Peggy Keener: Ocean cruising in Austin, Minnesota

Published 6:30 am Saturday, November 14, 2020

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I grew up believing the world had three oceans: Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean and East Side Lake Ocean. Having not seen the other two, I thought our East Side Lake Ocean was gigantically gigantic. Additionally, I was unable to imagine a person swimming from shore to shore … even with a greased-down body like those show-off English Channel swimmers.

One summer day in 1951, my dad bought a lottery ticket. He was stunned when he won the prize: an outboard motor. Unable to believe his great fortune—especially since he was not a gambling man—he immediately had a kaleidoscopic vision of himself at the helm of an ocean going yacht. Without hesitation, he rushed out to purchase a boat to go with his newly acquired prize.

A boat! Imagine such a thing! What a change it would make in the rutted routine of his orderly life. On his way out of the boat store, however, it occurred to him that he had no way of transporting his new boat to the water. There was only one thing to do  buy a trailer … and a trailer hitch … and the requisite lights, life jackets, seat cushions, gas can, etc. And to top it off—a sporty captain’s hat. His prize was adding up. But did he care? No!

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It was truly a moment when he resplendently pulled the boat and trailer up our driveway. His delight, though, in no way compared to the hysterical joy it was for us four kids. Or the shocker it was for Mom.

Gesturing towards his new treasure—like a game host revealing the winning door—it appeared that our dad, the Main Street grocer, had suddenly morphed into a sea captain. Through wild, unbelieving eyes, we wondered what this transformation might portend? Would Dad ditch his long white grocer’s apron and replace it with a black patch over one eye? Would he get a wooden peg leg? Would he greet us kids each morning with, “And … arrgh … how are ye, my hearties?” All that aside, we four couldn’t get our swimming suits on fast enough.

Heads turned as we motored across town. (It was difficult not to be smug.) But once at the lake, it was a clumsy effort getting the boat trailer backed up to the landing ramp. Ineptly, Mom’s arms flailed about directing Dad until he finally got the boat into the water. Then on his signal, we all piled in. (Can’t remember if we took Rex, the dog.) The maiden voyage was about to begin, our only regret not having a bottle of champagne for Mom to crack over the bow.

Sitting squashed together, we kids were beside ourselves with delight … and not a little terrified. It was frightening to suddenly realize the vast depths upon which we were now bobbing. What was down there? Did sharks live in the East Side Lake Ocean? Giant poisonous eels? Octopuses with monstrously long tentacles that could grab children out of boats? Did anybody know?

With rapt attention, our fearful eyes veered toward Captain Gene, our former father, now bent over the engine perusing the instruction manual. Let’s see, prime the engine, adjust the throttle, pull the cord. He did. Nothing happened. He did again. And again. Then a slight purr came from the outboard motor.

It grew into a full-throated groan, then a roar. This was it! Our sea faring life was about to begin. But despite all the noise, we remained in place, going nowhere. There we sat like six perplexed lumps waiting for something to happen. Again Dad returned to the instruction manual. Why had our craft not caused even a single ripple in the water?

Like a crazed sailor, Dad flipped the pages to the weight and size chart. Skimming down the paragraph while doing the math, his face fell. There it was in black and white. We were about 500 horsepower short in the outboard motor department. The weight of the boat, plus our hefty family bulk, was too much for his lottery prize.

With no alternative, we disembarked, towed the craft out of the water and trailered it home. Of course by now Dad was too deep into his new project to throw in the towel. All he had to do was buy a much larger, much more expensive motor. And never again buy a lottery ticket!

Once Dad got everything working harmoniously, our family did enjoy the yachting life. How well I remember holding tightly onto the bow as the East Side Lake Ocean sea spray splashed onto my face. I was pretty sure I looked like Esther Williams sans the ornamental metallic threaded swimming suit, the ramrod posture and the diving board.

The East Side Lake was created in 1934 when a dam was built on Dobbins Creek. The result was a forty acre basin, dry until four years later when a drenching rain filled it up. Overnight it became a popular swimming spot, and by the 1950s, boats were everywhere. Even an Austin Boating Club was formed with 90 members strong who offered water skiing lessons to any child with his parents’ permission. Soon boats had to be licensed. In the summer of 1957 alone, 100 licenses were sold. (With that kind of crazy ocean traffic, I wonder if they put up four-way stop sign buoys?)

But, alas, as the years went by pollution closed the lake to swimmers. Regrettably, it was the end of a truly fun era for Austin.

Who would have ever dreamed that 63 years later the East Side Lake would hold a wintry event where throngs of fat men—all wearing pink leotards—would jump into the frigid ice-encrusted water? In the weirdest of ways, time marches on.