They woke us up at daybreak from what little warmth our lightweight tent provided, promising what was about to occur would be unforgettable.
It was to be the thrill of a lifetime for little boys like us. In about ten minutes, we would experience the climax event of our fifty mile summer backpacking trip through the high sierras at the hands of our fathers who always made life fun and memorable. What could possibly be so exciting at daybreak above the timber line, halfway into our two week trip where we’d seen no one but each other on the trail the entire time?
But they promised. And all three dads were looking to the sky, grinning in anticipation.
We were their young men. They thought us unaware of the flasks they’d stowed in their backpacks for times like this. We had spent the last eight days in blistered boots and full packs across grueling still-snowy switchbacks on summer vacation to arrive here. Along the way, they had taught us how to fall in love with the mountains and the mornings, though we’d fallen asleep early the night before out of exhaustion and a dinner of freeze dried somethings.
But we were awake. Out in the cold at 8,500 feet, Thousand Island Lake’s shimmering surface stretched out before us reflecting the morning sun, and the majesty of Banner Peak glowed rising like an orange God at the very end of our lake. Even at 12 years old, it was a breathtaking view. Behind us were the many miles during which time we’d been becoming men, having traveled together to this glorious elevation alone, seeing no other soul for many miles or days.
We were irritated at the surprise awakening, too young for coffee, too cold for Tang this early. Still, we stood there in the cold morning air, dirty and with frozen breath gazing up as men, awed and beholden by beauty.
And then…far behind us beyond the horizon…and what seemed miles away but on fast approach, we could hear it. Three grinning dads glanced our way, sipped their scotch and coffee and returned their gazes upward as if to welcome the second coming of Christ in our midst. We were increasingly awake, a huddled group of little boys, alarmed at what we were hearing but strangely comforted by relaxed smiles of our dads. A loud rumble at first, it gained deafening high frequency and intensified our way. I feared a bomb or a meteor shot from space and we were at ground zero.
From behind, the lake shook, we vibrated and with hardly enough time to turn to look, the F-15 fighter jet raced in front of our team across the surface of the shaken lake and went seemingly perpendicular up the face of Banner Peak. And as quickly as the deafening noise broke our early morning silence, it disappeared and faded into the rays of the blue morning sky and in unison, our gasped breath.
We weren’t quite sure what we’d just experienced but something had flown into our lake valley and disappeared as quickly over the mountain ahead. It was an incredible sense of awe as if God himself had paid us a very loud and fast morning visit.
Our three dads had made prior arrangement with a family friend on a fighter pilot cruise for a surprise fly by that very morning in this most unlikely place of all.
A rite of passage, that morning, we became men.
If we’re not careful, the frenzy of the holiday season can steal from us the most lasting of all gifts. Memories of our childhood, recollections of times past when we were young, innocent and impressionable. Times when big things happened that made us marvel at the hands of parents who wanted nothing more than to see our surprised faces and smiles.
For older men, nostalgia is a wonderful gift. It entertains, it brings stories of joy and takes us to simpler times and nearly forgotten experiences with people who now only exist in our ability to remember them as they were.
I may have lost my dad, but I will never lose the memories he made for me as a little boy. They are wonderful gifts that give forever and make me smile like a twelve year old even now.
This is a little piece of Christmas I carry all year long.