Chapter One: Upon a winter's night

Please note: Images and links are webpage only and NOT part of the bound hard-cover text.

River Queens: An American Journey opens on a lone prairie, except the skies are darkening as a fierce winter storm moves in from the West. Dale and Alexander must choose.

    

    Dale and I must choose. Foul weather moving across the Texas plain between Fort Worth and Wichita Falls, faster, more severe than predicted, blows away a warm, sunny morning. Temperatures plummet, the sky darkens, and rain begins to freeze. One hundred miles south are the safety and warmth of our Dallas apartment. Equidistant to the north are the brunt of the storm, Lake Texoma, and a boat

We are not boaters. We are landlords, out here on other business and so decided upon an excursion, a side trip, to the Texas-Oklahoma border in order to satisfy a curiosity. What we know comes from a photograph, pinned to a for-sale board at a 2001 Dallas Winter Boat Show show and captioned, “1955. Chris Craft. Connie. 45 feet. $30K.” What we believe is that somewhere in that fuzzy, hastily shot image we saw is something we’ve never seen before. Even so, we are not buying a boat. We've called several times along icing farm-to-market roads to cancel our appointment, but the man who is to meet us insists, “No, no. Long as you’re on your way you might as well c’mon. I’ll be waiting.” 

We arrive at a marina abandoned except for a small incandescent glow in the window of the clubhouse. It is a hulking structure, a throw-back from headier days: twin gazebos perfectly at home on the Texas Gulf coast but garishly out of place, overstated, and grotesque these nearly four hundred miles inland. Nonetheless, it was the jewel in Lake Texoma’s crown property, Loe’s Highport. Politicians, athletes, and rock stars mixed and mingled beneath sweeping verandas which overlook the harbor. That was before.

“The federal government could convict a ham sandwich if it wanted to,” the scion, DeWitte Loe, junior, insisted shortly after serving his time.

Now, the marina is just Highport, in receivership and waiting for a buyer, like a certain boat moored its harbor.

The iconic Hotel del Coronado, San Diego, California; the inspiration for the hapless Loe's Highport Marina clubhouse.

Our tap on the door calls a man from the recess of offices. His figure fractures and reassembles in the facets of a leaded glass entry beneath a huge brass chandelier. He steps out on the veranda, clasps the thin lapels of his brown pinstripe suit across his chest with one hand and awkwardly extends the other. He introduces himself as Joe McBride, head of accounts, middle-aged, bookish, shy, uncomfortable around strangers, and the man left to watch over the place while everyone else staffed the Dallas show. “Hellava day to be looking at boats,” he says, leading us over to a marina vehicle.

Joe keeps the truck from sliding off the sleet-slick blacktop while engaging Dale, seated in the front, with inquiries about Dale’s church music, my remodeling business, and our combined investment in real estate. My mood sours. I wonder if we are not wasting everyone’s time. Boathouse after boathouse, little more than corrugated roofs reaching across black water, pass by my window as we weave in and out on a shoreline road. Suddenly, the truck stops, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and Joe says, “Well, here we are.” 

 I wipe the breath condensed on my window with a sleeve and look out. I see nothing. Standing in the congealed rain, I see nothing. At the bottom of the cliff is a boathouse so old, badly repaired and extended that it writhes and crinkles on the surface like a withered leaf. It is not open on four sides like the others. It is almost fully enclosed and covered with rust. Doors, like a paddock, open onto a cantilevered catwalk that flexes and groans with our stride, dipping perilously close to the surface if we stand too close together. Joe fumbles with keys, icy drip off the roof runs down my neck, and the voice of my late mother quashes my budding rebellion.        

Hush. Hush. Hush, I hear her say. 

She always recognized my habit of clenching my teeth before saying something uncharitable. 

This man has waited all day to show you this boat. At least, you owe him the courtesy to look it. You might even be grateful. At the very least.

Divorced with three boys to raise, Mother pioneered a furniture showroom of eighteenth-century French style to a Dallas market stuck in Sheraton and Duncan Phyfe. She cultivated a reputation for the finest antique and reproduction pieces at the most extravagant prices.

That is, she would say to the sticker-shocked consumer, if craftsmanship matters at all. 

She taught me about fine furniture and fine finishes, detail, and sacrificing good judgment for the sake of art. The rescue of her showroom, her legacy, from bankruptcy was Dale’s and my first shared project.

Temperatures plummet, and the rain turns the highway into a sheet of ice.

Joe fails to find the correct key, so we backtrack, trying each door along the way until one opens—not all tenants are careful about security. We duck in and discover where the harbingers of summer fun come to die. These former pride-and-joys of young, active, successful owners who once held life by a string are now reminders that grandpa is not as much fun as teen-aged boys and that the mother does not get around as well as she used to. Parents try to keep up the old routines after the children are gone, but out of sight and forgotten, these boats slowly, almost imperceptibly sink. They are our first impression of boating.

Joe takes out his pad and jots down rules violations—leaking batteries, improper fuel storage, and gear gone to varmint and vermin. Dale and I hurdle debris left behind. When we arrive at the-next-to-last slip and stand upright to catch our breath, our eyes catch the first glimpse of The King and I. The boat-like shape buried in the grainy photo becomes real. I hear Mother again:

True beauty, the kind that comes from men and women applying lifetimes of experience and practice to create for the comfort and enjoyment of others, must be preserved in order to honor the Creator.

It was her exhortation to some oil-rich nobody to look at the purchase of an antique Aubusson carpet or authentic Chippendale four-poster bed as a civic duty rather than a selfish indulgence.

Don’t you think so?  

The rise of the prow out of the water, the arc, the grace as it comes up to form the dolphin nose—Chris-Craft’s signature 1950s detail—draws us as if bewitched. We take in the oval windows, the bullnosed edges, and the backwards-canted stern. A boat like this comes charging out of the Kennedy compound at Hyannisport, not floating in some forgotten boathouse in Texas.

If not, it is lost forever, right? We’d be nothing but marauders, Mother always said, absently adjusting a floral arrangement or delicately picking a stray tobacco leaf off the tip of her tongue. She would then excuse herself from the sales floor to leave the decorator and client alone to decide if the price of acquisition were worth denying a beloved child its college education.

Joe catches up. 

“This boat floats real good right here in this slip,” he says, before stepping inside, turning on a light, and inviting us in. “There are two deep steps. And watch your head.”

 The tiniest hint of Jean Patou’s Joy perfume, Mother’s scent, pushes through the nearly overpowering stench of mold and cigarettes closed up for over two years.

“Now this here is the deckhouse, also called the salon or saloon, whichever,” Joe says. “And we’re standing over the engine room.” 

He reaches down to lift one of three hatches embedded in the floor and reveals a spaghetti of wires that bars any investigation of the engine room below.    

“It’s too dark to see anything, anyway,” Dale says. “But there are the mains.”  

 “Chevy 350’s, I suspect,” Joe says.

 “And the oldest generator I’ve ever seen.”

Three steps down and forward is the galley/dinette. Crew’s quarters are in the bow. Three steps down and aft is the stateroom; embroidered linens and duvets matching the curtains make up twin beds separated by a passage to the stern. The en suite is behind a mirrored door. Makeup, neatly laid on the counter, implies that Mrs. has just stepped away.

“Perky King—she’s the widow and the seller and all,” Joe explains, “well, when John King—that’s her husband—died, she lost all interest in boating. They were regulars down here. Been part of the marina since John and DeWitte, junior, used to jump off the roof of this very boathouse when they was kids.

“Anyway,” he says as we peer into closets and peek into drawers. “Perky got osteoporosis and was too frail to get on board any more, John figured that down here he could drink and smoke all he wanted to. He had heart disease and emphysema, I think. He’d take this boat out on the lake and go back home, stinking of booze and cigarettes. That stuff there killed John King.” Joe points to the half-empty bottle of bourbon and the overfull ashtray stuck to the dinette table by spilled Coke. “But Perky blames the boat.”

He turns off the lights and closes the hatches that Dale and I have carelessly left on and open. We gawk at polished mahogany frames around windows blacked out by night. Every edge is rounded off. Every joint is flush and smooth with care taken to match the grain wherever possible.

“It’s like my uncles’ farms in Wisconsin,” Dale whispers. “They still use the barns their great-grandfathers built with nothing more than mortises, tenons, and pegs.” 

“It’s the biggest chest of drawers I’ve ever seen,” I say.

The King and I barely floating her slip, number 15 in boathouse ZH at Highport Marina, Lake Texoma, Pottsboro, Texas.

“Yep, she’s a classic,” Joe says. “Don’t go real fast, though.”

We drive back to the clubhouse wondering what we have just seen. It is not the assembly of ready-cast fiberglass components we saw at the boat show. It is a suite of rooms filled with custom furnishings, every piece purposely designed for its use. Tables have lips, doors have latches, every drawer is notched to keep it from flying open on the high seas. Joe pulls up next to the truck where we, not expecting to be gone almost two hours, have left our dog, Doris Faye, to half freeze.

“Well, whaddya think?” Joe asks, brimming with the excitement of having successful shown is first boat. 

“I think Alexander and I are going to have to talk about this.”

But we don’t. We are consumed by our individual thoughts. I try to remember what we’ve just seen. I question whether a boat is really something we want to take on or if I am caught up in the novelty of an antique boat. The highway signs remind me of the ninety miles we will have to drive each way. I hear Grandmother ask, Is this what you intend to do with your life?