A Night on the Bay

Mike Holland

© Copyright 2023 by Mike Holland

Image by 👀 Mabel Amber, who will one day from Pixabay
Image by 👀 Mabel Amber, who will one day from Pixabay

Back in 1970 I was renting a room from my old pal who had just gotten back from Vietnam. Drafted into the Army at the end of the sixties, Fred was determined to catch up on the fun he’d missed, as you’ll see.

The Boardwalk was a wooden walkway of old houses, with a dock for each one. It extended a few blocks out into the tidal marsh, right across the channel from San Quentin State Prison. Whenever we puttered out the channel into the Bay the guards would wave and we’d respond with the finger. Just seemed like the right thing to do.
So Fred, my brother Pat, and I are sitting around in the late afternoon, knowing it’s about to be Saturday Night, and we need to do something, when Fred, who always has a good idea on the back burner, (he said it was the Agent Orange), pops up with “why don’t we all get some Panther Piss and go for a ride in the boat?”
The boat was a 22’ dory, which Fred claimed became more stable the more it tipped. Up to a point, I guessed; till it sunk I guessed. I can’t swim and neither could my brother. We grew up in a time when our parents kept us away from swimming pools where you could catch Polio. But what the hell, “if ya fall in I’ll throw ya a life preserver, ha ha.” That Fred. Always kidding.
So we all went down to the Co-op and got supplies, and within the hour were on this little wooden boat with a half-cabin and a cast iron motor that had no starter, but a hand crank you had to jam into a socket on the front and spin and grunt, spin and grunt for maybe a half minute till it caught. Pocketa- pocketa.
I admit, it was a nice feeling to be putt-putting out the channel into the Bay at sunset. We each had our grits, a fart sack, a sixpack of Green Death, or Panther Piss, and a quart of Ripple. I also had a quarter tab of acid that I’d been carrying around waiting for an occasion. It was “cut with speed” or “speedy acid”, meaning it was botched, but in commitment to our voyage, down the hatch it went. My hatch, that is.
We get out into the Bay and start on the Rainier Ale and Fred goes, “hey, let’s go see the Indians on Alcatraz”! “Yeah!” By now we’re on can number two, (these are half-quarts), and getting warmed up. So we motor out toward Alcatraz which the poor Indians are occupying, audaciously making a claim for it against the U.S. Government. They’re holding on in the face of a Coast Guard blockade. We all feel for the Indians, like their courage, but also lack their courage. We don’t want trouble, just wanna drive by and wave, maybe throw a power fist into the air.
But just then that old cast iron donkey of a motor mumbles once and dies. Nothing. Dead quiet. We look at each other. I don’t have any better idea of what to do than a dog would. My brother looks like he’s thinking. Fred grins. He’s holding a lump in his hand which turns out to be a spare magneto. Same old Fred, he expected this, all part of the adventure. So we each take our turn below, bailing, so Fred can grab a flashlight and the magneto and save the day. Which he does. Then we take turns trying to start the damn thing. Like I said, it’s a chunky four cylinder marine engine, and spinning its iron flywheel with the crank is no joke. I still have a scar from the crank slipping off and whacking me in the mouth. Fred repositions the timing, it fires up and we have no more trouble with it.
We celebrate with another strong ale each, and the leaky old glorified rowboat gets us out to Alcatraz where, sure as hell, real Indians are making a stand against The Man, speaking of whom, is present in the form of a U.S. Coastguard boat. It’s off to our left a ways, two or three blocks, by my landlubber guess. About three times as long as us, white with a slash of red. Being a longhaired draft dodger, I don’t take it too seriously. But it has a machine gun with big plates for the gunner to shelter behind. Quick as hell it comes about, pulls toward us, wheels sideways, gun swiveled to point. Laughing, Fred throws up both hands at them in surrender, opens the throttle and we craftily slink away from the Coasties around to the other side of the island. But we see, like a cartoon rabbit chased around a tree by a dog, they’ve gone around the other way, and are now heading right towards us. I hear orders on their P.A. Fred, just out of the military, says, “They’re not frickin’ jokin’.” So we split.
We head away and make for the gasoline dock in San Francisco, where we can gas up then walk through Ghirardelli Square. Walking through Ghirardelli has never been so much fun. We’ve got our sea legs and we lurch along like pirates, alive like none of the sorry tourists.
Back on the water awhile, maybe 3 A.M. we agree to drop anchor near a pier at Angel Island and camp on the boat. We’d finished off the beer and most of the Ripple. I vaguely remember a complicated three way coin toss which I won, meaning Pat and Fred had to bed down on deck while I could sleep below, past the stinking engine, on a ledge under the bow. Which wasn’t really sleep, more like drunk and passed out, but good enough.
I had a murky dream where Pat and Fred were shouting at me, and I tried to roll over and get comfortable, but became aware of a Thump, Thud, Crack and more shouts. They were yelling! In the night the tide had come in and we had dragged anchor and wound up underneath the pier. We’d drifted right in between two pilings, neat as you’d pull into a parking space at the drive-in, and we could have just as well noodled a bit farther in, turned sideways and been trapped. It was bad enough: the swell was smashing the roof of the cabin up into the bottom of the pier. Bang! I realized we could be crushed from the top down and life preservers sure as hell wouldn’t be any good then! It was a panicky ten minutes, clawing and pushing, but using bare hands, we got out. The running lights and handrail on top of the cabin were gone, and the cabin would leak in the rain afterward.

We decided to go home. In the frizzy light just before dawn as we labored back, we choked down the last bottle of warm Ripple. My brother Pat took the empty bottle, turned aside and pissed in it. He capped it and threw it in the bay, meaning it to sink to the bottom with all the other garbage there.

Instead, as we all watched, the bit of remaining air inside made it bob on the bay in our wake.

We finally pulled into the channel and tied off to the dock. The sun was up. Laughing, we realized we never did get to wave to the Indians.  

I spent 17 years driving what was called the "Dead Truck" in Marin County about 22 miles north of San Francisco. I gained experience for this job by previously working in San Francisco for ten years as an animal control officer. I have stories.

Contact Mike

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Another story by Mike

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher