The Captain

Discussion in 'Mississippi River Basin' started by spinner, Feb 2, 2013.

  1. spinner

    spinner Staff Member


    My dad was originally from Oconto Falls. The big lakes were introduced to him at a young age. He was either on shore fishing for salmon or lake run browns or out on a boat after them as a kid often. He was devastated when he learned his family was moving off the big lake and moving to Trego, Wisconsin His mom reassured him that they were moving to a good fishing area and there would be lots of lakes nearby to fish.

    Dad quickly adjusted to the area. It helped that his mother was a Northern Pike and walleye nut and she spent many a day on Rice Lake chasing them. Dad was introduced to boats at a very young age. He motored on the lakes of northern Wisconsin by himself by age twelve.

    Childhood quickly moved on to adulthood. The care free days of his youth were replaced with learning a trade. His trade of welding and steam fitting sent him to Milwaukee to work. He needed the water close to him so he chose where jobs were a plenty and fishing was not far away. There was one constant and it was he was fishing somewhere or planning to go fishing somewhere.

    His plans of working and fishing ran into a detour in 1949. He ran in to my mother at a diner in Milwaukee. She was waiting tables there and caught my Dad's eye.

    I will fast forward to 1958. The Harris Family was now at three daughters and me. My mother pestered my dad about moving to a better place to raise kids. Milwaukee was just starting to be a large city and crime was beginning to get too close to their home.

    Mom and dad discussed/argued about where they were going to live. They decided to visit both the places that they had lived as kids and assess jobs and the close proximity to fishing and dad's new passion of hunting.

    Dad was invited to go pheasant hunting in Gays Mills by my mom's brother. This was the first place dad did "recon" on jobs. It happened really by total luck. Dad and my Uncle Sig were pheasant hunting near Bell Center and dad chatted with a guy in the parking lot. Dad was admiring the guy's lab and ways lead on to ways and lo and behold the guy with the lab was the crew leader at Genoa Power Plant and he offered dad a job as a welder there and it was about 30 miles from Gays Mills. We moved 10 days later to Gays Mills.

    Our new home was 33 steps from the Kickapoo River and 17 minutes by car to the Mississippi River. It took dad 2 days before he had a boat and was motoring up and down the Kickapoo River and exploring the backwaters of the Mississippi. I was still too small to go with him but I watched many days as he hooked up the boat at first light and came back after dark.

    Then came the big day. I remember the day like it was yesterday. It was the first time I ever heard my mother be cross with my dad. It was Friday and my dad was half an hour late coming home from work. I heard the disagreement from in the house. I was seven years old and went outside to investigate. My mom saw me coming and said the last word of their disagreement. I heard her say: "The dang thing even has a hole in it and you bought it anyway!" She turned around and went in the house.

    As I got closer I saw the thing my parents were discussing. My dad had traded his small boat and some cash to guy from Genoa for a bigger boat. Dad lifted me up and put me in behind the wheel. This boat was weird. It had a steering wheel halfway to the front. I was used to watching dad run the boat from the rear. Dad explained to me that steering wheels were the wave of the future and every boat would have them in ten years. I asked dad about the hole mom was talking about. I remember exactly what dad said: "That little hole can be fixed easily and you won't even know there was a hole there after I am done fixing it."

    The next day was Saturday and my dad was already out there trying to fix that hole. His new boat attracted some of the neighbors. They all complimented dad on his new boat with the steering wheel. They were all very obviously jealous. By the end of the day there were 4 guys 'helping" dad fix the hole. They were working at it even after dark because it was late Fall and he wanted to get it out on the water before Winter.

    On Sunday my dad and two of his friends loaded up and went to Ferryville to christen the boat. I heard them picking on him before they left and calling dad "Captain" Harris. One hour after they left the boat and vehicle pulled back up in front of the house. The patch job did not hold. Dad's friends were razzing him and told him that he as the "captain" should have gone down with the ship.

    The captain did not get the boat back on the water that fall and it was covered and parked in the yard for the winter. My mom pestered my dad all winter and tried to get him to sell it. He told her that the boat would more than pay for itself with fish he was going to provide for the family in that boat. Dad had the boat ready in the Spring and he took me and my oldest sister out instead of his friends that had picked on him.

    The Kickapoo River was so close he took up bank pole fishing for catfish. We went daily down the "Kick" to pull in massive catfish. I still remember the smell of rotten chicken liver. That was our prime bait for cats.

    It was May of 1965 when it happened. Dad let me steer the boat all by myself on the Mississippi. He was going back to a hidden slough and the water was shallower than he thought and he got stuck. He took the oar and was poling us through the mud. I got to steer and it made me feel like I was the king of the world. I ran from the car at the end of the day and went in the house and told all my sisters about steering the boat. Mom chastised my dad at first for letting a eight year old steer a boat. Dad told mom about the mud and they both thought 12 years old was a proper age for me to be able to operate the boat.

    The days on the water were excellent. Almost every week dad bought something new for the boat or a new fishing pole. My mom was really losing patience with my dad for spending so much money on his hobbies. My dad told my mom that the rod and reel he had just purchased was only 45 dollars. I thought it was odd that dad told her it costed 45 bucks because I was there when he bought the combo and it was 90 dollars. Dad and I had a talk about fishing gear and women later. He told me that sometimes the prices of things had to be fudged so mom would not get so mad at him for buying them. He swore me to secrecy on the real prices of all fishing and hunting gear I witnessed being purchased.

    Our life fishing was grand. My dad told tales to all the neighbors about our catches. We supplied the town with catfish and walleye on a regular basis. There was even a sign up sheet at the gas station in town for Len Harris' catfish or walleyes.

    This all changed in November of 1967. My dad went to northern Wisconsin to deer hunt with his brother and never came back to captain the boat. My dad died of a heart attack. He left behind 6 children and a wife that had never worked out of the home.

    Two days after my dad's funeral it started. Guys that dad had fished with or hunted with showed up at the door to "help" my mother. It got out that my dad didn't have life insurance and mom was strapped for cash. My dad's guns were the first casualties. I remember one guy offering mom 35 bucks for my dad's rod and reel he had paid 90 dollars for. I wanted to say something but thought better of it and shut my mouth.

    The next spring there was a guy in our yard looking at Dad's boat. I heard him offer her 300 dollars for it. She said she would think on it and get back with him. I told my Uncle Sig about the dilemma and what dad had told me the boat had really costed and Sig told my mom to not take a penny under 600 dollars for it. There were many tire kickers that year. My mom fielded many offers for the boat. None even came close to 600 dollars. I was relieved every time someone left and the boat was still in the yard. I was eleven years old and I got it in to my head that when I was 12 the next June that the boat was mine because mom and dad had already talked about it and twelve was the age I could steer the boat myself.

    My birthday came and I was twelve in 1969. I went out in the yard and took the cover off the boat. I sat behind the steering wheel and remembered all the good times I had spent with my dad in that very special boat. I cleaned out the boat and prepared it for going on the Kickapoo with. My dad taught me how to make those bank poles for catfish. I thought that was close and I should go and cut down some saplings and make some bank poles and set up the rigs just like I was taught by my dad. I had the poles all made up. All I needed was chicken liver. I checked the couch cushions and there was enough change for them. Off I went to the grocery store.

    My twelve year mind was abuzz. I walked out of the store and was walking home. I was planning where I was going to put all the bank poles. I saw a car coming down Main Street and it had a boat behind it. I would always look at boats and compare them to my dad's with the fancy steering wheel and gloat that ours was better. The boat behind the car looked a lot like "mine." I thought to myself that it wasn't as good as mine because it didn't have a steering wheel. As the car went by I saw this one had a steering wheel and I saw it had a repaired front. I ran home as fast as I could to tell mom that someone had stolen the boat. Mom was outside. I yelled at her to call the police because someone had stolen my boat. My mom's eyes got really big and she shook her head and looked down. An hour later and lots of crying by me it sunk in that mom had sold the boat for 800 dollars. She explained to me that our family was having a hard time making ends meet and the guy had seen me playing in the boat and was attracted to it and saw the "For Sale" sign. As a twelve year old I didn't understand very well. It took me until about the age of 18 to realize that mom did what she had to do.

    I have never owned a boat in my life and never will.