As I stumbled through the sparsely maintained undergrowth, I fumbled in the interior pocket of my suit jacket until my fingers finally closed on the stainless steel flask. A few notes from Amazing Grace danced into my ears as I took a solid pull of that cheap blended Canadian Whiskey and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand.
Dad would surely understand.
Walking back towards the music and torch light, I could see the motley crew of family and friends standing around the crudely constructed altar. My quietly brooding brother Johnny stood out from the crowd, arm haphazardly around my tiny inconsolable mother, eyes reflecting each flicker of the torches. Uncle Jeffro stood a few feet away. Leaning heavily on a large wooden bow, irregularly swaying in place, and smelling something like Captain Morgan’s urinal, he was exactly as one would expect to find him. Other friends and townspeople were gathered around as well. Some were there to pay their respects. Others were mere spectators, eager to witness what had all the signs of a potential fiasco.
Dad had been very specific as to his final wishes. An “aggressively frugal” man all his days, he saw no reason that death should be allowed to spoil a near Abrahamic record of thriftiness. I had begged my parents for years to sit down with a funeral director and hammer out a plan for his final service. They weren’t in bad health, but why leave ends loose when they could be neatly tied?
After sitting with a funeral director for all of 12 minutes, my father stood up, tersely called the funeral director an untalented and overpriced whore, and promptly went back to his cabin to begin stacking poplar wood. My mother quickly followed behind him, embarrassed but totally unsurprised. $11,000 to die? My father would do it for a fraction of the price.
The genesis of my current reality came on that day. Dad called me from the woods and announced that he’d go out like a Viking, even if our closest genealogical connection to the Vikings was his bespotted Swedish step-grandmother. A flaming funeral pyre pushed into the lake on a boat would be his final send-off.
He had 50 acres of woodlands and plenty of time, he’d be damned if some balding whore of a funeral director was going to charge his family an $11,000 toll for his passage across the River Styx. Two silver dollars for the eyes and fourteen dollars worth of 89 octane accelerant would be the only costs for his finale on this earth.
Being an engineer, he took great pride in the design of his final boat ride. He had the specifications down to the millimeter, and more than once, my brother Johnny and I had bemoaned the fact that this beautiful handcarved boat would never return from its maiden voyage. After he had built the boat to his exacting specifications, he designated my brother to be in charge of stacking the appropriate amount of wood and accelerant under his corpse when the time came. My job was to give a eulogy and in a rare moment of deference, he allowed me free rein to complete my task.
Duties meted out and necessary props built, all that was left to do was wait. It took Dad nine years after the boat was built to complete his sole responsibility in this plan. Johnny seemed to think it was impolite that he left the rest of us to wait that long, but wasn’t inclined to expedite the process. In the interim, Mother thought it was a little macabre to have his funeral vessel sitting on the jet ski trailer beside the house, but she merely shrugged her shoulders and went on, knowing that there was no winning an argument with my father where one side could be considered the “frugal” one.
As I ducked under the last low hanging branch into the clearing by the lake, I accidentally made eye contact with my mother. I’m a notoriously unemotional type, save for expletive laced tirades during college basketball games and bawling at funerals. Making eye contact with my poor mother at this point was sure to reduce me to a blubbering fool. I quickly looked away and calmly took another swig from the flask to steady myself before beginning the eulogy.
My brother and uncle took their positions to push off and light the pyre. Given the mediocre state of illumination for the proceedings, I tried in vain to direct the guests to move away from the water and towards the wooden altar that moments before had held, on a marked decline, my father’s corpse. I stood between the crowd and the water, with my uncle and brother wrestling Dad, complete with his lead filled boots, into the boat behind me.
Realizing that this particular herd of cats would not be moved without incident, I simply nodded to my brother and uncle to push Dad out. The plan was to let him get about 100 yards from the shore before firing a flaming arrow into the boat and setting it ablaze. The time between launch and ignition was to be the eulogy. After ignition Dad had calculated between 15-18 minutes of a lively fire before the whole thing would sink. About 5 years earlier, Dad made a ⅗ scale replica of his final boatride and the ensuing data had been used to carefully plan everything from the eulogy length to the time the Methodist women were to put on the potatoes back at the house.
Precision engineering, even unto death.
I cleared my throat as I heard the soft splash of the boat gently sliding off the shore. Not turning around to look, I started to deliver the eulogy. To be frank, Dad’s life was ripe for a fine eulogy. He was generally quite a good person, unapologetic about his quirks, and had no faults so obvious that they required a posthumous comment. Never a fan of “those damned liberals and their revisionist history”, Dad wanted things simple and truthful.
I spoke about his love of family, made a joke about his beloved 27 year old diesel station wagon, and talked about some of the lessons he’d tried to instill in my brother and myself. I left the elephant dangling as long as I possibly could, even tossing in a vignette about a drunkenly askew mustache that may have eaten an entire Swisher Sweet.
Finally I was forced to acknowledge what a sublime farce he had planned as his earthly sendoff. As I closed with his favorite poem, I looked down at my shoes and silently shed a few tears before turning to look at my uncle and brother. As I turned around, my mother sidled under my right armpit as we watched Johnny dip his arrowhead into the torch and take aim.
His first offering overshot Dad by a good 20 feet. It was embarrassing to be sure, but he was no real archer, and there was only the faintest moonlight reflected off the water. My mother’s sobs picked up steam with the thrum of the bowstring, and I hugged her a little more tightly as I nodded at Johnny to try again.
This attempt went wide left. Johnny had issues going wide left ever since a potentially game winning field goal attempt grazed the crossbar in the sectional championship many years before. At this point I knew that we were going to have to bring in a closer, or Dad would just be floating until he was happened upon by a drunken band of hillbillies on a pontoon boat the next morning. I shuddered at the thought of my father being poked with a stick by a pack of Marlboro smoking trailer trash.
I released my mother, walked up, and put my hand on Johnny’s shoulder. He dropped his shoulders and the bow in a brutally dejected motion. I tried to console him, but he wasn’t having it and he walked away sobbing.
At this point, I looked at Uncle Jeffro and said, “Finish it.”
In one fluid motion, he picked up the bow with his massive hands, dipped the arrow into the torch and landed a shot deep into Dad’s neck. Whether he smelled like Captain Morgan’s urinal or not, the man could undoubtedly shoot a bow. Enough of the pitch had fallen off from the impact that the fire quickly spread throughout the boat. Jeffro turned around and dropped the bow. Tears in his eyes, he patted me on the chest. Feeling my flask, his hand darted into my jacket pocket. He dropped his balding head back to take a swig and just as he did, the boat exploded in a massive fireball.
I stood slackjawed as the whole scene was illuminated before my eyes. My mother looked up, mouth agape, flames reflecting in her bifocals. Johnny turned to look over his shoulder, bottom lip tucked under his teeth, shaped unmistakably to utter an F.
Eyes scanning the crowd, the scene was reminiscent of a cross between the Second Coming and a particularly bad NASCAR wreck.
The wig of my former Sunday School teacher was blown a full 10 feet by the impact of the explosion onto a low hanging tree branch where it was virtually indistinguishable from a common grey squirrel.
Johnny’s high school friends instinctually let out their traditional reaction to explosions of any significant size and screamed in perfect unison “YEEHAW!”
Coach Callahan threw down his hat in disgust and muttered, “That’s not Stars football.”
Flask still at his lips, Jeffro’s years of hunting prowess led his eyes from the boat, up into the air, where he followed the arc of something high into the sky. In the split second after my gaze found his, I followed his line of sight to find a shrouded figure reaching terminal velocity in his descent into the lake.
Dad landed with the same lack of physical grace with which he had lived his life. The splash was simply tremendous. Given the low light, it was impossible to tell whether he had belly flopped or landed squarely on his back. Some mourners reported him reaching a height of 50 feet at his apex, a Lawrence County record that still stands to this day. Not wanting to besmirch the memory of the dead, but never one for exaggeration, Uncle Jeffro said that in even his most generous estimation, Dad barely broke 40 feet.
Mother fainted as Dad hit the water, my brother hit the switch from tears to a cackling laughter. Uncle Jeffro, being unsure of what to do with his hands at this point, merely lit a cigarette and walked off. I pulled the flask from his hands as he lit the cigarette. Slowly I took another drink, and sat down on the cold dirt to wait for the inevitable visit from either the county mounties or the conservation officer.
All told the aftermath was pretty pedestrian. Johnny had misread the accelerant measurements, which caused him to put 18 gallons of gas in the boat instead of 18 liters. The ensuing surplus wouldn’t have exploded with near the force had he not used a holding tank made out of a certain polymer (outlawed by the EPA in the early 1980s), which hardened up until it finally cracked, releasing the gas under pressure instead of as a deluge.
Mother was brought back to consciousness and taken home, where she slept 41 consecutive hours. When she awoke, she immediately baked eight beautiful apple pies for all those who had helped fish Dad’s carcass out of the water that night.
Dad’s last glorious ride on his beloved lake was strapped to a 18 gallon “Tank of Doom” as the local newspaper callously dubbed it. Johnny was contacted by several merchandisers wanting to make T-Shirts and replicas of the likeness, but Mother decided that we would not whore out our shame and grief like reality TV stars.
Dad’s corpse was fished out within the hour by a slightly dense man named Leroy who had been carp fishing when he heard the commotion. Leroy seemed to understand the circumstances, but was not fully comprehending that he was not entitled to keep this particular item drawn from the lake.
Dad was given a complimentary burial by the same “untalented and overpriced prostitute” of a funeral director who had set this fracas in motion so many years before. I was told years later that the incident was the best driver of funeral sales that Southern Indiana had ever seen. A tongue in cheek award was created in my father’s honor, to be passed out at the Indiana Association of Professional Morticians to this day. The Moorman Family Award for Creative Funeral Direction is now the most sought after award in the profession.
I was forced to spend the rest of the weekend in the county lockup on suspicion of Desecration of a Corpse (Class B Misdemeanor) and Illegal Use of Accelerants on Public Land (Class C Misdemeanor.) Upon arriving at the station, I was promptly whisked from my cell to the break room where I was handed a cup of lousy coffee and forced to recount the sorted tale with my old friend Jesse and a raucous crowd of mustachioed county cops.
Monday morning I found myself in front of Judge Sleva, a dear old family friend, who promptly threw out both counts on the grounds of temporary insanity.
Mother petitioned our state representative to allow us to erect a small limestone monument commemorating the caper. In one of the rare pieces of bipartisan legislation passed from 2008-2018, it was unanimously approved in both houses, with 2 state senators neglecting to vote out of some undefined principle of environmentalism.
All these years later, that monument still stands on that small patch of shoreline, telling anyone who bothers to read it of the infamous 89 Octane Funeral Caper.