I liken Jack’s airboat to a magnolia leaf with an airplane prop attached. He sits on the high chair directly in front of the propeller cage and patiently waits for his passengers to climb in, grab some ear protection off the floor and hold on to the bars at the side of the bench seat below him. Once you’re facing forward, I imagine he smiles with mischief.
The purpose of an airboat is to go places in the swamp where you don’t think you should be able to go. With the deafening noise of the airplane engine and the concentration it takes to hold on to the seat, the experience is very individual.
I can remember clearly the first time I felt the engine throbbing beneath me like I was riding a Harley – because half of the boat is engine, and one simply sits on a thin metal seat in front of the thunderous machine. It was pitch dark, Jack switched on the floodlights, and Chuckfee Bay lay before us like the salt flats of Utah. He eased down on the throttle, and we surged forward into the night. Little patches of fog sat on the water, and we passed in and out of these, blind and then seeing the water again, my hair wet and plastered against my face. Then, suddenly, we hit the opposite side of the Bay, a savanna of swamp grass that I’d gazed over many times and wondered about. The boat hopped a little onto its new plain, and then we were swishing along again like it was nothing but water beneath us. I heard a faint “hold on” and I gripped my seat tighter. Then the airboat was going sideways and then in a circle and then straight again. I turned to look at Jack. He tried not to smile, but he couldn’t help himself.
I twirled my finger in the air. “Again, ” I mouthed.
The Other Side of Fear
As dangerous as it feels to be in Jack’s airboat, I’ve found it can be more dangerous to be out of it.
I’ve admitted to some that Crazy Dan had me out in the swamp one night looking for a coatimundi. I’m not proud of falling for that bit of mischief, but I’m grateful that I survived. While I sometimes joke about the prank, I don’t often talk about how the night ended.
By midnight we were sitting in his old walk-through bow rider that he’d salvaged from somewhere, resting and floating about 50 yards inside the mouth of Chickory Creek. I was worn out from the coatimundi search, but Dan was still listening for one, whatever they sound like.
In the distance, we heard Jack and his airboat, buzzing the marsh like a runaway chainsaw. A mile away in the other direction, I heard several gunshots. The swamp people were all out that night with their particular flavor of entertainment. Somehow I’d ended up on a date with Crazy Dan.
“Oh, just forget about it, Dan, ” I said. “I’m done.”
“Shhh, ” he said.
I thought how much I wanted to be in bed. I vaguely realized there was no coatimundi, and I was too tired to care. The sound of Jack’s airboat grew louder, like a mosquito finally finding my ear.
“Shhh, ” he said.
I looked in the direction of Chuckfee Bay, but all I saw was a wall of swamp grass. We’d drifted around a bend in the creek to a place where the boat was hidden in the cattails and buggy whips. Then I thought about Jack always wanting to cut the corners.
“Got any lights on this thing, Dan?”
He didn’t answer me.
Suddenly floodlights passed overhead, shining across the top of the marsh grass.
“Jesus, Dan, he’s coming up the creek!”
Dan didn’t shush me, but he showed zero concern about our predicament. I realized there was no time to start his boat and really nowhere safe to go if we did. I heard the airboat roar and charge the mouth of the creek. There’s no way he can see us, I thought. He’s going right over the top of us, crushing the boat and ramping himself to swamp heaven.
I dove to the floor just as I saw the grass begin to shudder. Dan cocked his head and studied the trees like he’d heard something strange.
Jack noticed us at the last second and swerved. I saw the bottom of the airboat tilted up and rising beside us like a black wall. His wake rocked us against the creek bank.
I sat up. Dan turned in his seat and studied them while Jack pulled the airboat to a stop and shut it off.
“What y’all up to?” Jack asked.
Crazy Dan brought a finger to his lips. “Shhh, ” he said.
Watt Key is an award-winning novelist who grew up in Point Clear. His third novel, “Fourmile, ” which was released in the fall of 2012, received a coveted Starred Review from Kirkus Reviews.
text by Watt Key • illustration by Kelan Mercer