I grew up on the banks of the Fox River in Illinois. I’ll mention that in passing, occasionally, and often it elicits a semi-awestruck comment, such as, “Wow! That must be nice, growing up on a river!” as if I spent all of my days lazily rafting downstream with runaway slaves, à la Tom Sawyer. Although it was an idyllic scene in many respects, it wasn’t really like that, unless you replace rafts with drunk men driving speedboats, and then, yes, it was pretty much exactly like that.
When I think of the Fox River, I always think of the summer of 1984. I was fifteen that year, and due to child labor laws, I was not yet employable which was a-ok in my book: I knew even then that people worked hard to have an occasional day like the ones I had almost every single day that summer. I slept in, met my friends at the pool around noon, helped raid a refrigerator here and there, and generally enjoyed a carefree lifestyle occasionally enhanced by new thrills such as girls or booze.
A lot of these days were spent with a good friend, Charlie, who lived about 100 yards away from a marina, where his dad’s boat was docked. Charlie’s dad had given him strict instructions to never use the boat or dire, life-ending consequences would result, which is a fucking stupid thing to tell a fifteen year old boy. Seriously, he may as well have called it the Forbidden Boat Of Powerful Manhood, because we took that thing out on the river every day that summer.
Charlie: My dad says we can’t take the boat out because we’ll kill ourselves.
Me: What? I can’t hear you when you’re starting the outboard motor like that!
Charlie: Never mind! Do you see any lifejackets?
Me: Any what?
Charlie: Lifejackets! Do you see any lifejackets?
Me: Lifejackets? No!
Charlie: Ok! We’re all set!
And off we’d go, recklessly hauling ass down the river. To be fair, we did have a checklist of sorts:
- Sneak some booze aboard
- Carefully mark the fuel level in the gas tank
The booze was easily had. We weren’t old enough to be drinking for anything other than the thrill of breaking the rules, so if we couldn’t manage to swipe a six-pack, we’d do a shot of vodka in Charlie’s house. I remember that we’d carefully replace what we drank with water, because there was an obvious line drawn on the bottle to ward off illicit teenage consumption. By the end of the summer, you could probably have raised fish in the “vodka” in that bottle.
Much like the vodka, the gas tank was monitored and required us to top off the tank at the end of the day. Since gas was ridiculously cheap back then (says here, $0.93 a gallon), we could replace what we used for a dollar or two. As long as we had the boat back in its dock by 5:00 PM and the gas tank was topped off, we were golden. (Occasionally, someone would tie up in the wrong dock, and one of us would have to untie the offending boat and move it. I got caught doing this once, and when I explained why, the owner laughed and offered us both a beer.)
Once on the river, there were plenty of things to do that appealed to a fifteen year old boy, the most urgent of which was staring at girls in bikinis. I don’t think either of us had sunglasses, but I’m not too sure that they would have disguised our interest very much. We were way too obvious.
Sunbathing girl: What are you looking at?
Me: Your tits! Wow!
Charlie: Yeah! Hey, want to go for a ride? We’ve got a couple of beers!
Another thing we’d like to do was try to kill ourselves. Seriously, you think teenage boys drive crazy? Imagine them in a boat. “What’re you worrying about? We’re on water!” Charlie would tell any sunbather crazy enough to take us up on our offer. The fact that we were unexperienced with boats, alcohol, and the laws of physics didn’t slow us down one bit.
Besides driving like lunatics, we’d devised a couple of other surely fatal pastimes, the first of which was waterskiing. Now, the rule is that you need to have three people when waterskiing: One to waterski, one to pilot the boat, and one to watch the waterskier and laugh his ass off when he gets a high-speed river enema because he was showing off for some sunbathing cuties. If you don’t have that third guy, one of two things happens:
- The driver, watching the skier, crashes into a dock at high speed
- The driver, watching the river, leaves the skier bobbing in the middle of the river where he is promptly hit by the next speedboat, captained by someone who isn’t paying attention because he’s also skiing with two people and chose to watch his skier instead of the one he’s about to kill.
Needless to say, we never had that third person. We also upped the danger factor by doing suicidally stupid things such as seeing how close we could get to a dock without having it hit us in the neck, or skiing in 3/10″ of water while dragging our fingers on the bank of the river.
Young as we were, we didn’t consider cheating death to be a sufficient form of entertainment, and we set ourselves some goals. The first was, unsurprisingly, to see some tits. Women often sunbathed on the end of a dock. And if we noticed a woman lying on her stomach with her bikini top untied, the skier would immediately signal the driver to turn around. With some practice and a bit of good luck, you could spray the unsuspecting girl, causing her to sit up, exposing herself for maybe a second at most. (I know what you’re thinking: “That’s a lot of work to see tits for a second.” Totally worth it.)
The other goal was to sneak up on a slow-moving boat and grab an unattended beer sitting on the side. I got pretty good at this, and so surprised were the people in the other boat, they’d usually just laugh. Occasionally, they’d even tell me to come back to get one for the driver.
Fortunately for us, beers sink. This became important when we were inevitably pulled over by the river cops who would immediately ask us what we’d thrown overboard. “Nothing,” we’d respond, looking as innocent as fifteen year old boys can, which is to say not much. Then they’d ask us to turn the boat so they could see the registration sticker, which was another problem: We didn’t have one.
Charlie’s dad had registered the boat, but he kept the sticker hidden at home, popping it in the glove compartment when he wanted to go for a ride. We got pulled over probably a dozen times that summer, and each time we used the same excuse: “The sticker is sitting on the counter at home. We live right there,” we’d claim, pointing to whatever house was visible in the distance, but not close enough for the cop to want to escort us there. “Can we dock the boat and go get it?”
For some reason, the cops always let us dock the boat and watched us as we walked to get the sticker. We’d walk off a ways, and once we were out of sight, we’d go downstream and wait until the cops, tired of waiting, left. Then we’d hop in the boat and go the opposite direction. That might seem like an especially lax form of law enforcement, but it was pretty common at the time. Boating DUI’s were for those that fucked up in epic fashion, and other than that the cops were pretty reluctant to ticket anyone.
I do remember the last time we took the boat out. We’d been on the river for most of the afternoon and were engaging in the other surely fatal pastime, something we called “surfing”. This involved one person crouching on the bow of the boat as if he was surfing while the other person drove at high speed. This was incredibly stupid as an unexpected wave could send the “surfer” over the side and under the boat where he’d be rewarded with a face full of propeller.
We just happened to be nearing the marina when the boat beneath me disappeared and I went flying head over heels into the water. Charlie had gotten too close to shore and grounded the boat (luckily in mud). We pulled the boat into the dock, popped up the motor and took a look at the damage: Although we could start the motor, gunning the throttle resulted in a high-pitched whine while the prop sat there motionless.
After a few minutes of tinkering, we realized that a pin that connected the propeller to the shaft had been sheared into pieces. As we found out later, this was by design. The pin is called a shear pin, and prevents damage to the engine when you do stupid shit like ground the boat with your buddy standing on the bow. “Ok, well, we can get one just like this at the hardware store,” said Charlie, and off we went, walking the couple of miles to the hardware store where we bought one shear pin.
Getting back to the dock a little over an hour later, we carefully lined up the shear pin in the hole and put it in place, where it stayed for about a tenth of a second before dropping through the hole and into the river before we could fasten the clip into place. Fuck.
By now, it was getting late in the afternoon, and we realized that we had very little time before Charlie’s dad came home. Panicking, we realized that if we followed the river, there was a marina/boat repair that was maybe a half mile closer than the hardware store, and we took off running to get to it. We bought a few shear pins this time, and made it back to the boat just before 5:00 PM. Hurriedly, we put the shear pin in again, fastened the clip, and held our breath as we lowered it into the water and started it.
To our great relief, the prop turned just fine, and after a very quick test drive across the river and back, we had the boat tied up and walked into Charlie’s house just as his dad got back from work. “Hey guys!” he said. “Greg, are you staying for dinner tonight?” he asked, to which I quickly agreed. Charlie and I exchanged looks at the table as his parents asked us what we had done all day.
“Oh, you know… We hung out at the pool. Not much else.”
“Well, enjoy it while you can,” Charlie’s dad said. “Next summer you boys will be working!”
He then launched into a discussion about how no good could come from teenage boys idling about all summer, which we listened to while trying to stifle laughter. After dinner, Charlie and I played some idle basketball in his driveway. Having dodged a huge bullet, we were in high spirits and didn’t notice Charlie’s dad walking towards the marina, nor did we notice him walking back. We only knew something was wrong when he yelled “CHARLIE!” at the top of his lungs.
Frozen in place, we looked at each other. A second later, the realization hit us both. “The gas!” we said in unison. “We forgot to top off the tank!”
We had an unwritten rule back then: If you got busted, the person whose house it was would deal with his own parents, and everyone else would leave. It was weird and strange to get yelled at by someone else’s parents, and besides, the person taking the rap could always blame his friends who had conveniently cleared out seconds before. This allowed everything to blow over in a day or two, and worked pretty well.
So I bid Charlie good luck as I turned for home. I don’t remember what his punishment was, but it couldn’t have been very harsh, as he and I were hanging out again in no time, only this time without the boat. That was too bad because as it turns out, telling a girl you’re staring at her tits works at some level when you’re in a boat. It most certainly does not work when you’re just standing there in her driveway.