Jon's Jottings: Memories of a Chris-Craft last forever
Along about July 4th every year I conjure up memories of my childhood growing up on a lake in north central Minnesota in the 1950s.
Because July 4th marks high summer in the Minnesota-Wisconsin resort areas and nearly everybody has memories of going "to the lake," either a week at a resort or a cabin owned by a family member and if not that, at least a trip to the beach.
Summertime in these parts includes boats: row boats, runabouts, ski boats, fishing boats, sail boats, speed boats in every lake and river.
My fondest memories are of a 1937 Chris-Craft utility model inboard. It was a magnificent mahogany-hulled boat, even more beautiful as I realize its increased value as a collector's item, if we still had it.
We lived on Gull Lake, north of Brainerd, Minn., in a time when there was a lot of undeveloped shoreline on that 10,000-acre chain of lakes. My dad bought the boat one fall from an owner on Bay Lake.
Rummaging through a pile of odds and ends in a cardboard box that made its way to me after my father's death, I found a diary with an account of the transaction. He bought it in September 1953 for $875. As I remember, he paid $1,500 for a package that included the boat, tracks, winch and dolly to pull the Chris-Craft into our newly finished boat house.
He christened it the CL-43, which was the hull number on the Navy cruiser he served on in World War II, and put chrome plated numbers on each side of the bow.
The acquisition marked the beginning of many days of heavy use for that sturdy Chris-Craft. It was 17-footer powered by a six-cylinder flat-head 98-HP engine. The steering wheel was on the right, opposite American cars. The gear shift lever was on the floor and the throttle on the steering wheel.
My dad specifically wanted a utility model which had an open hull. There was a seat in front for the driver and passengers, a bench seat across the stern for more passengers and a cover over the engine in the middle of the floor. You could sit on the engine and walk around the inside of the boat. I remember the gunwales rising to about mid-thigh on an adult.
An early memory is coming back to the cabin after church on Sunday morning. My mom and dad, two sisters and I got into our swim gear and hopped into the Chris-Craft. My mother drove while my dad water skied across the big part of the lake and up a channel for hamburgers at a little waterside joint that had holes in the front screen door and loaded up fly paper hanging over a well-seasoned grill.
It was long before the "no shirts, no shoes, no service" policy and I'm sure before many of the current health laws, but the hamburgers were the best.
We all learned to ski behind that boat. Later on when I reached my teens and was allowed to take the boat out on my own, we used it every possible moment. My dad had two 55-gallon drums welded together and mounted on blocks beside the boathouse to store gas. The gas tank was in the stern of the boat and we filled a five-gallon can from the drums and poured the gas through a funnel into the tank.
By this method, we knew 20 gallons would fill the boat. There was no gas gauge. We stuck a yard stick in the tank to judge how much gas we needed.
We must have burned 500 gallons a summer in that boat, and it was really pretty easy on gas. It never got much of a rest from Memorial Day to Labor Day except during bad weather.
The throaty roar of the engine through a single straight exhaust pipe is still music to my ears and just to listen to one of those magnificent old boats idling alongside a dock brings back memories.
The boat finally got some rest when we kids went to work in the summer and even more reprieve when we went to college and took summer jobs elsewhere,
Then, sometime while I was gone from home, my dad reported the head was cracked on the engine. It looked like the end. No mechanic in the area would attempt to fix it. But my dad got a line on somebody in the Twin Cities area that welded engine blocks and heads, loaded up the boat motor in a U-Haul trailer and hauled it down for repairs.
The next time I came home the Chris-Craft was up and running. I lifted up the cover and the engine was purring along with a big weld across the head along the Chris-Craft logo.
The end did finally come a little later, in the 1970s, I think. The boat dry rotted in the hull and my dad sold it. I wasn't around for the sad departure of the CL-43.
Then one day in my late 30s, I was home for a short visit in the summer. I was sitting with some friends in a favorite watering hole down the beach. May dad sent word that the CL-43 was back.
I rushed home and there it was at our dock and restored to its original condition complete with white caulking strips on the bow and a glass windshield. The bow and stern had been covered with vinyl and a wrap-around plastic windshield replaced the original during the heavy-use days of my youth.
The son of the original owner who also grew up on Gull Lake tracked it down, bought it and restored it to original condition, then brought it by to show my dad. He let me take it for a spin.
I turned the key and the six cylinder flat-head roared to life. I revved it a little, pushing down the throttle on the steering wheel. I eased the big chrome gear shift forward and headed out into the middle of the big lake and opened it up. The stately craft climbed up to plane and cut a magnificent swath through the water.
It was a thrill and the last time I drove a classic wooden boat..., but the memories last forever.