My First Boat
By John Tuma
My cousin Jeff and I were always in trouble. We didn’t try to get in trouble, it just sort of happened that way. Two incidents stand out. One was when we got arrested, but that isn’t what this story is about. This story is about the time we went boating without permission.
The boat in question was my first boat, or rather, our first boat, since it was a jointly held asset. We were in for equal shares, which was probably good, since that meant there were no clear lines of responsibility. I sure wouldn’t have wanted to bear the full wrath of our parents; a half share was more than enough.
My Uncle Mort and Aunt June lived about 50 miles from us, and I only saw Jeff when we all got together for big family parties, which, as everyone knows, are trouble waiting to happen. The adults would start talking, and sometimes they’d play cards or games, and usually there was a bit of drinking, so the kids were left largely unsupervised. In the long boring time between when everyone would arrive and we would all sit down to dinner, us cousins were left to figure out how to entertain ourselves.
I was 11 years old at the time, and Jeff was 10. My family had just moved into a new house out at the edge of town, a place where immature suburban landscapes rubbed shoulders with lots of open farmland. It was a glorious place to be a kid, and there were always adventures to be found, most of which involved trouble of one sort or another.
I remember telling Jeff that all we had to do was walk to the end of the street, turn right, and go down a couple of blocks, and we’d be out in the fields. So, of course, he had to see for himself.
It was February, and it was probably cold, but what I most remember is that there had been a lot of rain, and there was a lot of water pooling on the ground. The grasses in the fields were tall, the fields were really muddy, and at first we didn’t dare venture out there, for fear of getting dirty or sinking in quicksand. I don’t know much about the geology of modern youth, but I know that when I was growing up, there was a lot of quicksand and we were always worrying about sinking into it and disappearing forever. To the best of my recollection, we never did lose anyone, but at the time there seemed to be a lot of close calls.
So at first Jeff and I just stayed on the path that ran through a greenbelt on the edge of the housing development. We threw rocks for a bit, which landed with a most satisfying, “thwup”, as they got swallowed up in the gooey mud, but you can only throw rocks for so long, and I had already proved my point that the fields were right around the corner.
Throughout the time that we had been throwing rocks, we had continued walking, and pretty soon we came to the place where the pavement ended and it was all open fields from there to Woodland, about 10 miles away. This was further than I had ever ventured, and it was all pretty exciting, but we had seen the fields and it was time to get back home. At this point, neither of us was particularly dirty, and we had learned long before that there was a tolerable level of mud and staining that we could attain without garnering undue attention. Since we hadn’t crossed that threshold, and since we wouldn’t be late, returning now would make a lot of sense.
Generally speaking, though, I wouldn’t wager a lot of money on the sensibilities of a 10-year old and an 11-year old, especially when they are working on a vexing problem together. This time was no different.
“You ever been around that corner?” Jeff asked, pointing to a bend in the dirt road that continued on from the end of the pavement.
“No. This is the farthest I’ve ever gone.” I considered the situation. Since I was older than Jeff, I was expected to be wiser. It was a dreadfully heavy burden. “What time do you think it is? Think it’s dinnertime? Maybe we should be getting back.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” said Jeff. “But I sure would like to see where that dirt road goes.” He paused for a moment. “Think there’s any quicksand out there?”
“Pretty sure there is. But my friend Kenny said you can tell where the quicksand is by looking at the animal tracks. You can see where the tracks go in, and then they disappear, and don’t come out the other side.”
Jeff nodded. The argument made intuitive sense.
“Paul from next door said he heard the same thing.” (Probably from Kenny.) Since just about everybody I knew was telling me that you could identify quicksand from disappearing animal tracks, I felt pretty confident that I could keep us out of trouble, at least with respect to quicksand.
As we debated the merits of going on, we had continued walking along the dirt road, so by now going around the bend in the road was a foregone conclusion. We rounded the corner, and discovered, to our amazement, that there really wasn’t much to see. The road branched off in two directions, there were some old, gnarled trees in the corner of the field between the two roads that had once been part of a windbreak, and other than that there was just a lot of weeds and mud.
I stopped to survey the fields for any sign of something interesting, but Jeff continued on down the road to the right. My survey revealed nothing, though not for lack of effort, so I picked up some rocks and stood there, idly tossing them into the mud waiting for Jeff to come back. When he didn’t come back after what seemed like a long time, I began to get worried. I know I had explained to him the finer points of identifying quicksand, but maybe he hadn’t been listening. I ran up the road, fearing the worst, calling Jeff’s name.
“What are you hollerin’ about?“ Jeff asked. “I’m just right here.”
Jeff was off the side of the road, crouched by the edge of a large pond. He had a long tree branch with which he was trying to discern the depth of the water, but without much success since it kept floating to the top. One thing was clear, though. The water was pretty deep.
“Look out there!” Jeff pointed out into the middle of the pond, which was really just a low spot at the corner of the field that had filled with water. “It’s some kind of tractor.” Jeff paused for a moment. “What do you think happened to the driver? Think he’s still stuck out there?”
I looked to where Jeff was pointing. There was an old broken-down combine squatting in the muddy water, slowly sinking into the muck. Both the pond and the tractor had been hidden from view because the weeds were tall and we were short.
“No, I don’t think he’s still out there. Sure hope he didn’t get caught in some quicksand.” I scanned up the road. “I don’t see any footprints.”
“Maybe we should find out. I’d hate to leave him if he’s still our there.” Jeff had point. There was no one better qualified than us to make sure the driver was safe, at least no one nearby. Besides, we needed a reason to undertake the dangerous task of exploring the combine, and that was as good a reason as any. “How do you think we should get out there?” Jeff continued.
“Well, we’re gonna need a boat,” I said. “There’s probably quicksand at the bottom of that pond, and there might be some alligators or even some piranhas in the water.” Jeff looked up at me alarmed. “Kenny said that Paul told him that there were alligators in the fields when he first moved out here. I believe him, ‘cause Paul’s house was one of the first ones built.”
So it was decided then. We would have to explore the tractor to make sure that the driver was okay, but we’d have to have a boat or almost certainly we’d be eaten by alligators before we even had a chance to sink into the quicksand. This was turning out to the best adventure ever, and all thoughts of returning home for dinner clean enough and on time enough were completely forgotten.
About the only sensible thing we did that day was our decision to stay together while we scouted the perimeter of the pond for a boat. This had more to do with fears about being eaten by alligators than any overriding good sense, but it was a good decision for all that.
Scouting the perimeter of the lake proved to be a lot harder than it first appeared. The ground was very soft and muddy, even though we tried to stay up where the weeds were growing, and we were both covered in mud before we got ten steps off the road. We were committed now, and there was no sense going back home this dirty without at least making our best effort to get out to the combine. But it was 30 feet from the shore even at its closest point. About half way around the pond, we came across an irrigation pump. Debris was littered around this spot, and amongst the debris was a rusty, old, steel tank, about six feet long, cut in half. The tank was probably an old water tank, but it could just as easily have been used for carrying pesticides or fertilizer. We didn’t care about any of that. The tank was half floating in the pond with maybe three inches of water sloshing around the bottom. This was our boat!
Since the tank was half floating, we figured that it would be no problem to push it into the water the rest of the way, hop in, and pole our way across. Jeff still had his tree branch, which he had carried along in case of alligators, so he was set. All we needed was another long stick, and we’d be ready to go. I rooted around for a bit in the debris around the pump, but all I could find was a piece of 2 x 4 about three feet long. It would have to do.
While I was searching for my stick, Jeff had been trying to push the tank off the mud and into the water. But the tank was stuck, and even using his stick to pry it off didn’t work.
“How about if I get in, and try to paddle while you push,” I suggested. Jeff nodded. I carefully clambered over the sharp edge of the tank, and with my feet splayed against the sides a few inches above the water in the bottom, I slowly worked my way out to the end. With each alternating step, the tank would rock first one way and then the other. The combination of me inadvertently rocking the boat, along with my weight at the floating end of the tank, was just enough to break the tank free from the suction of the mud. But with the tank no longer level, the water came rushing down to my end of the boat, causing it to tip even more sharply in my direction.
By now I was pretty scared. The round bottom was not very stable, and every time I moved the boat would rock back and forth, the motion amplified by the water that was swirling around my feet.
But Jeff was elated. “Okay. Hold on. I’m gonna to get in.” Jeff tossed his stick into the boat and gave it a little nudge as he climbed in over the end. The boat slowly eased off the shore, and I was sincerely hoping that Jeff wouldn’t tip us into the alligator and piranha-infested waters. All thoughts of paddling were secondary. The boat rocked wildly once or twice, but with Jeff’s weight now on the shore-side end, the water that had been lapping at my feet flowed back the other way, and the bottom of the tank settled once again into the thick, clay mud. With that, the boat stopped rocking and we stopped moving.
“Well,” I thought, “that’s no fun.” My momentary terror was replaced with supreme disappointment. How were we ever going to rescue the driver if we couldn’t even get our boat off the muddy bank? Jeff tried to push us off with his stick, but the stick just sunk ever deeper into the mud and the boat just sat there. It was quicksand for sure. I leaned over the end of the boat and started paddling with my 2 x 4, and Jeff kept pushing with his stick, but nothing worked. Finally, I suggested that Jeff slowly shift his weight toward me. Maybe we could float off.
Jeff took a couple of steps in my direction, and that was all we needed. The boat floated free. I paddled hard to get us off the bank, and then Jeff moved back to his end of the boat and started poling us toward the combine while I continued to paddle.
The combine was listing to one side, which was perfect since it meant that we could tuck the boat up behind one of the wheels and climb onto a long board that ran from where the driver sat all the way back along the side. “Hello?” I squeaked, not at all sure I wanted to find anyone to rescue. Nothing. “Hello!” I said, louder this time, a little more confident we had the tractor to ourselves. Still nothing. It was clear that the driver either had jumped to safety before the tractor crashed into the pond, or else he’d been eaten by alligators. I climbed onto the running board, and started working my way forward to the driver’s seat. Jeff climbed up after me.
The driver’s seat was a wooden bench, about three feet long. There were three or four long levers with grip handles that had been used for controlling the combine, but they were rusted up, and we couldn’t move them at all. Even so, we had a grand time pretending that we were driving, and when that got boring, we left the driver’s seat and explored the rest of the tractor, clambering all over the outside, and even poking our noses into the inside. But eventually, we realized that the sun was going down, and it was time to go.
“You know,” I said, “it’s getting dark.”
“Yeah,” answered Jeff. “It’s probably time to go.”
The boat was where we left it, which was good, since we had not thought to tie it to anything. Getting back into the boat was a bit tricky. It sure looked like there was more water in the thing than there had been, but it was hard to say since we had never checked for leaks. After studying the situation for a moment, Jeff turned backwards so that he could lower himself into the boat while still holding onto the running board. The boat was pretty tender, especially with the water in it, but he managed to plant his feet firmly on both sides of the boat above the water. From there he retreated to the back of the boat and picked up his stick so that he could hold the boat steady while I got in.
I lowered myself into the boat, and gave us a firm push to get us moving.
“You, know,” I said, “since we have the boat, we should circle the entire pond and check for tracks.” Jeff nodded in agreement.
So he poled and I paddled, and we circled the tractor and explored every inch of the shore, but we didn’t see a single track, either from the driver or from an animal that had gotten caught in the quicksand. This whole operation didn’t take more than ten minutes, but by then it was clear that we were taking on water. As much fun as it was, we needed to park the boat and get back for dinner. We pole-paddled back over to the spot by the irrigation pump where we first found the boat, and beached it the same way we had gotten it off the bank.
Jeff climbed out and I followed. We said goodbye to our trusty (rusty) vessel, picked out way among the weeds back over to the road, and headed for home. We caught hell when we got there, too. Dinner was done, we’d missed the birthdays and the cake. My Aunt June, who was never shy with her opinions, let us have it. All of our other parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles glared silently in the background as Jeff and I slumped lower and lower in our chairs.
“. . .and we’re really disappointed in you. What were you thinking?”
Both of us sat there, a bit shocked. We expected to get in trouble, but not like this. We’d already been home for 15 minutes, and no one had offered us dinner. The situation was increasingly grim.
“Well?!” Aunt June demanded.
“I, uh. . ., wanted to show Jeff the fields,” I started, haltingly. “And we found this tractor. . .” I stopped under Aunt June’s withering stare. My own parents seemed disinclined to help me.
“The tractor was stuck in the mud,” blurted out Jeff, coming to my rescue, “and it was surrounded by a big pond, so we had to find a boat to see if the driver was okay after crashing into the pond.”
“Yeah, we had to have a boat, because there was all this quicksand, and Kenny said we could know it was quicksand by the animal tracks.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” said Jeff.
I was watching my father as Jeff was talking about rescuing the driver, and I knew then we were going to be okay. Uncle Mort and Uncle Cliff were nodding slowly in the background. The argument made intuitive sense. We couldn’t just leave the driver there—they’d all have made the same decision if presented with the same facts and the same opportunity. However, none of them were likely to intervene, either, and so far Aunt June, Aunt JoAnne, and my mom were not persuaded by our compelling argument. The grilling went on for another ten minutes or so, but we did eventually get dinner and even some dessert.
That old tank was as good a boat as any I’ve ever had. It was rusty, and sharp, and it leaked, but it got us there and it got us back. As ugly and dangerous as it was, the boat was a magic carpet to a great adventure. And the best part was that all the kids in the neighborhood knew that we had braved the alligators and piranhas and quicksand to explore the pond and the combine, because they could see where our tracks went in, and where they came back out.