The Launch Ramp
My proximity to redneck culture is probably the aspect of my persona that I am most self conscious about.
While I have nearly perfect grammar and a consistent skin color on my upper and lower arms, I do drive a pickup truck and am known to be associated with ‘dirt bikes’ (I never use that term in an effort to insulate myself from these sorts of affiliations) and when I discover that some sort of item is manufactured in the good ol’ USA I usually find myself developing feelings for it.
So when I was becoming an adult and entering into the self-reflective time where these sorts of reified associations seem to begin to really matter, I worried if perhaps I was heading down the wrong path and that one day, before I knew it, I too would cut the arms off of my flannels and lose a few teeth and wear Dickies shorts.
Lake Havasu is the place where the venn diagram between Me and Them seemed the least disparate, and this tormented me for long stretches of my young adult life. I struggled with reconciling how much I enjoyed my time there on the Colorado River with my devout intention to distance myself from all the Lake People who shared similar feelings. Lake People are the Rednecks’ Naval Branch.
But one day, four or five years ago now, something happened on the banks of that contradictory waterway that solidified both my detachment from and disdain for Lake People.
My hair was strikingly blonde at this time, even white at certain angles in the midday, Mojave sun. It’s darker now.
We pulled up to the launch ramp at about 9AM, with our armor on. Neon colored life jackets and head to toe films of SPF. If you’ve ever sunburned the tops of your feet, you know real pain. I stuffed an open bandana into the back of my sun hat to protect my nape from UV attacks.
The ramp wasn’t too congested. The boat crowd, with their flat bills and goatees, hadn’t filed in yet. We never had a boat, only their sportier, smaller cousins, and to me this subtle distinction made all the difference. The jet ski, that ideal of 1990s perfection – specifically the stand up variety – is one of the better modes of transportation. It’s like a motorcycle but it doesn’t hurt when you fall, and you fall a lot. I guess that’s probably the main attraction for all water sports, the pain-free tumbles.
I’ve learned a lot of things on this launch ramp, the most important being that you do not want to walk on it barefoot. This half aquatic, half terrestrial slope is upholstered in algae with a really low coefficient of friction, so sharp, triangular ridges are debossed into the entire surface to assist roadway tires. These ridges deliver medieval pain to naked feet.
I was called on to perform the counter-steering dance of backing the ski-trailer down the ramp, and I fulfilled my duty with considerable elegance – but I knew that my real skill lay in arriving at the ramp at a time when little precision was necessary. With the rusty trailer now mostly submerged, I strapped on my protective flip-flops and slid the skis off into the water. I then parked the car + trailer outfit in one of the enlarged spots in the lot.
We hopped and bopped and rode around all day until the fossil fuels were running low and ‘KAWASAKI’ was stamped into my palm (mirrored).
On returning to the launch area that afternoon, I saw that the boat crowd was now out in full effect, the 8 lane ramp only sporting two open slots. An F150 pulling an empty trailer was attempting to occupy one of the vacant lanes, and he seemed to be having a tough go of it, performing his own counter-steering dance quite clumsily. While we moored our skis to the dock, a 12 year old child sitting near us called out instructions to the truck which were mostly ignored by the two people inside of it. As I again fetched my sandals, the pickup finally got it right and made it to the bottom of the ramp, somewhat straight. The Ford had a lift kit that made the truck look tall and frail and very tippable. The license plate read ‘MRTORQ’. 6 cylinder. Can’t make this stuff up.
The driver was a middle aged guy that I never really got a good look at. Manning the shotgun seat was a woman, of Grandmother age, whom the driver guy – Mr. Torque – kept calling Dawn. Dawn had the leathery skin indigenous to this region and looked like she knew her way around Igloo coolers. A third adult brought their boat around. I walked to our car and toweled off.
Their boat pilot seemed to be the most proficient of the bunch, because by the time I had backed our trailer into its loading position, the clan was already fully packed up and ready to roll out of there. The 12 year old was still sitting in his same spot, intermittently calling things out and still being ignored all the same. The Ford truck drove up to the top of the ramp for the final preparations while I started collecting our skis. The kid watched the truck move to the top of the ramp with anxious eyes, like the extra 100 feet of distance really meant something to him.
“Wheeeeeell ain’t you gonnuh come up here, Jimmy?!” Mr. Torque called out towards the kid.
Jimmy didn’t respond and instead slumped his meekish, adolescent shoulders, starting to pout. Marvel’s Wolverine was printed on his swim trunks. Dawn lit a cigarette.
I loaded the first ski onto the trailer, secured it in place. If you submerge the trailer to exactly the perfect depth, you can push the skis onto their holding rails with only a light touch. Submerge it any deeper and the skis float freely above the apparatus…and your car starts swimming. I had stopped slightly short on this one, but that’s better than the alternative. I’m strong.
As I started walking away from the trailer to retrieve the second jet ski, one of my sandals floated off from me in the murky water, eventually rising to the surface a few yards away. I waded into the deeper waters and doggy paddled towards it to avoid any potential trips to the podiatrist.
By now Jimmy had stood up and was kind of walking. It was more of a hop than a walk. He called out to the truck, asking them to wait for him.
“Beaatter hurry up now kiddo, can’t be waitin round all day!” and Mr. Torque pulled the truck 5 feet forward before parking again so that Jimmy would know that this was no empty threat. The child hopped again and then fell, dropping butt-first onto those mean ridges. He awkwardly picked himself up and screamed out “I’M COMING” in a shrill, cracking voice while the truck pulled a bit more forward.
I took off my hat, forgetting about my neck-protector, and felt the bandana slide down my back. I quickly ninja-ed a 180 and tried to reflexively catch it, but it was already taking a dip.
Meanwhile Jimmy got two more jumps in before dropping again, this time voluntarily, and starting to cry.
“I CAN’T WALK”
Most of the other traffic on the launch ramp had departed by now, sun clearly falling. It was still over 100 degrees out. The F150 group’s skilled boat pilot looked over at Jimmy, hopped off his ship, and climbed into the truck. The child sniffled loudly amidst futile attempts to calm himself down, like he was trying to suck the tears back in.
“I CAN’T WALK,” Jimmy cried out again towards the truck, like he was informing them of something they didn’t know.
“If yer gonnuh be so slow, we kin pik you up tom-arrah!”
By this point I was about 20 feet from Jimmy, close enough now to know his secret. He was indeed shoeless, but his bigger problem was that his left leg ended in a stub that somewhat resembled a heel. He only had one foot. It wasn’t that he was unable to walk on these sharp ridges. He was unable to walk anywhere.
Jimmy’s sobs grew deeper as the truck crept further away and Mr. Torque yelled something else at him. I had hesitated for as long as possible, but it was time.
I walked up to Jimmy and said that I was going to help him. He calmly relayed to me “I can’t walk.” I told him that that was alright.
I put his arm around my shoulder and tried to let him still use his good leg but the different heights weren’t really working out and his foot was still bare so he winced noticeably with each step. I asked him if he wanted me to pick him up and he wiped his eyes and apprehensively admitted “kind of” through a lump in his throat.
And those two resigned words, and the conflicted way in which he offered them, are what stick with me the most. How he needed help so desperately and still wished that he didn’t have to want it. Because I knew in that moment that Jimmy saw me as, yes in some ways an obliging protector, a helping hand – at the very least, a vessel up the launch ramp – but more so I think, with the way he profusely apologized to me, to me!, as I held him like a boy half his age and took over his basic needs for locomotion, I think he saw me also as something still hurtful, a painful portrait of everything he could never be, delivering him somewhere he wished he didn’t have to go.
Once we got up to that leggy truck, I dropped Jimmy off and as he climbed in Mr. Torque instructed him to “now say thank ya!” like Jimmy had just finished his turn with Santa Claus at the mall or something. I didn’t have the mettle to say anything, and even if I had, it obviously wouldn’t have mattered. I walked back towards the other docked ski with mixed emotions.
I think about the Wolverine swim trunks a lot.
I imagine Jimmy growing up, before and after our crossing paths, insatiably devouring X-Men comics and movies and standing tall in front of his class at school talking about how his favorite animals are lizards with their regenerative tails. And to his “parents” and teachers and classmates maybe these arbitrary childhood interests seem nothing more than simple whims – but perhaps for Jimmy, as he comes to age in what I can only imagine is an enduring hell, perhaps for him these characters and ideas are the most potent of medicines, the summoners of daily escapes. The strands holding together his impossible dream.