I happened to be down near Seward Park late Thursday morning. Weekdays are usually very quiet along Lake Washington, save on Thursdays when the model plane guys fly their buzzing aircraft over Andrews Bay. But today, I heard the unmistakable roar of the past, a familiar RUH-RHU-RHU-RHU of an old-time hydro. I could see the flying spray of a rooster tail and spotted KIRO's Chopper 7 hovering overhead. As I came around the corner to Stan Sayres pits, a crowd had gathered. There in all her glory was Miss Bardahl, the Green Dragon of hydroplane racing's glory years.
Like many Seattleites, I've always had a love-hate with the hydros. Just like lots of little boys, I towed a hand-crafted wooden one behind my bike, and we had huge neighborhood races looping endlessly around the chain of Olmsted-designed parks that run along Mount Baker Boulevard near Franklin High. My mother hated the chaos the Seafair races brought, so after more than a decade of race excitement and noise, she made a point to take the family out of town to escape cars parked on our lawn, crowds, and the incessant growl of racing boats. The last straw was the time in the early 1960s when my sister was water skiing near the old floating bridge and was nearly run over by Bill Muncey doing practice runs in Miss Century 21. By the time I was an adult, I'd ceased to be a hydro fan.
Miss Bardahl was one of many famous boats, but it won multiple Gold Cups and National Championships for its hometown sponsor, Ole Bardahl, a Norwegian immigrant who made his fortune selling engine lube. It seemed right back then that a guy from blue-collar Ballard ruled the waves.
Love it or hate it, the sounds of Seafair are part of Seattle, and the sound wave patterns made by the thunderboats are impressed in my brain. The particular roar of the 1950s and '60s era open cockpit boats triggers a Proustian flashback — just like the smell of popcorn, beer, and urine can take me back to the ballgames of the Seattle Rainiers in Sick's Stadium. This time, the boat was a little out of season — the cherry trees are just starting to bloom, and sounds don't drone like they do on a hot August weekend. But it was a kind of thrill, and for a minute I felt naked without a Skipper pin.
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