A fisherman living near the Puget Sound has to own a boat sooner or later. One summer, our dad finally scraped together enough money to buy his boat. Now he could get out onto saltwater where, he hoped, he would catch a plump salmon or two.
It was a modest boat. It sat on a trailer in the driveway, and he hauled it to water behind our old green station wagon. At most, it was 18 feet long, and it had a simple outboard motor.
For the two sons he had taught how to fish, an indulgent wife, and a little girl who always tagged along, my dad planned a family boating day.
So one Saturday morning, the whole family got up before dawn to have fun. Mom had prepared a picnic lunch and the kind of breakfast you hand to kids as they stumble to the car. Dad had packed the fishing rods for himself and the boys, and Mom had packed several books to read - the usual way she coped with Dad's adventures.
My brothers tell me that we drove north and put in at a public boat launch somewhere near Port Susan, on one of the tidal rivers of the sound. All I remember is driving through the gray, early-morning light, watching them put the boat in the water, and all of us setting off. There was damp fog all around us, and the grown-ups drank steaming cups of coffee poured from a thermos.
After a while the fog burned off, and it became sunny day.
That's when we noticed something unusual. We could see sand under the water, and it kept getting clearer and clearer. My 11-year-old brother finally said, "Dad, the boat's not going anymore." Dad was standing very still, with his eyes closed. "Dad?"
We had made our way out of the river and into the sound, but not far enough, and the tide had gone out while we were busy with our activities. Dad knew how to use a tide table and a clock, of course. But so many new things, plus the excitement of the whole family on board, was all more of a distraction than he'd imagined; he had lost track of time. The surrounding water had ebbed away from us - we were bottomed out.
The boat slowly tilted to one side, and we all grabbed at anything to keep us from falling over. Mom picked up her bag of books and the picnic basket. Dad said, "OK, time to get out of the boat." He climbed down from the boat, helped Mom over the side, then helped me. We all started walking toward dry sand.
That was the best beach I have ever visited. There were driftwood logs to walk on, and smaller pieces that we used to build a fort. We found clay in the sand, and dug it up to make shapes and figurines, which we put out to dry in the sun. There were shells and seaweed and crabs the size of a button. The best thing about it was that my brothers spent the whole time with me.
While we played on the shore, our parents went up the beach a little farther and sat on separate logs. Mom started reading a book, but Dad sat and stared at the boat, his lips moving a little from time to time. Later I noticed that my parents were sitting together. Mom had put down her book, and she and Dad were talking.
After the picnic lunch, our parents walked along the shore, holding hands. We had been there four or five hours. No one was paying any attention to the time, or the tide.
"The boat!" one of us yelled. "The boat is up! The boat is moving!" We all looked. It was bobbing in the water. Mom grabbed her bag of library books, and Dad gathered up the picnic basket. They ran toward the boat, calling us to join them.
We ran through water that was knee-deep on a grown-up. This proved difficult for me, so my 16-year-old brother picked me up and kept running. Panting, he lifted me up over the side of the boat and swung in after me. Just then the boat popped away from the sand, and Dad quickly moved to the wheel.
The only thing he said as we returned to the boat launch and our car was, "I'll laugh about this someday. But not today."
I don't remember any other family outings in the boat. My brothers remember a few more fishing trips with Dad, and then the boat disappeared from our driveway, and never returned.
We still went on family outings to the sound, though. After a late, lazy breakfast at home, we would drive to the beach, where my brothers and I played while Mom and Dad talked, dozed, or read books. And sometimes they walked along the shore, holding hands.
There was no abrupt end to these days: Our station wagon stood nearby in the parking lot as long as we wanted to stay. That summer our dad bought his boat, we discovered the happiness of letting time and tide wait for us.