*This post is dedicated to my husband Bob *
It was a different time and a different town. There was a big airplane company but no technology. The Smith Tower but no Space Needle. There were wrestling matches and roller derby and stock car racing. But no major league sports. It was the nineteen fifties in Seattle and the biggest show in town was Seafair.
Seafair started in 1950 and quickly became the premier Seattle event. There were neighborhood carnivals where you could ride upside down on the hammer and get dizzy on the scrambler. There were parades with drill teams and marching bands, where Seafair Pirates roamed and floats carried princesses who perfected the wave to the crowds lining the streets. Honorary parade marshalls included celebrities like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. And there was always the high point when the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet arrived at Elliott Bay.
But these were only the warm up to the Grand Finale. The Races. Hydroplane, that is.
Every year on a weekend in August, Seafair climaxed with the Gold Cup races on Lake Washington. Where racers were sports heroes like Bill Muncey and Myro Slovak and drove boats named Slo-Mo IV, Gale V and Miss Bardahl.
The year was 1959. A young teenager named Bobby was with his friends Delbert and Norman.
Norman, (left), Bobby (center) Delbert (right)
Every year their folks would get together to watch the races at a friend’s house near Lake Washington. This year, August 9, 1959, the race was over but there was confusion as to who the winner was, Maverick or Miss Thriftway. Deliberations were taking a long time so the boys left the house and headed to the pits where the action was.
“Come on! Let’s go watch ’em throw the winner into the lake!” Bobby said.
They made their way to Sayres Pits a few blocks away, where the drivers started and ended their course around the lake. The area was swarming with the big boats and their drivers, mechanics, and radio and TV personalities. It was also surrounded by a chain link fence that ran about 50 yards long. The fence was being patrolled by a policeman. They hadn’t planned on that. But it really wasn’t that high. And they sure wanted to be on the other side.
Bobby and Delbert looked at each other and knew what the other was thinking. It would be easy.
“One at a time,” Delbert said. “Wait till he’s at the other end. I’ll go first.”
While the officer made his way to the far end of the fence, Delbert climbed up and jumped over. No one paid attention. So far so good. A few minutes later, the officer returned and then walked away again. Norman was next and made it over too, disappearing into the crowds. The policeman continued his patrol while Bobby waited. When the coast was clear he climbed up but as he came down the other side, the cuff of his jeans snagged on the chain link fence. He tried to pull free but landed hard and heard a loud pop. He got up to run but his leg buckled beneath him.
A woman screamed. “Look at that boy’s leg!!”
Bobby looked down and saw that his leg was bent back between his ankle and knee. A wave of nausea and fear coursed through him and a crowd gathered around. The officer came running and saw him lying there with the twisted leg.
“It’s okay son,” he said. “We’ll get a medic.”
While they were waiting, Bill Stead, winning driver of the hydroplane Maverick, came over to see him, dripping wet.
“I broke my leg when I was your age too,” he said.
Bobby may have missed the dunking. But he personally met the driver!
A few days later he was lying on the sofa at his grandma’s house. Both his grandma and mother had on their best dresses and their hair was all done up nicely in curls. They wore bright red lipstick for the occasion. The county sheriff was coming over with a TV crew to interview Bobby.
“How does it feel to be the only casualty of the races this year?” they asked him as he lay there wondering at it all.
Later on that night, there he was, on the flickering screen of the black and white TV. Wow. He could be famous. But he was stuck with that cast the rest of the summer. He would have to give up jumping over fences. At least for now.