Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Mississippi Houseboat


I see the picture in my mind's eye: me, my mom, and my mom's sister Cay. Is my father in the snapshot, too, or was he the one pointing the camera at us? The photo is in an album somewhere in my parents' home. In it, we are sitting on the deck of a houseboat, floating on the Mississippi River, each of us wearing a white T-shirt with a large navy blue logo of the Playboy bunny in the center of it. It's the mid-1970s, and my father has taken some time off from work (Playboy Enterprises, therefore the shirts) so that we could have a bit of Mark Twain summer adventure on the great Mississippi. We've rented this houseboat, maybe for a week. I don't remember how long the trip was, or what our starting and ending points were. I suppose it was a round trip, and the starting point couldn't have been far from Chicago, which is where we were living at the time. Many details are fuzzy, but not the overall sensation of excitement. I know now that this trip was likely planned for my benefit, for the chance to give me exactly the kind of memories I have of family, time together, exploring the world and nature—also marveling at human innovation, which we witnessed not only in our motorized boat but in the system of locks that captured my interest and leveled the water as we made our way. When I imagine now, as an adult, the four of us pent up on that little boat, I wonder how no one was ever thrown overboard. I'm not sure I could manage it these days, but children are blissfully ignorant of adults' needs for personal space, and I'm sure I was quite comfortable with the run of the boat. Small as it was, it was expansive in my mind, since we could take it anywhere along the river. Dad piloted our homey vessel, and I will say now that this was something he learned to do during a five-minute lesson at the dock, courtesy of the man who rented us the boat. I don't know what the man showed my father, but it seemed sufficient enough—with one exception. Perhaps the guy thought that this point was so obvious that even the most novice boat captain would know it intuitively, but it bears stating here: when you're putting in to dock, go against the current. Following is my view of what ensued when my father flew in the face of this common wisdom. We were a good bit into our journey, and along the way we needed to dock. Maybe it was for fuel, or else some other provisions. It was a quiet, sunny afternoon. Two heavy guys, beer guts in overalls (that type anyway, if they weren't really dressed thus) were sitting out on a couple of wooden chairs at the edge of their dock. Lazy day, nothing doing. My father starts his approach, going along with the current. He notices the men on shore now and remarks how friendly they are, waving at us with big sweeping gestures. My dad waves back, emphatically. As we get closer, however, we notice that the men are not just waving, they're waving us off. But by then it's too late. Pushed along by the river, the houseboat picks up speed, and the men, incredulous, can only stand at the dock, helpless, arms now dropped to their sides, as the boat comes crashing in. There was some damage, but nothing catastrophic. It should be said that the dock was a bit dilapidated to begin with—still, it was probably all these guys had for commerce. The thing that made the lasting impression, though, was that apparently the dock was home to a hornet's nest, and when the impact occurred, the sky filled with angry buzzing. I remember taking cover inside the boat's small cabin, along with my mom and my aunt. I was terrified of any kind of stinging insect at that age (they still make me nervous today), and I was all too happy to stay out of range of the swarm. Of course, the rest of the family legend is that my father, being the gregarious, sincere man that he is, spends five minutes with the guys on the dock and by the end of it, they are practically thanking my father for having crashed into them. I don't know how he did it, how he has this effect on people, but sure enough, as we were leaving, the waving this time was in genuine friendship. The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful. There was a thunderstorm one night, I believe, but it seems pale in comparison with the excitement at the dock. In all, this trip ranks easily on the Top Ten list of our family's vacations; it's one I'd like to duplicate sometime, before my son gets to an age where he wouldn't last a day on a boat with his parents.

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