Monday, January 17, 2005


In the part of the world where I live, there are few things more dangerous or destructive than ice. Tornadoes are rare, and earthquakes rarer still and generally do not rise above the level of conversation pieces. Hurricanes hit us, from time to time, and floods, too; thunderstorms are strong in the summer, and blizzards can dump feet of snow at a time in the winter. But I would gladly take it all over ice.

Ice comes in several forms. There are ice storms which leave the trees sparkling with crystal daggers, waiting to bring down branches with deadly force. There is ice that forms when snow melts and refreezes. There is surface ice that forms when liquid water, or even condensing water vapor, lands on surfaces that are already below freezing. And there is the dreaded Black Ice, a sheet of ice so thin and pure as to appear to be a film of water, if it can be seen at all. Black Ice is usually the cause of falls and traffic accidents.

About ten years ago I had a fall at work. I was younger then, needless to say, and did not think avaricious thoughts at the time. I was glad to be able to think any thoughts at all after what happened.

I was walking out into our parking lot along a sidewalk that no longer exists. There was a water faucet coming out of the side of the building near the sidewalk, and apparently it had a very slow leak. The leak had produced a very obvious sheet of ice across the sidewalk. I approached it, debating whether I should walk around the ice by detouring into the parking lot and around some cars. I decided to take my chances walking carefully across the ice-covered part of the sidewalk.

I was halfway through this zone of near-certain doom when I hit a patch that was smoother than the rest, and suddenly two things happened. The first was that my feet shot out from under me, swinging forward, so that my whole body was falling straight back. The second thing was that I found myself lying unharmed on my back on the sidewalk, gently bringing my head to rest on the ground.

I have a degree in Physics and I spent some time wrestling in High School. I am a fairly sizeable person, both in height and weight, and all of my knowledge told me that for the trajectory of my body and the forces involved my story should have ended with my skull split open at the back and my brains spilled across the sidewalk. Precisely why this had not happened troubled me a bit.

Until the next day, that is. As I walked through the plant towards my office I felt a strange sensation in the muscles of my abdomen, familiar from my days in wrestling. It felt like I had done 100 situps the night before. And then I realized: I had not done 100 situps. I had done one situp, very quickly.

As I had fallen, my body jacknifed in the most critical situp ever. I struck the ground with my ample and well-padded backside, which absorbed most of the impact. My body then dutifully completed the motion and let my back down gently, so that my head touched the ground with no more force than if I were laying it on a pillow.

And I lived. I didn't die. That was the important part.

This wasn't my only encounter with ice. Two years before some friends and I had been in a car accident because of ice, and two years before that I had wiped our several times on ice while commuting on my bicycle through Newark, Delaware. I have learned to hate and fear ice, to avoid it when possible, to be on the lookout for it when such avoidance is impossible.

Ice. Out there. Winter is halfway over, but this is the time of ice.

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