I own a boat.
That’s a weird sentence to write, because it’s something I’d never thought would happen. When I laid in bed as a child, dreaming of what my future life would be like, a boat never entered into the equation. Really, the only thing I knew for sure back then, staring at the ceiling, was that my wife would have big boobs.
And yet, thanks to the persuasive power of my friend Brandon, I saved up some cash and bought a boat with him.
The truth is, I’m kind of nervous about owning a boat. I’m not worried I’m going fall overboard and drown or anything; it’s more a nagging dread about the day I’ll be exposed as an incompetent, boat-owning phony.
There’s a lot of things you need to know about owning a boat, and most of them can only be learned through experience. How to back a boat trailer onto a launch ramp, for example, or how to steer and accommodate for the fact a boat doesn’t have brakes.
Despite spending a small amount of time on boats throughout my life, I know none of these boat ownership pillars. I can’t launch or drive a boat any more than I can operate a bulldozer or perform an appendectomy.
What’s worse is that I’m afraid to learn these skills because of an irrational fear that developed in my childhood, when my grandfather and his boat scarred me for life.
It’s impossible to encapsulate Pop’s life into a few sentences and still do him justice. So I’ll introduce him to you the same way he introduced himself to my mother back in 1975.
On my mom’s first visit to my grandparents’ house, she sat with Pop at the kitchen table, talking. In the middle of the conversation, Pop’s face turned serious and thoughtful, as though he’d just remembered something important.
“Hey Linda,” he said, pointing to the refrigerator. “Could you reach behind you and get my suppositories out of the crisper drawer please?”
Gastrointestinal events were a hallmark of Pop’s personality. Whenever he arrived somewhere, his first order of business was always to take a shit. On Christmas morning, when my grandparents would come over for breakfast, Pop came in the door, dumped his armful of presents on the living room floor, and double timed it to the bathroom, where he’d remain for the next 20 minutes.
It never seemed strange to me at the time, but in hindsight, I’m fascinated by this behavior, mostly because my grandparents only lived five miles away. What sort of heinous product could his bowels have brewed between his house and ours that warranted a 20-minute lavatory break?
The other thing Pop was well-known for was turning any small task into an operation of D-Day scale proportions, punctuating them with a machine-gunning of obscenities. When I was three years old, my grandparents took me out to breakfast. Pop let my grandmom out at the front door of the restaurant, and then he and I circled the lot to park the car.
It must have taken awhile, because when Pop and I finally got to the table, Grandmom asked where we’d been.
“Sorry, Grandmom,” I said in my 3-year-old voice. “Some son of a bitch took our parking spot.”
This uncanny ability to mountainize any molehill extended to leisure activities as well. Things that were supposed to be fun and relaxing ended up as hair-pulling exercises in agony.
Which is where the boat comes in.
When he retired, Pop decided he wanted to spend his Golden Years at the Jersey shore, laying on the beach and fishing. He bought a camper trailer and a boat and spent each summer trying to persuade the rest of his family to join him in his post-work fantasy.
On the surface, this was a kind gesture. A grandfather wanting to spend time with his son and grandchildren out on the open water, feeling the spray of the ocean and the breeze on our faces. But since Pop couldn’t tie his shoes without at least one string of “goddamn son-of-a-bitch this goddamn shoelace,” the concept of spending a day fishing in the Delaware Bay turned into a six-hour, sphincter-tightening torture cruise.
Fishing trips with Pop all followed the same general pattern. My dad would launch the boat while Pop screamed at him and we’d tear ass out of the marina, no wake signs be damned. We’d hit a good fishing spot and come to a screeching halt. Pop would shit into a bucket while we all tried to look the other way. Then we’d get knocked around by the heavy waves for awhile, maybe catch some flounder, drive at full throttle to another spot, and repeat until my brother Ben and I were too motion sick to continue.
Dad would get the boat on the trailer while Pop screamed at him, we’d go back home, and he’d shame us into spending two hours scrubbing salt water from every inch of the boat.
To be honest, I’ve blocked out a lot of the specific details of those fishing trips, but one trip — our final fishing voyage with Pop — was so heinous, so scarring, the details are irrepressible.
The summer before I turned 13, Pop bought a new motor for his boat. He was the king of shady deals, and he’d driven down to Florida and gotten an engine installed by the kind of guy who sold boat parts with the serial numbers filed off.
Pop begged Dad to take Ben and me out fishing, but Dad wasn’t so keen on the idea. “There was no way in hell I’d let him take you out without me,” he said. “I’d be put in jail for child negligence.” But by the second week of July, Pop had worn us down enough, and we relented.
When we arrived at his campsite that morning at the agreed upon time, Pop looked as though he was surprised to see us. Nothing was ready, he said, and we’d have to load all the gear before we got underway. He’d meant to pack up last night, but it had rained and he wasn’t about to get the goddamn boat ready in the son-of-a-bitching goddamn rain.
We climbed in and set to loading the necessary gear: life jackets, anchors, coolers. Pop was connecting a CB radio to the dashboard when he looked up, grimacing. His shoulders started to shake and he struggled to get to his feet.
“Finish hooking this radio up, will ya?” he said to Dad, and he staggered to the boat’s ladder.
My god, I thought. He’s having a heart attack. I’m going to watch my grandfather die right in front of me.
Dad must’ve thought the same thing, because he rushed over to Pop’s side. “What’s the matter?” he said, panic electrifying his voice. “What’s wrong, what’s happening?”
Pop grabbed onto the ladder and gingerly lowered himself to the ground. “I gotta take a crap,” he said, his voice strained.
He loped, bow-legged to the trailer, one hand crammed into the seat of his pants, holding in whatever was trying to escape.
Pop must’ve not quite made it to the toilet, because no more than 15 seconds after he disappeared behind the trailer door, we heard wails of anger.
“GOD DAMMIT! OH SHIT, AWW NO, AW GEEZ. SON OF A BITCH!” It was like listening to an explicit version of the Hindenburg crash. Oh, the god damn, son-of-a-bitching humanity.
After a quick costume change, Pop was back to readying the boat for departure.
It was a serene morning in the campground, the July sun peeking through the shady oak trees. Robins chirped, squirrels darted from branch to branch, a retired couple sat on their porch in their pajamas clutching mugs of coffee.
And then there was Pop, barking commands at us like we were partially-deaf and brain-damaged.
“CUT THE WHEEL! BRING IT AROUND! LEFT, LEFT, NO LEFT GODDAMMIT!”
We got about two miles down the road before the next major catastrophe. Pop slammed on the brakes, throwing my unbelted brother and me against the dashboard.
“GodDAMMIT!” Pop yelled.
“Did you get the goddamn minnow bucket?”
“What minnow bucket?” Dad said. “I didn’t see a minnow bucket.”
“Son of a bitch,” Pop said. “I guess we’ll just have to do without.”
We might have gotten another mile down the road when Pop sent Ben and me into the dashboard again. “SHIT!”
“Did you get them charts?”
“I put them charts on the goddamn kitchen table so I wouldn’t forget them.” He punched the steering wheel. “Goddammit!”
Our next adventure occurred in the Wawa parking lot, where we had to stop to get ice. Dad went into the store while Pop waited with us in the truck.
Pop, with his giant diesel pickup truck and 25-foot boat, blocked both entrances of the tiny lot so no one was able to get in or out. This included a bread truck and an armored bank car trying to make deliveries at the same time we arrived.
A sort of stand-off occurred, with both the driver of the bread truck and Pop getting out of their vehicles. Ben and I watched horrified as they waved their arms at each other, their muffled expletives trickling through the windshield.
Inside the store, Dad was paying for the ice when the clerk suddenly clutched her hand to her face and walked toward the front door. “Oh my god,” she said. “There’s a man with a boat who has the entire parking lot blocked.”
Dad clenched his jaw. “Ma’am, that’s my father out there,” he said. “Please just let me pay for the ice so I can get him out of here.”
So. Just in case you’re keeping track at home, I have, as a 12-year-old boy, thus far watched my grandfather disturb the peace, shit his pants, almost eject us through the windshield twice, almost get in a fistfight in the Wawa parking lot, and curse more than a Scorcese film.
And we haven’t even made it into the water.
Once at the marina, we went in to buy bait and pay for the launch, where another aspect of Pop’s personality had the chance to shine. For 10 minutes, while a line of boaters grew behind us, Pop dickered with the marina employee, trying to get a discount on the $10 launch fee. He name dropped, described his customer loyalty (“I put in here all the time”), and even asked for a bulk rate on the season pass. But to no avail. Defeated, Pop sighed and pried a ten out of his wallet.
As we launched, Pop put me in charge of holding the lines so the boat didn’t float away. I had no idea how to help launch a boat, but based on the instructions Pop screamed at me, I wasn’t doing a very good job.
“Goddammit, Sam! Take out on that bow line!” he yelled at me. “Take another turn on that goddamn stern line!”
I stood, panicked, looking at the two pieces of rope in my little hands. What the hell is a stern?
I did what any small child being berated by a grown man would do. I froze, not wanting to make things worse than they already were. Since I wasn’t completing my assignment to his liking, Pop had to come over and do it himself, ripping the lines out of my hand and pulling the boat to the dock. “What’t the matter with this boy?” he said to my Dad. “He’s like a monkey fucking a football.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Dad reassured me later. After decades of being accused of fucking footballs, Dad was a pro at taking Pop’s abuse. “Pop doesn’t mean it. You’re just not used to getting hollered at.”
A boat’s throttle is like a gas pedal on a car. You can adjust it up or down, depending on how fast you want the boat to go. For Pop, all of that wasn’t necessary. He only used two positions: neutral and full steam ahead.
He gunned out of the marina, the whale tail of wake violently rocking the other boats moored on either side of the channel.
He hesitated only a moment at the mouth of the channel, when he realized that since he’d left his maps on the kitchen table, he had no idea where he was going.
In old times, before the invention of sextons and compasses, sailors used to navigate by instinct, using the sun and the stars as landmarks. Like those ancient mariners, Pop chose to go with his gut. He cut the wheel hard to the left and pointed the nose of the boat east, out to sea, the shoreline rapidly disappearing from view behind us.
We were underway about five minutes when he stood up from his captain’s chair. “Hey!” he yelled over the roar of the engine and wind. “I gotta take a leak!”
Dad, who was in the back of the boat cutting bait, didn’t hear him, but Pop walked toward the bow anyway, leaving the helm. He pulled a coffee can from a storage locker and kneeled to piss into it.
The unmanned steering wheel began to turn. The boat drifted slowly to the left, and then harder, and then faster, until finally, we were in a 360-degree spin, doing donuts in the ocean at full throttle.
Ben and I tried to cling to our seats, but Pop hadn’t ever gotten around to bolting them to the deck, so once the boat turned hard enough, the chairs toppled over and we fell. Our eyes bugged with terror as we became pinned to the side of the boat by the G-force of the spin.
Dad finally noticed what was happening, and he fought the centrifugal force to wrench the steering wheel straight. He pulled the throttle and the boat slowed.
Pop, who’d been pissing this whole time, completely oblivious that his absence at the wheel had transformed the boat into a Gravitron, felt the boat slow and turned around.
“The hell is going on back there?”
“You left the wheel!” Dad said, exasperated.
“I told you I had to take a leak,” he said. “Here.” He handed Dad the piss-filled coffee can. “Put this away for me, will ya?”
We rode toward England for another 20 minutes, the shoreline now a mere speck on the horizon. We were just about to slow down and throw out our fishing lines when it happened.
The motor coughed, missed, sputtered, and then died.
Pop cranked and cranked the ignition, but it wouldn’t catch.
“See if there’s any gas in that goddamn line,” Pop said. Dad squeezed the primer bulb, but reported it was empty.
“Well shit,” Pop said. “That ain’t good.”
Shit indeed. We bobbed in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, barely in sight of land, out of gas.
We drifted for awhile, rolling and pitching against the ocean’s unforgiving swells. Dad was trying to keep us calm, but I was no dummy. I’d seen Gilligan’s Island, and I knew we were screwed.
Pop was just about to call the Coast Guard when Dad pushed aside a tarp and found a rusty gas can and siphon pump.
“Is this emergency gas?” Dad said.
“Oh, right,” Pop said. “I forgot about that goddamn thing.”
Dad wrenched the rusted cap from the can and began pumping gas into the starboard tank a tablespoon at a time.
Pop’s job was to hold the siphon tube into the tank, but he kept getting distracted. The tube fell out of the gas tank, spraying gas over the side, into the boat, onto us.
Ben and I clutched onto each other, covered in gas, getting sick on fumes, praying for the motor to catch. If we make it home, I’m never getting on a boat again, I thought. Never, ever.
Dad finally siphoned enough gas into the tank to get the motor started, and Pop gunned it toward the tiny pinprick of land we could see on the horizon.
We had enough gas to limp into the marina. Pop suggested we fill up and try again, but Ben and I were so shell-shocked, there was no way in hell we wanted to run through that gauntlet again. We pleaded with our eyes for Dad to take us home, far far away from this terrible place.
Getting the boat back on the trailer was like the launch in reverse, only this time, Dad’s patience was razor thin. He tolerated Pop’s condescending screams for a minute or two before wading waist-deep into the water, grabbing the boat by the nose and pulling it onto the trailer by hand.
When he came out, dripping wet, his face chiseled with the anger and frustration of the torturous day, Pop laughed.
“Well shit,” Pop said. “There’s no reason for you to get all worked up.” He shook his head. “You need to learn how to relax.”
So this was all the baggage I carried with me the day Brandon told me it was time for our boat’s maiden voyage.
I was full of nervous energy as we pulled into the marina, the way an abused dog winces when he feels like another kick is coming.
To my surprise, it all went smoothly. There was no yelling, no screaming, not even a single goddammit or son of a bitch. The boat just slipped into the water, easy and elegantly.
I was just starting to relax, thinking maybe owning a boat wouldn’t be so bad, when Brandon leaned out of the truck.
“Hey, can you hold those lines while I park?” he asked.
Every muscle in my body tightened. The panic, the fear, flooded back to me. Hold the lines? Oh no.
“Sure, you bet,” I said, my voice wavering.
Brandon pulled away and I stood on the dock, frozen, hoping he wouldn’t be gone too long.
Another boat backed up to the ramp, and another one behind that. Only they couldn’t launch, because I was standing there, blocking the ramp with my boat. I could see the other boaters getting impatient, but I had no idea what I was supposed to do.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Brandon yelled to me as he trotted down the launch ramp.
“You said to hold the lines!” I said, panicked.
“Pull the boat over to the dock so these guys can launch, you dumbass,” he said. He took the lines from me and guided the boat out of the way.
“Fuck, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” I said. “I feel so stupid.”
Brandon laughed. “It’s no big deal man, you’ll learn. I’m not yelling at you.”
I shrugged. “It’s fine. I’m used to getting hollered at.”