Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
I hadn’t seen my dad in a couple of years. Our long-distance relationship had made frequent visits impossible, though we talked on the phone fairly often. My year in England, and his couple of years in Turkey, reduced us to letters, and, of course, now that I was in my early twenties it was difficult to get away from work for a jaunt out to California or Oregon. Now he was unemployed, momentarily, in Portland, having lost a campaign for the state legislature and licking his wounds in the suburbs there. Still had his boat, though. The Great Gatsby — a vintage wooden cabin cruiser. He’d sent me a few pictures and said he and his wife liked to cruise the Columbia River in it.
For some reason, I had an urge to go out to Portland in January. St. Louis was bad in January, and I had this idea that Portland’s climate was less hostile. My dad didn’t mind. He was more or less unemployed at the time, having poured everything into his campaign, so he had time on his hands. His wife was working, though, and wouldn’t mind me coming for a few days.
When I landed after dark, the air felt mild but restless. A couple hours later it was snowing.
This is my travel karma at work.
By morning, it was clear we had a major storm on our hands, a fifty-year storm they were saying on TV. Somehow Dad’s wife had managed a bus into work but it wasn’t clear she’d be able to get home that night. They expected at least a foot of snow during the day. (I now know the total accumulation was 16.3 inches; it was one of the ten worst storms in Portland history.)
Dad and I were happy enough staying in and talking, until about noon, when he got a call from Danny’s Dock. That’s where Dad had The Great Gatsby moored, a group of slips on the Columbia where many of the boats were under floating structures with pitched roofs.
Danny told my father there was so much snow that the weight of it was pushing the shelters down. The roof lines were getting real close to the taller of the boats, the ones with masts, and it wouldn’t be long before they started sinking some of the boats. He said Dad might want to come and move Gatsby, or at least help try and get the snow off of these shelters.
We headed over to the dock, Dad leaping into “hero mode” I always called it, when he perceived he was the only one who could goddamn do anything about a goddamn situation. As soon as we arrived we saw the calamity in the making. Sixteen inches of snow on the corrugated roofs of the boathouses, and a few masts already snapped in two like cane. Gatsby was still okay. It had a cross-shaped structure on the cabin roof, holding radio antennas, but the structure’s beams were still a couple of feet above it. Still, we felt like we had to stoop as we went in to look.
It was cold as shit on top of everything else, and I was put in charge of starting up a pump to get the water out of a couple boats already going down. Damn pump wouldn’t start, I was yanking on the pull cord with frozen hands. Some burly dockman came over and got it going for me, water shooting out of the heavy canvas hose.
Dad, meanwhile, had this idea. What he’d do was, he’d get up on the roof of one of the shelters, haul up a snow shovel and a long hose, and, why, he’d just loosen up the snow with water from the hose and nudge it down with the shovel. Somebody propped an extension ladder up to the eaves and said, basically, Knock yourself out, Bob. Up he went with the hose sort of tied around his waist and the shovel banging on his hips and knees as he went. It was like, There goes Bizarro Batman.
I watched from the comfort of someone’s boat cabin, where there was coffee spiked with some Dewar’s. A little early for booze, but the heat was good. Dad was up there on the peak of the roof desperately chopping at the snow with his shovel and trying to shoot water into the gaps. Nothing was happening.
Danny himself, a wizened (naturally), red-faced man with an actual cap’n’s hat and a thick jacket that seemed coated in wax, came aboard my boat. Your pop, he says, is either the bravest sumbitch around or the stupidest. I said I better go with the bravest under the circumstances.
In a little while, Dad realized there was no hope. There were probably two thousand square feet of snow on that roof alone, times at least four structures. The water from his hose was freezing as soon as it hit the air. Damn if some of these boats weren’t going to end the day in the drink.
When he came down all the other men were laughing and clapping him on the back, saying he’d tried, God damn it, and that’s worth something. He said screw the coffee and gimme the whiskey, and they hustled him into the boat where the bottle was, and a space heater now, and poured him a generous tin cupful. I couldn’t decide if I was proud of him at that moment or disturbed by how he’d gone ahead with a clearly futile thing as a sort of performance art. Maybe a combination.
Back home we learned that it had stopped snowing early enough that only a few boats were lost. Not the Gatsby, thank God. It’s radio mast had been cracked but that was easy enough to repair.
I always remember that day as one of my dad’s more dramatic efforts to flaunt the biggest balls in the room, but it’s ironic that I never did get a ride on The Great Gatsby. By the time I was able to come out for another visit, he’d gotten rid of it. Claimed that he was unable to sell it for the price he wanted so he managed a way to put it on the bottom of Lake Oroville, of all places, and walked away with an insurance check.
That’s what he told me, anyway.