Water Wings


David never knew his great grandfather, but he loved being out on the water in the late gentleman’s fishing boat.  That affinity for water would soon lead to some memorable experiences.

Soon after David would arrive at his grandparents’ cottage, he’d be in the boat and roaring out onto the lake.  Unlicensed 12-year-olds shouldn’t be operating powerboats.  But that didn’t stop David from getting permission to take the 14-foot aluminum boat out for a spin . . . many spins.

The freedom was enticing.  Sometimes, he’d be gone for hours, arriving back just as his parents and grandparents neared panic . . . usually minutes before dark.   One day, the sun was down when David rowed slowly up to the beach.  His hands were blistered and arm muscles aching.  The engine had run out of gas . . . he forgot to check the fuel tank before leaving.  The two-hour paddle back made a lasting contribution to his budding maturity.


David also liked camping out on his grandparents’ 25-foot cabin cruiser.  He would hole up there overnight with a sleeping bag, soft drinks, bags of chips, M & M’s, red licorice and candy bars.  All the healthy food groups represented, right?

Occasionally, David would ask about waterskiing.  The big boat’s takeoff speed was too slow for that, he’d be told, much to his disappointment.

One summer, when David was 15, he arrived at the lake and made an exciting discovery.  Tucked under the cottage’s huge deck was a tube . . . the kind you towed behind a boat.

‘Wow!’ thought David.  ‘This is going to be fun.’

That weekend, the visitors included his two little brothers and some cousins.  He had visions of them having a blast with the tube.  It turned out to be just as he envisioned . . . and much more.

Sunday morning, David helped Grandpa load the tube into the big SeaRay boat.  It was a warm and sunny mid-July day.  The wind was calm.  Perfect!

The younger kids were first to get their turns on the tube.  They had to be accompanied by a parent, or David, the eldest of the grandchildren and an accomplished swimmer.  He was nine years older than his next younger brother.  Grandpa was careful not to drive the boat too fast or turn too sharply.  He didn’t want to dump his little grandchildren into the frigid waters of the glacier-fed lake.


Grandpa felt much differently about dumping the next group of tube riders — the parents (his own children included) when they went solo on the tube.   That was especially true for those with the nerve to say he couldn’t dump them off.   Grandpa liked a challenge.

The big boat churned up huge waves as it turned and twisted.  In the end, each challenger was fished out of the cold water after a wild ride . . . and an undignified dumping.  Then it was David’s turn.  He was the only one left waiting for a solo ride, and not yet dumped.

That, plus being a teenager left David feeling just a wee bit cocky.

“Betcha can’t dump me, Grandpa!” David challenged.

“Climb aboard,” Grandpa replied, nodding his head sideways toward the tube.

‘We’ll see about that,’ Grandpa was thinking, smiling to himself.  David scrambled over the transom onto the swim platform and into the well-exercised rubber donut.

Until then, during the singles rides, David had proudly served as the spotter.  He’d been keeping watch on the tube riders and calling out when they’d been flipped into the lake.  Now, his mother took over that job.  Grandpa understood she wanted to make sure her son was safe . . . and that he wouldn’t put her son in any danger . . . well, not in too much danger.  She also knew that Grandpa, her father, often responded to challenges with a Machiavellian glee.  David’s challenge qualified.

It’s worth noting here that David, being a teenager, was also a typically defiant little monster. Well . . . not so little.  By then, he was already approaching six feet, and skinny as a fence rail.  David was an honors student at school and rarely in any trouble there.  His kindly nature came through loud and clear in his love for his two little bothers.  But David also harbored an intense aversion to authority – parental authority, in particular.  It was typical for that age.

So, that Sunday afternoon his Mom secretly prayed that her son would be safe . . . but also hoped he’d receive a much-deserved ‘come-uppance’.  She got both wishes!

At first, David sat up in the tube as the boat edged forward, playing out the towrope.  But he was a smart kid.  He’d realized while watching others get dumped that a lower center of gravity would make it much harder for Grandpa to dump him.  He squirmed over onto his stomach, facing the boat, firmly grabbing two sturdy handgrips on the top of the tube.

He waved.  They were off!

Grandpa began by keeping the boat’s speed annoyingly slow.  The lake was calm that day.  The wake left by the slow-moving boat offered David gentle lifts over tiny waves.  Soon, he grew impatient for some action!  Grandpa knew that.  He wanted to catch David off guard.  He gunned the powerful engine.  The boat surged forward and lurched to the left (port, sailors call it).  David wasn’t fooled.  He’d guessed Grandpa would do this.  Both hands were closed tightly over the grips.


The powerful boat moved faster and faster.  It began throwing up huge waves.  Grandpa cranked the wheel to the right (starboard ,in sailor-talk).  The boat did a wide u-turn, pulling David and the tube over increasingly bigger waves. The tube flew out of the water.  David became airborne above the tube.  His tightly clenched fists were his only connection with the tube.  His body was a dark spread-eagle scarecrow shape, upside down, highlighted against the afternoon sun.

Grandpa cranked the wheel to port, doubling back over the waves.  Again, David and the tube became airborne.   And again, the two were attached just by two skinny arms and a pair of tightly closed fists.  David and the tube reunited in a huge splash.  Time after time, he came down hard and bounced . . . again and again . . . as the tube glanced off of wave-top after wave-top.

All of a sudden, David and the tube disappeared into a wave.  Mom focused hard.  All she could see was the brightly colored towrope disappearing into a huge wave.   No David.  A cloud of unease crossed her face.  She glanced anxiously at Grandpa, her dad.  She was on the verge of panic.  Then, a split second later, David and the tube emerged in amassive spray of water.   Kid and tube were still united.

Grandpa cranked the wheel to starboard this time, pouring on the gas.  He had an intense grin on his face, more like a mixture of grim determination and humor.   Then he turned the boat to port into another wide u-turn, slicing across a virtual maelstrom of colliding waves and wakes stirred up by the boat’s powerful propeller.

David hung on.  Grandpa doubled the boat back again. This time the waves were even higher and closer.  David and the tube became airborne again and again, each time his body almost vertical to the tube.  Down they came . . . hard . . . splashing into another huge wave.  Still together.

Then, they crashed immediately into a bigger wave parallel with the last.  A massive spray of water flew up.  The tube snapped out of the wave and sprang high in the air . . . without David.

When the boat picked him up, David’s hands were so tired and sore he couldn’t lift them, much less use them.  His Mom and Grandpa had to haul him up bodily into the boat.  David was one tuckered out young puppy.  They were proud of him.  So was he . . . and well deserved . . . but ever so slightly more humble.

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