A younger version of Sullivan with his Grandpa Leo. (Contributed)

Column: The historic frozen foot

By Bobby Sullivan

The year was 1998.

But, before I go any further, let’s recap that year with the biggest eye-opening news stories. The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. The historic McGwire-Sosa home run race. The film “Titanic” becomes the highest-grossing film of all time. Crooner Frank Sinatra dies of a heart attack at the age of 82. Hurricanes Georges and Mitch rocked the Gulf.

But as a five-year-old boy in central Wisconsin on a blistering cold Saturday in December in the village of Whiting, I didn’t care one iota about those things. All I cared about was spending the day with my absolute best friend, my Grandpa Leo, slaying the fish on McDill Pond.

Now, you may not know this, but in Wisconsin in December, it’s pretty hard to fish without drilling some holes in some ice. There isn’t too much open water around these parts of Wisconsin.

The infamous day starts at my parent’s house in the early morning. Mom and dad bundled me up like an Eskimo, and once I was covered from head-to-toe in the warmest clothes in history, I was shuttled over to my grandparents’ house, a long trek of about two blocks.

Grandma Irene is in her morning robe drinking coffee and watching the news, Grandpa Leo had already eaten his daily breakfast—two pieces of buttered toast with coffee—and is already outside in the garage getting all the poles and other necessary ice fishing doohickies together to ensure that we don’t leave the ice without an ample amount of fish.

I go into the garage, say hi to Grandpa Leo, admire his tall six-foot-one stature, his tough-loving demeanor, and his calm low voice that says back to me, “Hello buddy, are you ready to catch some fish?”

Boy, was I excited.

We gather all the essentials, me with my 30 pounds of winterwear, and him, with his fishing poles, lures, wax worms, minnows, tip-ups, tip-downs, tackle boxes, hand auger, and of course, the essential six-pack of Miller Genuine Draft. At this point, we were ready to go.

The drive to McDill Pond was very uneventful. It took about 30 seconds to get there. All the gear got unloaded and put into a sled, and we shuffle on the well-developed ice to an area where some of grandpa’s local buddies are already out on the ice.

When we got to his buddy’s area on the ice, Grandpa Leo got all the gear ready to go. I was so pumped, I was ready to pull in fish after fish after fish, and I had it in my mind that I was going to set the record for most fish caught in McDill Pond history.

But before we began, Grandpa Leo kneeled down in front of me on the ice and demanded I look him straight in the eyes and listen closely to what he was about to say.

I was a bit frightened because this sounded serious. Grandpa Leo proceeds with his Marine-like instruction to five-year-old Bob (who couldn’t yet tie his own shoes). Grandpa Leo said, “Now Bob, we’re out here, and we’re going to have a very good time, and we’re going to catch a LOT of fish, but I need you to do one thing.”

I whimpered, “What’s that?”

Grandpa Leo proceeds. “You see, Bob, in order to catch fish, we need to have holes in the ice. No holes, no fish. Right? So, we are going to be drilling a lot of different holes in a lot of different spots out here. Now, they can be hard to see sometimes, so, what you need to do is to make ABSOLUTELY sure that you do NOT run, you need to keep your eyes near your feet the entire time, and you need to make sure that you don’t even get CLOSE to stepping into one of those holes. You have little feet because you’re a little guy, and your foot would fit perfectly right into one of those holes. I know that you’re wearing really good boots, but trust me, if you step into a hole, your foot will get wet, it’ll get cold, and you’ll be as frozen as the fish in my freezer that I caught out here last weekend. Do you understand me, buddy?”

“Yep!” I exclaimed. Grandpa Leo gave me a high five, and we were finally ready to slay the gills.

I looked around at his buddies, who were already fishing. They were pulling up fish after fish. My heart was thumping, my mind was racing. I was so pumped to be the king of the ice that day.

By this time, Grandpa Leo had walked over to his buddies and was shooting the breeze with them as he was getting his auger ready. I noticed that there were no holes around where I was, and even more dire, I had no pole to catch a fish with.

So, being an excited five-year-old on his first ice fishing trip, I wasted no time and sprinted over to Grandpa Leo. As I got about 20 feet from him, I hear a “sploosh” that was heard around the lake.

I did the only thing I wasn’t supposed to do-I stepped directly into a hole in the ice.

I looked down. Before I could even make a peep, Grandpa Leo was by my side. My boot was nowhere to be found, my foot was soaked, I was shivering already, I was bawling my eyes out (and my tears were freezing), and Grandpa Leo had a look on his face that I couldn’t even describe. I had totally ruined the angling excursion.

The trip ended right then and there. Before Grandpa Leo picked me up to carry me to the truck, I heard a distinct “pop” noise. He just HAD to open up one of his Miller Genuine Drafts and take a swig.

He carried me back to the truck, blasted the heat, took me home, dropped me off on the couch inside, put every blanket in the house on me, and left after saying these words in his easily recognizable baritone voice: “I told you not to step into a hole.”

That was my first and last ice fishing trip. And in my mind, it was the absolute biggest news story in 1998.

In memory of my best friend, Grandpa Leo Shopinski 1931-2018.

Sullivan is a Plover resident who works in the local fire/EMS industry.