“Let’s go for a ride in Garuda,” my dad says to my brother Lee and me. It’s a Sunday afternoon, the one day per week he isn’t on call at the hospital. Garuda is our 20-foot Bertram boat.
My dad named the vessel “Garuda” because he is fascinated with Hindu gods. Garuda was Lord Vishnu’s massive mount – Vishnu is the Preserver of the World. I wonder if my dad thinks he’s Vishnu when he drives our boat.
It is 1976, and the fire hydrants in town are painted red, white and blue in honor of the Bicentennial. I am eleven, and my biceps are bulging from my swim training. I look more like a boy than my five-year-old brother does. I’m not sure how I’ll ever be a lady anyway because my dad seems hell-bent on making a man out of me. Those are his exact words.
Before every boating trip, my dad makes a run to 7-11 to get additional “provisions,” which is code for Snickers bars. Snickers bars are a very serious business in my father’s mind. They have peanuts for protein to “hold us over” in case we get lost at sea for a few days.
But it’s beautiful and calm on this day. My dad decided to bring our dog, Heidi, a miniature schnauzer, along for the ride. Heidi barks at anything, even a falling leaf. I think my dad wants to see how she will react to the Gulf of Mexico. He can squeeze a science experiment into any outing.
We motor slowly out of the canal in our neighborhood, which is well marked with “no wake” signs. Once we’re in the Intracoastal Waterway, Garuda picks up speed. I am allowed to ride in the front of the boat, as long as my legs are tucked in the hatch that drops a few feet into the cabin. Under no circumstances can I dangle my limbs off the bow. Dad doesn’t want me to wind up “an amputee” like he doctored during the Vietnam War.
My brother rides shotgun to our dad. Lee is expected to hand our father provisions as necessary. Today, he is trying to stop Heidi from barking at the seagulls overhead. I hear them over Garuda’s loud motor and look back through the windshield at them.
When I turn back to the front, Garuda is headed directly for one of the huge wooden channel markers. I wonder if I should say anything. My dad is vigilant about his boating. If I accuse him of not paying attention, he will yell at me.
I turn back to see that he is reading an ocean chart. He has slowed the boat down a bit.
The marker is getting closer. I calculate the distance based on the twenty-five-yard pool I train in every day. There is half a pool left until we’ll hit it.
“Dad!” I scream.
I brace myself for the crash. The sound is like an oak tree falling over into a lake: a loud creak, and then a huge splash. The whole front fiberglass hull of Garuda curls forward and opens up. Some of the fiberglass hits me, like shrapnel.
My brother lets out a blood-curdling scream. Heidi has gone overboard, as have all our provisions. I jump in and get Heidi.
“Swim to the front, Gal, and assess the damage,” my dad instructs after I pass Heidi back into the boat.
Another boat is making its way toward us. I worry about it running me over and getting chopped up by the motors—which my dad says happens from time to time. He’s seen it in the ER.
I do as he says, and am relieved that all the damage has been to the top of Garuda. She isn’t going to sink. I swim back to the ladder and pull myself in.
Another boater pulls up and asks dad if we’re okay.
“We’re fine,” he says. “The impact felled the motor.”
“Can we take you home?” the boater asks.
“No, I don’t want to leave the boat,” dad says. “I’ll radio the Coast Guard for a tow.”
The other captain says, “Good luck,” and motors off.
My dad turns to me and says, “Eat a Snickers bar.”
“I’m not hungry,” I say. In fact, I feel sick to my stomach.
“You’re going to need your strength.”
I look up at him. There is a little bit of blood dripping down from his brow into his big blue eyes.
“Dad, what happened? Where are your glasses?” I use my forefinger to wipe the blood away.
“They smashed my face and flew out of the boat.”
He can’t see anything nearby without them.
“Gal, I need you do to something.”
“Aren’t we gonna call the Coast Guard?” I ask, worried that he has forgotten the plan. Did he just come down with Alzheimer’s disease? Is that how it happens? Bang, you’ve got it?
“I don’t want to bother them,” he says. “Besides, we’re less than a mile from home.”
“Then, how are we gonna get there, Dad?”
“You’re going to pull us, Gal.”
“What?” I shiver.
“Tie this line around your waist. Then, tie the other end of it to the notch at the low front part of the helm. The hook used for towing.”
“Start swimming.” He hands me the line.
Lee gives me a soggy Snickers bar that he pulled out of the water after the impact. I take two bites and think.
“Dad, this is my brand-new Speedo,” I argue, appealing to his frugality. He bought the red-white-and-blue, stars-and-stripes swimsuit for my most recent appearance at the Junior Olympics.
“I’ll buy you a new one,” he snaps. “Ready. Set. Go.”
I hop in. My dad puts up the flag that indicates we are a vessel under distress and being towed—by his eleven-year-old champion-swimmer daughter.