By John Gribble
(For Kenny Gribble, 1909-1991)
When I was nine we went to Idaho to see my father’s friends. We stayed a week.
There was an old wooden boat in the weeds at the edge of the property. Does it float? my father asked. His friends laughed. Take it out and see. Oars are in the shed.
We pulled the boat by the pointed front end down to the water. It was made well enough, but neglected. The dark blue and white paint was almost gone. My father put the oars and a tin can in it, then pushed the boat halfway into the water.
Get in, my father said. I did.
Sit down. I did, on the bench at the front of the boat, out over the water.
My father pushed the boat out, stepping into it as the boat slipped away from the shore. It wobbled as he clambered to the middle bench. He sat down with his back to me. He put a metal thing shaped like a wishbone in a hole on one side. He set an oar in it. Most of the oar hung outside the boat, sloping down into the water. He attached the other oar the same way.
Come over here. I want you in the stern. My father pointed to the back of the boat. I stood, the boat rocked, and I grabbed his shoulder. He put his arm around me. I stepped over his bench, crouched and waddled to the seat where he wanted me.
That’s good. It’s better to have the weight in the rear. He smiled and said grandly, And you can navigate. Watch out, so we don’t run into anybody.
We coasted out a few yards from the shore. With his mechanic’s hands, he took the oar handles, rotated them a bit, then leaned forward while pushing the handles away. The wide blades came up dripping out of the water, swinging towards the front of the boat.
He raised his clenched hands and the blades went back in the water. He both leaned back and pulled the handles almost to his chest. There was a rusty groan from the hardware. I felt the boat slide forward across the water. The blades rose again when he leaned forward.
Arrugh, Arrugh, groaned the hardware.
My father took us out about a hundred feet. Then, pulling just the left oar, he turned the boat. He made a few more strokes, then stopped.
I don’t like that noise. Let’s quiet those things down. My father scooped up some water in the tin can from the lake, then lifted the wishbone thing out of its hole. He dribbled a little water on it and in the hole. He put it back and did the same with the other one. Then he went back to rowing. Though they still complained, it wasn’t as loud.
We can grease those oarlocks when we get back.
We followed the shoreline at the speed of a slow walk. We passed small houses and stands of trees. I liked this. I was a sickly kid. Asthmatic. Timid and dreamy. I didn’t care much for the physical, but this seemed right.
Ducks floated near the shore, feeding.
I noticed some water in the bottom of the boat. I pointed it out to my father. He wasn’t concerned. That’s called bilge. If it gets deep, you can bail it out with the can. I went back to watching the ducks.
After a bit he turned us away from shore. I thought we were going back. But my father stopped rowing and told me to come sit next to him.
I want you to give this a try. Take hold of the oar. I put my two small hands on the oar handle.
Push down. Get the blade out of the water. I did what he told me.
Good. Now turn the oar so the blade is straight up and down, not flat. Like this.
I did what he showed me, rolling the oar a little.
That’s good. That’s how you want your oar to be all the time.
Now lean forward. I did.
Put your oar in the water and pull. I did.
The boat started a slow spin. The oar handle swung into my chest, pushing me hard.
That’s fine. Get your oar out of the water. I pushed the handle down and the blade came up, dripping.
Now do it again. Lean forward, put your oar in the water, and pull.
I did, several more times, splashing some.
Move your hands in a circle. My father showed me with a couple of strokes. He moved his hands in a circle. The oar blade rose from, then dipped in the water, and the boat made a circle of its own
I tried doing it his way, able to do it after a fashion. Once my oar jumped out of the oarlock. With my father’s help I wrestled it back into place.
Soon my father began to pull his oar along with me, aiming us back the way we had come. I tried to match his slow rhythm. I worked to make the circle with my hands, to lean and pull the blade through the water. We rowed together.
Here. Time to take both of them. My father let go of his oar and slid off the bench. The boat rocked as he half-crawled to the seat at the rear.
I was overwhelmed. I needed two hands to work just my one oar. I couldn’t do two. I made complaining noises.
Just try it. My father grinned. This was not a suggestion.
I scooted to the center of the bench. Watch you don’t get slivers. These thwarts are pretty rough.
Oh, great, I thought. Slivers in my butt. I gripped the handles, one in each hand. Now they were huge. I could only get my hands partway around them. With only one hand. each oar was impossibly heavy.
Keep your blades up and down, your hands together. Remember, make circles.
I turned the oars, one at a time, to get the blades right. I pushed the oars down to get the blades out of the water.
Let’s go home!
I leaned forward, put the blades in the water and pulled. The boat crept forward. I was able to get the oars out of the water before the handles hit me. They wobbled in the air.
Good. Do it again.
So I leaned forward, lowered the blades, leaned back and pulled.
Again. Keep it going.
I did it again. This time I didn’t get the left oar high enough. I splashed up some water.
Make your circles.
The next time, I didn’t splash.
It was slow going. I was light, my father big, the boat, heavy. I didn’t have much muscle. But there was progress. We finally passed the ducks. They were still feeding. One raised its wings, flapped them and brought them in close again.
I finished a stroke and my father said, Move over. In a crouch he slid off the rear thwart and sat next to me. He took hold of his oar and together we rowed towards shore and his friends.
When the shore was near, my father told me to move, to sit on the rear thwart. He took both oars and gave five mighty pulls. The boat caught some speed. He pulled the oars into the boat, the handles rattling on the bottom, the wet blades dripping near the oarlocks. The boat crunched into gravel close to shore and stopped. My father stood, stepped carefully to the bow and onto the shore.
Then came the gift. Go practice, he said and pushed the boat back onto the lake.
the oarlocks creaking,
the space between shore and boat grows—
ducks take to the air
That was sixty-five years ago. I still go rowing.