Before I can dive into the juicy parts of how I nearly killed my grandparents, a little back story is needed. Every summer, for as long as I can remember before my maternal grandparents became unable to do so, they would rent a cabin at a Minnesota lake resort near Ponsford so they could spend their days fishing and their evenings visiting with friends – many of whom were people they knew from our hometown or were people who visited the resort at the same time of the year as they did.
In the early days, they didn’t have their own boat, so they’d rent one from the resort. It was an old Alumacraft with an outboard motor. Grandpa Chuck’s position was always at the motor. My position was typically in the very front, or prow. Grandma Elaine would take a seat near me but offset so that grandpa could see to steer.
My grandpa was one of those guys that if you did something, you did it “right” or you didn’t do it at all. And I have to admit that my summers spent with my grandparents at the lake are some of the greatest – and most traumatic – memories of my life. Grandpa didn’t care whether I was a girl or a boy. If I wanted to learn how to do something, he was willing to instruct.
Instruction, however, was almost entirely a “show you once” affair and if you didn’t understand something, you were almost afraid to ask questions. He wasn’t a grouch, but he was… well, no-nonsense. Especially when it came to doing “things” and doing them correctly.
Grandpa wanted me to learn how to “drive” the boat and one day he decided it was the time that the lesson should be given. We’d been out on the lake for most of the day, fishing of course. In fact, on both sides of the boat, we had metal baskets full of the fish we’d caught. The idea was that I would be shown how to drive the boat and get us back to the resort before the sun went down and then he and I would go up to the cleaning shack and clean the catch of the day.
Motioning for me, grandpa had me climb over the seats, past grandma, and move into the back of the boat. Now, anyone that has ever driven a shallow aluminum boat with an outboard motor knows that balancing the boat is important. The sides are pretty low and it’d be easy to fall into the water. They’d also know that you should always have life preservers on board and that an outboard motor can be tricky because the throttle is on a handle that also helps you steer the boat. Unlike modern boats with inboard motors, there was no steering wheel, so you needed to understand that there was balance in how much throttle you used as well as the fact that the front of the boat moved in the opposite direction of the way the throttle handle was aimed.
For those not familiar with boating, if you move the throttle handle away from you (assuming you are using your right hand), you turn the prow of the boat to the left. Moving the handle towards you, you turn the prow of the boat to the right. It seems very simple…
So, I sat down for my lesson. It consisted of grandpa making sure the motor would start by priming it from the portable gas can, then choking it and pulling the starter (think gas-powered lawn mower pull starts) as he used the throttle. Once it started, he turned off the choke and the engine was in idle.
What grandpa did not teach me (and this is where lessons are important) was how to make the boat do anything but move – forward.
He had me take his usual spot at the engine and climbed to the metal seat in front of me. Grandma slid to the other side, per usual, to give me maximum view of what was ahead of us.
My grandparents never had life preservers. They chose to use floating boat cushions instead. I wore a life-preserver because I was a kid, I suppose. So, grandpa sat down on his floating cushion and I put my hand on the engine, put it into “forward” as he had shown me and I twisted the throttle.
Here’s the part where I nearly killed my grandparents…
I completely blame the poor instructional guidance given to me at the age of around 7 or 8 for what happened. Since grandma and grandpa aren’t with us anymore, that may be unfair and I’m sure grandpa would insist that he had no responsibility in the ensuing chaos at all. Nope, it would have been all my fault because I didn’t “do it right” the first time.
Being the first time I’d ever been given control of the boat, I opened the throttle to FULL. Yep, wide open. The little aluminum boat suddenly hurtled forward, the prow popping up into the air. I know I had the biggest smile on my face because we were flying over the surface of the water! I’d hit a small wave and the spray would come over the sides.
There was a small issue. With the boat going so fast, and the prow in the air, I was too small to see what was in front of us, so I began turning the throttle arm side to side to see what we were headed towards. Suddenly, over the roar of the engine, I faintly hear grandpa cussing as grandma is white-knuckling the side of the boat and trying to stay seated on her cushion.
Grandpa started waving and pointing, but I couldn’t see what he was pointing at as he was trying his best to stand. Futile, his face red with anger, he was screaming as he fell to his knees as I zig-zagged the boat at high speed and finally began clawing his way over the metal seats to get to the back of the boat.
Meanwhile, I just keep driving. I mean, isn’t that what he wanted me to do? To get us back to the resort docks before dark? Plus, we were really going fast!
On hands and knees, the angriest I had ever seen my grandpa, he finally reached me and pushed the emergency stop button to kill the engine. Without the high-pitched whine and grumble of the outboard, I could clearly hear every curse word spilling out of his mouth. I knew I was in trouble.
He grabbed me by my shoulders and began pointing in front of us. There sat another boat, the passengers horrified that we were about to capsize them. In fact, their boat rocked from our wake as it caught up to us. Grandma looked like she might faint.
I was used to the cussing when things weren’t done the “right way” the first time, but when grandpa really lost his mind because I hadn’t given him time to pull in the baskets of all the fish we’d caught that day (likely causing them to sink to the bottom of the lake with the fish trapped inside), I got stone-cold sober.
All the way back to the resort, I am sure I cried. No one spoke a word.
Today, I think about the incident and crack up laughing. Etched in my mind forever are the faces of my grandparents, the sheer joy I felt at being able to make that boat fly over the top of the water, and that fact that grandpa seemed more livid over the lost fish than the possibility that I could have either crashed the boat into the shore, a sandbar or the other boaters or just dumped us all into the lake with every piece of fishing equipment we had.
That’s not the only experience I had that summer or any of the other trips with my grandparents. This one story just seemed the perfect way to start out what is a collection of tales collected from memories of my childhood summers in Minnesota for “Throw Grandma Off The Boat.”
And I’m sure members of my family, especially those who spent any time with my grandparents at the lake, can attest to the fact that this memory is highly accurate.
And yes, to my cousin Teresa, grandma’s nails were long and painted bright red. As red as grandpa’s face, for sure.