Commodore Bunk and the H.A. Watermelon

Last week, Bunk Griffin did something he’s only done twice before – he retired.

But this retirement was different because it was official. What made it official wasn’t just that he wouldn’t be punching in on Monday morning, but that there was a great party to celebrate the occasion. It was thrown by his daughters in the Elks club.

Attending was an all-star array of townies – old, young and in between. Among the luminaries (in no specific order) were Jack Lawless; Don and Ann Fina; Jeannie Wallace Breen; Andrea Hurteau Barry; Marsha MacDowell Morgan, chaperoning her kid brother and my fellow cub scout, Brad.

And of course there were Griffins – Griffins galore in fact, in direct line of descent, in indirect line, matrilineal, patrilineal, in-laws, outlaws, you name it.

When I first got there, after schmoozing with a bunch of people, my attention was drawn to music. It was coming from somewhere in the other room and sounded live. I went in and there, playing guitar and singing, was Bernie Branch. Holy moly, Bernie Branch! Bernie and I were pals Way Back When, but I hadn’t seen him since the summer of 1968, to be exact.

I went up to him and we went through the handshakes, backslaps, and shameless flattery about how great each of us looked. Then he went back to playing and I went back in the other room, where I started talking to Brad MacDowell.

After a bit, Brad jerked his thumb at the other room.

“So who’s playing in there?” he said.

I told him.

“Bernie Branch?” he shouted. “You’re kidding! In high school Bernie and I played together in bands.”

Brad rushed in the other room for his dose of Old Home Week.

By the way, while Brad and Bernie started out in music at roughly the same time, their musical paths have diverged since then: Bernie is a professional musician; Brad’s musical career ended before Nixon’s first term as president.

Later in the evening, Bernie said about Brad, “You know, he was the worst drummer I ever played with. But I never had more fun with anyone else since.”

The Leonardo of My Home Town

Of course, the reason we were there was to honor Bunk, not catch up on all our reminiscences, but Bunk didn’t mind. First, no one has a better disposition. And second, when it comes to reminiscing about All Things Saranac Lake, no one can compete with Bunk.

If you don’t know him, Bunk is the closest thing My Home Town has to a renaissance man. He’s a cartoonist, a graphic artist, an historian, a storyteller, a researcher – all of them self-taught and par excellence.

He is also the brains behind Bunk’s Place. And what is Bunk’s Place? you ask. It’s a website which, if a Ph.D. in Saranac Lake-ology is ever awarded, all the course material will come from Bunk’s Place. Since the only way to appreciate it is to visit it, I’ll just say check it out. You won’t be disappointed.

Because of all his research, Bunk’s a one-man font of Saranac Lake history. He’s a fourth or fifth generation townie, plus he’s managed to forge his own colorful past. In the Elks club, a lot of our conversations involved Bunk stories. Certainly I’ve got mine, and I’d like to share one with you.

Sunken treasure, sunken dreams

Bunk’s six years older than me, which means nothing now, but when we were kids it was an unbridgeable gap. In fact, I never even knew who Bunk was till I was 11, in the summer of 1958. But once I saw him, I never forgot him, especially because of the setting: He was cruising up and down Lake Flower in his boat. Sounds humdrum? It’s not.

It was all due to that boat. It was an aluminum skiff that he’d painted black and on the bow had painted an evil set of eyes and teeth, much like those on Claire Chennault’s Flying Tigers. But that was the least of it. The most of it was how the boat sat in the water. Or more precisely, not how it sat in the water but how it seemed to be lurching out of it.

For reasons no one ever discovered, the boat never leveled out. Instead, the bow stuck way up; probably half the hull rode out of the water. On top of that, it wobbled back and forth, like a baton being waved in the hand of a conductor loaded on Mad Dog 20-20.

The boat’s oddball appearance led to its oddball name – The Half-Assed Watermelon. Both the boat’s configuration and name caused unrestrained hilarity among me and my grade school chums.

The structural anomalies of the HAW should raise a germane question: How could Bunk ever cruise on Lake Flower at full throttle without ever ramming another boat? The answer is he couldn’t. And not only did he hit another boat – he sank it as well.

It was one of the paddlewheel boats rented by Thomas’s Boat Landing. They were beautiful little things: They had either one or two-person models, were propelled by a small paddle wheel in the back, and powered by hand levers on both sides of the driver. They were a great treat, for both locals and tourists.

When Bunk slammed into the paddlewheeler, he was shocked and mortified. Shocked because he never saw it, since his bow obstructed everything in front of him, and mortified because the woman in the boat was screaming bloody murder.

Luckily, she wasn’t hurt, but apparently her finances were: The jolt had sent her purse flying … and then sinking to the murky depths of Lake Flower. And in that purse she said was a buttload of bucks – 200 of them to be exact.

Now time for some historical perspective. Two-hundred dollars is still a lot of money, but nothing like it was in 1958. How much was it? Well, since minimum wage was a dollar an hour (and a lot of adults worked at minimum wage) that $200 represented a full month’s pay, with a six-day work week!

Back in those simpler times, the collision didn’t register as a big deal in the eyes of the law. Bunk got a bawling out of sorts by Officer Pandolph , but it was only “of sorts,” since Chuckie was just following orders and was pretty much a softie anyway. Beyond that, no action was taken.

However, it was a big deal in the eyes of the town’s boys, as they combed the bottom of Lake Flower, their lungs pushed to the bursting point, in search of the purse and its loot.

Alas, the summer came and went, but the lake never offered up its bullion. And boys’ attention spans being what they are, by the next year the purse was all but forgotten.

Then, amazingly, the year after that, someone found the purse!

It was in perfect shape, and its clasp had held the whole time.

It was a testament to quality purse-making, but not to adult integrity.

In the purse, in addition to the usual assortment of women’s accessories, there was a wallet.

It contained a bunch of small change, one five dollar bill … and not a penny more.