It always amazes me how events when I was younger affect me as an adult. As a mid-teen, sorry I cannot remember exactly how old I was then, probably 12 or 13, I began to spend a good deal of time hanging out at the Ohio River. We lived in a town in Northern Kentucky that was on a hill overlooking the river. We would walk bout 2.5 miles from my home to the river, descending about 900 feet or so. Part of the trail consisted in a broken concrete road requiring that we clamor over chunks of pavement, moving around roadway that was hoisted onto other pavement, and sometimes ducking under lengths of concrete road lifted over other portions of roadway. It was always an adventure.
The roadway was the remnants of a buggy/automobile road that went from our city to the Ohio River road leading to a ferry dock that took day trippers to the Coney Island Amusement Park and the horse race track on the Ohio side of the river until the great flood of 1937 rendered the road unusable. The flood demolished the road so badly that the Commonwealth of Kentucky and some private company determined that it was irreparable.
For us, usually about 2-4 youngsters, it was the yellow brick road to adventures…or misadventures. In the summer we would set out about 7am, 4 or 5 days a week, meet up at Harvey’s Pony Keg, the 50s equivalent of a 7-11 store, buy some nourishment in the form of candy or other foods and a Coke or two, then begin our journey to the river.
But first I must comment on Harvey’s Pony Keg store, or more appropriately on Harvey. The store itself was situated at the bend of the main road next to the Hush Puppy Shoe Store, no other retail establishments were within a mile or a mile and a half. The only other non-residential building was the St. Thomas Catholic Church with the requisite grade and high school. Harvey relied on the students and parents from the church and school for his sales. Harvey was a short, thin man of indeterminate age, with nicotine fingers and a well stained blue short sleeved shirt who was usually pontificating about one thing or another, usually about how the Catholic Church was polluting every citizen’s mind. He had opinions about all manners of events, philosophies, human interactions. But none of his opinions would match and he could contradict himself in the space of a drag on his cigarette without stopping to recognize the contradiction. Our parents warned us about Harvey but most had Harvey stories told during bridge party shuffling when we weren’t to be listening. The most egregious conspiracy idea I can remember that emanated from Harvey was his theory that the reason that the Cincinnati Reds traded Frank Robinson in 1965 was that Robinson had made suggestive comments about Smoky Burgess’ wife. Smokey he said, was a Southern gent through and through from South Carolina and threatened to rid the world of Robinson. Robinson was from Texas and Oakland and known for his temper. Therefore Robinson needed to be moved. Harvey cackled and spit as he told his tale.
From Harvey’s the transit time was about 45 minutes to an hour to the river depending on how much goofing around we did or how much of our snacks we ate. As a general rule, the food was fully consumed by the time we were three fourths of the way down. There were times that we found ourselves engaged in other behavior. One of the guys would usually bring his BB gun and we would take turns shooting it, turning the time into a marksmanship contest. On one occasion when I was about to shoot a rabbit ran in front of me and stopped. I fired and hit the rabbit in the side. Damn rabbit turned towards me and started to attack. It ran full steam at me nostrils flaring, teeth barred, red eyes focused on me. Several yards away it turned into the brush. My companions laughed till they cried. That’s the way I remember it any way. The threat of the violated rabbit. Who knows he/she might have been rabid.
This summer was one of the hottest and muggiest on record. From the time we left Harvey’s till we reached the road that led to the river our clothes were drenched with sweat. As we came upon the river it was apparent that the river had flooded since we were there last, probably a week to ten days. There were more flotsam and debris on the bank. We picked among the articles – several left shoes, a broken baseball bat, a toilet seat, multiple bottles, a whole lot of this and that. And then we saw it, wonders of wonders, a 12 foot skiff that looked whole.
We gently removed the garbage that covered the boat and examined it carefully as if we had found a new Cadillac. The bottom was intact, no holes, the sides were in good shape. We began to plan our river adventure but as the planning became extreme someone noticed that some of the planks on the bottom had gaps, small gaps but enough to allow water to seep it. It was not seaworthy. DAMN!!
We sat on some tree rounds and drank the rest of our cokes and ate the remainder of the candy. As we pondered our rotten luck we began to plot how we could repair the skiff. The solution developed slowly in fits and leaps. We needed some way of reducing the gaps between the boards. Nails wouldn’t work. Paint was silly. What would fill the gaps. To this day I can’t remember how thought of the plan. “We can go up to the road and scrape up the tar they put down last month and get enough to coat the bottom.” “Brilliant” we all chanted. We found a small bucket and a small shovel, went up to the road and ducking the cars that drove by we filled that bucket with tar scrapings. We returned to the river, built a fire and managed to melt the tar. Turing the skiff over, using thin wood boards, we painted the entire bottom of the skiff twice. Our agreement was to wait for 4 days so the tar would set and then return. We agreed to meet at Harvey’s on Saturday. After concealing the boat, we retraced our steps up the hill. Usually the return trip was slow and tiring. That day we virtually floated up the hill, ecstatic, discussing imagined adventures, pirates and booty on remote islands.
There is a psychological principle that posits that as positive events approach conclusion, time expands and slows creating anxiety. As we waited for the appointed day to arrive we conferenced trying to change the date of the reveal of the new boat. But the discussion concluded with no change of plans. Finally the day arrived. I awoke about 3am. Was dressed by 3:15. Ate breakfast at 3:30 and then sat until 6:45. We had agreed to meet at 7am. At 6:46 I was out the door and ran to Harvey’s. Harvey was just opening his shop. A number of parents were queuing for their morning supply of coffee and smokes. Fathers in business suits, mothers on their way for morning mass, teens just returning from a night of debauchery. The other three of the group arrived within minutes. Folks assembled at Harvey’s directed questions at us, “Whatcha doing here so early?” ” Do your parents know y’all are here?” ” What do you want at Harvey’s?” among other inquiries to which we merely shrugged in the pre-adolescent method of ignoring. We were smug in the knowledge that we were on the cusp of exploring the world outside the parents control, along with our new independence, feeling fierce fearlessness and some trepidation.
We fairly ran down the pathway. Slipping and sliding down the hill and across the road to the river. Would our boat still be there? Would the tar be set enough to float without leaking? For all the thrills the thought of a mariner adventure there was trepidation that we might find the boat useless. As we uncovered the boat, anticipation caused our voices to hit notes higher than we ever considered. We certainly couldn’t hit these notes in choir practice. Our breathing was slow and halting until the boat was uncovered. It was still there. The tar was intact and hard. each off us grabbed a corner and we lovingly escorted it to a small inlet with calm water and set it afloat. The taring held. The boat floated. A long and joyful sigh was floated across the water. Eureka!!
The sun was mid-morning. The heat was Ohio summer, hot and muggy. But the open water seemed to promise cooling. Quickly four pre-adolescent boys shed all clothes except underwear and tennis shoes and were prepared to join the other boaters on the river as commodores and owners of a magnificent yacht. Grabbing boards to use for paddles, the young adventurers set off from shore into the meandering river with the goal of reaching the other shore a half mile away. Power boats, speedboats, houseboats and other forms of water craft joined as a flotilla to greet the youths as they paddled their boat. With an air of bravado the youths stood in the skiff and waved to the young girls in the passing boats to the shouts and whistles and laughter.
Suddenly, the skiff began leak. Took on water when the tar began to liquify and the boards separate. We found ourselves a hundred yards or so from the shore, sinking, drifting with the current, and in panic. We paddled with all our might toward the shore, the current taking us away from our clothes and lunch. About ten yards from the shore the boat visited Davy Jones locker. We swam a brief period before our feet touched ground, drug ourselves onto a small beach and laughed hysterically. Half-an-hour later we found our clothing, dressed, and began the hike home.
I can imagine you thinking “That’s a nice story but how does it relate to today?” A month or so ago Girlfriend had been prompting me to take a spin in her canoe on her lake with her. I finally agreed.
As we walked out to the dock, I noticed that she had a roll of duct tape with her. “What is the duct tape for?” I had visions of being taped into the canoe to prevent me from falling out.
“I need to cover the holes on the bottom of the canoe.”
“Why does the canoe have holes in the bottom?”
“My late husband drilled holes in the bottom.”
“Why would he do that?”
“He wanted to hang it.”
“Yup.” and she proceeded to cover the three holes with duct tape.
I inquired, “Will the duct tape stick in the water?”
“It always has.” With that we put the canoe in the water. I need to acknowledge that I had a tough time getting into the canoe. I didn’t bend in the way I needed to get in but eventually I sort of fell in to it without managing to not tip it over. Was not a graceful entrance. I was instructed to sit near the front (or bow) of the canoe. I did as instructed. Took the paddle and began to paddle. I enjoyed the ride except my feet began to get wet. Suddenly I realized that the water was leaking into the canoe. My memory of the skiff in the Ohio river returned and I began to panic. In my panic I capsized the canoe. Into the water I went Clothes and all. Automatic reflex directed me to try to swim so I began to dog paddle. Then I saw Girlfriend and she was in the water laughing so hard she was sputtering. Over the sound of her reaction I heard her yell “Stand up! The water is only 4 feet deep there.” I sunk to the bottom, embarrassed.