Happy Fourth? A Redneck Adventure on the River

The Fourth of July conjures many happy memories of years past, but one year—during Jeff’s “boat phase” we embarked on an adventure that is unforgettable—as much as I try.

My favorite redneck went through a time where he seemed to collect boats, starting with the 27-foot cuddy cabin Cobalt he purchased two days before our wedding. Had I known about that purchase, it may have given me fair warning, I suppose. But that set the stage for a growing collection of floating vessels of different shapes and sizes that reached its peak when he owned said cruiser above, plus a 16-foot runabout, two wave runners, an aluminum canoe, a gutted 43-foot houseboat and a 26-foot Chiquita Banana—all at one time. (Seven total, all except one of which is now gone. We kept the $75 canoe.)

The last of these was an ugly yellow, circa-early ‘70s cabin cruiser that was actually named “The Chiquita.” It was my least favorite of the collection and the one to which Jeff seemed most drawn. He picked it up as a salvage deal when doing some hauling for a local marina. (When someone says “free boat,” Jeff listens.) The exterior upholstery was in decent shape, even if the interior was old, musty-smelling harvest gold plaid and shag carpet, with dark plastic “wood” cabinets and even a head. Captain Jeff worked on the single engine and had assured me that the inboard motor was fully functioning. The others have stories of their own, but this one boat was the catalyst of the most infamous Dempsey Fourth of July ever.

You may know (from a previous story at least) that the Mississippi both awes and scares me. Jeff had been trying to convince me that a cruise up the river to St. Louis to watch the fireworks from our boat would be the epitome of a patriotic and fun adventure. We could bring friends, we could pack some great food and enjoy the entire day on the boat, and cruise back afterward—at night. The return night cruise was my greatest fear, but I needn’t have worried about that. No, that was one worry I needn’t have wasted.

I tell you this tale now, as I believe all statute of limitations have been exceeded. I’d say the names were changed to protect the innocent, but the characters already know who they are, and at least one has been urging me to write this story since my first blog. So there we were; planning a day on the river to celebrate Independence Day, inviting friends to join us, preparing plenty of food, scrubbing the poop deck (what is that anyway?), icing the beer and fueling up the trucks and boats.

Our friends, Lesley and Tommy, plus their kids, joined us. Tommy invited another couple on their boat as well. They pulled their jet-powered bass boat, and we pulled The Chiquita to a nearby marina on the Meramec River, within cruising minutes from the mouth where it empties into the Mississippi. From there we planned to have our mini-regatta cruise upriver to an anchoring spot in front of the Gateway Arch grounds, the site of the annual VP Fair, a three-day extravaganza of air shows, music, crowds and fireworks.
Backing down the boat ramp and launching the boats was easy and quick. Jeff gave me the keys and had me pull his truck and the trailer back up onto the lot while he held the boat. I could do that, as it didn’t require me backing up with the trailer attached. Lesley and the kids planned to ride on the Chiquita with us, while Tommy commandeered his own boat with the other couple aboard. This plan worked best for Lesley and Tommy. This way Les could enjoy her day a little more relaxed, and Tommy could pretend he was in control of his day.

We took off from the dock, cruised down river, and soon found ourselves in the main channel of the Mississippi. It was a bright, beautiful, blue-sky day full of promise. As we cruised northward, we realized there weren’t any barges on the river that day. “Hmmm, must be the holiday,” I thought. The water was swift, but calm. But 20 minutes later, barges appeared from nowhere and seemed to be surrounding us on both sides, going in both directions. The water was churning like a washing machine, and we had one tow boat honking at us to get out of the way. We learned later that river traffic had been stopped for one of the air shows above, so the impatient river captains were swarming their loaded cargo away from the banks to get on their way in a hurry. The cruise upstream was slower than we thought, but we had all day. No worries.

Jeff had his hands full, but he needed a beer. So Lesley and I, in our usual fashion, broke out the snacks and drinks. While this boat was ugly, it did have a table, cup holders and benches on the back deck behind the captain to enjoy the sunshine while having a bite to eat. We watched the traffic around us and occasionally tried to talk to Tommy on the other boat. He was on his way to enjoying his Fourth like any good redneck, with beer in hand. While we couldn’t hear anything he said, he was animatedly working to impress the other couple, a co-worker and his girlfriend. Tommy wasn’t alone with his drink, but he was definitely already having fun.

We were just a couple miles upstream, and we’d just finished settling in with the veggies and dip, crackers and cheese, when we heard a sudden higher pitch coming from the motor. Jeff whipped his head around to look at the rear, then went through the gears of the boat. “We’ve lost a gear on the out drive,” he shouted over the engine and the barge traffic noise. “I think we can keep going,” he continued. “Nope, I’ve got nothin’ but reverse!” I felt the bile rising in my throat. “Now what do we do?” I asked as I looked around at the surrounding vessels in the middle of the channel. I imagined us drifting into an oncoming barge, meeting a wet and violent demise.

He yelled over to Tommy, who pulled alongside to discuss our options—our two captains in conference to strategize. They discussed the option of having Tommy’s smaller boat tow ours the rest of the way upstream to our destination. Luckily, they decided that wasn’t wise, and we turned around to go back. We tied a tow rope between the boats, and Tommy led the way back downstream. “At least we’ll be going with the current,” I said optimistically, as I gobbled a chip and some dip, washed down with a swig of my beer. The bass boat rode low on the water, and The Chiquita floated higher, but it seemed to be working. We slowly rode southward. At least the barges seemed to recognize the situation and now gave us a wide berth.

We could see the mouth of the Meramec coming close when the bass boat sputtered and died. Tommy jumped up, swayed a little as he got to his engine and tried to restart it. “Damn it, we’re out of fuel!” he yelled. All I could think was, we were going to drift past the mouth of the Meramec and we’ll never be able to regain it upstream. We’re dead in the water and we may end up in Cape Girardeau, 100 miles downstream! “Quick! Jeff, throw out our anchor,” I yelled. I figured that’d keep us in place until we could figure out what to do next. Wrong! The anchor did seem to hold us in place, but as the swift Mississippi current flowed past us, it was pulling Tommy’s bass boat downward. “HEY! You’re gonna’ swamp me! Shit!”

“Jeff, cut the anchor rope!”

“Who cares about the damn anchor! Cut it or he’s going under!”

“Hand me a knife!” Jeff hollered as he scrambled over the bow of the boat and reached down to the anchor rope. He managed to cut it away, Tommy’s boat bounced up out of the water and righted itself, and we were adrift again.

“Hey look, there’s someone coming this way from the Meramec!” We all stood up and waved all arms frantically at the oncoming boat. Luck, and the code of the water helped. They saw us in distress and pulled up to give us a hand. The runabout, filled with a family on their way out for the day, returned to the Meramec and towed both our boats upstream to the Meramec marina. Once we arrived at the dock, we all thanked them profusely and offered them money for fuel, which they refused as they smiled, shook their heads and cruised back down the river.

We needed to get the boats on the trailers and out of the water. Jeff managed, after backing down deeper into the water than normal, to get ours onto the trailer by floating it, although a little crooked, up to the crank stop. We sat on the boats for a little while, as we had plenty of snacks and drinks, and the kids wanted to enjoy the water a little. Tommy stewed in his juice, while the other couple disappeared quickly. After much discussion between them, Lesley backed her truck and trailer down the ramp, although a little curb action was involved. (She, unlike me, has no fear.) Jeff and wobbly Tommy hooked up the bass boat onto his trailer. Lesley and Tommy left for home before us.

Jeff and I started down the road toward home. We took a right turn at a traffic light. Then Jeff said, “Uh, oh!” I looked in the side mirror to see the boat and trailer drifting to the right, away from the back of the truck. It had come off the hitch. He pulled off the road and got out quickly to re-hook the trailer and check all the safety chains.

“Good thing for those chains,” he said as he climbed back into the truck cab.

We did make it home that night, but we didn’t make it to the fireworks at the Arch. Instead, we collapsed on the couch in front of the television, watching them on the local station.

“Let’s not do that again,” I said, laughing. “Awe, come on. I can have it fixed in no time,” Jeff replied, smiling. He knew, without more thought, The Chiquita was destined for someone else, not us. Since that time, I have had other episodes on boats with Jeff, and they rarely were successful. In fact, we’ve decided that I bring a curse on any boat he owns, if I set foot aboard. The reason why we still have the canoe is that it hasn’t failed us—even though he and I can’t seem to paddle in the same direction together. But that’s another story.

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Years have gone by, so now I can see the humor in this story. But our friend, Tommy, is gone. He and Lesley broke up a couple years later, and he and Jeff became closer friends. Tommy gave us many reasons to laugh along the way, and finally, a reason to grieve. I like to think he can read this from the great beyond and shake his head, and laugh along with us. Happy Fourth to you Tom!