I can coil a hundred feet of garden hose without kinking it because I went to Boat Smart class, where the instructor taught us how to coil a rope in such a way that it won’t tangle when you throw out a life preserver. I don’t own a boat, but my friend Dora does and since she is blind, she obviously needs someone to drive it. She insists that anyone who operates her fifteen-foot aluminum vessel take a boating safety course, so for six Monday nights Mark and I went to class and at the end, received certificates.
Two or three times between May and September, we put the boat in at Discovery Park or Rattlesnake Bar and enjoy the beauty of deep green rivers edged with yellow clay and granite and oak. From time to time, Dora checks her CB radio for weather alerts and hazards, and asks her dog if he’s okay. I sit out on the bow, watching for submerged boulders and driftwood, enjoying the heron nests and mallard ducklings that Dora will never see.
Dora was born in 1953, six weeks premature. A nurse rushed her to an incubator, where for three weeks, her tiny lungs received life-saving oxygen. The side effect, which opthalmologists wouldn’t acknowledge until 1954, is a condition called retinopathy of prematurity. With each breath of nearly pure oxygen, Dora’s lungs grew stronger, but the delicate arteries of her eyes shriveled and then disintegrated. Blood-starved tissues responded by sending out a rampant growth of abnormal vessels, which leaked blood into Dora’s retinas. She was one of 10,000 preemies who lost their sight before the practice of oxygen therapy was abandoned.
Whenever we go boating, I have to take something for motion sickness. Dora is immune. I once asked her—since she can’t drive her boat or see the water or the trees or the wildlife—what it is about boating that she enjoys so much. “Everything else,” she said. “I like the smells, you know? The air blowing in my face. I like the sound of the water.”
“Yeah, the water hitting the side of the boat.”
“Oh, right,” I said.
“And I like to hear the engine run, you know? It goes up and down when the boat goes up and down.”
Of course, I thought. As the little craft cuts through the surface, rising and falling over the wakes of other boats, the engine’s deep gargle oscillates. I hadn’t noticed.
Susan Dunnaway writes and edits personal histories. Her recent work includes stories related by veterans of World War II, the Korean War, and the Viet Nam War. She lives in Northern California with her husband, Mark Dunnaway, son Lowell, and two excellent cats.