by Baloney Bill
A day on the lake takes a tragic turn.
My Buddy's Boat
We couldn't have asked for a better day.
The sun glinted off the water as we messed around trying to get the boat into the water. It was my friend Scott's boat. He had been offering me the use of it for the longest time, and I finally took him up on his offer. Scott had given me a lengthy explanation, step by step, on how to launch his boat, but when the time came, I got pretty nervous and seemed to have forgotten all of his instructions. I was going from forward to reverse trying to get the trailer in straight and close to the dock. I had been feeling pretty cool and cocky driving around with this beautiful boat on the trailer behind me, but that was before I tried to back the thing up. I was not feeling cool and definitely not feeling cocky. No matter what I tried the trailer kept going at an angle, kind of jack-knifing. There was a line of several other boaters watching me as they waited for their turn to launch, and I could sense their impatience building at my rookie ineptitude.
I saw somebody coming towards the truck. "How's it going," the guy asked as he headed down the ramp. He was a smiling, pot-bellied man in a tank top and gym shorts. "How 'bout I give you a hand?"
I climbed out of the pickup and in resignation offered him the wheel. He had it in the water and the truck and trailer parked in about five minutes while I looked on in shame and wonder.
Once we were in the water, though, it was smooth sailing, pardon the pun. There was nothing to driving a boat. Is that the right expression? Do you drive a boat? Steer a boat? Sail a boat? No, that would have to be a sailboat, right? I have no idea, but being behind the wheel was easy anyway. Getting away from the dock was a bit of a challenge though, not because of anything to do with the boat, but rather with the kids.
The day before, Maddie had gone out to the sporting goods store to buy the kids life jackets. Scott, the boat owner, was a happy bachelor. He had half a dozen life jackets for adults, but none for kids. Now our kids, Russ, four, and Katie, three, were really putting up a fuss. They didn't want anything to do with being smothered in those life jackets. Both of them wailed and carried on as Maddie wrestled them on while I loaded the cooler and other stuff into the boat. She finally got them settled down a bit, all three of them sitting on the back bench of the boat, and we took off.
I went pretty slow at first. There were quite a few boats in close by the dock and of course I was new at this. Scott's boat was really nice, and during the work week when I suggested to him that with my luck I'd probably sink his pride and joy, but he just said he didn't care, that would just mean he would get a new one. He was about as laid back as you could get. I guess being rich takes a lot of the edges off of life.
The kids were still upset about their life jackets.
"Do you really think they need to wear those things?" I asked.
"Of course they do. It's common sense and it's the law, I'm pretty sure."
"I'm really not looking forward to them being grouches all day."
"They won't. They'll get used to the life jackets. They'll be fine."
I drove around for twenty minutes or so, just getting the hang of it, and it was awesome. My cockiness was rebuilding quickly. I looked back at Maddie and the kids. Maddie looked like she was enjoying herself, but Katie was in a pout and Russ had his mean face on. Those life jackets, of all things, seemed to be spoiling the day. I shook my head and drove, steered, or sailed on. No not sailed. It couldn't be sailed.
After a while, I got to wondering how long we could go on a tank of gas. I had no idea.
I cruised over near the shore, away from everybody else, and thought I would throw in a fishing line. I hadn't fished in ages. I'd gone out hunting night crawlers the night before, and I baited up and put a bobber on the line. This was not going to be active fishing. I was just going to relax and have fun with the kids. If I caught fish, fine, if not, that was fine, too.
"Do you mind if I lay in the sun for a while?" Maddie asked. "Would you look after the kids?"
"Sure, don't worry about a thing."
She took her towel, magazine, and sun lotion up to the front of the boat and spread herself out in the warm sun. She turned a few pages of the magazine, and then put it aside. She wasn't moving, and I wouldn't be surprised if she fell asleep.
The first thing I did now that we were stopped and Maddie had taken a break from acting as supreme overseer was to take the kids' life jackets off. They acted as if they were freed from captivity. They were exploring the boat and chattering, and they both had big smiles on their faces. I kept a close eye on them, glancing occasionally at the bobber in the water, and sipping some ice cold beer.
It was really pleasant for an hour or so, but then I started getting bored. The kids were being good, but the fish didn't want to play. I got to thinking, wow, here I had this really cool boat on a beautiful day, and here I was just sitting here doing nothing, something I could be doing in my back yard. I put the life jackets back on the kids, and, again, they weren't at all happy about that. There were three straps, one each around their chest and belly, but I couldn't figure out where the third one was supposed to go.
I started the engine, and Maddie must have really been out of it because she didn't even stir. I headed out into the deep water slowly so as not to disturb her, but then the boat bumped into something and the noise woke her. I hope I didn't damage the boat. She sat up, smiled back at me and the kids, and then turned her face to the sun, the picture of bliss.
I gave the boat some gas to see what it would do, but it was too much. The boat reared up like a bronco and went really fast.
"Todd!" Maddie screamed and scrambled back on all fours towards us. She was looking past me, and I turned around. Katie was crying, but I didn't see Russ.
"He fell out of the boat!" she cried leaning over the stern and scanning the water. "Turn around! Hurry!"
I got the boat turned around and headed back slowly, looking carefully amidst the water and waves for little Russ floating in his life jacket. It was orange and should be easy to spot. Maddie was crying, holding Katie very tightly and studying the water. I was calling "Russ! Russ!" He had to be right around here. I just had to go really slow so we didn't hit him.
I had made a full circle now and hadn't seen him, and panic had started to set in. I started going around again, and Maddie yelled, "There!"
I said a quick thank you to God and headed over to... But something was wrong. There was the life jacket floating, still buckled, but no Russ.
Maddie pulled the life jacket out of the water in disbelief and terror. She wailed and gasped for breath.
I stopped the boat engine so we could listen for him calling or crying. He could swim a little, but not much, and usually with water wings on. I climbed to the highest point of the boat to get the best look. He was not anywhere. There was nothing to see. Nothing to hear. I forced myself to appear calm, but inside I was totally panicking. I had to regain my composure and find him.
I started the boat and made slow paths back and forth, back and forth, all the while praying and concentrating on the water. After a while, I didn't know what else to do. I looked at Maddie and her face was enraged as she started in shouting at me amidst her sobbing.
"How...could...he...get...the...life...jacket...unbuckled? What...did...you...do? I...will...never...forgive...you...Never. We...have...to...find...him. Have...to. Have...to."
I didn't say anything, could think of nothing to say. Russ had on the life jacket. Then it hit me -- that third strap on the life jacket. That had to be it, I thought as I kept scanning.
Maddie had collapsed on one of the boat cushions and was trying to comfort Katie who was crying hysterically herself, I suppose from seeing her mother so upset. Maddie was still looking in the water, on the water, over the water.
"There!" she yelled.
Over on the shore, not far from where I had been fishing minutes before, sat a little boy. I headed that way, and the closer we got, the more certain I was it was Russ. And it was. He was safe.
Maddie thrust Katie into my arms as we got close to shore and then jumped over the side of the boat. She went over to Russ who was sitting calmly on the shore, muddy up to his knees. I killed the engine and climbed out of the boat, lifting Katie with me.
"Are you all right?" Maddie was saying. "How did you get here?" She was holding him close as tears still streamed down her cheeks.
"A fish," Russ said. "A big fish brought me over here."
Maddie and I looked at each other in confusion, and then lifted the kids into the boat, got the boat over to the ramp and onto the trailer, and then headed for home.
After all these years, none of us still know how Russ made it to the shore that day. I am so grateful he was saved. But nothing was the same between Maddie and me after that. We divorced not long after this happened. I don't blame her. I do blame myself. That third strap was supposed to have gone between Russ's legs. When he was thrown from the boat and hit the water, the jacket must have gone right over his head. It was a miracle he survived.
Russ and Katie are in high school now. I see the kids every other weekend, and I have tried everything I can think of to get Maddie to give me another chance. But it is over. She is always polite to me, and that is about the best I can say. Our only conversations are about the kids and the kids' plans and futures.
There is no future for us.
I guess, looking back, we definitely could have asked for a better day.