THE RIVER RAT REMEMBERS Episode 4 Getting Serious About Competition

BKistlerBKistler Posts: 54 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 5 Getting Serious About Competition

As my brother and I got better, we got more serious about training for competition and our equipment continued to improve. I got a two-piece scuba diver wetsuit. It was thick and weighed a ton, but it allowed us to start much earlier in the spring. Poor Doug didn’t have a suit of his own and half froze wearing just my baggy wetsuit pants that came up around his armpits. By this time, we also had better trick skis.

Early that spring, an unfamiliar boat pulled up to the float at Broad Creek—a runabout Hydrodyne with a 100 hp Merc and ski pylon. These weren’t Weekend Wallys. It was the Caffey family who had recently moved to Bowie, Maryland from Oklahoma. They had come up to the Conowingo to check it out. The kids, Rod, about my age, and Connie, about Doug’s age, were tournament skiers. (Years later, Connie skied for Cypress Gardens.)

Meeting the Caffeys was like being reunited with a long-lost tribe. We talked for hours about skiing. At some point, the subject turned to jumping. I was itching to jump again because someone had given me an old pair of Hedlund jumpers, but Old Man Scarborough hadn’t put out his jump ramp. I said, “I think Scarborough’s jump ramp is back in the cove. Let’s see if we can find it.” We found the old hulk. It wasn’t in great shape but the deck looked sound. We made plans to retrieve it and fix it up the following weekend.

When the day came, Mr. Caffey tossed us the end of a ski rope which we tied to the frame of the ramp. He attached his end to the pylon of the Hydrodyne and started pulling. The ramp was stuck in the mud and it wasn’t coming out willingly. Again and again, Caffey gunned the engine and then backed off. When the ramp didn’t budge, he gave it more gas. With the Mercury roaring, the boat reared up like a stallion. That’s when the rope came loose. Those were the days of the first polypropylene ski ropes which were super stretchy. They were also the days when Brummel hooks were sometimes used to attach the handle section to the main line. A Brummel hook was a hefty bronze slug, like a fishing sinker. When the rope came loose, the Brummel hook on the end of it put a five-inch dent in the cowl of Mr. Caffey’s motor. It would have killed him instantly if it had hit him in the head. In any event, we finally got the ramp free and used a Coleman stove to melt blocks of yellow wax, which we smoothed on the deck as best we could. Once anchored at the mouth of Broad Creek, the extended tribe of River Rats was in business.

That summer, Big Al took Doug and I on a summer trip to Florida. Of course, we went to Cypress Gardens. I was in heaven. Even though it was hot and humid, Doug and I wore our nylon AWSA award jackets to show that we were tournament skiers. The tourists didn’t care, but we felt like big shots in the World Capital of Water Skiing.

We also stopped by AWSA Headquarters on Lake May. Staffers Peggy Beck and Jane Osborn showed us around. More than a decade later, those dear ladies would be working for me.

From Winter Haven, we headed to Callaway Gardens to see the Masters. There I met my idols—Al Tyll and Ricky McCormick. Ricky was my age. I was on the pavilion catwalk when I saw him coming, carrying his equipment and wheeling his unicycle. I said, “Hey, Ricky, let me see you ride your unicycle.” He obliged me by making a few loops around the platform. (My buddy Ricky now lives a few miles from me.) That Masters was famous as the first tournament in history where four men (Al Tyll, Ricky McCormick, Alan Kempton and Tito Antuñano) exceeded 4,000 points. I stood nearby as ABC’s Wide World of Sports Jim McKay did on-camera interviews with various skiers and Callaway Gardens owner Bo Callaway. I was in awe.

Later I attended Jim McGraw’s Ski School on the upper Delaware River. Jim was a solid men’s trick skier from Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey. His ski school catered to Pocono Mountains tourists. I took my meals at a restaurant on the site and lived in a tent with Billy, Jim’s hired hand, a funny, personable college kid. Billy had a rough week, first receiving a painful neck injury that required a trip to the chiropractor, and then hitting a deer late at night that put his Volvo sports car in the shop. Because I helped around the site with skis and equipment, Jim gave me a few extra days for free.

At some point we crossed paths with another family of enthusiastic tournament skiers. Bud Raley was a government scientist (an expert in explosion kinetics!) working at Aberdeen Proving Grounds on the Chesapeake Bay below Conowingo Dam. The Armed Forces tested ordinance at Aberdeen. On calm days we could hear the thunder-like concussions at Broad Creek many miles away. Bud had a son about my brother’s age—Chet Raley. The Raleys skied on a brackish cove at the proving grounds. As I recall, the water was pretty good because the cove was protected from the open bay and the launching facility was not open to the general public. This is where my brother and I learned how to barefoot. We had both tried to step off before without success. I remember being miffed because Doug stood up before I did. Years later, Doug showed off by barefooting for a group of friends while attending the University of Idaho. That stunt attracted a certain lady who was to become his wife.

Of all our upgrades during this period, none had more impact than Big Al’s new boat…

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