The summertime stirs up my favorite memories of my dad. I remember spending most of my summer weekends with him on Lake Hamilton. My little brother, Jason, and I would wake up to the sound of music coming from the living room in our lakeside condominium. In our younger years when our parents were married, it was this stable-feeling unit of love and safety that brought such contentment to our youth. Spending time together on the lake as a family was something we’d always have. My memories run deep, and they are what remain.
I still remember the little place at Lakeland Lodge. Somewhere nearby was a greasy spoon located at the end of an old dock on Lake Hamilton where we ordered the best cheeseburgers I can remember. And as an adult and former member of a burger club when I lived in Austin, I have to admit, that’s high praise. Those juicy burgers with a more than generous slice of cheese came wrapped in white paper and a toothpick, and I used to think it was old-fashioned compared to the McDonald’s Styrofoam. What did I know? They were huge in our small four- and eight-year-old hands, and I’m sure my brother and I left our share of half-eaten cheeseburgers sitting in the sun, quitting them mid-bite because the lake suddenly became more interesting than meat, cheese and bun. Sitting in the boat, eating our cheeseburgers before going waterskiing and trying to convince our parents to take us to see E.T. or Return of the Jedi – those were our days of summer. We lived and breathed innocence, unknowing that within ten years Daddy would be gone. Needless to say, it stings a little when I’m on the lake with friends now because it’s still hard to put away the thought of, “This used to be my life, and it is supposed to be my life now, but it’s not and that’s not fair.” I keep my feelings private because no one wants to hear a sob story while they’re anchored in a cove devouring Jell-O shots.
In hindsight, there were clearly many things on daddy’s mind the morning of July 19, but at the forefront were his kids. My brother Jason and I were with our mom in North Little Rock, and he called our house that morning to talk to us.
Arbitrary decisions can be a blessing or a haunting memory. For example, the decision I made three times on Sunday, July 19, 1992, which was to not speak to my father on the phone when he called. I wasn’t mad or asleep or indisposed, and I had no idea of the impact this decision would be on my future. At the time, I was living with my mother and 14-year-old brother and had just returned from a road trip with my high school boyfriend’s family. That morning when I awoke, mom and Jason were making plans to go to the lake. In addition to the #802 condo at Beacon Manor, my brother and I had our own condo one floor below in #708. Daddy wanted to keep us separate because, well, he was a grown up and Johnny Burnett had his way of doing things. Whatever reasons he had, Jason and I thought it was pretty bad ass to have our own ski boat and lakeside condo. If there had been social media in 1992, our Instagram stories would have been legendary back then. I knew my way around the lake and boats long before I’d even kissed a boy. One of the first things daddy taught me to do when I was 14 and learned to drive a car was how to tow, back in and load his 32’ Wellcraft Excalibur cigarette boat.
But on that particular Sunday in the hotter side of July, Jason and mom were planning a day trip to the lake with my brother’s friend, Robbie, to take our little ski boat out on Lake Hamilton.
“Heather, your dad’s on the phone. He wants you to come talk to him,” mom called out to me from the kitchen. I woke up still reminiscing about my previous week at the beach, one of the few I’d ever seen in real life. I wanted to stay in my bedroom unpacking dirty clothes and inspecting every item of cheap shell jewelry and souvenir that made its way back from the coast.
“Not now,” I said. “I don’t want to go to the lake today. I’m too tired.” I mean, it was little ol’ Lake Hamilton, not the Gulf of Mexico. I was tired after driving all night the night before. Plus, I was sunburned because I didn’t really believe in sunscreen back then the way I started to obsess over it in my 30s.
But I couldn’t wait to see daddy the next day at work and tell him all about it. He often took vacations to Mexico and Hawaii in the winter during his off seasons, so I was eager to compare notes with him about my beach trip and to tell him about that $100 hamburger I saw on a menu in Florida. I also wanted to coordinate my next trip because I was driving to Fayetteville in a couple of days to attend freshman orientation at the University of Arkansas. The lake would be there next year, I thought.
“When she returned to Arkansas, it was early in the hours of July 19,” mom wrote in her own narrative documenting her memories of the day. “She was tired and did not want to do anything but sleep. Johnny called around 9:00 a.m. and asked if she’d gotten home okay and would I get her to come to Hot Springs with Jason and his friend today. He pleaded with me to make her come. He had not seen her in 10 days.”
“I’m tired, and I’ll see him on Monday,” I called out to her from the door of my bedroom.
Daddy called again that day asking me to come to the kitchen phone and putting in another effort to get me to come to the lake with them. While I’m sure he wanted to see me, he knew our little boat was “actin up” on its own, and he wanted someone more responsible and capable of handling it in case my brother and his friend ran into any trouble out on the lake. Mom was capable herself, but two 14-year-old boys don’t want mom around. Mom and dad were on excellent terms at the time, and he most likely wanted to relieve her of any burden involved in messing with a broke down ski boat in the middle of the day.
I never joined the calls because I wanted to unpack my crap souvenirs from the Gulf Coast. I took it for granted that I would see daddy the following day at work.
Before they went to the lake that day, Jason asked mom to ask dad if he could spend the night with him in Hot Springs on Sunday. He knew he would not have much time on the lake after the amusement park. Mom wanted to leave early to get back home and help me unpack and get ready for my visit to Fayetteville, so she wasn’t preparing to spend the night in the kids’ condo with them just so they could ski until the sun set.
“Well, it’s ok with me, but they’ll have to be up at 5:30 a.m. to come back to Little Rock,” daddy told her. “I didn’t work any on Saturday at the store, and I’ve got to be there early on Monday.” Mom knew the reason he missed work on Saturday. She was getting used to his phone calls starting out with “you’re not going to believe what’s happened to me now.” The events that took place Saturday were the first thing they talked about when he phoned that morning.
“When we ended our phone conversation that Sunday, I told him that I didn’t think that Jason would want to spend the night because he would not want to get up at 5:30 a.m.,” mom wrote. “No matter how much Jason loved the lake, he loved his sleep even more. He was a teenager. It was summer. Teenagers turn into vampires during summer vacations. They sleep all day and stay up all night.”
Mom and dad shared a laugh about it.
“Try to make Heather come,” daddy asked her for the third time.
A day at the lake
Mom, Jason and Robbie headed to Hot Springs around noon in mom’s little silver Hyundai. Before getting on the lake, mom dropped off Robbie and Jason at Magic Springs, an amusement park outside Hot Springs and told them she’d pick them up in two hours.
“I remember it being such a fun day,” Jason told me. He and Robbie had met two girls their age and spent time riding rides at Magic Springs before getting on the lake. They thought they were so cool meeting chicks for the first time. Jason had a boat and thought life was about to start getting really cool. While I prepared to enter college, Jason was eager to start high school as a freshman at Catholic High School for Boys.
“I didn’t see Johnny that day,” mom wrote. “But when we got to the condo, his car was there. Jason and Robbie headed for the boat dock and out to the lake. I read and watched a movie in the condo while the boys looked for Johnny on the lake. He was not hard to catch, Jason told me later.”
“Dad had blown an engine and was just creeping along,” Jason said.
Jason found him floating in the Excalibur in the main channel. He pulled the little white boat with a green stripe up to daddy’s boat as he began to tell his son the story of his day and how he’d been ticketed for shooting balloons at the Doubletree Hotel on the lake.
“He was drunk, not shitfaced, but very happily intoxicated and more drunk than I remembered seeing him other times,” Jason recounted.
“We just rode around on the lake,” Jason said. For the next few hours, the two 14-year-old boys rode around Lake Hamilton, stopping a couple of times to anchor and hop out to swim.
Decisions at the dock
By chance, the boys and daddy each arrived around 6:00 p.m. at the dock at Beacon Manor. Daddy had already parked when Jason and Robbie eased the boat into the slip next to his. Jason saw Sandra Locke helping daddy cover his boat with the large black cloth tarp. When they reconnected at the dock, daddy tried to get Jason to stay the night. Jason didn’t know if he really meant it or if he was saying it to be nice but knowing the boys wouldn’t want to stay and wake up at 5:00 a.m.
“He said he wanted to take me skiing and teach me how to slalom,” Jason said. Daddy wanted to take the kids boat out later that evening in that sweet spot before sun sets and there’s still light. The lake would be smoother to learn how to drop a ski to slalom.
Jason decided no because they’d already been out all day, and he knew daddy had been drinking. Plus, Robbie’s parents were so straight, and he didn’t want to get anyone in trouble.
“Everybody thought he was staying at his condo in Hot Springs that night, that’s what he was telling me,” Jason said, even though he also said he was getting his house back and would be moving back to Canal Pointe soon.
Jason remembers telling him that he would be missing work one day that upcoming week to go to Robbie’s brother’s birthday party.
“Oh, is it a frat party?” Jason remembered daddy saying. Jason reminded his dad that no, his little brother was turning 10. The boys said goodbye and headed up the hill to meet mom. There was a security gate at the dock, and the last time Jason saw daddy was standing there at the dock as Jason closed the gate behind him.
“I think your dad’s stoned,” Robbie said as they walked up the long stairway to the lobby of Beacon Manor.
The person who bought the Excalibur kept it in that slip for years until recently. If you knew what to look for, you could see the boat from the Highway 70 bridge.
“It was like it was frozen in time,” Jason said. “It was eerie to see the boat there for years.” And we did see it for years because that road led to our grandparents’ home in southwest Arkansas. It’s not there now, but the decks at Bubba Brew’s would have provided an excellent vantage point.
Jason told me he felt so much resentment seeing that boat there for decades and what it represented.
“We could’ve had so many years with him on that boat,” Jason said. “It’s like the symbol of what could have been.”
Bro, I know. I know.