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Published: July 11th 2009
Couldn't Be Happier
I'm fine all by myself...
“Hey, Rich, wanna a Beerita?” A what? I deduced what Felicia had asked me, but I asked her about its contents anyway. Zack’s newly married twenty-two-year-old daughter put the transparent plastic pitcher down and rattled off the primitive recipe, perfectly suited for a tank-top-and-swimming-trunks crowd on a Fourth of July weekend.
In order to count, her eyes shot up into the upper right of her sockets and she recalled, “Let’s see…three beers,” all out of a can and unquestionably awful, “one can of concentrate,” whatever that is, “and one can of tequila.” Wait, tequila comes in a can? After a pause, “Oh, and some limes, of course.” She poured me a dose of the concoction. As I took a look around, Phillip was already splashing feet first into the lake, having fallen in love with the slide bolted into a platform on the stern of the houseboat. I took my drink, not half bad, to the side rail of the top deck and sought out Phillip who was kayaking in a cove.
We were aboard a two-tier, four-bedroom fully stocked floating apartment, belonging to the Flynn’s, Felicia’s in-laws. It is one of the largest craft cruising the inlets and islands of
We were guests aboard the Flynn houseboat...
Watts Bar Lake, a segment of the Tennessee River and the result of a TVA dam project in 1939. In addition to powering the Tennessee Valley, it provides flood control and most memorable for the sunburned twenty-nothing crowd, endless weeks of obnoxious hip hop music, speedy jet skis, and waterlogged lounging. Over seventy-two miles in length and easily four to five across, only with a compass could I orient myself.
The houseboat cast such a huge shadow that it covered three power boats and Zacks’ Supra, which were moored along its side. With my beer/Margarita hybrid I found Zack and discreetly spoke to him softly. “How does anyone around here get a hold of a boat like this, much less maintain it?” I had met Felicia’s husband Keith, a sincerely affable young guy. But neither he nor his family oozed cash, not even of the Southern unworldly style.
“The family has done well. Dad owns two businesses, quarried rock and a crane business. They work hard”, just like the Davidsons. “But they were in the right place at the right time.” Two black banners with a large, pale orange ‘T’ flapped in the wind, a reminder that University of Tennessee
What's the expression? A picture is worth a thousand words...
athletics. Football particularly, comes first and foremost. Zack went on, “Someone had put a down payment on it and then the deal fell through. So the boat went on the market and they picked it up.”
“As simple as that?” Zack took another sip of citrus Sobe energy drink, “Yep, as simple as that.”
The rest of the afternoon would transpire in unrefined elegance.
At the bar a few folks gathered round; the topic of literature and pleasure reading surfaced. I jumped in as I was previously unable to advance the discussion of alternators, tail pipes, or which is the best tobacco chew for dipping. Felicia commented on the last book she read, Breaking Dawn from the Twilight series. I stayed quiet as I remembered Alyssa and Courtney walking into my homeroom every morning with a copy in hand. I had associated it with a teen saga in spite of the millions of copies sold. My injection of Newby’s chronicles of how he managed to navigate down the Ganges in the 1960’s could wait for another time. The limits of today’s conversation won’t be going beyond the banks of the Tennessee River. A gargantuan, furry, young guy in a goatee
I used to be there once upon a time...
chugging a Bud Light chimed in, “What y’all need to do is go get the Knoxville Sentinel Sports section and get your reading in that way. That’s what I do.” Then he steered the chat and all regressed to the domain of combustible engines. Felicia and I left.
“Hey Dad! Look!” Forty feet off the side of the boat Phillip had mastered the single oar with a paddle at each end. He was able to gain enough speed to make a wake as he glided over the water. A smile had been stapled on his face. “Can I go over there?” I had no idea where there was and he didn’t point. The inlet where we anchored entered into the main body of the lake several hundred yards away.
“OK. Stay nearby. Understood?”
“OK!” he screamed. His back was already turned to me as he paddled off to some sandy shore. Watching him expend his abundant energy made me tired. I spent much of the afternoon either gawking at the houseboat’s satellite dish and upholstery on the furniture or wondering if Phillip would come back and ask to be adopted by the Flynns.
Dinner came late since Zack took his
Wakeboard vs. Joey
One point for the wakeboard...
son Joe out for a couple rounds of wake boarding. When they finally returned, much at the behest of Felicia screaming at her father over the cell phone, we realized that there were only eight hot dogs to put on the grill to feed four. I engulfed three, Phillip two, and somehow neither he nor more surprisingly I was thrown overboard for our gluttony.
Goodbyes are simple on the lake. They just mean that there is a pause until the next drinks are cracked open and food shared on the grill. No one makes anything of departures; they are no more than innocuous pieces of information passed between people for possible future reference. Being from Connecticut, it was no different. Keith’s father was no different. I worked my way to find him on the lower deck entertaining guests of his own generation. In no more than a company t-shirt and cap with sunglasses, he put down his can of Coors and took the time to wish me well, ask of my background once again, and politely comment on how he was happy to have me as a guest. He went no further. There was no need. Connections had been made. I was linked to his daughter-in-law through her father by way of his mother’s friendship with my now deceased aunt. Pretty simple for down here, more than enough to confirm that I was in, no questions asked. In New England, such networks would be questioned and ridiculed. In the South, they are as welcome as they are functional.
Whenever I tried to find Zack, I’d come up empty. Now ready, he called from his Supra below while unfastening it from a pontoon party boat, “Rich, you up for a go around that lake on that wake board? His eyes directed mine to the two boots fastened into a slab of fiberglass. It looked easier than the cumbersome pair water skis my uncle once pulled me while on Suffield’s Congamond Lakes. I knew the theory behind the technique. Children successfully wake board on Watts Bar all summer. All I’d have to do is get up and stay up without smashing the discs in my upper vertebrae against each other. It couldn’t be that hard. Let’s have a go.
Along with his friend Jerry, Phillip, and Felicia, he found a placid arm of the lake with little traffic. Donned with a life jacket, I had already seen Zack and Jerry encounter varying degrees of success, and dare I say, fun. I’ll be fine. My overstuffed ego can compensate for whatever physical inadequacies I might bring to the table.
The first hint of trouble was that I struggled with the simple fasteners on the boots of the board, probably designed so young children could attach the board without parental help. I shrugged that off as a fluke and in I went face first to the eighty-one degree water, now warmer than the air. Just as I had observed from others, I placed the line over the partially submerged board between my feet. “Keep your knees bent and don’t fight it!” Felicia reminded me. Whatever girl, I’ll be fine. Just go back to your iPod screen and let me do this. I’ll be impressing the cute chicks in no time with a few tricks of my own.
Attempt One: Ready to launch. “OK!” Zack opened up the engine and the handle ripped away from my grip, skipping along the lake surface. My knees hardly had the chance to buckle. Fluke. No problem. Zack swerved around and I grabbed the line. “Accident. First time!” he called out. “Happens to everyone. You’ll be up in no time.” My error is that I actually believed him.
Attempt Two: I’ll just hold on tight this time. “Hit it!” Engines open. Boat takes off…along with the handle, only this time I held on long enough for a sharp pain to streak through my biceps. OK, I got it out of my system. Time for a tour of the lake. Zack returned, “You’ve got it now. Looking good” he lied.
Attempt Three: Assume the fetal position. Engine roars. I hold on with great might, refusing Zack to leave without me. Result? I did not manage to fully come up straight, rather the wake board was out of position and took on too much water resistance, sending me face forward into the lake as I ingested enough of water to drop the shoreline by a few inches.
Attempt Four: The Supra’s thrust sent me over sideways and dragged me a few yards before I had the sense to let go lest I become chubby fish food. Phillip scolded me with instructions, “Dad, you have to hang on to do it right”, and maneuvered his hands to show me what needed to be done to attain a perpendicular posture to the lake. That pissed me off. Visions of Homer choking Bart entered my head. Sadly, I was getting used to the parallel position.
Attempt Five: See Attempt Three but with several expressions laced with profanity. I pounded Watts Bar’s green tinted waters with my right fist. I barfed up more of the lake. The TVA might have to open one of the locks to replenish the lake’s supply. I was now miserable.
Attempt Six: This is it. Now or I’m done. Boat speeds up. I turned the board, toe up like I was told. I fought the engine and resisted. These are the times when common sense fails me because I so do not want to…too late. In I go, again face first, only with a crash loud enough to smash my cheek bones. The crash was accompanied by the loud cry of small feline whose paw is stepped on. Zack made another round. We were now at the point that he had nothing more to offer, no suggestions, no pep talks, no ‘Atta boy’s’. He was leaving up to me to end this tragedy. “One more and I’m done.”
Attempt Seven: Felicia has stopped cheering for me, even acknowledging me. She knows there’s no hope. Why won’t he just get in the boat, she thinks. I lock my forearms around the handle, as if that will make any difference at all. Zack pushes the accelerator forward resulting in my twisting about for the better part of three seconds like one those ducks at a shooting gallery, only my arms were flailing like a windmill, before it finally succumbs.
Attempt Eight: Fighting back tears, the handle snapped away from me and I slipped silently into the water, but without any fanfare. I climbed back in the boat tried to hide behind a few beer cans, and pretended that it never happened. We rode silently back and I wallowed in my humiliation. No one talked to me. We bounced over the wakes of other craft, exacerbating my frown and bruised ego. Phillip jumped up and down gleefully with the waves. Never had I been so low since I was knocked out by an errant foul ball while playing right field in a little league game. I vow never to go water skiing again, at least not with any witnesses or in a very deep lake.
The first time I came across him was on the top deck of the Flynn’s houseboat steadily downing cans of Bud Light. He was topless and not at all ashamed of his fleecy chest and back while holding a can of Bud Light in one hand and the same in the other. He is gargantuan in stature, with a flabby abdomen pushing fifty inches around, but perhaps only a thirty-two or thirty-four-inch waistline. Scott Hodge’s stubbled face and goatee belie his gentility and approachability. A man of not too many big or scholarly words, count on Poodgie (as his friends call him) to be there if there’s a party around.
We next crossed paths on Sand Island in the middle of Watts Bar Lake. For the Fourth of July, the shallow bar of fine exposed sediment is transformed into a bobbing parking lot of jet expensive watercraft, cheap beer, and even cheaper cigarettes. Stereo systems in boats side by side blast incomprehensible hip hop tunes to which the tipsy and blanched-soon-to-be-crimson multitudes jerk and hop incongruously. These folks should stay within themselves and stick to Kenny Chesney or Allan Jackson. Poodgie was making his way around a few jet skis with a full load in both hands. It was unclear if he was making a delivery (two cans of Bud Light, a water bottle half full of Jägermeister, a can of Bud Light Lime, and a full bottle of Southern Comfort) or just hoarding up for himself for the next hour or so.
I called out to him Zack’s boat without referring to him by name. “How ya doin’?” was the best I could muster. Surely he’d remember me from the houseboat.
“Awrite! Y’all gonner er there up by the lakesome yonder?”
Huh? The man looked just like Larry the Cable Guy, but I was listening to Boomhauer.
“Sure! In a little while!” is how I countered as he disappeared behind three twenty-nothings in scant bikinis. Another swig of Jäger and there will be no worry about his remembering I was ever in Tennessee.
Phillip circumnavigated the fun-loving and jovial Poodgie, with very high kicks and sloppy freestyle strokes, which took a few seconds. Supported by a life jacket under his waist, my boy took little care wallowing in the tepid, chocolate water in no small part due to several hours of warm, condensed human discharge.
There are times to partake and then there are those times when it is prudent to sit back and take it all in. In this case, from Zack’s Supra powerboat, I recall how I once took part like the group to my left. Injected with liquid courage, they are tipsy while playing chicken, but otherwise bothering no one, enraptured in an eternal sophomore year at college. Social butterflies in skimpy bikini tops traipse from one sub group to another in search of a refill or a gossip update. Phil joins a huddle of drunk men tossing a football around. Never discouraged, he chases after it when it splashes to the lake surface; most of the others guys’ hand-eye coordination is far too impaired to keep the ball from getting wet. He is excited, having latched onto Tennessee people and feeling part of the party.
“Phil! Get over here, now!” I bark at him. He gave me a perplexing stare. What did I do wrong, Dad? He threw one hip in front of the other and approached the boat. Unlike others, he knows when my verbal outbursts are serious or just to get his attention. This one was the latter. He did not move his lips, rather he lifted his eyebrows and waited for me to say, “Maybe it’s better for you to play over there.” I pointed to a family with two children slightly younger than him. While a lot less boring, it looked safer than the body-slamming competition that broke out among his new post-adolescent playmates.
Phillip was not impressed with the option. In terms of fun, he was being demoted from a starting spot in the majors to a single A instructional team in Davenport. He obeyed, as he usually does and soon forgot about the rowdier crowd and blended in with Ozzie and Harriet’s youngsters.
“You’re bleeding from your ear”, declared Zack to his son in an even tone, though one of concern. He swerved the boat over to hand him the synthetic rope for another run. Phillip had been chomping at the bit for him to finish; he was up next and for the very first time. Actually, Joey’s condition, Zack’s twenty-eight-year-old son, was far more serious than at first glance. Having wiped out on his wake board, he tumbled over at thirty miles an hour and in a freak occurrence, crashed into the edge of the board head first. The blood was not oozing from his auditory canal, rather a three-inch gash at the top of his head. Hard to tell as he bobbed up and down like a buoy, it became unquestionably apparent when he swam over and climbed up on the rear seat of the boat.
He leaned his head back. His wife Casey and mother attended to him. “Oh, no!” Penny remarked, “it’s coming out of your head!” Casey, a chiropractor, wrapped a towel around his head in the style of a Rajasthani turban, but not before rivulets of blood had trickled down his thin, but well defined frame. Some of it was starting to cake onto his chest.
“You need to get that looked at” said Penny in a worriedly and motherly tone.
“Nah, just a little bump. I can fix it later.” Joey is as hard-headed and stubborn as any other Davidson male. The towel was becoming saturated with his blood. Though he sat motionless on the rear of the boat letting out the occasional scowl against the attention he was receiving, neither his mother nor his wife could control the bleeding.
“I’m fine! Knock it off!”
“No, you’re not.”
“Let me be! And I ain’t goin’ to no hospital.” The three argued that point for a few minutes. Phillip looked on in earnest, not over Joey’s predicament, rather his first chance to go wake boarding was about to unceremoniously sink into Watts Bar Lake. Zack plainly shouted out, “He’ll need a few stitches, no big deal.” In essence, his father was right. But the two women on either side of Joey did not relent.
Eventually, Joey turned to me as an arbiter. “Rich, what do you think?” Casey and Penny had already argued whether he should go to the hospital in Crossville or do the ninety-minute drive to Chattanooga. Ninety minutes for a few stitches? Joey was still in no pain. His wife was convinced the only good Cumberland County Hospital could do is select the correct casket before shipping him off to the funeral home. “People die there for no reason!” she cried out.
Joey’s eyes and mine met. “You’re going to the hospital. That is not up for debate.” I ordered him. “It is a question of which one. Frankly, I do not care, but we’re getting off the water”, I turned to Zack at the controls, “now!” Somehow, hearing it from me ended the infighting long enough to head for the marina.
The most disappointed aboard was Phillip. I commanded him to put his board down. He had been holding it, frozen in anticipation that Joey’s cure would come in the form of a brisk breeze or rogue wave. No such luck. He was crushed, but hid his misery with a tone of respect for the situation. He dropped his head and put his pale blue t-shirt back on. His glory would have to wait for another day.
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