Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
June 11, 2011
Brackish water in a backwater canal, translucent at best and typical of the Gulf of Mexico, lapped at my face and panic resided just under the surface of my being. The tips of my skis protruded in front of me and the rhythm of the water kept moving me in directions I didn’t want to go. Suddenly, the tow-rope slack disappeared and I was left with nothing but instinct for survival.
Me, a big-shot high school kid, learning to water ski, had let Padre Island become a feature in my life through one incredible experience. My host and girlfriend’s father, Lawrence, and his buddy Paul, a Corpus Christi physician, had landed me there the year before in a Piper Cub, shortly after Hurricane Cindy and we taxied down streets once occupied by cars, dodging downed power lines and trees, hopping across washed-out roads, finally arriving at Paul’s beach house to estimate the damage it had received.
“Water-skiing isn’t that big a deal to a snow skier,” someone had said, which was mostly true, although it failed to take into account my lack of practiced form and abiding fear of water. Paul’s young son Ralph was there, tall, blonde, with piercing eyes and an excellent water skier, a kid much younger than I who could do tricks on skis, really knew how to swim, and who was soon testing my abilities by involving me in his prolific quiver of acrobatic sensations on skis.
Ralph also ran a trot line several miles offshore, getting there in a tiny boat that seemed incapable of surviving anything more than a piddling wave. I was very uneasy until, a couple of miles out, Ralph jumped overboard into water that might have been all of four feet deep. That kid knew his stuff.
Skiing on water began to grow on me, and when Paul said I could ski behind his cabin cruiser as he sliced across Corpus Christi Bay to the repairman, I jumped at the chance. We didn’t go clear across the bay, obviously, but cut a wide swath over it, and taking Paul’s advice, was glad I used two skis. The presence of sharks had been discussed, although being almost unable to see the shoreline was more unsettling, it seemed. Fear of the depths kept me upright in the choppy water, and when we finally reached the dock, I required assistance to get in the boat, so exhausted was I.
For a Woody Creek kid, not only water skiing but body surfing in the Gulf of Mexico and jumping over bushes along the beach that concealed rattlesnakes was fairly heady stuff. An adventure I’ll never forget, but I’ve never been back. Oh, I visited Corpus several more times, but never saw Padre Island again.
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The next Christmas, to finish the circle of friendship, Paul and his family stayed at our house, enjoying winter recreation. Ralph, the young son who taught me so much about water skiing, didn’t say much, but went along with my dad several times to feed the cows, stationed on our southwestern mesa near the W/J.
The years went by and it all faded into history, the brief relationship between two families that hadn’t known each other before that eventful year and who would never see each other again, almost.
The call came as I rode the gondola a couple of winters ago, a voice from the past, the youth who clearly dominated any water skis he rode, the waterman, was visiting Aspen and we set up a breakfast date.
Ralph, the kid, is still in Texas, a cattle rancher along the Nueces River near Cotulla. His life’s work came to him that long ago Christmas as he and my dad slowly flaked rich, green hay off the horse-drawn sled and onto the winter feed ground for a herd of hungry Woody Creek Herefords.
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