Fresh Footprints

by Thomas (Tom) Reid

It was probably one of the coldest days Long Island had seen in a few years: zero degrees Fahrenheit with a wind chill of negative fifteen, according to the 6 AM weather forecast. But the comforting smell of his coffee filled the cozy kitchen. The plush insides of my slippers reminded me of the fluffy snow I could see building up outside on the back porch; part of me wanted to feel the cold beneath my feet while the other half still yearned for my blankets and pillow. Finishing his breakfast composed of an apple and coffee, my dad began gathering all that we would need for the long day ahead of us: snow boots, mittens, lunch, and most importantly, hockey skates, sticks, and a puck.

Following him out the back door, I felt the sudden stab of negative temperatures on my nose, the only skin not covered by three layers of clothing. The air felt crisp and clean as our boots made rubbery crunches while stepping through the sea of white. The light of the day slowly lit up the fir branches heavy with snow as I stepped in each crater of a footprint he had left for me. Even though it was colder than the ninth ring of Dante’s Inferno, I somehow felt at home. Looking around, I noticed how bright it had become; each ray of sun bounced off of the ice crystals that surrounded us. I squinted ahead, admiring how easily he traced his path through the white-coated labyrinth while carrying both pairs of skates around his neck, sticks thrown casually over his shoulder. I bounded after my dad, feeling the water on my nose begin to freeze.

After what seemed like ten miles, we finally came to an opening. Our footsteps slowed and every sound seemed to soften. Before us stretched the most serene sight I had ever witnessed. The image of that pond still burns into my mind: the crisp, clean evergreen scent; the numbness in my fingers and toes; the smooth, pure white surface encircled by a ring of trees. Every detail was without fault. “How are you feeling?” my dad asked, his deep voice shattering the silence. Still catching my breath, I looked up at my dad and smiled. This was my first time at this pond, but already it had become my sanctuary.

We brushed off some snow and sat down on a nearby log. I watched as he effortlessly laced up his skates, and I tried my best to imitate his strength. It wasn’t too long before we were both up, feeling our way across the rough ice that would turn into our playground. Setting up goals with dry broken branches, we soon had the greatest ice rink that had ever been built. Hearing the puck smack the ice, we were off. Back and forth we cut, side-to-side we slid, dancing to the beat of cracking sticks and heavy breathing. I was lost in the ecstasy of surging of adrenaline. My mind was set on winning.

We skated until our layers of clothing were soaked in sweat and our ears were ringing with the heavy sound of blades carving through thick ice. By afternoon the game was tied nine to nine. I remember overcoming the last wave of exhaustion to score the final goal for the win (I later found out that he had always let me win, just barely). We collapsed back on the log, searching for breath that only came in dry wisps. My mind settled into what seemed an eternal state of peace, a feeling I’ve experienced very few times in life.

With my confidence high after the tough win, I boldly approached my dad, took my skates and stick from him, and began the trek back through the white woods. Our morning footprints now buried in a grave of fluff, I relied on my memory to lead us back to my grandparents’ house. I trudged through the snow, just as he had done that morning, lifting one knee all the way to my torso and feeling it sink down in the pearly-white quicksand. Skates around my neck, stick in hand, chin in the air and eyes looking forward, I made my own path through the woods, my dad following silently behind me.

***

When I’m having a tough time, I revisit that day, seven years ago now, in my mind. Even the little details, like the sight of his Bean boots in front of me or the smell of coffee on his breath, remind me of that pond where I felt so close to my dad, my role model. Towards the end of high school when it came time for me to decide where I would go to college and essentially what I would do with my life, it only made sense for me to retrace in his footsteps. After four years of hard work, I was fortunate enough to receive a Navy ROTC scholarship at a competitive university, just as he had done thirty years before. Although my dad had never pressured me into anything, this opportunity was what I thought I wanted. It never occurred to me that I might create my own path in life. That all changed during my first weekend of ROTC.

Just as I remember that day on the pond, I can still recall almost every detail of my first impression of military life. The brightly lit hallways smelled of stale paint and old uniforms. Everything seemed perfectly squared away, from the haircuts to the cliché motivational posters that lined the walls. My ears folded back as the Gunnery Sergeant screamed inches from my face, the coffee on his breath far from comforting or nostalgic. The air was thin and hot, but unlike the pond where I somehow found warmth in freezing conditions, I was chilled to the bone. Everything about that weekend seemed unnatural and wrong. I began to question why I had ended up where I was.

My first semester at Boston College provided a turning point in my life. I began to see characteristics in myself that had passed under my radar all the years before. The biggest influence I had was from a class called Courage to Know, where I was introduced to new ways of looking at my life. Slowly, I began to realize that the footsteps I was following were not my own. I was not leaving a single mark behind me. All of a sudden, I switched off autopilot. Everything I had learned and gained from my dad was still a huge part of my life, but I began to realize that just because I looked up to him did not mean I had to be him.

I still regard my dad as a man whom I should always strive to be like; his impeccable character and levelheaded attitude provide balance and happiness for himself and his family, and that is something everyone should aim for. But I’m slowly learning that I am a different person. I would like to say that I have it all figured out, that I have begun to mold my own future. In reality, though, I am only eighteen, and the fact that I have even become self-aware is an accomplishment. I do not know where I will end up four years from now, the kind of person I will be, or what I will be doing with my life. I will always love my dad more than anything, but now I know I must do my best to make a path of fresh footprints in the snow.