My colleague Mark Brown bought a kayak, and announced on Facebook that he is looking for someone to enjoy the sport with him off Montrose Beach. My first, unfiltered thought was along the lines of, "No Mark! Don't! Stop!" Then I realized he already had bought the thing. I began to wonder if he mentioned the kayak intentionally, to mock me. But that can't be. He doesn't remember this column. But I do, and offer it up to him, and you, as a cautionary tale. No kayaks.
This summer we had fun. We drove to Put-in-Bay. That is in Ohio. We hiked and played ball. We drank beer. It was fun! Except for the nearly drowning part. That was not fun.
(Let's see: one, two, three, four, five . . . 36 words. Drat! Nine hundred more to go.)
Whoops, sorry. Couldn't help myself. Fresh from vacation, with an autumnal coolness in the air and school starting soon (next week, in the leafy suburban paradise of Northbrook, where classes begin later because our kids don't skip out as much as other children do) the traditional first-day-of-school assignment bubbled up from somewhere deep within the recesses of my brain.
Frankly, after so many years of vigorously suppressing those choppy, sing-song rhythms of elementary school, it was something of a joy to let them out again, bringing back memories of flip-top desks incised with graffiti and dotted with rounded bumps of dried Elmer's glue . . .
Where were we? Put-in-Bay. For those who've never been (and I imagine most haven't; it isn't exactly Disney World) Put-in-Bay is an island north of Sandusky, a mix of Fort Lauderdale boat party and Colonial Williamsburg. The Battle of Lake Erie was fought there in 1813, and there's an enormous monument run by the National Park Service, right next to a strip of delightfully cheesy bars and burger joints.
We stayed with my friend Jim and his family at their cottage on the shore. I've been going there most summers since I was 17, when Jim and I and a bunch of high school pals toted our skateboards there, to what was then his father's cottage. Now it's his and, one weekend a year, ours too. My friends tend to wind themselves into snits, storm off for reasons I never quite grasp, and never come back. They don't, typically, throw their family vacation homes open to me.
Jim does. Our island agenda has changed with time, marriage and children, from long winery visits (Ohio wine tastes bad, but only the first bottle) to ritualized trips up the monument and to the carousel.
Some things never change: Frosty's for pizza. Sitting in the battered easy chairs, sipping beer and gazing at the lake. The late night walk to town, where Jim and I pass through the barroom crowds of sunburnt, post-collegiate youngsters, looking for a spot to sit, invisible as ghosts.
I suppose very soon my family will have to strike out on more ambitious trips—the typical Grand Canyon, Washington, D.C., Mount Rushmore circuit. We've been holding off, I suppose, until the boys are of an age when the experience won't disappear with memories of diapers and the womb.
It is somewhat flawed, I know, to weigh the value of your vacations against whether your kids will remember them. Good times have a worth, even if forgotten.
Next summer, I'm sure, we'll strike out somewhere farther than Ohio. I have very strong memories of the trip my family took to Washington, D.C., when I was 7—the FBI agent firing that tommy gun in the tour, the White House, the wonders of the Smithsonian. We'll go, and hope the experience isn't too diminished by anti-terrorism measures ("If you peer through those tank traps, razor wire coils and concrete barriers, boys, you'll catch a glimpse of the Capitol . . .").
Of course we'll still go to Put-in-Bay, though sticking more closely to the traditional activities. Which brings me back to the near-drowning. This year, I actually got out of my chair and tried one of the ocean-going kayaks that Jim and his wife, Laura, bought for themselves.
Jim's a tall guy, and had the bigger kayak, and I'm shorter, though rounder, so I jammed myself into Laura's kayak, which is like wearing a belt that is too tight and has a 17-foot fiberglass boat attached.
We set out into the lake, heading around the coast, toward the monument, the sight of which must have awed me so much that I flipped the kayak over. It happened very suddenly--one moment, fine, then time for an "Oh, no!" before finding myself underwater, upside down.
On ABC's "Wide World of Sports," guys were always flipping this way and that in their kayaks, in rocky white water rivers no less. Not so easy in real life. I was in deep water, thank goodness, but my kayak wasn't flipping anywhere. What I should have done is shucked the thing, putting both hands on the boat and shimmying out. Instead, I tried twisting my body to get my face above the water—the air was right there, close. I could see it, a big bright whiteness just a foot of lake away.
My first try went nowhere. As did my second. A lot of time seemed to be passing, though it was probably only 10 or 20 seconds. Time crawls when you're upside down, underwater. I reflected on how this was a particularly ignoble way to go—held underwater by a kayak, drowned, literally killed by my own fat ass.
Mustering all my resources, I finally pried myself out and bobbed sputtering and gasping to the surface. Jim, to his credit, did not laugh. I dragged the boat to shore, dumped the water, then paddled gingerly back to Jim's cottage and beached the deathtrap, taking special care not to flip myself into the rocks as I approached shore. I hurried up to the cottage, cracked open a beer, and settled myself into the battered easy chair in the living room, fixing my eyes upon the flat blue horizon.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 30, 2002