MEMOIR: THE OUTBOARD MOTOR INCIDENT
The salient point in this story about my dad is that he insisted, when he heard I was writing this book, that I had to include this story. “You gotta include the outboard motor story,” he said, with a huge grin.
It’s another of our family legends, and like others it has lived on since it first happened because of the way it captures and illustrates crucial aspects of the characters involved.
And in this story my dad was a proper arsehole. He couldn’t help it, but he was. He even admits it these days. In those days, when I was a nervous, moody kid, forever unsure what state my dad was going to be in from moment to moment, always trying to find out from Mum after school if she had heard anything from Dad at work, so we had some idea what to expect. It was hard, but it could have been so much worse. He could have been a drunk. He could have been an abuser. But he was neither of these things. He was just a hot mess of a bloke, making it up as he went, and doing the best he could to look after his family.
I never understood until quite late that my dad loved me. I never understood that my dad was sick, that we had the same illness, until I was first getting treated for mine, as I have said. Treatment transformed him. It was the making of him, as it was for me. And as it was for me, it took many years for the treatment to take hold, to settle, for things to become stable. Those were hard years. We fought often. There was yelling and door-slamming and angry brooding.
There was a strange period, when I was around 17, when my dad took overdoses of his medication sometimes. Not with serious suicidal intent so much (though the first couple of times we did worry greatly about that) as the idea that he felt badly messed up inside, so if he made himself sufficiently ill he would end up at the hospital, where they would have to fix him. This happened several times. He never got the fixing he was looking for. In time je gave up doing it. We were all grateful. But for a while I was very angry about it. I lost a lot of respect for my dad. Where was the flashy larrikin guy who raced speedboats? Little did I realise, but he was still there, but locked inside him, drowning.
I feel lousy remembering all this. It was a dreadful time for all of us. Mum had it worst of all. She was the one who had a sick husband and a sick son. The sick son was either an inpatient at D20 or an outpatient, heavily involved still with the hospital at least some of the time. That went on for a couple of years, until I was 18, when they let me go. Dad during this time had his own health crises.
And one day in the middle of all this, while I was in D20, Mum had a heart attack, and wound up in the Emergency Room. One of D20’s male nurses took me aside for a very serious talk about, gently edging around the explosive topic, worried about how I might react.
I mention all this to give proper context for the incident with the outboard motor, when I was a kid.
We were having a cheap, no-frills holiday in Bunbury, the only sort of holiday we could afford. It was all very cheap and cheerful. But one of Dad’s mates in the boat caper had an old aluminium dinghy (what are commonly called “tinnies”) that he lent us for the weekend. It had a ten-horsepower outboard motor on the back.
It was the end of a lovely sunny day. I and my Uncle Shane (seven years older than I was) had been swimming and having a laugh. There was a wall with a walkway, and Dad needed Mum, up on the walkway, to hold the rope attached to the boat, to keep the boat in place while he took the motor off the stern. But Mum got a bit distracted watching us kids, and the boat moved while Dad was holding the motor pressed against his chest.
The thing here is that Dad had an explosive temper, and he was always letting it go off. Mum and I were always in strife over all kinds of things, small (Adrian’s drunk all the milk again) or large (dinner’s overcooked again), and much else besides. Dad carried a huge freight of anger deep inside him, poisonous and full of barbs. And that day he’d already let it out a few times. So when Mum saw she’d let the boat drift while she was distracted, she yanked on the rope to pull the boat back. She didn’t want to get yelled at again.
But Dad was about to put the motor in the boat, just when the boat moved.
Dad and motor fell into the water with a huge splash! I still remember the splash. The two of them were completely submerged in the salty estuary water.
There was a pause as we up on the walkway, Mum still holding the boat rope, took in what had just happened.
Then Dad emerged, thunderous, furious, from the water, a volcano rising from the ocean. His titanic anger so great it has echoed down the decades in family legend. He let fly, and abused Mum and–
Sorry, but we were all much too busy laughing. And this is the point of the whole story. We laughed. We laughed and laughed and laughed. We laughed our guts out. We laughed like we had never laughed before and seldom since. The bully had been rendered ridiculous. He looked like a drowned cat down there sputtering and yelling, and it was hilarious. He looked small and pitiful. We couldn’t believe we had been afraid of this soggy bastard’s fury for so long.
And our laughter only made him angrier, as you might imagine. It was the funniest, most cathartic thing ever. The tyrant brought down to size. He was one of us again.
It took him a while, but by later that evening he admitted, grudgingly, that he could see the funny side of the whole thing.
And he did, as I said, just the other day, insist I include this story, because it illustrates my dad’s character so well. He is a kind and decent man whose untreated illness rendered him monstrous, as mine made me feel monstrous. He was consumed with frustration and anger, but it was all just his illness. Now, elderly, he is a sweet old man. He loves nothing better than sitting with our dog snoozing against him. He takes joy in all my doings. He’s interested in things. Concerned about his fading memory, but there’s a lot of that going around, I can report.
And that ten-horsepower outboard motor that got submerged in salt water? Ordinarily an accident like that would make the engine seize up inside and die. All the moving parts would lock up tight, encrusted with salt. But my dad was a genius with things. And he had a full can of this stuff called CRC, a seriously water-repellent spray. He used almost an entire can on the stripped-down parts of that motor. It took two hours, but in the end he had achieved a miracle, and the motor that had been fully submerged in salty water lived again. My dad was, and remains, an amazing guy.