The lake was worse than I had ever seen it. The waves were a solid four feet. The only saving grace thus far was that the warm front was still in control. The temps were only in the fifties. But soaking wet it was plenty cold.
In those days the lake was still very sparsely populated. There were plenty of houses along its banks but by and large they were summer homes and fish camps. Apart from a few true locals, most of whom lived well back from the lakefront where the more expensive summer homes were built, only a few homes would be occupied that time of year, in that kind of weather.
From where we overturned, with the wind pushing us the way it was, we were at least a mile from shore. We had made also made several crucial mistakes. Both of us had on life jackets, we both had our chest waders on, and Tommy had made the hunt in only a heavy shirt and long johns.
Tommy faced the shore from his position and I was facing back out into the open lake.
“If you see anyone try to wave.” I told him.
“I can’t let go of this boat.” He replied. The reality of our situation was clear in both our voices.
“If we can hang on somebody will see us.” I said in a trembling voice.
“I’m sorry.” I continued. “There was nothing I could do…” My voice cracked with fear.
“I know.” Tommy said. His voice shaky and strained.
“We’ll make it. Dad will see us.” I offered hopeuly
“I don’t see his boat.” Tommy said. “Maybe he hasn’t come in yet?”
“They won’t stay out much longer then. They’ll see us on the way in.”
We drifted and waited. There was no sign of dad returning and not sign of life in any of the lakefront houses. The cold began to set in and I could see Tommy’s teeth start to chatter, his body start to shiver. I too began to quake as my muscles began to chill and cramp. Still no sign of any along the shore. The road that ran along the edge of the highbank was empty.
We drifted for a longtime in silence. I relived the roll over and over again in my head trying to figure out what I could have done, should have done, and I prayed.
“I think I’m gonna have to let go…” Tommy said in a voice far to calm and reserved for what that meant.
“THE FUCK YOU ARE!” I screamed. “You WILL NOT let go of this boat!”
The harshness of my tone seemed to snap him out of his despair. And as only such circumstance can motivate me laughed.
“You don’t have to be mean about it.” He said. And we both broke into hard laughter through our chattering teeth.
Laughing in the face of death is something I had always heard of, but I never understood it until that moment. We started into each other joking and tease each other. If our conversation had been heard outside of the circumstances the listener might have thought it was just two old friends sitting around at the bar.
“You had to have a limit didn’t you?”
“I didn’t hear you complaining”
“Heck no! I wasn’t the one with a spoonie on my strap!”
“I didn’t shoot a boot lip!”
With a cautious waving hand gesture I looked at him and said. “Prove it!”
“OHhhhh, I see. Well then if you can’t prove you didn’t then you also can’t prove you didn’t kill four of em?”
“Don’t you dare!”
We laughed and argued about mythical limits for a moment then Tommy turned the conversation.
“You know why I am mad at you?”
“Um, because I may have killed us?”
“Well, beside that…” he chuckled. “No, because if you hadn’t broken the rules Forrest would be at the camp laying in a fire and cooking a big breakfast right now. Heck he might even, oh I don’t know…come RESCUE US!”
Forrest was our part time caretaker. He lived on the far end of the lake, dangerously close to the local Juke Joint. With it being Sunday and him not having to come to the camp we knew he wouldn’t be frying up sausage, building a fire, or looking out on the lake wondering when we would come in so he could finish up breakfast and get his cores done so he could play dominoes down at the landing.
“Well she wanted to come up and you know I can’t say no to girl that wants to …”
“Shut up. I know plenty about why you brought her up with you. Yall weren’t exactly quite last night!”
“Sorry.” I said with a grin.
“No you’re not.”
As I let my mind wander back to my less than chivalrous conduct from the night before Tommy snapped my attention away from such frivolities.
“Someones on the bank!” He shouted, raising one hand to wave and yelling.
I twisted myself around and managed to wave with one hand as we yelled toward the figure atop the ATV on the bank. They gave no sign or signal of seeing us. They paused for a time then drove back away from shore at a speed that certainly did not indicate any urgency.
“They’ll call help.” I said.
“They had to have seen us, right?” Tommy asserted.
“Had to.” I told myself they were just slow drivers, surely they had seen us and were on the way to get their boat and come to our rescue.
We waited, we drifted, we didn’t speak. No one came.
“We’re heading straight for the lake house.” Tommy said, finally breaking the silence.
I looked back over my shoulder and studies the wave and our trajectory. He was right, the wind and water was pushing us at an angle that would end us up on the bank in the front of our lake house. All we had to do was hold on.
As long minutes passed with no sign of rescue we clung to the boat and holding out hope that it was just a matter of time before we see someone coming to launch a boat.
“You would have to pick a girl who sleeps late.” Tommy said breaking the silence.
“I kind of kept her up late. Sorry.”
We laughed again but the mirth was short lived. We were both exhausted, cold and afraid. Our progress toward the shore was slower than we had hoped. We were still heading the right direction. The only question was could we hang on long enough to make it.
“There!” Tommy shouted. This time not daring to let go of the boat but staring intently at the yard beside our camp.
I twisted around again and saw headlights on a dark blazer pointed out in our direction, then the blue lights atop the vehicle went on. It was the local sheriff. Someone must have reported our capsizing.
Straining to turn and wave I saw him open the door of his truck and stand in the doorframe. We were close enough now that I could tell he was looking at us with binoculars. I waved and yelled. He waved back dropped into his vehicle, flashed his headlights then quickly spun out of the yard, back toward the highway.
“Thank GOD!” we exclaimed as one. We knew now that help was one the way, and none too soon. The wind was growing even stronger and each wave threatened to take us over again or sweep us off our overturned boat.
We drifted, we waited, we watched. No one came.
We argued with each other about why. It solved nothing. We drifted on.
When we were within less than a hundred yard of the boat dock Tommy spoke up again.
“We’re gonna hit the pier.” He said, a new sense of fear in his voice.
I turned my head again to look. He was right. The waves were carrying us on a direct collision course with the steel pilings of the end of the dock. Watching them hit and splash and roll past to the bank gave me a better idea of just how bad the lake was.
The pervious summer had seen the lake at low water and we had mounted boards parallel to the water to secure our boats to and a second run of them nearer the decking for extra support. The two runs of two by tens were almost three feet apart, the top span just four feet from the decking.
With each wave the gap between the wood runners would vanish and the water would slam into the top board. Then the gap would appear again between wave, falling below the bottom run of boards.
“That’s not good.” I said as I watched the water slam into the structure. Several boards had been partially dislodge and hung from one end flailing in the waves, others were gone completely.
“Try to kick your feet” I told my friend. “We need to get around the dock.”
Tommy kicked hard and I used one hand to paddle. But it was no use, our course didn’t change and the cold cramped our muscle so quickly we were both forced to stop our efforts.
Nearer and nearer we came. We could hear the waves hitting the steel and wood. We could hear the structure groaning, popping and protesting the beating nature was giving it.
“All we can do it try to grab on and get out of the way of the boat when we get close” I said to Tommy.
“You mean let go?” he said in a panicked voice.
“Not until the last minute.” I replied. “Remember how we would swing on the supports in the shade under the deck last summer? If we can grab on we can pull ourselves to the other side and climb up the stairs.”
It wasn’t much of a plan but it was all I had. But I didn’t have it for long.
“One problem…the stairs are gone…” Tommy noted.
Sure enough they were, the pounding waves had ripped them loose and all that remained was one diagonal runner, long nails from the treads protruding from its slimy surface.
“Then just grab and get out of the way of the boat. Maybe we can hold on until the sherrif comes?”
There was not time to debate the plan. We were getting closer and closer to the pier. It would be a direct hit.
“I can’t see behind me.” I told Tommy, “You tell me when to turn and grab.”
“Not yet…not yet…” the waves rose and fell, I feared we would make contact whenwe were at the bottom of a roller.
“Hold the piling and go down if you have to! Don’t let the boat hit you…” I yelled
“Not yet…almost…NOW! NOW! NOW!”
I let go of the hull and rolled over on my back as the boat reached the crest of a wave. I pushed myself up from the hull as hard as I could and stretched my arms out in front of me. I felt the boat fall away, felt the weight of my full waders pulling me down. Then my arms felt the slick hard surface of a board and the cold slap of steel. I clung to what I had hit as hard as I could and looked over my right shoulder. Tommy had managed to get his feet on the lower course of boards and was wrapping his arms around one of the stell pipes.
The boat slammed and rubbed into the piling beneath us, glanced off am angled support and moved just far enough along the dock not to crash into us.
We clung to the pier our eyes locked on each other. Relief and terror washing over us as the boat slammed again and again into the steel.
“Did it hit you?”
“Can you climb?”
“I…I don’t know?” I said.
“Try.” Tommy yelled, himself already reaching for higher boards and struts that supported the decking.
I reach and pulled and strained. The pain in my limbs screaming at my brain to stop. The weight of my soaked clothes and full waders making the work all the harder.
We both reached the deck at the same time, flinging our upper bodies onto the flat surface, our legs hanging below as water poured out of our waders.
We clawed our way forward until we were both flat on our bellies, face down in the swaying deck.
“We made it.” I gasped.
“Thank you God, thank you.” Tommy whispered.
We tried to stand and the cramps in our bodies and trembling made us falter and kneel. We both fell onto our backs and breathed for a moment.
“Get your waders off.” I said and began fumbling with the zipper of my coat to access the suspenders that were beneath, holding my waders on. The cold that hit me when the coat opend was a shock. How Tommy had endured it that long I could not imagine.
We fought and squirmed and snaked our way out of the waders.
“Get to the house1” I shouted and we stood in muscle cramped crouches and began a dash to the shore. Our feet pounded on the swaying boards of the pier as we headed for dry ground. Above the water the wind cut into our wet clothes. We stripped soaked layers as our feet hit the grass and we climbed the hill to our camp.
We were shivering so hard and our teeth chattering so badly it was hard to communicate.
I tried to pen the front door but my hands refused to grip the knob.
Tommy shouldered me out of the way and opened the door. The camp was not as warm as we had hoped. Temperatures overnight had been mild and the heater thermostat was set at only sixty five. Dad preferred a cool camp and in that moment I hated that aspect of him.
But the giant hearth still held hot coals from the night before. Dad was notorious for having a roaring fire even if it meant he had to turn the heat of to stand it. His strange ways had their upsides.
Taking a handful of kindling and a cup of Kerosene Tommy brought the hearth to a blaze and we piled on more wood and stripped out of the last of our wet clothes. While Tommy got the fire roaring I raided the laundry room for any dry clothes I could find and towels and blankets.
We huddled shivering before the flames, not speaking for a long moment. Then with tears in our eyes we hugged each other like long lost brothers.
I cannot fathom the sheer terror that must have raced through my father’s mind as he approached the lake house and saw my boat overturned and rolling against the sandy shore as the waves pounded the bank.
I can also not describe the look of joy and relief that was on his face as he and Doc burst through the door.
As he told it, he had spotted our overturned boat when he was more than a hundred yards from the landing. Doc swore dad ran full throttle from there on in nearly beaching the entirety of his boat when he reached the shore.
Not a small man by any stretch of the imagination, he had run onto the bank without even turning the motor off and was sprinting his six foot four, two hundred and fifty pound body towards the wreckage when he saw the trail of discarded wet clothes leading from the foot of our pier to the house.
Dad would tell the story for years to come of busting into the house and finding Tommy and I dressed in the wildest array of mismatched clothes, huddled, as he always put, it IN the fireplace.
He and Doc had us retell the story while they make coffee and filled small fruit jars of brandy for us.
The local sheriff stopped by while we were still thawing out and explained that he had seen us, but that the only boat he had was smaller than ours and the risk was too great. He had driven to several local homes in search of a worthy craft but had not been able to locate one.
His friends with Wildlife and Fisheries were trying to get a boat to him but they were dealing with other small craft accidents on other lakes. He had set himself up the boat launch down the lake and watched us through his field glasses while he waited for the larger boat to arrive. Calling off the rescue when he saw us make the leap from the boat and pull ourselves onto the deck of the pier.
My female “guest” slept through the commotion and she was none to please when I slipped under the covers looking for a little extra warmth. Apparently the warmth of the brandy and coffee had not reached the outside of my skin. I fell asleep shivering and my dreams were fraught with nightmares of drowning.
When I awoke later that evening I was alone in the large bed. I descended the stairs and saw the girl’s car was no longer parked outside. Dad, Tommy, and Doc were seated in front of the hearth watching football. Forrest was in the kitchen cooking up dinner.
“You get warmed up?” Dad said to me with a grin
“Warm enough I guess.” I replied, taking my usual seat on the hearth.
“Forrest got the boat out. Motor’s gonna need work.” Dad said.
“Outside the large plate glass windows I could see that winds had laid down. The limbs of the trees in the front yard swayed only slightly as the smoke from the chimney swirled down from above and hung above the wet grass that glistened in the porch light.
“Front pushed through.” Tommy said, seeing me staring out the window. “Temps are falling fast and Forrest said there are a lot of birds showing up on the indicator holes.”
“Tomorrow out to be good.” Doc said then cursed at the television. “COME ON Saints! What the hell was that supposed to be!!!!????”
“Thought maybe we’d all try the chute tomorrow?” Dad said. “Figure you boys might rather an Argo ride over boats for a day or two?”
“I’m just glad we’re still here to the option.” Tommy said and I nodded my agreement.
Dad stood walked over to the hearth to stir the fire. HE place one giant hand on my shoulder and gave it a squeeze.
“Glad yall made it.” He said with the slightest crack in his voice. “But you get to tell your Mamma, not me.” Laughter spread easily among the gathered men and we paste the rest of the night without another mention of the accident. Tomorrow was another day and the season was still underway.