Focal Point: Skiing amid the whitecaps

Published on Tuesday, 15 July 2014 23:33 - Written by Dave Berry,


“I am always ready to learn; although, I do not always like being taught.”

Winston Churchill


y father was a patient teacher.

His efforts to teach us farm kids to water ski were valiant, but I’ve always been puzzled about why putting us up on top of the water was so important to him.

We lived on a dusty wheat farm in north-central Kansas, hauled drinking water from 15 miles away, and saw few bodies of water larger than our farm pond. It was a muddy affair that collected runoff during the spring and went nearly dry every summer. Home for catfish, snapping turtles and freshwater clams, it was our only fishing hole and a decent spot for family wiener roasts.

The nearest big lake was Cedar Bluff Reservoir, almost 100 miles away in western Kansas. The Red Cross taught us to swim at the city pool, but that was the extent of our water wisdom.

So it was a big surprise that cold winter day when Dad showed up at the farm pulling a used Sea King motorboat behind his Ford pickup. With that yellow and white fiberglass boat and its 35-horse outboard motor, we would become a lake family. Eagerly, we waited for July.

Cedar Bluff was a pretty lake, with deep, clear water filling its many coves. Wild goats clambered over the bluffs that bordered the original course of the Smoky Hill River. Raggedy clumps of elms and a few clattering cottonwoods provided the only shade around and nice spots for camping.

But the western Kansas winds blow constantly, and we learned to ski amid the whitecaps.

Dad was determined, and no matter how many times we fell, we kept trying. At first, the whole family — all seven of us — tried to ride along and watch. The little motor struggled under that load, and pulling someone on skis was a silly idea. So Dad loaded up the two oldest boys — one to ski and one to watch — and away we went.

Across those rolling waves, we pounded to the far sheltered side of the cove, where one of us would jump in. Floundering in the choppy water, life jacket choking, oversized wooden skis fighting to come to the surface, we would give it a go.

We weren’t natural skiers, and that little 35-horse motor simply wouldn’t pop us out of the water quickly. Down we went, over and over, the taut ski rope snapping the handle out of our hands. With each failure, each time our skis went in odd directions, each mouthful of water we swallowed as we were dragged below the waves, Dad throttled back, made sure we were OK and swung the boat in a wide loop to bring the tow rope back to us.

When it seemed we would never get the hang of it, one of us would bounce up on top of the water and stay there. But with limited smooth water, we got into trouble quickly. So my memory is of lots of attempts and very little actual skiing.

Back on shore, we fished, camped, swam, got way too much sun and enjoyed the company of relatives and families camping with us.

Dad taught himself to ski behind a neighbor’s boat.

Occasionally, we were lucky and the evening breezes abated completely, leaving all parts of the lake glassy smooth. Dad would get the first ride, then pull the rest of us — for as long as we could hold on. Those evenings made it all worth the effort.

It would be a number of years before another lake opened 20 miles down the road. Lake Wilson was handy, and we could run to the lake any evening when the weather looked good rather than hoping the winds would cooperate on our chosen weekend.

Dad upgraded to a new boat, an inboard-outboard with enough power to pull a bunch of us at once. And, with the oldest of the boys now of driving age, we could pull him — baggy swimsuit flapping, broad grin lighting his farm-tanned face, skis slapping the waves, swinging back and forth on the end of the rope as we circled our favorite cove.

We had moved from the farm into town, and each of us, in our comings and goings through high school and college, would arrive home to find scribbled notes and invitations taped to the door. “We’re at the lake. Come on out.” “Bring your ski. We’ll be at the usual spot.” Our lives were governed by those little notes.

We upgraded again to an even better boat, and I turned into a decent skier. Though I haven’t put my slalom ski in the water in half a lifetime, I’ve resisted getting rid of it. It stands in the corner of the garage, a reminder of carefree family times, hot summer days and cool prairie evenings.

And somewhere in those memories, I find myself trailing behind one of Dad’s three boats, skimming noiselessly across the spotless surface of a Kansas lake, hopping the wake and swinging wide and fast on the corners.

And always in those thoughts, Dad is in the driver’s seat, freckled hand forward on the throttle, eyes searching the water ahead, glancing back just often enough, the wide smile on his face saying, “See, I knew you could do it.”


Dave Berry is editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. His Focal Point column appears every Wednesday on the front of the My Generation section.




Focal Point for July 16: Skiing amid the whitecaps

Photo: A familiar sight on boating weekends was my father, head down in the engine compartment of our inboard-outboard boat, trying to keep it running.