Boats have always been in my life. I paddled a small boat in canals before I was allowed to bicycle beyond my home street. Yes, it is true that boats tend to be a big metaphoric hole to throw in money. Boat ownership involves a great deal of patience, too much time, planning, luck, and in some cases, a vigilant guardian angel. In my world, boats are worth the work, and there is always a great story.
The Genesis of Boat Passions
They were a bunch of working families—city people. My dad’s father, Grandpa, and his brother-in-law, Uncle Bill, bought a little cottage for four hundred dollars in the American Venice area of Copiague on the South Shore of Long Island. It had a yard, a detached garage ( I always thought it was a barn), and a canal that let out to the Great South Bay. The little house was dubbed The Country House and was the overextended family summer home. The Truglio-s were accustomed to living together in tight Brooklyn flats, so The Country House was a suburban extension of familiar multi-generation living arrangements. It got the kids off the Brooklyn streets, and mothers, aunts, and Nona out of the stifling city heat. During the summer. The Country House was never empty and always noisy. It satisfied the Truglio quest to celebrate anything and have fun.
Dad’s cousins were his first best pals, and the canal and Great South Bay became his playground. There wasn’t much money for extras, so everyone improvised. They pulled together fishing poles and crab traps. Cans were kicked down the cattail line streets. Someone bartered for a piano that Grandpa tuned and played. Music, games, and food filled the night.
There was an oarless rowboat that may have come with the house. Grandpa’s sister, Aunt Lily, swam the canal while pulling a rope attached to the bow of the rowboat filled with children. I imagine there were sandwiches, a thermos of water, and a cut-out plastic bottle to bale the probable leaky boat. Aunt Lily stopped at the bay beach where she and the kids played for most of the day. When it was time to go home, Aunt Lily piled the sun-kissed kids in the boat and swam back up the canal. In hindsight, Dad surmised that Aunt Lily understood the tide schedule and planned accordingly. Nevertheless owning floating vessels became Dad’s life-long passion. Doing it on a shoestring budget was his self-imposed challenge.
The boat repairing and engine tinkering were accomplished through trial and error. It kept my dad, a very active kid, busy and focused. As a young boy, Dad fiddled with anything that had moving parts. His first boat engine was a nine-horsepower Neptune outboard. It didn’t work when he got it. Dad took it apart and put it back as best as he could figure. Eventually, the little outboard did start, but soon a piston flew right of the engine damaging parts and pieces in an instant. The boy decided he didn’t like outboard engines.
There were other boats, but Dad’s first beloved boat had an open cockpit and Model A Ford engine. It had a clutch pedal on the floor and shift on the steering column. On one of the first season excursions, he drove the boat at full speed when, suddenly, the steering froze. His older cousin, Frankie, jumped overboard upon seeing that they were heading for the bulkhead. Dad somehow managed to stall the engine before the crash.
Besides the Model A engine troubles, the 18-foot boat leaked constantly and sank several times. Dad read about this new material made by Dow-Corning. He wrote to the company and was granted resin and fiberglass to fix his boat. The fiberglass patchwork fixed most of the leaks.
While my parents were dating, Dad finally christened the boat, Diana, after his great love. Numerous engine ailments and occasional leaks continually plagued the Diana. They were towed in more often than under their own power. My mom must have enjoyed the adventure. Not only did she marry him, but, when Dad was stationed in Maryland for Army service, she agreed to help trailer the boat to Maryland and build a cabin on it.
Dad was discharged from service when Mom was seven months pregnant. Dad believed he fixed all the little leaks and engine problems. It was considered a good idea to putt from Maryland, skirt the Delaware and New Jersey shores and through the Jones Beach inlet to The Country House. My parents had a marine chart, a box filled with tools that could help solve any little disaster, and a fantastic weather forecast. The trip should have taken up to two days. They planned to surprise everyone with their homecoming.
Dad did not push the engine, so the ride was slow and scenic. The chart blew overboard during the first day. Large porpoises dove and raced alongside the Diana. Both Mom and Dad had never seen porpoises before and thought the small pod could be sharks, or worse, small whales that could capsize the boat. When they stopped for gas in New Jersey, the attendant assured them that they saw only playful porpoises-nothing to worry about. He also sold them a road map to help guide the rest of the way.
A friend drove their car a few days after they left Maryland. He stammered when he saw that my Dad and pregnant Mom were not at The Country House. They were a day late. My grandmother and aunts were incest with anger and worry.
“Don’t worry!” said the friend, “Billy always comes through.” He did not add that they always needed a tow when boating on the Chesapeake.
And, sure enough, later that afternoon, the Diana chugged up the canal under her own power. Mom and Dad waved and shouted to the canal neighbors. Dad was rightly scolded, but, as always, he was soon forgiven, and a great celebration ensued.
Antoinette Truglio Martin is the author of Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer. The memoir is a wimpy patient’s journey through her first year of breast cancer treatment.
Categories: Back in the Day Stories