Letter from Langdon: The Two Happiest Days

Boat-ownership fulfilled Richard Oswald's dream, and turned his thoughts to recreational hay-raking.

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When I was a kid living with Mom and Dad we used to drive down to the state park where they had a small lake. Sis and I would sit in the car with the folks and watch the boaters go round and round out there on the water.

From the back seat of our’55 Mercury 4-door, it looked to me like the people on the lake were having the time of their lives.

It always seemed back then like there was way too much work with no money left for fun. Dad was always serious about his finances. Of course, now I look back and see that I should have made more time for my own family and spent more for fun just as I wish Dad had. But when the banker is staring over those steel rim glasses of his, it’s hard to divert a few bucks from farm loan repayments into the personal expense column just for grins. Fun isn’t listed as an asset on any financial statement I’ve ever seen.

As time went by, equity replaced debt, and memories of those days spent watching from the parking lot while the other half lived it up danced in my head like sugar plums. The kids were all grown. The years we could have enjoyed fishing and water skiing when they were little were long gone. Almost 20 years ago those memories finally convinced me to buy a boat. It was one of the happiest days of my life.

Paying for the boat took “creative financing.” I had one of those whole life insurance policies we’re all encouraged to buy when we marry and have kids. According to my uncle, the guy I bought it from, it was an act of responsibility and love on my part. (I know my uncle sure seemed to love selling it.) In the event of my untimely demise, Linda would have the cash she needed to raise the kids and put them all through college. Through good times and bad, in sickness and in health, I paid the premium on that policy.

After 25 years of loving sacrifice, the life insurance policy that guaranteed financial security for my loved ones was worth a stunning $7000. Not only would it not put three kids through a good four-year university, it wouldn’t even buy a solid second hand car to get them there.

A more likely scenario – using the policy to put me up in a nursing home – didn’t look so promising either. At a daily charge of $150 (about average around here), the premium would last 47 days. It hardly seemed worth the bother.

The math was just too painful, so I said “the heck with it,” cashed my life insurance, and bought a watercraft. We called her simply “the V…I…P” (named for the manufacturer).

Ain’t they got fun? Richard Oswald’s “fiberglass time-machine,” similar to this craft, brought the family together and made hay-raking look like entertainment.


We bought “The VIP” used from a married couple who’d purchased it new a year or two before. (They were experiencing love and marriage the second time around.) They talked about great times on the Missouri River, swimming, skiing, and just hanging out with friends. Buying that boat had been one of the happiest parts of their lives, they told us, but somehow they didn’t seem sad to be selling her. And all they were asking was payoff on the note at the bank: $7000.

That should have told me something.

She was a dandy. I had hoped for something a little bigger, but at seventeen and a half feet with a 140 horse inboard/outboard, the open bow runabout with 3-tone paint promised to skim the waves and carry me back to an unfulfilled time of my childhood. I had purchased my own personal fiberglass time machine.

The first place we took “The VIP” was the state park. We took a spin around the lake. I was very happy. But I did notice that the lake looked bigger from the parking lot.

We started exploring other, larger lakes in the area, and I learned that the gasoline used to power the boat does not represent the single largest boating expense. It takes a lot of gas to get the boat to the lake and home again, two or three gallons on the road for every gallon on the water, sometimes more if you take two cars to a faraway waterhole. Then there are motel rooms, meals eaten on the road, liquid refreshment, and snacks in the boat. For some reason we seemed to be eating and drinking much more on weekends.

There are things people don’t tell you about boats the same way people don’t always explain about whole life insurance policies. Sometimes we just have to learn the hard way. Somewhere I’d heard that the two happiest days in the life of any recreational boater are the day he buys his boat and the day he gets rid of it. How about “Let the buyer beware”?

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, via Dale Hollow Lake
Life vests for everyone! It’s the law and also a major outlay for any boat-owner. Here with “Bobber the Water Safety Dog” are pre-schoolers, a group slightly smaller than the author’s family.

One thing I learned right away was one life vest’s required for every passenger. It’s the law. Life vests, the good ones, cost about $40 apiece. At first we needed only four, but then family participation grew and we needed six…then eight. (Life vests should be a budgeted expense.)

In a seventeen and a half foot boat with eight passengers that’s slightly less than two feet per occupant. Our family was growing closer with every outing.

And of course there are water skis. Some water skis can be purchased very reasonably, but the happiest people on the lake are those on a pair of competition fiberglass skis that cost $300. You can see them grinning a mile away. At least that’s what the salesman said.

You must also have a whistle. I don’t know why, but every boat is required to keep one onboard along with a fire extinguisher. Grandchildren, especially the small ones, love whistles. They like to blow them. Sometimes they blow them in grandpa’s ear. Grandpas do not like boat whistles.

Each boat is equipped with a radio, but the passengers of every boat have varied tastes when it comes to music. Some like country western, others like hard rock. I like peace and quiet. Leaving the switch turned on in the accessory position so the radio will play will eventually run down the battery. Without a charged battery the engine will not start.

A speed boat without an engine is a row boat.

Also, that sudden cracking sound you hear while trying to get up for the first time on a pair of $300 fiberglass competition water skis is not coming from the boat, the skis, or the ski rope. It is your lumbar vertebrae.

Of course the state required liability insurance on “The VIP,” and we needed comprehensive insurance in case we hit a floating log or some other obstruction. Having spent my life insurance buying a boat, I now needed more insurance to insure it.

Don fixing to fix the engine, and perhaps dreaming of laying of irrigation pipe, at Hell’s Canyon.

Boats aren’t like cars; they don’t keep track of miles, only hours of use on the engine. When we got “The VIP” she had about 100 hours on the engine-hour meter. After three or four years she was up to 250 hours. No one ever told me this, but a boat with over 200 hours begins to need serious maintenance. Underwater bearings and seals go bad, and tiny shafts with expensive gears begin to crumble. One minute you’re flying over the waves, the next minute you’re stuck between them, standing on your head in the engine compartment while voices from above and behind ask what the problem is, when it’ll be fixed, and why you couldn’t have foreseen this before we launched.

That’s when I first began to think of raking hay or laying irrigation pipe as ways to have fun.

Eventually my daughter’s fiancé became her husband. They got their own boat and quit going to the lake with Linda and me. They seemed almost jovial about it. After that none of the rest of the family seemed very enthusiastic about heading out in “The VIP” either, so she began to spend most summers in the garage.

When our oldest son said he wouldn’t mind owning a boat, I was delighted to pass her along. Helping him toward boating fulfillment was one of the happiest days of my life. But I had to make $800 worth of repairs before he’d agree to haul it away.

A couple of years later I had a cheery call from him: he was having a very happy day, and so was a proud new owner of “The VIP.”

 

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