BEFORE THE BOAT BEGAN TO SINK
BEFORE THE BOAT BEGAN TO SINK
A short story (memoir) by Nancy Gustafson, a member of the Memoirabilia Facebook Group
“Before the boat began to sink” is a short memoir about Nancy Gustafson’s husband and his brother. It’s a delightful tale of two mischievous youngsters with a twinkle in their eyes and some cheetah in their grins that even adulthood and old age doesn’t erase…thank heavens! Enjoy “Before the Boat Began to Sink” and tune into future Memoirabilia podcasts to hear more wonderful stories and poems written the very talented Nancy Gustafson.
Their plan was to build a boat using an eight-foot sheet of rusty tin that had blown off the chicken house during a hurricane. The brothers, twelve-year-old Jan and six-year-old Kurt, bent the tin in half lengthwise and nailed the ends around scrapped two-by-fours. They wedged boards in the middle to hold the sides in place and serve as seats. Then they sealed seams and holes with gooey black tar. Their paddles were warped fence posts, and they tossed two coffee cans in the boat to bail water just in case the tar failed. They were intrepid adventurers—the Lewis and Clark of Alvin, Texas.
Lured by a pond on Mr. McCauley’s farm, they lugged the boat across their pasture, a sea of cockleburs and nettles that stuck in their bare feet and stung their legs below the cuffs of their rolled-up blue jeans. Shirtless and hatless, their shoulders and noses were sunburned and covered with freckles. They stopped occasionally to wipe sweat out of their eyes, pull a sticker from a foot or swat away mosquitoes.
When they finally reached the fence between their pasture and Mr. McCauley’s, they licked their fingers to test the wind. It was blowing from the southwest, increasing the chance that the McCauley’s Brahma bull wouldn’t smell them. He was a huge gray bull with a black hump on his back, fiery eyes, saber-like horns and floppy ears. When he walked, an enormous dewlap swung from his neck. He was a mean son-of-a-gun known to charge and stomp intruders.
The boys forced the canoe under the fence, tin screeching against barbed wire. They eyeballed their destination, half a football field away in a Bermuda grass pasture: a shallow pond, where the bull and his harem drank and bathed. No cattle in sight, they continued their journey. By the time they wrestled the boat through the dense grass, they were wet with sweat and dragging their feet. The boys hefted the boat around senna bean trees and rushes that grew along the edge of the pond, disturbing red winged blackbirds that flew off in all directions like Roman candles. They launched their boat next to a floating clump of jelly filled with black-spotted frog eggs.
As they paddled into the murky world of snakes and turtles, Jan and Kurt grinned at each other, their noses crinkling into freckled washboards. The boat glided smoothly. Only a small amount of water trickled in at first. But by the time they reached the middle of the pond, the bottom of the boat was filling with water. They bailed wildly with the coffee cans as the tar gave way and water gushed in, but they could not stop the boat’s descent into the pond’s muddy bottom. Eye-to-eye with the dinosaur-like heads of snapping turtles, they used their paddles to keep them at bay. The boys struggled to help each other slip free of the mud that sucked at their legs, and they slithered like salamanders across the slimy water and crawled onto the grassy bank. Repulsed by the leaches they pulled off each other and exhausted from the effort of their ordeal, they lay on their backs and stared at buzzards circling in the cloudless blue sky.
Unperturbed by their failed boating venture, the boys decided to play dead and see if they could trick the buzzards into landing on them. They held as still as road kill, their arms and legs akimbo, their tongues lolling out the sides of their open mouths. They squinted their eyes and watched the buzzards through their lashes. The trick was working! The buzzards were circling lower and lower.
Trying not to move his lips, Jan whispered “Grab the legs of the first one that lands.” Then they heard it—a sound like a jungle drumbeat in a Tarzan movie. No, it was more like pawing, like a water buffalo getting ready to charge the natives. When they heard the snort, they knew it was the bull!
They scrambled to their feet and sprinted for their lives, with pounding hooves drawing closer and closer. Reaching the fence, they threw themselves to the ground and squeezed under the bottom wire, bare chests scraping over burs and nettles. Kurt’s jeans hooked on a barb and ripped as Jan pulled him free, just in the nick of time. The Brahma skidded to a stop. Enraged, he stomped and snorted, a cloud of insects rising around his hooves. When they reached a safe distance from the fence, the brothers turned one last time to watch steam rising from the nostrils of the still furious bull. Secure on their side of the fence, they grinned at each other like Cheetah.
This was not the last time Jan and Kurt would build something out of junk and try to make it float, nor was it the last time they would bail each other out of rising water. Through the years the brothers extricated each other from muddy situations, pulled off blood-suckers, warned each other when they spotted circling buzzards, and helped each other up after they had ripped their britches. They passed these virtues on to their sons and daughters.
Nowadays they sit around campfires with their children and grandchildren. They roast marshmallows and retell the stories of their youth—wonderful adventures that seem to grow in magical detail. They are told that they have excellent memories. So excellent, in fact, that they can even remember things that never happened. Through the rising sparks of fire, they eyeball each other and grin like Cheetah—that same little-boy grin they shared just before the boat began to sink.
©Nancy Gustafson. Originally published October 2015 by Imitation Fruit
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