The woman did not smile.
"We don't take a personal check, Mr. Possley," she told me. "We only take a cashier's check or cash."I was standing in the display room at Northport Marine, in this Mississippi River town 330 miles from Chicago, mentally and physically ready to plunk down $800 to rent five days of "beautiful scenery (with REST ASSURED) in the modern facilities" of a 42-foot-long houseboat called the "Cruise-liner."
But I had only $350 in my wallet. I considered whether I should tell her to take the check or just tell us goodbye. I looked to my wife, Alice, for direction. She raised her eyebrows and shrugged. The rest of the Possley entourage - three boys (two teen-agers, one just-about-teen-ager) and the 8-year-old girl - weren't listening.
In early June it seemed like a good idea - cruising the Mississippi River.
Now it was late July and we were here. I decided to drive to the bank in Alma and get a credit card advance of $800.
We should have turned back instead. Six inches of rain fell in the next five days.
Mike, the 14-year-old, completed a 5-minute tour of our intended boat - which turned out to be Boat No. 3 - and pronounced: "I'm not going anywhere on this rust bucket."
"This baby needs a nap. Real bad," added Dan, 15.
"You guys are wimps," I declared. "This is just like camping, only we've got a shower on board, the bathroom is right inside, there is a refrigerator, screens. Even a gas grill. So it's a little tired," I told them (their eyes were glazing). "Think of it this way - we can't wreck it any more than it already is." (Little did I realize that the contract I signed made me liable for the first $500 of damage to the houseboat.)
One hour later the gear had been transferred from car to craft. I eyed the lights on the ceiling of Boat No. 3 and congratulated myself for not lugging the gas lantern along. Fishing tackle was stowed, the inflatable raft was inflated, the fly swatters were located. We sat on deck, waiting nearly an hour, for what the brochure said would be our "briefing at dockside" after which a staff member would take us on "a trial run to show ... how easy it is to pilot, dock and beach the boat."
Our staffer was John, who walked me through the boat, pointing to the outboard engine at the rear. Good solid engine. Good on gas, check the oil every morning before you start it up." I was relieved.
Inside the cabin, John turned the key to start the motor. Slowly, we backed away from shore. He shifted into forward and, ever so slowly, the floating boxcar chugged out of the marina and into the river, bound north for adventure.
The sun was shining. The water was tranquil. Our spirits were rising. This didn't seem so bad.
"Follow the buoys, they're channel markers. The red ones are the Wisconsin side and the green ones are the Minnesota side. Imagine it's a highway and stay on your side," John said. "Don't go onto Lake Pepin when it's windy, don't drive over submerged rocks - we had one boat knocked the whole undercarriage off coupla weeks ago. Cost $2,000 to fix. When you beach, go straight into shore and follow the instructions in the book I gave you for tying up at night."
A minute later, a motorboat was alongside with another Northport staffer. John stepped into the boat and we were on our own.
We motored five miles north, spotted a deserted river island with yards and yards of sandy beach and glided in. The anchor ropes were deployed. Dan and Tim, 12, handled the lines. Done properly, the manual said, the boat would "ride out even a cyclone."
We retired to the boat. Somehow the place seemed smaller than in the daytime. I flipped on the lights. They were barely bright enough to see by, let alone read. Why hadn't I brought the lantern?
The rain and wind began around 2 a.m. I was too tired to be concerned then, but I knew something was wrong when I awoke at 7. The boat was rocking too much. I should have been able to see trees out the port window - but saw only sky. Sure enough, one anchor rope slipped off and we had drifted sideway. Only the remaining anchor rope kept Boat No. 3 from drifting south to crash into Lock and Dam No. 4.
We re-anchored and ate breakfast. There were two flyswatters on board and both were soon in almost constant use.
The sun was out for about an hour before the rain began again. I mean RAIN - eventually we saw more than six inches in the five days on the river. I sat under the canopy and read. Maura, 8, fished from the railing. The boys, wearing hip waders and sweat pants, explored the island. I explored, too. My mistake was wearing only deck shoes and shorts.
By nightfall, I concluded that the reddish welts creeping up my legs was poison ivy.
The agonies mounted.
The shower only provided cold water. And my legs itched. There were no chemicals in the toilet to control the odor. And my legs itched. Boat No. 3 was rechristened from the "floating boxcar" to the "floating outhouse."
The mosquitoes weren't quite large enough to saddle, but the deerflies could bite like full-grown hogs. And my legs itched like something was crawling under my skin. I considered drinking calamine lotion.
A trip to Lake Pepin - a wide spot on the river - was next. The rain had stopped. We tied up inside the Pepin marina to make a quick walk to the grocery store. In one short hour, a wind kicked up and began to blow directly into the mouth of the marina. We cast off to leave and as the boat chugged to make the turn, I steered us directly broadside to the wind.
The wind began pushing us sideways, toward a public beach. Recalling the guy who supposedly got blown out the window, I raced from the cabin and jumped overboard, keeping a hold to the side. When my feet hit bottom, I dug in hard.
Slowly the back end of the boat swung toward shore, leaving us aimed at the mouth of the marina. I pulled myself aboard and pushed the throttle to all-head full. The motor groaned. The wind whipped our faces. We held our breath. Finally, we moved toward the mouth of the harbor. We all cheered. I rubbed my shin where it had smacked the hull when I jumped overboard.
An hour later, now safely off Lake Pepin, we pulled into the public marina in Wabasha, Minn., population 2,500. We found hot showers there. And we filled up our water tank, which had gone dry.
The rain had started again. We moved upstream to a dock. An escape. Upstairs was a restaurant where the broasted chicken was $4.95 (50 cents extra for all white meat). That sure beat hot dogs in the boat cooler.
Bedtime was chaos after the boys went on "arachnid patrol." They killed four spiders in the rear bunks, but, unfortunately, one spider about the size of a small cat escaped the fly-swatter-toting teen-agers. Maura refused to get in her bunk, convinced it was a nest of spiders.
On Thursday (Day 3), we took a vote on whether to stay or go. The kids - ever optimistic that the weather would turn better, hardly concerned over the lack of personal comforts and basically enjoying the adventure - won 4-2. And Alice and I had to admit that it was fun in a National Lampoon sort of way, so we stayed. About 10:30 p.m. we saw the muted colors of a rainbow that appeared magically in the night-time sky - the combination of the powerful spotlight of a boat pushing barges and the falling mist.
Friday: more rain. We motored back to the marina in Alma and spotted Boat No. 2, which had been rented by some folks from Indianapolis the same day as we rented Boat No. 3. They apparently had left early - despite the policy of NO REFUND for bad weather.
The worst storm came that night. Four hours of lightning and thunder. It threatened to tear us from our moorings - but we held fast. Wet, tired and itching, we pulled into the marina in time for the 8:30 a.m. checkout. John was there to check the boat out for damage. There was a $250 security deposit at stake. I followed him, ready to argue, but he pronounced the boat fit. But there was more bad news.
"They'll mail you the security deposit," he said. "You'll get it in about two weeks."
So now we were tired, wet, itching and broke.
After we returned, Maura and Tim went to visit my father and mother, who were naturally curious about the trip.
"How was the houseboat vacation?" my father asked.
"It was fine," she explained.
"Come on, Maura," Tim exclaimed. "Don't you remember?"