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WOSTER: Revolution on the river

Terry Woster

To tell the story of the Airhead water-fun towable tube, I must go back to the beginning of time.

Back in 1973 or 1974, Nancy and I went on our first weekend camping trip up the Missouri River to Okobojo Creek. We hung out with two couples who became some of the closest friends we will ever know, learned to water ski (yup, at age 30 and after growing up along the Missouri, I finally learned to ski), decided to buy a boat and changed the course of summers forever.

In those days, folks who used the river either camped and fished or camped and skied. The couples who took us camping didn't fish, but they did ski. We'd ski one at a time, sometimes as doubles or triples. When the spirit of adventure took us and the children were growing old enough to all slalom ski, we'd ski with six, seven, eight or nine members of the three camping families gliding along behind the boat. That took planning, and if anyone fell at the start, it took patience to untangle seven or eight ski ropes, but that was part of the adventure.

A time or two, the kids found an inflated inner tube for a truck or tractor tire, and we'd lash a ski rope to that and pull the younger ones around the lake. One lazy afternoon, we found a big, flat square of plywood, and the adults took turns riding it, three at a time, across the surface of the Missouri. It took a certain amount of skill and a bit of technique-learning, but it wasn't that difficult.

Well, my kids and the children of our two camping couples grew into pretty fair country water skiers, and mostly that's what they liked to do when we had a river afternoon or weekend. Then came the revolution, and I never saw it headed my way.

Remember those old inner tubes we sometimes used? Some enterprising schemer took the basic concept, covered the rubber bladder with a decorative cover, added a couple of handholds and a hook for the tow line and began marketing towable tubes. First thing I knew, the grandkids and the grandkids of the other camping couples wanted nothing to do with water skies. It was all about the towable tubes.

Thing is, if you've ever driven a boat and listened to its motor as you pulled a couple of skiers and then did the same thing as you pulled a towable tube with two or three kids on it, you'll understand me when I say it's the difference between hitching a high-spirited trotter to a racing surrey or hooking the poor animal to a plow. With a skier or two gliding behind, the boat races across the surface, its motor thrumming contentedly. With the towable tube, the boat wallows along, the motor lugs down, whines and moans, and you just want to take the poor thing back to the barn, wipe it down with gunny sacks and feed it a bag of warm oats -- figuratively speaking, of course.

To keep the young ones happy, we bought a couple of those towable tubes, the flat kind that require the riders to lie on their stomachs and pound over the waves. True, our granddaughters soon learned to jump back and forth from tube to tube and to shove each other off until only one remained afloat, but still, it was mostly lying down and pounding along.

Nancy upped the ante when she saw a huge Airhead tube with a sturdy back, a 9-foot wingspan and a cover painted with the design of a shark's teeth. It won't fit in the boat for travel. It won't fit in the back of my pickup for any reason. It's impossible to store anywhere. It takes up half the garage, and when it's loaded with riders, it makes the boat motor sound like a sick cat.

I truly hate the thing. Except ... except that when the grandkids and their friends are on it, their smiles are wider than Oahe Dam and their eyes are brighter than the summer sun. I'd tow it all day for that.