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If I were half the dog the family cracks me up to be, I should have known those big crates spelled trouble the minute they arrived. Of course I had had a hint from the way The Word—the master, that is—used to talk. He was always bragging about what wonderful water dogs we Chesapeake Retrievers were, spreading out my webbed feet (that's right, friend) so often I looked like four Chinese fans walking down the street.
According to him I could swim in anything but water on the knee. He gave everybody in the neighborhood the idea that in the event of a marine catastrophe (his word, not mine) good old Neptune would ferry the entire family ashore—The Word, Ras, Roddy and Muz Muz all hanging onto my tail like possums on their mama. Seems Muz Muz's great uncle had been pulled out of a frozen lake by a Chesapeake and—well, you can see how a thing like that gets started. Anyway I didn't mind. It gave me a very good odor in the community, because we didn't own a boat and without one there was no possibility of my becoming a hero.
But the crates ended all that. They were a boat; that is, they could become one: The Word, egged on by a positive talent for self-destruction, had bought himself a kit for a 21-foot cabin cruiser.
He came home that night, eyes starry, stumbled up the front steps and skidded down the cellar ones to the garage where the odious crates lay. Dinner waited that night. He hacked and tore at the wrappings, until the place looked like a junk heap of torn-up mattresses. Everyplace, paper and wood and screws. Then he sat down in the middle of the mess and made engine noises with his lips. I felt better right away. The way that boob was going, he didn't have a chance.
Naturally, I did my best to sabotage matters. I'd grab the special screwdriver that came with the kit—the only one that fitted all those screws—and sneak off into the woods with it. Sometimes it would be a couple of days before he could put his hands on another, or me. Sometimes I wouldn't have to do anything but sit—just slide over and collapse on some vital fitting. Boy, would he scream. Then I developed a high taste for mahogany. There's something about a good piece of Philippine between the teeth that sets me drooling. I liked to wait until it had been sanded, filled, stained and varnished before I chomped on it. The stuff's delicious that way. The Word, naturally, got quite peevish about this and took to locking me in the bedroom. Doors, I discovered, offered a decent substitute, so they lost there, too. Somehow, though, that motley heap of lumber really began to look like a boat, and The Word started singing: "The keel board's joined to the frame board; the frame board's joined to the bottom board and the bottom board's joined to the side board...and we'll be afloat in the spring." Right then I knew the damn fool was going to make it.
This called for a change of tactics. No more mahogany snacks, no trifling with the tool. From now on, boat-builder's best friend. Get the shipyard superintendent instead. If you've ever seen one you know what I mean. They stare fixedly at you and then inquire archly, "You don't think you can build this thing all by yourself (without 20 years' experience as a cabinetmaker), do you?" Bad types, you know, and just my meat.
The Great Slide into Manhasset Bay came in late August and the launching was a success; the Duckling did not go down immediately or even subsequently. In fact, her bearing drew mild kudos from the yardmen for The Word who had himself installed the electricity, plumbing, engine, and so on. But they didn't know the half of it.
The rest of the season Duckling never strayed far enough from shore to raise a ripple. The nine months of nights and weekends and the few weeks' vacation (sic) in the live broiler called a boat shed had taken all the bounce out of the Bounding Main so far as The Word was concerned. Next year was to be the year of the great voyage.
I'd like to be able to report that most of the winter was spent in careful preparation. It wasn't. Oh, there was some messing around with charts and once a week a class at the U.S. Power Squadron (my God, every consonant was caked with salt from then on), but nobody planned. Take the size. The cabin was so small The Word couldn't sit up without bending over. When we all were shoehorned in the cabin it was a first-class mob scene. Downright embarrassing, I thought, but The Word never even noticed. He was gone.
The trip was to go through the Harlem River to the Hudson, then up the Hudson until it turned west at Fort Edward, then on northeast through the Champlain Canal to the lake. Altogether, including a lot of poking around in Champlain, a round trip of about 750 miles. Actually, we went twice as far. The Word had a theory: the only way the five of us could survive on a 21-foot boat was to keep moving. "Take the blood," he said. "It moves so fast through the system, the impurities never have a chance to clog things up." We didn't clog a thing. No sooner did I get the pillows warm on the bunks than I'd get booted out into the cockpit; it was the same for everybody—miserable.