Saturday, October 8, 2016

Eugene Gochenour's Memoir: Boating Tales and Wild Times

Continuing sharing from my father's memoirs, this week I offer his chapter on Boating Tales and stories about Dad's fishing trips with his friend Skip Marvin.
Dad and a five-year-old me
I grew up on the Niagara River. Mom would have a picnic dinner ready so when Dad got off work at the gas station we could take off and have dinner on the boat. Dad would fish for Bluegill, Sunfish, and Perch. At dusk we would watch the lights come on along shore as we headed back to the dock.

If I got weary I crawled into the hatch and cuddled on the extra life preservers. I thought the buoys Dad talked of as "telling the boats where to go" about were "boys" wearing metal cans on their heads as they floated on the water. I imagined that when a boater was lost he would call down to the boy and ask, "Which way to Tonawanda?" And the boy would point in the right direction.

When the boat was going fast, hitting the water in a pounding rythym, I worried that we were hitting fish's heads like in a cartoon. I felt bad for the fish. That didn't stop me from enjoying eating them, even after watching Dad prepare the fish!
Nancy age seven on Dad's boat on the Niagara River
"A few years after Joyce and I got married, she bought me a boat for my birthday. Since she handled the money I didn’t know we could afford it, so it was a big surprise to me. It was a 12 -oot runabout that my uncle Ed had built. It was like new, and it had a 20-horse Mercury outboard motor on it. It came with a homemade wooden boat trailer.

"My brother-in-law Ken and I used it for fishing on the Niagara River. One day we took it out and stopped at our campground on Grand Island, which at that time was near Mesmer’s Super Club located just a few hundred feet upriver from our camp. It had a huge lawn that went to the river edge and it looked like a Southern mansion. So we tied our boat to our camp dock and went ashore. There was no one there, and we just stopped to take a break.

"We were only on shore a few minutes when we looked back at the dock and saw that the boat was gone. Then we saw it drifting down the river. The river had a strong current there, and the boat was sure moving! So then we saw a passing boat, and waved to get his attention. When he saw us, we pointed to our boat, and he drove to it.

"He hooked a rope onto the transom but when he tried to tow it luckily the rope broke. If the rope had not broke he probably would have sunk my boat. He was too far away to hear us hollering, so all we could do is watch. He should have just picked one of us up, and taken him to our boat, but instead he tried to tow it two more times. Of course each time the rope broke.

"By now he had drifted far down the river and luckily the Coast Guard boat that was stationed nearby saw him and checked him out. The Coast Guard boat then came to our dock and picked us up to take us to our boat that was by now far down river. On the way he gave us a lecture on tying boats to docks. When we got to it we got in and thanked him. At that time we were probably about four miles upriver of Niagara Falls. Too close for comfort! Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong when you are boating.

"On another day Ken [Ennis, married to Dad's sister Alice] and I were going to do some fishing by Strawberry Island. I was running the engine and Ken was in the bow, and when we got to where we were to fish, I cut the motor and Ken threw in the anchor. This was great, except the anchor was not tied to the boat, and we watched it disappear into the deep. We lost that one, but we had found others that boaters had also lost, so we were about even.

"One Sunday I drove over to our camp on Grand Island hauling my boat on it’s homemade wooden trailer. There was a cut in the river bank where I thought I could launch my boat. So I backed the trailer into the water, then got into the boat to drive it to our dock. I started toward the dock, but when I looked back, the car was slowly backing into the river. When the boat trailer backed into the river, it floated downstream, and hooked on to a piling. So I docked the boat, and ran back to my car. The emergency brake had not held, but luckily the car engine did not get wet so it would still run. Luckily some of my relatives came, and they hooked a car to mine to help by towing, while others lifted the trailer off the piling. After that I made sure the brake held, and never backed the trailer into the water where it would float.

"There were always guys hanging around the station. Many times we would make plans to go on local fishing trips. One time Skip Marvin, Bob Cole, and I decided to go fishing for Northern Pike at Sodus Bay. We had talked about it for weeks. Sodus Bay was about 125 miles away on Lake Ontario, and so we hooked up the old boat trailer and took off late one evening. Just as we got there, it started to rain. We put the boat in, and found a bridge to fish under.

"The rain just kept getting worse, and since we had caught no fish, we decided to go to a bar that was on the bay, and have a drink, and play some pool. When the bar closed we took the boat back to the boat launch, and loaded it on to the trailer. Since the other two were tired they made me drive. When I found myself on a dirt road by an airfield, I woke them up. Skip looked around and said “I told you to go to Fairport, not the airport!” That was like many of the trips we made.

"Skip had a 25-foot Owens boat and he had a dock where he kept it at a marina on Elicott Creek, near the Erie Canal and the city of Tonawanda. He and my brother-in-law Ken and I took off one day in Skip’s boat. We went to the Niagara River and cruised up to Lake Erie. We spent the day fishing out on the lake, then saw a storm setting in. We headed for the break wall and made it just before the storm set in. For protection, we anchored under the stern of a huge lake freighter. After the storm passed, we continued up the lake to Silver Creek to anchor and spend the night. It was dark when we got there so it was slow entering the creek. We went a way up the creek and anchored, then went to sleep. A few hours later we were woke by what sounded like a train running through our boat! Well it was a train, and when it passed we got the flashlight and found that we had anchored under a railroad trestle. Not a good thing to do on a jet black night!"
Skip and Katie Marvin were my folk's friends, but I knew them as Uncle Skip and Aunt Katie. Katie worked as an x-ray nurse. I loved visiting their apartment and playing with their German Sherpherd, Spooks, who was crazy for water. Once he jumped into the bathtub with Katie! The adventures Dad shared with Skip surprise me, as Dad was very straight-laced!
Skip and Katie Marvin with Spooks
"Skip and Katie Marvin were good friends of Joyce and I. Skip and I would usually take off on Saturday evenings to play pool, leaving the wives at home to visit each other. We played at pool halls from Buffalo to Niagara Falls. But sometimes we would go to the Palace Burlesque shows, or fireman’s picnics, or at bars at Riverside. At the bars we played indoor horseshoes or shuffleboard, or danced with some of the very old gals Skip knew. We could dance with them, because unlike young guys, their husbands were not jealous, and we all had a lot of fun. 

"Skip had an Italian car that was called an Isetta. It was a small funny yellow car with three wheels. It had two wheels in the front, and one in back, and the whole front of the car was a door. It was built to hold two people, and used a motorcycle engine to propel itself. It did have a sunroof, and leather seats. In the picture below is an Isetta automobile. It is the same type of car Skip Marvin owned, except his was yellow. It was made by BMW. Skip once made a large cardboard key, painted it black, and taped it on to the rear of the car. It got a lot of laughs as he drove down the street. 

"Skip owned a large German Shepherd dog he named Spooks and sometimes he would take him in the car. Spooks liked to ride with his head sticking out of the sunroof, that was quite a sight too! One evening we packed five guys into that little car and went bar hopping. Luckily we were not stopped by the police, since the car was slightly overloaded. When we went to the bars on Saturday evenings, Skip would drive the little car up on the sidewalk to the front window, and people would come out to see the funny little car. Skip would often give them a ride. Our escapades went on for quite a while, but the wives finally got tired of us coming home so late at night, and that was the end of that! 

"So Skip and I bought a small pool table and kept it at his apartment. He lived above a store that sold beer from around the world, and while we played there we tried them all. Our wives were very trusting and liberal with us, but we were never untrue to them. Maybe they were just happy to be rid of us for a while!

"In 1959, the year Joyce was pregnant with our son Tom, Skip, his wife Katie, and I went canoeing at Quetico Provincial Park in Canada. The park is on the Canadian border, north of Minnesota. It was a twenty-one hour ride from Tonawanda. We had planed the trip since the previous winter. The trip took us through Canada, Michigan, and Minnesota. Skip and I took turns driving three hour shifts. 

"During the winter we had written to an outfitter, and he had given us instructions on how to get to his business and what to bring. When we arrived at Winton, a small town in Minnesota, he outfitted us with everything we needed. The canoe, pots, pans, dried food, and other camping gear were provided. The canoe was packed to the hilt with all our provisions and the three of us, even though it was seventeen foot long.

"Quitico Provincial Park is a designated wilderness area. There are no towns, buildings or homes within the park area. There are hundreds of lakes, some rivers, and a few waterfalls. Most travel in the park is by canoe, since no motor boats are allowed, and you must use an existing campsite, not make a new one. Anything taken into the park must be taken out when you leave. Airplanes were not allowed to fly lower than three thousand feet when above it. Everything possible was done to keep the area in a wilderness state. We spent a week and caught and ate many fish. The water was so clean, we took a cup with us and drank straight from the lake. We saw very few people, and had a great time.
Skip Marvin and Gene Gochenor at Quetico
"Then in 1967 Skip and I took off again for Quetico. On the way through upper Michigan we got lost when we made a wrong turn. We saw a restaurant that was just beyond where we were to turn, and went in to eat. When we came out we didn’t go back to turn, but continued on. We started up the Keweenaw peninsula. There were no road signs and after about fifty miles we saw a bar, and thought we would have a beer, and ask where we were. I guess they seldom saw strangers, and when they were talking to us they asked us if we were going to Hurley. We didn’t know what they were talking about. We told them we were lost, and they told us how to get back on the route. They said since we were going near, we should stop at Hurley. At that time all we could think about was to get to where we were going. 

"The car ran great, and going through Michigan Skip had it going 100 miles an hour at one time. That was really moving, since the speed limit at that time was 55 miles per hour. We had taken a five horse outboard motor of Skip’s with us, and when we got to the outfitters we mounted it on the canoe, loaded our fishing tackle and supplies, and headed to the Canadian border. 

"Once there we registered with customs and bought a fishing license. Then off we paddled to find our first campsite. The first lake in the park was called Basswood Lake, and we camped at Basswood Falls where the lake empties into a river. On the way there we broke our outboard motor recoil spring for the pull start. We didn’t have many tools, but somehow we took it apart, heated the spring over a fire, and reassembled it. 
Skip and Katie Marvin at Quetico
"Camping at the falls was beautiful. The weather was great and we caught many fish. When we caught fish we would put them on a stringer to keep them alive, then take them back to camp and put them in a small pool we had made. When we decided we had enough, we would put them back on a stringer and take a picture of each other with the fish. We kept enough to eat, and let the rest go. 
Dad carrying the canoe while Skip supervises
"I probably only weighed 130 lbs in those days, but I was the one that carried the canoe on the portages. Some of them were about a quarter of a mile long. I remember one in particular. We had a map of the area and saw there was a small isolated lake. We found a trail that seemed to lead to it, and decided we would like to canoe it. So I put the canoe on my shoulders and we took off up the trail. Well we hadn’t gone far before we came to an area where a wind storm had knocked down trees over the trail. It was hot and sticky and the mosquitoes were fierce. The trail was narrow, and I got to a place where I could not go further. So I set the canoe on a fallen tree and swatted mosquitoes. 

"I was worn out, and as I stood there I heard a beaver slap his tail at a nearby small pond. It was like him saying “well, stupid, what did you get yourself into now?” Skip was coming behind me and I told him I could go no farther and we would have to go back. All during this I was swatting mosquitoes like mad. Since I only had on shorts and a t-shirt I was very vulnerable. I finally got turned around and got out of there, but I was totally bitten. I did learn that the old saying “look before you leap”does not just apply to jumping. I learned to check out the trail beforehand. 
Gene Gochenour 

"Once when we were fishing we heard splashing, and curious to find out what it was, we went to where we thought the noise was coming from. We soon saw a Northern Pike flopping on the surface. It had a fish tail sticking out of its mouth. We ran the boat next to the fish, and brought it in. We did not know what to expect, but it did not struggle as we pulled a fairly large walleye out of his mouth, and put him back in the water. But he still just flopped around. So once again we pulled him back in the boat, and this time Skip squeezed the fish until two more walleye came out. When we put it back in the water the second time, it just swam away. That fish truly bit off more than it could eat! On another day, we heard flopping noises, and when we went to the spot where the noises were coming from, we saw someone had lost their stringer of fish. There were six large Northern Pike on the stringer, and they were all still alive, so we released them to live another day. We did get a stringer for our good deed. 
Skip Marvin

Skip and Gene

"After a great week we headed back to our outfitter. We were probably forty miles back in the wilderness, so it took us a while to paddle back, but Skip was a good navigator. All we could think of was geting a good meal since we had been living on freeze dried food and fish for a week. So when we got to Ashland, Minn. we stopped at a restaurant called “The Platter.” It was pretty fancy, and sat on a hill overlooking Lake Superior. We both had a heavy beard, because we had not shaved all week, but we went in anyway and had a big steak. After a week of roughing it, the meal was sheer pleasure! 

"After we got that out of the way, we got to thinking about Hurley, and since it was not far off the route we were taking, we decided to go there. We arrived late in the afternoon, and the town was pretty much deserted. As we walked through the main street we noticed there were only bars and liquor stores. Since there were hardly any houses in town, we wondered why there were so many bars. We went into a bar to eat our dinner, and talked to the woman who owned it. She had a daughter, and the two of them ran the bar. The bar looked like something left over from the Gay Nineties. It was dark with a huge long bar, and a huge mirror behind it. The floor was wood, and slanted, and when the beer delivery man came, the barrel he brought rolled right on by us to the back room where it was to be stored. Skip and I got a chuckle out of that. 

"It was early evening when we went to the next bar and it had a stage where some old burlesque queens danced. These gals were really over the hill! While we were at the bar, they came by and tried to get us to buy them some drinks. I was shy around women, and didn’t particularly want their attention, but I didn’t know what to say, so I told them I was sight seeing! I guess they got the message, because they left me alone, and bugged Skip. 

"By now the town was getting busy. The town was isolated, so people must have come from a hundred miles away. We sat down at a table, and a few of the gals joined us. Skip was a very out-going person, and he got to talking about our trip, and he also told them that he owned a bar at Niagara Falls. He told them he would hire them, and all the benefits that would go with the job. Since it was getting late I told Skip I was going back to the motel, and I left him there. On the way back to the motel, I saw drunks physically thrown out of bars, and from the motel window I saw cars honking, people fighting, and hollering at each other. It was a wild, crazy town! It reminded me of how some wild west towns were in the old days. I saw police walking through town, but they did not seem to pay much attention to what was going on. Just a normal night for them, I guess. Skip got in late that night and was tired the next morning, so I had to drive. He told me that the night before the women ended up buying him drinks! 

"When we got home I sat Skip’s outboard motor next to the garage door where I kept my boat. I took my boat over to the river to fish, and when I came home I backed the boat trailer into the garage, but in doing so I bumped the motor and it fell over, then the trailer tire ran over it. It cost 125 dollars to repair it--as much as the trip to Quetico!
Researching Hurley, Wisconsin I discovered it had quite a history of booze, prostitution, strip joints, and gangsters--including the Capone boys! This 'Sin City' provided 'services' to lumberjacks and copper miners and just plain ignored prohibition. Perhaps its a good thing Dad wrote his memoir after Mom passed! 

A favorite story about Dad's naiveity from the late 1960s: Dad worked at the Highland Park, MI Chyrsler plant and drove down Woodward Avenue to get to work. He noticed that the janitor was waiting at a bus stop and arranged to pick him up mornings. Dad admired the janitor, an Africian American who was working his son through Med School. If Dad arrived before the janitor, Dad would pull over and wait for him. The bus stop was not in a very good part of Detroit. One day a lady opened Dad's truck door and tried to get in. He paniced and said, "No! I'm waiting for a guy!" Dad would chuckle telling the story. 

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