A late summer's afternoon lounging on the front porch lazily counting cars was interrupted by the distant view of our father walking towards the house. Dad walked south toward us staggering slightly over the cracked sidewalks that line Front Street, dripping wet from head to toe.
With his combover slung haphazardly over the left side of his face and hanging down on his shoulder, Dad looked very odd without his glasses and without the greasy strand in its neatly slicked position defining the top of his forehead. It was not a flattering look for him, or any man, and connoted chaos to us.
Some families are used to seeing their fathers stagger down the street in mid-day. Ok, so maybe not a lot of families, thankfully. But some, I'm sure. We knew that dad wasn't crocked. Not that we'd ever seen him drunk or anything. This had to be some kind of mini breakdown. Otherwise, why would he be in such sorry shape.
We received confirmation of this when he slumped his wet ass down on the concrete deck of the porch beside us with the most forlorn expression I'd ever seen cross his face. We soon found out that the breakdown was more mechanical than mental in nature.
His wallet gushed a few ounces of water as his weight settled onto his rear and his head fell heavily into his open palms, elbows resting on his knees. This was what we called a ten finger head hold and it meant serious woe. Head in hands, a confession of sorts explaining his soggy condition slid sadly from his lips.
Earlier in the day Dad had decided to take the airboat out on the river. For as long as I could remember our father had been working on airboats. His work on them allowed our family access to parts of the river easily and effortlessly, riding in style and with exhilaration to boot.
An airboat is what most of us perceive as the primary mode of transportation in the everglades. It's a broad hulled boat made up of an airplane motor mounted on the back of an aluminum john boat with an air rudder to steer it. An elaborate steel cage protects the passengers from falling into the spinning propeller.
Most everglades boats have the driver sitting high in a captain's seat with rudder and throttle controls mounted on joysticks conveniently at his sides. The high vantage point makes for easily spotting gators and obstacles in the swamps.
Father's airboat(s) had a more conventional seating for the captain. The seat was more akin to a small speedboat's chair with a simple steering wheel connected to cables that drove the rudders. Dad didn't really need the high vantage point as his knowledge of the river and all its perils had become indelibly imprinted into motor memory in his brain. Decades of poling up and down the river and playing in its channels had schooled him well in the underwater topography of ridges and boulders lurking beneath the smooth surface.
The first airboat that I remember was a beautiful blue and white, wooden hulled, v-bowed boat with a large Lycoming airplane motor on it. It had a deep hull, about 24 inches on the inside with a white, metal flake steering wheel mounted on a simple dash and some small storage space under the bow's deck.
I can remember curling up with my brother and sister under that bow deck on many occasions when we would be zooming sleepily at dusk back towards home. There was room enough for three children between the ages of 6 and 10 as well as life preservers and a few coolers.
The propeller cage on Dad's boat was white enamel with a crisp polyurethane airplane propeller behind the sexy cylinder heads and manifold of the motor. The look of the motor was simple but with an almost brutish muscularity. Finned cylinder heads burst from the crankshaft chamber like steroid riddled polyps.
At the stern, the air rudder had been painted by our sister-in-law, Linda. She was a fairly talented oil artist and excellent illustrator who came up with a fanciful, Boris Vallejo style mermaid whose golden tresses just barely concealed her ample bosom. The details in the tail of the mermaid were extraordinary in that Linda captured iridescence in each scale, lending a realistic if not fantastic touch to the image.
The sexiness of the boat's lines was accentuated by the lifelike sexy swimmer that seemed to chase the boat up and down the river. Her look was appealing to surprised fishermen as the rudder to which she was mounted steered the boat through the dark channel islands and out on the open river at high speeds swishing to and fro like a mermaids hips swimming in the sea.
That boat would fly across the water at speeds of 45 to 60 miles per hour seemingly out of control in as little as 3 inches of water. When the initial surge of power pushed the boat up onto the surface of the water, or "up on plane", the feeling in each of us kids' stomachs was delicious. A woozy, sweet sickness followed by titillating fear at our lack of control over this behemoth was quickly supplanted by equally powerful surges of pride at riding shotgun with our cool river rat father.
Before the memories of riding in an airboat I have many memories of seeing Dad work on the various bits and pieces that made them work. I carry many early images of either toddling or being carried into the work shop that was tucked in behind our house where the motors would roar to life.
From its dark ceiling hung several of the hulkish engine blocks in various states of assembly, waiting to rumble to life with the spark of magnetos cranking their cams round and round. The carcass of a Piper Cub motor looks like the disembodied chest of a giant turtle or a stout man with stubby cylinders covered in fins like high tech, gaudy, costume jewelry.
Our father had a serious predisposition mechanically towards tweaking, tinkering, and tightening. His lack of fear for the consequences of disassembling a machine foreign to him was more frequently rewarded by success and new found knowledge than it was by abject failure to achieve his desired goal. After a winter of tweaking and tinkering his work sputtered and coughed a bit before screaming to life mounted on the back of a boat. A dry run in the back yard was awesome and we would stand well behind the prop of the boat in our private wind machine—small bodies leaning into the wind our father's work had created.
Fearlessly he would rebuild motors he knew nothing about; all the while one or more of his children would also play with bits and pieces of the motor or look on in awe as the mysteriously strange parts came to life in a form that gave us all pleasure.
At some point Dad decided to rebuild the hull of the wooden boat. Several of the staves that supported the side walls of the boat had rotted and rocks had gnawed away the slick fiberglass skin protecting the bottom of the boat itself, causing slow leaks to gradually fill the boat with water when it sat idle.
The protective cage and rudder were pulled off and set aside in the back yard. The motor rose high above its mounts, lifted by a block and tackle mounted to the rafters of the shop, and the boat was flipped over on top of makeshift saw horses broad and strong enough to hold the boat upside down. Repairs were made to the rotted and scarified wood inside and out. Each new stave was milled from cured white oak, sealed and painted to match exactly the originals they replaced.
When the hull was structurally intact we all got high on fiberglass resin.
This work was done at a time when the working world was less conscious of the deleterious effects of inhaling volatile organic compounds. It really wasn't like we were trying to get whacked or anything, nor was it a situation where child welfare services could have been called in to rescue me and my brothers. Dad just didn't know better. Back then, few people did.
The process was simple. We laid out a large fiberglass cloth, white and silky, over the entire bottom of the boat. Dad had replaced the long thin keel strip of the boat-a simple inch thick strip of wood running the length of the center of the boat about 2 inches wide, providing a significant amount of control over potential skipping of the boat over waves at speed up on plane. It was also the first part of the bottom to meet up with rocks and ridges which inevitably would scour the bottom of the boat at some point in its travels.
So, we cut around and dry fitted the fiberglass cloth up over the keel and conforming to the bow of the boat. Damaged areas got double or triple sheets lapped over top prior to slopping on the liquid resin that would impregnate the cloth. This resin was so volatile that our Dad, then a chain smoker of Bel-Air cigarettes, would give up his tobacco Jones for the entire process in fear of blowing us all sky high. We all took our high in another form that day.
The resin rendered the cloth virtually invisible as it coated the boat's hull creating a tough skin to protect against all the ridge rocks hidden from view. A ridge rock hit at high speed could split a boat in half, even with good fiberglass applied in three layers.
After a paint job the boat was reassembled. At this point my father enticed our brother Garth to make a new persona for the boat. The mermaid had long since lost her luster from the UV exposure of over a decade of service. The change in rudder art was how the boat was christened the Mud Hen.
Garth drew a cartoon picture of a duck in muddy boots with a Peter Maxx type style; hanging the moniker "Mud Hen" on the boat. The painted panels were sealed and then applied to the air rudder over top of the old mermaid.
It was sad to see her sexy form covered and exchanged for a cartoonish illustration, but her day was over and we all welcomed the lighthearted duck mucking through the mud in silly boots. The style reminded me of a Groucho Marx illustration where Groucho was portrayed as a duck with cigar and boots. Maybe that was Garth's inspiration for it, I don't know.
Other boats on the river weren't as performance oriented, nor were they always as sexy. Most airboat owners had modified inexpensive VW beetle motors and mounted them on generic aluminum hulls. They worked well despite their lack of sex appeal. They might have been loud and slow, but the desired ability to access the river was achieved nicely.
One boat in our area that was especially unique was the product of Frog Stephens' newly acquired TIG welder.
A TIG welder is what is used to fuse aluminum panels together. Frog's boat's hull was a sleek, mill finish aluminum hull cobbled together from scrap aluminum. For a first boat it was quite nice and had a certain DeLoreanesque beauty to it long before John DeLorean was snorting coke and building gull wing sports cars.
Frog's wife, Charmaine, was dubious. Despite her long history of life on the river she doubted that her husband paid enough attention to detail while building his toy. The contentious issue came to a head and finally Frog's defense of his folly was to spray paint in sloppy Kelly green lettering "CHARMAINE'S WORRY" on both sides of the shiny hull. The boat wasn't seen much on the waters of the Susquehanna after that, leaving the Mud Hen as one of the few boats with character buzzing up and down the shallows.
Sadly, the Mud Hen was destroyed in a fire a few years after her rebirth. Someone set fire to her as she was parked on her large trailer, waiting to be put up for the winter. That was it. Someone was jealous, or bored, or just plain mean. They built a fire under the bow, and whoosh! Flames engulfed the rudder and soon the fiberglass burst into napalm like balls of liquid heat. It was a total loss. It was a total sadness for our family and especially our father.
Years of use. Years of blowing through tight island channels at recklessly high speeds. Years of family picnics enhanced by the Mud Hen speeding us to coal sand shores miles upstream--all those times aboard her sexy shape were over.
My memories of the performance of this boat are full of teary eyed smiles and white hot pride at our good luck to be up on the water, flying up and down the river as our eyes dried and re-wet themselves over and over. Dad knew every rock for miles from 5 decades of poling up and down the river in a john boat or canoeing, or even walking its small rapids. That boat was a symbol of freedom and intense pleasure for everyone who climbed aboard.
North of town was a campsite named Dressler's and south of town was the Ferryboat Campsites. When we'd take the family to either spot for ice-cream or just to visit some of our parents' friends, Dad was always begged to give people rides. The boat had personality and it had a following on the river. I recall several older women lusting after my father, positively flushed with excitement after a ride with him.
He'd take the unsuspecting women out with us and get up to full speed only to turn the boat on a dime, swamping it in a tight doughnut turn. The boat would slide slightly and then reverse direction as soon as the bow swung about. Their big hair held together with Aqua Net would assume the elongated shape of an egg and retain that shape long after the ride was over. It reminded me of those great Sports Illustrated shots of Dr. J. dunking from the foul line with his afro trailing oblong behind him.
For the first time passenger doing a doughnut, fear gripped one's soul when the bow came about and the boat was headed into the massive wake that had seconds before been following at a distance of nearly fifty feet.
With the abrupt about face, this wall of water was a three foot swell over which the boat surged and pulled a slight "wheelie" rocking the passengers and then slingshotting them immediately back up to full speed in less than 5 seconds. It was THE showstopper trick for first time riders whose accounts of it back on shore were full of animated stuttering and wild gesticulation.
Right at the point of slingshot acceleration, most people who were wearing hats would lose them. The sound of a hat as it went through the propeller was a phenomenon not unlike the best cartoon shredding sound effect. The instant pppffft of sound followed by a cloud of thread and fiber was my favorite part of the ride as a child.
After growing accustomed to the thrill of the ride, I spent most of my trips looking backwards at the foamy wake and anything that happened to fly through the prop. Once we rounded the southern tip of an island surprising a flock of ducks only to have one poor animal fly through the prop. Pppffft!
A huge cloud of vaporized duck and feathers settled slowly over the wake as my father grinned sheepishly acknowledging the accidental death of one of our fowl friends. A quick shrug of his shoulders and a bit of acceleration later and my sadness at the poor duck was washed away by the powerful fishtailing the boat performed to avoid a sunken stump.
So when the Mud Hen died in flames, we mourned that celebrity status the boat had garnered our father among the campsite visitors and other admirers of boats on either shore.
Dad found another wood hulled boat the following year. It was dark blue, deep hulled, and flat bowed. There was no keel strip and the lines were clunky and awkward. The plus side of the boat was that it had a much bigger motor that rocked. Literally.
The builder of this boat didn't set the angle of the motor relative to the center of gravity of the boat quite right. This meant that at high speeds the boat would become difficult to drive as its bow was driven slightly into the water creating a dangerous situation. The slightly out of control feeling that was appealing in the Mud Hen was an almost violent rocking in the new boat.
So on that sunny day, the last airboat day for our father, the poorly designed boat wrecked havoc on our father's fun. Dad went out alone to crank her up and see what she'd do.
He told us that at nearly full throttle the boat dug in at the bow and swerved violently, throwing him out. He hadn't had it long enough to put a dead man's throttle on it, so the boat continued at nearly full throttle, out of control.
Dad stood in the two feet of water watching as the boat did several tight, high speed circles around him, roaring its 110 horsepower motor. Despite the unusual and potentially deadly nature of the scene, Dad wasn't afraid for himself. He was afraid for anyone else on the water that day though, as his large, berserker boat mocked him with its circling roar.
I can see him standing there, combover splayed across his face, scratching his head and struggling to maintain his footing on the slippery stones of the river bottom in his leather shoes. I found out recently, after over twenty years have passed, that he now can laugh at how funny that must have looked to the few fishermen that were nearby.
At some point in its circling, the boat's bow dug in again and lurched itself arbitrarily into a new path that lined up with a marina on shore. Father watched as the boat's massive hull sped towards a group of boats, sickened at the thought of having to buy new boats for everybody, and praying the bow would dig in again, change directions, and harmlessly strike the bank. No such luck.
That was the day that Dad bought a few boats that he never got to own or drive. Two boats were grazed and one was creamed. Dad slogged as quickly as he could over the mossy ridges towards the screaming motor. He hopped in the boat as it pushed hard against the bank and shut off the engine, dragged himself up the bank, and started trudging on home.
The memories of the Mud Hen and better days past on the river tumbled over and over in his head as he squished in his shoes, walking home on Front Street that bright and sunny summer day--lucky to be alive.
|||The punching thing.|
|||Hot Egg On Stilts|
|||Sucking through tubes.|
|||The Open Road|
|||We three things.|