Tuesday, September 2, 2014

June 4, 1939

The day was hot as hell. But we were living in South Florida, which might as well be Panama. If it’s not raining, every day is hot as hell. But I ramble.
On this particular day, we were out on the water. “We” being myself, my brother, and Charlie. Not in the water, but on it. In a boat, to be precise. Putt-putt-putt. The slowest boat known to man. 7 miles an hour at best. What that is in knots I hadn’t the slightest idea then and not the slightest idea now.
But there we were. Putt-putting down the Intracoastal Waterway. As to said waterway, back in 1936, the Army Corps of Engineer cut a channel between the coast and the barrier islands so boats didn’t ground so much anymore and shipping would be safe. This particular boat wasn’t likely to touch bottom. Just a cheap Florida cracker boat, not a flatboat.16-foot skiff, outboard motor.
Did it inspire me with confidence? No. Did I fear being pitched out of that boat? Yes, on some level.
The land along either side of the Intracoastal wasn’t built up with condos and the art of landscape architects as it is now. More like a jungle. Not one of those Henri Rousseau happy jungles. The terrifying variety. Crazy, dangerous tangled greenery like a jungle in one of the Tarzan serials, only color, not black and white. It was totally primordial, nothing but red mangroves. Prop roots bending down into the water like bird cages from hell.
My brother had informed me said prop roots formed a breeding ground for barracudas. Little baby barracudas hatch in there. Then come out when they’re hungry. Teeth like razors. Shoot out like rockets and chomp into you. Eat you almost as fast as Piranhas.
But we were moving on level enough. It seemed an unlikely possibility.
Cheap-ass boat, but as cheap-ass boats go, it wasn’t bad. Charlie borrowed it from the Millers, that cracker family who’d been here since Ponce de Leon failed to find that fountain and croaked. They ran the swing bridge up on Atlantic Boulevard. Some yacht’d blow its air horn. They run out and crank that thing and, eventually, let the yacht through. We were headed up to Boca Raton. Precisely why we were on that mission I do not now recall.
Charlie’d been grim looking and flush-faced lately. Unhappy. Drinking too much. Today, for once, he had a smile on his face. Feeling like we were a family, for once, he’s part of us, finally, not on the outside looking in. An adult hypothesis that did not enter my nine-year-old brain at the time. He’s smiling for once, huh. My insights would have ended there.
“How ya doing boys” he shouted.
“OK, I guess,” said Marion. He was leaning out the front of the boat keeping an eye out for floating logs for some damn reason.
“OK?” Charlie snorted. "Just OK?"
“Great sir! It’s a beautiful day.”
“You bet your bee-hind is it is. How ‘bout you, Terry?”
“Beautiful day, sir. I agree with my brother on that score.”
“On that score? Too many words, son. Speak plainly. Planning to be a writer if you grow up?”
“Maybe I will.”
Marion laughed. Charlie laughed.
“Maybe you will at that,” he said. “Maybe you will.”
Smiling. Charlie was. I smiled too. Then my brother. We all sort of smiled at each other.
Had a little happy moment. As so often happens in this life we slide through, an unhappy moment immediately followed.
Heard this roaring noise first.
Then waves hit. Pitching up and down like a ride at the fair.
My brother almost shot out the front of the boat.
We’re all gripping on for dear life thinking Dear Jesus I don’t want to die, I don’t want to drown, what the hell’s happening?
Then I finally looked up and saw what’s happening. A yacht. It’s some sonofabitch in a yacht. A swell, a member of the idle rich who considered FDR the Antichrist and took craps in a golden toilet on Key Biscayne. Just roaring on by …
We’re bucking up and down, holding on and screaming.
Charlie starts hollering.
“Slow down! Slow down you sonofabitch!”
That son of a bitch was barreling ass down the waterway. He did not slow down. No, he did not.
Sir Richie Rich Gottrocks III got closer. Right next to us. I’d got a look at the yacht before, but didn’t see the man. Now I did. Gritting my teeth, holding on to the bucking boat, I looked up, and I saw him. Got one quick glimpse of him. Sitting high and mighty in his king’s chair at the top of his shiny white yacht.
And the waves, the pitch and yaw, the vomit-making bucking bronco ride got worse. We’re caught in his wake. And his wake is going to kill us.
I thought I was going to die. It’s fair to assume we all did.
Waves just crashing. White-knuckle gripping. As bad as it could get.
I thought, well, OK, we’re undeniably going to die. More importantly. I’m going to die. This is the end of my life. I’m nine years old and I’m going to end my life out here in the mangroves. All the little baby barracudas will shoot out and eat me for their supper. It is my destiny, written at the dawn of time, to turn into barracuda crap. But that’s selfish of me to think of just me. They’ll eat us all up. We’ll all turn into barracuda crap. Lord Jesus forgive me for my sins. I’m a selfish rotten kid please forgive me.
Childish prayers aside, we kept bucking up and down, up and down, and swinging back and forth.
Then finally settled down some.
Enough for Charlie to stand up on wobbly legs and start shaking his fist.
Charlie spoke his mind to the yacht man.
Charlie cussed him out but good.
“Fuck you! Go to hell and eat shit on the way down, cocksucker! You goddamn cocksucking blueblood bastard! You sorry bastard sonofabitch! You’re going to get us all killed with that shit! I got kids on this boat, you cocksucker! Kids!”
Charlie shouted ‘til his voice got hoarse.
The yacht guy just kept going. I don’t think he heard Charlie. I don’t think the stupid bastard had any idea what his yacht would do or had done. Either that, or he just didn’t give a damn, which on reflection, is the more likely hypothesis. Blasting down the Intracoastal in a state of total indifference. This is my waterway, my yacht. I’m the king of the water! You and your chickenshit little boat have no business being here!
Such adult analysis had no place in my childish thoughts. I was glad to be alive. Period. Amen.
My brother and I started laughing and giggling. We weren’t dead! Jesus. Thank you Jesus! We thought we were dead, but we didn’t die! Woooo!
Charlie wasn’t laughing. Looking back through the admittedly distorted lens of memory, that salient fact is clear to me now. Charlie was red-faced, frowning, hurt, boiling inside.
About 30 minutes later, some other yacht came alongside. Not a bastard, this time. Courteous, running smooth and slow, just coasting, boop-boop-boop. Charlie flagged him down, and he coasted to a stop. Charlie spent near to an hour telling him about the sonofabitch who’d almost killed us. The other yachtsman listened politely. After a long, long time, we finally moved.
Marion and I were thinking of a thousand other things by now. Stuff we wanted to eat, pranks to play, some kid we knew in Boca Raton. The near-death incident was already fading in our childish heads. We were kids. Resilient. Didn’t give a rat’s ass.
Not Charlie.
The high-hat sonofabitch in his high-and-mighty yacht had kicked Charlie in the balls. Robbed him of his manhood. Dissed him, as they say these days.
Charlie brooded about it for days.