Two kids, a boat and a checkered flag

By Chuck Blackburn May 24, 2012 12:00 am

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 summertime.

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 son.

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.