Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Oh, Summer Days

 My notion of summer days goes back to a time when I lived with seasons. When winter seemed like a question of survival and spring was wet and windy and chill, summer was a big deal. It's what we lived for the rest of the year...even if, in the grand scheme of things, it's wasn't that great.
My memorable summers were filled with turkeys...

The brothers and their flock.

...and the world's most intractable boat.

Bringing the boat home after another frustrating day on the water.

Both required more effort than they were worth. The birds lost money and the boat wouldn't run. You'd think, then, that I would have difficulty looking back fondly on either, but such is not the case. These are the best summers in my memory although I cannot tell you why.
My dad was a country veterinarian brimming over with entrepreneurial spirit. He was determined to build an enterprise that he could leave to my brother and me. He enlisted us early and often in his schemes, none of which ever paid off for him...or us either for that matter.
The turkeys were a case in point. Dad tried this several years running on a fairly large scale. He would buy 100,000 hatchlings in the spring, and pay to have them fed and watered under heat lights for a month. When the poults were big and hardy enough to live outdoors they would be sexed and moved to a range. Hens and toms were kept in separate flocks of five to ten thousand each. The ranges were fenced fields and included feeders and watering systems and covered roosting shelters on skids. The whole arrangement would have to be moved to a different location in the field every week so the birds would be standing on clean ground. Hens went to market after 14 weeks; toms after 18.
The timing of the whole process was nearly perfect for a summer job. Dad ranged 10 separate flocks across three counties in those years. My brother and I managed two of them in rented pastures. Eight farmers took care of the rest on their own land. I drove the truck to feed them all. The pay for ranging the birds was a percentage of what the birds brought on the market over an agreed upon cost. There was a flat guarantee of 10 cents per pound. At an average dressed weight of 9-10 lbs. per bird, that would amount to $9,000 split between my brother and me. Pretty good for a summer job in the mid sixties.
Trouble was, Dad never paid our guarantee. We didn't have contracts, and we were family. For a number of reasons, and compounded by a prodigious amount of bad luck, Dad lost his shirt in the turkey business. We brother sons were expected to share in the misery.
Not to worry though. I still got paid an hourly wage for driving the feed truck—a vehicle with front tires worn down to the cord and so dangerously unbalanced that no one else in Dad's employ would even get in it—and any remaining misery was to be offset by idyllic weekends at the lake, fishing, skiing, and trolling for bikini-clad girls in our boat. Unfortunately this too turned out to be a monumental disappointment because Dad, along with his adventurous entrepreneurial spirit, also possessed a sphincter-clenching sense of thrift.
He bought the boat, a lovely mahogany inboard runabout, on the cheap from another veterinarian. It had had its port side framing and planking replaced after being staved in by a loaded brick truck with a faulty parking brake. The extent of the repairs, as yet untested, and a dollop of professional courtesy yielded what Dad considered a substantial discount off market.
In addition to the question of structural integrity, which turned out to be not a problem at all, the boat's engine was newly rebuilt. This did turn out to be a problem, although we didn't find out why for nearly a year. The thing was unreliable from the start. It would run like a champion for 10 or 15 minutes. Then it would seize up, leaving us stranded in the middle of the lake. It spent more time at the marina being worked on than it did relieving our poultry-induced misery. You couldn't ski behind it unless you were a strong swimmer, because once it quit you were going to have to get back to the boat on your own, and towing your skis. It was completely useless for the pursuit of girls until we hit on a clever ruse, necessity being the mother of invention.
When the engine seized in the middle of the lake we were faced with two choices: either sit and wait for it to cool down to the point where we could restart it, or raise the engine cover and wait for a kind fellow boater to offer a tow. What we ended up doing was politely refusing any offers to tow us back to the dock until we encountered a boatload of young women. Sometimes we had to wait for hours, but we were young and stupid and the only other thing we had to look forward to was a flock of turkeys and, of course, the terror truck.
What we discovered eventually was that when the engine shop rebuilt the robust little Greymarine six, they left the aligning shims in the crankshaft races. The shims would get hot and expand, freezing the crankshaft and stopping the engine. In other words , several seconds of forethought on the part of the engine shop could have spared us hours and hours sitting in the middle of the lake waiting to be rescued by girls we didn't yet know. So much in life comes down to basic competence. It is daunting to realize that a little thing like a misplaced metal shim can stop social discourse and human reproduction in their tracks. This is why, when I hear mention of chaos theory and the butterfly effect, I always think of Summers at the lake.


  1. You should write a book about our family, the story about dad's service and the boat are great. I don't usually follow blogs but I heard you had a pic of dad, so I checked it out. your sister

  2. You should read more, sister of mine. There's lots of stuff about family in here, and sooner or later it will be a book.

  3. This reminded me of my Dad, but he was a little smaller scale. He invested in goats that always hopped the fence, and for several years we had an old rowboat that just needed one more layer of fiberglass or bondo. I don't ever remember getting into the boat, but I do remember hot summer days trying to fix it after chasing goats through the woods.

  4. That's funny, M. Somewhere there is a dad who raised cattle and had a 50' Hatteras. BTW our turkeys used to escape all the time. One would find a hole in the fence, and several hundred more would follow it out. They used to walk into town en masse, and we'd have to drive them back to the range using long sticks with feed sacks on the end.

  5. My summers seem so boring in comparison.

    Nicely written.


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