Contest #99 winner 🏆

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American Drama Friendship

                         The Men And The Lake

We could talk about the storm.

We could talk about the wind and waves.

We could talk about the boat.

We could talk about the life jackets.

We could talk about the men and the lake.

We could talk about why they went so far out from shore.   

We could talk about the beer and whisky.  

We could talk about how they ended up in the water.   

We could talk about their struggle.

We could talk about what they talked about.  

We could talk about friendship.

We could talk about luck. 

We could talk about the storm

Like often happens

In Montana, it came on fast.

The conditions went from ideal to

“I don’t know, man” in the time it took to down a tall can of Rainier. 

Dark clouds gathered on the horizon like a herd of buffalo.

With a crack of thunder, the herd stampeded.    

The storm trampled them in minutes.

Leaving them stunned.  

It left them floundering for hours. And then, it passed on.

Across the lake and over the mountains.

Leaving the two men in its wake.

Swimming for their lives.

We could talk about the wind and waves.

Blustery doesn’t cut it.

It truly went beyond bluster.

Wind blew water spray that stung like bees.

Waves grew to three feet, hurtling ever faster.  

Rain fell in sharp angles, like shards of glass from a broken sky.

Beneath them, there was action of a different kind. The fish finder on their dashboard

Showed there were monsters lurking not far below. Huge fish on the rise.  

The boat rocked in the waves, like a bronc rider.

Up and down, from crest to trough.

Did they simply wait too long?

To reel in their lines?

We could talk about the boat.

It was a small fishing boat.

Half covered with a tan canvas top.

A boat of white with black trim, named Calypso.  

Twenty-two feet long with a fish finder and 200 HP Mercury outboard motor.

Equipped with an electronic fish finder and net.

Rented for seven days – Monday, Sept. 12 through Sept. 19.

Found abandoned on Wild Horse Island.

In the boat – one life jacket, one fishing rod (line reeled in), various tackle including 

Lures and spoons, normally used when jackrigging for deep lake trout.

The boat was in working order. No engine failure.

And still with fuel.

We could talk about the life jackets.

As standard,

The boat was equipped with life jackets.

One for each person on board. Two.  

One jacket was found in the boat when it was discovered,

Washed up on Wild Horse Island. Abandoned.

Authorities speculated that both men

At some point left the vessel.

In a raging storm.

With just one

Life jacket.

Why?

We could talk about the men and the lake.

Friends since third grade,

They grew up on Wyoming Avenue, five houses apart,

Throwing rocks and snowballs and insults at other kids, and each other.

And making themselves crack up.

Two friends. One serious and competitive, the other funny and who-gives-a-shit.

Connor and Mason. Also known by many as Connie and Mace.

After high school, Connor went to college and Mason joined the Navy.

They drifted apart for a decade, then nature (or fish, or fate),

Brought them back together.

They reconnected over a shared love of angling, drinking, and sports trivia.  

It had been eight years since they last fished together,

on Great Bear Lake in Canada.

Mason wanted to catch one more big fish before he died, he said, laughing.

He wanted them to go back to the Great Bear.  

Connor said it was a brilliant idea and wondered if Mason was sober. He seemed lucid.

Mason assured him he was. Connor responded that the proposal was sound,

But Great Bear Lake was not possible. Not this year.

He flashed on an alternative instead.

How about Flathead Lake? Northwest Montana instead of Northwest Territories.

Go in mid-September when kids and fish are back in school.

There are huge lake trout in Flathead, Connor told him.  

Mason had never fished Flathead.

He bit and the trip was booked.

Flathead Lake is an

Immense, breathtaking body of water,

Just forty miles south of Glacier National Park.

Born out of the ice age from the glacial waters of ancient Lake Missoula.

Near 30 miles long and 17 miles wide, with a depth of up to 370 feet, Flathead is one of

The largest freshwater lakes in the nation. Home to millions of fish.  

Lake trout, bull trout, pike, whitefish, yellow perch.

And, according to legend,

One monster.

Sightings of a strange, undefined creature have  

Been surfacing since the late 1800s. It looks like a dark, elongated eel crossing the water,

Those who claim to have seen it say. Others think it’s something else.  

A huge, rare white sturgeon.

Never before caught.

The week Connor and Mason

Were at Flathead was sunny and warm.

Days in the low 80s. Water hovering around 60 degrees.  

Warm enough to swim in, which they did off their dock

In mid-day, when fish took a siesta.

The conditions were perfect.

Until they weren’t. 

Turns out,

The monster wasn’t in the lake.

It was in the sky.

Lurking.

We could talk about why they went so far out from shore.

They say,

If you want to catch the big ones,

Or the monster, you have to go out farther.  

Out where it’s deeper, into the heart of the lake.

On the evening of Sunday, Sept. 18, the last day of their fishing week,

Connor and Mason decided to do just that.

They went out beyond other boats,

Casting their last call.

Hoping for luck.  

We could talk about the beer and whisky.

Found in the boat,

Sitting undisturbed on the dash,

Were two open cans of Rainier beer.

One half full, the other with just a few swallows left.

Behind the captain’s seat was a cooler containing four unopened cans of the same beer.

And a pint of Bushmills, three fingers left.

Whether the two men

Were impaired,

Is unclear.

We could talk about how they ended up in the water.      

Connor saw it first.

The monster of a storm,

Forming on the horizon, coming their way.

Wind whipping, Connor yelled to Mason to reel in and hurry up.

And put on your life jacket. Connor was wearing his.

Mason looked at the storm blowing their way and said, Aww, shit! My damn luck!

They began reeling in their lines.,

Connor told Mason again to put on his life vest.

Mason said he would once he had his line in. He stood mad, disconsolate, downcast.

Suddenly, in a jolt from the blue, came a strike to Mason’s line.

A hard yank that pulled line zinging out,

Causing a startled Mason to lose his grip on the rod.

It flew into the lake ten feet from the boat. Mason, eyes wide,

Leapt into the lake and swam three strokes

To his pole and grabbed it.  

He tried to swim back,

But was too weak for the waves

And made no progress.

Connor leaned out

Over the boat

And yelled at the top of his lungs,

Drop it! Let it go! Get to the boat! Swim!

Mason paused, then let the rod and fish go and swam for the boat. The Calypso.

But it was no good. Waves carried him out farther.  

On instinct, Connor dove into the lake to save his friend.

He reached Mason in five seconds.

Told him to hang on and Connor would swim them to the boat.

But the waves were too much. Mason too heavy.

Connor realized he must swim to the boat himself.  

He gave Mason his vest.

Said he’d get the boat and come back.

Then Connie struck out for the boat,

Head down, swimming and kicking furiously.

But as he rose upon the crest of a wave and strained to see, he saw the boat,

With its canvas top acting as a sail, carried by the gale, getting further away.

Connie stopped, turned around and saw Mace,

His face white as sea foam,

Both hands holding onto the life jacket around his neck,

Bobbing in the waves, thirty feet back.

He swam to his friend and said it was no use.

Boat was gone. But rescue would be coming, he told Mace.

Search boats will find them soon.

He tried to make himself believe it.

Mason had taken on water

And was coughing.

Trying to keep his head up, treading water.

Connor struggled as well, dog paddling, facing into the waves,

Riding them like an aqua roller coaster. Neither said a word. Mason in shock,

Connie gasping, trying to grasp the enormity of the crisis.

Two men in the water in the middle of Flathead Lake.

One life jacket. Sun sinking.  

Caught in the jaws of a

Snarling storm.   

We could talk about their struggle.

The rain and wind lashed their faces.

Thunder boomed and lightning ignited the sky.  

They each held on to the life jacket and

Struggled to stay afloat.

They realized it wouldn’t hold them both up. Only one at a time.

Connor was the stronger swimmer. He let Mason have the life jacket.

He stayed within arm’s reach, treading water.

Without the life jacket, Mason would have soon sunk.

His face was a ghostly pale.

They held on,

Talking about options,

Ways they might survive this,

If they could last through the night, and be seen

The next day, when a search boat or plane would find them. Alive.

And they would be in the news, go on TV, have drinks bought for them.

Yes, it could happen. No, it will happen. They were sure of it.

Within an hour, the storm and thunder rumbled off

Across the lake and over the mountains,

Leaving in its wake two shaken,

Shivering men.

The waves had dropped a foot,

But the lake still heaved and they felt seasick.

Connor was cramping a bit in his left calf.  

He reached down and massaged it.  

It was near 8:00 p.m.

Darkness was about two hours away.

Water temperature was about 56 degrees, not low enough

To risk hypothermia, but their body temperature was dropping.

Mason couldn’t stop trembling.  

Connor tried to keep him engaged.  

Hey Mace, should we swim for it?

Nice try, Con. You know I’d never make it. You’d hold me back too much.

That’s it, buddy. Gimme some shit.  

I never shoulda listened to you. We shoulda gone to the Great Bear. How far is it to shore?

About eight miles I’d say. Piece of cake.

 I can’t do it, but you could. Swim for it, I’ll wait here.

 I’m not leaving ya. Stay together, our chances are better.

We’re dead men floating, you know that.

No, I don’t! We can survive this!

Don’t lie to me, man. Not now.

Float on your back, breathe easy.

I can’t. I never could float.

Yeah, you can.

How long?

Until they find us! Idiot!

You’re the idiot.

Am not.

We could talk about what they talked about.

At first they shouted.

Yelled back and forth as loud as they could.

Just tread, just tread, face the waves, keep your head up!

They kicked, swam, and swayed arms to stay upright.  

Then came the cursing. Then the crying. Then the apologizing.

I’m so sorry, so sorry, so sorry. It’s my fault. My bad.

Shut up, Mace!

Why did I have to do it?

Go after that damn rod and fish. You shouldn’t have come after me, Con.

Remember asshole, it was my idea that got us in this spot. My idea to come here.

Yeah! It’s all your fault. Flathead. Great idea, friend. I feel better now.

Good! It’s nobody’s fault.

But ya gotta admit it was a sweet-ass fishing rod.

They both laughed.

And cried more.

As night fell,

They talked less,

And dealt with their own feelings. Sadness. Remorse.

Connor kept looking toward the shore, searching for a light.

The water was colder, but the wind had died down for the night.

They both knew the key question and debated it.

Could they last until tomorrow?

Or would they disappear?

Out of sight. 

Forever.

True to his nature,

Mason tried to joke about their plight.   

I never would’ve guessed I’d die doing something I loved.

Who knew fishing for monsters was bad for you? I didn’t. Did you?

This wasn’t in the brochure.

 Shut up, we’re not gonna die.

I always thought it would be something boring like cancer.

Stop it. Or I’ll strangle you to death. Quit talkin’ like we’re goners.

Soon enough, my friend. Don’t worry.

I’m not gonna spout some cliché claptrap,

Like I’ll see you on the other side.

Thanks. That might kill me.

They recalled memories, old friends,

And the early days on Wyoming Avenue.

Loved ones were almost too painful to talk about.

But they did,

And made promises

To each other.

Sometime in the middle of the night,

Mason asked Connor to sing something. Anything.

When Connor asked why, Mason told him of a quote he’d read.

Something Voltaire said:  Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.

Connor thought for a moment.

Mason went on.

Sing me a song, Con.

Weakly, Connor began to sing.

It was unclear at first, but then got louder.

Let’s go bears, let’s get on the ball, let’s show them, we’re the best of all.

It was their high school fight song. Mason finished it with him.

With spirit, and with royalty, we’ll go marching on to victory.

They laughed and tried to high five.

Mason joked,   

Seriously, dude? Our fight song? God, you’re lame to the end.

The insults warmed them both.

Later, past midnight,

Over four hours in the water now,

With the moon beaming down like a flashlight,

They got a little deeper. They discussed life and death, faith and prayer.

Mason mentioned their boat, the Calypso.  

He told Connor about the name’s origin.

In Homer’s Odyssey,

He wrote of a sea princess named Calypso, a child of the gods.

She was immortal, would never die. It made her deeply sad.

She envied mere mortals who knew

They would perish.

Their lives had more meaning.

Every decision was huge.

Life was more significant because time was limited.

Calypso wanted to feel that. But she couldn’t.

Her life would never end.

Mason said he’d hate to live forever.

He said from now on he’d quit taking life for granted. Appreciate it more.

Connor said me too, buddy. Me, too.   

But I’ll miss you.  

We could talk about friendship.

Around 4:00 a.m. now.

Connor was spent. Legs cramping. Muscles burning.  

They had been in the water for over eight hours.

The moon was descending over the mountains and they could hardly see each other.

They had been trading the life jacket, to give Connor some rest, but Mason could no longer 

Keep himself afloat so he wore the vest most of the time.  

Connor tried to conserve energy floating on his back.

He knew he couldn’t last long, treading.

Not without a life jacket.

Mason was worse off.

He began to cough sharply. Over and over.

Are there sharks around? I’m spitting up blood.

Connor saw blood and mucus on the life vest. Said to hang on. Sunrise was coming.

But Mason was done. His face gray. Eyes half mast.

He knew he was dying.

You take the life vest. You can make it. I can’t.  

No, Mace! Keep it on! Just a few more hours! Sun will be up and we’ll be found!

No. I’m finished, man. Done. I want out.

Stay with me, Mace!

In the dark,

Mace began to unclip his vest.

He slipped out of it and pushed it toward Connor.

Connor yelled to put it back on. Mace began to swim, toward the mountains.

Connor swam after him and tried to put the life jacket over his friend’s head,

But Mason went under. Connor pulled him up holding him tight, the vest between them.

Mason pushed free and vigorously shook his head. Tears dropped into the water.

Love ya, man. See ya on the other side.

And with a slight grin he said,  

Sorry.

And then he closed his eyes,

And his body went under the waves,

Into the dark.

Connor could only watch.

He had no more energy. Couldn’t move.

He let his friend go and put on the life jacket.

Then, lay back, looked at the stars,

And let it all be.

We could talk about luck.

It was a fluke they say.

How he was found.

Floating almost unconscious.

In the center of a vast 200-square mile lake.

Once their fishing boat was discovered on Wild Horse Island,

A search was launched. A plane spotted his orange vest and alerted Search & Rescue.

It was late afternoon when he was pulled from the water.

Still breathing after 21 hours floating.   

He considers himself the luckiest man

On earth. And water.

When questioned, Connor said,

It wasn’t fate,

Just luck.

I had it this time.

Mason didn’t.

But my luck was because of him.

He’s the reason I’m alive.  

I don’t know

What else to say,

Other than we all have our

Fair share of bad luck and strife.

In fishing as well as

In life.

We thank him for the interview that led to this account.

June 24, 2021 22:09

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88 comments

Tom Vandel
17:00 Jul 02, 2021

Thank you all - this is a bit overwhelming (but not like drowning). The Men and the Lake is based on a real incident that happened to a friend of mine. In the real story, both men sadly drowned. Only my friend's body was recovered - a year later to the day. I wish my story was the true one.

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Shea West
21:33 Jul 02, 2021

I'm so sorry. They say we write what we know, and you have lived through something tragic and painful.

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Ashley Slaughter
06:04 Jul 03, 2021

I'm so sorry for your loss, Tom. Tragedy, in all of its pain and turmoil, can inspire, and it inspired you to write this story so vividly. The emotion throughout is so potent, and your talent definitely shines through. Thank you for sharing this with us!

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Lissa Bay
17:13 Jul 02, 2021

Holy crap, man.

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Donald Hicks
15:33 Jul 03, 2021

I hate to refer to something based on a real life tragedy as absolutely perfect but that was, by far, one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever read. I also admire the structure. It’s written as though it were a poem, which in many ways, it is. As others have already stated, I’m sorry for your loss but I truly thank you for sharing this story. You, sir, possess a gift. 👍

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Shanna La Coss
01:30 Jul 03, 2021

That was...outstanding. The style you chose was perfect, the rhythm of it almost like the waves on the water in which they were captured. Forgive the terrible pun, that it was DEEP and very thoughtfully constructed. The ending was quite unexpected. I was sure they were both goners. This was a win very well deserved. Thank you for sharing this with us!

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Cyndy Moses
18:18 Jul 02, 2021

I loved this story. It was so vivid and your style, wow! I never saw the real story coming but I waited and I was glad I read to the end. Congratulations Tom.

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14:08 Jul 03, 2021

Beautiful writing, Tom. It's so vivid and gripping.

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Kutee Tilbe
17:51 Jul 02, 2021

congratulations! it is so gripping, moving and interesting way of telling too

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14:08 Jul 03, 2021

Beautiful writing, Tom. It's so vivid and gripping.

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03:20 Jul 03, 2021

I cried. It was so vivid. Loved the dialogue

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A.Dot Ram
02:41 Jul 03, 2021

Congratulations. This was a moving story with a lot going for it. I really appreciated the reference to The Odyssey and Calypso as a foreshadowing. I wonder if that's why you thought verse was a good form for this story? It was an interesting creative choice (one I haven't seen here before, and it certainly grabbed attention. It also leaves so much space around the lines--space that their intent fills).

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Marianna Mills
18:08 Jul 03, 2021

so sad well done, not bad your first story too, lucky you, congrats, well deserved win.

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Zakirah Green
17:22 Jul 03, 2021

Love your style Tom Vandel.

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Naajia Aasiya
12:23 Jul 03, 2021

Thank you for sharing this

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Naajia Aasiya
12:22 Jul 03, 2021

Ohhh this gave me chills

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Neppi A
12:18 Jul 03, 2021

Beautiful. Gripping. Sad. I like how you've given a little intro at the start, directing the waves of your story to its destination. Truly amazing work there buddy and congratulations! (Ps. I wish your story was the real one too. I'm sorry for your loss.)

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Jarreck Dylinda
11:08 Jul 03, 2021

Really enjoyed the style and format you chose. I’m sorry that is based on a tragedy in your life. Thank you for sharing such a personal event.

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Steven Rensch
09:25 Jul 03, 2021

Well worth the time. I'll look for you in the future.

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Anonymous 1
06:08 Jul 03, 2021

so good👍👍👍

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Ramona Taylor
04:09 Jul 03, 2021

Wow! What a fantastic story, so beautifully described and told! I’ll always remember this story. You are a great storyteller. I’m so sorry for the true story and for your loss. I can’t wait to read what you write next. This was awesome!

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wow. this was super super super great imagery! I actually know where the setting is (which is a plus since it's more relatable). Super great job with this, twas definitely a winning piece! And wow, real life incidents are hard to write about. You did well with this one though!

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Umaya E
03:13 Jul 03, 2021

A well deserved win

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