Wednesday, December 19, 2007

BGA Thirteen: Call Me Ishmael



I have always been an outcast from the seven seas, suffering acutely from a deep fear of the Big Water. Some of this showed up in my poem, WATER DEVILS. I am not a strong swimmer. I taught myself to swim, simply aping the moves of others I observed on the beach. I stayed afloat, and sort of moved through the water clumsily.

At the peak of my youthful strength, I still used to plow through the water, and I could not swim very far. My middle daughter, Leslie, was on the high school swim team. She was a lifeguard, and probably could have swum for miles; an enviable skill. As a kid, when Pop would take some of us down over the cliff behind the graveyard outside Black Diamond, near Green River Gorge Resort, we would swim in the river, challenging the rapids, and I could hold my own. But even in the Navy, although I passed the "swimming"test, I always had a secret fear of drowning; of being miles from shore, and having my ship, or by boat go down into the brimey deep, towing me with it; food for the fishes, like Luca Brazzi in the GODFATHER.

In 1981, my first wife, Renea,or my "practive wife" as I have come to call her, got me to get a reading from a housewife psychic. She would sit near you, and not look directly at you, and she would talk and talk about one's past lives, and the future. She claimed that the images and words were random. Anyway, she discovered, or claimed that I had been a sailor several hundred years before, and that I had drown at sea as a young man; and that Renea had also been married to me then, as well, and her grief at my loss overwhelmed her. She would stand at the rock jetty, staring out onto the sea's flat horizon, and she would weep continuously. Finally her grief and sadness killed her.[imagery from THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN]

Well, considering what a disaster my first marriage turned out to be, I guess her spirit had a lot of angst and resentment to work through. And there I was with my bare face hanging out, making this woman my wife, again, volunteering myself for five nasty and angry years of torture. I did have some fine interesting times on, and near,Water; and Art Buttkus was involved in several of these instances.

Once in the early '60's Art and I went off for the opening day of fishing season. We pulled his latest boat to the Pot Holes, some smal ldeep lava lakes east of Moses Lake in EasternWashington. There was kind of a steep boat launching ramp for the lake we picked.

Art was in a bit of a hurry. He put me in the boat, and he backed his pick-up down the ramp. Soon the lake water covered the trailer. Art unreeled the bow line, and I began to swing shoreward, rowing the boat. Art got back into his pick-up, and started back up the ramp; but suddenly it jerked to a stop! The trailer tires had been backed too far, and there was some kind of shelf or lip on the concrete's edge.

The trailer tires had dropped down over this lip or ledge, and the trailer was stuck, wedged tight. Art gunned the V-8, and spun the truck tires tearing up the tread; making a terrible racket. Jumping out, Art quickly recruited several other guys to hook up ropes and tire chains from the back of their trucks up to his front bumper.They pulled in tandem, but the ropes and chains broke and the trailer would not budge. His pick-up rear wheels were almost in the water. Some of the other guys were yelling at him because they could not unload their boats.

Art had to bum a ride into the nearest town, leaving me there, and come back with a tow truck driver. They, of course, hooked up their cables, and pulled his truck and trailer out in just a few minutes. It turned out to be an expensive launching.

Art Buttkus was an infamous horse trader. Bartering was his passion. Nothing was beyond his scope or ambition. One day he traded several items, a welder, an old car, and some tools, for a family yacht, a homemade cabin cruiser. It was a heavy plank version of a Chris Craft. I swear it was 25 feet long, and 25 feet tall, like the cartoon version of a real boat. He loved it. It sat on the trailer, in our back yard in White Center, for months.

The whole family was recruited to work on it; to sand, and stain, and caulk this monster. It had a huge flying bridge, and even a tall man could stand upright in the wheel house. It was powered by a Ford flathead V-8 engine, converted with marine heads. I think this was the summer between my sophmore and junior years at Sealth High.

Art painted it up, and screwed in lots of chrome lanyards and decorative doo-dads. The magical day finally arrived in late summer, the launching, the maiden voyage of the "Toot", as he christened it. The whole family was notified.

The Carpenters on their houseboats in Lake Union were supposed to keep their eye out for us. Art decided to launch the boat at the public ramp in Renton, near theBoeing plant [that Mom-Mom had worked in during WWII ,and that I had spent a summer working in 1964], on the south end of Lake Washington.

He planned to boat north, past Seward Park, all the way up to the floating bridge [there was only one in those days], up to the University cut, then west past Husky Stadium and the Showboat college theatre, under the University bridge, and then south into the middle of Lake Union. He figured that he should be able to make that ten mile trip in a couple of hours.

Art loaded Mother, myself, Clystie, and Bud into this wonderful "family yacht.". In the yard, at home, Art had tuned up the Ford V-8, and it sounded very powerful as he cranked it up on the water. It made that great power-gurgle sound that power boats all do; a promise of things to come.

We started off slowly north, and all of our spirits were high. Everything seemed all right. He pushed the accelerator handle forward, and the powerful AmericanV-8 roared in compliance. Art smiled a big toothy grin and he seemed very pleased with himself and life. But, of course, the person who had actually constructed the boat had failed to pay attention, or did not understand, any of the principles of weight, height, and length. The boat was very heavy, made of thick planking. The wake behind the boat started getting fairly tall; like three feet; even though we were moving at a snail's pace.

"Let's see what this baby can do!" Art said, pushing the accelerator handle clear down to the notch at the end of its slot. The big V-8 screamed, revving up to like 4,000 rpm, and that great albatross "Toot"slogged along at about five knots; but to the chagrin of several folks in small boats near us who were fishing, the wake was kicking up more than five feett all behind us.

All that power was churning up the lake, but the boat barely moved. Art set his jaw, andwouldn't look at any of us. Another man would have shrugged, laughed, and returned to shore. Not Art Buttkus. We all, Mother included, could not look at each other for fear of laughing out loud. What a disaster! What a joke!

It took over three hours to finally cruise up to Pop's houseboat, there on the end of the dock where it was moored on the west side of Lake Union. We had nearly sunk several smaller craft. No constabulary showed their presence, although probably they had been called. Pop and Mom-Mom, Ardy and a neighbor or two, and I think Dick, greeted us, cheering as if we were pulling up in one of Rockefeller's yachts.

Immediately, some of the women wanted a ride in ,"Art's new boat!". So Mother, Clys and Bud got out. Mom-Mom and Ardy got on board. I stayed on too. Art grimaced as he roared out into the middle of Lake Union. My grandmother and great aunt were strangely silent when they fully realized what a travesty this craft truely was. Mid-lake the V-8 sputtered a bit, and then died. It was out of gas.

Art checked it and he realized that all that hot dog full stick action on the voyage over had used up three times the amount of gasoline he had alotted for. Only then did Art realize, as we free floated dead in the water, that he had made no provisions for this. There were no oars, and no auxillary trolling smaller outboard on the transom. Even if there had been oars, the deck was more than four feet from the water line,and it would have been very difficult to row.

Remember, this was before cell phones. The Carpenter gang was more than three quarters of a mile away, and they had no idea of our plight. We floated around out there for a time, but no other boats passed near us.We yelled, but no one heard us. Finally, in pure frustration, Art walked over to the tall galley plywood doors, that opened into the flying bridge, and with a terrific crunch, he ripped one of them off its hinges. Art was a hard worker, and a real strong guy.

"Here," he said, handing me a door," Let's row this goddamned thing!".

I stood there in shock. He tore the other door off. He and I straddled port and starboard, and we dipped the doors down into that dirty water. The rowing was slow and tedious, but we got it done, rowing all the way back to Pop's houseboat. It took us quite a while.

Mom-Mom and Ardis never said a word. After arriving, Art tied up the boat, and left it there. Pop gave the family a ride back to Renton to pick up our vehicle and the boat trailer. Later Art sold the boat while it was still in the water.
[now, I realize that I have related this precious incident in a previous BGA, but this was the "extended version"]

On another weekend, some time later, Art had launched his latest boat, an 18' oaken runabout, in Lake Union. He and Mother, with Clys and Bud were darting about, and Art was hot rodding the boat on a fine Sunday afternoon. Uncle Dick had a new boat, tied up to the porch at Pop's; a 12' fiberglass fishing boat, with a double bottom; considered unsinkable. Dick needed to tinker with the outboard motor, and I elected to stay behind and help Dick.

He loaned me a pair of greasy coveralls, and we were both wearing heavy work boots. Dick got it running at last, and he decided to take it out on the lake for a trial run. We zipped out to the center. It planed well, and could turn faster, being shorter that Art's longer boat. Dick and Art played tag, darting back and forth across each other's wake.We were all yahooing, and having a great time.

Then a large cabin cruiser, like a 40 footer, churned by, tossing up a tall wake. Dick swung inside of Art's swath, and headed for the dark tall water. We should have ascended it diagonally, but instead we approached it at a right angle, contacting it perpendicularly. I remember rising up on the burly sides of that wake, and then inexplicably we kept rising, roaring up, up and over backwards, cartwheeling upside down in the air, tumbling and pumping our limbs in the heavy air.The cold dark water of Lake Union was suddenly my new residence, and I was underwater.

I fought my way to the surface, fighting against my panic and those heavy work boots. I was able to tread water barely. Dick was a good swimmer, and he stayed close to me, calming me with his voice. He, too, though had to struggle with those wet coveralls and heavy boots; both trying to drag him under. The unsinkable new boat...sank. But the portable gas tank, half empty, so half full of air, stayed afloat, and it was connected to the motor, so it alone was keeping the wonder boat from sinking straight to the bottom of the lake.

We could see the boat, as we tread water, several feet below us in that grey green lake. Art swung over quickly for the rescue. I think it embaressed Dick, and galled him some that Art had to rescue us. They pulled me in first, seeing the panic in my eyes. Dick waited his turn patiently. Then they hauled in Dick.

Somehow, though, he slipped getting in, and he banged his nose on Art's motor. The blood flowed, and there we were, two half drowned vagabonds being ferried back to shore under the evil grin of Art Buttkus. What a revolting development, as William Bendix used to say on THE LIFE OF RILEY. We dragged the unsinkable boat behind, under the surface.

In the late '50's Art like to fish in Puget Sound, when the silver salmon ran. One dark early Fall morning, we drove north up to Edmonds, rented a big wooden boat, and Art put his outboard motor on it. It was like a 25 hp air-cooled Lawson; something he had horse-traded for; not an Evinrude or a Johnson...this was an ancient air-cooled motor probably made in the'40's. It did crank up, seemed to run fine, and we boated across the sound northwest, to fish off the south tip of Possession Point.

Soon it was daybreak.Then fog set in, and we could no longer visualize the shoreline. A freighter, or a large Naval vessel chugged by, hidden by the fog, with its horns bleating that low mournful fog call, deep reasonance. Then it dropped off to a tiny noise lost in the gray soup of the air.

I got colder than hell. Art always brought a thermos of hot black coffee. As a kid, I didn't drink coffee. "It's black coffee, or nothin'!" Art would say,"I don't believe in taking some candy assed hot chocolate drink out with us; that's kid stuff; not for men."

An hour later, the sun began to peek through the layers of fog. Then I heard a splash just off the bow. Peering over the side, I saw a slick tall black dorsal fin slipping fast into the water.

"Killer whale," Art said in a thin voice.

The Orca swung under our 17' rental boat, and surfaced on the port side. It bobbed up and looked at us like a dolphin would. It was easily 20' long, or more. It dove under us twice, then surfacing and blowing salt water up into the air. We held our breath. We had heard many stories of killer whales capsizing small fishing boats for fun and sport. And then it was gone, just slipped away. We both gasped for our next breath.

The sun came out, and we caught a couple of silvers, trolling off the point. We fished until the early afternoon, and then we started back to the Boathouse, east to Edmonds. It clouded up, and the wind blew cold and steady. Still a half mile from shore, with the Boathouse in sight, the stalwart Lawson coughed twice and gave up the ghost, dying the death of all antiques, never to be revived again.

The current began to pull us south, away and down stream from the Boathouse.

"Use the oars, while I work a while on this sonofabitchin' motor," Art barked.

I did, and he did, for several hours. I rowed until the oars gave me splinters and blisters, until my arms and back muscles cramped up...and then I had to row some more. Art smashed the motor with his fists, banging on it, and pulling on the start cord until his hands bled. His anger was monumental. Veins stood out in his temples like he was ready to stroke out.

The current was beginning to win the contest against my tired arms. When all seemed most dismal and lost, another fisherman appeared and came to our rescue. He threw us a line, and towed us unceremoniously toward the shore and the haven of dry land.

In 1967, while I was in the Navy, stationed in SanDiego, a bunch of us decided that we would charter a boat for all day, and go out deep sea fishing. I had never been, so I was kind of excited about it. We were to fish for yellowtail; tuna. Being young and dumb, we partyed all night, drinking a lot, and eating very little.

We drove straight to the pier at 3:30am, and boarded the boat; Neptune's Daughter. As we cruised out of the breakwater, and into the open sea, the 50' fishing boat began to bob up and down like a cork. I became green at the gills immediately. As the sun rose behind me, cruising west out to the deep water, to the currents, I found my self deathly ill with seasickness.

I grasped the rail, and retched and ralphed, and barfed my guts out. Then I would feel a bit better for a few minutes. The captain recommendedthat I go below, and lie down for an hour, to recapture my metabolism. I complied.

Lying there in a skinny bunk, two decks below, I could hear the waves lapping on the ships side, and I could smell the entrails of several fish freshly caught, and the stentch of hundreds of fish formally caught. Soon I found myselft rushing up the ladder to get up on deck, so that I could throw up again.

The sea air felt good, and I started reviving. I was handed a deep sea massive fishing pole, and I even fished some. They weren't biting much, the captain said. Then the cook banged on the breakfast bell, and we went below in shifts to chow down. The seas were still rough. I remember watching the cook step backward three steps, holding his spatula high, and then lurch forward to the grill just in time to flip some bacon and eggs. The smell of the bacon grease, juxtaposed with the stench of old fish guts became a little too much for my delicate sensibilities.

I went back up top, and stood at the rail, hanging on for dear life. When I tried to lie down again, the world whirled like I was on a manic ferris wheel. I was very ill. I remember thinking that at first I was afraid that I might die, and then later I was afraid that I wouldn't die. What felt like weeks later we docked, and I hobbled off the boat. To my surprise, I had no land legs. The ground whirled about, and I almost passed out. It took several hours to sort out my metabolic problems. Some seafarier I turned out to be.


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