Danielle Hanna

Hearth & Homicide Fiction

Category: Behind My Books (page 2 of 3)

Father’s Day and the Boat that Was Always There

DSC01849 (480x640)As this post goes live – 10:00 a.m. on June 15th, 2015, it is the 99th anniversary of marine mail delivery for the Lake Geneva Mailboat in Wisconsin – a phenomenon so unique, I’m writing a novel about it. On top of that, this Sunday is Father’s Day. But it wasn’t until recently that I discovered a deep connection between my feelings for the Mailboat and my feelings for my dad. The following is an adaptation from my personal journal.

Sam, my surrogate father, had accompanied me to one of my counseling sessions. He had convinced me to seek counseling to help resolve the deep issues I had surrounding the death of my father when I was only two. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

I’d finally quit having nightmares about trying to escape my dominating mother, and instead I was dreaming about Lake Geneva and the Mailboat. The question in my mind was, Why? Like my dreams about my mother, my dreams about the Mailboat seemed too significant to be coincidental.

Val, my counselor, explained that there were theories about dreams, one being that the people, places, and significant objects in our dreams symbolized a theme we were conflicted about and trying to sort out subconsciously.

“For instance, what does your mother represent to you?” Val posed.

“Control,” I replied. Specifically, her control over my life.

“So your mother appearing in your dreams may reflect your search for control over your own life.”

I noded. That felt pretty acurate.

“What does the Mailboat symbolize to you?”

I turned my head and gazed blankly at Val’s book case. How funny. Why had I never asked myself this question? This was precisely the kind of question I would have asked. And yet, I never had.

“I know what the Mailboat means to my characters,” I finally ventured.

Val tipped her head sideways. “That’s a good enough place to start.”

DSC01980 (480x640)For Bailey, a teen mail jumper and the main character, the Mailboat symbolized something constant, unchanging, and dependable. “For her, growing up in foster care, it felt like she could never depend on anybody to be there for her. And then there’s the Mailboat—delivering mail around the lake every day, every summer, for a hundred years. And Tommy, the captain, has been there for fifty of those years. She’s never seen anything that constant. Of course, I threaten all that in the story.”

Val smiled with interest, but didn’t ask for details. She correctly guessed that I wasn’t likely to give them. Spoilers, and all that.

Then there was Tommy. His feelings about the Mailboat were very similar. It was something that was always there for him. “When he lost his son, his answer was to show up at work. He could always depend on the Mailboat and the routine. Of course, I threaten that in the story, too.”

Obviously, the overall theme of the Mailboat, in the story, was something that was always there. But what did it mean to me?

“I have an idea,” Val said. “And this may be nothing. It’s just a shot in the dark.” She grabbed a fresh sheet of paper from her desk and leaned over her clip board for a moment, scribbling. She held up her board when she was done.

On the page, she had written across the top “Mailboat.” And underneath it she had written “male boat.”

“Sometimes our brains make subconscious associations,” she explained.

I frowned at the words on her page. This was not the first time I’d heard the word “male” used in place of “mail,” and the context was always off-color. So, no. There was no way I was subconsciously creating that connection every time I thought of and dreamed about the Mailboat.

Val determined by the frown on my face that we hadn’t quite hit upon the symbolic meaning of the Mailboat to me. Her gaze drifted upwards, searching. “What about just the word ‘boat’? What do boats mean to you?”

I slammed into the answer so fast, it left my teeth rattling.

“My dad,” I said in a heartbeat.

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Val looked at me, her eyes illumined.

I sat a little smaller, almost embarrassed by how suddenly the words had sprung out of my mouth. In a softer voice, I explained, “My dad used to sail boats. So now any kind of boat reminds me of him.”

I had a face-palm moment. How had I never drawn that connection before? The Mailboat symbolized my dad to me. That’s why this whole story about fathers and daughters revolved around boats. Around a boat that symbolized everything I wanted in a dad. Someone who was always there. That connection had been right at the tip of my fingers, and yet I had never reached it.

“My mom says he used to have a hard time finding anybody to be his crew on his sail boat.” It was one of the few stories my mother had ever told me about my dad. “He used to take my hlaf-brother John, but he would always argue with him about how things should be done. So he’d take my mom, and she’d just do everything he said. They won a lot of races. But she didn’t enjoy herself. She was kind of scared. They went to a regatta on Lake Superior once and they did a practice run. The waves were so high that when they got back to shore, my mom said, ‘Forget it. Find somebody else to be your crew. I’m not going out on that lake again.’”

I sighed and slumped my shoulders. “When I heard that story, I was like … I wish my dad had waited for me. I would have been his crew.”

Val gave me a sympathetic smile. If my dad had lived long enough to create memories with me, these were the memories I would have wanted to have.

I glanced at Sam, who had been listening to our conversation with deep interest, and something possessed me to ask, “You wouldn’t like to learn how to sail a boat, would you?”

To my surprise, Sam said, “Sure. I love being on the water.”

I sprang up straight in my chair. “Really?” Then I thought of how outlandish it would be to buy a sailboat. “It wouldn’t have to be a sailboat. Sailboats are expensive.”

Sam shrugged. “Any kind of boat. When Jen and I were in Superior last summer, we saw people with those stand-up paddle boards, and I thought, ‘That looks like fun.’”

“Or canoes,” I said. “Or kayaks. They rent kayaks at the state park.”

“Sure. Any kind of boat.”

“You’ll take me kayaking next summer?”

He nodded. “I will. We’ll do that.”

Unreal. The one thing I’d always dreamed of doing with my dad. And it was actually gonna happen. Sort of. Just not with my first dad, and not with a sailboat. Whatever. Close enough. Way, way close enough.

On top of that, I had at last unraveled why the Mailboat was so meaningful to me. Why this story about fatherless daughters revolved around a boat. It was the boat that was always there, as regular as the mail. It was a symbol to me of the father I’d always wanted. The one I had now. The one who was going to take me boating in the summer.

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DSC02304 (480x640)Happy Father’s Day

To Sam, the Daddy I waited for my whole life. The first daddy who was always there for me. You are my hero.

Happy Birthday

To the Mailboat. 99 years, and still going strong.

Mail Jumper Tryouts

June 15th is a big deal. Well, for me and a small number of other people, at least. That’s when the Lake Geneva Mailboat begins its summer deliveries, pier-to-pier. (As my regular readers know, I’m writing a novel about it.) My summer hasn’t begun until I’ve found the annual blitz of newscasts and newspaper reports showing spring try-outs. This was last year’s (2014), and under different circumstances, I would have been there to see it myself:

Alas, family obligations intervened – and stubbornly continued to intervene – until August, when the kids were trickling back to school and the Mailboat season was winding down. But I finally arrived in Lake Geneva, minus my original car (that’s another story), and saw the mail jumpers for myself. The Lake Geneva Cruise Line was amazingly supportive, and allowed me to job shadow the kids and the Mailboat captain for a few days.

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Many of the current Mailboat’s features were specially-built for mail delivery.

I’d hoped that seeing the mail jumping in person would give me a better feel for what they were doing, and help me put the right words on the page as I wrote the story. But after two days on the Mailboat – while I enjoyed every minute – I felt no closer to my main character Bailey’s experience than I had been before.

So I gathered up my nerve and walked into the floating office barge to speak with Ellen, the office manager, who had been my primary contact in arranging my visit to the Mailboat.

“Would it be possible for me to shadow the Mailboat crew one more time … ?”

“Sure!” she said.

“… and maybe try a few jumps myself?”

She hesitated. “We don’t really let guests jump mail anymore. But you can ask Captain Neill.”

DSC01843 (2) (480x640)The next morning was cold and drizzly with a wind – a nasty day to jump mail. The boat would be harder to maneuver, and the piers would be slippery underfoot. But it was also my last day in Lake Geneva. I went ahead and asked the Mailboat captain if I could try a few deliveries.

He frowned heavily. “What kind of shoes do you have on?”

I lifted my tennie-clad foot. Neill looked disappointed he couldn’t veto my request based on footwear. He hesitated.

“Can I at least try a few dry runs while we’re tied up at the pier?” I quickly suggested.

He waved his hand and told me to eat my heart out.

I have over 50 video clips of the Mailboat in my files – newscasts and tourist uploads I’ve culled from YouTube and Vimeo over the past five years. Some of those videos include mail jumpers explaining how it’s done, or Neill giving advice to newbies. And … I confess, I practiced in my parents’ back yard. They have a tiered garden, bordered by railroad ties. The ties are about the same width as the catwalk on the side of the Mailboat, and the distance between them is about the same distance as between the boat and a pier.

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Mail jumper Kylie getting back on board.

I stood on the catwalk at the bow of the Mailboat and tried to imagine the force of a 60-ton vessel pushing me forward. That was the part that worried me – the possibility of being thrown off the edge of a pier due to momentum. With the boat currently moored to the pier, I couldn’t really practice that part.

I was more confident about getting back on. Run with the boat, leap with your right foot, land with your left, and grab the hand rail with both hands. The most common newbie mistake was to run straight at the boat, grab on, and be swung backward like a door on a hinge, slamming your body against the side of the boat.

Neill paused in his busy comings and goings to study my technique. He nodded. “One thing I always tell the kids is to jump high. That way, if the boat tips away just as you jump, you’ll still land on the rub rail, instead of hitting your shins.”

This was one piece of advice I’d never heard before. Mail Jumping 201? I practiced the new technique a few times, adding a flight-like arch to my jump. It felt graceful.

As the morning’s passengers began to line up on the pier, I abandoned my practice session and found Neill up by the helm. I sat in the mail jumpers’ window. “So …” I asked timidly, “think I can jump mail this morning?”

He nodded. “Yeah, we’ll let you jump a few deliveries.”

I refrained from pumping my fist.

Fiona and Captain Neill delivering mail.

Fiona and Captain Neill delivering mail.

On my first jump, I found out that putting the boat in motion changed everything. Jumping off was easy – though I underestimated the boat’s momentum and ended up running past the mailbox on the long pier. Getting back on – the part I thought I had down pat – was hard.

I turned around and saw windows flying by. I couldn’t focus on anything to grab on to. Any second, I’d run out of boat, and my window of opportunity would be gone. I wanted to yell, “Make it stop!” but that was unlikely.

I can’t do this, I thought. I pictured myself cemented to the pier like a deer in the headlights, and Neill having to circle back for me. But who was to say I’d do any better given a second chance?

Then something one of the mail girls told me earlier came to mind. “You have to be 100% every day.” Slack off, and you’d either fall on a pier or miss the boat.

One hundred percent, I told myself. You know how to do this. Leap with the right, land on the left, grab for the handrail.

I eyed the distance to the edge of the pier. Calibrated the number of steps I’d need to lead off with my right foot. Factored in the three or four feet of open water I’d have to jump across. Located the position of the catwalk and the handrail.

And reminded myself to run with the boat.

I took off.

My landing was as good as I could ask for. Funny thing is … the real mail girl, Fiona, made a video of my first jump, and you can’t even tell I hesitated. You’ll just have to believe me when I tell you, I was that close to being a pier ornament.

Not bad, but I’ll never forgive myself for forgetting to kiss the goose. (It’s a tradition.)

In all, I made about a half dozen deliveries. Neill gave me progressively harder jumps, and I managed to get back on the boat every time. The real surprise came when we got back to shore, and Neill suggested I stick around for another month or so and fill in for the kids who were going back to school.

I would have loved to.

The Lake Geneva Mailboat at home port.

The Lake Geneva Mailboat at home port.

Click here for an excerpt from my upcoming novel, Mailboat!

And seriously – you need to go see this for yourself. This year is the Mailboat’s 99th birthday! The boat sells out almost every morning, so reserve your tickets!

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