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Boat Hitches

Sometimes your ship comes in, and sometimes it never should have.

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Someone once said that a boat owner's two best days are the day he buys the boat and the day he sells it. For my brother Jim, accompanied by my son and me, those were almost the same day. Putting the Titanic in the water was easier. Heck, raising the Titanic would have been easier than surviving that first day with my brother's new bass boat. I had a better time when a bumblebee stung me inside my mouth.

We weren't always part of the boating elite, but fishing was always a part of our summer. Jim and I often drove my young son, Jason, some 40 miles northwest to the C.J. Smith Resort on the Chain-O-Lakes. We rented a rowboat with a "supercharged" seven-horsepower engine, bought some lucky bait, and set our sights on the big catch. We were rugged outdoorsmen, notwithstanding the baby blue beach umbrella fastened with bungee cords to the rowboat.

On one typical day, when my son was eight, we brought five tackle boxes, 11 fishing poles--2 of which actually worked--and a box of Dunkin' Donuts. I ordered three dozen fat, juicy wild minnows. (That's how you talk to resort owners or they may think you buy your gear at K mart, which we do.)

Jim yanked the outboard's starter cord, and we increased our speed by one knot. We navigated through the exhaust fumes toward a channel leading to Pistakee Lake and found an isolated spot away from everyone except the smokers, who always seemed to gravitate toward us. I assigned Jason the task of plopping the homemade cement-in-a-coffee-can anchor in the water. I applauded when he let go of it before it pulled him in.

Then the race began to place our lines in the water. Normally we couldn't catch anything without using depth charges, but the competition was still fierce. We scurried about, making the small rowboat pitch and roll. Family togetherness doesn't exist when the first catch of the day is at stake. But eight-year-olds have the patience of sharks in a blood bank, so I tried to get Jason's pole in the water first. The traditional red-and-white bobbers weren't good enough for him. He liked bobbers made to resemble miniature soda cans and other forms of garbage.

But the bobber had to go on a line, and the veins in my forehead looked like a plate of spaghetti as I angrily tried to untangle a line, any line, from the jumble of poles. I yanked 175 yards of two-pound line from every kind of rod and reel sold by K mart. Jim delayed the murder of his first night crawler to watch and laugh.

Tangled lines, tortured bait, and destroyed lures eventually gave way to a more pressing need, something only rugged outdoorsmen understand: a nap. The euphoria of being on the open water had quickly worn off, and now we sprawled across the rowboat using the extra life preservers as pillows.

As I drifted off I remembered the time a 24-foot cabin cruiser invaded our channel and deliberately squashed my bobber--one of the few that had hit the water--propelling my bait out of the water at 80 knots. A rugged outdoorsman doesn't accept this kind of thing easily. My hook had snagged the cabin cruiser--the largest thing I'd ever snared, if you don't count my thighs--and I was going to reel it in. My line was running out fast. Falling back on years of intense training and experience, I yelled, "Jim, help me! What should I do?"

He was convulsed with laughter. "Cut the line," he managed to squeak out. I dug through my tackle boxes and found a knife that was dull, really dull. But I severed the line.

My nap also provided memories of the time we rented two rowboats, one for my son and me, one for Jim and my nephew Don. A gentle breeze had promptly untied my professional sailor's knot and freed our baby blue beach umbrella.

"Dad, the umbrella is floating away."

It's nice to have an observant son. Right then and there I should have clubbed him with an apple turnover. Instead I said, "Thanks, Jas." I desperately cast my line toward the umbrella, but the minnow bounced off it.

Falling back on years of intense training and experience, I yelled to my brother in the other boat, "Hey, Jim, help me! What should I do?" He was no help.

I devised a new plan, but Jason said he wasn't going to swim after it.

Suddenly a huge wave smacked into our boat. Maybe it was the "catch of the year." We jumped up, ready for action. I untangled my line from the propeller, Jim scarfed down a long john, and Jason gleefully reeled in his garbage, hoping our boat would capsize so he could go home and play video games.

But the four-foot swells were from a vessel exceeding the "no wake" regulation by 200 knots. Its skipper and sunbathers snickered at us.

I accepted this humiliation, even tipped my cap. But my brother bobbed his head up and down and muttered, "I'm going to buy a fishing boat."

Right then and there I should have clubbed him with an oar and dumped his body overboard. Instead I said, "Good idea, Jim."

It was late in the season, and every other boat owner was looking for dry-dock space for the winter. Not my brother. He was salivating at the thought of fishing from a new bass boat before Labor Day.

He wanted a 17-foot bass boat with four seats, a 90-horsepower engine, a trolling motor, live wells, a steering wheel, and cool colors. He eventually found what he wanted, and our spirits soared. We looked forward to entering the boating elite. No more rented engines with less power than a Weedwacker. No more siestas lying across a rowboat. We would nap in real boat chairs.

That first day, a Saturday, started at 7 AM, when Jim picked us up in his 1977 Cutlass, a car that had everything, including rust, dents, mystery rattles, and a detachable sunroof. Jim was determined to pick up his new boat with the Cutlass, even though its odometer had lost its will to live long ago.

The temperature was already approaching 80, so Jim had the car heater on full blast. "By keeping the heater on we keep the engine cool, so it won't overheat and stall," he said. Apparently he didn't care if Jason and I overheated and stalled.

"Before we pick up the boat I must have a hitch installed," Jim said. "It'll only take a minute."

Two hours later a hitch big enough to tow the space shuttle was attached. When I asked Jim why there was more steel in the hitch than in his car he explained that a smaller hitch wasn't available, and besides the few remaining solid areas around the bumper better accommodated a larger hitch. He'd spent more than twice what he'd anticipated, but the charge card accepted it without squawking.

We then headed for his insurance agent's office.

Noon was fast approaching. Our fun day of fishing in a new bass boat was becoming a quest to just put the boat in the water.

Next came a 40-minute drive to the dealer. The expressway was wide open. But hitting the breakneck speed of 45 miles per hour on the Edens loosened the few rust flakes still holding the exhaust system to the car. It had snapped at the front end but hadn't fallen off. The next pothole might blast the muffler into the gas tank and cause a massive explosion.

Jim pulled off the road amid a shower of sparks, and we knelt on the ground while traffic whizzed past us. Yep, it was hanging there. We proceeded cautiously to the nearest exit. Jim pulled over, turned off the engine, and assessed the damage.

No one told me not to, so I grabbed the muffler and pulled. The smoking imprint on my palm told me not to try that again. Jim lurched at the muffler and pulled it, pushed it, kicked it, twisted it, and spit at it. The sweat pouring down his face puddled under the car and formed a little lake. If only we'd had the new boat.

Jim finally managed to position the muffler in such a way that we could travel safely for a short distance. But the car wouldn't start. "Wait a minute for the engine to cool, then it'll start," he said. Forty-five minutes later the engine turned over. We pulled into a gas station three blocks up the road praying for a mechanic. But all we found was a closet with gas pumps. No mechanics, no tools.

But it did have room to park. Jim again dove under the car. He was maniacal. More pulling, pushing, kicking, twisting, and spitting produced more swearing, bloody cuts on his hands, and a second lake. But he finally tore the darn thing off.

Of course now the car sounded like a NASCAR pit. We spotted a muffler shop down the street. A $39 special and we'd be back on the road.

"That'll be $175," the muffler guy said. "Your system is too far gone. And by law we must install a catalytic converter. So make that $350."

With the hitch, the new exhaust system would double the value of his vehicle.

Sundials move faster than those mechanics. Because the car was older than Moses, they couldn't get the new catalytic converter to fit. They needed a hole in the floor of the car. The mechanic was about to call an auto wrecker when my brother said, "Watch this." He removed the carpeting from where I rested my feet in the front seat and revealed a hole in the floor, a perfect spot for the catalytic converter.

The next step was figuring out how to protect my feet. I walked over to a nearby Sportmart and bought a flat pan used by campers to fry food over an open flame. It did the trick.

Eight hours into our day and we hadn't even arrived at the dealer's, which would close in less than an hour. We hit the gas, and minutes before closing time my brother spun into the dealer's lot.

We asked the dealer's rep dozens of questions about the new boat. What were the finer points of the engine? What were the top RPMs? Who broke this doohickey? Because I didn't. Thirty-three seconds later the dealer's rep handed my brother the key with the implied message, "Don't let the gate hit you on the way out." But that was OK. We were confident. How difficult could it be to handle a boat? Toy boats had been in our family for years. We headed for the lake, electrified at having overcome so many obstacles.

In Lindenhurst, near Gurnee, a small-town cop hit his Mars lights and siren and pulled us over. He tagged us as thieves because the new boat trailer didn't sport new plates. It's a wonder he didn't radio for backup when he clocked us at 13 miles per hour.

He checked the papers showing we'd just bought the boat. The blasting of the car's heater threatened to melt his fancy shades, and I thought he mumbled something about spontaneous combustion. He fled the scene. I should have found a quiet, cool spot to rest, like on the nearby railroad tracks. Instead I said, "OK, Jim. Let's go."

"C.J. Smith Resort dead ahead," my brother gasped. We were lucky it was the only thing dead. It was 6:40, almost 12 hours since the beginning of our trek. But we'd arrived! We still had 20 minutes to put the boat in the water before the resort closed. And once on the lake, we could come out anytime.

Exuberantly, I paid the launch fee. Dejectedly, I asked my brother why the hood was up.

"The engine overheated, so I turned it off. It'll start up again in a minute," he said. I didn't have the strength to slam the hood down on his head, so I just said he owed me $8 for the launch fee and staggered to the public phone.

I expected my wife to heap much-needed sympathy on me, her life companion.

"Is Jason OK?" she screamed.

At that moment I despised Alexander Graham Bell. I assured her our son was fine, if maybe a wee bit exhausted.

"OK, don't stay out late," she said.

That was money well spent.

Finally the engine cooled and started. It was time to launch the boat! Jim maneuvered the trailer like an expert. Perfect positioning. We removed the tie-downs and released the winch hook. The moment was at hand. We considered smashing a bottle of champagne as a symbolic gesture.

The revelry was broken when another boat docked nearby and its owner said, "Where's your plug?"

I glanced at him, wondering why he was interrupting such an important occasion.

"My greatest fear is forgetting the plug," he continued.

Why was he talking to me? Didn't he see the muffler tattoo on my hand? I was a rugged outdoorsman. "What's a plug?" I asked.

"The plug for the back of your boat," he replied good-naturedly. "If you don't put in the plug, your boat will sink."

I hated this guy. I grabbed my stomach to stop it from coming through my nose. I needed time to think, but Jim was only seconds away from lowering the boat into the water.

Suddenly I grasped this guy's meaning. "How long would it take to sink?" I asked, a huge grin enveloping my face.

"Not long."

"Launch away!" I said. No, wait. "Hey, Jim, do you know anything about a plug for your boat?"

"What?"

"This guy says your boat will sink without a plug."

Pause. "What's a plug?"

I should have plugged him. Instead I faced the man who'd just saved the Coast Guard from having to perform a rescue operation. "Mister, is this hell?"

"Could be. I know it ain't Iowa."

Jim scurried about desperately searching for a plug--surely one came with the boat. Too bad he didn't know what it looked like. Nope. We were sunk.

"Wait. I have an extra plug," the patron saint of stupid new boat owners said. "Take it, no charge."

Then he was gone. My son asked who he was. I said I didn't know, but that I wanted to thank him.

The plug worked, and Jim stepped into his new boat. We cheered when his foot didn't go through the bottom. We stopped cheering when he turned the engine key and there was silence. Somehow we'd expected a brand-new 90-horsepower engine straight from the dealer to work.

"Maybe it's overheated," I said.

But Jim made a quick choke adjustment and the engine roared to life. "Hurry and get in," he said. "The dealer only gave us a little gas."

That dealer was going to get one nasty letter.

We put on life preservers and cheered as we entered the channel. We stopped cheering when the steering wheel didn't steer the boat. Sneezing had a bigger effect on our course. But Jim experimented with the trim and eventually managed to gain control of the boat's direction. The mutiny was postponed.

Sometime during this period Jason asked, "Dad, is there a heaven for fish?" I should've hit him with a Twinkie. Instead I turned to him and tried to reply in my Father Knows Best voice. It came out "WHO CARES?"

Our running lights were working, but I was still having a tough time seeing anything. My inability to swim heightened my anxiety. At age ten I'd taken swimming lessons, but I'd failed the first test: floating.

I thought my brother was going extraordinarily fast. I couldn't see, I couldn't swim, and he wouldn't slow down. He said he could see just fine. It took me a while to realize that my clip-on sunglasses were still attached to my glasses. No one had told me. "It was too dark for us to see them," Jim said.

When Captain Nemo determined that half our fuel was gone, we stopped to soak up the atmosphere and reflect on the day. When we began thinking of suicide we stopped reflecting. Jim turned the key to the engine, and of course there was silence. But then the engine puttered to life, and we headed in.

With a single light bulb guiding us to the launch site--you'd think we'd get more for the $8 fee--we carefully and slowly managed to bring the boat and gear out of the water without incident. We were stunned.

For the trip home Jim wanted to take Milwaukee Avenue instead of the tollway to keep the engine from overheating. I considered using fishing line to tie a noose around my neck. Instead I said, "OK, Jim."

Midnight was a fading memory when we finally hit the northwest side. I didn't have a garage, so we'd planned to park the boat in the yard. The only problem was that we hadn't removed the chain-link fence.

I quietly entered the house and caressed my wonderful wife's cheek to awaken her, then sweetly asked if she would help locate the tools necessary for removing the fence--pliers, a wrench, a screwdriver, a flashlight, and maybe some milk and cookies. "And," I said lovingly, "could you please, pretty please, help immediately since we are blocking the alley?"

She remembers the moment differently. She says I was loud and rude and very demanding, and she reacted accordingly. "Stop yelling at me," she remembers saying. "It's 1 AM. Get your own tools, you blockhead!"

I found the tools and removed the fence. Jim unhitched the boat, and we started pushing it into the yard. He pulled and turned it, while my wife, inventing new non-family-oriented names for her husband, joined my son and me in pushing from behind. We made a ruckus, but our neighbors didn't call the police. They hadn't been so entertained since our pool busted and my little niece rode a tsunami across the yard.

We couldn't get the trailer more than halfway into the yard, and it still blocked the alley.

Suddenly a man who was strolling down the alley at 2 AM offered to help. His extra weight provided enough momentum to get the trailer into the yard. We turned to thank him, but he'd vanished into the night.

A few more dirty looks, choice words, and descriptive gestures behind each other's backs and Jim was ready to head home. Then Jason asked, "Hey, Jim, when are we going on the boat again?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Mike Werner.

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