“I’m going over to Doug’s house, Mom,” I said for the third time that week.
“What are you boys up to? You’ve been going over there a lot lately, and gone the whole day.”
“We’re just building something,” I said trying not to offer up too much information.
Well, I couldn’t say we were building a boat. That would connect immediately to the river, and it wouldn’t be good if I even said the word.
“We’re working on a coaster car. Like a soap box derby car to run down Thurmond Hill,” I lied.
“That sounds dangerous. You can’t be on the street with cars coming.”
I guess she didn’t know we played in the street all the time. We played baseball in the street, football in the street, we pretty much played in the street most of the time. We used Dr. Shunk’s parking lot behind our house for the baseball infield and the street was the outfield. Football field was curb to curb but just out of eye-shot because the garage blocked the view from the kitchen. Even worse, we not only coasted down Thurmond Hill on everything with wheels, but we went down Whitney Hill which crossed over Thurmond Street at the bottom. We hadn’t hit a car yet, or, more accurately, a car hadn’t hit us yet, but there were some close calls. Bikes coasting down the hill could be stopped, a soap box derby car, probably not, at least not with the kind of brakes we designed, if the car had any at all. Most of the time our cars had “Flintstone” brakes. You just put your feet out and dragged them. Rough on the Keds.
“We’ll find some other hill to run it on, Mom, there’s plenty of hills without cars on them most of the day.” And that was relatively true.
I still believe we invented skate boarding when I was nine or ten. Yes, that’s right, long before it was an acceptable pastime, even a mode of transportation, and way before they started discussing it as an Olympic sport. We dismantled any skates we could find, and attached the wheels to a board, rounded off the corners with a saw, spray-painted them up. – Yeah, we could still go into “Woolworth’s” and buy paint. We didn’t invent tagging. - We would then ride them down Thurmond Hill at high speeds, often losing our balance and forced to jump off mid-hill, allowing the board to continue it’s potentially deadly trip down looking for a victim in the crowd watching at the bottom. These “runs” down Thurmond Hill were done without helmets, knee-pads, elbow-pads, or shin-pads, and, with the exception of a few road burns, where a silver-dollar-sized piece of skin is rubbed off your arm or leg, no one was ever seriously hurt.
We learned you could slalom the board by shifting your weight on the ride down. That was about all the “tricks” we ever did on them. I watch what they do on those things now, and it amazes me. I still want to see them handle Thurmond Hill though. It probably doesn’t amaze you that the “sisters” in the neighborhood were not very happy about their missing skates.
The aluminum had arrived from “Montgomery Ward” on Saturday. We snuck down to Main Street, paid the ten dollars plus tax that we had amassed from our allowances and piggy banks and had a few dollars to spare. I knew from a previous experience at “Monkey Ward,” that I would need more than the $10 catalog price because of the tax. Although I had no idea how much more that was going to be.
I learned later in life that what we had purchased to “skin” our boat was for roofing. Called “valley flashing” it’s put down in the roof valleys and then asphalt shingles are applied over the top on either side. I had found the material in the “Montgomery Ward ‘Home’” catalog. They had several specialty catalogs and I had checked them all looking for a roll of aluminum. Montgomery Ward had everything. This looked like it would work, and was within the budget. We bought a hundred half-inch sheet metal screws and planned out the work.
A couple of things about valley flashing. It’s not interested in lying flat, not without some extreme effort, after having been in a tight roll for so long. The effort causes it to crease and dent, so the smooth surface, when it is unrolled, now looks like its been pelted with gravel. The closer to the center of the roll you get, the worse it gets. It has very sharp edges and is very difficult to cut straight, or at all, with the hand shears we had found in one of the garages, particularly without cutting yourself. We found this out early when we had our first finger fatality. Well, it didn’t really die, but it got slashed pretty good and Opie got sent home for medical attention with strict instructions not to tell how he cut that finger…almost off. Those assigned to the aluminum-cutting used gloves after that which made it even more difficult to cut.
We laid each section over the wood frame and secured the aluminum down with the half-inch screws after drilling a pilot hole. It was an assembly line crew. One guy drilling, the next one starting the screw, the next one finishing it, the last one making sure it was tight. We went through the first hundred screws pretty fast and had to use some of our slush fund to buy more.
The boat was taking shape. What shape that was exactly, was uncertain. It looked like the nose cone of a rocket with a flat side that had a hole cut in it where you sat. It was shiny, I’ll give it that. The seams didn’t look anything like the “AirStream” trailer surface I had envisioned. Instead they were lumpy, with obvious leaks that we seemed not to notice, or decided weren’t going to be an issue. Within three days the “Silver Bullet” was ready to launch, but how to sneak it out of the garage? We’d have to move it under cover of darkness.
Any idea that I might sneak out of the house in the middle of the night was simply ridiculous, so the movement of the boat was assigned to three other boat builders that met up at an assigned point, went to the garage and quietly lowered the boat through the attic opening. Walking it up the street and over to the stairway must have been a sight. The shiny three foot boat shimmering in the street lights, looking like everything but a boat. Thankfully most folks were asleep at that hour during a work week. They got the boat to the river, launched it in the water and tethered it to a tree. It floated! They were ecstatic and hurried home back to their beds, unnoticed, by all accounts.
The next morning, early, we gathered at the corner two blocks away, out of sight of my house, and headed for the stairs. We were going to officially launch the Silver Bullet. Excitement was in the air, as was an argument about who was going to make the maiden voyage. Doug won out. It was his garage attic that housed the project after all.
When we got to the river, the boat was gone!
“Where did you tie it up?” I yelled.
“I tied it up right there,” Jimmy said, pointing. “See, the rope is still tied to the tree.”
The rope was, indeed, still tied to the tree. At the other end, submerged a foot below the surface was a silver object. We tried to move it, but completely filled with water, it wouldn’t budge. There it sits, probably to this day, resembling the nose cone of an Atlas rocket, still shiny after all these years. Not rusted, because aluminum doesn’t rust, it corrodes. The Silver Bullet. My only attempt at boat-building, albeit rather unsuccessful, but Jimmy did say it floated. They had seen her, proudly floating in the current of Goose Creek, when they left her last night. Guess those seams weren’t water-tight after all.
Boats are always “shes” for some reason. No male boats out there, I guess. “She’s a beauty,” they’ll say. “How much did she cost you?” “She sure handles nice.” I’ve heard it’s because she shows her topsides, hides her bottom and, coming into port always heads for the buoys. When war correspondents asked Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz at the end of the Pacific War, why boats were always referred to as “she”, his response, although many would consider it sexist today, was “Because it costs so much to keep them in paint and powder.”