In the fall of my 32nd year, I saw an ad in a wooden boat magazine that set off a series of events culminating in a road trip that I am certain would have resulted in my premature demise if it had been undertaken at any other point in my life. Younger and I would not have had the life experience necessary to guide me safely through the shoals of drunken bikers, freaks and rednecks I would encounter upon on this last great road trip of my ridiculously over extended youth. Any older and the mere physical aspects of trying to squeeze 5,000 miles of driving into six days of alcohol fueled debauchery would have finished me.
1947 Chris Craft 25′ Express Cruiser.
Runs and floats. $1,000 to a good home.”
For those who are unfamiliar with antique wooden boats, this ad would be akin to finding a 1961 Ferrari California Spyder in the free postings on craigslist. The 25′ Chris Craft Express Cruiser was better known as the Red & White. It had been designed prior to the war as a traditionally varnished concept boat with stunning art deco lines but like everything else of a recreational nature at the time, the building of this Deusenburg of boats was put on hold for the duration. When post WWII production resumed, rather than the typical Philippine mahogany used in boat building at the time, Port Orford Cedar was employed as planking. This was due to the fact that the mahogany previously being imported from this region had all been shot full of holes during the Pacific campaign. Cedar is a fine wood for planking but unsuitable for varnish, hence the bold and very rare color scheme.
When I picked up the phone to call I was sure that the boat had probably been claimed, but figured I’d give it a try anyway and see if I might get lucky. After seven or eight rings, just as I was about to return the handset to the cradle, a man answered the phone and after a bit of back and forth, informed me that the boat was still available. I immediately arranged to acquire it. The owner said to come get it quick as there was much interest. It wasn’t until hanging up the phone that the thought occurred that I didn’t have truck or trailer, and while I was in Seattle the boat was in Jackson Mississippi.
“Whose truck is this anyway?” my traveling companion asked me about twelve hours later as highway 82 crossed the Columbia River and carried us into Oregon. I quickly changed the subject as it wasn’t really an important detail in the goal I had set a few hours earlier and besides, the fewer people who knew that I had snuck into a friends garage and pinched his truck and trailer, a friend who was out of town and had given me his keys in order to water the plants and such, the better as far as I was concerned. As we merged onto 84 just south of the Washington-Oregon border, we determined it was high time to purchase our first round of road supplies. These consisted of a carton of Camels, two large blue plastic cups, a couple of racks of Snappy Tom, and a case of cheap beer. First stop, Pendleton, Oregon!
5,000 miles, when travelling in an old pickup towing a twenty six foot boat trailer works out to about eighty three hours when averaging sixty MPH or right at about three and a half days. This is assuming we were to drive non stop the entire distance to Mississippi, trailer the boat and sign the title over in less than an hour, and then retrace our route back to Seattle. As we had no intention of passing by the many road houses and lowbrow tourist attractions along the way without experiencing them first hand, that left us approximately sixty hours of pleasure, minus whatever sleep we could manage, to be mixed with the very serious business of getting the boat back to our territory in one piece and getting the truck and trailer back in its garage before anyone was the wiser. As the old saying goes about warfare and all plans going out the window once the first shot is fired, it turned out that a stop in Pendleton was not to be.
About forty miles short of our first scheduled stop, we happened upon a truck stop/roadhouse that was packed with hundreds of idling semi rigs and an equal number of Harley’s. Definitely a must see. Finding a parking spot amid the trucks and bikes, we hastily retreated to the dark confines of the lounge. Requesting two Bloody Caesars and a breakfast menu from our waitress, I leaned back on the stool and took in our surroundings as my eyes adjusted to the low light. As my pupils dilated, the room did likewise, until I realized that we were not in a lounge as I was accustomed to, but rather in something that more resembled a domed stadium with bar stools. 6:00 AM seemed to be happy hour among the trucker crowd and we were not alone in our consumption of morning constitutionals. After ordering, I struck up a conversation with an emaciated looking fellow who went by the name of “Zellerbach” among the regulars, as he hauled loads of toilet paper coast to coast for a paper company of the same name. After around constitutional number four, Zellerbach and I had become fast booze fueled friends and I spilled my guts as to our quest and the embarrassing details of having purloined my aquaintainces truck and trailer and how I was unsure if I could get it to Mississippi and back undiscovered if we were to partake of the highway amusements that surly would present themselves along the way. He grinned knowingly while doing a quick calculation and determined that there was no way we could pull it off. He then dropped a handful of small red pills under the edge of my plate and said, if you’re serious about driving five thousand miles in six days, your going to need a little help.
Forty eight hours later, my hands at last starting to release their vice like clamp on the steering wheel, a sign saying “Tucumcari New Mexico, next three exits”, indicated that perhaps I was overdue for a warm meal and a couple hours of shut eye. My traveling companion having turned down Zellerbachs offer of “help”, was sleeping soundly on the passenger side as he had been, much to my annoyance, for the previous two days and nights. Unfortunately, like our scheduled stop in Pendleton, sleep was not to be in the cards for me just yet. “Tonight Only, The Weasel”, read the sign board out front of the Best Western. Using the time honored method of waking a soundly sleeping road trip companion of an index finger jabbed sharply into that small cavity directly under the ear, I said “Hey look! The Weasel! Tonight Only!” “Guess we better check it out” he said groggily, rubbing the feeling back into his ear.
Settling into a booth in the back, we ordered a couple of rounds as the MC made a weary introduction and onto the stage strolled a Navajo Indian with one of the largest Afro’s I have ever personally witnessed. It was spectacular, and when combined with his boot cut Wrangler’s and pearl buttoned drug store cowboy shirt, he looked like the bastard love child of Freddie Fender and Bootsy Collins. He was a solo act but sharing the stage with him was a small black box, a remote synthesizer of some sort that he introduced as “The Boys”. After a bit of banter with those seated up front, he flipped a switch on the box and “The Boys” began performing lead, rhythm, and percussion while “The Weasel”, strolling from table to table and occasionally to the bar for a shot of courage, performed vocals. In between tunes, his schtick was that of a trailer park Don Rickles, tossing good natured but on the mark insults at the low end crowd who frequented a venue like the Best Western on a Saturday night. All was going well until the alcohol consumption of the crowd and that of “The Weasel” reached a critical mass and he made an unfortunate crack at the expense of a diminutive man in a large cowboy hat in the company of a larger woman about the size of his hands. The barstool rose quickly and came down more so, square onto the head of The Weasel. His immense Afro must have cushioned the blow as he immediately launched a round house right that dropped shorty right were he stood, still clutching the barstool. Mayhem then ensued.
In a classic bar room brawl, it really doesn’t matter who you are throwing punches at as long as you are throwing them. In my diminished state, now being on the down side of the help provided earlier from Zellerbach, I was a little slow on the uptake and suffered multiple blows to the head and body before I realized that a classic bar room brawl was indeed what we were now in the middle of. Fortunately, my traveling companion having not imbibed of Zellerbach’s medicine bag, was as alert and rested as if he had spent the previous two days and nights drifting between napping and sleeping. He took a couple of inebriated brawlers out in short order, then picked me off of the floor and dragged me out the side door. “You up for driving?” I said through a quickly swelling upper lip as we hurried back to the truck and trailer. The next thing I remember was seeing through the passenger side windshield a white on green sign saying, “Monroe Louisiana, next three exits”.
I won’t go into detail here regarding our evening at the Monroe Louisiana “Holidome” except to say that it involved a couple of semi-beautiful local school teachers who weren’t repulsed by bruises and missing hanks of hair and were impressed with very mediocre Karaoke skills. We slipped out of Monroe early the next morning with most of our honor, if not our chivalry, intact. Approaching the Mississippi border we thought it might be a good idea to check in with the owner of the boat for directions on where we could finalize the purchase. When I placed the call to the owner of the boat, I was greeted by a very drunk woman informing us that her husband, the owner of the boat and the person with whom we had exclusively made arrangements with to purchase it, had suffered a massive coronary and dropped dead face down in his mashed potato’s the previous evening. My first thought upon hearing this rather unexpected news, and to this day I am certain will be an impediment to someday crossing through the pearly gates to cash in on my compassionate and caring life in this world, was to wonder whether or not the sale was still on. Dismissing this thought and quickly regaining my moral footing, I consoled the sobbing widow, expressing my deep sorrow for her loss. Again losing my foot hold for a moment I gently inquired, very gently I assure you, whether or not she was in any way able to complete the transaction. To my surprise and relief she then said ” Glenn told me you boys were coming for the boat. Meet me at The Dock, a restaurant on Ross Barnett Reservoir, and we’ll sign the papers.
As we pulled into the parking lot at The Dock, we couldn’t help but notice that said lot seemed of rather generous proportions for the smallish 1940’s era club and restaurant built on pilings and jutting into the reservoir. Entering the club we passed a standard looking restaurant and bar area and emerged onto the namesake of The Dock, which was a dock nearly as large as the parking area. The place was nearly abandoned at this hour and we had no trouble finding the widow and her attorney sitting at a table out back. Over the course of a couple of hours, we listened to many stories of Glenn and the good times he and the wife of his youth had on the boat. Satisfied that we would provide a loving home for her late husbands pride and joy, she and her attorney, after singing the title over, bid us a fond farewell and returned to their lives. My traveling companion and I sat on the dock awhile longer, enjoying the warm but not yet humid early afternoon on Ross Barnett Reservoir, and contemplated the twists and turns our quest had taken so far. “Guess we better find a place to catch some shut eye before we head back” I suggested after settling our tab. To which he replied, “The boat has a couple of bunks, how ’bout we just crash there and hit the road early”.
Around eight hours later, I was startled out of a very sound sleep by the very loud sound of a familiar “noize” from an earlier time that I couldn’t quite place in my road weary state. Stumbling to the bow hatch, I poked my head out and with great effort focused my eyes on what a short time ago had been an empty ten acre lot. A conservative estimate of the cars that now surrounded us like kippers in a can was maybe fifteen hundred, give or take. My brain was finally beginning to fire on all cylinders and when I heard from somewhere out toward the lake “Come On Hear The Noize!” Girlz Grab Your Boyz!” and simultaneously saw the bright lights of the reader board stating “Tonite Only! Quiet Riot!!” Climbing down from the boat which was now trapped by the surrounding cars as surely as a whaling ship in arctic ice and making our way toward the lake, we were presented with the sight of the band on a raised stage located roughly in the middle of the aircraft carrier sized dock, surrounded by approximately five thousand screaming college students, this being the home of the Jackson State University Tigers. In addition to those crammed shoulder to shoulder on the dock, every description of water craft from inflatable rafts to large cruising yachts were rafted up five or six deep on every available inch of the docks perimeter. On this warm and humid autumn evening, with the alcohol flowing freely and the young female co-eds on these boats dressed…very comfortably shall we say, I realized that the half of my mission that involved getting the truck and trailer back in its garage undiscovered was to be a failure.
I don’t remember much of the trip back but we made it home in one piece somehow. The owner of the truck and trailer beat us back by a day or so and we stopped hanging out in the same places shortly there after. I had many fine days in the Red & White and often thought of Glenn and the times he and the wife of his youth had in this boat that had been passed to me. I eventually passed her to a new owner who I am sure added his own chapter or two in the continuing life of this beautiful water craft.
Wooden boats are alive. More alive than some people I have known. To those who have not spent time on a wooden boat, the idea that they are as alive as those whose hands they pass through must seem a strange thought. Wood and bronze, paint and varnish, are as dead as all of us will eventually be. It is in the knowing of these boats, their history, the stories told by previous owners, boats built by men long gone using skills long forgotton, that makes them more alive than those timid souls who prefer to keep their feet dry will ever be.
Whatever your passion, get busy and get your feet wet.