1968: Shear Pins and Pinky Rings

For all his years as a sailor in the Orient my father picked up very little foreign language. He occasionally answered the phone with a “mushi-mushi” or tacked the Japanese “-san” honorific to the ends of our names, but the only Asian word he used much was “cumshaw”. It’s a Chinese word that originally meant “grateful thanks” but use by American sailors over the years gradually changed its meaning to “anything obtained by other than official channels”. Think of the character “Crapgame” from Kelly’s Heroes or Milo Minderbinder from Catch 22 – but with the criminal aspect dialed quite a bit and you’ve got a good idea of the meaning.  For example, a tool set issued to replace one lost during an air raid comes with an extra undocumented hammer which gets traded to the cook for a steak peeled off the allotment for from the officer’s mess so the cook can fix the roof of his hootch.

With Dad, cumshaw wasn’t just an idiosyncrasy of a supply system; it was a way of life. He was wheeling and dealing his entire life, most of the time under totally legitimate conditions. For example, all the sheds we built around the homestead were made from lumber salvaged (with the field foreman’s blessing) from crating and dunnage used for shipping large flanges and valves shipped to the Swanson River Oil Field. Perfectly OK and a good example of recycling I might add. On the other hand our driveway was kept passable during break-up by the addition of gravel from 5 gallon buckets that sat in the bed of Dad’s pick-up “for added traction in the snow”; buckets that would magically fill with gravel whenever Dad was on the night shift out at the plant.

…all of which explains how I happened to be sitting in a four man life raft in the middle of Lower Omer Lake in June of 1968. It had originally part of the survival gear for the crew of a P2V Neptune patrol bomber flying out of Kodiak Naval Air Station in the early 1950s, said crew including one YNC David Soren Deitrick.

Dad had modified the raft with the following items:

  • a wooden deck frame and two oars whittled from wood salvaged from old shipping crates
  • an anchor cobbled together from a length of nylon 550 cord and a large angular rock
  • a small trolling motor with a two-stroke engine

Not exactly top of the line watercraft but useful enough for getting far enough out in the lake to cast a line where the fish were more likely to be biting, though to be honest I don’t think there were any fish to be biting in Lower Omar Lake anywhere. In all the years that we camped there not once did I see someone catch a fish in that lake. I suspect that lack of fish was actually why we camped there; it was never very crowded and we little to do during our campouts but take it easy. That may have appealed to dad but I quickly became bored. Convinced that I could find fish in another part of the lake I got into the raft, started up the engine and putt-putted my way out into the lake.

I had heard fish would linger around shallower areas so I kept close to the shore, though locating fish wasn’t the only reason I hugged the lake’s perimeter. The trolling motor was not the most robust means of propulsion and anything more than a  light breeze would slow the raft almost to the point of stopping and while I had the two small oars for back-up I had no desire to spend the afternoon rowing back to shore. I resigned myself to staying fairly close to dry land until I found small bay with a dead tree fallen over into the water – which I also heard was a place fish would congregate.

Just as I reached that little bay I heard a loud “THOCK!”

Immediately the trolling motor started to race as the raft started to slow down which meant that I had hit something underwater and had snapped the shear pin, which was designed to break under just those circumstances to prevent damage to the drive shaft or motor. I quickly switched the motor off and started to tilt the propeller out of the water, but stopped midway to take off my pinky ring to avoid snagging it on something and ripping my finger off.

(Note: The ring was recent gift from my Uncle Roy and Aunt Doris who I dearly loved but unfortunately bought presents for me the size I wore when we moved away from California six years earlier. It was a gold colored band with silver colored monogram “D” mounted in the middle of a piece of polished hematite and despite being too small for normal wear I persisted in wearing  in hope that it A) would endow me with some measure of “coolness”;” B) irritate my dad.)

As I juggled the trolling motor while trying to put the ring in my pocket I had my first lesson in how multi-tasking doesn’t really work. I dropped the ring which bounced from knee to oar to raft and then right over into the lake. I scrambled to catch it in the spastic manner only a high-school freshman can manage but succeeded only in kicking one of the small wooden oars too far enough away from the raft to be readily reachable. Undeterred I reached for the second one and started rowing towards its lost mate but got no more than three strokes in before it broke in two right where the blade connected to the handle.

I took stock of the situation. I was stuck out in the lake with no means of locomotion. As the water looked to be about ten feet deep at that point I couldn’t wade in. Swimming back to shore was right out – I didn’t fancy getting my clothes wet, I wasn’t about to strip down in full view of the entire campground and I wasn’t sure I could get the raft back with to shore with me as well.

That’s when I remembered the anchor. Using my foot as a ruler I figured the 550 cord tied to the rock to be close to twenty feet long (no pun intended). I threw the large rock-anchor as far as I could towards the shore, then pulled the raft and myself along until we were directly over it, repeated the process. I was ecstatic and thought “What a story I’ll have to tell about cleverly overcoming multiple mishaps. There’ll be no more snarky pinky ring stories now”


It was at that exact moment in time that the rock made its exit out of the harness of 550 cord that kept it connected to the anchor line, disappearing into the lake along with any hope I had of getting out of this dilemma with any vestige of pride. Resigned to my fate I stepped over the side of the raft into what was now thigh-deep water and waded in the rest of the way to shore, towing the raft with me.

In the yin/yang pattern that randomly appears in my mishaps no one was watching when I made it back to camp so I survived the incident with a small measure of pride. I had been the only one using the raft so I deflated it and packed it away, intent on solving the shear pin, oar and anchor issues at a later date. For now my only problem was how to pass the time until we broke camp and went home later that evening.

I decided to try fishing from the shore like my dad had suggested earlier. I found a nice sunny spot and cast my line out into the lake, then slumped down onto the mossy ground with my back to a tree stump. To my amazement I had a great time, dozing in the sun, looking at the patterns in the clouds above and occasionally casting my line into the water. I thought to myself “Dad has something here. This is great!” It was one of the most peaceful days of my life.

I wonder what it would have been like had I used a hook.

1 thought on “1968: Shear Pins and Pinky Rings

  1. Reblogged this on David R. Deitrick, Designer and commented:

    Rerun Saturday post for this week. I’ve been missing my Dad quite a bit lately and thinking of how at sixteen I grieved for him as the youngest case of senility ever, and then at twenty-one how surprised I was at how much he’d recovered in just five years.

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