As a kid, I spent a lot of time on a farm owned by my Aunt Lucile and Uncle Mike. Near my aunt and uncle’s house was a river, a beautiful place called Black River. Black River is primarily spring fed, and the water is clear as glass and, even in the sweltering heat of a Missouri summer, cold.
The farm was located maybe a quarter of a mile from Black River, and about fifteen miles upstream from Clearwater Lake. A man-made lake built during the depression by one of the many New Deal public works programs, Clearwater Lake is now run by the US Army Corps of Engineers. I never could figure out why they call it Clearwater, though…it’s so muddy that you can’t see more four or five feet. It gets worse after it rains.
But Black River is a veritable paradise. Clear and cold, it makes for great fishing. Bass of several varieties are common, and perch and other small fish are there for the kids to catch with cane poles from the bank. I remember at least two kinds of suckers: hog and yellow. They look a lot like big Chinese Algae Eaters you get for your aquarium. There are a few goggle-eye and crappie, too, but most of them are closer to the lake.
There are a lot of frogs. Other than the bullfrogs, I don’t know what kind they are. At night, while fishing for catfish, you can hear the frogs calling all up and down the banks of the river. Their croaking mixes in wonderful ways with the chirps of the crickets and the calls of the hawks as they hunt the small rodents in the adjoining fields and forest. Sometimes, at the right time of the year when they migrate, you can even hear the screech of a Bald Eagle.
Black River isn’t good for boating, though. Much of the river near the farm is shallow and rapid. The bottom and banks are made up of small river rocks, most fist-sized and smaller. Some of the rocks are a lot bigger. Being on the eastern edge of the Ozark Plateau, most of the rock is granite. Granite is interesting rock. It comes in an array of gorgeous colors ranging from pink to red, blue, black, green, and some mixes of all of them. Mingled at random with the pretty colored stone are flecks of shiny stuff. Some of it is quartz, and some is mica, but it all sparkles when you turn the rock in the sunlight. I don’t know how many tons of such pretty sparkling granite rocks my cousin Darla and I carried back to Aunt Lucile when I spent my summer vacations on the farm. She kept them in a rock garden.
But all granite has one thing in common; it’s hard…really hard. And boats don’t like hard rocks in only three inches of water. We would often watch from the banks of Black River as some city folks would try to “shoot the rapids” in their fancy aluminum boat. They would sometimes give us $5.00 to help retrieve their supplies from the river bottom later.
Johnboats do OK on Black River, if you know how to handle one. I don’t. A johnboat has a flat bottom and is wide from stem to stern. They can’t go fast, but they can go in shallow water. The problem comes when you try to turn a johnboat. Because they are wide and flat, the hull doesn’t bite into the water very well. This means that, in a turn, a johnboat will slip sidewise instead of turning like a regular boat with a V bottom. I never mastered the technique of turning a johnboat very well.
Black River’s real claim to fame, as far as I’m concerned, is for swimming. There are, interspersed with the shallow rapids, deep holes of water. And I mean really deep holes of water. At the end of the road that ran by Uncle Mike and Aunt Lucile’s property was such a hole. At least thirty feet deep, the water was so clear that you could count the rocks on the bottom. An old log had wedged against the bank and made a great diving platform. On the bank side of the log, the water was about three feet deep. On the other side, the water fell off to about eight feet or so. You could walk out on the log and dive in.
And you have to do that. The water is so cold that you can’t just walk in. You’ll never make it. Imagine a nice Midwestern day in the summer. Say about, oh, 105 degrees…in the shade. Now imagine water from a spring. It bubbles up from somewhere deep in the aquifer, passing through cracks in the granite bedrock, to reach the surface. I’ve read articles that it may take rainwater ten or more years to reach the surface again in this way. When it does make it to the surface, it’s cold. Usually the water was about fifty-five degrees or colder. Once it reaches the river, it’s warmed up a bit. I put a thermometer in Black River one time, and it read 64 degrees. Anyway, go from 105 to 64 degrees. Instantly. If you don’t just jump in, you’ll lose your nerve and back away.
Just upstream from the log was a high bluff. The top was maybe thirty feet above the water. Maybe it was a little higher. The bluff was a sheer granite wall. Red granite, covered with sparkling flecks of quartz or mica that reflected and refracted the sunlight mad the bluff a beautiful sight to see. Somehow, a little node had formed on the bluff. It stuck out about two feet from the wall and was around a foot wide. It looked like a diving platform formed from the living rock. The water beneath this natural diving board was about thirty feet deep, and all the kids would jump off the bluff into the water. It took a lot of nerve and coaxing to make that first leap, but everyone did it eventually. Even Darla. Even me.
The problem came in when boaters would come down the river. They passed right under our diving board. It got worse when floaters on inner tubes came along.
We would have to wait for the people to pass. If we jumped in too close, they would yell at us because we got their beer and food wet. That never made sense to me. Of course things get wet. It’s a river, after all.
One year, the boaters and floaters were so bad and clogging the river with their citified nonsense so much, that Uncle Mike and my dad decided they needed a boat. Not just any boat, but a boat that could go fast in the shallow water.
After a small amount of research, the choice became obvious. What they needed is one the boats like those used in the Florida swamps.
An Airboat. Yes, that is capitalized. At least it was in the minds of my father and uncle.
Ever price an Airboat? They are expensive. They can be very expensive. Being poor, Dad and Mike decided they could build one just as good, so the search for parts was on.
Mike had an old johnboat. A big thing, about eighteen feet long and five feet wide, it was perfect. Well, perfect except for the two-foot long, four-inch wide gash in the bottom from a rock when Mike ran the boat aground a few years earlier. He never mastered turning a johnboat, either.
Dad had an old 1964 VW Beetle that he had rolled. The body was crunched like a tin can, but the motor was sound and ran fairly well.
Some pulleys, wire rope, sheet metal, and a few other odds and ends rounded out the supplies. All except for one thing: A propeller.
I’m sure you’ve seen an Airboat. It’s a boat crossed with an airplane. Not like a seaplane, no. A seaplane is a plane that just happens to float. More like a, well, air-boat…a boat that just happens to almost fly. Picture a boat with a propeller, but not on the front. The propeller is on the back. The propeller pushes the boat through the water.
OK, for you purists out there, the propeller does actually suck the boat through the water. I refuse to get into a discussion of physics and aerodynamics here.
Anyway, they found a guy in St. Louis who had an old propeller from some kind of airplane. That didn’t matter. They were putting it on a boat, not a plane. The propeller was very pretty. It was wood, several layers all laminated together, and the layers were different colors. I don’t know if that was intentional or not, but it was a work of art. It looked hand-carved, too. It had a coat of shiny varnish and it sparkled like the granite. I wanted to put it on the wall of my room to remind me of the Air Force. Even at the tender age of thirteen, I had a thing for men in uniform.
Being a machinist, dad fashioned a plate to adapt the propeller to the VW engine. Soon, the rest of the boat took shape. The engine was mounted on an angle-iron frame at the stern. A large sheet of metal made up the rudder that hung from more angle-iron in the wind that the propeller made. A series of pulleys routed wire rope from a steering wheel to move the rudder left and right. An old highway sign was adapted to patch the hole in the bottom of the boat…more or less.
I remember the big day of the maiden voyage of the “Oleo Express” as they christened the boat. The name of the boat derived from the name of my aunt and uncle’s farm: “Oleo Acres, One of the Cheaper Spreads”.
I can see it like it was just yesterday. As Darla and I sat on the old log in the river, eying the boys swimming but not really knowing why, Dad and Mike backed the trailer with the boat into the river. That took a while. Dad never could back up a trailer.
After several near jackknifes, the bright silver boat with its greasy motor and wondrous wooden propeller eased into the water. The patch job leaked a little, but not enough to worry anyone. The sun glinted off the multicolored wood and threw flashes of light in all directions.
Dad asked if Darla and I would like to go for a ride. Darla was talking to Doug Funk, so she declined. I was similarly occupied with Donny Pearson, so I too decided to stay behind and leave that singular honor to the creators of the Oleo Express.
Mike and dad climbed into the boat and Mike turned the key. The small motor fired up and the roar coming from it was strong enough that I could feel the vibrations in the air. I think that had more to do with the lack of an exhaust system, including muffler, than with the power the little engine generated. The propeller spun faster and faster, blurring to invisibility as it became a shiny, transparent disk.
The boat began to move, slowly at first, but gathering speed as Mike steered it out onto the river.
Swimmers, boaters, and floaters alike cursed them. The backwash from the propeller was like a hurricane. It kicked up spray and generally played hell with everyone’s serenity.
Mike made a few passes up and down the river, gaining both experience, too little, and confidence, too much.
Think back to when you were thirteen. Now, imagine you’re talking to a boy. I mean seriously talking to a boy for the first time. Something inside is telling you that you need to get closer to him. Really closer. You keep batting your eyes and playing with your hair. You have no idea why, but you do.
Now, imagine your father playing with a toy right out there in the open for the entire world, including the aforementioned boy, to see. Not just any toy, mind you. A gasoline powered, forty horsepower, floating table fan.
We didn’t know what it meant, but Darla and I knew we would probably die virgins.
Anyway, after a few passes, Mike decided to see what the Oleo Express could do. He opened the throttle wide. Did I mention that the throttle was an afterthought? Not that any of this was well planned. The throttle was a cable from a bicycle hand brake that was adjusted by pulling or pushing the cable with a pair of pliers. It stayed where you put it.
The boat shot down the river at a dreadful speed, just skimming the top of the water. Swimmers swam for their lives. Boaters and floaters abandoned their craft and became swimmers. Children screamed. I’m sure some women wept.
Just downstream from the deep swimming hole was an S-turn. Even floaters had trouble here. The water was shallow, maybe three inches deep, and fast. Tubers and boaters alike often ended up forced into the gravel bar as they went through the sharp bend in the river.
Mike hit the turn at high rate of speed…much faster than he should have.
At the same time, either the wind of the forward motion or the suction from the whirling wooden blender blades behind him sucked the cowboy hat from Mike’s head, running it through the spinning propeller.
Ever wonder what would happen if, let’s say, your pet parakeet flew behind a running table fan? Today, nothing would happen. The OSHA-required safety guard would stop the unfortunate Polly from being sucked to his rather untimely death before he was turned into ground mini-turkey.
No such guard was in place on the Oleo Express.
The cream colored hat hit the gyrating propeller and exploded into a million flying shards of fluttering fabric that settled slowly to the water.
As the hat zipped from his head, Mike turned to watch it being chopped. Anyone would have done the same. After all, your favorite hat is yanked from your body, so you’ll turn to see where it’s going, right?
This was, in the case of the Oleo Express, a rather serious mistake. Mike lost what little concentration he had on operating the boat.
Completely missing the turn, the airboat launched itself onto the bare, dry granite gravel of the shore.
Unless you’ve been involved in a multiple-car traffic accident where cars are crushed together, preferably against rocks, you likely have no experience of the sound of the aluminum boat hull racing across the gravel. Maybe if you’ve been on an airplane that smacked into the side of a rock cliff, like Mount Rushmore you might have some basis of comparison. Or, perhaps, you’ve heard a steel barrel hit the rocks at the bottom of Niagara Falls when someone turns off the water with the barrel halfway down the mist.
Being deaf, I have no concept of the sound either, but I could see Darla’s reaction…
From our position on the log some one hundred or so feet away, the sound caused Darla to slap her hands over her ears. I was able to read Donny’s lips as he muttered something about those jackasses in the airboat.
As I turned to look at what new level of embarrassment my father and his brother-in-law would heap on my pubescent head, I saw the boat run out of gravel bar.
Black River, for much its length that I’m familiar with, has the same layout. From the river itself, the gravel bar extends away from the water. How far varies, but normally about forty feet or so. The gravel gives way to perhaps another fifteen feet of sand. Then the sand fades to dirt. In the dirt grows grass and larger plants…like trees. Forest follows that.
The boat crossed the sand quickly. It then hit the grass and tree line. The spinning propeller chewed its way through the growth, spitting green fragments in all directions. I wondered how many of the frogs met their amphibian maker that day.
I could see dad and Mike waving their arms wildly, warding off tree limbs and smaller obstacles, as they raced ever deeper into the woods. The only thing I could think of to do was to wave back.
Darla fared less well. She hid her face in her hands and shivered. Donny had broken down into fits of belly laughs. Doug fell off the log from laughing.
As the boat disappeared from view in the underbrush, I decided that Doug had the best idea…just drown myself instead of dealing with the issue of having a pair of mad scientists as close relatives.
I saw a few puffs of bluish smoke come from the direction of the now invisible airboat, and I assumed that meant that either the engine stopped or exploded. The smoke didn’t look thick enough to have been an explosion, though. After a few minutes, Mike and Dad stumbled from the woods, following the path created by the floating brush-hog as it had ate its way through the lower forest undergrowth.
They looked OK from where I floated in the water. Both had all four limbs and I saw no spurting of arterial blood. They did look a little pale. Darla and I figured we couldn’t get any more embarrassed, so we went to check on them.
After finding they weren’t mortally wounded, we followed them into the woods. The boat had some power, I’ll grant it that. It plowed a path eight feet wide and at least fifty feet long into the forest before the propeller, that beautiful wooden work of art, shattered into a billion pieces. All that remained was the hub, still attached to the motor, with a spike of a single dark lamination sticking out to show where the once graceful curve of the blade had been. It brought a few tears to my eyes.
The boat itself now lacked most of the bottom of the hull, having been abraded by the trip across the gravel, sand, and dirt. The bow was folded up and crumpled by impacts with large clumps of grass and small trees. Even the angle-iron frame of the motor had been bent, and the little engine hung at an odd angle.
Mike brought the tractor from the farm and drug the wreck back to the barn. The hulk sat there next to the big hay-filled building for a long time before it was finally sold to a scrap dealer for about $25.
After that, we just stuck to swimming.