Nobody probably thought the Boat Crew would last this long, actually.
four young couples from the same Cedar Rapids Lutheran church rented a
houseboat and sailed up and down the Mississippi River for a long
weekend in the summer of 1971, nobody probably even thought it was more
than a one-time vacation.
But the couples invited more couples
and did it again the next summer, and the next. Over time, a few couples
came and went, but the tradition lived on summer after summer.
Eventually a core group of seven couples emerged, and the Boat Crew was
established … and a vital extended family was born.
(or officially, depending on your personal opinion) the group’s name was
the Mississippi River Marching and Drinking Society. But “Boat Crew”
was easier to say. And less complicated to explain to the couples’
children, who were all about the age of the Boat Crew tradition itself.
lives and careers evolved, many of the couples moved away … but
everyone came back summer after summer for what had become an annual
gathering of Boat Crew family with bonds as strong as any biological
And that family bond extended beyond the relationship
between the seven couples; their children often spent the Boat Crew
weekends together in one couple’s house, under the probably exhausted
watch of two or three weekend-long babysitters.
kids developed a family bond as strong as their parents’. They were
unofficial siblings in an extended family network, and they felt
confident in the parental love they received from every member of the
As the summers passed, the Boat Crew bond continued to
grow and strengthen, especially over a developing collection of
in-jokes, funny stories and traditions that became almost sacred. The
most prominent tradition was Joy. It started when one couple brought a
large white flag emblazoned with the word Joy in bright colors
and displayed it on the ship’s mast. The flag appeared every summer, and
eventually it inspired the regular exchanging of Joy-festooned
knickknacks, shirts, Christmas ornaments (all collectively over the
years described as "Joy shit") and even one summer little bottles of Joy
Music – an integral part of the Lutheran
church where they all met – was just as important to the Boat Crew. The
group contained many talented singers, and as they gathered under the
stars with a guitar and a couple bottles of wine each summer, they sang
hymns and folk songs and show tunes and whatever else they could think
of. Their unofficial anthem was “Beautiful Savior,” which they sang
together – in full, glorious harmony – on every gathering.
kids grew over the next four decades, the Boat Crew also started
convening off-season for confirmations and graduations and weddings and
grandchildren and the occasional family tragedy … and the inevitable
deaths of the Boat Crew couples’ elderly parents.
And through it
all, the Boat Crew became a bit of a statistical anomaly: seven couples
who lived into their 50s and 60s and 70s … and stayed friends … and
stayed married … and stayed alive.
As they started to retire from
their jobs and prioritize grandparent obligations over Boat Crew
gatherings, the group wasn’t always able to find a summer weekend that
all seven couples could attend. And the “boat” part of Boat Crew became a
bit of an anachronism; the summer reunions were happening now in Bed
and Breakfasts overlooking the Mississippi instead of boats on the
And as they started to navigate the medical
infirmities and physical indignities that come with age, the Boat Crew
members started to contemplate their own mortality. Never ones to face
life with fear or even reverence, they were realistic that eventually
they were going to start dying … and they were not above having betting
pools over who would go first.
But it never occurred to anyone that the first to die might not be one of the adults.
(who as an adult called himself Robert but I’d known him since we were
toddlers and I could never think of him as anyone but Robbie) was 42,
pretty much right in the middle of the range of ages of the Boat Crew
kids. He started getting sick six years ago last summer, but he didn’t think it was
much to worry about: just some lower back pain, fatigue and abdominal
discomfort. But then the guy behind the Chicago neighborhood deli counter where he went every
day told him he looked yellow. And he became constipated. And on a trip
home to see his parents in Iowa, he decided to see a doctor.
And that’s where he found out.
cancer patients at stage 4 have an 8-15% chance of being alive five
years after diagnosis. And Robbie, forever the optimist, dove right into
surgery and chemotherapy while his parents took care of him in their
But it quickly became obvious that he was losing the
battle. And as he eventually slipped into a coma, his parents – buoyed
by the love and calls and texts and emails of Boat Crew members across
the country – kept a vigil by his bed.
And six weeks after his
diagnosis – six weeks after driving himself and his two cats seven hours from Chicago to
his parents’ house, five weeks after walking into the doctor’s office
with what he thought were just stomach pains, three weeks after cheering
on friends in the Chicago Marathon via Facebook – Robbie drew his last
breath, sending waves of shock and devastation throughout his extended
Boat Crew family.
Robbie’s father had died of cancer 40 years earlier, before the Boat Crew had been officially established. His widowed mother
and the man who eventually became her next husband had been regular Boat
Crew members from nearly the beginning.
While she was still
single, though, she and Robbie had taken vacations with our family a
number of times, often to Adventureland amusement park in Des Moines, Iowa, and
once on a Bicentennial road trip to Philadelphia to see the Liberty
Bell and to Washington, D.C., to see pretty much everything else associated
with America’s birth.
Robbie and I went to different high
schools and colleges, but we eventually both found our ways to Chicago.
We kept seeing each other at Boat Crew gatherings, but we’d slowly
drifted apart … as had many of the Boat Crew kids as we scattered about
the country and built our own families.
Robbie’s parents and
mine, of course, had stayed fast Boat Crew friends. And when Robbie was
facing the first weeks of his cancer treatments, my parents made a trip
to Des Moines to stay with them.
Robbie died six years ago today. Even though I knew it was inevitable, I
was more choked up than I’d expected to be when I got the call. We hadn’t seen each other in
probably five years. And I knew that he was no longer suffering through
an excruciating illness. But his death – especially as a Boat Crew kid
and not an adult – was a shock to all of us … and no doubt an
indescribable devastation to his parents. And though nobody in the extended Boat Crew family has died since Robbie did, we are all tacitly preparing ourselves for the next passing.
for the first time in many years, the entire Boat Crew – along with a
handful of Boat Crew kids – dropped everything in their lives and
appeared at the funeral. Forever part of the family, we walked in with
Robbie’s parents and biological family members and were seated right
behind them. And when the congregation sang “Beautiful Savior,” the Boat
Crew’s beautiful harmonies rose above the music as if to lift Robbie to
whatever awaited him in the afterlife and remind him of the loving
extended family he’d been a part of on earth.
His parents asked
me to be one of his pall bearers, which I accepted as an honor.
Escorting a lifelong friend to his grave is overwhelming – especially
when we’re both so young – but I felt giving him a solemn, respectful
final journey was the best gift I could give him. He was family, after