The Time I Co-Owned A Fleet by Jeemes Akers
“Peace is not found in a calmer storm; it’s found in a better boat.”
Recently, I stumbled across a couple missives from the depths of the pandemic containing my rather feeble attempts to inject some humor into the darkness that appeared to be descending upon each of us.
To set the table for the story that follows, when I taught the History of Western Civilization, one of my favorite lecture topics was the Black Plague in the 14th century. The disease, both in terms of the tremendous loss of life as well as the dark cultural psychosis cloud that accompanied it, changed the trajectory of European history. Caused by fleas born by the brown rat from Asia, the bacteria-borne disease ravaged a society with no knowledge whatsoever of germ theory, personal or community hygiene, or the danger of ever-present bugs in their midst.
Oh, by the way, where do you get the bubonic plague? At a flea market of course.
Okay, I’ll try to do better.
Back to the Black Plague. The name for the disease was taken from the huge black bulbous swellings that accompanied the second stage of the disease, invariably resulting in a painful and excruciating death. The fleas were attracted to the warmest (and moistest) parts of the body: under the armpits or the hairy genital areas. For the people of the 14th century, the disease randomly selected its victims of all ages, both sexes, and across all social spectrums. Doctors were among the first to die along with church officials who prayed for the sick.
Amid the uncertainty and unpredictability of death, it was natural to blame God.
We know more about how diseases are transmitted today. I rather suspect that fifty years from now, scientists, researchers and epidemiologists will view our current knowledge of SARS-CoV-2 just as primitive as we now view the bleeding and vapor medical strategies in vogue during the 14th century.
But that is another missive.
At any rate, the backdrop of the Black Plague provides the setting for one of western civilization’s greatest pieces of literature. The Decameron—sometimes subtitled “the Human Comedy”—by the 14th century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio, is a collection of novellas containing 100 tales told by a group of seven young women and three young men sheltering in a villa outside the city of Florence to escape the Black Plague. In our current vernacular, they were self-quarantining to keep themselves from the disease. The villa itself was close enough to the city that they could hear the painful screams from those dying of the disease. To divert their attention from the suffering wrought by the disease, they told stories to each other: some were witty and funny, others somber and gloomy, still others erotic and tragic.
So, in the spirit of the Decameron, as we are all self-quarantined (the situation at the time of my original missive), I am going to pretend it is my turn to tell you a story. I hope you find it an interesting distraction.
During my years at Alice Lloyd College (ALC) and as Director of the June Buchanan School (JBS), my best friend was Gary Gibson. Gary was our first basketball coach at JBS (he had previously coached the women’s team at ALC), a gifted classroom instructor and communicator, and a wonderful friend and confidante. The accounts I relate below only scratch the surface of all the funny things we shared during those years. Those experiences could fill several volumes. You see, life on Caney Creek was all about service to others. We made enough money to cover our expenses and even travel a bit (partly because the College also provided us meals in the campus cafeteria and subsidized housing). We all worked hard and certainly didn’t get rich there: at the same time, it was the happiest time of our lives. Living together in the fish bowl environment of a remote college campus made us all appreciate the small things in life—the value of friends and family, a good sense of humor and unique life stories.
At any rate, Gary—the penultimate flea market shopper and bargain hunter—decided he wanted to have a boat. There were a couple lakes in the area and Gary liked to fish. On one occasion, Gary talked me into a fishing outing with his father-in-law, Cecil Huff. Cecil was the epitome of an Appalachian mountain man: he would give you the shirt off his back, loved local politics and could carry on a four-hour conversation with a corpse. I joined Cecil, Gary and other male members of the Huff family fishing entourage at an agreed place one mid-summer evening. It was like a safari expedition from an old Tarzan movie. We carried several huge coolers down to the side of the lake. I followed behind with an armful of poles and tackle boxes. The sun was setting on the opposite side of the lake as we reached our location. The coolers held enough food and drink for Napoleon’s army. By the time we ate as much of the food as we could and quashed it down with drinks, and swapped stories and jokes, the sun was rising in back of us.
We had been there all night.
I had not wet a line!
That was Cecil’s idea of the perfect fishing trip.
Perhaps it was repeated such land-based fishing expeditions that motivated Gary to buy a boat. He heard about the bargain of the century on a local “swap shop” radio program. The high price of the boat–$150 dollars—forced Gary to seek a co-investor. He naturally targeted his friend for the investment opportunity of a lifetime. His pitch was far better than my other friends trying to sell me Amway.
So, I became the proud co-owner of my first boat.
We drove Paul’s (Gary’s dad) pick-up truck to load up the boat. We threw the powder-blue fishing boat in the back end. We unloaded our prized new acquisition in front of Paul and Reedith’s house. We honestly intended to fix the boat immediately—it was in need of several repairs before it could float—but several events intervened to interrupt our plans. I can’t remember what they were, but I’m sure they were important. As a result, the boat sat in front of Gary’s parents’ house for years, protected and flanked by a huge yearly crop of ugly weeds and thistles.
During those months, every time I would see Reedith she would begin the conversation with the same question: “when are you are a Gary going to get that eyesore out of my front yard?”
As true friends always do, I deflected the question to Gary.
Far better him under the bus than me.
It became quite embarrassing. If Reedith didn’t fix the best homemade banana pudding east of the Mississippi River, I would have avoided her altogether.
In the months ahead, Gary kept his eyes open for other special deals that would enable us to get our boat into the water. On one winter evening, we visited someone who wanted to sell his outboard boat motor. It was sitting in a rusting barrel in a dilapidated building out back. But the price was right, $100. After the old man’s assurances that the motor was in good shape, we loaded it in Paul’s truck and took it back to Gary’s parents’ house. Then, a short time later, Gary heard on the radio swap show about a lady wanting to sell a boat trailer. We went to check it out. All it needed was to have one of the tires repaired. But there was a big hitch in our negotiations to buy the trailer. The lady wouldn’t sell the trailer unless we bought the boat that was with the trailer. At least the boat was seaworthy. The price was right, $250.
So now we had a growing armada—two boats, a motor, and a trailer.
None of which had seen the water for several years.
Gary bought a vehicle with a boat hitch, an old orange International Harvester Scout, to haul our odd maritime collection.
Meanwhile, as you can guess, the original blue fiberglass boat stayed in Reedith’s front yard.
The truth was, that neither one of us had any idea how to put our boat in the water. So, early one beautiful Saturday morning, Gary drove us over to nearby Carr Fork Lake where we strategically parked by the boat ramp to watch the experts in action.
Our wait was soon rewarded when a good old boy showed up with a brand new, expensive, top-of-the-line, dark blue, metallic metal-flake Ford pick-up truck with matching fishing boat. He expertly backed the truck down the ramp with the trailer placed perfectly in the water. His girlfriend, dressed appropriately in a neon orange bikini for a day’s outing on the lake, got out as well.
If memory serves me correctly, she amply filled out the bikini in all the right places.
Both Gary and I were duly impressed. We looked at each other with a nod. Now this guy really has it together … he really knows what he is doing!
The bearded young man handed a rope attached to the boat to his lovely assistant.
“Now when I pull the truck back up the ramp,” we heard him explain in the crisp summer morning air, “the boat will slide off into the water. You hold on to the rope. I’ll park the truck and then I’ll come down and we’ll get in the boat.”
The young lady nodded enthusiastically with an expectant smile on her face.
But as the poet says, “the best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray.”
The young man gunned the motor of the truck and it roared up the ramp.
He had forgotten, however, to unhook the safety cable.
Perhaps he was distracted by that orange bikini.
At any rate, rather than the boat slipping harmlessly off the trailer into the waters of the lake, it reached no further than the end of the trailer where it bounced up the concrete ramp after the truck. Each bump was accompanied by a screeching cascade of sparks as the motor and fancy metal-flake painting on the bottom of the boat were chewed by the concrete.
The well-endowed young lady in the orange bikini—dutifully holding onto the boat rope—ran bare-footed alongside the carnage, bouncing as she went.
Ah, the picture is forever etched into my deepest memory cells!
The young man slammed on the brakes at the top of the ramp. He was enraged. He jumped out of the truck, his face blood-red and gesturing wildly, hurling every form of curse word imaginable at the girl.
She, being totally innocent in the whole episode, responded in-kind.
Gary and I, not wishing to throw additional fuel on the flames of an explosive situation and certainly not eager to become convenient scapegoats for the young man’s temper tantrum, took the diplomatic way out. We slid down in the seats and curled up on the floorboards—where the young man could not see us—and proceeded to laugh our asses off.
The rest of the story?
Gary and I rented a slip for our boat at a local lake for two years without putting our boat there for one day. In all the years of my boat co-ownership, I went fishing a grand total of once. Indeed, I missed one of the most momentous occasions regarding our boat when our friend Jim Silliman, another fishing enthusiast, took a head-first plunge into Carr Fork Lake while loading fishing tackle on the boat. In subsequent years, we parked the larger part of our navy in the ALC parking lot below the tennis court. ALC President Jerry Davis, taking his cue, no doubt, from Reedith, would constantly and gently remind us in the college cafeteria that we “needed to move that piece of junk.”
In the end, Gary found a sucker—I mean buyer—who purchased our entire flotilla with us absorbing only a minimal loss of money. My entire boating experience only served to reinforce the wisdom of the old adage: “the two happiest days of a man’s life are when he buys a boat and when he sells it!”
Truer words have never been spoken.