It was the last week of August in 1961 and I was just getting my 14 year-old self home after spending the Summer working as a Kitchen Boy at the University of Wyoming Recreation Camp located in the foothills of the Snowy Range Mountains. That job and that Summer were both major turning points in my life. But this is about boats and lakes and such. So the story will have to wait for a later post probably called Kitchen Boy.
My brother Lewis, who’d driven up past Centennial to pick me up, pulled his little Fiat over to the curb in front of our house. I jumped out, reached back in to grab my duffel bag full of dirty clothes, and headed for the front walk. But then I stopped. There was a big, round-fendered, high-off-the-ground, bright yellow, GMC truck parked in front of the house.
“Where did that come from?” I asked.
“That’s Dad’s new truck,” Lewis answered. “He traded the van in on it. Mom calls it ‘the Two Ton Canary.”
The Old Man, with nearly two boating seasons’ worth of embarrassment to egg him on, had overcome his SFND (Somethin’ For Nothin’ Disease), and bought the big four wheel drive Canary brand new.
It took some effort the next weekend to get the cup of the trailer hitch up over the ball that was just under the Canary’s rear bumper. The big truck was designed with plenty of ground clearance, enough so that when the trailer was finally hitched up, the boat was angled backward at a fairly steep pitch. After checking the tie-downs to make sure the boat would not slide off, the Old Man decided that the angle would only make it that much easier to launch and we all got in the truck for a day at the lake.
A few of the Lake Hattie locals stopped what they were doing to see the big new truck pull up to the boat ramp. When they realized it was the Peltons, everyone came out to watch. The Old Man was trying to maneuver the trailer down toward the water, when one of the onlookers walked up to talk to him. Together they walked to the rear of the boat, squatted down, and had a conversation.
When the Old Man stood up and walked back up the ramp, I could see his jaw muscles clenching and a bright crimson color starting to rise up his neck from his collar.
“Hey! You kids!” he yelled at us. “Get back in the truck! Don’t ask questions, just get back in the truck!”
Mystified, we obeyed. On the way back to town he cooled off enough to explain. The boat was at such an angle that the brass propeller had been scraping on the pavement all the way out to the lake. A large, flat spot had been ground on the end of one of the propeller blades. The helpful guy at the lake had told the Old Man that if we tried to run the boat, the shaft would vibrate and probably damage its bearings.
Over the next week the Old Man had a step-down hitch welded to the back of the new truck and a new propeller mounted on the boat.
We went out to the lake a few more times before the water got too cold and on those trips the Old Man seemed, if not to love, at least be satisfied with the Canary, though I don’t think he ever really forgave her for betraying him on what was their honeymoon together. The thing that he began to look askance at was the boat.
Over the Winter, the Old Man read and reread the issues from his monthly subscription to Boating Magazine. He spent time looking at pictures of the light, fiberglass-hulled, outboard-powered runabouts. He pored over comparative reviews of different hull designs.
By the end of April, he could stand it no longer. there were buds on the pussy willows, the grass was growing, and the ice had melted from the lake. The Old Man took the heavy, wooden inboard boat away and in its place he parked a new, Glastron 18 footer. It had a 60 horsepower Johnson outboard motor and the dealer had thrown in half a dozen orange lifejackets.
“It looks brand new,” I muttered to my brother Lewis. “I was expecting him to buy an old one with a hole in it that he could try to patch himself.”
“I think it’s like the Canary,” he whispered back. “They haven’t been making them long enough for there to be any aging, cheap ones.”
Again we drove out to Lake Hattie, this time having no trouble sliding the new, lightweight boat off the trailer. The Old man had the Canary, now pulling an empty trailer, halfway up to the parking lot when he heard people screaming. He stopped the truck and craned his head out of the window to see what all the noise was about.
Lewis was running toward him, splashing up the ramp. “The boat is sinking!” he yelled.
It was quite obviously true. The bow of the boat was angled toward the sky and the rear transom was already half under water.
“Jesus Christ!”The Old Man wailed. “God dammit. No!”
He slammed the truck in reverse and lurched back down the ramp. After a few feet, the trailer began to jackknife in the wrong direction. He swore and straightened it out, then tried to calm himself down enough to concentrate. Finally, he’d got the trailer into the water deep enough that Lewis and I could guide the boat onto the rear rollers while Chuck fixed the winch’s hook to the eye in the bow.
Turning the crank in teams, the three of us were able to slowly winch the half-submerged craft up onto the trailer and clamp it down. A stream of water shot out of the bilge-hole at the bottom of the rear transom. This is a hole that you take a plug out of at the end of the day to drain any water that might have splashed in over the sides. The next time out, before you put the boat in the water, you must replace this plug. Admittedly, we Peltons sometimes have a hard time with the rules, only learning them “the hard way.” Other times, we never learn them at all and just keep blundering on, hard way or no. We never did sink a boat, but we frequently came close.
Suddenly, we could water ski, and water ski we did. I still remember the first time I stepped out of one ski and put my free foot into rear cup on the remaining one. I was on a single slalom ski, carving a big turn through the water on one side, momentarily airborne as I crossed the wake, and into another big turn on the other side. The joy of it roared in my ears.
The Old Man had a great time as well that Summer. Or would have, had it not been for two problems. One problem was that a man with a big, pot gut should probably keep his vanity in check. But The Old Man wanted to cut a dashing figure as he skied around the lake and so refused to wear an appropriate, orange, Mae West-style lifejacket. All the cool water skiing guys wore neoprene foam belts, so the Old Man bought several in large sizes. Because of his weight, one belt wouldn’t keep his head above water. Two did, but barely.
So when he was in the water and we were maneuvering the boat around to pull him up on his skis, his loud, profanity-laced directions were interrupted by coughing and spluttering each time a wave washed over his head. When we succeeded in pulling him up, the rolls of fat squeezing out, over, and between the belts cinched around him made him look like the Michelin Rubber man.
The only other raincloud on the Old Man’s horizon was that he did not like to get wet, especially if the water was cold. And this was Wyoming – the water was always cold. His ideal trip on the water skis was to be pulled up from a sitting position on the edge of the dock. After a good ten or fifteen minute ride, he’d circle one hand over his head and point, which was the “whip me off over there” signal. The boat would make an angled approach to the beach, then quickly turn away. At the right moment he’d let go of the rope and his momentum would carry him in close to the beach. When he stopped and sank to the bottom, the water would be only calf-deep.
One day that Summer, we took a boating trip to Glendo Reservoir, about 30 miles North of Wheatland. We brought along my Uncle Paul and his two sons, my cousins Bob and Ken. Uncle Paul had contracted Polio when he was a young man and could not walk without the use of leg braces and crutches. But he was, at heart, an Outdoor Guy so he really enjoyed driving the boat. While Mom and my Aunt Martha prepared lunch, and Lewis and Ken and I looked for stuff on the beach, Uncle Paul, with Bob as Spotter, prepared to pull the Old Man around the lake.
The Old Man, sitting on the end of a small dock, holding the handle end of the tow rope, yelled, “Hit it!” and Uncle Paul pushed the throttle forward. As the boat accelerated, the slack pulled out of the rope and at the right moment, the Old Man stood up. The boat whisked him away on his skis into the lake.
A few minutes later, they came by us on the beach and everybody waved, the Old Man looked silly with his two belts cinched around his overlarge waist, but also very self-satisfied. After a nice ride of about fifteen minutes, the Old Man let go of the tow handle with one hand, made two quick circles over his head, then pointed to the beach. Cousin Bob relayed the request to his father who made a big circle around the lake before coming by our little spot on the beach again. But he stayed twenty yards off shore where the water was deep and cold.
Everyone waved again, but the Old Man’s grin looked forced and mirthless. Shortly thereafter he repeated the “whip me off over there” sign and once again, Paul made a big circular tour of the lake and came by the beach in the deep water. By then the Old Man must have realized that he hadn’t run through the necessary hand signals with Uncle Paul. Instead of “whip me off over there,” his sign was being interpreted as “once more around the lake and then cruise by the beach.”
Faced with such a situation, the logical thing to do would be to let go of the rope, sink into the lake, and float there until the boat came over to pick you up. But the Old Man refused to give in. In his tiring state, desperation took over and he decided, like an American tourist in a foreign country, the solution to not being understood was to get bigger and louder. He made huge, sweeping circular gestures which only made Uncle Paul operate the boat in ever-bigger circles. He screamed instructions which, due to the engine noise, the occupants of the boat could not hear. The people along the shore could hear him, however. A man on skis being towed past them bellowing, “Whip me off! Whip me off!” made them roll their eyes and check behind the bushes for Rod Serling.
Finally, more out of exhaustion than arriving at the right conclusion, The Old Man let the tow handle slip out of his grasp and he sank into the frigid embrace of the lake. Uncle Paul turned the boat around and even with Cousin Bob’s help, the Old Man could barely heave himself over the side.
That evening, Mom drove us in the Canary back to Laramie. She had to. The Old Man could not lift his hands out of his lap.
Perhaps it was during that ride that the Old Man began to wish for a truck with a camper on it. With something like that, we wouldn’t have to drive, exhausted, through the darkness back to town. We could just camp out there on the beach.
“Ooh, yeah, good thought,” the SFND virus might have said back to him. “And we could get an old truck and fix it up and buy a used camper to put on it for next to nothin’.”
“Yeah,” repeated the Old Man, half asleep. “Good thought.”