NEWS FROM THE WOODS
By Bob Ketchum
Originally Published February 11, 2013
"My First Job"
In the first week of the new year I was sitting in the studio control room at the computer, getting caught up on some internet work, and occasionally glancing out the picture windows, searching the skies for "my" eagles or the great Piliated woodpecker that has been taunting me from the walnut tree outside my window. Every time I see him and reach for my camera, he's off in a flash, so I have gotten in the habit of looking up every now and again from work.
It was during one of these "landscape scans" that something caught my eye. A pontoon boat was towing a dock along the shoreline of the Gamaliel side of the lake. At the moment it was passing the dock belonging to Blue Lady Resort. I wondered what he was doing and where he was going with that huge old dock. I got my spotter scope and followed his progress. This was not a simple boat dock, but a "house dock", one of the very rare and very old totally enclosed floating houses once allowed on this lake. There was something very familiar about it. I grabbed my camera and snapped a few pictures as they pulled the house boat up on the shore directly across from me. There is a dirt access road leading down to the spot where they parked the dock. Three trucks were sitting there, obviously waiting for the docks arrival. As they pulled up, men exited the vehicles and walked down to the dock.
I watched in fascination as they maneuvered the dock with the front end pointing at the shore. With the help of a second fishing boat, they positioned the dock while other men took cables and began securing the dock to the shore. With the dock stationary, it was easier to zoom in with my scope and see more details of the dock. I noticed there were few windows, which is unusual for these types of marine residences. Also, a walkway went completely around the dock, which suggested it might have been affixed to another dock of some sort. As the men continued working I wondered if they had been forced to move the dock due to the unusual high water, or perhaps they moved it to a better access point where they could get materials to repair it. It was riding very low in the water and the Styrofoam floatation blocks could barely be seen. The dock had obviously seen many years of hard weather. And I could not dispel this odd feeling of familiarity as I stared at the ting through my scope.
I posted my pictures on my Facebook page and got a lot of interested friends wondering how anyone still had a permit for this type of dock on Lake Norfork. Then someone posted that they knew what it was. It turns out this dock had been hauled 6 miles up the lake all the way from the Tracy Cove area. Then I got a real shocker! It was the original Tracy Marina business office. A new dock had been constructed to replace it, and the dock had been moved to a secure area with easy access where the materials could be hauled away as it was slowly disassembled.
I sat there after reading that post, kind of stunned. I was thinking to myself, "What are the odds of that dock spending its last few days directly across from me??"
You see, I had trod over every square inch of that dock in my youth. It was the source of my very first job. My mind raced back over fifty years to my youth, growing up at the very end of Tracy Ferry Road, where my parents owned and operated Blackberry Hill Lodge.
In the summer of 1954 I was eight years old and spending almost every free moment away from my resort chores to spend down at Tracy Dock. There was always something going on down there, and it was a mere 10 minute walk (or 3 minute run) from the resort. The owner/operator of Tracy Marina at that time was John Taylor. His house was just up the hill from the dock, about half the length of a football field. Back in those days "security" was a word I'd never heard. As the closest neighbor to the marina, I had already become a fixture, and was always hanging around the dock as fishermen came and went. I could go anywhere in the connected series of boat docks, and even hung out on a few of the "floating houses" like the Miss Blue Flame, a spacious dock located in the back of Tracy Cove that belonged to the CEO of the Arkansas Western Gas Company.
I knew all the best dock spots to park on with my cane pole and a tobacco pouch filled with night crawlers. The perch were huge and I even snagged an occasional large mouth bass. The one spot I couldn't fish was right at the entrance to the main dock, where John fed his "pet catfish" with which to impress the wives of the fishermen who frequented the dock. In time John learned to trust me, and eventually I could go on any dock - and even sit in any boat - without so much as a raised eyebrow. In those early days, there were few stall renters with their own boats. Almost all the boats at Tracy Marina belonged to the marina. John would rent out a small aluminum fishing boat with a 5 HP Evinrude motor on the back. The only other furnished item was a single paddle. As customers completed filling out the rental form in the office dock, John would go out carrying a full 6 gallon gas tank, connect it to the motor and hand-crank it himself until the motor purred like a kitten. He would then get out and motion for the customers to load up and move out on the lake. It was his routine. When they returned he would reverse his operation and return the gas tank to the "motor dock", where he had a small motor shop and storage area. The motor dock was a cool and mysterious place. It smelled of motor oil and gasoline, had two light bulbs hanging from the rafter, and the two doors opened up on the end of the shop where daylight illuminated the interior enough for John to work on his motors. There were always at least three or four outboards mounted on saw horses that were in the process of repair or tune up. He had a lot of motors, even back then. Tracy was perhaps the most popular commercial dock in those days as it was halfway between the main channel where the ferries ran and the dam at the other end of the lake. The fishing in that area was fantastic. String after string of bass would come in every day. My dad spent every day guiding on the lake for the guests of the Lodge. He and John were the best of friends, so I am sure I was afforded privileges no other kid could get.
Toward the end of that summer John approached me while I was assisting some older customers in docking their rental and he said "Bobby, you spend so much time down here, why don't you just go to work for me?" I could hardly believe my ears! He was offering me the job of a lifetime for an 8-year-old. Speechless, I eagerly shook my head yes and he said with a squint in his eye… "Now, how much do you think I should pay you?" This caught me by surprise. I thought "I get a cool job like this and I get PAID, too!!??" I didn't know how to respond. He said "How about $.50 per day and free sodas and candy?" MY GOD! I ran all the way back up the hill to ask mom and dad if I could take the job. I didn't even wait until the next day to answer John. I was too scared he might offer this cherry job to someone else! I jumped on my bike and raced like a maniac back down the road to tell him I would be happy to take the job. I took my time walking the bike back up the hill to savor the moment and imagine all the excitement I would have in my young life NOW!
The very next afternoon after school I raced back down to start my first day on the job. John took me around and explained my daily duties. I had to sit in the office dock whenever he was out in the shop working on a motor in case customers showed up and he didn't notice. I had to always check the boat docks to make sure each boat was made fast and someone didn't leave some gear stashed improperly. There were several lockers on some of the docks containing private fishing gear that I needed to check daily to make sure they were locked. I always assisted adults as the left or returned to the dock, holding the boat as they got in and out. I always tied up each boat properly and returned the gas tanks to the shop. He taught me how to use the cash register. He still handled the real business, but I could take money for candy and snacks o display and ring up the customer. I had to make sure the pop machine was always full, and the snacks were displayed properly. I even got to arrange the assortment of lures and spoons hanging on the walls, and got pretty good at educating new arrivals on their use. The marina also had a minnow tank and crawfish cage. I would take and fill orders for fishermen. I got good at netting the best shiners for my favorite customers, but had to be very careful with the crawfish as they had no regard for any fingers coming close enough to grab. I'm sure I was a source of amusement for many folks as I danced around the dock with a crawfish on the end of my finger.
I had other chores at the dock, like cleaning out the boats, keeping the anchor and ropes clean and wrapped up in the bow of each boat, making sure there were enough cushions for the customers as they left, but my all-time favorite job every day was the fish house! The fish house was a small floating dock sitting all by itself between the office dock and tone of the long boat docks. There was a screen door and screened-in windows to keep the flies out. Inside was a simple wooden table mounted to the wall that was about equal to an adult's belt-line. It was slightly slanted with a hand pump at one end and a drain hole at the other. In the middle right at the wall was a large hole. Below the hole was a 5-gallon bucket. Fishermen would bring in a string of fish and clean them, pumping the water as they worked. The flowing water would wash the scales down the drain hole into another bucket. The guts and skeletons would be dropped down the big hole while working. It was a pretty neat affair, considering. My job was to clean off the table at the end of the day, and to collect all the buckets and place them into a rental boat. Then I would get to drive the boat (by myself) out around the bend in Tracy Cove to a spot we knew as "Catfish Cove". Every evening before dark I would happily boat out to the cove and dump the gut buckets in the right spot. I got to do all this and made $.50 every day for the privilege.
There wasn't much down time, but when I did get it, I would open the soda box and replenish the soft drinks held inside. It wasn't like the "coke machine" of today. It was a chest high box with a lid on top. You opened the lid, decided on which soda to purchase, put in your dime, and then grabbed the top of the selected drink and slide it along the rack to the device which would then allow you to pull the drink up and out of the box. After loading the box back up I would select a really cold RC Cola. Then after locking the box up and putting the key away inside I would always grab a dime bag of salted peanuts, take two ice-cold swigs of RC, and fill the bottle back up with the peanuts. Then I would sit at the end of a boat stall, look out over the lake, and think to myself "life is good!"
I worked for Mr. Taylor each summer after that, even after I started attending military school in the 8th grade. I spent my winters at school in Florida and my summers on the lake in Arkansas. Each year he added more and more boats, larger motors, more amenities and services, and kept expanding the dock system. By 1958 he was doing a lot of outboard motor repair, and even built a large stall with a lift, so he could raise the boat out of the water to work on it, and even tilt it to one side so he could clean the moss of the boat hulls. When working on a motor, he would back the boat in the stall, lift it up, and work on the motors while they remained on the transoms of the boats. However, in the process he dropped a lot of tools, so my job assignments began including diving down to the bottom and retrieving "lost" tools. It was during this time that John purchased a huge air compressor specifically designed to compress breathable air inside SCUBA tanks. This station was located on its own small dock at the rear of the office dock. Divers began frequenting the marina as a source of air, because it was much more convenient to just fill up by boat as opposed to loading it all up in a car and driving into town to fill up at the only other authorized SCUBA station at Mountain Marine in Mountain Home. That summer John taught me the fundamentals of SCUBA diving. I got quite good at it, although I did have trouble equalizing my ears at levels below 50 feet. It turned out to be my sinuses, but I continued shallow water diving with no trouble at all. I learned how to operate the compressor and fill tanks and by the end of the summer that was my fulltime job along with my other chores. I DID manage to continue dumping the gut buckets however, as I grew fond of sitting out in the boat for a few quiet moments to myself at the end of the day. It truly was the best of times.
All of these cherished memories came flooding back as I sat here watching that dock being destroyed. It took them the better part of a week to completely disassemble it and haul it all off. Every day there was a little less to look at. Every day I got a bit more melancholy and nostalgic. It's all gone now, all but the tire tracks of the vehicles that ran down to the spot on which it died. And yet, I am so thankful that Providence delivered that dock to THAT spot on the lake. It was almost like the closure of a treasured memory.