This column was previously published in The Bradenton Times September 19, 2010
SNEAD ISLAND -- To keep us out of trouble one summer, my dad brought home a slightly used kayak. He worked for the county as an electrician but every now and then he’d do a side-job. When a customer couldn’t pay him in cash for the work he’d done, they’d agree on some sort of barter.
My brother and I were excited about our new toy, but we had no means to launch the thing, and the waterfront was almost a mile down the road, too far for two scrawny teenagers to carry a heavy kayak. Since my mom had been pestering him to get a couple of old trailer tires out of the garage, Dad figured he’d kill two birds with one stone. He not only got them out of the carport, but he’d prove her wrong when she said he “would never use those things” by making them into a dolly. The construction was extremely hi-tech, consisting mostly of PVC and duct tape.
The purpose of the “purchase” was to give us something to do for the summer. Because both my parents worked, our house tended to be the neighborhood hangout. My mom had come home too many times to kids running through sprinklers, swinging from palm fronds off the balcony and open doors and windows air-conditioning the whole street. She’d be chasing kids and dogs around the yard in 4-inch heels and a business suit. Nosey neighbors would watch through their windows, snickering through the glass but never offering any help.
Photo of Mary on one of our many excursions
to a mangrove island
The plan worked. We’d pull the kayak down to the water every day during the hot summer. My friend Mary loved to go out on it and swim and bask in the sunlight. We had several access points at different locations. Neighbors would let us cut through their yards and launch our boat, the Big Kahuna, off the beaches that were behind their houses. Mary mostly paddled mainly because I’d hem-haw around questioning whether it was worth the effort, and she’d volunteer just so we could get a move-on.
With her paddling, I would sit behind and control our bike radio. The radio was a gift from my grandparents. Top-Mama and Top-Pop had a strange obsession with Radio Shack. Every year at Christmas, my parents would roll their eyes when we opened a Rap-o-Matic microphone and beat machine, electric drums or any other sort of annoying noise-making contraption. When we recently unwrapped the package with the bike radio, my parents let out a sigh of relief – at least the racket would be attached to a bicycle and not penetrating through walls of our small house and intensifying my mother’s migraine.
The radio was never attached to our bike, but its waterproof construction made it perfect for the kayak. Mary and I would be cruising in style, bikini-clad with tunes-a-blasting. Sometimes we’d pick up others on the way to The Cut. Occasionally, we’d have about five kids on the one-person kayak (I wish I had a picture of this because it was quite the sight). Most of the time, our destination was the Snead Island Crab House. It had everything a kid could ask for -- bait, candy bars, cokes and of course Vienna sausages in a can for my friend Brittany.
One guy who lived on his sailboat, Peg Leg, would sometimes let us borrow one of his kayaks when he saw us floating in The Cut so we could offload a couple kids and go to a nearby rope swing. Swinging was a lot of fun – if it was high tide. Otherwise, it was dangerous and painful to land on a pile of oysters which we did frequently.
If we bought bait we’d fish. There were hundreds of inlets and estuaries to choose from. Mary was ecstatic one day when she caught a snook. The fish pulled us all over the waterway while she reeled it in. We’d see sharks, swim to small islands, fish and play, but we were always home in time to avoid the three o’clock rain shower.
I still take out the Big Kahuna once in a while, but the homemade dolly rusted away years ago, and the bike radio eventually ran out of juice. Nothing compares to those summers of kayaking with friends. Sometimes when I think about it, I couldn’t have asked for a better childhood.
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