September 23, 2009

When Freddy let me drive.

When Freddy let me drive.
Ever do sixty miles an hour 18 inches above the water?

My godfather and my folks next door neighbor was a man named Fred who had grown up on the Niagara River in New York State.
To hear Fred tell it his father had destroyed at least the first, if not first several (it could get a little vague), old boats he'd managed to acquire as a boy, as being unsafe, and he would have no son of his going over the falls!
By the time I met him, Fred had grown and matured into a 6'3 roundfaced crewcut man who was the kindest human being I ever knew.
Funny, strong, smart, he became my surrogate Father while my Dad worked overseas.
We lived on one of the deeper estuaries of the Halifax River, Indian Lagoon system that drained and filled twice daily though Ponce Inlet between Daytona and New Symrna Beach Florida.

Fred went through a number of boats before buying his pride and joy, the earlier boats were not extraordinary.. a few outboards, a medium sized day cruiser..
Ah but about 1963 somewhere he found what in it's early day had been a Captains gig on some smaller naval craft.
A HIGGINS BOAT. This wonderful old wooden craft had been kept up pretty well or Fred would never have touched her, she got a new coat of top quality varnish a classic rubbing with aluminum foil where needed and a complete carb rebuild and inspection.

Fred was chief mechanic at Volusia Aviation for many years, working there the day the stroke came on him a few months before retirement...

And he had a goal. He wanted to own a boat that would do sixty miles an hour over the water.
For those of you who aren't wet inclined your average ski boat might, wide open make thirty, or thirty-five miles an hour.

This was cooking.

All was well till he bought the 'offy' carbs. OFFENHAUSER carburetors were THE thing in the Grand Prix racing circuit in the mid to late sixties, and how he got them shoe-horned on this inboard I'll never know but they worked.

They worked rather wonderfully. The GOAL was in sight! Most of the running was done over the measured mile that Fred had mapped out in the Intracoastal Waterway channel about three miles from our houses.

Where I came in, outside of grabbing every 'check ride' I could get by hanging around out at the dock any time I heard a tool clank next door, was that these carbs weren't really designed for a boat, the hammering and banging of the hull at speed made the carbs go out of adjustment.

So I got to drive.

Imagine a 8-10 year old boy, growing up close to the newest, largest race track in the country getting to pilot a craft on the water well in excess of fifty miles an hour.


In later years I realized that there were times he was simply messing with me.

When Freddy Let Me Drive
Part II

(Coast of Florida, 1963-65ish, near Ponce Inlet)

My godfather, a man named Fred, had purchased a former captains gig, an 18 foot long WWII vintage Higgins inboard speedboat. Inboards were not common or favored on the east coast of central Florida in the sixties, outboards having the ability to be beaten over oyster and sand bars and continue to operate.
Inboard rigs usually have a single shaft per engine coming through the bottom of the hull and up into what is essentially a auto style engine inside the boat. They don't take kindly to beating.

Fred's goal was to achieve sixty miles per hour on the water in a craft he owned. To make this a reality he'd purchased a set of OFFENHAUSER racing carburetors for this boat.

I was the next door neighbor kid, eight or ten years old.

The new carbs on the boat, all I ever remember him calling her was "the HIGGINS", were not made for beating at speed over rough terrain or intracoastal waterway chop. They would produce amazing bursts of power, and then go out of adjustment. Fred was a big guy but he couldn't be in two places at once, someone holding the wheel was needed when you'd get that sort of engine surge.

So I became the pilot.

As I said at the end of part one of this little story there were times he was simply messing with me.
We'd be beating down the Intracoastal at over fifty miles an hour, him in the back fiddling with the jets on the carbs and without any warning whatsoever the power would just cease.
The Higgins was a tight, sweet little craft, and in years to come I realized that she'd probably have walked a stern wave her length without broaching, but I was eight years old...

A boat that is going that fast is cutting through an amazing amount of water, that's why you get wakes that 'V' away from the boat.
As all readers who have messed about in boats know when you chop the power several things happen.

One, all the water you've been pushing through says 'AH HA!' and rushes for the stern..
Two, the stern (hopefully) rises, the bow comes down off plane, and the boat settles into the water.

My swimming abilities were of the 'oh shit' and try to claw back to the dock category.

The first time we were beating down the line at about fifty plus in this thing, me with an eight year old death grip on the wheel, and the power chopped I knew what it meant to see your life pass before your eyes.

To start with there were more power losses than I now think were likely.
I think Fred was teaching me how to handle a boat and a powerful one at that.

The day would go like that, me at the wheel Fred in the back, up and down his measured mile, a few houses to the east of us, but otherwise nothing but the river, the sun, mangroves, and each other.

At the end of the afternoon he'd take the wheel, we'd go out almost to the inlet at twenty five or thirty which was damned fast as is, and as he'd come back towards Mill Creek and the run.
He'd line her up and as we passed his mark he'd firewall the throttle. The old boat would come up to where I doubt there was much beyond a foot of it touching the water at any given time, and run in a roar that sounded like an airboat with a bad cold.
The stopwatch told the tale, we would get SO close.. easing her back down onto plane Fred'd say, "well that was pretty damn good", and grin.

I often see people now who have such trouble bringing boats into trailers on ramps and smile to hear the best advice Fred ever gave me..

"It's all sailing" he'd say. "If it's wind sailing the power is on top and there are different rules, if it's power sailing the power is on the bottom but the boat handles the same."
"Move the hull through the water, don't try to move the water around the hull."

The funny thing is that I'm not sure we ever made the run he was after.
In addition to the JFK murder, my closest friend in those days, a cousin a half dozen years older than me killed himself and three others in a Chevy Corvair he'd only had a few weeks, trying to move a Oak tree at close to a hundred miles an hour.

Things go out of focus for awhile there.

Fred lived until 1982, was the man who explained women to me, (best as any man can to another), and his wife, the Lady Caroline still lives in that area, and is a dear dear friend.
[Sadly she passed away in 2006].

My favorite memory of Fred is a funny little moment.
He used to buy, then repair, and paint older cars in his garage so often the tools would be spread from the dock to the attached garage on the street.
I shagged a lot of tools as a kid. I learned the difference between a half inch and seven sixteenths socket by footsore experience and it taught me much.
One day though, Fred who was a great believer in MARVEL Mystery Oil, sent me to the shop for his oilcan, the kind that had a lever pump built onto it. "And DON'T squirt it on the way back!" says he.
Opening my mouth he gave me a look I remember to this day and said quietly, "I SAW you last time.".

Move the hull through the water, not the water around the boat.


September 17, 2009

"Goodnight and Good Luck", a bookman reviews.

Sitting alone in the darkness of my living room but for a cat, Digital Video Disc spinning silently in the player as black and white images of honesty and power walked across the screen, I was taken back to my boyhood.

I sat on Sunday afternoons on the carpet of the old homeplace at my Dad's feet while he watched See It Now or Person to Person with a far too skinny, cigarette smoking Edward R. Murrow discussing things that my Dad sometimes disagreed with.

I was barely a year old though when Murrow did his famous program on Joe McCarthy, and the Old Man would cut him quite a bit of slack for sticking it to 'Tailgunner Joe'.

Back to my living room. Nearby is a place that sells DVD's for a couple bucks each and recently I picked up Goodnight and Good Luck to bring home and watch. The few people that I know that would sit through what even Director George Clooney called a "talking head" movie are hundreds of miles away, so the cat and I watch alone.

WELL DONE, and artfully produced, Goodnight and Good Luck chooses to recount in some detail the WORK, if not life of Edward R. Murrow as he came to the realization that someone had to speak up for the victims of McCarthy's American Pogrom against anyone who either had no power or opposed him. Murrow, and it is important to understand this, was the Walter Cronkite of his day. People TRUSTED him, not least because he had actually gone on RAF bombing flights during World War Two when those bombers were shot out of the sky with sickening regularity by the Nazi's.

I recommend Goodnight and Good Luck, highly, it like AMC's MAD MEN is a slice of Americana long gone, and one to be seen for far better reasons.
It will leave you moved if you have a brain, stunned if you have a heart and enlightened if you have no idea what all this is about.

September 14, 2009

A memoir of another time, another place, another 4th of July, and another level of parenting.

A memoir of another time, another place, another 4th of July, and another level of parenting.

I've been thinking a lot about my folks lately.
I refer to them the same way that Dad referred to his,... "the folks".
Invited this week to a Fourth of July party Saturday I remembered one 4th when I was a younger fool than I am now.
I had gone three or four miles up the road to the tiny town of Port Orange to watch the fireworks over the Halifax River. I was about eleven.

The Folks had the next door neighbors over for drinks and dinner, stayed up late, indulging in far more of the former than latter.
Now lest anyone start with judgmental comments on The Folks about allowing a eleven year old boy to travel that far from home unescorted, I should note that they didn't know I was gone, they thought that I was out on the dock, and that I did not ask permission, I just went.

Life in Harbor Oaks was different in the early nineteen-sixties.

By the age of eleven I had seen a president buried and watched on live teevee as his suspected assassin was gunned down. I had seen convoy after convoy of American troops go by as we were pulled over waiting in our schoolbus in the cool September and October mornings, and listened to the Folks discussing whether there was any point in trying to fort up after a nuclear exchange between three of the biggest military targets in the country, when they didn't think I could hear.

I guess the final straw to my early childhood was when, in the third grade, a sheriffs officer had come to our elementary school and passed out dogtags to us.
I had tested out embarrassingly high on the standard IQ tests of the day not long before but it didn't take a genius, (which I wasn't, I was just nine going on twenty-five…), to remember what Dad had told me about dogtags.
One Sunday afternoon I had asked him while we had been watching Victory At Sea's segment on the assault on the Japanese held South Sea Islands.
The answer??? Dogtags were for identifying dead bodies.
In this case MY third grade dead body.

So…. You might see that when I decided that I wanted to go see the fireworks, knew I'd be back home before anybody missed me, and knew that the Folks weren't going to go because I could see them from the end of the dock, the only thing to do was go by myself.

I had gotten a beautiful new black Schwinn bike for my birthday that year and it made the three or four miles the work of just minutes to cover between the house and Port Orange.
However, in order to get to the toll bridge quickly where the fireworks were, I had to go right past Constable Greens' house.
Constable Green was what had passed for Law Enforcement in an area that seldom saw a Sheriffs cruiser, and was county, so had no police force.
He was at that point in history in the early sixties that he knew he had become an anachronism and his cop days were numbered but he was determined to be a rough tough cop to the end. Even better if he could put the fear of the law into somebody with very little effort.

I knew better than to attract attention by racing by. I had seen him get in his huge old Ford and go after kids for doing just that.
So I just sort of…. Rode by. Just in time for he and his no-neck wife to be crossing the road out to the river to watch the fireworks.
"MAC!, Where YA goin???" called the Constable, "Stop and visit a spell!"

Shit. An unescorted eleven year old boy in those days did not, NOT 'stop and visit', when the constable called.

So I stopped, dropped off the seat and duck walked the bike over to the dock they were going to but refused without speaking to get off the bike like a cowboy sitting his horse. I knew if I 'stepped down', I'd be stuck.

"I'm right behind my cousins Constable!" I lied, "I can't stay but a minute".

"Waaallll now young feller" I've been sitting up there on the porch most of the evening and I hadn't seen them go by!" the Constable had called me on it.

"uh," (point… never begin lies with UH), "They are in the pickup with the Folks and I have to meet them at the bridge!?!", I sallied back.

"Brenda wanted to ask about your Grandmother, dinnya Brenda?" which got a grunt out of Mrs. Constable no-neck.

"she's fine Ma'am, last we heard she was shooting Elk in Montana", which was the, I swear, the honest truth.

"I better be getting along Sir, I want to be there before dark".

"Yes I notice you don't have either a light or front reflector on that shiny new bike there, boy", threatened the constable.

"I'll be riding back in the pickup sir," I lied again as I intended to go the LONG way back which did NOT cross the Constables' path.

"Ok son, toddle on, but you just be sure we don't have another incident like last month, right!?!" and he finally let me go.

Because see, the month before some of the older local juvenile delinquents and I had taken an old truck drive shaft, tapped it for a spark plug, borrowed the Old Mans' beloved Model T coil and Randy's Dad's Acetylene tank and built a cannon capable of tossing a steel beer can packed with sand about a quarter of a mile.

It made a four or five foot geyser of water when the can hit the river and damn near no noise when it fired.

The first or second fisherman we shot NEAR, (we weren't dumb enough to shoot AT anybody with this thing…), must have stopped at the Constables house on the way home and let him know... because a day or two later while I was sitting on the dock fishing here he came putting along in his old jon boat with the tiny three horsepower kicker on it peering up into all the docks.

"What's yer name boy!?!", he called from the bow as he eased up to the dock… "seen anything suspicious around here in the last few days???"

That had been my first encounter lying to Law Enforcement.

Jack Tar, 1960

Jack Tar

July 02, 2008 08:32 PM EDT

I drifted back almost a half century today.
I was putting a coat of bottom paint on my newest old boat when it happened.
I'd opened the gallon of Jack Tar boat paint, that I first had shaken, then stirred, and found a sacrificial old brush to use, then begun.
The day was hot and sweaty, but the humidity wasn't too bad and I was able to paint uninterrupted for quite awhile. 
As I worked my way from one end to the other, working the olive drab bottom paint into the dimpled aluminum and over the goofy mauve palm tree branch camo that some previous owner had decided was needed on the BOTTOM of the boat(???), I flashed back to being six or seven years old and the first boat I ever painted.
It was another bright Florida day about 1960, this time down by 'Whiskey Creek' just a few doors away from our home on the water. My best buddy 'Scoop' and I had decided his uncle 'Ronnie' was just too busy, (the word Granny would have used might have been "shiffless"), to paint his boat.
I mean after all, the paint and brush had been laying on top of the boat for over a week and nothing happened.  The boat was upside down, had been wire brushed, was clean and dry, so…
WE decided to DO IT!
A screwdriver fetched from my house soon had the paint open, and we were careful to make sure the brush was fanned clean of any dirt and we brushed off the bottom of the boat before we started.
Like I said, we were maybe six or seven years old..
Painting away happily, careful not to get any on our clothes so our Mom's, (in Scoops case his Dad), wouldn't yell at us, it took us most of the afternoon sharing one brush back and forth.
Job done we went back to Scoops house for whatever we could get Leon his dad's houseboy (the first black man I ever met) to dig us out of the fridge, and felt pretty darn proud of our little feller selves…
Ronnie came home from work a couple hours later.
Ronnie, at times would "kidsit" for me on the weekends, I put it that way because I CERTAINLY wasn't a BABY, and we would end up at the bar at the North Turn of the Daytona Beach raceway having lunch, or just sitting looking out over the ocean. Scoop was his only brother's, (then) only boy and we all knew each other pretty well.
Ronnie found us and sat looking at us for awhile not saying anything.
Finally he laughed his funny laugh and said in his North Carolina drawl "boys, I 'preciate the help, really I do, but I guess you young'uns didn't know,…"  a moment stretched here…. "that you have to STIR paint before you use it".
I had thought it was kinda thin.
So it went, so it goes, tomorrow I'll add a second coat.