Nobody probably thought the Boat Crew would last this long, actually.
When 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.
Unofficially (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.
As 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 family.
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.
Naturally, the 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 Boat Crew.
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 dishwashing soap.
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.
As the 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 now 80s … 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 Mississippi.
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.
Robbie (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 seven 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 painfully 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.
Colon 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 home.
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 seven 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 eight 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 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.
But 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 all.