MEMOIR: The Outboard Motor Incident (Fourth Draft)

(This contains lots of major new stuff, and is pretty much now finished for good.)


My dad was furious—again. This was just the latest. Certainly the most noteworthy. We were in Bunbury, having a cheap weekend holiday, the only sort of holiday we could afford in those days. Dad had borrowed an aluminium dinghy, the sort more commonly called a “tinny”, which came with a ten-horsepower outboard motor.

We’d done our best to have some fun with the boat on Bunbury’s Estuary that day but now as the sun was setting it was time to pack up for the day. The first job was to detach the motor from the boat and put it up on the jetty before loading the boat back onto its trailer.

It seemed like a foolproof plan. And my dad was so tired, so knackered after a long day on the water, in the sun, that he needed everything to work first time. The boat was next to the jetty, and right next to the ramp. Mum, up on the jetty, held the boat’s tether line, but she was also keeping an eye on me and my uncle Shane (a kid seven years older than I was). All Mum had to do was keep the boat close to the jetty while Dad hefted the boat’s outboard up on to the jetty. But he could see her attention was divided.

Dad had a temper. He was always yelling at us, and this was no exception. Mum was letting the boat slip away, and he’d yell, and she’d pull it back. Meanwhile, he was standing up in a boat, holding an outboard motor pressed against his chest. The boat was unstable, rocking from side to side, end to end. It was bad, but if could just get the motor onto the jetty, it’d be okay. But Mum kept letting her attention drift, and here, look, the boat was all the way out from the jetty, look, it was drifting all the way out—Dad was yelling and calling out to Mum, and she realised that this time she’d really let the boat go, so she gave the rope a really big pull.

My dad had a hard time with everything. He was always angry. Or at least that was how it seemed to me. Whenever I was around he seemed angry, or at the very least dark or gloomy, antsy. Restless. Unable quite to find a state of ease or comfort. Even in his own home, he looked and seemed like someone who felt like an awkward visitor. He had no time for my own moodiness, my own strange behaviour. My dad had been in the army in a different time, and had the former army man’s disdain for “malingerers” and illnesses that were “all in your head” rather than something “real” or “physical”. Even though his own mental illness had got him discharged from the army.

Note: Dad was never a drunk, and was never an abuser. Never. He was always a decent man with a terrible temper, and an even worse illness. He was under various forms of treatment for that illness, but in those days, the Sixties, the options available were not much good. Worse than blunt instruments. Dad knew there was something wrong. Ever since he was 18 he knew there was something wrong, deep inside. He had been in the army before he met my mum. He had been married at the time to another woman, but she wanted a divorce. The split drove the young man who would later become my dad to attempt suicide. He was later dishonourably discharged, the poor bugger.

By the time he met my mum his illness, he felt, was more or less stable, the current treatment he was on was working, so he never told her about it. But she found out the hard way. Dad, as I say, had black moods, and anger, tears, and days when he couldn’t face his job. It was hard just getting through each day. Harder still in those days than these days. Now there’s a bunch of services and places you can access or go where you can get some level of help. But back then you didn’t even have words in your head, the actual language you needed, to express the thought, that you were in trouble, that your engines were on fire, you were gonna crash, and you don’t know what to do.

Dad often had no idea what to do. He did the best he could. But sometimes he couldn’t. He couldn’t get out of bed. All he could do was sleep and smoke and sometimes cry. I didn’t know too much about this at the time. Mum has told me more since. At the time I was dragging my sorry carcass off to school each day, knowing what awaited me. All I knew about Mum and Dad was that Dad was sick. Sometimes he vanished in the dead of night to secret hospitals. It was like in a spy novel. One thing you knew for sure: nothing seemed to help. When he came home from the secret spy hospitals he always seemed more haunted, more hollowed out, more wretched.

It was not surprising that Dad was angry. Things had not gone that well. Everything had been a huge struggle. Just getting through a day, every day, was a struggle. And all the time, there’s your moody, troubled son staring at you like you’re the problem, like he’s lost respect. Like he doesn’t understand what you’re dealing with, and you could just kill him, but he’s your boy, your life, what you live for.

It was incredible to think he and I had gone through years of our lives fundamentally not understanding each other, just bumping past each other in the hallway, but that’s it.

Anybody would be angry in that world.

But angry people can’t keep jobs. And Dad had a dreadful time with jobs. He was great at the jobs. What he couldn’t do with marine engines wasn’t worth doing. His services were in demand among the boating set around Perth and up and down the coast. “Can Ken come and have a look at my boat this weekend, please?” And he did his best to accommodate as many of these extracurricular gigs as he could. We got to see a lot of Mandurah in the Sixties and Seventies this way, memories that live with me today, and inform the visits Michelle and I have made there since we’ve been married and had our honeymoon there, and no many wonderful holidays since.

But just as we got to see a lot of seaside Mandurah back then with Dad travelling far and wide to work on the boats of mates, we also went to seaside Bunbury, further south, with its own Estuary.

I started this story about my Dad with him, bloody furious, clutching an outboard, yelling at Mum, who was up on a walkway, holding the rope, distracted by the antics of us kids, and so allowed the boat to drift.

Dad was angry, but yelling at Mum, yelling at me, yelling abuse at the bloody outboard, it was all a mask. He was yelling at himself. He was inadequate. He wished he was better at his job, or had a better job, where he kept his hands clean all day long, maybe in management. Maybe as the owner of the place. That’d be something, being the boss! He could take the family on proper holidays to nice places instead of cheap places like the shack we were staying in here in Bunbury. We could stay in a hotel. He wouldn’t have to work so hard. He could spend his weekends with his family. He could, God, what a thought! He could enjoy himself! He might go beach fishing! He might take a boat out and just potter about, maybe let out a little trolling line, see what might be interested.

This would never, ever happen. Dad knew it. He was a mechanic, not a manager. He could never be a manager. It was all he could do, holding the ten-horsepower to his chest in the rocking tinny as it drifted, to stay standing. His lot in life was fixing these damned things. What he knew about management you could write on the back of a stamp. It wasn’t for him. He was raised in the right social class for management, but it never suited him. There was too much motorbike hoon in him, too much ratbag larrikin. Too much illness and anger and restlessness. He wasn’t meant to sit in a chair all day long.

He yelled out to Mum again to pull the rope in, and this time she bloody well heard him, and she gave the rope an almighty bloody yank at exactly the wrong moment. He’d been standing there yelling and ranting, and she’d pulled the rope as he stood there with his mouth wide open, a particular look on his face, his mouth wide open, and as the tinny lurched under him in one direction, Dad lurched in the other direction. First one leg was in the air, and then the angle of Dad’s back was askew. There came a new, shocked look on his face, and he began to topple, and he turned his head, starting to see the water—and then it was all very fast. Over he went. Man and motor, all at once, into the drink in a spectacular splash, and the waters of the Bunbury Estuary closing over them.

I never understood until quite late that my dad loved me. Proper treatment had transformed him. It was the making of him, as it was for me. And as it was for me, it took many years for his treatment to take hold, to settle, for things to become stable. Those were hard years. We fought often in that time. There was yelling and door-slamming and angry brooding and wishing I could take back things I had said.

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 he 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 trapped inside, 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. That went on for a couple of years, until I was 18, when they let me go.

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.

I was sitting in the Art Room with a big wodge of clay, doing my dreamy thing, calm and quiet and happy, sitting in front of one of the big windows with its view across the carpark to A Block. A male nirse appeared and sat down next to me. He very gently introduced the topic that my mum was in the Emergency Department, just over there in A Block, with a suspected heart attack. He spoke very softly, and with extreme watchful care, worried about my reaction, by the thought that my mum was just over there, in A Block. I could just walk over there.

My heart boomed in my throat. The distance through the window foreshortened. I could reach out and touch A Block. “Is she okay?” I’m pretty sure I did ask that. I think I also asked if I could visit. That was a maybe, depends. I have a vague recollection that I was allowed over there at some point. I think.

I don’t know where Dad was at this time. He might have been off in one of the secret spy hospitals again. It was a horrible time for us Bedfords. We were in rotten strife. We were all in wars.

My fault, naturally.

I was not exactly thriving in D20. Not just yet. It was still hammering me into pieces, so it could then refashion me into a better, more pleasing form. My parents did not understand this. That there was something as much Arts & Crafts as well as Psychiatric about what was happening. I was being upgraded. I didn’t understand any of this while it was happening. At the time I was very angry, and took it out on my poor parents. My dad returned fire. Mum just stood between us and cried.

I mention all this to give proper context for the incident with the outboard motor, when I was a kid.

As you’ll recall, Dad had the engine clutched to his chest, and he had just disappeared into Bunbury Estuary with it, making a spectacular splash. I still remember the splash. That and the gobsmacked, “this cannot be happening to me!” look on my dad’s face.

And the laughter.

Our terrible laughter.

Mum and us kids were up on the jetty, and we had just seen a grown, angry man holding an outboard motor fall out of a boat. The fact of his anger was what made the story work. There was a certain Donald Duck angry-at-the-whole-world kind of thing about it. It was funny because he was so angry, even though the causes of his anger were ultimately dreadfully sad. All these years since, this story has been one of my family’s great legends. It had to go into this book. There has been a great deal of correspondence about it. There has been a great deal of tea and coffee as I sorted out details with Mum and Dad. We’ve relived what we imagine, today, were swell times. But the more I look into it, they don’t seem like such swell times at all. They seem pretty fun to me, because as a kid I didn’t know much, and that was because Mum deliberately kept things from me. The details I’ve included here about my dad’s troubled times are things I’ve only learned much more recently.

But one of the major reasons this story is in this book at all is for tje same reason the Condensed Milk Incident is here: it illuminates a lot of my dad’s character, then and now. Because while he was an angry, moody, disagreeable bugger when I was a kid, and haunted by his own shortcomings, and the pressures bearing down on him—today he is a lovely, sweet old man. It was his idea to include this story, and all these things, in the book. “You gotta put it all in the book!” he insisted, laughing. He freely gave his permission for me to use everything, no matter what, if it would help the book. Mum, too.

Then Dad emerged, thunderous, furious, spluttering—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, because we remembered the look on his face, the absolutely marvellous look on his face as he turned his head and saw the water coming up to meet him, and as the water closing over him, and the look that expressed his opinion that this was all simply impossible, and couldn’t possibly be happening.

We also laughed because of all his anger and moodiness. Because of the tension. It got to us. We were supposed to be on holiday, but all the time, this feeling like a tug-o-war rope going, straining, back and forth over a puddle of mud. 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. 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, showered, dried off, in clean clothes, he admitted, grudgingly, that he could start to see the funny side of the whole thing. Which was lucky for him because the rest of us never let him forget about it. The wicked tyrant brought down by ridicule. The captain who went down with his outboard. We still talk about it, just as we still talk about the Condensed Milk Incident. We talk about Dad and the Outboard because that was the first time we saw that he was just a bloke, and as flawed and foolish as the rest of us. That he was one of us. He had been such a fearful figure. I used to worry each day at school about how Dad would be each night. What would I have to prepare for? Would he be okay? Hoping so much for good days. Dreading the bad days, the arsehole clients, the idiot colleagues, the dimwit bosses. The furiously tense Cold War evening meals. Even chewing felt heavy with significance, as if it meant something. Dad staring into space as he ate, thinking, brooding. Mum strung on the wire between us, hanging on. Doing her best. Tense smiling. Every day for Dad was a hard day. And if he was having a hard day, we all had hard days.

I have included this story because it says a lot about my dad, both back in the past and now. He was a nervy moody tyrant then, with his dark moods and sudden flashes of warmth and humour that could just as suddenly flash away again. But now, decades later, he’s a sweet and lovely old man of 81. He takes way too many medications for too many medical problems, and he can feel his memory starting to fade—but there’s a lot of that going around, even amongst us 50-somethings. My dad today is like a different person. He is kind and loving. His greatest pleasure is coming to our place to “mind” our dog while we’re out, and Freckle just drapes herself against him and goes to sleep, and Dad lets her, and will just sit there patting and stroking her, the sweetest dog and the sweetest old man. They go on like that for hours. It’s beautiful.

There’s no sign of the father I grew up with, the baffling, impossible, moody bastard I never understood, and who never understood me. Over time he went away, maybe to the secret spy hospital, once too often, and never returned, and we got this lovely old guy instead. It’s extraordinary. I think he must have been this way all along, but the combined distortion caused by his poorly treated illness, and the crushing pressure he felt as the family breadwinner and provider, worked to destroy most of that person. He must have felt it killing him, at least at times, that pressure to get up, go to work, do what he was told, no matter what, no matter what shape he was in. You could imagine men like Dad with the illness, unable to talk about it, finding themselves driven to suicide.

Dad got lucky. Around the time I was sixteen in the D20 psychiatric unit, Dad was finally getting effective treatment. They were giving him (and me) Lithium, a metal salt similar to Sodium. It takes a long time to build up in the body, but then when it does, it’s great. Things began to change. Big things. It took many years, we were both lumbering works-in-progress, but we started to talk, a little bit. Dad settled down. I started to feel, if not fine, then like I had a rough map to the general vicinity of “fine”, and that I would know it if I saw it. It was a sign of life. I was getting better. For the first time in my teenage life, there was a bit of hope.

And that ten-horsepower outboard motor that got submerged in salt water that day in Bunbury? Ordinarily an accident like that would make the engine seize up inside and die. Salt water would wash through the inside compartments of the engine and the moving parts would lock up tight, encrusted with salt. But my dad was a genius with such things. And he had a full can of 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 achieved a miracle, and the motor that had been fully submerged in salty water spat, coughed, roared, stinking with exhaust, and spluttered and roared back to noisy life once again, as good as new.

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