To see Lake Bracken on a holiday weekend in 1997, one would never imagine how it looked 35 years ago. In the early 1960s, the lake was covered with boats of all kinds. Pontoon boats (known as "beer barges", although drinking was not officially allowed), fishing boats, and the little hydroplanes that buzzed around the lake like mechanized whirligig beetles. It was a good time to be young and to have a boat.
I don't know how the fascination of small boats began at Lake Bracken, it just seemed to happen. It evolved, but it evolved fast. Lake Bracken had a horsepower limit for outboard motors- it was 5 hp. As we became more and more interested in going fast in our little boats, we pushed the design of boats used, and the design of the motors. At one point, the lake even had a speed limit on the western end of the lake.
Ironically, this speed limit was to provide me my first small racing boat. The limit was posted on a sign, attached to a group of floating barrels, anchored in the middle of the lake, proclaiming a speed limit of only 5 mph. My brother, Roger, borrowed a wood boat from a neighbor, and was trying his luck at running it on the lake. Unfortunately for him (but fortunately for me), the bow of the boat road high and blocked his view. My parents stood helplessly on the shore, unable to shout warnings over the noise of the motor. The boat ran smack into the warning buoy and punched a hole in the bow of the boat. The boat was, of course, bought and a patch was made for the bow.
After a time, the boat had fell on hard times, being replaced by an aluminum 14 foot boat that my Dad bought used. Ultimately, I bought the wood boat from my brother for $15 with the plan to cut off the back 4 feet, shortening it from 12 feet to 8 feet and attaching a new transom. It would make a great small boat. A friend, Chad, had done it already with a similar boat and he sped up and down the Lake, as I watched enviously. I was 13 years old and the carpentry job was clearly beyond my ability. But I wanted a small boat. The job was done by my Dad. He did it while I wasn't home. I didn't ask him to do it, he didn't offer to do it, He just did it. He even painted in a bright Irish green (It matched the wood lawn chairs in our front yard). And as it had a new stern, but original bow, it still sported the patch. Two brothers and a father, each left their mark on this old boat.
It was a fun boat to run, but it could not compete well with the boat races held every Sunday by the Lake Bracken club house. It couldn't corner as sharply as the small hydroplanes that had a low center of gravity and a fin that allowed them to turn on a dime. I found plans for sale for an 8 foot long hydroplane in an issue of Popular Mechanics. The plans were cheap, the materials were not. I lied about my age, claiming to be 14 (I was 13), and got a job detasseling corn. It paid 75 cents an hours. It was, without a doubt, the hardest job I ever had. But I made the $50 needed for materials. Dad provided free labor, and under constant supervision of all the Bracken kids who raced boats, the boat was built. It was painted yellow and white, and sported Chevy Impala insignia on its sides.
Of course, boats needed motors and we had this horsepower limit to deal with. There were two popular racing motors- Mercuries and Champions. Mercuries were a high rpm engine and were still being produced. The Champions were a motor ahead of its time. Too much ahead, as the company had failed. The Champions had forward, neutral, and reverse, all controlled off the handle, along with the throttle. This was a tremendous innovation, given it was produced in the mid-1950s when other outboard motors simply had a neutral and a forward, control by a gear shift along the side of the motor. Throttles were still on the face of the motors, not on the handle. These Champion motors were years ahead in their engineering. The other great thing about the 5 hp Champion is that it was identical to the 7.5 hp Champion, except for the carburetor and the "head". So it was an easy thing to get a 5 hp Champion converted to 7.5, while still maintaining the appearance of a 5 hp, verifiable by the 5 hp serial number installed by the factory.
Competition for boat racing was keen. We tried all the tricks. Waxing the bottom of the boats, adding graphite to the wax. We even experimented with "go-cart" fuel, a mixture of alcohol, ether and castor oil. If you got too greedy for speed and ran too high of a concentration of this fuel with gasoline, it would cause the outboard motors to overheat and seize. More than once you would seem a small hydroplane zip by, smell the unusual exhaust fumes that was the finger print of go-cart fuel, and then hear the engine come to an abrupt silence.
Competition became so stiff, that one family purchased a different type of hydroplane that was used for racing on the Mississippi River. It required more horsepower to lift it out of the water, so they also bought a custom modified engine that had "tuned exhaust ports." These ports looked like megaphone attached to the engine head, and the engine exhaust exited there, instead of underwater. This reduced back pressure and increase engine power, but it also made the motor unbelievable noisy. It wasn't long before we had a noise code, and this engine was allowed to be uncapped only for racing. I remember its first race. The part of the race is a straightaway (no curved course), so it was just a top in speed issue. We started from pretty near an idle. When the flag was dropped, we all hit the throttle. This new boat, with its "tuned stacks" reared up as it started to plane out. Unfortunately, it was too slow at first and was swamped by the wakes of adjoining boats. We heard the tremendous roar drowned out into a gurgling hiss and then silence. The safety boat was able to gasp its bow line before it sank.
The circular races were not without an incident or two themselves. One driver, Larry, fell out of his boat. The motor, lacking a "deadman's throttle" kept racing about in circles, without benefit of a driver or apparent purpose. With each circle, it came closer to the shore, until the boat passed behind a boat dock, with the boat passing under the gangplank, but the engine did not. It was an abrupt stop.
Of course, we did not limit our use of these boats to racing, we terrorized the lake with our buzzing about. My friend, Chad, got "grounded" (a particularly appropriate term when it meant you couldn't operate a boat) by the club manager, Don Wright, for the rest of the summer when his antics got out of hand. He was zipping by some Camp Shaubena canoes, being paddled by attractive young ladies. His stated goal was to splash the girls with the rooster tail from the boat. He caught a wave badly and his small boat struck one of the Shaubena aluminum canoes. Nobody was hurt, except perhaps Chad's pride.
My parents were even into the boating activities. They were the proud owners of the "Bracken Bell", a wooden, side-paddlewheeler that was built by Ralph Kennedy. The Belle relied on a 4-cylinder car engine and complete drive train (engine, transmission, drive shaft, differential, and rear axle) for its means of propulsion. Even the wheels were the hub of the paddlewheels. It could make a few miles per hours and was a leisurely way to travel the lake, as long as there was no significant wind.
The center for all these activities was "The Club House." Just the name, itself, speaks of simpler times. But it was the place to go during the summer- Memorial Day to Labor Day. Boat races on Sunday mornings and holidays, movies on Sunday nights and Holidays. There was also usually a couple of nighttime beach parties a year, with a fire on the beach, hot dogs, soft drinks, and swimming. No alcohol, no drugs, but we still had a pot load of fun. This was where the kids were dropped off when the parents went to play golf or went to just socialize with other adults. In hindsight, it is clear that it was a relief for both parents and kids.
The club house had a small raised stage in the main room. It had a piano, somewhat out of tune. Often there was some kid who remembered enough of piano lessons, to be beating out "Heart and Soul." In one end of the Club House was the "Ping Pong Room." It may have had a more official name, but this is what we knew it as. It had several ping pong tables (balls cost 10 cents... the same price as a coke) and a juke box (3 plays for a quarter). The jukebox was a kid's friend, however. A swift kick in the front left side of the machine would give you three free plays. After awhile, the scuff marks along the side of the box gave away our scam.
The Club House held a lot of memories. I lost a good friend when it burned down. I still miss it. I drive by once in awhile stopping at the bottom of the circular drive where the Club House used to be. No longer is there a place, teeming with boys and girls, swimming, boating, and flirting. Little remains but the memories.