Brian Bahouth reads EvinrudeEvinrude
My flying dreams began when I was a teenager. While sleeping, I would soar over rolling hills of hardwood forest in autumn or circle a towering mesa in the exotic Utah of my imagination. An instantaneous connection between thought and flight made every joyous escape from gravity a carnival of free will. The waking flightless world was barren and colorless by contrast.
While awake, I recklessly tried to recreate the sensations of my flying dreams. In service to this higher calling, I looked beyond pain and damage to property. Whether on a mini-bike, bicycle, riding lawnmower, shopping cart, or wagon, I would hit a plywood ramp with eyes wide open, prepared to fully grasp that all too rare moment of weightlessness at the top of my arc.
Our family spent summers on a small lake in upstate New York. DeRuyter Reservoir is a flooded valley between two drumlins, three miles long and a mile and a half wide. When we were there during the 1970s, around dinnertime, smoke from grilled meat and exhaust from two-stroke boat motors commingled, forming a tangy blue cloud layer, lacing the valley. After dinner, old folks read or played bridge on a screened-in porch until late, ending with homemade pecan pie and chamomile tea. On our strip of cottages, the parents usually got drunk and loud before eating more and sleeping. For me, summer on the lake was a laboratory, a proving ground for the defiance of gravity.
Using a mask and snorkel, I would do the dead man’s float for hours. Face down, arms out in front, floating in space, I’d drift with the current, watching the marshy lake bottom pass by: snapping turtles, water snakes, wide mouth bass, pickerel and pike, scores of lizard brained fish eyes watching from cool, dark stands of sea weed. Sometimes a migrating shoal of little fish seemed to collectively eat something on my skin and hair—minnow nibble tingle. With each measured breath, my body would rise and lower an inch or two as my lungs filled and emptied of air.
Before the advent of jet skis or personal watercraft, there was a guy on the lake who built custom mini hydroplanes. Roy Tafner was born into dairy farming, but gave it up after four generations to run the marina and small engine repair at the end of the lake. Roy’s boats were magnificent: twelve feet long, low, sleek, and wide, each a mini Miss Budweiser. From a pattern of his own design, he formed every piece of wood by hand, patiently fitting them together with the skill of a guitar maker.
My parents formally decreed I would never own a Tafner hydroplane. Under no circumstance was I to command a motorized vehicle and they told Roy as much. Now and again, I’d ride my bike to his marina anyway and check out the boats up close. One time, he let me sit in a brand new model up on sawhorses in his shop. The final coat of deep red marine paint had just dried, and he was about to install the motor. The little cockpit fit perfectly. The seat, wrap-around windshield, bow-tie steering wheel, everything was in just the right place. I imagined the shoreline scrolling past while Roy told me how hydroplanes work. He said, “The goal is to keep as little of the boat in contact with the water as possible and still maintain control. There has to be a balance between the force of the propeller at maximum thrust and the weight and styling of the boat.” Roy paused to blow into the carburetor of a lawn mower he was fixing. “Ideally,” he said, “the unit flies over the water rather than traveling through it. Only a tiny fraction of the hull is in contact with the surface. It’s a tricky balance.”
Roy called his personal unit The Holstein. Painted in the dairy cow style of interlocking black and white, The Holstein was one of the fastest boats on the lake in calm water. On rare mornings, just after first light, when the water was perfectly calm, everyone could hear the motor snarl to life. Roy would start at one end of the lake and slowly bring the little dairy cow to a maniacal chainsaw roar. With Roy packed into the cockpit wearing a yellow helmet and bulky orange life vest, the little boat would attain frightening speeds. The Holstein shimmered across the surface leaving scarcely a foamy ripple.
The summer I turned sixteen, my parents went to Cape Cod in search of nautical knickknacks. My father owned a bar and was changing it from just a bar with a jukebox and pinball to what he called a “clam shack.” With nets, rope, and lobster traps nailed to the walls, he would find what he sought serving little neck clams and beer to Syracuse University students. With mom and dad out of town and wayward babysitter Rhonda Hammond in charge, I had the time and privacy needed to build my own hydroplane.
Mr. Hilder, our neighbor two camps down, had a nearly new eighteen-horsepower Evinrude motor on the back of his fishing boat. Since Mrs. Hilder developed some kind of cancer, they stopped coming to the lake, so the boat collected leaves and rainwater on a trailer next to their cottage. Hoping to duplicate the tricky thrust-to-weight ratio Roy described, I decided to mount the eighteen-horse Evinrude to my flat-bottomed johnboat rated for three-horsepower.
The motor weighed way too much for my skiff. What I needed was something to keep the boat from sinking until I got the engine started and power on. Then thrust would keep me afloat. I easily enlisted the help of my best summertime friends, Chucky Beeler and Tink Narsissian. Chucky and Tink got into the water waist deep and held the boat afloat while I screwed the motor to the transom. The gas tank would ride up front to help keep the nose down. We duct taped a piece of PVC piping to the throttle and steering handle so I could drive sitting low on the floor in the middle. I squeezed the primer bulb in the gas line, and when all systems were go, I said, “Okay, once we get it started, I’m gonna drop it in gear and nail it. So keep me up as long as you can. And when I come back in, I’m gonna beach it right here next to the dock, so be ready to grab me.”
They both shook their heads yes, then Tink said, “And before you pull back in, motherfucker, we want a high speed drive by. You got it?” I pulled the starter chord.
The Evinrude spat blue smoke. I revved it in neutral while Chucky and Tink labored to keep the boat floating. “Standby to put it in gear,” I yelled; the boys nodded the go ahead. I let the RPM drop to an idle and moved the gearshift lever into drive. A deep mechanical clunk, and the boat started to creep forward as the propeller began to churn. I turned the throttle wide open and they let go.
The stern of the little boat shuddered and sank way below the surface. The bow went high in the air until it seemed like the whole thing was standing straight up on end. I marveled at the walls of green shiny water on either side of me, slick and wet as I ploughed deep below the surface. The motor struggled. My eyes were below lake level, and I began to panic. Looking backward I saw Chucky and Tink cheering and jumping up and down in the water. I leaned forward and the chugging engine began to build speed. In seconds, I was skipping along the perfectly calm surface with just a few inches of the hull touching the water, nearly flying.
My eyes watered. Hair trailed straight back. Just when I began to relax and enjoy the ride, I entered a bank of low morning fog and could see nothing but the jittery boat below me. Just as quickly, I broke out of the mist and then back in. The bow waggled back and forth as if it were about to jackknife. The way she was tracking, I was afraid to turn even a little. The far shore wasn’t a minute away. I had to decide whether to beach it in somebody’s front yard at 6:30 on a Tuesday morning or try to bring the boat about, so I pushed the rudder just a faction of an inch to starboard.
With no warning the boat turned sideways and tumbled, side over side. Caught in the churning sheet metal, the upper edge of the boat hit me squarely in the neck then catapulted me high in the air. For what seemed like a long time, I glided through space. The view was rare. I could see the orange glow of Syracuse in the clouds, over the dam, far away.
Bobbing in the wake of my crash, limbs paralyzed, I lay face down in ten feet of water, eyes wide open staring into the dark.