DRIFTWOOD OUTDOORS: Grandfather’s boat still building memories long after he’s gone

BRANDON BUTLER, Driftwood Outdoors
An old boat, like the Lady Dee II, is a vessel of memories much more complex than simple fishing stories.

It’s just an old 1988, 17-foot, semi-v Starcraft with a 48-horse 2-stroke Evinrude. For sale, the boat wouldn’t fetch $3500. But to me, it’s a prized possession beyond monetary value. It’s home to many of my greatest childhood memories. The vessel that carried me to a lifelong love affair with fishing.

I was eight the day we went and picked up the Lady Dee II from the marina in Portage, Indiana. The first Lady Dee had recently been sold, but Grandpa couldn’t bring himself to name the greatest expenditure of his life after anyone or anything other than Dorlis “Dee” Kurpis, my grandma.

Rudolph “Rudy” Kurpis was my step-grandfather. He married my grandma not long before I was born. I never knew my mother’s father. Only met him once. Rudy Kurpis may not have shared blood ties with me, but he shared everything else. He was without question one of the most influential people ever in my life, and one of the best human beings I expect I’ll ever know.

As a child during the Great Depression, he helped feed the family by catching crappie and catfish from Deep River using only a handmade cane pole and thread from his mother’s sewing box. He’d make his own hooks from needles and catch grasshoppers and worms for bait. He was a pilot in World War II. Often telling me tales of flying the “Hump” and playing hide-and-seek in the clouds. He was shot down once, but survived by hiding in a rice field until being found by friendlies. Service to his family and country drove him to a high-level of moral character.

When grandpa retired from his position as vice-president of a local bank, he rewarded himself for all those years of work with the Lady Dee II. At the time, she was equipped with all the bells and whistles he’d been studying in the pages of In-Fisherman and Midwest Outdoors. The trolling motor had auto-pilot and the fish finder was so advanced that if a dot was red, it was a fish. For him, a lifetime of toil was rewarded every time he sat in the driver’s seat.

He didn’t fish locally too often. The occasional trip on Lake Michigan for perch when lack of wind would allow a boat this size on the “Big Lake” or a crappie fishing trip to Pine Lake could scratch his itch, but the real purpose of the Lady Dee II was to service his two trips per year to the North Country. Each spring and fall, he’d head to Minnesota or Wisconsin in search of walleye, northern pike, perch and crappie. He was never a bass fisherman.

His trips were so well prepared for. His equipment, meticulous. His new knowledge drawn from countless articles, limitless. Yet his success was never overwhelming. The fish usually won. But he went back every year. It’s what he dreamed about the other 50 weeks of the year.

I was along for a half-dozen or so of these northern trips. Then high-school sports and college classes got in the way. Once we found out about his cancer during my senior year of college, I knew I had to make the fall trip with him and grandma to Lake Osakis. Too weak to get up early, and not interested in my bass fishing expeditions, grandpa was in the cabin while I was standing in the bow of the Lady Dee II throwing a spinnerbait for largemouth listening to the radio on the morning of September 11, 2001 when the news of the World Trade Center hit the airwaves. We all remember where we were. I was in grandpa’s boat.

Rudy Kurpis died in 2004. The Lady Dee II has been in my possession ever since. Many children, including both of my own, have spent time fishing from her comfort. Few days go by when I don’t think of him. Last week, I had a special moment when I took my fifteen year old daughter, her boyfriend and her best friend to Thomas Hill Reservoir for a sunset tubing adventure. It’s all the old Evinrude can do to pull a tube loaded with a teenager, but she gets the job done. At one point, we anchored the boat in 20 feet of water and all jumped in. We sat there talking, laughing and floating on lifejackets and seat cushions.

As I soaked in the moment, with the sun was setting beyond the horizon, I stared at the Lady Dee II. Her namesake is now gone, as well. I thought about how far we have together, and how far we have yet to go. To anyone else, she’s just an old boat. To me, she’s a lifeline to my past and inspiration for my future. God willing, someday, my own grandchildren will fish from the Lady Dee II with me and I’ll tell them stories of the man who brought her home.

See you down the trail…

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