The wind whipped across Lake Michigan. Its direction and chill suggested the wind had traveled the full length of the Lake — some 400 miles from the ice-jammed Straits of Mackinac — before barrelling into the towers and tunnels of downtown Chicago. The wind carried snow and ice, piling up three inches thick on top of the concrete and sand. The skies above, too, were obscured by the swirling snow. Skyscrapers disappeared, a third of the way up from the level of the Lake and the streets. Even so, the lakeshore itself was clear: no shelf ice to block access the water, as it had at the Dunes to the East. Here at the Oak Street Beach, liquid waves crashed cold and chaotic.
“Well, what do you think?” I asked.
“It’s kind of cold,” said Elliot. “Really cold, I guess.”
“It’s going to be both awful and awesome,” I said.
He and I had discussed the plan in great detail over camp fires and car rides. We’d prepared ourselves according to the plan. Thus underneath our hats, gloves, coats, and clothes, we wore swim shorts in anticipation of Elliot’s induction to the All-Under Club. Complete nakedness would have been ideal for the ritual, but tens of thousands of windows faced our direction. I’d reassured Elliot that sometimes circumstances required flexibility.
“Okay. All right.” He rehearsed the plan one last time. “Strip down. Run into the Lake. Dive in. Run back out. Dry off. And then run back to the hotel, right?”
“That’s right. Awful and awesome,” I said. “Let’s do it.”
“Oh boy.” He breathed hard. He clapped his hands. “Okay. Yup.
With that, we started to peel off layers of protection. Our plunge into the Lake went quickly, more easily than I expected. The pile of clothing… the snow pelting my skin… my son’s blond hair flapping in the wind… picking our way through the snow and sand… sprinting into the water… diving into the first great wave that crashed our direction… running back onto the beach with arms raised in victory… The water ripped the breath from our lungs, but I had braced myself for it to feel much, much colder. The waves were actually warmer than the wind.
The real pain set in when we returned to the beach.
Elliot gasped for air, drowning on dry land. “It hurts, Dad,” he said. “It hurts so much.” Tears pushed out from the corners of his eyes, as the wind gusted off the Lake. He staggered back a couple of steps toward the water. Suddenly our hotel room felt miles away.
I pulled him toward me. Using his Cleveland Indians beach towel, I rubbed the water off his chest, arms, and head. I forced his long-sleeved blue sports shirt over his head and arms. I handed him his coat while shoving the hat on his head. “All right, Elliot. Let’s get you covered up.” I barked out instructions one at a time, as I monitored his progress. “Pull on your warm-up pants… Drop your towel right there… Sit on the towel to get the socks on your feet…” While he did his best to follow my instructions, I found my own shirt and hooded ski-jacket. I couldn’t feel the bottoms of my feet on the snow and sand, as I circled around to check on Elliot’s progress.
“The socks aren’t working, Dad,” he said. “Just — just — forget it. Let’s — Let’s…” The words trailed off from his blue lips, into the wind.
What had I done? Would we end up in an emergency room? Amputation? Death? How would I explain everything to the authorities? To his mother? How could I bring a son into this?
I’d looked forward to this opportunity to celebrate my son’s transition from boyhood to manhood: the Indiana Dunes, downtown Chicago, delicious food, deep conversation. Through the first two days of our four-day adventure, we were well on our way to an unforgettable celebration of his thirteenth birthday. This ritual was to be the perfect, experiential metaphor. Using a mix of biblical wisdom, family traditions, the experiences of other parents, and personal intuition, I would run together with Elliot into the chaotic, confusing waters of manhood. Thus we would enact the previous evening’s fireside exhortations to reject passivity, accept responsibility, lead courageously, and live in expectation of a greater reward from God.
I did not, however, expect that our plunge into the Lake would immediately usher him to his “eternal reward.”
Gathering one of his tube socks in a bunch, I jabbed it onto his toes and unrolled the bunch up his ankle. Only later did the irony occur that this was the same technique I’d employed for dressing Elliot as an infant and toddler. His feet were much longer and colder this time around, however. Even so, I was glad to be able to help him — and he was back on his feet in a minute. I finished dressing myself and pointed away from the Lake. We limped on numb feet to cross the beach and enter the tunnel beneath Lake Shore Drive’s four lanes of rush-hour traffic. Even before making it all the way back to the hotel, it was clear the dangers had passed.
“I’m proud of you, Elliot,” I said. “Not just for joining the All-Under Club. I’m proud of the way you’re growing up.” I’d told him earlier that ‘becoming a man’ was a process, not a moment. “You’ve got what it takes to rise to the challenge, and I’m excited to see the way that God works in you — after a hot shower and fresh set of clothes. How are you feeling?” I looked down beneath the hood of his coat to catch his eyes.
“Awful and awesome.”