by STEVE MAANUM
Do you remember your first attempt at water skiing?
In 1959 on Lake Le Homme Dieu, I had my first experience of skimming across the surface of the water while standing up. It wasn’t on a pair of water skis, and it wasn’t behind a fast-moving Glastron. It was on a painted piece of plywood that was about three feet wide and five feet long. I think it was called a surfboard, but it was nothing like the ocean surfboards that the Beach Boys and Frankie and Annette made popular in all of the beach movies.
It was more like a floating barge, and when it was pulled behind a five and a half horsepower Johnson outboard motor clamped onto dad’s wooden fishing boat, it crawled along like a barge, too. Somehow that didn’t matter. For a nine-year-old, riding the waves at a snail’s pace was just as exciting as preparing for the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.
It was a few years later when I finally had my initiation into the real world of waterskiing. Because I was a little reluctant to try, you might say I was roped into it.
Several of my friends’ families had cabins on Lake Minnewaska, and some invited me to stay with them from time to time. On one of those occasions, while staying at Joe’s, the week’s goal was to teach me to water ski. Let me set the scene, which involved three characters. Joe would play the sincere and helpful friend. Chris, his older brother, would play the sinister and controlling pilot of the boat. I would play the uncoordinated, ‘one card short of a deck’ patsy.
Here’s how the scene played out. Chris got the boat ready by starting the motor, steering it away from the dock, and spreading the ski rope out on the surface of the lake in front of me. Joe and I put on life jackets and got in the water. He then helped me put the two water skis on. As he handed me the handle of the ski rope, he instructed me to just sit back so the tips of the skis were above the water’s surface. He motioned for Chris to move ahead slowly in order to tighten the rope. Joe smiled at me and said, “Don’t worry if you don’t get up the first time. It happens to all of us. It’s going to pull hard and feel strange so if you find yourself falling, just let go of the rope. On the other hand, if you do get up and start skiing, hold onto that rope and keep it tight. If you get any slack in it, you’ll probably wipe out. Chris will take it easy on you.”
That’s the last thing I remember Joe saying, “Chris will take it easy on you.”
Joe checked my position, asked if I was ready, and then yelled, “Hit it!”
The motor roared and I popped right out of the water. I was skiing on my first attempt. Chris went faster. I held on, but it wasn’t much fun just staying behind the boat, so I moved out to one side. When Chris saw that I was still up, he began making circles, causing me to ski through the wake. My left leg went one way, and my right leg went the other way, but I held on. What I was lacking in form, I made up for in enthusiasm. I was having fun, but Chris wasn’t. I learned later on that his intention was to make me fall, and when speeding up didn’t do it, and when going in circles didn’t do it, the only other option he had was to slow down. The slack in the rope should have caused me to sink in the water and finally let go. Joe’s words, “Hold onto the rope and keep it tight,” resonated within me, so instead of sinking, I began pulling in the extra rope. I was on top of the water and that’s where I intended to stay. When I was about 15 feet behind the boat, Chris shoved the throttle down. The sudden force pulled me right out of the skis, and because of all the extra rope, my hands got tangled, and I found myself being dragged behind the boat. He stopped just short of drowning me. Through his warped sense of humor and unorthodox method, he had succeeded in reaching his goal of dumping me.
I guess I was too wrapped up in my skiing to comprehend his intention.