The summer of the boat

By Fred Laird with Photography by Mark Hume

A book excerpt from – Casting from the Far Bank

The morning sun was cresting the ridge on the east side of the North Branch River and beginning to light the top of Wrightsville Dam. The subtle change in air temperature that it caused began to lift the morning mist that until now had all but obscured the two young boys scaling the scree on their way to the top. The two lads, we’ll call them Charlie and Fred since those were their names, actually, Charlie’s name was David, but we called him Charlie then, so we’ll call him Charlie now. As for Fred, well my name was always Fred and though I’ve been called other things, I see no need to mention them here. As I was saying, they were toting their fishing rods, two cans of night crawlers they’d caught the night before, a genuine war surplus canteen filled with water, and a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which meant they were good for the day.

It was mid to late July and this was the fifth or sixth time the two had climbed the dam since school had let out in June, but this trip was to prove different than the previous ones. As was their habit, they paused at the top to try to throw a few rocks into the reservoir. Fred, being a year older and larger than Charlie had the advantage, but Charlie held his own. The two then continued down the wet side of the dam to the east corner where the spillway was located. They always started fishing there in the back water that the spillway created and it was one of the better spots they had found. Today though, the spillway yielded nothing, so they worked their way around the east shore, stopping wherever the brush would allow them to make a cast.

They weren’t having much luck, so they pushed on, exploring further around the lake than they had ever gone before. They came upon a decent sized cove where they discovered an old wooden boat pulled up on shore and tied off to one of the saplings that pretty much concealed it from sight. They had no idea to whom the boat belonged, nor did they know how long it had been there. They assumed that someone had brought it down the old dirt road that lead from the state highway to the far side of the impoundment and had decided to leave it, rather than load it in and out every time they wanted to use it. No, they didn’t know who the owner was, but for today, the boat was theirs. There were no oars with the boat so they whittled away at a couple of the saplings with their pocket knives and soon had two poles with which to propel their newfound craft. They polled out into the middle of the cove and dropped their lines, feeling pretty good about being able to fish from a boat. The boat took on a little water but nothing that a bit of bailing now and then couldn’t keep up with. Later, as they gained confidence, they ventured out into the main lake area, being careful to stay near enough to shore to maintain poling depth.

That evening, the sandwiches gone, the canteen near empty and a nice stringer of perch hanging from the side of the boat, they returned it to the place where they had found it, leaving it as precisely as they had found it as they could and traipsed toward the dam on the other side of which was Charlie’s home. They were excited about the boat and talked over one another about all the things they would do that summer, now that they were no longer land bound. When they reached the top of the dam, they stopped to catch their breath and renew their rock throwing. And there they made a solemn pledge, as young boys will do, to never tell anyone about the boat. They knew in their hearts that if their mothers were aware that they were afloat in the reservoir that they would be banned from ever going there again, much less using the boat. After all, it had only been three years since old Caleb Fletcher had drowned up there. He’d been Charlie’s nearest neighbour until then. His wife had passed years before and he lived alone in a tiny cottage just down the road from Charlie’s house. The story was he had fallen out of his old rowboat and either hit his head, or was too old to make it to shore.

They had to drag the reservoir for a couple of days before they recovered his body. His boat had been found washed up on the east shore, blown there by the wind. Nobody ever went to the trouble of removing it. It was just left there to rot. But that was three years ago the boys had been just six and seven respectively and they knew none of this first hand, only what they’d been told. He’d been a good soul, nice to the boys, always puffing on his corncob pipe, the scent of Prince Albert in the summer evening air, as they sat on his front porch and he regaled them with fishing yarns. The boys would take him cookies, or a piece of pie or cake whenever they visited him. Charlie’s mom, Bern, had told the boys that Caleb had cancer, a death sentence back in those days. One evening, when the boys asked him about it, he told them that it made no never mind that he’d die fishing like it was meant to be. As the young and innocent will do, they just accepted what he said.

The boys were pretty sure if some of the older boys caught wind of the boat their own usage would be at peril, so they made a blood oath not to tell. Down the dry side they went, talking and dreaming of adventures to come in their boat. They quieted down as they neared Charlie’s house, lest someone hear them. The perch were cleaned and put in the refrigerator for tomorrow’s meal. Tonight was red flannel hash night. Bern made the best red flannel hash in the world, at least in my world, and, no matter how big my world became, my opinion never changed. There were glances and smirks between the two boys at the dinner table, and the grown-ups could sense something was amiss, but they didn’t know what.

The next morning the boys were up and out early. Fred had spent the night at Charlie’s house and they had slipped out before any of the grownups had awakened. They had their canteen, but today’s lunch was crackers and cheese. Too much noise and time involved in making pbj sandwiches. This morning, their rock throwing was cut short, so anxious were they to return to the boat. Down the wet side they scrambled. No stopping at the spillway or any of their other usual spots. Today they would spend the whole day afloat. The boat was there. Their poles were still in it, and there were no footprints in the mud, save their own from yesterday. They had even brought along an extra can for bailing. Yesterday, they had had to consolidate their night crawlers into one can, but today they each had their own. The fishing was great, a lot of perch, a couple of pickerel, a couple of bull pout. Though they spent the whole day in the boat, it went quickly. They noticed the sun starting to set behind the western ridge and they knew they’d be late for supper. They poled back to where they’d found the boat and, once again, left it just as they had found it. They made their way up and over the dam. No talking this time, saving their breath for the climb and no stopping to throw rocks.

They hit the screen door that opened into Charlie’s kitchen about thirty minutes past supper time. They deposited the fish in the kitchen sink, went to the bathroom to wash their hands and sat down silently at the table. No smirks and giggles tonight, they knew they were in trouble. Bern and Jean, Fred’s mom and Bern’s sister, sat there staring at the two boys, relieved that they were home safe, but angry that they were late. It had been one of the conditions of allowing the two to fish the dam that they would be home by supper every night and this was the first time that the boys had failed to keep their end of the bargain. There were still a few perch on the platter and a couple of baked potatoes and some succotash left so the boys silently loaded their plates and began to eat, eyes down, concentrating mightily on the food, as though that would protect them from their mothers’ ire. Just then, the boys’ aunt Molly came through the kitchen door, carrying a six pack of Carling Black Label. She plopped it on the table and began telling how she had seen the queerest thing that afternoon as she was driving up state route twelve toward Putnam.

Seems she had glanced down onto the Wrightsville Dam waters and had seen a boat. So she slowed down to take a better look. About now the boys were sure their respective gooses were cooked so they lowered their heads even more. Then Molly swore that it was none other than Caleb Fletcher out in that boat. Now the boys had been there all day and they knew that there was no one else on the water. There had been no other boat that Molly could have mistaken for that of Caleb Fletcher’s and they couldn’t see how she could have mistaken two young boys for one old man, much less one three years dead, but they said nothing.

The ladies were all three talking now, each with a bottle of Carling in their hand, when Jean thought to question the boys. Had they seen an old man in a boat while they were fishing? The truthful reply was, of course, no. The banter kept on for quite a while, with suggestions that Molly have her eyes, head, or both examined. The boys finished eating, got up and washed their dishes, cleaned the fish they had brought home and slipped out of the house to search for night crawlers. Jean and Fred went back to their place in Montpelier that night so there was no fishing the dam for a while.

Several days later, they were back in Wrightsville. Charlie and Fred, thinking that the last misadventure had been forgotten, were all set to fish the dam. As they rounded up their gear and bait, they heard Bern admonish them not to be late and if they saw some crazy old coot in a boat, to stay clear of him. The boys said they would and headed for the dam. At the top, they carefully surveyed the water. They could see no one upon it. They headed for the boat, not stopping to fish the spillway or any of their other favorite spots. Again they found it much as they had left it, no footprints in the mud around it, but there in the bottom of the boat lay an empty Prince Albert tobacco tin. It looked old, but Charlie pocketed it, figuring it would be good for holding worms. They shoved off and poled out to a point that had produced the pickerel on the last trip. They baited up and began fishing. They were a little worried about being spotted, but guessed that they were too far from the main road for anybody to recognize them. Certainly, Molly hadn’t.

As they were fishing, a sudden strong gust of wind hit the boat broadside. It carried the boat at least twenty feet further from shore before the boys realized what had happened. They dropped their rods in the bottom of the boat and grabbed their poles, but they had been carried beyond poling depth and the wind was not relenting. They were now at its mercy. Eventually, it deposited them on the far shore from whence they’d started the day. They knew they hadn’t enough time to return the boat to its rightful place and still be home by dinner, so they hid it with the branches of some nearby scrub pines and headed for home.

They hiked up the old dirt road that lead down from the state highway and then walked the shoulder of route twelve back to the top of the dam. From there, they took their usual route down the dry side. This brought them to the house about an hour before they were due. But, when questioned, they responded that the fishing had been slow so they decided to come home early. That night and into the next morning the wind howled and the rain came down in buckets so there was no thought of going back to the boat. The boys played games and cards and, when they were pretty sure no one could hear them, they wondered in whispers whether the boat would be alright. At least, they reckoned, the rightful owner of the boat wouldn’t be about in this weather either.

They hardly slept that night. By morning, the rain had stopped and while the predawn sky was gray and full of mist, the boys figured that it would be a good day to fish. With rods, drink and food in hand, they once again headed up the dam. This time, however, once at the top, they turned west toward the service road that led to where they had stashed the boat. When they reached the stand of scrub pines, they were beside themselves. The boat wasn’t there. Certainly, they thought, it was too heavy to have been blown away, even by a wind such as last night’s. They searched around for a while then figured the owner must have found it and returned it to his original hiding spot. It seemed curious though, that he would have been out on a day such as yesterday.

Dismayed, they decided to fish their way around the north end of the reservoir to where the boat would surely be. But, a few hours later, when they reached the cove where it had been tied, all they found was the old rotted carcass of a homemade rowboat that certainly hadn’t floated for years and a nearly imperceptible waft of Prince Albert in the air.

[Editor’s Note: The Summer of The Boat is an excerpt from Fred Laird’s book, Casting from the Far Bank, which is described on the Publish America website as “a collection of short stories with a hint of mysticism and humor thrown in.” The book can be ordered from Publish America or Amazon.]