You would think our childish pranks and adventures would end when we entered our late teens. Wrong! (Actually, they continue today, just at a slower pace.) One teenage adventure took place on a hot, sticky summer night in 1956.
Knox had moved from Panama Park to a house on Trout River in Highlands. His family was the first to move into this neighborhood. Charlie had moved to Georgia (probably to get away from Knox). Ernie, Buddy (David), Knox, Dave, and Derrold had entered high school at Andrew Jackson the year before and were sorting out their place in the kingdom of the Red & White.
Being avid football nuts, Buddy, Ernie, and Knox were striving to take their place in the long line of heroes on the Tiger football team. Things were going well for Buddy and Ernie, but Knox was having difficulty getting the fifteen or so miles back and forth to football practice (in those days very few teens had cars). It was almost impossible to work two extra trips a day into parents and friends busy schedules. Soon it was apparent that Knox would have to forego football. As a result, he missed seeing his friends after school, and frequently urged them to visit and enjoy the river pleasures of swimming and skiing. Their extracurricular activities did not permit frequent visits.
One of the visits, however, was memorable. About dusk, Ernie and Dave, unexpected, pulled into Knox’s driveway. They were paying a “courtesy call” on their way to pick up hot dates that lived in Garden City.
Knox’s mom answered the doorbell. She did what mothers do. She cornered them and plied them with questions (How is your family? How is school?, etc.) She reminisced about old times in Panama Park. She reminded them that as the neighborhood nurse she had fixed numerous scrapes and bruises, and popped their “cute little behinds” many times with one vaccine or another. When Ernie and Dave were close to saturation with “mom” talk, they were saved by the telephone. As Mrs. Balkcom answered the phone, she motioned them toward the back door. Ernie and Dave proceeded down the back steps to where Knox was busy working on his boat down at the dock.
Knox saw them come out the backdoor and rushed to shake their hands and welcome them to “the waterfront.”
“Where’s Buddy and Derrold?” Knox asked.
“Buddy is probably at the drive-in making out. I hope to be doing the same later tonight”, Ernie replied. “Derrold went to a baseball game.”
After telling each other a few lies, Knox insisted they take a short boat ride before it was totally dark, explaining that some new adjustments to the rigging needed to be checked out. Ernie and Dave were already running late and were anxious for female companionship. However, they felt guilty for only infrequent visits and, therefore, relented.
Knox threw the tools he had been using up in the front of the boat, in the general direction of his dad’s toolbox. He took his place as captain in the rear by the small outboard motor. Dave followed, taking a seat up on the bow. Ernie, the largest, was the last to board. He groped and stumbled in the near darkness over wires, ropes, and tools. After some interesting balancing work, Ernie flopped on the port side of the boat; the boat came within inches of flipping over. Ernie expressed his views regarding the seaworthiness of the craft in rather colorful language.
The little motor came to life on the second pull of the starter rope. Knox steered the little craft slowly and proudly into the center of the river. Darkness soon surrounded them.
“Knox, do you have a name for this craft?” asked Ernie
“Yeah, I named it ‘The Cat’." answered Knox
After a few minutes Ernie bravely stood up and peered into the blackness. “Hey, Knox, you know it’s pretty dark out here. This thing got any lights on it? Or, can it see in the dark like a cat?” Ernie asked.
“Oh, No,” Knox replied, “I know this river like the back of my hand. Sometimes I get out here and close my eyes and see how high I can count before I chicken out and open them to see where I am. I hatten hit anything yet.”
“Well maybe you “hatten” hit anything, but maybe something might hit us,” Dave added.
“Like what?” Knox responded. “The only thing there is out here this time of night are alligators. I hit a sleeping one every now and then when it’s dark like this. I can’t see them and they can’t see me. It’s just kinda like you bump into a floatin’ log or somethin’. Nothin’ to worry about.”
With that “assurance”, they proceeded down the river.
After a while Dave and Ernie seemed to relax and began to move cautiously around the boat. “Say, Knox,” Dave asked. “Just exactly what kind of boat is this?”
“A damned little one,” Ernie chimed in, “The only other thing you could fit on this thing besides us is Knox’s IQ.”
“Well, to tell you the truth,” Knox began, “This is not really a sailboat. I always wanted a sailboat but couldn’t afford one. When daddy bought me this little runabout for Christmas I played with it for a while and then figured I wasn’t going anywhere fast with this little dinky engine. So I decided if I had to go slow I might as well make me a sailboat out of it. They may be slow, but are a lot more fun. I cut me the straightest cypress tree I could find for a mast, cut another one for the boom. Then I took two bed sheets to make sails. I used clothesline wire for the stays to hold the mast up. It ain’t fancy, but it’ll sail about as fast as that motor will push it.”
“Knox,” Ernie said chuckling, “You’re a piece of work! You got me out here in the middle of Trout River, in the pitch dark, where I can’t tell where I am, surrounded by alligators, in a boat with no lights, that’s made out of clothesline wire and bed sheets. If this thing gets us back to shore it’ll surprise me. If I didn’t have my good clothes on I’d throw your butt overboard.”
Feeling the need to defend his handiwork, Knox shut off the motor, jumped up and began to demonstrate the seaworthiness of his little craft. He rocked the boat back and forth so hard the mast was swinging across the sky like a windshield wiper stuck on high. So violently, in fact, Dave fell off his perch in the bow and into the floorboards. Ernie bent over to help Dave. Knox, in typical Knox fashion, attempted to kick Ernie in the seat of the pants. Ernie jumped aside to avoid the kick and bumped into Dave who was trying to get up. Dave grabbed Ernie to keep from falling over the side. Ernie grabbed the guy wires to the mast trying to maintain his balance. Ernie, clutching wires, and Dave, holding tight to Ernie, were leaning over the side of the little boat. This caused the boat to roll drastically to one side. As a result, Knox lost his balance and crashed on top of them. The stress on the little boat was too much: wires break, mast and boom crash down, and boat overturns.
It was even darker in the water underneath the boat. Being in the middle of the river, in the dark, with unseen alligators, was not something Ernie and Dave had planned on.
Fighting the tide, they swam, fully clothed, and pushed the overturned boat toward a point of light on the shore: hoping the light was from Knox’s dock. Occasionally, they had to cling to the half-submerged boat to rest and keep from drowning. They struggled in the darkness for what seemed like hours until they finally reached shallow waters. But they battle was not over.
Plodding through the knee-deep mud was draining their energy. Ernie and Dave were at the back of the boat pushing. Ernie noted that Knox was not with them. Ernie shouted, “Knox, were are you?”
“I’m up here, in front.” replied, Knox.
“Well, get your butt back here and help!”
Knox responded: “I am helpin’. I’m up here pulling on the bowline. And besides, I’m carrying the anchor!”
When they, at last, reached shore they collapsed on the bank. Then, they made several discoveries. Mrs. Balkcom’s “baptized” cat sat meowing on top of the overturned boat. The cat had been sleeping inside the boat somewhere and had gone unnoticed. When they turned the boat over they saw that Mr. Balkcom’s box of tools was absent. When they looked at the stern, they saw that Mr. Balkcom’s outboard motor was also among the missing.
“Wait till I tell Buddy and Derrold about this,” Ernie said to Knox. “You take us out in a so-called sail boat that doesn’t have a center board, you turn us over in the middle of an alligator infested river, you let us struggle the boat back to shore with the anchor still dragging, you almost drowned your mother’s cat and you lost your dad’s tools and motor. My clothes are ruined and I miss out on a hot date. All in one night. Must be some kinda record”