The old indian was sitting in his usual spot. A stubby jetty of rock that pressed into the crystal waters of Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay. He held an old fishing rod that looked to be as old as he was and next to him, dangling in the water was a stick that fed through the mouths and out the gills of four large trout. He waved to me as I padded, barefoot, over to where he sat. My family had been coming to the Emerald Bay area for the past few summers. The whole family looked forward to the trips throughout the year. We had a cabin that stood on the western bank of the lake, sitting five hundred feet from the shore up the steep mountain wall. It sat on the opposite side of a road that skirted the edge of the lake, a road that almost yearly experienced closures due to the landslides of rock that would tumble down over it. ”Hello, my young friend!” called the indian.
“Looks like they’re biting today.” I said, eyeing the gleaming rainbow trout on their skewer.
“The mighty Da-ow is generous today.” he replied. Da-ow was the native American name of the lake. Pronounced dah ow, the white man heard and pronounced it Tahoe and the name stuck. I loved the lake and particularly Emerald Bay. Its waters were so pristine and clear that the bottom was clearly visible even at its 130 depth. Sitting in a boat and shading eyes from the glare of the sun, one could literally read the labels of pop and beer bottles that low life tourists had tossed overboard from their boats. Refraction made it look as though the water was much more shallow than it was, and many people, myself included, had tried in vain to swim down to retrieve the litter. Looking into the water now, I could see schools of minnows that seemed to be swimming in air. That’s how clear the water was. I sat down next to the old man and quietly watched him fish and looked around at the beauty of the area. Back then, in the fifties, there weren’t very many structures, just a few lakeside homes and tiny clusters of tourist cabins like the one my family rented. Just up the shoreline a half mile was a village with a coule of restaurants, a food and variety store, a post office and a long pier that jutted out into the water. A collection of bait shops and boat and ski rental shops gathered on its shoreward end.
I sat quietly and waited, knowing the old man would tell me a story or two about the days when he was my age, and he would share the traditions and explain their purpose to me. I loved hearing them. But today he didn’t tell me a story, instead he said that Mr. West was looking for me. John West was a seaplane pilot and the man who ferried my family up here from San Francisco. He carried us in a large DeHaviland Norseman seaplane with room for the four family members, our French poodle, Vicki, and our luggage. At the moment he was using a Cessna floatplane and I could see it tied up at the dock up the shore. “What did he want?” I asked. The indian shrugged and said he didn’t know, but that I should trot over and see what he wanted.
It was just after seven in the morning and few of the tourist visitors were out. The restaurants were serving a few people, but it would be around nine before the late rising vacationers would be up and about. I found Mr. West in a booth eating a plate of bacon and eggs, a mug of coffee sitting my his wrist. “Master Kirkpatrick!” he said in his booming voice. “Just the man I wanted to see!” He took a sip of coffe and indicated the seat across from him in the booth. “Word has it,” he said, “that you haven’t learned to water ski.”
I felt the heat rise and knew my face was turning red. The few people in the tiny cafe looked at me, appearing incredulous. It was my imagination of course. Still, I felt the barb of humiliation. “No, I don’t.” I admitted.
“Well now, we’ll just have to fix that.” he said. He took a last bite of egg, took a few bills from his wallet and dropped them on the table, stood up and said “Come on.” I followed him out and down to the pier. Different boats were tied along its length. Outboard and inboards, Chris Crafts and sailboats bobbed on their tethers. I wondered which one he planned to use to teach e to ske. But he didn’t stop at any of the boats, but made his way to the end of the pier where his floatplane was moored. He hopped from the dock onto a pontoon, opened the door and pulled a ski tow rope from inside. He affixed one end to a support strut at the rear of the pontoon and then pulled a pair of skis from inside the plane. I watched all of this go by, a sense of apprehension rising in my gut and sending waves of chill through me.
“Which boat are we going to use?” I squeaked.
“Boat? Heck boy, boats are for sissies.” He tapped the fuselage of the airplane and said “By God, we’re going to get you up on skis today one way or another!” I felt momentarily faint and envisioned myself hanging from the tow rope thousands of feet in the air. Suddenly, I wanted to go home. Go back and fish with the indian. Take a class in advanced mathematics, go to the dentist. Anything but what appeared to be my fate.
I gulped. “You’re going to tow me with the airplane?”
“You damn betcha.” he boomed, smiling. Seeing the action, a tiny crowd of onlookers gathered at the end of the pier. Some instinct in them knew there was going to be some serious entertainment in the offing.
“Oh, gosh.” I whimpered as he fastened a life jacket around me. He then carefully explained how things worked with skiing, telling me to relax and float on the jacket and to hold the tips of the skis up out of the water, keeping the tow line between them.
“Are you ready?” he asked. I shook my head to indicate than o, I wasn’t anywhere near ready. “Okay then, let’s go!” he said. He untied the airplane and climbed inside. He opened the window, hinged at the top. and clipped it to the underside of the wing. Leaning out he shouted for me to sit on the dock, put on the skis, grab the tow bar and hop into the water. A moron, I did what he instructed.
I floated on the vest but had a hard time getting the tips of the skis up. I finally succeeded. I heard the airplane’s motor crank over and come to life with a belch of gray exhaust. The plane began a very slow taxi towards the center of the lake. Not ready for the pressure of the tow, I ended up being dragged slowly through the water with the skis behind me. West was shouting instructions and encouragement at me over the sound of the engine and I finally got into the right position. The plane suddenly accelerated and I plowed through the water, slowly rising onto the skis. I lost balance and fell, dropping the tow rope. West, who’d been watching, throttled back and moved the plane in a circle around me, the dragging tow rope coming right to me. I grabbed it and got a grip on the bar again and as I was slowly dragged, got back into starting position. The plane accelerated again and I fell again.
“Come on, come on!” shouted West. You can do this!” Our repeated tries eventually had us on the far side of the bay and West turned us around and headed back in the direction we came. On the tenth try, much to my surprise, I found myself standing on skis that were planing across the lake. I was bent and wobbling, but I was skiing! West reached out the windows and made an OK sign with his thumb and forefinger. I went to wave back in triumph and the act caused me to lose balance. I fell and cartwheeled over the water, the skis flying off. West.s hand changed to a thumbs down gesture.
A small speedboat was skipping over the surface towards us. The plane was stopped and West was standing on a pontoon directing me in finding and collecting up the pair of skis. The boat pulled up and cut its motor. At the wheel was my father, his face beet red with anger. “What in the HELL do you think you’re doing?” he shouted at West.
“Just teaching the boy to ski, Kirk.” he replied calmly.
“Who are you to make that choice. When he’s ready to ski his mother and I will decide that and make arrangements for a professional teacher!” shouted my dad. He put emphasis on the word professional.
“I was doing him a favor, Kirk. Not many kids get to brag they learned to ski behind a plane.”
“That’s another thing.” barked my dad. “Using an airplane? My God, man. y son could be killed. He could be chopped up by the propeller or fall from a great height. I can’t believe you’d do something so stupid!”
West bristled at that. “He was on the wrong end to be cut by the prop, and I wasn’t taking off, just taxiing fast enough to pull him. Calm down, you’re being ridiculous. There’s no way I’d hurt your son.” My father didn’t reply, instead he ordered me to the boat and pulled me in. He unstrapped the vest and threw it at West, who caught it.
“We’ll leave your skis on the dock.” my father barked. They were bobbong next to the boat and he reached out to pull them in. In the doing, he lost balance when the boat bobbled a but from the waves and fell into the water. He came up sputtering and furious. West broke out in laughter and I had a hard time suppressing a smile. I succeeded in keeping a straight face, my dad was already angry enough and I knew there would be a price to pay. He pulled himself into the boat, started the motor and sped off back towards the dock. He yelled at me all the way back. “You don’t go anywhere without asking permission. You know that. You have no business asking West to tech you to ski.” I didn’t tell him that I accepted an offer and didn’t seek it out. ut my father was already mad at West and I didn’t want to make it worse.
Of course, I ended up on restriction. I had to stay with either my father or mother for the duration of the vacation, which made it pretty boring. I was happy when it was time to go. When we left, we ended up being driven to a train station and caught a run back to San Francisco rather than flying back with Mr. West. In fact, I never saw him again and the following year we moved from our home in Atherton across the country to Connecticut.
West was right, of course. Not many people could claim to have learned to water ski behind an airplane. I still appreciate the gift of the experience.