Death on the water.
The time a Vietnam Vet told me about slitting a man’s throat at a ten-year-old’s birthday party.
Yesterday, I went to my friend’s daughter’s birthday party –– who was unapologetically using the celebration as an excuse to get hammered on a Pontoon boat with a bunch of her adult friends.
Being that neither myself nor any of the adults in attendance were owners of a lake-faring vessel, we paid a sixty-something-year-old man who called himself Captain Bill a $1,000 to cart us around Old Hickory Lake in Hendersonville, Tennessee as we drank, overate, jammed and “celebrated” my friend’s daughter.
The moment I stepped on board, I could tell Captain Bill was over-qualified for what he had been hired to do –– he was dressed in white sailor garb and firmly planted atop his head was what appeared to be a Navy Officer’s Cap, which he wore proudly, in much the same way a prized German Shepard might wear his ears.
In his right hand, he held a radio transmitter that looked as if it belonged on a naval warcraft, not a rinky-dink Pontoon boat.
Before firing up the engine, he phoned “command” with said radio transmitter, making “the big dogs” aware of he and his crew's short departure.
He then gave us a ten-minute rundown of the rules…
The first rule was that we were prohibited to listen to music that used any sort of foul or graphic language.
The second rule was that we couldn’t smoke.
While there were a few smokers in attendance, none of them gave Captain Bill any sort of shit for not being allowed to smoke onboard.
But, Captain Bill felt inclined to inform us that not only was smoking on a boat dangerous due to the fumes the engine emits… but that just a week prior, a woman was smoking a cigarette too close to a boat motor, became a human bonfire and was airlifted to a nearby hospital.
Captain Bill hammered in the extent of her injuries by saying…
“She was so badly burned that she probably wishes she were dead”.
Upon sharing this detail, you could hear a few of the parents groan a little bit and shift uncomfortably in their seats, glancing in our friend’s daughter’s direction, making sure she wasn’t paying too much attention to Captain Bill’s safety briefing.
The third rule was that there was no diving.
Again, nobody argued this rule. But, Captain Bill wanted to be crystal clear.
So, he informed us that there was a ten-year-old kid who dove into the lake a few months back in an area he mistakingly thought was shallow and that, because of this mistake, he will never be able to walk again.
At this point, my friend, the mother who had booked Captain Bill for her daughter’s birthday yelled…
“Jesus Christ Bill, this is my daughter’s birthday party, can you please just give us the rules without all the details?”
With raised eyebrows, perhaps impressed with my friend’s feistiness, Captain Bill nodded at her and continued on, mostly unphased, saving us from the specifics but remaining very much long-winded.
While everyone was quite turned off by Captain Bill, I was watering at the mouth –– I could tell Captain Bill had seen some shit and didn’t contain the kind of filter that would normally keep people who had seen some shit from sharing said shit they had seen (in tremendous and excruciating detail) with nosey writers like myself.
So, once we had anchored in a shady area of the lake, I cornered Captain Bill, making sure children and angry parents were out of earshot and I asked him what he did before he drove Pontoon boats for a living.
I nipped at my glass of tequila as Captain Bill told me that he was a Navy Seal in Vietnam and his job was to kill “double-agents”.
He said it wasn’t like the James Bond movies –– there were no bald-headed villains with eye-patches wielding laser pistols –– normally it was someone you thought was working for you but you’d eventually find out was working for the Viet Cong.
His job was to make these people disappear.
I didn’t ask for specifics on these disappearances.
But, you know Captain Bill…
He told me that one night he was sleeping on an outstretched tree limb when a small troop of Viet Cong soldiers passed underneath him.
Towards the back of the pack, he noticed there was a soldier falling behind.
He patiently waited for him to stumble by and the moment he did, Captain Bill hooked his knees and legs around the tree limb, as you would a set of monkey bars, and silently flipped upside down on the branch like a deranged Spiderman and plunged a large blade in the back of the man's neck near the spine, which he then ran across his jugular and into his windpipe.
Captain Bill grabbed the soldier by the head, as his blood turned red the forest floor and held him upright to keep him from tumbling and startling the rest of his comrades who were continuing their journey up ahead.
Once the coast was clear, Captain Bill leaped down from the tree. Ripped open the dead soldier’s shirt. Carved a large “B” in the man’s chest –– which he claimed he did to all of his victims –– and then he tossed the corpse off to the side of the road.
Finally, he high-tailed it in the opposite direction towards his base.
When I say my jaw had dropped at the telling of this story, a corporate executive could have smacked golf balls into my mouth on the carpeted floor of his corner office.
As you can imagine, the entire boat trip eventually went to hell in a handbasket.
At one point it all got so bad that one of the parents called Captain Bill a “fucking piece of shit”, which made me feel bad for Captain Bill until I saw how unconcerned he was by the remark.
The parent repeated the insult several times until Captain Bill gave his rebuttal…
“Sir, I’ve been doing these boat tours for years now and I’ll have you know… you’re the first party to ever not offer the captain a drink.”
It took me a long time to understand what it was that bothered the folks on the Pontoon so much about Captain Bill (besides the fact that Captain Bill was an asshole).
For now, here’s my theory…
We don’t like thinking about death, nor being reminded that death is a possibility, especially whilst on a Pontoon boat, surrounded by friends, drinking drinks and celebrating young life.
With this, I think that we naturally find ourselves creating distance between ourselves and the people who remind us that it all will eventually end –– whether that be in a jungle in Vietnam at the hands of Captain Bill or smoking a cigarette too close to a leaky boat motor.
What I do know, is that as much as Captain Bill was hated for the three hours we putted around that lake and as much as he put a damper on the festivities and as much as my friend’s daughter would have liked to trade him out for Steamboat Willie, not a single person dove off the Pontoon Boat that day.
And, that may have been the difference between one of us living to see another.
By Cole Schafer.