Longtime Del Norte County resident Chuck Blackburn's column appears monthly.
My heart over the years keeps coming back to the Klamath River. My many memories of my experiences as a teenager and then as an adult have consistently jumped back out of my soul as a longtime resident of this community.
I started out my job as a dock boy in 1950 at the age of 14. And being under the guidance of Paul and Shorty Conner had quite an impact on me for my five years that I worked for them. My father Wes gave me a great foundation of morals, honesty and the value of working hard and continually learning. Paul and Shorty reinforced my dad's lessons.
For the months of July and August it was up at 6 a.m., go down to the
dock and assist salmon fishermen to prepare for their daily adventures
at the mouth of the Klamath, about a mile or so away. We really provided
a service to our customers, mixed gas for the outboard motors, bait and
tackle and of course rental boats for those who didn't have their own
boats - $1 a day until 1953 when they went to $1.50 a day and $5 a day
for a rental of a 5-horsepower motor.
We had the old tractor and trailer to haul 10-gallon containers down
to the dock from the old gas station pump at the camp. I had to carry
two of these about 150 feet from the road to the storage container on
the dock. My arms felt like they were going to pull out of their
sockets, but I got stronger in the weeks ahead.
When the fishermen returned in the late afternoon, stories abounded
about the catch of the day. Those same stories arose again around the
big campfire in the park each night. Most of these people were retired
on fixed incomes and Shorty's camp became their second homes in the
All was not work, though. Paul told me that I was old enough in 1954
that I could race in the annual 50-mile lap race around a course above
the old Klamath bridge down close to the cedar mill north of the town
site. We stripped down a 14-foot sled to cut down on weight and gave it
the name We-Tass. I was 18 years old then and I talked a friend, Tommy,
into being my copilot as we needed two in a boat. There was the Class A
race powered by 25-horsepower outboards and the Class B race powered by
10-horsepower motors. I had a Mercury Hurricane that was the hot motor
of its time. My Dad gave me his blessings and the small entry fee and
told me that wearing life jackets was mandatory. I also had my racing
helmet and sunglasses to complete the professional wardrobe.
We went to practice among some other racers the day before the
Saturday race and were working on sharp turns around one of the buoys
when we caught the wake of another boat and nearly flipped over. I was
thrown against the gunner and nearly went overboard. That shocked Tommy
and I a little. I wasn't quite as confident all of a sudden.
Saturday arrived, race day, and all boats were out warming up. The
starting and finish line was a dock just above the old Klamath bridge.
There were about 30 boats, evenly divided in Class A and B for the race.
It was a running start where the starter signaled with a horn to
prepare to approach the starting line on the run.
All of a sudden the green flag was waved and the horn blew and it was
race time. I had control of running the motor and Tommy was hanging
onto the middle seat as we shot past the starting dock in last place.
The roar of motors and the spray of rooster tails from the propellers
were encompassing the river. Each lap was about two miles total. Uncle
Paul Conner was entered in the Class A race with his 25-horsepower
Evinrude. I kept my eyes on Uncle Paul as he had a fast boat and he was a
half-lap ahead. Tommy and I settled in and I listened to the friendly,
powerful scream of my Mercury Hurricane.
I suddenly became aware that we were passing boats, not only Class B
but also some Class A. My confidence level was improving and we were
fast getting with it. We were gaining on Uncle Paul. I lost track of
laps and hoped my fuel would hold up. We passed several boats that quit
and were dead in the water. I cut low on a turn around a buoy and
overtook a Class B that was ahead of us. We-Tass was a great boat and
slid through the water with very little drag.
We passed the dock and a flag was raised - one lap to go. I never
eased up on the throttle and in no time we were back and passed the
checkered flag and all the folks that were cheering us on. We had no
idea where we placed.
We all gathered in the parking lot on the river and prepared for the
awards ceremony. The master of ceremonies announced the winners of the
Class A race and Uncle Paul and his partner took second. It now was time
for the Class B winners and the gentleman announced that the young team
of Chuck and Tommy was victorious. I looked up at Tommy and we hugged
and jumped up and down. We were given a trophy that I still have today
and each a crisp $50 bill. Uncle Paul came over and gave us a hug and my
Dad stood there with a big grin. I knew that he was mighty proud of his
The experience of two young guys who nearly flipped the day before in
practice, then started in last place because we were scared, to
persevering during a challenge to winning the race certainly added to
our maturity in 1954.
Chuck Blackburn can be reached at 954-7121.