A little known fact about me: I’ve got a soft spot for hyper-corny Americana. Another surprise: I love boats! I’m on a boat! Everybody look at me cuz I’m sailin’ on a boat!
It all started with a family tradition. My grandfather, whom we all called ‘Pop,’ had a small boat that he kept in Cape May. When we were little, he would take us ‘down the shore’ fairly often to hop a ferry ride and go out on the SS…good God, I’ve no idea what the heck my Pop called that little boat! I’m going to call it the SS Awesomeness and here’s one story that will make it clear why that modest vessel deserves such a name.
It was a typical day. Pop took three of his grandkids, my older cousin Chris, my younger sister Michelle, and me down the shore to go on the boat and take in a bit of deep sea fishing. Sounds fancy, right? Wait, in order to really visualize this there’s another important crew member that joined us on this particular trip: Chatter, my pet raccoon.
FINE! Back story! Pop was a bit like Dr. Dolittle (and he did do little in terms of medical science but he was one with the animal world). Squirrels would eat out of his hand, he had dogs, goats, a monkey at one time, horses when my mom was a kid, and who knows what else. Anyway, one day Pop found a baby raccoon crying in the middle of the street surrounded by his squashed mother and siblings. He didn’t have a chance. So, reasonable and soft-hearted man that he was, Pop scooped up the little critter and took on the task of ‘taming him.’ The taming process went a bit like this: Pop sat in his seat at the head of the kitchen table holding the baby raccoon in one hand and petting him with the other while my Grandma cooked a bottle for the new baby. Pop then fed the baby with a bottle and talked to him. He named him Chatter because he cried a lot in the beginning, “He misses his mom, that’s right” Pop told us.
Soon, Chatter graduated to cereal and then to table scraps. I would ask to take him for walks and Pop would remind me not to walk too close to any trees. So I’d put the little collar around Chatter’s neck, attach the leash and head out for a stroll. Soon after, “Pop! PAHHHHHHPPPPPP!” I’d shout while pulling my weight on the leash. “Chatter’s in the pear tree!” And Pop would shuffle from inside the house or away from his ‘shanty’ (where he worked on fixing neighbors’ lawn mowers and riding mowers) and help get Chatter out of the tree. Soon enough, Chatter was a sturdy playmate and a necessity on any trip to the shore.
You know, there was also a midget alcoholic living in my grandparents’ attic but that, as they say in academia, is beyond the scope of this article.
We all piled into the boat. Sun screen: check; cooler with sandwiches and stuff: check; cool Def Leopard caps with ear flaps: check; pet raccoon: check; fishing bait: on our way. Pop and Chris fired up the engine and we headed out into the bay. Chatter was hanging out just in front of the cabin doorway on the landing situated at the base of the three steps leading from the deck.
It was a beautiful day. We swung by the bait shop on the pier and got some supplies, filled up with some fuel, and headed back out into the water. The shops on the pier slowly faded into the distance when suddenly my grandfather shouted, “QUICK! Everyone run to THAT side of the boat!” The engine was smoking and water was finding its way into the boat. I put saucers in my eyes like Orphan Annie’s–metaphorically, of course–and watched the scene in Slo-Mo.
My sister bent her neck and threw her face skyward, “WAHHHHHHH!!! WAHHHHHH!!!” My cousin was diligently following Pop’s directions, which I’m sure were hilarious and I wish I could remember them verbatim. Chatter, thank God he was with us, was running with ever-increasing speed in very small circles just before the cabin door. Soon enough a tugboat arrived and pulled us in the short distance from the great open raging sea with its sharks, its lochness monsters, and raccoons to the safety of the bait and fuel shop. Though, I do remember in the midst of all that pure mayhem stealing a look at my Pop who, is it possible(?), was chuckling.
Update: According to my mom, “Pop’s boat (that caught fire) was called Rock ‘N Rye for the fruit filled whiskey Pop used to drink. David [Chris’ younger brother] named his boat Rock ‘N Rye II in honor of Pop.”