ALMOST NOTHING LIKE THE TRUTH
You heard the one about the guy that strapped a motorcycle onto the deck of his sailboat way back when? No? Happened right here on this river. My old man started this story. Played the goddamn hero, the way he told it.
O.K. So, there's this kid. Liked engines and speed, but he also liked sailing, the ancient power of wind in the canvas. Couldn't decide whether he wanted to be a sailor or a power boater or a goddamn motorcycle demon. Whether to go fast or slow. So he tried to do it all at the same time - the speed of revved-up engines and the given pace of the wind. I mean, this guy was a real goddamn accident waiting to happen. As it happened though, when the accident was no longer waiting to happen, but actually was happening, it was happening to his small daughter, some four or five years old, and to his wife. Guy didn't stick around long enough to see what happened after, though. After he decided it was a good idea to strap a motorcycle up on deck so he’d have some way to fly off again upon landfall.
You gotta understand that this was the 1930s. Way before all this damn mess of speedboats and those goddamn, what do you call 'em? Impersonal watercraft. There were still folks around for whom an internal combustion engine on any boat smaller than a battle ship was still a brand-fucking-new marvel of industry for the common man. Outboard engines ran like shit in a barrel, but you counted yourself fortunate to be able to spend all your time trying to make it run. Either that, or you were like my old man, and didn't bother with new junk just because it was new, especially if what you had already was working fine. He stuck to steam and coal, or hitched up a team of horses to long ropes and pulled flatboats up and down the river like that from the shore. You could run a length of rope across the channel and pull everything from one side to the other a couple of pulleys and literal horsepower. But that was just my old man holding out against the tide of progress. Most folks were hypnotized by the ability to make fire in the belly of an engine. People were still trying to figure out how to run the damn things, making spare boat engine parts out of car parts or whatever washed up on shore, wearing the parts out until they could find something else. Those days, you poured 100-proof into the tank when you ran out of fuel since there was more of that around on the river than any other combustibles.
The tensions between power boaters and sail boaters were still new back then too, and stronger, in a way. There were no such things as lawsuits like we got them now and you could still express some of your thoughts with your fists or just by keeping a gun lying around. There were lines you just didn't cross then, partly because people knew where the lines were and they respected them.
So anyway, there's this guy that didn't know that there were lines not to be crossed until it was too late. He was young enough that he couldn't remember before everybody had an engine on their boat. Imagine what this guy looked like to some of the old timers that were still on the river. He's got this sailboat. A fancy, new fiberglass thing, and he sticks a huge fucking prop on the end of his shaft. I mean, this prop was a monster, and pitched all wrong. It was almost as big as some of your puffed-up heads. Never mind that the speed of a displacement hull tops off at around 7 knots or so depending on the length of the boat. This guy thought the more noise he made, the more he was getting somewhere.
I used to see him going by, careless bastard, fenders still bouncing in the water long after he'd left the dock. Of course, the prop was mounted all wrong - too high an angle – so that it blew water into the air behind him as he went along. Today you'd call it inefficient motoring. Back then, you'd just call the guy an asshole. Incompetent. You'd hear that engine revving and see the water frothing up in his wake like a goddamn fountain while he pushed his puny six or seven knots worth of hot air and fumes. Not that he noticed the big mess of water blowing out his backside - too busy with the wind in his hair and places to get to up ahead.
And he'd do it all with the sails up too, flapping away, boom swinging back and forth just above his head, canvas all ready to fill with wind for when he decided to slow the hell down. Thought he was really getting somewhere, that guy, getting to where the wind was really blowing. He'd see a patch of water out there somewhere with more wind wrinkling up the surface than in the patch of water where he happened to be, and he'd go racing over to it, his sails all ready to go for when he got there. It got to where he didn't even bother to turn off the engine when he was cruising, even with the sails full of wind. Just throw her in neutral and milk that fucking breeze until a better one blows over the water someplace else.
And here's the real kicker. The real folly on top of it all and what finally did the guy in: He had himself an old Harley Davidson that he strapped up on deck. He must've rode it up a plank of wood and onto the deck where he lashed it to the shrouds. Word on the river was he thought he might sail down to San Francisco and have himself a pair of wheels to zip around the hills with once he passed through the golden gate. Back when the “golden gate” meant more than just some fancy little bridge.
Turns out all the motorcycle ever did was weigh down the port side and hang up the jib sheets and leak oil all over the fucking deck. And did the guy ever clean up the mess? Well, I don't know, but my father was on the beach at Sauvie Island one day and saw the guy's daughter slip on the deck and fall into the river. My old man had one of the horses out for a run that morning when the motorcycle-sailor guy was taking his daughter and his wife, out on the boat for a revved-up sailing trip to who the hell knows where.
Guy's wife's in the cabin and he's looking for wind somewhere on the horizon when the daughter slips and falls in. Guy’s turning the boat, and she goes down under the hull and back to where that big prop is spinning away. For the first time in his life, the guy stops to turn around and face the stern and sees the red foam spraying up out of the water. By the time he gets the engine disengaged, the girl's body is drifting in the churned-up wake. The engine stops and sails start scooping wind out of the air and pushing his boat away from the mess he's made.
What's a guy to do after he's killed his own daughter? I don't know, but this particular guy locks the tiller to keep the boat on a level tack and then he takes a knife out and opens a lane in the spring lines, climbs onto the motor bike, unstraps it from the shrouds and uses the straps to lash himself to the handlebars, and then he fires it up, and takes a long ride off the short deck and into the drink. The mother pops her head out of the cabin when she hears the motorcycle engine and when she sees the mess and it hits her what's happened, she falls back into the cabin, dead or unconscious, at that point, we'll never know.
So, right about when the guy climbs on the motorcycle, my old man sees what's happened and what's about to happen and he digs his heels in and takes his mare for a run downstream 50 yards or so ahead of the boat. Then he jumps down from the horse and tosses his boots toward the shore, grabs a length of rope and ties it around his waist and hears the motorcycle engine and the splash and turns to see the bike hovering for an instant on the surface of the water before it goes down. My old man sees the woman falling into the cabin just after he dives into the water and starts swimming toward the middle of the river, where he hopes to intercept the sailboat on its course downstream.
Who knows what he was thinking, or if he was thinking at all, going after that boat, bringing that rope with him. Probably just the deep-rooted instinct that a length of rope is rarely a burden and usually a help. What help a length of rope might become is hard to see before you see how handy it might have been when you don't have it. My father grew up around horses and sail boats and he knew it by instinct: on or near the water, you could never have too much line.
Of course, for those of you who probably don't know any better, you wouldn't call it a rope on the water. You call it a rope when it's tied off to a horse, and then you'd call it a line the minute it leaves dry land. You don't “show” anyone “the ropes” on a boat. You show them the lines or sheets or halyards depending on what they're attached to: Bowline, spring line, jib sheet, main sheet or whatever. I suppose the minute my father tied that rope around his waist and dove into the water, it wasn't a rope anymore, but a line.
Sometimes a line is all that stands between you and the chaos that the wind and the river can bring. It's the old battle between man and nature, and all you have to hold onto, really, is a line. It doesn't matter how big or how fancy your boat is, you don't have lines, you're fucked. You've got no way of tying yourself off to anything, and life on the water just isn't possible unless you're hanging on to something else, whether it's a dock or an anchor or your own goddamn balls. Without the line, you're just drifting. That's what my father knew in his bones when he was tying that line around his waist and diving into the water after that runaway boat.
So, the boat's still sailing downstream and my father is swimming for all he's worth to intercept it and his clothes are heavy with water by now and he sees that he's not gonna get to the spot he wants to get to before the boat does and that it's probably gonna pass him by and so he swims for all he's worth until the bow of the ship is sliding along in front of him, and the deck is still a ways off and way up there above the surface anyway, and it's not like he's gonna be able to jump up and grab on, so, real quick-like, he ties himself a big bowline knot and he tosses the line up toward a deck cleat and of course he misses the entire boat by a nautical mile. So he's watching the stern fade away downstream, wondering about the woman onboard, whether she’s hit her head, or broken her neck, or if she’s sitting down there pulling her hair out, when something brushes into him from behind. At first, he thinks of the guy on the motorcycle somewhere below him – maybe the guy came loose and drifted up to the surface - but then he remembers the little girl, and he turns, and there she is, floating face up, feet forward, pushing into him, and he wretches a little and then starts to really lose it, getting sick for barfing right in front of the girl, as if she might have seen it or smelled it.
Then, looking for somewhere else to look, he scans the south shore and across to the north shore, trying to judge which is the closest, since he's getting pretty tired by now, swimming in all those clothes. He decides to take the body over to Washington State. He reaches out for the girl's leg, thinking to tie the line to it so he can swim and tow the body, and so he doesn't have to touch her.
Get this. The leg moves. The girl makes this low groaning sound. She's alive. My father reaches for her and holds her, and tries to keep her head above the water. Her clothes are fairly torn up. Her skin is bone-white. One of her arms is gone above the elbow. Blood’s still pulsing out into the river. He wraps his line around what's left of her arm and pulls down tight on a couple of half-hitches and that seems to stop the bleeding a little. The girl coughs. Her breathing is shallow. My father shifts her around onto his back, her body facing away from his, her arm up out of the water and her head lolling back over his shoulder. He wraps the line around the both of them once and cinches it down with a slip knot and starts swimming back toward his horse on the Oregon shore, his strength having come back to him now that he's swimming for two lives rather than just his own. His back, pressed against hers, grows warm.
By the time they hit the Sauvie Island shore and both of them were balanced up on that horse, speeding off toward civilization, the unmanned sailboat was still underway behind them. My father turned to look and the vessel was only a spot of sail on the river just about out of sight around the bend downstream.
So, the story leaves the river at that point, as far as the little girl's part in it. She lived. I knew her for a little while right after. She visited our place on the island a couple of times when she got out of the hospital, one sleeve draped across her chest and pinned to her opposite shoulder. Her eyes were always wide open. Whites all around the edges. I never saw her blink. Not even once. Some of her relatives came up from California to claim her, otherwise, my dad might have tried to adopt her. At least according to him. Back on the river, the story goes on, as stories tend to do on the river. The Coast Guard couldn't find the motorcycle or the guy strapped to it. People thought maybe the bike landed on the bottom and just kept rolling along, God knows how far. Even the sailboat seemed to have disappeared for a short time. The wind kept filling its sails, blowing it all the way down to St Helen's Island where it slammed into the ground on the upstream side, tipped over and sank, the mast sticking out of the river at an angle, like this, slapping sideways in and out of the water as the waves came along. The mother might've died then, maybe, trapped inside the cabin. There's a rumor that her wrists and throat were cut, though, so who knows.
End of story? Almost, but not quite.
Twenty or twenty-five years later, you started to hear about some diver that said he found the motorcycle when he was down there looking for something else. There was a skeleton strapped to it, still sitting in the chewed-up seat, and the rest of the bike was all rusted out. The guy on the motorcycle was all bones and teeth - all the crap long since washed out of his damn skull.
So there you go. The end? God, let's hope so.
Never heard that one? Well, I guess you guys weren't even in diapers yet back then. Crazy one, that story. Aren't many people left down here who'd remember to tell it, or to tell it right, or even listen right to a story like that one.
Now, let's get one thing straight about this tale. Somewhere in there, the whole thing turns into so much bullshit, right? That story's at a delicate point in its history. Been told a number of times before it got right here to us. Somewhere in there, it's probably gone off the tracks. But where? That's the question, right? Where did the story come from? Mostly, my old man, but some of it has carried over the water over time from others. Maybe it starts to depart from history with my old man and what he told about what he saw and what he did. God knows how, but somehow, my old man takes a rope into the water and goes for a swim and ties all these knots and doesn't get tangled up in the line. Or that girl. She's in the water all that time bleeding out, and my old man just comes along and ties a few knots and saves the day? So then, what really happened? And how did it happen?
Maybe the bullshit comes from what others added to the story, people who weren't even there. I mean, that sailboat damn-sure didn't keep her course into the wind all the way down to St. Helens, right? Around a couple of turns and into the wind without luffing at all, or even tacking? Come on. And maybe nobody really found the motorcycle, or that damn skeleton, or maybe there wasn't really any motorcycle to begin with. I was just a little crapper back then. I'd swear the motorcycle was there the couple of times I saw that guy blowing around on the river - I can even see that bike now - but telling about it over the years might have put it there, though. Who knows, the only shred of decent, living history left in the tale might be that my old man saw a body floating in the river once or that I used to have a distant one-armed cousin.
So you see, the story is in a dangerous way. It's becoming a wide tale. You know tall tales? It's kinda like that, except tall tales are for land-lubbers who get bored stiff with their lives up on dry ground. The minute you find yourself bored on the water is the minute you’d better pay the fuck attention. You wouldn't call them tall tales on the water, now, would you? Things don't go up here, you know? Houses, docks, boats - they spread out over the surface. They tie off to other things that are tied off to pilings, or they get tied off to an anchor that gets wedged into the river bottom, or they drift away, or they go down into the drink. It's that line I'm trying to talk to you about. Line goes from one thing to the next like the story when it gets passed down. And the whole thing spreads across the surface over time.
So, by now, my old man’s story has been floating along for some time, and others have added parts of themselves to it. For me to tell his story, or for you to, is not just some walk in a goddamn park. More like lashing down a sail in a storm. More like hanging by a string after falling through the hole in an outhouse. And it's a careful climb out, fellas.
It's a delicate balance I'm talking about here, telling stories on the water. Stories that are on their way to being the truth, the whole truth, or almost nothing like the truth. So help you God. So-help-you-God and the devil and the deep blue sea. Whatever help you can get. Got it? Living on the water. Talking on the water. Or even listening. It's a damn-d-dangerous business, isn't it? You’re tying a line around your waist and diving in. Always bring something you can hold onto.
Brian Friesen has recently completed an MA in English
at the University of Alberta where he was a recipient
of the James Patrick Folinsbee Award for Creative
Writing. Brian has published stories and poems in
several northwest publications. He has been an editor
and writing instructor both inside and outside the
university, and was the producer of a bi-weekly
literary radio show at Oregon Public Broadcasting. He
is currently living in Portland, Oregon with his wife
and two children.