Cast Iron Seagull, part II

“Seagull engines! They’re an outboard motor, from England. The company’s defunct now, but their engines were just wonderful. I find them as basket cases and rebuild them with other found parts. They’re amazing. You should try one!”

This sounded dubious. Outboards are notoriously finicky little creatures and the idea of getting an old one made by a company that no longer exists just seemed like a recipe for disaster. I listened as Ian went on espousing the benefits of his much loved Seagulls and as he explained why he was so enamored of them, (i.e. their simplicity, durability and love of salt water) the prospect of having one seemed better and better. In retrospect, this might also have has something to do with me refreshing my cold compress a few more times at the beer cooler. Eventually, he talked me into it and later that week, I dragged home the scruffiest, most disreputable looking outboard I’d ever seen outside of a Warner Brothers cartoon.

There was going to be a learning curve on this thing, to be sure.

The power plant (and I use the word, “power” gently here) weights only about nine or ten kilos, or a little over twenty pounds and is easily carried in one hand, providing that you don’t mind coating your self in a light sheen of oil and gasoline as you tote it down the ramp to your boat. There are no cans or hoses to deal with since the gas tank is bolted firmly to the top of the whole unit, just behind the flywheel. No pressure bulb to squeeze here! Good old gravity feeds the system.  Meanwhile, on a Seagull, the afore mentioned flywheel does not sport the expected, teardrop sleek cowl over it and the internal guts such as you’re used to seeing on outboards. If it did, you wouldn’t be able to hand wind the starting rope around the flywheel to get the thing running. As I screwed the contraption down to the wooden transom of our little rubber boat, I eyed the whole thing with a mixture of pride and dubiousness. My family and the marina attendant looked on with their own mixture. I believe I detected both amusement and fear.

It was “go” time. Would it work?

Though Ian had gone over the startup procedure with me two or three times, it had been several days since. Now, looking down at it clamped to our boat, the finer bits of the sequence became fuzzy.

I’d just wing it.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

First of all, there’s the remembering what buttons need pushing and what knobs need pulling and then there’s the throttle setting and then… there’s the flywheel. Most of us are familiar with the old yank line that’s used to start up the small engines we’re forced to deal with such as lawn mowers and snow blowers. But even these are now fast disappearing with the arrival of smaller, electric starters entering the fray, and honestly, who doesn’t like an easier to start engine? Still, I had been assured that in this case, my engine would not disappoint. The Seagull’s design is a throwback, even in its day, and uses a system that is the predecessor to the modern pull cord starter. In my hand, I held the starting rope, a knot in one end and a small chunk of hand whittled wood tied to the other. It is detached from the motor in every way. Don’t loose it. The knot fits neatly into a notch on the top of the flywheel and you coil the remaining length around and around in a little groove until you reach the end, which I now did.

“Ready?” I looked up at my family (worried) and the marina attendant (smirking) who were lined up in revue at the dockside. Deep breath now… “How hard do I pull this, I wonder?” went through my mind and I thought back to every 1930’s cartoon I could think of that involved an outboard. Surprisingly, there are really quite a few. “Just a gentle, little yank” I decided.

Bad choice.

With my anemic but long pull, I did manage to start the motor on the first try, but NOT dislodge the end of the starting rope from the flywheel. As the ancient outboard barked to life, it began to swing the chord over its head like medieval knight attacking peasants with a flail. The wooden toggle tied off to the end of the line made an unexpected and formidable weapon, smacking me three times in quick succession right in the back of the hand that started it. It was if I was being angrily punished for waking it from its long slumber. It only took a second for me to figure that this was going to end badly, possibly with me in the water, if I didn’t jump in and try to kill this thing fast. Reaching below the visible arc traveled by the whipping length of rope and wood, I stretched my injured hand toward the throttle switch while covering my face with my good one. With a quick flip, I shut the gas supply off and the mad thing coughed to a stop with what seemed to me, an air of smug satisfaction at having drawn first blood.

I clutched my teeth as well as my injured hand and looked down at my attacker through narrowed eyes. “So that’s the way it’s going to be, eh? FINE!”

I glanced back up at my audience.

My children looked rather worried while my wife and the attendant were doubled over laughing. Soon, so was I. Though the Seagull had indeed laid a good and bruising beating on me that smarted like crazy, I also didn’t want to worry my kids. That, and I could only imagine how funny that whole situation had looked. As it turned out, imagining my self as a cartoon had been closer to my reality than I had expected it to be.

“Okay, let’s try that again, but this time, without the death rope.”

I didn’t wait for a response since the adults were still laughing. This time, it worked. It really WORKED! And I didn’t have to jump back from an angry flail monster or anything! There were still finicky bits to work out on the thing, naturally. Engines of this vintage and level of, let’s be honest here, crude construction always require a “feeling out” period. You have to get to know their quirks, what sounds right and what sounds wrong, when to lean the mixture and how to stay the hell away from that damned flywheel. Also, with a Seagull, you have to get used to having no way of going in reverse. The engine only goes in one direction and you cannot, in any way, turn it farther than about sixty degrees in either direction, let alone spin it all the way around. Riding with one requires some forethought.

As it turned out, that’s fine. For all its idiosyncrasies, Ian has been proved one hundred percent correct about the little, stinky marvels. Mine has been humming and sputtering along the bay on the back of our rubber boat for three years now and considering that it was manufactured some time in the sixties, that’s pretty impressive. We’ve come to rely on it, if not for needed transportation services, then a source of summer fun. With the imminent end of the warm seasons upon us, it was time to consider pulling our rig out finding it a home for the winter in a corner of the basement. But first… we needed to have just one more outing. The day was beautiful, the air crisp and the last of the mixed gas for the Seagull, just begging to be burned. Plus, it was a drainer.

Everywhere you looked, islands showed off their lower reaches and what normally are no more than a few rocks even at low tide, were now throwing open hidden beaches, most often reserved only for sea life. How could we resist?

With the tourists mostly gone, the boat traffic was sparse to say the least. Even the ubiquitous flotillas of sea kayaks had fled the waters around our island home. It was heaven. We packed our life jacketed kids into the boat and putted off. Visiting a near by, tiny uninhabited island, we marveled at how it has grown with the receding big tide. We poked about, found hermit crabs, saved a beached fish and skipped rocks on the glassy surface of the ocean. The kids were in their element as they charged around and around, making a circuit of the beach. The low light of the end of the day lit up the trees on the coast like they were in spotlights and the whole world seemed to just stand still. It was amazing. I guess that’s what having a boat is all about, really.

Motoring home, I hummed happily to myself, assured that my family wouldn’t be able to hear me over the thrum of the Seagull. It’s a loud little sucker, but it runs and runs reliably. I was a very happy boater and tried not to think about having to wait a whole season before doing this again. I don’t know how or when exactly it happened, but I had turned into a boat guy. “What we need,” I caught myself pondering, “is something bigger. Something that we can take out a little farther. I wonder if I can find a longer inflatable?” Naturally, we’d need a bigger engine.

Luckily for me, Seagull made them.

I guess it’s time to go talk to Ian again and see what he’s got hiding on the work bench. I don’t’ know how I’m going to make time for this new hobby, but at least I can justify it. Hey, I live on an island, after all!

I NEED a boat!

Fun Mining.

I have a theory when it comes to drink.

I know that through science, the cause and effect is well known.

I know how my suffering liver fights to strain out the toxins of my manhattan and why it rewards me with a splitting crack through my brain the following morning.

“It’s dehydration,” they tell me.
“Drink lots of water before turning in,” they say.
“Take four Advil and the hair of the dog in your black coffee.” No thanks.

I now what a doctor would tell me, and that my theory is wrong…

But I prefer it for its elegant, impractical, foolish simplicity.

Alcohol’s true power is to suck the fun and enjoyment out of tomorrow, to let you have it now.

RIGHT NOW!

All you need is a scotch and soda, tequila and lime, gin and tonic or better. You get two days worth of fun all at once and what a blast it is. Next morning though has been strip mined of pleasure. You awake to an ugly hole and piles of till, rashly left to clutter the landscape of what was once, a new day.

As we move slowly and gingerly through this destruction, we can’t help but think, “This is so wrong. I shall never do this to a new day again. Where are my sunglasses?” We see with hope, the fresh fields of tomorrows stretching far out beyond the edge of the ruin.

And right then, we mean it! At least… until we are far enough over the good, green hills of days yet to come, to have sufficiently forgotten the sight.

“Oh. Neat, please. No cherry.”
“Thanks.”

Arrival, Part II

As the robotic female voice clipped efficient driving instructions from the little moving map suctioned to the dashboard, I fumbled with the radio in the hopes of possibly finding a bit of classical that might lull my boy back to sleep. Just because I had to be bright tailed and bushy eyed for the foreseeable future didn’t mean that he couldn’t take advantage of the car trip and get a little more rest. This however, was my point of view and though Short Stack might be able to understand the opportunity, bringing it to his attention served little purpose. There was a good reason for that.

My wife, if not a night person, is at least and evening lover and she can easily stay up until eleven or so with little effort. I, on the other hand, am a certified, dyed in the feathers, night owl and have been since… well, I was Short Stack’s age. If allowed to keep to my own schedule, I will happily stay up until some time around two AM or so and then somehow, after a few hours sleep, manage to crawl back out from under the covers at a still respectable eight o’clock.. I might try to shoehorn in a ten or fifteen minute power nap in there someplace to avoid nodding off unintentionally at an inopportune moment… such as when I’m running machinery at high RPM, but on the whole, I’m happiest to work on projects when it’s dark out and tend to get the lion’s share of my stuff done when most of my contemporaries are either asleep or watching Letterman through three quarters closed eyes. This would all be fine if the world let you keep the schedule that your body and brain was inclined to, but sadly, it rarely does. There are pre-set times when certain things must be done and that means that I first must convince my late night son to just lay down and TRY and fall asleep and then a few hours later, do the whole thing over again on my self. I just try not to put us as much of a fuss and I can easier tell if I’m lying about actually having to go pee again.

My son has completely inherited this nocturnal gene of mine and now I’m forced to choose between being the stern parent enforcer who demands that he go to bed since it’s already two hours past bedtime or simply cave in and let him stay up and continue to play quietly since I know that, truthfully, he really isn’t tired in the slightest.

I know this.

I’m not either.

Now, as we rocketed down the Florida Interstate system with a sigh of relief and a heady sense of mission, I happily put the lit up sprawl of Entertainmentville behind us. I eventually gave up on scanning the unfamiliar radio frequencies since it appeared to be an split between country music and tent revival style preaching, neither of which is my particular cup of tea. Instead, to keep my mind occupied, I started watching the clock, averaging my best, “pretty unlikely to be pulled over” speed and tried to work out our arrival time. If things went as they should, we would be pulling in just at the appointed moment. This naturally got me nervous. With any possible time buffer we could have had, taken up with actual sleeping, it was exactly the sort of thing that Murphy’s law loves to have for a delightful little snack.

“Dad?”

“Yah, buddy? What do you need?”

I was living in fear of another unscheduled pee break since pulling over on a Florida highway at night boasted not only vicious mosquitoes and chiggers but the ever present possibility of the random seven foot long alligator looking for a little something extra to go with his road kill platter.

“What are… um… What…” Words were still coming slowly and quietly, but I could sense that he was coming around to the coherent world., even if it was only at a minimum power setting. “What are they doing with the Space Shuttle now? Is it ready to launch?”

“Yah. It’s just about ready to go.” I scratched around in my head, trying to remember what I had read and seen about the preflight routine for a Shuttle launch and did my best with what I had. If he was going to be awake for the trip, as it now seemed to be, at least I’d have a chatting companion, even if the conversation was bound to be one subject deep only. “Well, I’d guess that the astronauts are awake and getting ready for the launch too. They’re having breakfast, getting dressed in their orange launch suits and will be soon be getting driven to the Shuttle and made ready for lift off in just a little while.” In truth, I didn’t know what the schedule was, but it seemed like a good guess.

He mulled this for a few minutes as we bumped along at the regular intervals of each pad of concrete.

“What are they having for breakfast?” This is exactly the kind of question my kid would think of and I liked the fact that he was curious about both what was going in to the Shuttle’s and astronaut’s respective fuel tanks.

“Hmmm… I don’t know. What ever they want I guess”

I wasn’t sure, but I sort of hoped that if you were a professional astronaut and about to ride a controlled explosion all the way into low earth orbit on a multi-multi billion dollar rocket, that the least NASA could do was splurge and get these incredibly brave folks what ever they fancied to start their day. It seems like the least that we could do.

Much of the rest of the ride went by quietly and from time to time I’d look back in the rear view mirror to see if my boy had finally nodded off during a long silent spell.

He hadn’t.

No surprise there.

The roads were black and sparsely dotted with the red tail lights of fellow travelers. In the quiet of the car, a nagging doubt had started to coalesce on the inside back of my skull and as its grip got firmer and firmer on my brain stem, I began to pay more attention to the road signs that blasted by in the glare of my rented headlights. I had started to doubt my digital navigator.

GPS’s are amazing tools I’ll grant you that I loved to fiddle with them when a friend happened to have one. I thought they were kind of neat, in roughly the same way I thought salad spinners were neat. They did a job, but they still seemed sort of silly to actually own. When it came to driving, I tended to be a luddite. I liked maps. I liked road signs. I liked not having to use batteries or plugs when I wanted to find out where I was. I love technology but really, I like to be able to do things my self. This trip though, had gotten me to choke back my caveman-like attitude and embrace change. When I had factored in my young traveling companion, our tight time schedule and driving unknown roads for unknown distances to unknown exit ramps, I realized that the safe money was on having a navigator to assist me, electronic or not. So, it was with hat and hand that I had visited my neighbors whom I knew were the owners of just such a magical device. I had knocked on the door and, after they had finished spinning dry the freshly washed spinach leaves that would be part of their dinner, happily entrusted me with their GPS. I had thanked them, packed it in our luggage and once we had arrived, used it happily. What I hadn’t done, naturally, was read the manual.

I am still part caveman, after all.

Arrival

The Alarm going off at eleven PM felt incredibly rude and distinctly impossible and I flailed at its unfamiliar controls as I tried to get my brain wrapped around where we were and what was next.

We had been in bed for possibly three and a half hours and though Short Stack had been out cold for the majority of that, it had taken me a little while to mentally wind down and then a little longer to find peace with the bundle of knees and elbows that curled up against me in the strange bed. Little kids are notorious in their lack of bed sharing etiquette and my son, as it turns out, is no different. The mental image of sleeping with your child in your arms is just about guaranteed to turn the heart of any parent immediately into sentimental goo, but the reality of the experience is that, even in sleep, your average child possesses ten thousand times the energy of an espresso fueled chipmunk and it will need to be released in wild explosions of sleep gymnastics throughout the entire time.

They will sleep. You shall not.

Oddly enough, the next night, the same sleep deprived and lightly bruised parent will almost immediately sign up for the exact same punishment once they look down at the beautiful form of their own child curled up and alone in bed. Apparently, it’s not just our hearts that our kids can turn into goo. Our brains are fair game as well. The effect is something like Stockholm Syndrome and we willingly crawl right in, ready for another night’s micro-beating.

I fumbled about in the half light looking for pants, shirt and shoes, and eventually had myself dressed and fuzzily awake enough to consider the next step. We needed to get to the car. What I SHOULD have done was to get the car mostly packed up the night before so that, naturally, had not happened. I had realized this when the moment had arrived but it had been the exact moment that Short Stack was finally getting sleepy and we were on the downhill run to bedtime. Normally, I would have left him with my wife at that point and scooted off with the larger bags and been back to the room in five minutes. With a little kiddo in tow however, and no back up, I was tied to spot. Since he was too tired to go with me and there was no chance of me leaving him alone, even for the sprint to the vehicle, I found myself unable to “run out” and do anything. It was a slightly frustrating realization but one that would be a part of every moment of this trip. While we were here, I wasn’t letting Rocket Boy out of my sight, even for a moment. This is when I remembered the stroller.

It had seemed goofy to lug it in with us when we checked in and I had almost left it at the car. Actually, I had almost left it at home all together. My reasoning had been that Short Stack is a pretty good walker and we would be doing something that he loved. I had little fear that once we were surrounded by the objects of his adoration, he would, as my Grandfather liked to put it, turn into a Cream Puff.

Being labeled “Cream Puff” had been an epithet of my childhood to be avoided and it was the one he liked to use when you, as a young child, would wimp out on a long walk and ask to be put on his shoulders. As a kid, I had taken many a long stroll with him at the beach and to this day, I can remember the exchanges that took place after I started to whine about tired legs.

“Your not going to turn into a cream puff on me, are you?”

“No.” Plod, plod, plod. “Grumble grumble grumble”

“What’s that?”

“I’m just getting tired.”

“Cream Puff?”

“NO!”

…and I’d trudge on down the beach with renewed determination my little chin leading the way, at least for a little while longer. Some would see this as being too tough on a little kid, and I do remember complaining to my folks when I’d come home, more often than not sitting on his shoulders anyway, but I did get pretty darn good at keeping up for more of the walk than I expected. Looking back as an adult, I have a sneaking suspicion that his encouragement had more to do with saving his back and neck muscles than building any character and stamina on my part, but the effect was much the same. I’ve tried the same treatment on Short Stack but he tends to fight back with logic.

“My legs are shorter than yours, though.”

To which I’ve replied, “Yes but you weigh less.”

This argument worked well until at one point he realized that, yes, that was true, “But my feet are smaller”

This kid is way too good at logic arguments.

“Are you being a Cream Puff?”

“No. Just carry me”

Ah, the best of both worlds. And I go on with my Cream Puff on my shoulders. Who needs to go to a gym to work out? My gym finds me!

Through all this, I have developed a packhorse mentality and will take just about any load on my back and trudge for miles. This was indeed my plan for Florida too. When his little feet gave out, I could simply plunk him on my shoulders and he’d be fine. I could do that for three days… I foolishly though. During the initial packing phase for our adventure, I had seen of the stroller as being an unnecessary torture instrument that I could leave behind. Strollers are not made for men, (or woman for that matter) of any height. Though I am only six foot tall and thus, well within the average for a male of mixed European heritage, strollers make me hunch painfully with the rear wheels so close that I inevitably wind up kicking them as I stride along. Couple that with the evil, free castoring front wheels that will inevitably go off on their own unexpected expeditions, often into the inevitable trash can or unnoticed door frame, and you can see why this can quickly degrade into a litany of mumbled swears. Right now though, it was a lifesaver and awkward as it was, I was grateful that my wife had convinced me to bring the thing along. Though I was pretty sure that I could have done without it during the day, there was one flaw I hadn’t considered. For Short Stack to stay on my shoulders, he needed to be awake.

With as delicate a touch as possible, I lifted my sleeping boy from his bed, set him down in the red canvas of the seat and wrapped him up in the travel blanket his mother had thoughtfully provided in her dutiful packing the night before. He stirred briefly and then was back to dreamland in seconds. Tossing a flannel shirt over the sun shade like a bullet proof mosquito net, I hoped to keep him sheltered from the blinding hall lights just out side our room’s door.

I glanced at the clock next to our still warm bed as I gathered up the last of our belongings.

“Crap. We’ve gotta go!”

Wheeling him out before me and pulling the suitcase along after turned out to be a challenge as usual and our room’s pneumatic door tried its best to chew on us as I shoved us though and out into the hall and escaped to the elevators. Catching wheels and snagging shoulder straps, we managed to make the lobby. With all the jostling, he was starting to come around.

“What are we doing, Daddy? Is it time to go?”

“Yup! But it’s a long drive. Just go back to sleep, buddy”

I was really hoping that the dark car ride would do the trick for him and that he’d get the sleep he should, but that it wouldn’t have that same effect on me. Realizing how groggy I still was, this became more of a concern than it had been before. It’s a simple thing to say, “I’ll just drive though the night” It’s another thing entirely to do it. What I needed was coffee.

The same multi-talented young woman was still working behind the front desk when I wheeled our ungainly caravan through the lobby and she smiled brightly as I appeared in all my encumbered glory, cloaked, half sleeping child pushed before me. “Don’t worry,” she said in a whisper and waived a dismissive hand. “I’ll check you out myself. Enjoy the launch! It should be a good one.”

“Thanks! Um…” I paused and whispered back. “Coffee?”

In the end, they had no coffee and the nearest all night dad refueling depot would take us a good bit off our intended course. With time weighing me down more than the bags, I decided to opt for the syrupy gloop that passes for bottled ice tea that was available from our helpful host. I didn’t have time to fill out a comment card and I regretted that. She had been great and deserved, if not a promotion, then at least an assistant or four. I also might have mentioned to the hotel chain their need for coffee in the lobby.

By now, the transfer from the bed to the stroller had woken my boy up a bit and the lights in the hall and lobby hadn’t helped, though I had done my best to muffle both. My brief search for caffeine hadn’t helped either and by the time I was clicking him into the car seat, he was rubbing his eyes and yawing. He was up and he knew where we were going. It was rocket time! As I made ready to pull out and leave, there was none of his usual chatting coming from the back seat as he grappled with his sleep drunk body and attempted to take control. He’d start a sentence with a groggy, “Um… Daddy. Um…” and get no further than possibly, “Did we… um.” And leave it at that. Mentally, he was struggling to the surface but trying to get the machinery of his little brain going was rough. It was still clogged with the cotton batting of deep sleep and though it became quickly evident to me that there was no chance of him nodding off again, I stayed quiet too in the hopes that he’d nod off again. I punched our destination into the GPS that I had oh-so very thankfully borrowed from a friend before we flew out and pulled the car onto the highway.

At NASA, an hour away, the countdown was running…

It was actually running!

Both they and we were on schedule.

3/7/05 – The Old Trott Cemetery

Monday Poem – A Year and a Day

The Old Trott Cemetery – 3/7/05

The stones of the old plot are deep in winter’s snow.
Who lies beneath is a mystery though.
They have lived their lives.
They have seen good days
and watched the tides and the sunlight fade.

Their homes, built with no aid of power.
Their hands grew callous and their gardens did flower
with the same small blooms that will open this May.
But their names are lost.

Time scrubbed them away.

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