Duck boat disaster: Tragedy strikes a country playground

When I was a boy, my father built a cabin on Table Rock Lake in the Ozark Mountains. We stayed there during the summe...

Posted: Jul 22, 2018 10:59 PM
Updated: Jul 22, 2018 10:59 PM

When I was a boy, my father built a cabin on Table Rock Lake in the Ozark Mountains. We stayed there during the summers. Usually once a week, we would venture into Branson, Missouri, for a sightseeing outing or entertainment. The one thing that always caught my attention were the duck boats.

Massive amphibious vehicles usually painted bright yellow, the duck boats frequently could be seen chugging through town streets on the way to visitor sights in what would soon become a tourist mecca.

The visitors I saw riding in them always looked happy and maybe a little giddy. Happy because the vehicles made them the center of attention wherever they went, and giddy because they knew the vehicle soon would be carrying them smoothly into the water, just like the GIs who invaded the shores of Normandy in World War II.

News of the appalling accident that left 17 people dead Thursday was, unfortunately, not a surprise to me, or probably anyone else in the area. Even as goofy and cheerful as they looked (the slogan -- "Ride the Ducks" -- was fodder for a series of lame jokes between my brother and me), I never begged my dad to go on the ride. Fun was fun, but even as a young boy it simply looked unlikely to me that the trundling machines could actually float, despite their war record.

I also was familiar by then with the storms that sometimes materialized quickly over the lakes in the summer. They were nothing to laugh at -- even if you were riding in what looked like a giant clown car.

There have been similar accidents to Thursday's Table Rock Lake disaster in the past.

Nineteen years ago, 13 people were killed when a duck boat sank on an Arkansas lake, although the weather was not a factor at that time.

I'm sure the owners of the Table Rock fleet were convinced that their boats were safe. After all, the "ducks" (short for DUKW, a manufacturing shorthand indicating their design and all-wheel drive capabilities) had survived a lot worse. And, of course, touring people around on them was a way of making a living in an area where just getting by financially was a challenge.

Indeed, Table Rock Lake, a dam-created reservoir built a half century ago, was an economic miracle for the region, drawing millions of vacationers from around the country. It helped turn the area into something of a country-themed Disneyland, packed with arena-sized theaters featuring singing stars ranging from Kenny Rogers to Andy Williams, and spawned the entertainment park "Silver Dollar City," built on an old silver-mine ghost town.

The locals responded to the surprising influx of visitors by selling them everything from pieces of aqua-colored "Arkansas Diamonds," a cheap, glass by-product; to homemade popguns carved from hollowed-out elder branches, to signs that say things like, "Never mind the dog. Beware of owner."

I'm sure converting a vintage Army vehicle into a visitor attraction -- the way tour companies in cities across the country have done, too -- seemed like nothing more than a good time, as well as an easy way to pluck the out-of-state chickens. It was that, for a long time. Now, all that may have changed with the dramatic footage of this tragedy.

We won't know until the investigation is completed the real reasons for this awful accident and how it could be prevented from ever happening again. It may be as much a question of why the boat was on the lake during a fierce storm as it is anything to do with the boat's design.

There are plenty of ways to have water adventures in the Ozarks; people may think twice now before choosing this one -- a bit of history on wheels that now trails an unspeakable tragedy.

To me, duck boats will remain a symbol of a more innocent time tempered by the realization that disaster can strike anywhere. Even in an area devoted to helping people forget their troubles.

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