By Holly Leitner
The morning was peaceful, the lake calm. A scene worthy of one of those screen savers for your computer. A thin haze hovers over the lake foretelling the change of seasons. As the sun softly rises, the lake gently hiccups from the effects of a few early morning souls — a handful of fishermen, a few ducks and one vintage 1980s red Mastercraft boat carrying a vintage array of characters.
Four grown men, all over or approaching age 60, huddle together in the front two seats of the small and sporty ski boat. The rest of the boat is piled with their water skis and gear.
“Go ahead, you can go first,” Scott Leitner says with a slight smirk to one of his early morning waterskiing friends. This polite invitation is secretly a jab that carries a double-edge sword. Going first does promise glass-like water, but it also means you’ll be sitting in your cold, wet swimsuit until everyone has taken their turn to ski. Most water sports enthusiasts follow the 120 rule, which means the temperature of the air plus the temperature of the water must equal 120 degrees Fahrenheit. For this group, they settle at 100 degrees. It just ups the challenge for them.
“No, you go first, I insist,” says Rob Epply, Scott’s lifelong friend, skiing buddy and former neighbor.
A LIFETIME OF SKIING
They call themselves “The Gummers” — a crew of self-proclaimed old men who have formed an aggressive ski club, with members skiing at 34-36 mph, and carving up the lake no matter what Mother Nature is serving up. Their ski club started some 58 years ago when the Leitner and the Epply families were living in a lakeside subdivision. Five decades later, the “kids” still get up at sunrise to ski.
The motley crew consists of six members, each with a different background, but all with a love of Geneva Lake and waterskiing. There’s Scott Leitner, a former airline and National Guard pilot; Carl Meyer, a Julliard-trained conductor and Jake Biedler, a businessman. Then there are the Epply brothers: Rob and Don, who are both physical education teachers, and their brother Roger, a mechanical engineer. Some are retired, some are grandpas, one recently had knee surgery, another injured his neck, and most have stiff joints and regularly take a regiment of glucosamine to ease the pain — but it doesn’t stop them from the water.
THE MORNING RITUAL
Each morning starts with a phone call from one Gummer to the other — “Your side or my side?” The answer to that question determines the wind direction and helps them decide which boat to take and which side of the lake to ski. Moments later, eyes still filled with sleep, they assemble on the predetermined shoreline with coffee mugs clenched like a lifeline. The goal is to be on the boat, line in the water — “in position” — before sunrise. The theory for the past 50 years is that the early bird gets the good wake.
“Early in the morning is when the wind is the calmest,” says Don, “and not too many boats have started chopping up the lake.” Don’s taking a time out today as he is still recovering from a recent surgery. So he’s driving the boat, and that makes him happy to take on the title: “Heckler.”
“Can you lift that ski yourself?” snarls Don from the driver’s seat. They never miss an opportunity for an old man joke. On the boat, it’s snarky banter, all mixed with a long history of inside jokes, remember whens and recollections of worst falls. Another Gummers favorite is to show up wearing the oldest piece of clothing in their wardrobes — it’s a badge of honor and a salute to their past escapades.
Scott reluctantly grabs a ski jacket and suits up over his wetsuit. Just as the Gummers get the most of each morning’s water, they get the most of the season.
“They typically put the piers in on May 15 and take them out October 15 … so we ski from May 15 through October 15, and sometimes longer,” says Scott. “Sometimes we launch the boat late in the season if we still have a few nice days in November.”
Scott sits at the back of the boat, contemplating the jump in. After a few mental preps — it’s “kerplunk,” he’s in.
He shoots up gasping for air. The water temperature is more suited for a gin and tonic than an early morning swim. The other Gummers snicker from the boat — relishing in Scott’s pain just a bit. Within moments, he’s set up and ready to go.
“Go Cubs!” yells Scott. This is a typical Gummer’s Club line that means “Hit it” or “Go.”
The boat jumps forward pulling Scott up. He’s jetting back and forth flying over the wake, carving the lake, creating walls of water on each side. It’s like a work of art silhouetted by the sun gently crawling up behind him.
And then he’s done, next up.
Rob is up now. Someone says, “He’s not very good.” Of course this is a joke, because Rob always takes his skiing a step further, skimming by buoys and nearly pressing his shoulder to the glassy water as he cuts from side to side. It’s a symphony of skiing.
Just for this hour or so, many mornings of the season, the rest of life is left at the shoreline. It’s about the calm water. It’s also about some kind of dark satisfaction of watching each other suffer in the icy water. It’s a bit about the ritual of being bathed in Geneva Lake before anybody else is up. And mostly, it’s about staying young at heart.