In the olden days there was a torture that exceeded all others. Like good Greek tragedy it built hopes high, then dashed them utterly.

It was called "the outboard motor."

My youthful summers were filled with experiences that should have crushed less-resilient spirts. There was the ancient used Evinrude that consumed a whole winter's paper-route wages, then leaped off the transom of the rowboat at full throttle on its very first spring outing. I had not yet learned about tethering outboards with a stout rope. As they say, experience keeps a hard school.

There was the five-horsepower Champion that was the forerunner of modern automobile engines. It had a tiny computer buried somewhere inside. The computer triangulated distances from shore. When it determined that boat, motor and captain were as far from home as they would get on a given journey, it ordered the sparkplugs to quit firing.

"I'm going out to get some clams, Ma," I would say in my youthful, insouciant way, and return three days later, naked but for a layer of engine grease, clothes abandoned to fashion a crude sail.

At about age 15 I discovered the other-things-in-life that supplant good, clean, wholesome, life-threatening fun for most American male youths. And somewhere along the line I abandoned outboards with a vow never to fool with them again.

But times change.

The last few years I've spent a good deal of time fishing on other people's boats. There were a lot of surprises, the biggest of all being the way outboards always worked.

"Oh, yeah," said various hosts, "motors are much better than they used to be. They're just like cars nowadays." With a beguiling flick of an ignition switch they would bring the big Mercurys and Johnsons, Evinrudes and Chryslers to life. Such power!

Naturally it wasn't long before my own attentions fell to the acquisition of such power. Being a cheapskate to the bitter end, I waited for the deal of the century and eventually got it. Such a deal. . .

For a little over $3,000 one-third the cost of the average new car, I had boat, motor and trailer; a sleek 17-footer, a tilt trailer with lights and carpeted pads and a 65-horsepower outboard that fairly sang, even if it was eight years old.

"It's amazing," said my friend Dick as we shot across the Bay from Breezy Point. "Outboards are just so much more reliable than when I was young."

"Yup," I nodded. "This is the life."

Two minutes later the sweet whine of the 65 abruptly turned into a terrifying shriek. And two hours later we were back n harbor, never having wetted a fishing line, at the end of a tow rope being pulled along by a vessel called Suzi-Q.

"How are you?" I asked Larry the mechanic when he called to give the news.

"Fine," he said, "but you're not."

The drive shaft and the crank shaft had spun apart where they meet. The bill to repair: $660 in parts, $200 or so in labor.

"Wouldn't cost me much more than that for a new motor, would it?" I asked.

Sweet ignorance.

The first price quoted for a replacement motor was for an 85-hourse Johnson. "Somewhere between $3,800 and $4,000," the man said. When they revived me I told him how the house I spent the first 17 years of my life in had cost half that, but it didn't seem to make much of an impression.

By wheedling, niggling, cajoling and begging I managed to get a leftover 1980 motor at a price that will permit us to continue feeding the baby, at least for the immediate future.

I told Glenn, who practically lives in a boat, about my purchase and my plans to use this motor for at least 10 years.

"Hah," said he. "Try three years. Then, when the first thing goes wrong, unbolt it and push it over the side."

Things don't really change. The price just goes up.