April 20, 2012

The broad Susquehanna River flows through our little valley and it has been a magnet to me all my life. I love to just sit on a bench or just stand on the banks and watch the water as it flows gently by. I know it has been a source of much enjoyment and tragedy for the teenage boys who lived near it for time immortal. While our adventures were not on the par of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, we did have many good times - and a few bad ones.

My cousin John and I had lots of great adventures during our teen years. For several years John and I were inseparable - we did everything together. In the late spring of 1963 the river flooded and for several days, we boys went down to the river to watch the waters pass by. During a flood you never knew what was going to drift downriver. One time we even saw a house with a live chicken on top float by.

One afternoon we were on the bank of the river when John shook my arm. "Look!!" he shouted. I looked upriver to where he was pointing and there it was. A boat! And not just any boat - it was a hydroplane! You know, one of those wide, flat racing boats that didn't really float on the water but hopped across the surface like a skipping stone. Our hearts beat faster and faster as it drifted towards us - really close to shore. When it got as near as it was going to get to us, we both hopped into the river to pull it ashore. Jumping into flood waters is always a bad idea but this was the exception - a truly rare find that wasn't going to slip away from us.

It was bright red with blue and yellow racing stripes. And it had an outboard motor!! It wasn't big by racing boat standards but it seemed gigantic to us. It was about 10 feet long and about 4-5 feet wide - the racing wings accounted for most of the width and the pilot sat in a small seat in the middle toward the back of the boat.

It was the find of a lifetime for two teenage boys! John said that he bet we could get a big reward for returning it to it's owner. So we looked and looked but we could find no way of telling who owned it. No identification numbers, no serial number - no numbers at all - not even on the side.

We even went to a boat dealer to find out where a serial number might be hidden. He told us that many of those boats were custom made by the owners and therefore would not have any identifying numbers. The motor had a serial number on it but when the dealer checked he could not find out who owned that motor. He suggested that we put an ad in the paper and maybe we could find the owner that way. We did as any normal teenage boy would do when confronted by a practical answer - we ignored it.

We had us a boat ... we had us a river ... we were going to have lots of fun that summer! And we did!!

The motor ran perfectly and every penny we could lay our hands on went into buying gas and oil. We spent hours running up and down the river and had the times of our lives. It wasn't long before the other kids came around to ride in this unusual boat. But there was no room for any passengers - just the driver and we weren't about to let anyone pilot our boat but ourselves. We were the envy of a generation of teenage river rats.

But like all good times there had to be an end. The end of our boat came suddenly but not unexpectedly. After a few weeks of constant running, the motor began to sputter at times and even quit once in a while. To us it was no big deal. We'd just restart it and go on our merry way. But one time it quit on me and I couldn't restart it. I was far from shore and drifting downstream.

I yelled to John that I couldn't start the motor so I'd try to get it on shore as soon as I could. But with no oars on board and the wide wings on the boat I didn't know if I could. For some reason I was wearing good clothes and I knew mom would kill me if I came home dripping wet and caked with river mud, so jumping into the water and towing it ashore was out of the question.

John yelled that he would go and get his dad's pick-up truck and follow me downriver and we could haul the boat back home once it drifted ashore. A couple of miles down river I was no closer to shore but I could see John from time to time on the bank - waiting for me to get close enough to throw him the rope we had tied to the boat. But I always stayed just out of reach.

For thirty miles I drifted. The further I drifted the more worried I got and the more frantic John got. We both knew what was ahead and we didn't want to get to that point. It was a dam. Not your ordinary dam but a fabri-dam. An experimental type of dam across the river that was made of some kind of waterproof fabric. It could be inflated and deflated at will to help control the flood waters that were common every spring. And we both knew that the dam was fully inflated this time of year.

We had no idea what would happen if our boat hit that dam. I could just imagine us ripping a hole in the dam and then spending our lives paying for the dang thing. Not to mention no flood control for who knows how long. I could just see flood waters spreading across land that people thought as protected and us getting sued for every cent we'd make for the rest of our lives!!

As I approached the dam I could hear the noise of water rushing over it. I knew I was about to drown if I didn't do something quick. About a quarter of a mile away I made the only choice I had. Abandon ship!!

I swan to the shore where John was waiting for me. He dragged me from the river and we watched in horror as our boat drifted closer and closer to the dam. As it hit the dam we could see it lift in the air a little before it took the plunge into the turbulence below the dam. It got caught in the backwash and started to roll over and over. There was nothing we could do but watch as our little craft was dashed to pieces - a terrible end to many good times.