Grant Keltner

On thin ice

On thin ice

My grandmother was a great woman.  I loved her very much; she was the rock in my mother’s family.  She told me many stories while I sat on her lap as a child, old family stories about her family.  I stayed with her during the weekends usually when I was little, she would have a fire going, her orange cat Herkimer usually sat by my side.  She was really a wonderful woman and I was glad to have known her up until she passed away of cancer back in 1983 or so.

She’d tell me stories about growing up in Vancouver, Washington.  She told me wonderful stories about her family pioneering out west during the 1910’s and 1920’s.  She had several family members that lived throughout southwest Washington back then.  My grandmother settled in Vancouver back in the early 1910’s.

One of my favorite funny stories that she handed down to me back then had to have been the tale about her and her high school friends driving across the Columbia River in a friend of hers car back in the early 1920’s or so, back when the Columbia River would freeze over, during cold historical snow storms, famous blizzards that were truly memorable.  She sat me down one night and proceeded to tell me of a high school prank that she and some of her friends carried out, it took place one cold winter Friday night.

The story goes as follows:

It seems as though one dark and cold snowy winter Friday back in the 1920’s my grandmother and a few of her friends gathered in the school library at the old Fort Vancouver high school, they watched as nearly a foot and a half of snow covered downtown Vancouver, the snow had piled up steadily, it had been snowing for a couple of days.  Kids played out in the snow as my grandmother and her friends planned their little prank that day.  They gathered in the library at noon time, four or five of her friends chatted away; the snow kept falling down as they looked outside from the frosty library windows.

Going back during the 1920’s the weather in the Portland/Vancouver area was much more severe and harsher than it is now, it wasn’t unusual for it to snow a foot or two each and every winter, thick ice would cover the Columbia River, it would freeze over, at times it might freeze up as much as a foot thick in some of the areas in the river, freezing the river, a sheet of thick ice going all the way over to the Portland side of the river.

Several people that lived on both sides of the river would gather along the banks of the Columbia and drive their cars across the frigid Columbia River when it would freeze up, usually at night, articles had been written in both the Columbia Newspaper and the Oregonian Newspaper about these famous crossings, photographs were included in the articles, photographs showing teenagers, friends and families piled up in their cars driving across the river on the ice.  It was a ritual in a way.

My grandmother had met her friends that cold winter day and they made plans to drive their family car across the Columbia River that Friday night.  They had seen other kids drive across the river a few nights earlier, some of her friends had crossed the river before.

She met with her friends in the library; they giggled and laughed as they planned their winter drive that night.  There was Echo and Helen, Edith and Pearl, they were all friends of my grandmother, and she had known them for years.  Echo’s boyfriend Billy would be able to get the family car that night; it would hold six or seven teenaged kids just fine.

“Echo, you get Billy to pick you up at 7:00 P.M, “said my grandmother.

“Helen, you and Edith and Pearl meet me at my house.  Echo we’ll meet you at my house at 7:30 P.M. Remember to bring warm jackets and hats and gloves.  I’ll bring some coffee for us to drink.  Everyone has to bring a kerosene lamp for the ride over to Portland.  Ask Jimmy to bring some firewood so we can make a bon fire along the river.”

They gathered around the library table and laughed, everything was set for the ride that cold winter night.  They told a few other people and within a few minutes the whole school knew about their plans.

Soon 3:00 P.M. rolled around, school was over for the day, my grandmother walked home in the snow with Edith and Echo, and they were great friends.  It snowed and snowed through the day, a real blizzard had formed throughout the afternoon.  Temperatures were forecasted to get down below freezing that night; it would be a perfect night to drive across the river.  It was close to 22 degrees that night.

My grandmother rushed through her dinner that night; soon there was a knock on the door, Helen, Edith, and Pearl were standing in the doorway, and they waved to my grandmother as she rushed to answer the door.  They were covered with snow and came running into the living room.

“Jerry!  Let’s get going, its perfect out!  The river will be frozen!”

They hurried about, grabbed a few blankets and a few kerosene lamps, they grabbed some cookies.  Her friends followed her as she headed out to the backyard and rummaged around for some wood from an old wood pile stacked under an old oak tree in the back yard.  She gathered a few pieces of wood and rushed inside, it was bitterly cold out.

There was a knock on the door; it was Echo and her boyfriend Billy.

“Hello everybody, are you ready to go?” asked Echo.

They all rushed out to Jimmy’s car, it was a 1924 Ford, it had a rag top, was black, it was a trusty car and it ran like a charm.  The car was parked in the driveway, the motor was running as my grandmother, and her friends jammed into the car.

They covered themselves with blankets; the firewood was thrown in the trunk along with the kerosene lamps.  They were dressed warm and toasty; they started to sing songs as they headed out through the snow.

They drove down Main Street, down to the banks of the Columbia River.  When they got there a few kids in other cars had parked along the banks, there were three or four groups of kids, a car was coming over from the Portland side, and the river was completely frozen.  People were yelling and waving their hands.

They got out of the car and unloaded the firewood and lamps, they lit the lamps and placed them along the bank, and they made a big bon fire and huddled alongside the warm fire.  Kids were yelling and screaming with excitement.  They waved as one of the cars from Portland pulled onto the Washington side of the river.  Somebody took a photograph of the car when they got to the other side of the river.

My grandmother started to laugh and smile, she knew some of the kids in the car that had just came across the river.  They looked cold and a bit thankful in making it across the river.

Within a few minutes everybody piled into Billy’s families car.  They heaved the blankets over themselves and bundled up as warm as they could.  They closed the side doors to the car, waved at friends that had gathered to watch them cross the river.  The bon fire roared, silhouettes of people who had gathered stood out against the fire.

My grandmother and her friends waved as the car rolled off the banks of the river, the weight from the car caused ice to crack at first, the tires spun and slid a bit.  Billy grabbed the steering wheel tightly as the car started out, everyone in the car screamed; they laughed and waved as the car started to pull out.  They tied one of the lamps to the side of the car in making sure they could be seen from the other side of the river.  The night was pitch black, snow flurries made it extremely cold on the river that night, the wind seemed to bounce off the ice as they slowly travelled across the river.

Within a few minutes they were in the middle of the Columbia, another car from the Oregon side of the river was crossing, they waved as the car went buy.  People yelled and waved.

“Jimmy, you’re doing a great job driving!” yelled my grandmother from the back seat.  The other kids cheered, the snow kept falling.

Soon they had reached the Oregon side of the river, a couple of bon fires were burning bright, and kids ran over to the car.

“We did it, we did it!” yelled my grandmother.  They parked the car in a safe solid spot along the river.  They gathered around the bon fire and slapped each other on the back.  They drank the coffee.  Now they would drive back to the Washington side.  Another car came across from Washington.  It was freezing, the wind came down from the east, down through the gorge.  They wrapped scarves around their faces so they wouldn’t get frostbit; they piled back in the car.

“We’re going next,” yelled Billy, everybody screamed and waved as they started out onto the Columbia.  The wind came flying down the river; they sang songs as they traveled across the icy river.  It was pitch black out, another car came across from the Washington side, people yelled and waved as the cars paths crossed.  Somebody saying they were from the Oregonian, most likely a writer took notes and tried to get everybody’s name, the next day they ran a story about the cars crossing the Columbia.

Soon they could make out the side of the river, they could see the city of Vancouver, could see glimmering lights of the city, someone took their photograph, they could see the bon fire and a few cars that have gathered.  They approached the Washington side and pulled up on dry land, people cheered.  They wore their raccoon coats, wore their warm fuzzy hats, and stood by the bon fire.

“We did it, we made it across!” screamed Billy, his trusty family car rattled in the night.  My grandmother and her friends laughed at what they had done.  They watched a few other cars cross the river.  They went home that night, went back to their warm toasty beds, and slept through the snow that night.

The next morning my grandmother’s friends called her, they discussed the events from the night before.  It had been a rousing success.  They went to school the following Monday and other students came up and congratulated them on their daring escapade.  Someone brought a copy of the Columbian Newspaper, there was a photograph of Billy’s car, and you could see my grandmother and her friends in the photograph.  People laughed and gathered around the paper.  My grandmother cut out the photograph and put it in a book of memories.  I have the photograph; keep it in the hall closet.  I always loved her telling me this great story; she really was a wonderful woman.

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