The Downing Boat



The boat and I, 1956
     A few months ago I wrote about my last trip to Wyoming and the fishing trip I enjoyed with my brother-in-law, Buddy, and his son-in-law, Mitch.  I still think back with a certain bit of awe when I remember the boat that Mitch brought for us to use.  It was a brand new Ranger Sport Fisherman with a 250 hp Mercury outboard, a 9.9 hp backup motor and an electric trolling motor connected to GPS.  What this meant was once you found the fish, a tap on the GPS would lock in your position and the trolling motor would automatically adjust to keep you in the location where the fish were.  Naturally, it was equipped with sonar and stereo, and it could hit 60 mph without even breaking a sweat.  A gleaming, sparkling, colorful, sleek fiberglass torpedo, it was a work of art.  I’m sure all these features I’ve just described are old hat to contemporary boatmen, but to a guy like me hopelessly locked in the middle of the last century, this boat was as impressive as a ride in one of the space shuttles (which of course have been retired because even THEY are obsolete.)
     I happen to be glancing through some of my old (what else?) family photos a few days ago and ran across some pictures of the boat my dad and I spent many hours in during my early youth.  Dad was always a fisherman, as were most of his brothers and sisters.  In the early fifties, when I was just a small kid, I would go with my dad and uncles as they fished along Cedar Bayou in Baytown, Texas.  They especially enjoyed fishing the rice canals thereabouts because there were some monster catfish which lurked in the rather muddy looking water.  I can remember especially a 47-pounder my Uncle Orville caught.  Hanging in his garage, it was as big as I was.  They also enjoyed fishing in some of the backwaters of the Trinity Bay portion of Galveston Bay.  Back in those days, especially because they enjoyed fishing at night, a fisherman had to be watchful for alligators in the swampy parts of the shores.  My dad told the story of one of his brothers being run over by an alligator one night as they were walking through the tall grass near the water’s edge.  Apparently alligators, when on land and suddenly spooked, will make a beeline for the water.  My dad and uncle were walking single file along the shore when my uncle slipped on some mud and fell, hitting the water with a big splash.  Up the hill a ways was a big alligator which heard the splash and headed for the water and safety.  The fact that my uncle was in the way made no difference to the alligator, and the spooked beast clamored over my uncle and disappeared into the water.  My dad and his other brothers, being kind, gentle souls, never let my uncle forget that event for the rest of his life.
    But progress is unstoppable, and Dad began thinking about a boat and the greater access to fishing areas such an item would offer.  In the mid fifties, the local Sears, Roebuck and Company store in Baytown was located at 721 West Texas.  Sears was the big dog in retailing at the time, selling everything from clothing to hardware, to sporting goods, to boats, and even to cars.  Yes, friends, I can remember when brand new Allstate automobiles were lined up on the Sears parking lot for sale.  Anyway, inside the store there was a marine section, complete with boats, motors and all the goodies.  On this particular day, Dad and I went to look at boats.  Little did I know at the time that the same area in the store where the boats were sold would , eighteen years later, be the toy department and I would be the manager.
    Think about this, in 1955 the average boat owned by the average fisherman was ten to twelve feet long with an outboard motor ranging from 15 to 22 horsepower.  The boat was made of sheet plywood cut to fit a frame of hardwood, or actual planks of wood screwed to a frame.  With lots of joints came a common problem with leaks, so most boats had a raised floor, usually a couple of inches above the hull, so that as the water leaked in the boat, the passengers did not have to traipse through the water.  As the boat was underway, a drain plug could be pulled in the back of the boat to dump the water, but one also had to remember to replace the plug when stopped. Otherwise, what goes out will come back in.
    In 1955, however, the Wolverine Boat Company came out with a great new innovation.  The Wolverine boat was made of mahogany plywood, but as the plywood was being made, it was molded over a boat frame so that the wood was formed in the shape of a hull.  It was incredibly strong, and with no seams or joints, was practically leak proof.  There was no tell tale raised floor because the boat did not leak, and it had a deep bow which took heavy waves like a knife through butter.  It was the cutting edge of boat technology; plus, it was a big boat…14 feet long!  Dad took one look and was captured.  He took home the boat on a new Sears trailer, with the biggest engine he could get…a 22 hp Evinrude.
     The boat was an open design, with a covered front deck, but had no steering wheel, so Dad had to sit in the back and steer the boat with the motor's handle.  After a few trips up and down Cedar Bayou, Dad decided he needed a steering wheel, and thus entered our neighbor across the street, Otto Purfurst.  Otto was a German in every good sense of the word.  His speech was accented, and he could not stand idleness.  He and Dad were good friends, and Otto offered to install a wheel on the boat.  Rather than put the wheel all the way to the front, he put in a center console and fabricated all the hardware for the controls himself.  It worked like a charm, but he wasn’t finished.  In those days, it was a real task to launch a boat.  Basically one would back the trailer into the water to the point that the trailer would disappear under the surface.  With luck, the boat would be buoyant enough for you to push the boat off the trailer, but it was always a lot of work.
    Otto had an idea to avoid all that hassle, and he offered to build Dad a new trailer.  His design looked like a normal trailer, but along the middle of the trailer were three rollers from old wringer washers (I’m sure you remember those!).  These were attached together by cables which ran to a lever on the front of the trailer close to the trailer hitch.  One had only to pull back on the lever, and the boat would be raised about two inches, sitting on the three rollers.  You could push the boat off the trailer with one hand.  The added bonus was one did not have to back so far into the water when dropping off or picking up.  At the front of the trailer was a winch, and, when loading the boat, one had only to hook the cable to the bow of the boat and it was an easy crank to reload.  It was a marvel of engineering at the time.  People used to watch us launch or pick up the boat and ask us where they could buy a trailer like that.

1973
   After a few runs, Dad decided the Evinrude wasn’t enough.  Besides, Johnson Marine had just come out with the SeaHorse 25, and Dad traded engines.  Now, with the Wolverine molded plywood boat, the fancy trailer, and the big SeaHorse 25, we had the biggest, baddest boat on Cedar Bayou.  Adjusting the fuel mixture while underway, we could just touch 30 mph, and we thought we were flying.  Over the next few summers we took a lot of people from our church boating with us, not to mention Downing family members from near and far.  I remember one person especially.  Gus Locklear, one of the Locklear/Downing clan from Oklahoma, came to Baytown fairly regularly, working with Dad at the roofing company.  He loved to ski, and Dad enjoyed trying his best to throw Gus off his skis.  We would roar up and down Cedar Bayou cutting all sorts of shenanigans, but I never remember Gus falling.  He was a good skier.
    One time we were out fishing at the mouth of the bayou where it empties into the bay.  With us was a long time family friend (my memory is a little vague…I don’t think he was relative), Harold Linderman.  Harold like to catfish with a humongous weight on his line with a big hook.  This one time he pulled back and with a mighty swing aimed for the center of the bayou.  Dad felt a heavy thud of the weight and then felt the hook go deep into his neck right behind his right ear.  Stunned, he fell back into his seat while Harold turned pale and yelled.  I was transfixed.  Harold began to yell, “Oh, my god, R.L!” as Dad gained his senses and realized what had happened.  Dad told Harold to get the pliers and pull out the hook.  Harold grabbed the pliers, but his hands were shaking like he had palsy.  “Pull it out!” said Dad, and Harold got ready, then said, “R.L., I think I’m going to faint!”  “It’s got to come out…pull it!” Dad replied, and Harold clamped down on the hook, closed his eyes, and yanked.  Out the hook came.  They decided they had better go find a doctor.  As we traveled back to the dock, dad reached down occasionally and got a handful of salt water and put on his wound.  The doctor dressed the spot, and later Dad said it never even got sore.
    For fifteen years, the boat got heavy use, and space here does not allow me to describe all our experiences.  In the seventies, after Dad had experienced several heart problems, he handed the boat down to me.  I upgraded the boat a little bit, installing a windshield and moving the steering wheel to the front.  The old Johnson had become a little cranky and was a challenge to get started.  By the mid seventies wooden boats had practically disappeared, and fiberglass had taken control.  Not to mention, engine power had increased dramatically.  One of the last boat trips I enjoyed was when my brother-in-law, Buddy, and I went out into Galveston Bay and did a little fishing some time in 1973.  In 1974, facing a major move to Wyoming, I did something I regret to this day…I sold the boat.  The fellow came to look at the boat, and I started the old Johnson SeaHorse 25 up for him.  It ran beautifully, and he took the boat and went away. 
     A few months later, I happened to run into my boat buyer in a store.  He said he was happy with the boat, but once he got the boat home from our house, the motor never once started.  He finally bought a larger motor.  I think the old motor was just homesick.