afternoon, after he’d had two or three cans of beer. Finally he looked into my eyes and said, “What-is-wrong-with-you?” Then he stood up and started laughing so hard that I started laughing too. After that we began making the best of the situation. I assumed that James had suddenly realized the entertainment potential in our predicament. Part of the fun was the constant forays that were necessary to keep us stocked up on firewood. A few cotton tail rabbits also made it to our hearth. Canned chili and sardines get old after a while and a man needs a little fresh meat in the mix.

James and I had left home Sunday Dec 18 and Friday Dec 24 the sun rose and it was clear the rest of the day. Just after 1:00 PM I walked out to check the condition of the dirt road that ran by the old house where we were camping. Before I made it to the gate I heard a vehicle that turned out to be Paul Beth’s four wheel drive ford truck. Paul, his son Robert and Jimmie Hutchison were coming to our rescue. Jimmie had heard from the wives that James and I had gone hunting several days ago and so they decided to drive out and do a little hunting themselves. We were not able to start the El Camino so we toed it to a garage in Coleman and left it to be repaired.

The next day after lunch we headed back home. At this point our group was comprised of four drunken adults and one teenager in training. We couldn’t all ride up front with the heater, so we alternated riding in the cab of the truck and then in the camper shell which was packed with the weapons and gear from both trucks. The teenager in training was also considered part of the cargo protected by the camper shell and was not included in the rotation. The temperature was around 17 degrees in the camper so we fired up a radiant heater that was screwed to the top of a 20 gallon propane bottle. Some folks would describe our heater as a bomb with a lit fuse. Come to think of it, anyone not knowing better would probably view the overall picture as: five idiots speeding on icy roads in a pick-up truck not equipped with seat belts, but loaded with enough alcohol, tobacco and firearms to make Ralph Nadir scream. The setting would most accurately be described as the proverbial “accident looking for a place to happen!”

About twenty miles west of Eastland, TX on I20, Captain JJ Hutchison — see photo above— had taken the wheel. Jimmie had just watched a movie called Smokey and the Bandit and informed us that we were “east bound and down” at an average speed of around 65 MPH. I was riding shotgun and begging Capt. JJ to slow down when it happened. On an icy overpass, seventy five feet above the road below, the truck began to skid sideways. When the tires slid off the ice and made contact with dry pavement the truck flipped over and rolled once. The guardrail brought us to a jolting stop, in an upright position, when it lodged itself between the right front tire and the truck frame. The rail did what it was designed to do it prevented us from rolling down a steep hill. I rose up from the floor board where I had crouched to cover my head with my hands and pray while listening to the loud crashing sounds and feeling the frigid air rush in.

When I finally got a look outside I saw that Jimmie had been thrown over the steering wheel and was lying face down on the hood of the truck. The wind shield was completely gone and the door handles were broken off so I crawled out onto the hood, jumped down to the frozen ground and ran to the back of the camper fearing that the other guys had been crushed. It seemed like it took a long time to get back to where I could see Paul on the ground, unconscious, with his son trying to help him. The propane bottle had evidentially taken of like a rocket because was it laying a good fifty yards behind the truck. I reached into the camper to help James out and noticed that a chainsaw had flown from the stack of gear and was lodged where its blade had penetrated the wall right beside the spot where James’ head had been.

With all souls accounted for, I stepped out on the side of the highway and began waving my arms in hopes that someone would stop and help. The passengers in the few car cars that drove by stared at me with wide eyes and shocked expressions. It wasn’t until then that I looked down and discovered that the front of my parka was covered with blood. My left foot began to throb and I may have lost consciousness or gone into shock briefly because, the next thing I remember, I was on a stretcher being put into the back of an ambulance. We were all taken to the ER at the Eastland hospital.

Jimmie had to get his face stitched up, Robert was OK and Paul was on a bed beside me feeling just a little sore. While serving in Viet Nam, Paul had been through worse ordeals than this one, including being shot twice, so he wasn’t the least bit rattled.

James was standing by my side unhurt when a doctor came over to me and informed me that my left foot was crushed with at least eleven bones broken and he wasn’t qualified to work on it. Then he looked at my foot and said, “I guess I could set this little toe.” He then grabbed it and gave it a quick jerk which was quite startling. The doctor then went on to explain that I could not be given any pain medicine until after it was determined whether or not I had brain damage, but he would need to clean the glass out of my head wound and stitch it up to stop the bleeding. It sounded pretty bad so I said to James, “If it looks like I’m going to die just try to get a priest.” After I had finished my request to James I was reassured that Paul was back to normal because, in his Michigan accent, he bellowed, “Shut up Dennis. You’re not gonna die.” I began to feel much better after hearing Paul’s tender words of assurance. After the bleeding had been stopped James rode with me in another ambulance to Huguley Hospital in Fort Worth. The next morning I had surgery done on my foot which included the insertion of four stainless steel pins. I remained in the hospital a few days and the temperatures remained below freezing. Paul’s truck, which was totaled in the accident, had been towed to a wrecking yard in Eastland. Paul, Robert and Jimmie had to get a ride to home, but the next day they returned to Eastland in Jimmie’s truck to get all our stuff. They hauled it to Paul’s garage in Watauga. A couple days later James picked up the items which belonged to him and me. After James got everything home to Burleson he remembered the deer that was in the big ice chest. He opened it and found that the meat was still frozen solid.

So, there’s another cold weather survival story. Please learn from the mistakes of others and live a safe, boring life. Seriously, I am truly thankful no one got killed or in trouble back then.

1 comment:

  1. Dennis, what a great story about you two crazy guys! I hadn't heard about this story and I am sure there are MANY stories no one but you and my sweet big brother shared! This was a great story and I laughed and cried...cried because I miss him so much and laughed because it was a miracle you made it back to shore! God watches over us when we are thinking too straight! Thank God for his eagle eye on you. Love and hugs to you. Janet