SAFETY LAST

By W.E. Ehrman

 

Once upon a time before OSHA was born there was a man named Sam who practiced...........

Boating Safety has become one of the Coast Guard's busiest and most productive departments, but it was a different story during the Prohibition Era. With most of it's personnel and floating units fully involved in fighting the Rum War at Sea, and not having an Auxiliary or Reserve at that time to fall back on, the Coast Guard had to put the enforcement of the so-called Motorboat Act of 1910 on the back burner.

Despite the lack of Coast Guard supervision, the vast majority of the nation's boat operators continued to keep their boats up to standard. One of the exceptions was a burly local character named Sam who operated on weekends out of the New Jersey marina where I worked during after school hours.

Sam's pride and joy was a small skiff topped off with a makeshift canvas awning which gave it the appearance of a Prairie Schooner and the local nickname of "The Covered Wagon." Her power plant was a one cylinder, two-cycle, make and break gasoline engine known as a "one lunger," which Sam to save a few bucks had coupled directly to the propeller shaft, leaving him without any mechanical means of putting the boat into neutral or reverse. This presented no problem to Sam but was a source of headaches for his fellow boatmen.

Whenever Sam was bringing the Covered Wagon in for a landing or was faced with another situation calling for backing down, he tried to coax the engine into reversing itself. Since a two cycle gas engine is capable of rotating in either direction, the trick is to induce it to backfire and restart in the opposite rotation. This could be accomplished (while the engine is running with the spark advanced) by cutting off the ignition and, while the engine is rocking back and forth, throwing the ignition switch back on. In the hands of an experienced boat operator, this maneuver could be successful much of the time. But Klutzy Sam's batting average was about one hit in a hundred tries.

Sam's problem was a lack of coordination which was apparent each time he tried to bring the Covered Wagon alongside our low floating dock. If he was late throwing the ignition switch back on, the engine failed to restart and the Covered Wagon caromed off the side of the dock. If he was premature, the engine started in "ahead" rotation, the Covered Wagon picked up speed and crashed head on into the dock where her bow reared up over the edge and she nearly slid half-way across the top; scattering everything and everybody in her path.

Equipment wise, the Covered Wagon carried one each of what Sam considered to be reasonable facsimiles of the items usually required for a craft of her size. Her lone fire extinguisher consisted of a bucket filled with sand, but the latter was always wet and well laced with tobacco juice, making it virtually impossible to scatter the sand over a hot spot.

Since none of the locals were foolhardy enough to ride with Sam, the Covered Wagon carried only one life jacket, an ancient, waterlogged, and bursting at the seams cork life belt which had been jettisoned by the mate of a passing tanker and salvaged by Sam as it was about to go down for the third time.

A total lack of conventional ground tackle meant nothing to Sam. Whenever the Covered Wagon arrived at a likely crabbing spot, he stopped the engine tossed overboard an old Army boot filled with sand and secured it to the bow with a well frayed length of ordinary clothesline. While the holding power of Sam's improvised anchor was almost nil, it did slow the Covered Wagon's rate of drift enough to permit him to catch a fine mess of Jersey blue crabs.

Sandy shoals were, and still are abundant along the Jersey shore and the Covered Wagon's keel was familiar with most of them. Whenever she slid onto a shoal, Sam never waited for the tide to come in, instead, he left the engine running, leaped off the Covered Wagon's stern, faced the bow, and with the propeller churning between his legs, heaved up and pushed forward on the boat's transom. After inching the Covered Wagon along until she reached the far side of the shoal, Sam gave a mighty shove and clambered aboard before she could sail off without him.

Sam was tempting fate when I enlisted in the Coast Guard in the Spring of 1929. But his luck ran out shortly afterward. Ironically not aboard the Covered Wagon .... but at the local cabinet shop where he worked to obtain the wherewithal to purchase gas for the Covered Wagon and liquid refreshment of a bootleg nature for himself.

As it was told to me Sam was operating a table saw at the cabinet shop when the board he was cutting slipped, causing him to lose two fingers off his right hand. When he returned from the hospital, his foreman asked him how the accident happened. Sam, not being much for words, proceeded to demonstrate. After starting up the table saw, Sam picked up a piece of wood out of the scrap bin and was sliding it across the table in the direction of the rapidly spinning saw blade ... When suddenly he shouted, "HOT DARN!!!! THERE GOES TWO MORE FINGERS!!!!"

As a result of his two losing battles with the table saw, Sam felt obliged to abandon boating as a pastime. He did, however, earn a place of honor in the annals of local folk lore as being the only native of the region to have lost four fingers off the same hand in two equal installments.

From "We've Been There" by Esther Stormer 1992 - Reprinted by permission.

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