“Okay, kids,” Mother bellowed enthusiastically. “It’s time to go to the lake. Let’s get packing.” As a child, Mom’s momentous announcement could not have come sooner.

The cabin at the lake was the quintessential vacation mecca developed specifically for a child’s imagination, enjoyment and physical restoration. A well-deserved summer vacation at Lake George was my entitlement for months of succumbing brain cells to arduous educational activities. My adrenaline surged at the thought of overdosing on Coppertone and laying out helplessly like a baby seal in the hot scorching Sun.

Nestled in the heart of the Adirondack Mountain forest, Lake George village was a wondrous, fun-filled vacation mecca. It bristled with historical relevance, amazing shops, quaint restaurants and other bountiful gems of interest. As a wide-eyed, adventure-seeking child, the pinnacle destinations included the rides at The Great Escape amusement park and the light strobing splendor of Pinball Palace. With these enticements dancing in my head, I leaped into action.

At once, we scrambled like support personnel arming a WWII B-24 bomber for a long-range sortie over the China-Burma Himalaya’s. In this case, our aircraft was my parent’s Kingswood station wagon which was fully equipped with the very swag wood-paneled siding. I am certain it weighed as much as a fully fueled aircraft since we packed it solid with the two weeks of rations and gear my mother laid out carefully.

Dad took the helm of his road-weary beast with pride and stouthearted resolution. As a former Air Force pilot and officer in China-Burma, everything was inspected and double-checked prior to departure. All tires were scrutinized for proper pressure and tread wear. Weight distribution was examined with the zealousness of an engineer. Using a very sophisticated method of calculation, Dad would analyze the recovery bounce that each shock absorber displaced as he stepped on and off the left and right edges of the rear bumper. Unfortunately, Dad never disclosed what the success criteria were but I’m positive he knew exactly what was deemed acceptable. Once assured the pre-flight checklist was satisfied, Dad gave the order for takeoff.

The forty-five-minute ride seemed like an eternity. We were squashed into the back and the younger you were, the farther back into the station wagon you were placed. Depending on your rank within the car, you were responsible for holding something. You never knew what it would be but heaven help you if your perishable busted on your watch. If you thought watching out for eggs was hard, it was never as daunting as tending to the end of the main wooden pole from the officer’s tent my father had secured from his military days. The length of this dried-out piece of timber was as long as the station wagon itself. As such, it required special placement so as not interfere with Mom’s area of comfort or Dad’s cockpit controls throughout the trip. Based on Dad’s past in-flight barking, we surmised that any rear movement variance of two or three inches, would translate into several feet of swinging lumber up in the front cockpit.

To secure our longevity and comfort during the ride, Dad left the back window open for fresh air. Unbeknownst to him, the poor aerodynamic design of the rear window and the downward draft caused by the roof rack-fin did nothing but push hot, oxygen-depleted, exhaust fumes directly into our lungs.

Rarely would we tempt fate and murmur, “Are we there yet?” Dad would only question the state of the perishable item you were responsible for holding. Using what we later deemed to be superhuman x-ray vision, Dad instantly surmised you were handling the item incorrectly and always knew a better way for you to care for the package responsibly.

Once we turned into the driveway of the camp, our joy increased exponentially. Not only were we being released from our duties but as soon as the rear liftgate opened, we immediately stammered and crumbled to the ground to suck in as much nutrient-enriched oxygen from the grass blades below our feet. Dad always chuckled at this ritual as he must have thought we were just feigning homage to the fertile ground of his rustic domain. Sadly, in all those years, our blue lips and shallow sunken eyes from the carbon monoxide poisoning never tipped him off.

As we regained a form of semi-consciousness, we sprinted past the lake house and straight to the dock. As if our memories were stripped bare, we gazed in a renewed marvel at the serene and picturesque landscape of evergreen forests touching the crisp clean edges of the lake. We darted our eyes in all directions. We stood majestically and took in long deep breaths of the cooled pine forest air. With our oxygen levels normalizing and feeling refreshed, our attention was riveted to the water below our feet. Like moths to a flame, our spirits were drawn to the water. As we each reached down to touch its nipping coldness, a chuckle brewed up inside me. Are we that much different from moths seeking nirvana at a glowing bug light? In a synchronized movement, we each dipped and swirled our hands around to gauge the waters’ temperature.

Of course, instead of frying and evaporating into a smoky blaze of bug dust, we would briskly flick the cold water off our hands and focus our gaze on something else. In that instant, the fascination with the lake was gone. We were moths once again, now searching for another flame.

My father’s greatest pride and plausibly his most loyal begotten contentment was his 1958, seventeen-foot Chris Craft boat. Fashioned from the finest mahogany and minted with elegant touches of unique craftsmanship, all agreed it was a masterfully crafted maritime gem of the highest measure. Stored at the marina during the long winter months, the engine was meticulously maintained and remained strong throughout each year of usage. All would have thought a craft so pristine would be off-limits to our rambunctious nature and hoarding inquisitiveness but Dad was very cool about us frolicking and playing in and around the boat. We were all quite aware of Dad’s carefully formulated and uncomplicated philosophy when it came to the boat. Respect it, enjoy it, play with it but if you break it – you’re dead. A fairly simple philosophy that we grasped right away!

It didn’t take long to embroil ourselves into the routine of everyday camp life. After Mom served up her behemoth breakfast, we set forth on our obligatory duty to acquire our preferred spots on the dock. Prepared with the lowest form of SPF protection, we slobbered globs of lotion and bug spray on our virgin skin and freely sequestered to a summer full of hibernated sunbathing.

As the Sun broiled us like pork chops in a marmalade glaze, Dad began preparations on his fishing gear. Mom stayed back enjoying the coolness of the shaded porch but always provided vigilant oversight to her young roasting fledglings. As if orchestrated by Nature’s design as the perfect EasyBake Oven recipe of live specimens, the hypnotic, rhythmic lapped water against the dock supports quickly transported us to a succumbed slumber. Mom was always mindful of the time we spent under the scorching Sun. Every so often Mom would yell, “You better flip over now or you’ll be toast in the evening!”

“Get up,” said Dad as he nudged his bare, wet foot gently into my side. “Time to get ready.”

“Ready for what?”, we uttered in impish unison as we awoke from our sound sleep. Our inquisitive nature was merely a ploy for additional time to gather more of Nature’s rays but we were halfheartedly excited at the expectation of what was to come. Like a pack of pirates, we secretly agreed that a brazen mutiny would ensue if the prospected reason for interrupting our summer dormancy, was dull and boring.

Unaware of our fiendish plot, Dad hazardously glanced away as if more pressing importance was at hand. From the corner of our squinted eyes, we saw Mom sauntering down the wooden stairs to the dock. She was carrying her pocketbook.

“Get up kids. It’s time to go to the village,” Mom chirped in her ever-enthusiastic tone. Slightly invigorated into action, we sat up to conduct a quick review of each other’s glistening shade of golden burn. Proving faster than my Mother’s insistence to cease, we bolted to the camp to change into our lightest colored clothing so we could enhance the chromatic contrast of our beautifully acquired tans. Scurrying through the camp with a renewed vigor, our excitement increased the boundless kinetic energy inside us.

“Are you ready yet?”, Mom yelled back. “Coming!”, we chimed in unison. Sprinting back to the dock, our kinetic excitement quickly dissipated as we saw Dad standing stoically with his arms folded.

“Alright. Calm your jets. You know the drill.” said Dad. We knew what was coming. We knew that recklessly jumping into the family vessel with foolhardy disregard was not a component of my Dad’s master equation. Instead, Dad commenced what we drearily termed “The Ritual” and its completion required our utmost concentration and civil obedience.

Like handling a delicate flower, Dad took my mother’s hand and assisted her into the navigator’s side of the boat. After ensuring she was safely aboard, he quickly assessed the order and placement of each child based on the distribution of weight and overall balance. After we were seated, Dad then untied the boat from the docking cleats and passed them gingerly onto the bow and stern. With the artistry of a ballroom dancer, Dad climbed aboard without causing even the slightest sway or ripple and took his rightful place in the captain’s seat.

With the lake lapping against the now freed mahogany hull, we drifted aimlessly away from the dock. With a simple flick of the wrist, Dad could have awoken the behemoth engine and brought us easily back under control. Instead, the ritual required an ending worthy of theatrical drama and intrigue; which is exactly what the precarious proximity of the shoreline rocks provided. Whether by design or obliviousness, Dad turned toward us and echoed these words.

“Kids. I want you to know that if the boat tips over, I’m going to save your Mother first, so make sure you have your life preservers on.”

Satisfied that his message was absorbed, he glanced back at Mother with a smile as he flicked the starter switch. Immediately his water stallion awakened with a thunderous reverberation. The engine’s exhaust pipes bellowed a loud baritone growl as it cleared its mechanical lungs by belching out a quick puff of thick black smoke. Purring like a panther on the edge of a low hanging branch, you sensed the boat’s eagerness to launch. Placing it gently into gear, we felt the propeller churn powerfully to thrust us away from the jagged shoreline.

Now safely away from the dock, Dad teased the beastly engine. Pushing the throttle ahead slightly, he effortlessly coaxed the boat into the open waters of the lake. Satisfied with the balance and trim and stowing away the ropes, Dad peered around in all directions looking for other watercraft in the vicinity. Content that the coast was clear, Dad gleefully slammed the throttle down as if taking off from an airport runway. In a chorused shudder, our stomachs tightened as the boat violently lunged forward from its watery launch pad. Within seconds, the bow came down as the boat trimmed out square. With minimal resistance on our hull, we glided effortlessly across the water at full speed.

We whisked away toward the village for a day filled with fun and excitement. A kid’s dream. At the end of the day and with dusk quickly approaching, we sadly plodded back to the public dock to make our return trip.

Once again, he would help Mom into the boat first. Then he placed us into the back of the boat. After the boat was untied, he climbed on and into his seat and before starting the boat, he twisted back slightly and said those same words.

“Kids. I want you to know that if the boat tips over, I’m going to save your Mother first, so make sure you have your life preservers on.”

Two weeks at camp and we were at the Village nearly every day via the same mode of transportation. Every time we went as a family, the ritual stayed the same. It never deviated once.

He would help Mom into the boat and then help us kids in. He then untied the boat, climbed on and into his seat. Before starting the engine, he turned slightly and said those same words.

“Kids. I want you to know that if the boat tips over, I’m going to save your Mother first, so make sure you have your life preservers on.”

The repetition in my story is intentional. You see, my parents had that camp for seventeen years. Every time it was the same ritual without fail. You can imagine as teenagers, how our anxious frustration mounted as Dad would recite the same song and dance. Being overly assertive teenagers that are anxious to meet up with friends, we felt justified to mock his silly ritual and hurry the process along by reciting the speech for him.

We learned quickly this was all for naught. Dad would only sit there unemotionally, maintaining his steely blue-eyed stare as the boat floated away aimlessly with the engine left silent. It was with no care that we were being pushed into the path of other boats. Dad waited patiently until our mockery terminated and we became compliant to his demand. With our chins jammed into our chests and arms folded with utter frustration and disgust, we ceased our mockery. At the moment he felt satisfied he had our attention, the ritual would begin.

“Kids. I want you to know that if the boat flips over, I’m going to save your Mother first, so make sure you have your life preservers on.

To Trust Without Fear

Although my father was a WW2 Army Air Corp officer, pilot and a veteran who flew with the prestigious and famed Flying Tiger’s under General Chenault, my Dad was more than a hotshot pilot who skipped B-24 Liberators over the tips of the Himalayan Mountains in China-Burma. To me, he was a god. Everyone loved my father or at the very least, held him in high respect.

When my mother died in my mid-twenties, my dad lost his dearest friend, his lover, his dance partner and his most divine guiding spirit. With her passing, he was now a beaten man. Subsequently, he broke away from the doldrums of everyday life and agreed to attend single and divorced activity groups. It was through these groups he met a woman whom he dated for several years afterward.

It was during those years Dad began suffering from another fateful blow. The diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease. Although my father met every adversity head on and conquered most with ease, it became clearly evident this affliction would slowly melt his freedom, his mobility and most importantly, his pride. As the months and years passed, he slowly withered to a frailty I never envisioned.

Whether by love or fear of loneliness, Dad considered marrying the woman he had dated for so long. It was nice seeing Dad find a partner that shared not only his happiness, but cared for his ills and pains. Dad cared for hers as well. Eventually, he sold the house we grew up in and moved into her more expansive dwelling, two hours south of us. A year later on New Year’s Eve, Dad finally married her in a very private ceremony. Dad seemed happy and joyful in being with her. Several years passed and with some surprise, Dad surprisingly announced he was moving to southern California. His reasoning was that the New York winters were just too harsh for his fragile body to bear.

Watching my Dad leave was heartbreaking. In the pit of my stomach, I perceived this frail man may have only a few good years left. My gut told me it was just a matter of time before he would deteriorate quickly thereafter. A year passed by with letters and phone calls replacing our biweekly get-together, the occasional family celebration and holiday visitations. I missed my Dad.

My loneliness were becoming terribly troublesome, so one day I decided to call my brother out of the blue. He was the oldest and let’s be honest; his favorite. As soon as he answered the phone, I blurted out, “Let’s take a trip to California and see Dad.” Before he could respond, I said, “He will get a kick out of seeing his sons again and I know for a fact, it will make ME feel better!”

After an awkward moment of silence, he responded in a solemn and dead-panned tone. “I’m in. When do we go?” His birthday was in two weeks and we decided that would be the perfect time to see him. We could hardly contain our excitement.

“Should we call first?”, my brother asked. We weighed the pro’s and con’s of an eye-opening visit. Excitement could be dangerous in his state, but Dad was a man who notoriously loved surprises. We decided our best approach would be to have a three-way call with him and his wife that evening. We wanted to concoct a scheme of letting his wife know without making Dad aware. Ten minutes into the conversation we found our opportunity. Dad had to excuse himself for a few minutes and we used that chance to tell her what we had in store for Dad. She agreed to keep our impending visit a secret.

As the plane landed, I called my brother to find out where he was. He flew in on an earlier flight and had picked up the rental car. Meeting me out front, I hugged my brother and threw my suitcase into the trunk of the rental. Gathering in the excitement of seeing each other, I immediately plugged Dad’s address into the car’s GPS. We were less than an hour away and the drive gave us time to reacquaint with each other. Most of the conversation centered around Dad and what we expected his response would be when his boys came busting through his front door. We laughed at the possibilities and gave a little thought at the probable responses that he would come up with. As we dreamed up the many probable scenario’s, the anticipated result was always a grand smile on our father’s face.

Within twenty minutes of leaving the highway, the GPS guided us through a picturesque view through the mountainous passes. Once we made it through the winding pass, several housing developments came into view. The landscape changed from mountainous to desert-like conditions. I checked the GPS map and it showed we were less than five minutes away. My adrenaline kick in and looked over at my brothers face for his reaction. Although it already had been a long day for both of us, he was getting his second wind as well. Within minutes, we found ourselves pulling into the driveway.

Like the rest of the houses in this gated community, it was a quaint, twelve hundred square foot ranch structure with a small covered porch in the front. What struck me as very odd was that all the houses had little to no green grass to speak of. Instead they opted to replace their contemporary yards with white pebble stones. For someone who loved to mow his yard on a weekly basis, I was a bit shocked to see this. We peeked at the windows to see if there was any sign of movement. Neither of us saw anything but I knew that they were home. As my brother exited the car and headed toward the trunk, I grabbed his arm and said, “We can come back for that stuff. Lets just walk in and say hello.” He agreed and we scampered toward the front door and rang the doorbell.

Dad’s wife, Vivian answered the door and she instantly smiled from ear to ear. She whispered to us that Dad was in the kitchen at the table and that we should go right in. I could hear Dad in the background asking who was at the door. We quickly gave Vivian a hug and silently made our way back to the kitchen. There we stood in the doorway with grins on our faces and waited until our Dad would notice our presence. It took much longer than we thought, as Dad was in deep concentration while cutting coupons from a local newspaper. Obviously agitated that Vivian had not responded to his initial question, he started to look up and asked her again who was at the door. Noticing two figures at the doorway, he stopped in mid sentence and squinted at the apparitions that appeared before him.

He gave an astonishing look and suddenly, a tear formed on his eighty-one year old cheek. With his arms outspread, an epic hugging event ensued. We embraced in the middle of the kitchen and patted each other’s backs; taking in the look of each others faces. We found ourselves sat down at the table, as Vivian came in to join the raucous occasion. Before we knew it, food was served and we were eating light sandwiches and were wetting our whistles on fine libations. As the evening progressed, Vivian excused herself for bed, but insisted we stay up and talk with our father. He was enjoying the bantering so much, she didn’t have the heart of ending it too soon.

When you are faced with filling up an evening chat with someone who knows you so intimately, you struggle for topics that can be engaging and interesting. “Remember those summer vacations at Lake George?”, my brother clamored. A glimmer and glean showed up in my father’s eyes. Bingo!

“Remember? Can you remember the boat rides to Lake George?”, I muttered. Dad sat silently as his two boys started reminiscing.

“And the SPEECH we always heard?” My brother’s chuckle exposed a tone of underlying cynicism. Dad loved cynical but fun banter. Taking the cue from my brother, I said with an animated puffed out chest, “Kids? Kids!! I want you to KNOW that if the boat flips over…”

Without missing a beat, my brother chimed in with bravado “I’m going to save your Mother FIRST, so…”

In unison, we took in a deep theatric breath and bellowed, “make SURE you have your life preservers on.”

An immediate laughter ensued, nearly to the point we almost forgot Dad was there! We turned to Dad with huge smiles on our red faces. Anticipating Dad’s half smirk, fake “shock and dismay” gaze and miffed disgust at our obvious poor interpretation of his grand ritual!

To our shock and dismay though, Dad was staring at us and sobbing in silence. The pain instantly swelled in his eyes and we both reached out to him as though he would collapse any moment. Were the memories too painful? Did we make a mistake reliving such moments?

We huddled around him, with an arm wrapped over his frail shoulders. We sought to comfort him in whatever way possible. “Dad! What’s wrong?” we said together. Before we knew it, he grabbed each of our wrists and squeezed tightly. His hands were shaking. It hurt. “You boys just don’t understand.”, Dad said in a shaky voice. His knuckles whitened as he clenched tighter around our wrists.

“What, Dad? What is it that we don’t understand?”, I said. My brother and I gazed at each other. We were baffled, confused and equally scared. Shaking his head, Dad uttered in a whispered but firm voice, “I meant every word of that. Every time I said it, I meant it. If that boat had flipped over, I would have saved your mother first!”

He paused and took a deep breath and sigh, “Now I am going to tell you why. After saving your mother first, I would have gone back to save all of you. I would have dived deeper than I would have ever dared. I would have held my breath longer than I ever thought possible. I would have had no fear to do whatever I had to do, to save you boys and your sisters. I would have gone to the brink of death for all of you.”

“We know that Dad!”, my brother said in a soft and reassuring voice.

“But you don’t know why, son. The why is because I knew your Mother would pull me back to safety if she ever thought for one moment I would die. I always knew that and when you know that, you have no fear in diving deeper; holding your breath longer or doing whatever needs to be done to save your children. You have an inner peace and strength knowing your wife, your partner, your best friend, will save you – no matter what. You lose all fear, son and your mother knew I didn’t have to have any fear!”

He paused and squinted his eyes and nodded confidently, “I would have saved your mother first.” His grip lightened and the shaking subsided. “I’m going to bed now, boys.” In silence, we assisted Dad to his feet and adjusted the walker in front of him. Without any eye contact he patted our hands, nodded his head and murmured, “I’m okay, boys. I’m okay.”

To this day, I retain the vivid image of his frail body hunched over his walker and exiting the room with his slow but deliberate shuffled steps. We watched in silence as he vanished into the dark hallway and listened intently as the shuffled steps became more faint. With neither of us saying a word, our gazes were transfixed on the darkened hallway as we waited for Dad to reach his bedroom. We heard his door open and close behind him. Our silence continued and without an acknowledgment to what we had just witnessed, my brother turned and walked away with his head down. I think he was sobbing and felt ashamed that I would notice.

I wasn’t sure where I was but I knew I was alone in my emptiness. An overwhelming emotional swell gripped my core. My throat tightened and my stomach became sickly. I choked back my own reality as I made an instant comparison of my parents marriage, love and partnership with my very own. From that moment it was clear.

My wife would have never pulled me back if our boat had ever flipped over.


T.E. Snyder
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