THE RIVER RAT REMEMBERS—A SERIES, Episode 1

BKistlerBKistler Posts: 60 Baller
Join former AWSA Executive Director Bruce Kistler as he recounts incidents from the Golden Age of water skiing. Interesting people—legends, characters and unsung heros. Curious places and events. Moments of discovery and wonder. Accidents, mishaps and miscues. Glimpses from inside the organization. Personal stories from a lifetime on skis.

Episode 1 The River

Growing up in suburban Philadelphia, I dreamed of living in Florida on a nice ski lake. Now, as I watch the sun set across Lake Daisy near the original Cypress Gardens, I realize how long the road has been—and how gratifying the journey has been.

It started over 60 years ago when Big Al, one of my father’s co-workers, invited us to his cabin on the Susquehanna River. It was a big piece of water. At the Conowingo dam, the river was a mile wide. Its banks were forested and steep and there were only two or three places where summer homes clung to narrow benches beside the river, like knick knacks on a shelf.

The big water of Conowingo was the playground of the River Rats. Big Al’s original River Rats were Chip from Lancaster and Donnie from York. I was the new kid from the suburbs, but I was the one who would carry the nickname River Rat during a lifetime on water skis.

With no major towns or highways, the river hills were a place where time lagged and the modern world hadn’t quite penetrated. The dusty corner store featured penny candy in an antique glass case, spiral garlands of yellow fly paper dangling from the ceiling and a ball of twine and a bolt of butcher paper above the counter. Wooden cases of bottled Pepsi Cola and Dr. Pepper were stored in the garage out back. Next door was a mechanic who changed motor oil in a pit with no lift. However, the place that time forgot was a great place for a boy to grow up. No shoes, no shirt all summer long. We’d fish, explore the woods and islands, shoot rifles and pistols, swim, boat, swing on a rope swing and play around a bonfire until well after our normal bed time. It was also a place learn how to be an adult, to load and unload the car, to peel potatoes, to wash and dry the dishes, to cut firewood, to safely handle firearms and to operate powerboats.

Of all the things a kid could do “down the river,” water skiing was king. Chip and Donny could ski. Chip even had his own skis. But they and everyone else on the river idolized teenage Johnny. Johnny could ski on a single ski while holding the handle with his heel. He could ski on a canoe paddle. Best of all, he could jump over the jump ramp, that almost-mythical thing anchored up at Whistler’s Beach. Nothing could be so cool.

When I first came to the river, I couldn’t swim. I’d pad around the dock wearing a hard Styrofoam life preserver. My father and mother were good swimmers but for some reason I had trouble learning. My troubles ended when one of the local farm boys positioned me on my stomach and hooked my feet over an inner tube. Once I experienced the sensation of being horizontal in the water and could use my arms to drag the inner tube along, I got the hang of it.

At first, the allure of water skiing wasn’t enough to overcome my fear. When it came time to learn to ski, I ran and hid in the loft. I eventually gathered the courage to go down to the dock voluntarily. A foam ski belt was strapped around my waist and Chip’s skis were adjusted to my foot size. Once in the water, I was left pretty much to my own devices. Big Al wasn’t a skier, and at the time neither was my father. My only instructions were arms straight, knees bent. Nor was there any nuance to the driving. With plus-size Albert at the wheel of the thundering 35-horsepower runabout, Hit It meant Floor It.

I picked a bad day for my first outing. The wind was coming from across the wide river and it was rough. I floundered and struggled to put the skis on. The waves pushed me into the boat and then into the dock. I quit before the boat could take up slack. On my next go at it, it was calmer and my father helped me put on the skis and get situated. I fell forward. I fell backward. I fell to the left and to the right. Rinse and repeat. After another fruitless session, I got so frustrated that I held onto the handle after launching out the front. Dad said I looked like a torpedo. My bathing suit ended up around my ankles.

Then one day I somehow kept it together, and there I was, sliding on top of the water, mesmerized by the bubbles and the wakes and the scary expanse of big water into which I was being dragged. At eight years of age, I was a water skier. Look out world, here I come.



Alberto SoaresAndreETskierDekejgills88ALPJrVermontSkier

Comments

  • ETskierETskier Posts: 174 Baller
    Please keep mixing your stories along with trick tips. Awesome !!!
    Andre
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