Summertime spread its thighs and my folks would wedge we kids into the Ford Escort station wagon’s non-spacious rear row-seat and steer towards Virginia to see my Dad’s sister Eileen and her husband Pete, the guy that introduced me to beer and indie DC afterhours radio. The elbow room in the back of the station wagon for three kids equate to the fit of thin air between sock and a sole, between the peanut butter proxy and milk chocolate proxy of a Reece’s Cup. All up in one another’s business, my Walkman cranked to eleven with a 120 minute BASF cassette Jim Shambhu filled to the brim with Bau Haus anthologies. Watching flat fields and strip mines roll past as “Flat Fields” and “Dark Entries” blared through my foam padded headphones.
The first time we went out on Pete’s fiberglass inboard motorboat and began carving ridges out of the glistening manmade lakes I thought I must have hit the peak of human potential for excitement As the spray kissed my face and the wind ripped through my eighties bangs I fell in love with the complete and utter notion of open water boating.
Sure, I’d rowed a canoe over glacier carved submerged shorelines of the great lakes with my Aunt and gone gaga over the sight of six foot long slender contrails of fish slicing through the deep gaps between the stair step stacked rocks that comprised the underwater landscape there beneath the surface of Huron.
Sure, I’d watched endless hours of Jacque Cousteau and read tales of early diving bell and pressurized submersible devices.
Sure, I’d gazed for hours into my parent’s fish tanks, particularly fascinated by the way the lengthy banded coolie loaches wound their way through the larger rocks of the gravel comprising the bed at the bottom of the tank, while Garrison Keillor MC’d Prairie Home Companion on my parent’s console stereo.
Despite all my obvious predisposition, the feeling of squirreling and barreling across the mild chop of the sun drenched lakes hit some primordial nerve and cause sufficient resonance to ripple up my synaptic concourse and rattle the cage around my brain.
I had been on motor boats before, with my god-grandparents, the Howes, Mrs. Howe steering the craft that towed Mr. Howe on his wide, early edition slalom water ski. I’d sat watching Mr. Howe zip and pop back and forth over the wake Mrs. Howe expertly snake tailed behind us, tasked with the job of alerting her should her husband catch a bad wave and take a dive. Something he largely never did, far as I can remember. I had been young then, and far too preoccupied with my task at hand to even sit back and let myself appreciate how much I actually enjoyed the feeling of the boat slicing though breaks as it sped along the surface of one of TVA’s manmade lakes, Watauga maybe.
Something about the way Pete’s boat’s bow aimed for the sky as it gained speed, the unease in other adults faces as Uncle Pete showed off for the cheering kids and carved sharp banking turns launching massive waves towards the nearest shore, the way Pete seemed to have made it his personal mission to ensure every person on the boat got soaked better than any amusement park log ride could deliver. The way sunbathers on other boats reacted to Pete’s passing rooster tails of water.
Something about how Pete would respectfully slow the boat to a crawl each time we passed a tiny island that had a ruptured chicken coop on it and atop that a bevy of chickens and roosters. Sometimes he’d throw bread crusts over, or seed he’d brought along with him. He explained how that coop had been on high ground when the TVA collaborated with easily bought local bureaucrats to forcefully evict all the local occupants out of their homes and flood the valley shortly afterwards, meaning we were sailing over top of submerged farm houses and silos, barns and staples galore. He taught history and civics at a suburban high school, and seeing that chicken coop made him wistful, he felt obliged to support this artifact of a time long gone that sat like a brazen anachronism in the middle of a lake made for man’s needs, and for man’s entertainment.
Something about the way Pete kept making noise about teaching me to drive the damn boat so he could enjoy a beer and get some damn skiing done. Mr. Howe never said damn or drank beer, as far as I can remember, a good roll model to be sure, however he also never taught me to drive the boat or to ski, either. Sometimes you need a more adventurous role model to actually learn new things.
I learned to drive the boat after I’d learned to water ski. Pete felt I should understand why good driving for skiers mattered before letting me steer his boat with anyone getting dragged along behind.
I learned with two skis. And my first two tries, despite great instruction and coaching, were Steve Austin landing on tarmac cart wheeling fiasco failures.
As I drift there, drifting gently on summer tides in my foam padded life vest, putting the skis back on and waiting for the boat that had disappeared around the bend in the landscape to notice I’d fallen and wheel around to fetch me, I looked at the quiet horseshoe of shoreline landscape around me, saw a bird lit on a fallen tree limb to snap at something in the water, watched the ripples fan away from the slow churn of my tread, and my frustration faded away. I began to feel something new, something more than infatuation with boats and jetting spray. I began to feel a kindred sort of affinity for the water, for the life in, on, and around it.
Soul Coughing has a lyric, “Hand over the water.” When I heard that line I didn’t picture river’s edge baptisms, though I’ve seen some. I thought of bobbing there in the lake, tow boat with my family aboard out of sight, foliage on the shoreline dense enough to block the sound of the motor, just the gentle breeze and lapping or water against the shore and against my life vest, and how pastoral that was, like the opening in the trees in Stephen Foster’s Red Badge of Courage.
And floating there, what might have only been minutes swirled away into hours, I felt connected, and at peace. I could stay there forever; maybe I had always been there, with the flowing moss and weeping willows and catfish in the mud. And I looked at the points of my skis poking up from the surface of the water before me and sank my head back into the water until my eyes were staring across the surface and the tips looked like spines from something big.
I’d fallen twice, spectacularly, yet all the tension and anxiety had seeped away, I felt calm and ready. I could hear the sound growing of my uncle’s boat approaching now, and I said softly, with a certainty and utter conviction I’d never before mustered, and rarely since. “Third time is the charm.” I said this quietly to myself, and as Aunt Eileen tossed the tow cable and handle towards me, I knew this time I would stand up tall and ride the swell like a pro.
And while I’d love to turn this into a life lesson, or a comedic outcome, instead I can claim this as one of my few moments of utter, unbridled accomplishment. I stood slowly, keeping my knees bent, letting the rope pull me up, focusing on keeping my skis aligned, and letting my whole being go with it, and so I did. I rode well and joyously from then on, popping over wakes and angling back across them again like sewing up aquatic wounds. I dropped off into the water when I wanted too, and I didn’t stop grinning like I’d been a victim of the Joker for hours. Mr. Howe would’ve been proud.
Between learning to water ski, almost drowning in the raised river that other time, learning to surf and to scuba since; my affinity and respect for the life aquatic have grown exponentially to the point that just an image of a shark caught in netting or trout belly up from stream runoff contamination or porpoise beached after eating refuse rot out it’s guts makes me tear up and fills me with an urge to make an apathetic, abusive world accountable for gratuitously trashing an entire ecological system.
Tool has a song about letting the water wash it all away. Sometimes, I think that must certainly be a better solution that turning the planet into land fill with a strip mall on top.