This essay won Honorable Mention in the 2019 Richard H. Cracroft Personal Essay Contest. Publication coming soon.
Dad was 24 and single when he got his first boat—a new, 1956 StarCraft—15 feet long, burgundy and white, with a 30-horsepower hand-cranked motor.
“It was a fishing boat,” he told me. “One of only two boats in Rigby. I got it to take my dad fishing out on the lake.”
It turned out that Grandpa only liked fishing from the shore. But luck was on Dad’s side—when he had upgraded to the canvas boat cover, the dealer in Idaho Falls had thrown in a pair of yellow water skis. Since Dad didn’t fish, he decided to put the skis to good use.
“I’d never seen anyone else waterski,” Dad said, “My friend Don and I would go out on the Snake River, and we tried to figure out how to do it. I’d stand in water up to my thighs and wonder ‘what do I do next’ while he eased the boat forward, gradually tightening the rope and pulling me slowly.”
Listening to him retell this, I could almost feel those yellow skis on my feet pressed to the river’s rocky bottom, scraping across rocks, the water getting deeper by the second, then swallowing a little river water—all while wondering why my imaginary skis were not surfacing.
“I’d drag along behind the boat. And just as I nearly figured things out, he’d stop the boat and circle back to see what I’d learned.”
I can almost hear their conversation.
Just lean back a bit.
Lift the tips of the skis out of the water.
Let the boat do the work.
Maybe even signal when ready.
Clearly not. They apparently hadn’t learned to say “Hit it!” yet—a near-universal command they would learn later.
“After multiple tries while teaching each other, one of us finally got up. Of course, we weren’t done learning.”
“Sandbars in the river were our first discovery—you should never ski across one of those regardless of how submerged it looks.”
Instant face-slam into the water.
Dad’s skiing ability eventually out grew the pull-start motor. He wanted more power and an electronic ignition—just turn a key and be underway. In the spring of 1968, he drove 228 miles from Rigby to Salt Lake City to shop for a motor upgrade and instead picked up his second new boat, a white StarCraft 17-foot outboard, equipped with an 85 horsepower Johnson motor showing stylized horses moving quickly along the water, nearly triple the power of the boat he traded.
“It was a happy day,” he told me years later.
Dad’s new boat went much faster and made thrilling, mostly stable turns. Our favorite lake was Quail Lake, just twenty minutes from home near some sand dunes. It was at Quail Lake that I learned to waterski. I was seven, and I’m still sure to this day that Dad was readier than I was for me to learn. My two older sisters had already been initiated. But then they were ten and twelve.
“How deep is it?” I was terrified, no mortified, of any water that was over my head. And the deeper, the scarier—me never realizing that a quarter inch over my head would kill me as fast as Idaho’s deepest reservoir.
“Four or five feet. You’ll be fine.”
“What if I drowned?” Childhood’s most mispronounced word—drown—was probably said no fewer than twenty times each ski trip. Even swimming lessons hadn’t corrected this—I’d just hung onto the side of the pool. I was born convinced that I was incapable of swimming. It wasn’t until years later that I realized Dad had never learned to swim but believed in personal floatation devices.
“You won’t drown. You’ve got a life jacket on.”
“You won’t. Let’s just get your feet in the skis.”
I remember literally not being able to do anything for myself in that moment. Dad took hold of my ankles. “Put your toes in first.” He guided my feet into the white rubber pockets. “Too tight?”
“Now, let’s get you in the water.” Dad had lifted me over the side of the boat, skis and all. I clung to the side of the boat, legs going in the water first, the rest of me refusing to follow. And then I was in the water.
“Now let go and lay back. That’s how you float in a life jacket.”
My orange jacket rose in the water as the lake’s coolness enveloped me. My red skis floated to the lake’s glassy surface, the back of each resting under my own backside and making me even more buoyant. I let the jacket support me, not moving at all.
“Oh,” I said, a delayed reaction several moments after entering the water.
The rest had been much easier than I could have ever imagined. Dad pulled a black, inflated tire tube out and let it float at the side of the boat.
“Just sit on this,” he had said calmly as he lifted me on. He handed me the wooden rope handle. “When the rope is tight and you’re ready, say ‘Hit it.’”
“What happens then?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll go slow. You’re so light that I won’t need to do much to get you up. Just sit on the tube, and when you’re ready, stand up a little. It’s as simple as that.”
My skis were floating tips-up in front of me. My knees trembled and shaking hands gripped the rope handle. With that, Dad pushed me away gently.
In my mind’s eye, I can still see the boat pulling away and remembering feeling unsure whether to panic, cry, or both. The rope grew tighter. I no longer had time to decide whether I was ready or not.
“Hit it,” I whispered.
Somehow Dad heard. The motor grew noisier as I felt the rope pulling me. I held on. I dragged the tube with my rear for a few feet, and then it felt right to just stand up slowly.
I can see it now—a much younger and smaller me, the rope clinched tight my chest, my skis skimming the surface of the lake at just under ten miles an hour. Chattering teeth inside a beaming smile.
I was waterskiing! I wanted to wave but didn’t dare take a hand off the rope. The boat turned as we neared the shore and kept moving. This was incredible—waterskiing. The lake felt like hard ground under my feet, steady and firm as I skimmed across the surface.
And then I thought, “What do I do next?” No one had told me how to stop. “I’m going to drowned,” was all I could think. The boat eventually slowed to a stop, and the lake grew spongy as I sank down. My life jacket buoyed me up.
That was amazing! I was smitten.
“You did great!” Dad shouted as he brought the boat around to pick me up. “The only seven-year-old I know who can waterski!” I could tell this was a great moment for him. He made me feel larger than life.
Later trips to the lake brought new challenges. “Get outside the wake this time,” meaning I should swing out to the side of the boat across the V-shaped but bumpy trail behind the boat. Or “cross both wakes,” he’d say.
I was ten years old when I heard, “Raise a ski up—you’re ready to ski on one. And, then, when you’re comfortable, just drop the ski.”
“Drop the ski?”
“Just slip your foot out.”
“What do I do with that foot?”
“Don’t worry too much about your back foot. Just feel with your toes for the boot. When you find it, just slip your foot in slowly. Remember, don’t put any weight on your back foot at first. Get a feel for skiing on one before you do.”
I’d seen Dad slalom ski many times, graceful and poised like the great ballroom dancer he was. He’d glide back and forth behind the boat, knees bent slightly, resting on his back foot, his body at an angle just off upright. He preferred turns, when the boat would whip him to the highest speed possible with all 85 horses engaged. He loved riding the outside edge of the turn.
I imagined skiing like that myself. I got up, and after a bit I lifted my ski just as Dad had said. My right ski felt stable and secure. I let my left ski back down. I counted, “One, two, three,” and slipped my left foot out.
The ski just stripped away and was gone.
For a few seconds, my right ski did just what I expected. I was still holding my left foot in the air and decided it was time to locate the rear boot. I felt with my toes and could only feel the heel of my other foot. Where was the boot? I felt back further. Still no boot. I rested my foot a bit and my ski suddenly started bucking up and down, then side to side, and I was down. My eyelids hit the water first and peeled back, my eyeballs absorbing the full sting of colliding with the lake, force-filling my sinuses with water.
Dad headed back to get the other ski and then pulled around, smiling. “Good job. Ready for another try?”
My head was spinning. I got ready to go again. “Hit it.”
It was in my fifteenth year that Dad persuaded me to buy a real slalom ski. It really hadn’t taken much, since I had shopped many times already at Sunset Sports, a short bike ride from home. I finally settled on an O’Brien World Team Comp, a beautiful ski with a light green underside and a silvery aluminum veneer over the top. To that point, we had only ever skied on matched blue and white Kimball fiberglass skis, and a true slalom ski introduced new possibilities.
Around then, it dawned on me that Dad had never skied on a true slalom ski. Now with the O’Brien, the wake was no longer the challenge. We swung out wide and cut back as hard as possible, jumping the wake along the way, and repeating the move on the other side of the boat. We all improved.
On a tight turn, that ski would spray out an even sheet of water, something Dad taught us was called a “Rooster Tail.” Hard and long cuts sent millions of water droplets in a quarter-inch sheet 15 to 20 feet high—one of the most breathtaking sights I’ve seen, particularly in the early morning hours as the sun breaks across the mountains and catches the water just right. At dusk, you get orange tinted sheets of water or skiers silhouetted by the sun at their backs. Beautiful. Dad loved the O’Brien. He still went for the speed on the outside of a tight turn, his knees bent and his now-silvery hair flying in the wind.
Along the way, Dad taught us a few hand signals for skier-driver communications. Thumbs up meant go faster. Thumbs down, slower. The OK sign meant just right. But faster skiing and varied skiing styles required more. Wave a hand in a circle above your head for the driver to turn around. Pat the top of your head to go back to the starting point—a dock, the beach, or wherever. Draw your hand across your throat to say you were letting go of the rope. Done.
I earnestly advocated a signal that meant “drive straight.” For me, going straight gave me equal cutting power on both sides of the wake. I’m positive to this day that Dad drove just the way he would want to be pulled—in a long slow arc to the left. No matter the feedback. From 30 feet back, I’d yell. I’d stiffen my fingers and turn my hand sideways, gesturing with a karate-style chop to drive straight. I’d point. I’d first point left and shake my head. Left was bad. I’d then point straight and nod my head. Straight is good. I’d even let go of the rope and wait for Dad to pull around, then talk to him about this. He’d say he would do as I said, probably winking to himself.
We never did work this one out.
As things go, Dad’s boat eventually just wore out. I got married and started a family, and for a few years, there was no boat. But a boat habit is hard to shake.
I talked about “a boat” and even occasionally dreamed about one—out on the lake, with family, enjoying a day in the sun. Water like glass. No wind. The softest turns of all. I would eagerly accept any invitation to waterski—or even go boating with the hope of waterskiing. But waiting for others to invite me along wasn’t the same as having access to a boat.
And then we got one. And not just 85 horses but 330 from an engine under a hatch in the back. It was an inboard with the prop down under the boat with a swim deck behind, a stereo system on the tower that held the wakeboard rope up high.
I felt what Dad had described. It was one of the best days of my life.
A few weeks later, on an early June morning, Dad accepted my invitation to go with me and my sons to the lake. Dad was just a few weeks from turning 70, and I wasn’t confident he would ski but knew he would have fun even if only riding along.
“You want to ski?” I wasn’t sure what he would say.
“I think so. Depends on how cold the water is.”
Surprised and not wanting to discourage him, I said, “It’s warming up. I’ve got a wet suit if you need one.”
I skied first because it had a few benefits—the lifejackets were still dry and warm rather than the cold, impossible-to-wrap-around-your-body wet versions that would come later. The water was glassy, showing my reflection as I peered over the edge of the boat. Life was wonderful. I signaled with a thumbs-up to go faster, and the boat responded. I started cutting back and forth when I saw Dad looking back at me.
My first thought was “It’s just like old times!”
And then I realized how true that thought was as Dad began veering slightly to the left. Emotions that I had not felt for nearly 20 years suddenly welled up in my stomach, heart, and throat.
“Go straight—” I found myself starting to say, my right hand forming a karate chop, ready to gesture. “Don’t—yep—” I decided to just be quiet. The emotions subsided, and I found myself smiling for the first time at the way Dad drove the boat. I signaled with a circling motion above my head to turn back to the glassy water. Dad’s long slow turn gave me the opportunity to swing out to the right and zip along like crack-the-whip. I pictured Dad out there by my side, swinging as far away from the boat as possible, his now-white hair flying and big smile relishing the speed.
“You gonna go?” I asked, when I got back in the boat.
“I’ll start on two and just kick a ski.”
He took his shirt off, picked up the life jacket I had just used and put it on.
“Ooh, this is cold,” he shuddered. Sitting on the swim deck at the back of the boat, he struggled to get the skis on. I slipped back to help him. I adjusted the binders and opened the boot as far as possible. His legs were white, veiny, skinny. He got both skis on and I helped him slide off the swim deck into the lake.
Dad got up with no problem at all. On two skis, he was graceful as ever. Soon enough, he kicked one. Dad drifted behind the boat, perfect form but limited action. He started across the left wake and fell. We circled back.
“Sure…I couldn’t find the back boot,” Dad said gasping and spitting water as the rollers bobbed him up and down.
I found myself repeating familiar words, words I’d heard him say long ago. “Don’t worry too much about your back foot. Just feel with your toes for the boot. When you find it, slip in slowly.”
“I can’t find it…”
“Wanna try again?”
“One more try.”
I could tell Dad was tired and maybe hurting a little. “YOU’RE THE ONLY 70-YEAR-OLD I KNOW THAT WATER SKIS,” I yelled as I pulled away.
Dad got up, skied again, still couldn’t find a place for his back foot, and fell one more time. It hurt to watch him go down.
“I need an upgrade,” he panted as we pulled around.
“How about 85 horses?”
He didn’t really hear me. “I’d be happy to just make it to 70.”
Dad only skied once more after that. He struggled on and off with health issues that eventually overwhelmed him—just a few days before his 85th birthday. Now 60 years after he bought his first boat, I lay by his side on his bed. His dark eyes showed a fear I had never seen.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know—”
I thought he might mean, “I don’t know how to do this, to move on, to die.” Or maybe angels were asking him if he was ready to leave his family and venture into the great beyond. I never did get to ask him.
It was another wooden-skis-on-river-rocks moment. A sandbar. Just one final thing to learn. He had never not figured things out.
“If you taught me anything, Dad, it was that you don’t have to know how. You just have to try.”
Just lean back a bit.
Let the boat do the work.
Maybe even signal when ready.
A few hours later, he figured it out and was gone.