A BOAT RIDE TO THE DAM, 1963
Many people tell me they fell in love with the lake as a child, the result of family vacations. Perhaps their folks had a cabin, or stayed at a certain resort year after year. Almost certainly the family owned a boat. That meant sight-seeing rides, early morning fishing trips, and water skiing. Everybody has their favorite story about those golden days. Indulge me, if you will, while I tell mine. I'll wager it will bring back fond memories of your own.
The year 1963 was a turning point for us. That was the year my parents bought a boat. We were staying at Rocky Comfort Lodge, next to Gatlin Boat Yard, on the Gravois Arm. Dad was eyeing up a used boat at Gatlins. He'd talk with manager George Purvis awhile, then he'd sit down with Mom and they would agonize over whether to spend the money or not. Up until that time Dad and I had managed to get around our little circle of the lake with a rented fishing boat and our 10-horsepower motor. Now he and Mom were on the verge of buying a real runabout: a 16-foot Larson, with a 75-horsepower Johnson motor. Day after day my parents hesitated. As a junior high school kid, I couldn't understand the delay. "For crying out loud," I pleaded, "just buy it before our vacation is over." I was an insolent pup.
And buy it they did. I was ecstatic. After a day of cleaning and shining this fiberglass beauty, and a few shakedown runs, we were ready for some real boating adventure. At that time the Bagnell Dam strip was the place to go for entertainment and fun. We had been there by car. Now we were going by boat.
Dad wasn't sure how to get to the dam by water. It was far beyond the range of our old fishing motor. So another vacationing family, who had a boat of their own, offered to guide us. Off we went, in tandem formation, moving smartly along at 25 miles an hour. Point after point slid past and opened up an ever changing vista of water, hills, and sky. We waved and honked at all the passing boats and marveled at the parade of cottages and resorts along the shore. Dad was driving, of course. Mom sat at the other end of the front bench seat. I sat in a rear-facing seat behind Dad, and occasionally I would stand and hold on to the vinyl top as the boat bounded over the waves. Mom, a non-swimmer, sat pensively in place, a life jacket buckled around her.
Soon we were at the mouth of the Gravois and turning down the main Osage channel. Here was more water than I had ever seen before. The waves were bigger, the shoreline more rugged. Dad said it was very deep here, over a hundred feet deep. I could sense it from the way the waves seemed to roll. Mom was a little pale, I think. She told me to sit down.
We were running nearer the south shore, still following our friends who had pulled about a hundred yards ahead of us. Away over on the north shore we saw the excursion boat, Commander, pass by, heading in the opposite direction. The Commander ran fast in those days, and we could see her shimmering bow wake slant across the channel ahead of us. Our friends splashed through it in a showy spray of white water. Mom told Dad to slow down. We turned into the wake and slowed to a crawl. Our little runabout bumped through the waves and settled down. Dad gunned the throttle and looked off to his left to find our distant escort. I decided to stand up again. Just then Mom shouted: "LEO!"-Dad's name. Looking over the top of the canopy from a half standing position, all I could see was a wall of water directly ahead. Dad yanked back the throttle, but too late-our little boat climbed into the air. The motor, though idling, made a funny sound, but I hardly noticed because just as suddenly we were dropping. Both my feet lifted off the deck and I grabbed the only thing in reach-the slender rod that held up the canopy.
We came down like a lead weight and, WHAM! We hit the trough between two big swells and then rode the second crest, and a third, and fourth, each one gradually less than the previous swell. Mom had banged her forearm hard against the armrest and would have a long, ugly bruise to show for a week. I had fallen to my knees on the deck and was drenched with water, but otherwise okay. Dad was unhurt, save for the shock of it all. The only damage to our boat was a broken front bench seat. It had cracked in two. Our friends turned back for us as we drifted, idling. We said we were okay, they didn't seem too convinced, but we all continued on to the dam-at a somewhat slower pace.
After docking, our friends told us what they saw. The big waves that we hit were the stern swells off the Commander. They were high, rolling waves; not as easy to see as the wake breaking off her bow. Our boat actually went airborne, they said, the only thing in the water was the prop. And when we hit the trough we sent a shower of water skyward that looked like a bomb blast.
Our visit to the strip that day was unremarkable. All I remember of it was that we waited until the Commander was between cruises before we made our return trip. In time, the broken seat was fixed; Mom got over the bruise; and Dad learned to seek the shelter of a point or cove whenever the Commander flashed by. Our good old Larson lasted several seasons. It was the first of four boats my folks would own.
As a youngster, I did not appreciate how hard my parents worked so that I could enjoy those many summers at the lake. But I do appreciate it now. Thanks Mom and Dad.
Copyright © 2006 by Michael Gillespie. All rights reserved.