The trouble with this country is there aren't enough rowboats.
In "The Wind and the Willows," the water rat, happily rowing downstream, makes a little speech to the mole, who has never been in a boat before.
"Believe me, my young friend," the rat exults, "there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing, messing about in boats . . . or with boats.
"In or out of 'em, it doesn't matter. Nothing seems really to matter. That's the charm of it. Whether you get away or whether you don't; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you're always busy, and you never do anything in particular . . . "
The mole hardly needed the hard-sell, ensconced as he was in the stern, surveying, in the words of author Kenneth Grahame, "the cushions, the oars, the rowlocks, and all the fascinating fittings;" feeling "the boat sway lightly under him."
I had my first rowboat when I was 9 years old, having worked several weeks mowing lawns to raise the necessary $10. It was a flat-bottomed, planked monstrosity, 10 feet long and at least 200 pounds. We got the whole family out to heave it onto the roof of the old Plymouth, with a blanket draped under it to cushion the ride.
It hadn't been painted in a decade and when we flipped it over we saw great chunks of cotton caulking bulging out of the seams. It had no oars, nor oarlocks.
So half the first summer was spent working on the little boat in the side yard, where the ivy met the high, bedraggled picket fence. It was there, I believe, that I first discovered the nature of work-for-the-soul, where as much time is spent stepping back and approaching what has just been done as actually doing it.
We bought unfinished spruce oars from Nassau-Suffolk, the hardware store, sanded and varnished them and fitted each with a six-inch collar of leather, tacked on with brass brads, so the galvanized oarlocks wouldn't eat away at the soft wood. I learned about bottom paint, which is mostly copper and costs a fortune. You need it to dissuade moss and barnacles from taking up residence and slowing you down.
We painted it the way a rowboat should be painted: sparkling white on the hullsides, grey for the seats and interior, red on the bottom. When it was ready we sank an old engine block in the black Roslyn Harbor mud to hold it steady. The boat was launched and tied on, and by the end of the day it sat on the mud itself, having taken water to the gunwales through shrunken wood planks that had yet to swell to normal size.
It only leaked for a little while. When the deluge stopped after a day or two we hauled it back on shore and bailed it out. Now it sat happily at moorning, and in my mind's ear I can still hear the sweet sound of wavelets lapping at its pretty flat bottom as I sat in it the very first time.
It stayed every bit that sweet for two years. I spent the warm days plying the coves and marshes of the little harbor, or rowing downtown for a milkshake, or out to the sandbar to dig for clams.
Once my father and a friend took it clamming. They pulled it up on a mudflat at high tide, then lay on the floor-boards with their arms over the sides.
"We figured the tide would carry us back out and we'd dig along the way, so we'd never have to get out of the boat," he told me later.
But he didn't figure on the heat of the sun and the lazy pace of the afternoon, which lulled them to sleep. They woke up high and dry, with the tide 50 feet behind, and had to slog through mud to their waists to get back afloat.
Ah, the wonderful mystery of that rowboat and the wonderful places it took us. Until one day Grandpa Obriskie, who lived next door, told us about the bluefish down by the power plant, swarming around the hot water discharge, and how easy they were to catch.
"Too far to row," I said.
"No problem," he said. "Hook a line to me and I'll tow you down with my outboard."
Which is how I discovered outboards, and of course had to have one. And then a bigger one, and one with a remote fuel tank, and then one with a steering wheel and controls.
And I haven't had a pleasant day on the water since. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By Roberta Carter Clark, from The Wind in the Willows Copyright (c) Grosset & Dunlop