Mar 10, 2016

My Life With Boats

The first boats I remember were in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. I was about five then. My grandparents lived there and grandpa took me down to the harbor marina. There would be fancy cruisers and big sailboats. I loved looking across the pier to see the forest of masts swaying in the breeze. It ignited my imagination. I wanted one of those boats.

In those days, in the late 1950s and early 60s, commercial fishing was still a major part of Sheboygan and the fishing fleet was lined up along the Pigeon River. The area smelled of fish and I remember exploring along there, peering into the boats and seeing the nets drying on racks and all the other equipment like net floats scattered about. To me it was exciting! 

Sheboygan also had and still has a Coast Guard station. Once my grandfather talked a Coast Guard guy into taking us into their biggest ship and giving us a tour. I remember the engine room with gears reaching to the ceiling. I also remembered everything, including the engine room, was so clean and painted. It looked like it never was used and I wondered how they could keep it that clean when they were working. I wanted someday to be on one of those boats and now looking back on my life from the vantage point of being a senior citizen, I wonder, when I was young, why I didn’t joined the Navy or Coast Guard instead of the Army. 

As soon as I started fishing, my fascination with boats took another direction; towards fishing boats rather than Navy ships. By that time my family lived north of Oshkosh, less than a half mile from Lake Winnebago. There wasn’t a boat I didn’t like or didn’t want to own. Owning a boat was a pipedream for me in those days since my quarter a week allowance wasn’t going to pay for a set of oars let alone a fishing boat.

A lot of people couldn’t afford boats then. In those days, boat rentals was a fairly lucrative business. A couple of roads over from where we lived, there was an old man on the lake who rented aluminum boats. My grandfather owned a small green three and a half horse power Kiekhaefer Mercury motor. My guess is his motor was manufactured shortly after World War II, well before the days the Kiekhaefer name was dropped and Mercury went first to white, and later, black outboard motors.

During the summer when my grandparents visited, meant grandpa and I could go fishing. We drove over to the old man who rented the boats and for something like $5 a day, grandpa rented one of his boats. He had several different varieties of boats, but my favorites were the Alumacraft and whenever possible grandpa rented one of those. Grandpa hooked up his Kiekhaefer Mercury to it and put me in the boat. I drove the boat back to the bay at the end of the road my parents lived on while grandpa drove the car over. We pulled the boat up on shore once I got there, ready to go fishing the next day. I thought I was pretty grown up when Grandpa let me drive the boat all by myself. It was just a little motor and only a couple of bays away but, for a 13-year-old boy, it was a special trust grandpa placed in me and I was proud of it. From that time on my dream was to own an Alumacraft boat with a Mercury motor. It was the ultimate boat combination as far as I was concerned.

A couple years later grandpa finally bought a boat and trailer. It was a wood boat with a fiberglass covering. It was a pretty boat with varnished wood on the inside. I looked at it as grandpa’s and mine. When we came back from a fishing trip it was my responsibility to sponge out any water, rubbing the sponge between the ribs to remove any moisture which could rot the wood.

Grandpa and I fished on Lake Winnebago and the Fox River in that boat. Grandpa always let me drive the boat and again I thought I was big stuff. Grandpa just pointed out across the water and I drove the boat in the direction he indicated when suddenly he yelled to stop. I turned off the motor, we dropped anchor and started to catch fish. As I look back to those days, it did seem just that easy.

I wanted a boat of my very own. I dreamed about having a boat and the freedom it would give me to fish anytime I wanted. One day I was down by the lake and found an old wood boat floating in shallow water. I pulled the boat up on shore. It was too much to believe this could be my boat. I wrote down the registration numbers and called the Department of Natural Resources to find the owner. He lived on the channels going into the lake not far from where we lived. I peddled down to his house and knocked on the door. A man opened the door and I explained I found his boat. He seemed surprised, admitting he didn’t know it was gone. Then he said, “You want it? It’s yours.”  I couldn’t believe it. I now had my own boat!

I talked my father into taking the car down to the lake to retrieve my boat. I had big plans for that boat.  Shortly after I got it home, my parents asked grandpa to check out the boat. He reported the transom was rotted and the boat wasn’t safe to use. I was hugely disappointed. My dreams crashed in on me. Eventually, it was filled with sand to become a sandbox in the backyard for my little sister.

But I wasn’t giving up on having my own boat, and by this time I was cutting grass and making a whole $5 a lawn. For me it was big bucks. I heard of someone living along the lake who was selling an old wood rowboat. I looked the guy up and he was asking only $10 for it; only two lawns worth. I could afford that but when I looked at the boat I found a hole about the size of a fist in the bow. The hole was above the waterline so it wasn’t a major problem and I rigorously checked out the rest of the boat. I read someplace where you use a knife to test the wood to make sure the wood wasn’t bad. I didn’t want to go through the disappointment of having a boat with rotted wood again.  I went around the boat poking it with my pocket knife. My buddy who was with me said later, “I thought you were going to put holes in that boat with all the poking you did with your knife.”

It seemed good otherwise, so I paid the ten dollars and now owned my very own boat. But I had to fix the hole first so I jammed a bunch of rags in the hole, covered it with wood putty, made my own fiberglass by taking more rags and gluing them on the boat over the hole. For another five dollars I bought a can of marsh green paint and painted the outside of the boat. I didn’t have enough money to paint the whole boat so I found a can half full of house paint left over from the last time my father repainted the house and used it for the interior. The outside was marsh green and the inside was a beige pink, the same color as the house. I borrowed oars and a life preserver from grandpa’s boat and I was all set up. The world laid in front of me.

For the next few years, I had a lot of adventures in that boat. I rowed it all over. I remember warm summer mornings before the sun brought on the heat of the day. The oars squeaked in the oar locks and I think most people could hear me before they saw me. I caught perch and the occasional walleye and smallmouth bass from that boat. My boyhood friend, Gary and I fished from it and later we used to row over to Garlic Island, across from his home, where we had permission to duck hunt. I always rowed and Gary sat in back with our decoys piled between us and our guns, lunches and other equipment placed in the front of the boat.

In spring, during Easter break, Gary and I used my boat to again row over to Garlic Island for a couple days of camping. We sat in the boat with all of our camping gear jammed around us feeling very professional with all the gear we had and the boxes of food we raided from our parents to sustain two growing boys on such a major camping adventure. Sometime later in my teen years, I suppose about the time I discovered cars and girls, I stopped using that boat. A few years later I was married and in college when I got a call from Gary’s parents. I had left the boat on shore at their boat house several years ago and they asked if they could finally get rid of it. I told them yes and although I might have left my boat abandoned on shore I still remembered all the good days from my boyhood with it.

It was about this same time grandpa and I went out on our last fishing trip together in his boat. We went out on Winnebago on a summer day still cool in the early morning. We fished the old spots we fished years earlier and for the only time I can remember we did not catch fish. Perhaps it was an omen. He was getting older and I think he was losing some of his enthusiasm for fishing. Sometime shortly after that he took his boat back to Sheboygan and sold it. As I look back now I wished I had his old green Kiekhaefer Mercury. I am sure his wood boat has long since been destroyed. Grandpa would die the next year from a heart attack triggered by shoveling snow after a blizzard. Six months later I enlisted in the Army and although I didn’t know it then, it was the beginning of a military career which took me to a lot of new waters.

I just returned from my first tour to Germany, now stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. After a year in Missouri, I was leaving the Army to return to college with the expressed purpose to get my degree and a commission as a lieutenant in the Army and to return to active duty.
Just before leaving Missouri my wife and I received a tax refund check. We decided to each take $100 and buy something we wanted. She bought a sewing machine. I bought a 12-foot aluminum jon boat. They made them in the area and I bought a brand new one for a little less than a $100. We owned a little American Motors Gremlin car and I drove back home to Wisconsin with the jon boat tied to the top of the car. I think the boat was longer than the car.

I didn’t have a motor for my boat but found an Eska 3.5 horse outboard with a dent in the gas tank for sale at the K-mart in Oshkosh. Although it was brand new, I pointed out to the clerk in the sporting goods department it was damaged. He was willing to settle for $75 and I had my first outboard motor. It was the same size motor my grandfather once had. In the next 18 months I used it as often as I could. I took it perch fishing on Little Lake Butte des Morts and trolling for walleyes on Lake Winnebago. I also used it for duck hunting. It could easily go into shallow water and we hid the boat in the weeds and it was steady enough to shoot from. One of the things I found out about jon boats is they are very versatile boats. In Missouri, we had used them to float down rivers.