Another New Experience to Add to the List

Posted Feb. 22, 2009, at 6:51 p.m.

Moving around with the military affords people the opportunity to experience different cultures throughout our country and world. Because of this, and despite what some people believe, military families are usually the least sheltered or inexperienced.

Part of this learning experience for military families involves area-specific activities, lingo and culture that can’t (or won’t) always be re-created in other places. In San Diego, for example, Dustin and I learned that the traffic on major roads is so reviled and legendary that instead of calling highways by their proper name (“High-way 5”), people insert an ominous, personified “The”: “THE 5.”

In Florida, we learned about screen enclosures for pools and how they are the first thing to blow into your neighbor’s yard during a hurricane. When we lived along the Gulf of Mexico, just a stone’s throw away from lower Alabama, we learned how to discern the good bull riders from the bad ones.

Last week at our new duty station in Bangor, Dustin and I received educations in a totally new activity and culture — ice fishing. (Did I mention that for all the things we have experienced during our travels, Dustin and I haven’t always been the most talented when we participate in them?)

Our ice-fishing guide-teacher was our new friend Phil. Phil grew up around snow and ice. He plays ice hockey. He does ultimate fighting. Phil would never ever fall — without throwing a few good punches first. You don’t want to mess with Phil. Fish probably call him “The Phil.”

My first clue that Dustin and I were totally out of our comfort zone should have been when we arrived at our friend’s house and everyone there, except for us, was dressed in snow gear. With our jeans and water shoes, Dustin and I looked like we would be hunting for catfish.

My second clue was when we arrived at the “pond,” which was more like a good-sized lake with ice as far as my eyes could see. I wanted to know where the wooden dock that I’d sit on was located. I might have asked, but then I noticed that Phil was already a half-mile ahead of us, walking effortlessly on the ice and carrying all the gear you need for ice fishing. (Hint: You don’t cast out a hook and bait from a pole while you sit in a boat with warm water lapping at the sides.)

I imagine the next scene from Phil’s perspective. When he looked over his shoulder to see if we were catching up and instead saw me, Dustin and the kids slipping and sliding on the ice like marbles rolling around a metal baking pan, he must have had second thoughts about bringing us.

I started this column saying that military families are not sheltered. Perhaps you think I was exaggerating now. I wasn’t. I have bungee-jumped four times, delivered three children, driven across country twice (once when I was almost eight months pregnant), but when I stood on the edge of that frozen pond, about to take my first step and having only the hope that the water was as frozen as Phil said it was, I was scared. So was my son Owen, 6.

“Owen’s scared,” I said to the group. “So I’ll just stay here on the shore with him.”

But Dustin wouldn’t let me back out. He picked up Owen and we began our journey across the ice. Once the shore was very much out of reach, Dustin took one overly eager step, his feet came out from under him, and he landed, flat on his back. When he stood up, vanilla pudding was splattered all across the ice and Dustin’s jacket.

Vanilla pudding? Why did they have vanilla pudding with them, you’re thinking.

Phil was probably asking himself the same thing.

We Smileys, of course, had packed a lunch with everything (minus the picnic blanket and basket) we thought we’d need for a day of “fishing.” Now our lunch was all over the ice. And Dustin’s jacket.

About an hour later, after I had finally arrived at an ice fishing hole and seen what it is about (Hint: You’ll see more ice than fish or water — that’s a good thing — when you go ice fishing), it was time to go home. Phil drove a pickup truck across the ice to get us. For me, that truck was like a raft floating in the water when you are drowning. If only I could get to the truck, my feet would have grip again.

Yet at the truck’s tailgate, my feet took one last slip, flew out from under me, and I landed backward on the ice, nearly sliding beneath Phil’s legs.

Dustin still had pudding on his jacket.

Proving once again that you can take the Smileys around the country and the world, but if you want to look cool, you really can’t take us anywhere.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Sarah Smiley’s new book, “I’m Just Saying …” is available wherever books are sold. You may reach Sarah at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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