My official license for mayhem arrived in the seventh grade.
"You're going to play sports, play an instrument, or get
a job!" On this subject, my parents marched in rare lockstep.
I found a job.
Each day, after school, Saturday and Sunday mornings, I delivered
the Bellingham Herald. Fifty customers, scattered across
four miles of incline, lined my pockets with a token filthy lucre,
and, more importantly, liberated me from the petty dramas of my
family and adolescence. I was suddenly immune from being grounded.
It was brilliant.
I found a job!
Now, It is a solid scientific fact that a bicycle cannot survive
the rigors of newspaper delivery, and, shortly, I found myself
walking the five miles each day. It was the rare occasion when
my mom would drive me, allowing me to ride in the VW bus with
the sliding door open. My best friend, Eric, accompanied me most
days, substituting for me when I went fishing with my dad or came
down with the plague. He knew the route intimately and its customer's
peculiarities, and he knew I had a good thing. Eric had a pellet
gun, which he'd bring along sometimes, and we'd hunt squirrels,
songbirds, and Nazis in the thick second-growth woods.
My paper route was absurdly plotted upon the terrain. My papers
were waiting for me each day, in a plywood box, at the precise
midpoint of my customers. This meant, on one hand, that I only
had to carry half my papers at a time, but also that I had to
backtrack both legs of the route each day. More importantly, I
got to make a strategic business decision every day. From the
dropoff point, I could first go up Viewcrest Drive, delivering
to the nicer homes, or down into Chuckanut Village, a funky community
of hippies and hardscrabble hangers-on. Each Christmas, the view
homes, overlooking the water, with their tasteful woodwork, could
be counted on for a tip. But, the people who lived in the Village,
in shacks with add-ons, smelling of woodsmoke and clams, were
friendly all year.
The Village was platted at the head of a squarish, shallow bay,
protected by a mile-long stone causeway. The Great Northern railway
constructed this ballast berm in the 1920's, replacing an open
timber trestle, which now formed a protective breakwater. A wide
gravel beach ringed the north half of the bay, with sandstone
boulders and cliffs eroded into bizarre honeycombed shapes. The
south side had marshy islets, through which snaked a creek at
low water, full of spawning salmon in September. Between these
shores, a perilous, waist-deep, fragrant and sucking mud stretched.
Every day, the promise of certain adventure pulled on me, separating
from responsibility like a magnetic claw, until my wristwatch
nagged me back to diligence.
In addition to delivering newspapers to the homes, I was charged
with collecting the subscription payments. Shrewdly, I refused
to perform this task while delivering papers, preferring instead,
to make several expeditions dedicated to this chore each month.
I favored weekends, and, especially, nights after dinner, for
such skulking around.
On a cloudy Sunday afternoon, on the cusp of spring, a collection
expedition found me walking the railroad tracks, on the causeway
that hemmed in the bay. I had taken a circuitous path to arrive
there, having no intention, none at all, of actually collecting
subscriptions from any of my customers.
Decades before, a perfect magic was performed by the engineers
and laborers that constructed the railroad. Trains demand the
straightest possible path between two points, and toward that
end, the berm had been constructed, boulder by boulder, spanning
the mouth of this cove. The tide was left to breathe through a
gap in the wall, bridged by timbers oozing creosote. The north
end of the causeway butted against a ridge, the root of a peninsula,
known locally as Clark's Point. And there the miracle occurs.
Rather than take the serpentine path around the point, rather
than going over the ridge, an army of muscle and dynamite had
bored through the sandstone. The tunnel described a gentle arc
inside the Earth, such that, in the middle third of the tunnel,
you could see neither entrance directly, only trusting their existence
by the dim reflection off the moisture that seeped from the concrete,
coursed down the curved ceiling, in thin films, irrigating the
Blinking against the daylight, having, once again, stupidly,
braved the dangerous shortcut through the train tunnel, several
options confronted me. The causeway ahead offered a sterile predictability:
tracks, rocks, a hundred feet of trestle, high tide. On my left,
northeast, flat water filled the bay, beyond which lay the Village,
paying customers, duty.
The green water on the southwest side of the railroad was deep,
wide beds of kelp calmed the swell, and the point blocked any
wind. A narrow gravel beach spanned the crotch formed by the railroad
berm and the steep shore of Clark's Point. On this balmy, gray
day, at this splendid intersection of landscape and engineering,
a second miracle occurred. I looked down from the tracks and saw
the boat, half-submerged, sitting on the bottom, a few feet from
||Sportyak, a sort of hard-shelled polyethylene
Teal above, and white below, I knew it was a Sportyak,
a sort of hard-shelled polyethylene raft. I'd seen dozens of them,
a cheap and ubiquitous dinghy, hanging on the transoms of small
power boats in the marina and in the islands. They were supposed
to be unsinkable, yet here was a Sportyak sunk. There
was no registration number on the bow. No vessels bobbed at anchor
or moved across the inlet. The nearest waterfront home was a mile
or more away. Perhaps lost in a storm, perhaps abandoned, clearly
it was salvage, and, clearly, it was all mine.
Wet sneakers were a small price to pay for such a prize, and
I gleefully yarded it onto dry land after a mad scramble down
the car-sized rocks. I half-expected to get, predictably, caught
in the act, accused of theft. I rocked it experimentally, and
gallons of brine sloshed between the hull and deck. A quick and
minor surgery, effected with my Swiss Army knife, yielded a two-inch
square inspection hole, as large as I dared, at the aft starboard
(I was a Boat Owner!) corner of the deck.
The seawater inside was illuminated with by the warm glow of
light through the plastic, a tiny speckling of sand visible in
the corners. No rocks, no seaweed: a good sign. Heaving, I lifted
the boat bow-up, straining against the mass of leakage, easing,
relaxing finally, as the water gushed through the hole I'd carved,
onto the beach. I spun the now-empty boat around, and tipped it
toward me, the last few drops dripping reluctantly. I flipped
it, upside-down, and inspected the bottom. Barnacles and stone
had scored long scratches in the plastic, but none were deep enough
to cause a leak. In the corner, directly under my inspection/drain
port was a dent, caused by some great impact. I could find no
breach in the hull, and convinced myself that water must have
infiltrated the seam between the top and bottom.
Balancing the Sportyak over my head, it wasn't difficult
to clamber up and over the railroad tracks, picking my path from
boulder to boulder. I hoped to carry the boat to a safe spot in
the woods, but tide had flooded the bay, and precious little beach
was available. A faint rain began to fall, making perfect circles
on the surface on the clear, flat water. I had my pick of driftwood
paddles, and perched on my knees, I alternated strokes on each
As I skimmed across the glassy sea, sand dabs, tiny flounders,
darted away from my shadow. A kingfisher chattered overhead, a
great blue heron lifted from a floating log, flapping slowly,
croaking, like a feathered pterodactyl, across the water, I was
navigating Paradise. I was alone on this placid and untroubled
body of water, and only the woodsmoke rising, straight up, from
the chimneys of homes on the distant shore belied the truth of
other people in the world.
Between strokes of my ersatz paddle, I could hear a burbling
noise, like a wet flapping. At first, I assumed air bubbles were
fluttering under the hull of my vessel, but at one point, I stopped
to savor the delicious beauty of my situation, only to hear the
burbling while motionless. I twisted around, awkward in the tiny
boat, bent to the hole in the deck. A pin-sized jet of water dribbled
through a crack in the dent I had found earlier. Dammit! Water,
a couple of inches, had violated the division between boat and
sea, so I turned for the sandy shore, a scant thirty feet away.
I tipped my vessel vertical again, easier this time, and a few
gallons gushed forth. I looked at my watch and scanned the shore.
Several cars were parked along the short, dead-end, dirt track
that gave visitors access to the beach. No one was visible on
the beach. I was hoping to stash my trophy in the marsh behind
that road, but the presence of people - hostiles - ruled out any
plan the might expose my treasure.
Long ago, before the railroad causeway, this bay had been exposed
to fierce weather from the southwest. Wind and water had wrought
the lacy erosion on the rocks, undermining tremendous blocks of
stone that had tumbled onto the shore, bouncing, rolling across
the beach to form small islands at high water. Directly above
me, one such boulder was stacked upon two others, forming a sort
of cave. I dragged my boat in between the rocks and wedged it
on the crumbling hillside, well above sight from the shore. I
emerged, stooping, from the cache and circled around the rock
pile, confirming the security of my hiding place.
Owing to the water level, I had to walk past the parked cars.
There was still nobody on the beach, but I could hear voices in
the marsh beyond. Probably birdwatchers. I made a beeline for
home, hastily passing obviously occupied homes, people who owed
me money. When I got home, I called Eric, and filled him in on
I could hear the excitement in his voice. "This is so neat!"
In class, the next day, all I could think about was having my
own private Sportyak. The day dragged, and when the dismissal
bell rang, Eric was waiting for me on the grass field. We trotted
straight to my house. He had already obtained the necessary permission,
the night before, to join my on my paper route. We picked up the
dorky poncho-bag I carried the papers in. We were off.
Of course, we delivered to the Village first, practically running,
pausing to stuff newspapers into mailboxes and the few plastic
Bellingham Herald tubes (which I sold to customers concerned
about something called mailbox fraud) . We took opposite
sides of the street, meeting in the middle of the road to hand
off papers. We arrived at the bay, panting, damp in the March
A Subaru was parked by the water's edge, on the short gravel
lane that connected the parallel paved roads. During the highest
storm tides, water covered this part of the road, functionally
part of the beach, with driftwood and a line of seaweed. On top
of the car was a boat - my boat! A young man, obviously
a college student, was standing on the bumper, knotting a rope
securing the boat - his boat? - to a roof rack. My beautiful dreams,
visions, plans for that boat began to unravel in my brain. I had
"Hey! Where'd you get that boat?" I could hear my anguish
bending my voice.
He paused, noticing us, and gestured across the water. "It
was up on the rocks. Over there."
"That's... That's our boat." I squared my
shoulders. "That's where we, uh, store it."
The claim sounded thin when spoken aloud, and I suspected this
guy's salvage rights were better, twenty-four hours fresher, than
mine. I believe I actually swooned, as the simultaneous thoughts
and ideas crashed in my head: He doesn't know I found it just
yesterday. This guy might just drive off with it. Two against
one: Simple playground math. We could all share it. He's
bigger AND older. Where would we keep it?
He's going to take it. In his dorm? Don't cry, do not cry. It's
not really mine. Not yet.
It was my time-tested understanding that bigger kids picked on,
and took advantage of, smaller kids. I had experienced it first-hand
when I changed schools, and I exercised this principle upon my
younger sisters. Adults, generally, treated kids fairly. This
person, laying claim to my Sportyak, might fall on either
side of the line demarking adolescence from maturity. We stood
there, beside his car. I tried to appear defiant, glared accusingly,
and telepathically willed Eric to do the same.
In slow motion, this interloper reached for the rope laced over
the dinghy. He's going to keep it.
Slowly, he pulled the rope, and it snaked through the bars and
around the boat, piling at his feet.
"I'm sorry about that." The boat (my boat?)
was in his hands. "I just thought someone had lost it. I
was going to put a lost and found ad in the paper." Ouch.
I am a thief.
"That's OK." I mopped my brow with my sleeve. "I'm
glad we caught you. I'd hate to lose it. It's a great little boat."
He opened the rear hatch, tossing the tangled line in the back.
"Yes, it is," He climbed into his car, waved. "Have
fun!" Like we might not.
Todd's blog is at http://schlemsshortreport.blogspot.com/