My boat was sinking.
I couldn’t deny it.
Lake Erie was seeping up through the bottom to meet me. I may have been in my golden years, but I was not a captain who saw anything romantic in the notion of going down with my 12-foot ship.
I heard a bottle of island wine rolling around in the stern. In my younger days I might have shrugged at the situation, opened the bottle, and swished it down like a devil-may-care, rum-soaked buccaneer hoping to ease his glorious ride down to Davy Jones’ Locker. But now, nearing twilight, six miles from South Bass Island, this particular swashbuckler was wishing he could turn that noisy bottle of Pink Catawba clanking against the aluminum hull into a liter of gas for my empty outboard motor.
I tugged down on the bill of my wrinkled fishing cap and scratched my white beard. I guess I had put off that bottom job for the old motorboat’s worn, leaky hull for one too many Walleye runs into the lake. I suppose I’d been optimistic to think I had just enough gas to get some wind in my hair and run her just far enough off the island to enjoy some quiet on a crystal clear July afternoon. Now it looked like all those Walleye, Bass and Perch were about to finally get their aquatic revenge with some nibbles at me.
You’d think I’d have learned by now. But I have always learned my lessons the hard way.
As the red sun slunk lower over the Michigan horizon, some of the lessons I’d learned passed through my mind. It had turned into a dubious evening on Lake Erie, but it wasn’t the first time I’d had that sinking feeling on the water. Alone now on Lake Erie, I was learning another lesson. I had no flares. No life preservers or personal flotation devices (other than the tiny square seat cushion my ass was parked on). No cell phone. And a 12-foot skiff like mine doesn’t have a radio. I was “Pat Dailey – Unplugged!” literally!
This kind of thing happened more often in my youth, and sometimes I sang about it:
I got drunk and stole a boat out of the Edgewater Yacht Club
Doing 90 miles and hour right to the Bay
I sank her out at Buckeye Point and walked on into town
Tore up someone’s flowers on my way
Then I barged into the Crew’s nest and I threw up on the rug
I slapped that hostess on her big behind
You ought to go with me when I go out drinking
I always have myself a real good time
I talk dirty to the waitresses – I never leave a tip
But I leave them my cigar butts in the guacamole dip!
I’m going out tonight – I’m going to tie on a good one
Does anybody want to come with me?
I’ll take you to this biker bar where we can kick some ass
And a gay bar where we’ll get our drinks for free
We’ll do shooters of tequila and a case of beer apiece
We’ll wash it down with a gallon of cheap wine
I like to do my late night drinking in them smoky, sleazy bars
Then go out in the parking lot and piss on people’s cars
Oh you ought to go with me when I go out drinking
I always have myself a real good time!
If only I’d written down all of my careless antics and lessons I should have learned, I’d have enough paper to staple a spinnaker together and sail out of the trouble I was in now – though it was dead calm on Lake Erie, if you’ll pardon the pun.
The rising water was now soaking my docksiders. I was beginning to become somewhat fatalistic. If my whole life was going to flash before my eyes, it would have to hurry. By now I had a seasoned sense of self-awareness. Splashing around in a sinking skiff has a way of illustrating the frailty of the human condition – especially when it is your own condition! But because I was, after all, a performer, I considered for a moment what other people might think of me after all was said and I was done. Performers, by nature, are insecure. Why else would we force ourselves onto a stage? We want, and need, the applause and affirmation of the audience. It doesn’t matter if I’m strumming my guitar on the deck of a pontoon boat with four friends or on stage at the Boathouse in front of 1,500 strangers: a little attention goes a long way.
At the age of 60, after more than 40 years of performing to huge throngs of good-time, beer-swilling, wine-sipping, smiling sun-seekers at Put In Bay, Key West, and other magical locales, I’d finally come to the realization that, as Sally Field proclaimed, “Yes, they really do like me!” But only after years of nervous nights singing and strumming for my supper did I finally feel confident that the crowds enjoyed my shows and songs.
They’ve dubbed me “Pat Dailey – the Great Lakes Troubadour.”
And yet for every time I saw my name in lights or got excited about my press clippings and reviews, there was some sensible soul who, meaning well, brought me right back down to earth.
First time I ever came down to Sloppy Joe’s in my life, before I ever even played one song, I was up here tuning my guitar and some girl came up to me and said, “Hey man, you know any Buffett?”
You think she took the time to look into my eyes or look at my face and say, “This son of a bitch has been around. He’s got some miles on him. I bet he wrote some songs about his life and times?”
“Hey man, you know any Buffett?
Well, I had my choice right then and there. I could go out and buy every one of Jimmy Buffett’s records, learn all of his songs and make everyone in the room happy. Or I could write my own songs and make myself happy!
What do you think I did?
Jimmy Buffett made it big playing down in the Keys, but I doubt that I ever will
My hair ain’t that blonde and my skin ain’t that tan
And I’ve never been to Margaritaville
Every guitar players in the keys sounds just like Jimmy
And all the girls in the bar are wondering where he is
If you ask me to play some Buffett, I’m afraid you’ll just have to stuff it
When Jimmy starts playing my songs I’ll start playing his.
If it’s Jimmy you see, won’t you pass this along for me:
When he plays Pat Dailey songs, I’ll start playing his
And I hope he gets tired of my songs ‘cause I’m sure tired of his!
So maybe tomorrow’s headline will be “Jimmy Buffett of the Great Lakes Reported Missing.” Or maybe they’ll call me a Middle-Aged Captain Jack Sparrow. But I truly hope the mourners (“attendees” would be a more accurate description) at my memorial service will describe me the way I am introduced at each of my performances: “Patrick Houston Dailey: the Coolest Son of a Bitch in the World.”
“But a truly cool S.O.B. wouldn’t be misty-eyed right now,” I told myself as I watched the lake water filling my little boat like a cold bath. All I could hope was that the fishing was better on the bottom of Lake Erie. “Bottom fishing,” I thought. Why hadn’t anyone thought of it before? “Walleye Willie and Sea Bass Sally’s Bottom-Fishing Charters.”
I was getting silly now. Next I’d be looking for the Mermaid of Ontario!
“Oh hell,” I thought, reaching down and grabbing the wine bottle. I twisted off the top and took two big gulps.
“Vintage…’October,’” I said out loud.
The sweet, pink, fruity wine came from grapes grown on the Lake Erie islands. At three-dollars a bottle it’s a fun novelty but hardly the French champagne of a dying man’s last request. Nevertheless, it took away some of the sting. Just like the song, “Gonna Be Alright,” which I had led thousands of my nightclub shows with, it always made hundreds of people at a time, many of them drinking Pink Catawba at the time, feel alright.
But was this night going to be alright? I took two more big gulps of the wine. The sinking sun hit the horizon…and the rising waterline touched my knees. The breeze was starting to pick up a little bit, but there were no whitecaps; just discernable waves.
“Nice fishing conditions,” I thought, as I saw my plastic tackle box and a bobber floating in the boat. It’d been a good day, the more I thought about it. I made the most of it. What the hell. I thought about a tune I’d penned with my old pal Shel Silverstein.
There’s a big old dead carp belly up in the bay
It was nature’s intention that he end up that way
He never got eaten
‘Cause he never got cooked
He never got netted
‘Cause he never got hooked
There’s a big old dead carp belly up in the bay
Just before he rolled over, I heard him say,
“I lived a long life, a good life, I lived it alone
You stay clear of hooks when the water’s your home
Stay clear of hooks, fish fowl or men
Don’t fall for the bait, you live as long as you can
If the good Lord preserves you and things go your way
You’ll be peacefully going belly up in the bay.”
There’s a big old dead carp belly up the bay
The seagulls will find him by the end of the day
They’ll peck a hole in his belly; peck out his guts
That’s life in the food chain; no if’s, and’s or but’s
Belly up in the Bay, belly up in the Bay
You can’t for live forever – so live every day
If the good Lord preserves you and things go your way
You’ll be peacefully going belly up in the bay.
I’d written the words to “Carpe Diem” with my dear friend Shel Silverstein, the great American poet, author, cartoonist, and songwriter, who went belly up with a heart attack in Key West back in 1999. Losing him devastated me. We had spent a lot of time together at Put In Bay, Martha’s Vineyard, in, in Key West, where we first met and began collaborating and produced an album.
Shel had written “The Unicorn Song” for the Irish Rovers; and “A Boy Named Sue” for Johnny Cash. Together, Shel and I wrote my most meaningful ballad: “The Great Lakes Song.” Teachers still use the song to educate children; adults flick on and hold up swaying lighters at my concerts when I sing it.
Now sitting now – and in – one of the lakes on this evening, I thought about Shel…and I thought about our song:
…Sweet mother Michigan
Coming down from Mackinac and Sault Ste Marie
Blue water Huron
Flow down to Lake Erie
Fall to Ontario
And run on out to sea…
The sun had set. Under what was left of the light in the purple midsummer night’s sky, I reached down, scooped up a palm full of the Great Lakes, and took a sip. Sentimental? Sure. And as soon as I swallowed, I heard a faint, whiny, buzzing sound. Squinting, I swiveled my head in every direction. I couldn’t see it, but now I recognized the sound.
“Jet Ski,” I muttered out loud.
I was feeling dubious about the indignity of being rescued by a Jet Ski until I began to see the young figure straddling the approaching wave runner. Her wet hair was long and blonde. Even though she wore a life-vest, I could tell she was wearing a bikini because I could see her tiny bottom, perfect shoulders, tight tummy, and long, limber legs. Not that I looked, mind you. I’m just an observant guy.
As she Jet Ski banked to a stop next to what was left of my boat, she tossed her hair and flashed a bright smile at me.
I nodded, trying to look unconcerned, and returned a casual grin.
Over the slight, idling rumble of her Jet Ski, she spoke.
“Whatcha doin’ out here, old timer?”
“’Old timer?’ I sighed. “Listen, baby, you shouldn’t be out here this late without lights.”
“You shouldn’t be out here this late without a boat.”
I smiled and nodded, looking into her blue eyes.
“Yeah, she’s running a little heavy tonight,” I said, as the bow of my boat started to porpoise up on her way down. “You wanna take me for a ride?”
“You wanna climb on, old timer?”
I nodded. “Yeah, I guess, baby. Just don’t ever tell anybody when we get to the island that I was on a Jet Ski.”
“If it’s not cool enough for you, I could leave you here, old timer?”
Too late though. I was carefully sloshed up onto her rear running boards and throwing my leg over the seat. Sitting behind her, I put my hands onto her hips and held on tightly.
“I wouldn’t let just anybody hold on there, you know,” she said, easing up the throttle to move the Jet Ski forward. “I know who you are, though. You’re that Put-In-Bay singer. I think I’ve seen you strum it on stage at the Boat House Bar. You’re a pretty cool son of a bitch.”
We pulled away from my sinking boat and she starting going a little faster, so I had to talk louder.
“That’s me, baby. I’m him. ‘Patrick Houston Dailey.’ Singin’ and jokin’ and lovin’ – that’s the way I live.”
Her hair was blowing in my face when she looked back, winked and smiled. Then she opened up the throttle and lurched up to full speed. We were gliding across the moonlit water, leaving a wake. I could barely make out what she said next, but I thought I heard her shout, “Hey, man…do you know any Buffett?”
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