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"Shorts, Outtakes and Rants"

Most weeks I write a column for my paper; occasionally my daughter writes one. Usually they're focused at local issues, but every now and then I come up with one that I think Spearfish Lake Tales readers would find interesting, so I post them on the Spearfish Lake Tales Message Board. Since I've been neglecting "Shorts, Outtakes and Rants" recently, I decided to repost a few of them here, like this one. I hope you enjoy it! -- Wes
The day we almost sank the duck

August 2016

It so happens that this week is the fortieth anniversary of the first story I ever did for the paper I now own. That it was one of the most memorable stories -- at least in terms of telling a story about them -- that I've ever covered in over thirty years off and on in the newspaper business just adds to the flavor.

At the time I had just left a particularly disgusting job and was looking to make a few bucks here and there doing free-lance writing and photography. Only a few days before I'd talked with the owner of the paper, telling him I was available to cover something if needed. I was a little surprised to get a phone call from him early the following Monday. A Beechcraft Model 18, which was a twin-engine aircraft capable of carrying about 10 passengers, had crashed in a nearby lake, and he thought there might be a story and photos to go with it. I spent the morning nosing around the lake, trying to find out what I could.

At the time the county sheriff's department owned an old World War II DUKW -- an amphibious 2 1/2 ton truck. It was more or less in charge of a couple of township constables, Bert and Wally, who I knew slightly for other reasons. The DUKW -- or "duck" -- was the largest floating work platform in the county, or in several counties around, so it was obvious that it was going to have to be used to recover the Beechcraft.

For some reason forgotten now, Bert and Wally asked me to go with them to pick up the duck. Now, the duck was coming up on thirty years old, and, well, it had some difficulties with its age. We got there to discover all the tires were flat. It seems that the designers of the vehicle had included a system to let down the tire pressure when going over soft ground, then build it up on firmer ground, all by turning a valve near the driver's seat. Unfortunately the system leaked, and we wound up having to head to the hardware store to replace several parts of it.

Finally on the road, we got back over to the lake, loaded some divers, and headed out to the crash site with a bar for the divers to insert in the tail section so it could be towed. The airplane wasn't terribly deep, but this was before the sewer system and Zebra mussels turned the lake water crystal clear. They had to feel around in the dark muck to be able to hook the tow bar up, and it took a while.

All we could do topside was wait. However, as I said before, the duck was thirty years old, and it had some difficulties. Among them, it leaked. In fact, it leaked a lot. It had a good bilge pump, but the designers, in their wisdom, had decided to have the bilge pump hooked directly to the propeller shaft, so it wouldn't work if the prop wasn't turning -- and there was no way Bert was about to run the prop with divers in the water.

As the dive went on, the duck kept sinking lower and lower. Soon enough we could see water coming over the floor boards, and Bert was starting to get a worried look on his face.

Finally the divers surfaced, and Bert engaged the propeller and gunned the engine, which promptly quit. The fan had thrown enough water on the elderly ignition system that it drowned things out. Those of us on the duck, which included the divers, got to the stern to raise the engine out of the water enough for Bert and Wally to try to dry the ignition out with rags. The stern was perilously close to being under water, so everybody else bailed with what came to hand -- I remember one guy using a dive mask.

After several long and agonizing minutes and the intervention of some miracle Bert got the engine running, and while the bilge pump may have had some operational difficulties it could throw a veritable waterfall of water over the side. Soon the duck was floating high and dry.

There were other problems; in the fifteen minutes that the prop had been running wide open, we couldn't see that we'd moved an inch -- the Beechcraft was stuck deep in the mud. So, Bert decided to back up and give it a jerk to get it moving. He backed up to the length of the cable and set the duck to waddling forward as hard as it could go.

However, the cable was attached to a winch that hung out over the stern of the duck, and descended into the water at a considerable angle. When the cable pulled tight, it pulled the stern of the duck down. It couldn't have been that bad, but I swear I remember a foot of water coming over the stern. If anything, the duck had more water in it than it had before, and I was just dead sure I was going to be swimming with my expensive camera in a few more seconds. I honestly don't know what would have happened if we'd wound up sinking the duck -- and we came that close twice -- because there was nothing around any larger that could have been used to recover it.

By some miracle, though, the bow of the duck stayed high enough for the engine to keep running, and once again the bilge pump bailed us out. In the course of pumping things out a second time, it became clear that jerking the airplane's fuselage to get us moving worked -- we were moving, although very slowly. Rather than head straight for the marina, Bert turned toward a sand bar that runs across the lake. Once the duck's wheels were on the bottom it was a short job to get the rest of the way in.

I went back home, developed the pictures I took and made some prints, wrote the story and dropped it off at the paper, not realizing just what a landmark day it would turn out to be for me. In a way, it may not have been a big story, and I've covered many more important ones, but it's one of the better stories I have to tell about the story behind the story.

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