Storm On Lake Erie; The Summer of ’62, Episode 17

Rich looked to the northwest sky and huge gray foreboding clouds as if emitting from a raging forest fire rolled toward them.

Get the anchor!” Uncle Ralph said in a panic and hurried to the motor and tugged on the rope. It didn’t start. He cursed and said. “Pull it up quick!”

Rich ran to the bow of the boat and pulled with long strokes to hoist the anchor.

Uncle Ralph continued pulling on the starter rope of the engine with little success. Every time he pulled he glanced over his shoulder to see how close the storm was.

The clouds galloped closer with fury and anger.

Finally, the engine started with a cloud of blue smoke.

The rain started with a huge burst like shrapnel from a grenade.

By the time Uncle Ralph got to the helm, Rich had the anchor on the boat. He skipped back to the cockpit.

Grab the poles and hold on,” Uncle Ralph yelled above the idling motor, wind, rain, and thunder.

Rich gathered the poles as Uncle Ralph advanced the throttle to full speed.

Lightning streaked across the sky. Soon the quiet water began to be stirred by violent winds. Waves began to come over the back of the boat. They intensified like they were erupting from the lake’s bottom.

Uncle Ralph had to slow the boat to keep it from lifting in front and preventing it from taking in water over the stern. He accelerated while riding a wave. The boat sunk between the swells. It appeared as if they were in a canyon of water.

Get your vest on,” Uncle Ralph screamed. “Grab a cushion.”

Rich did what he was told. He staggered about the deck and grabbed another vest and handed it to Uncle Ralph. He quickly slipped it on. Rich got a cushion and brought it to him.

Uncle Ralph looked at Rich as if it might be the last time. He breathed heavy. Fright and fear were chiseled on his face, anguish, and horror in his heart. “I’m sorry Richie,” he said with his brow wrinkled like the waves of the lake.

Uncle Ralph struggled for a half hour at the helm and he looked as though he was about to give out. Water from the caps of the waves mixed with the rain. They were drenched with water. It was almost as if night; the visibility was so dense.

The boat was tossed about like the match discarded by Uncle Ralph earlier. One wave took the boat sideways and the next hit broadside and nearly capsized the boat. They were tossed violently port. Uncle Ralph lost his grip on the helm and slammed against the side of the boat. Rich sat on the bench of the stern holding on the storage compartment handles. He jumped to his feet to help Uncle Ralph, but was flung back on the bench and nearly overboard. Uncle Ralph slipped and slid as he struggled to get to his feet. He grasped the doorknob of the cabin door and regained his feet. He pulled himself back to the helm and was able to steer the boat back with the waves. Somehow he found the courage, strength, and energy to continue.

Rich continually offered encouragement, saying it looked as though it was getting better, when in fact, it wasn’t. It seemed they should be near shore, but when the boat was perched high on a wave the rain was so thick and dark nothing could be seen.

All seemed hopeless. They were at the mindless bidding of the wind and the waves.

I’ll try to get us to the beach,” Uncle Ralph said. “There’s a chance we might end up on the rocks. Come up here!”

Rich leaned forward and struggled to the helm.

Grab the wheel,” Uncle Ralph said.

Rich grabbed the wheel.

Hold it steady.”

Uncle Ralph released his hands from the wheel. It jerked, but Rich held tight. Uncle Ralph relaxed his arms and rubbed them and then took over the helm again. He took on a renewed vigor.

Stay here with me,” Uncle Ralph said. “Hold on to the handles.”

Rich swung from side to side and back and forth. The handle was the only way of maintaining balance. Uncle Ralph used the wheel and leaned into the side of the boat. The boat bounced so violently that the deck left them as if suspended until the deck came up to meet their feet again. The bow at times dug hard into the waves and lifted up to shake free from the lake’s grasp. Rich wondered which wave would eventually drag them under for good.

I can’t swim,” Rich said.

Wouldn’t make any difference if you could,” Uncle Ralph said. “Keep the vest on and keep hold of the cushion.”

The boat rode low in the water. They were now too heavy to ride to the top of the waves. The waves were now coming over the sides.

We don’t have much time left do we?” Rich said.

No, we don’t,” Uncle Ralph resigned. “You know I love you.”

I love you too.”

The boat now slogged about in the water as if in its death throes.

There’s the beach!” Uncle Ralph said standing on his tiptoes looking over the top of the windshield, through the shroud of rain. He pointed. “We’re going to make it,” he shouted with relief.

Rich smiled. Uncle Ralph ruffled his hair with his hand.

Uncle Ralph spun the helm hard port and cut the engine. The boat swung around so that the stern faced shore. Rich helped Uncle Ralph swing the motor up and out of the water.

The boat came to an abrupt stop.

We’re on a sandbar,” Uncle Ralph said. “We made it. We’ll be alright. As soon as this blows over we’ll change our drawers, and I’ll have a beer and a cigarette.”

You sure know what you’re doing,” Rich said.

If I knew what I was doing I’d have paid closer attention to the conditions and we wouldn’t have been in a mess,” Uncle Ralph said. “I just about got us drowned. I should have had the radio on.”

In another half hour, the rain and winds abated – the storm passed. The lake calmed, the sun shone brightly on the shimmering water.

Rich pumped the bilge pump until it was dry.

They swam for awhile and a few people from the beach helped dislodge the boat from the sandbar. They motored back to deeper waters, but this time not so far out.


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