Kelly Hale can still remember being mesmerized by the whirring of the outboard motor as she sat on the plywood back seat of her family's boat. Forty-some years later, she can still feel how the sun warmed her face as that wooden craft cut sharply through Clear Lake's shimmering veneer.
Her father, Purman Hale, had built the 14-foot wooden boat from scratch, completing the 18-month project in 1957 at his home in San Leandro. It was red and white, had shiny chrome fixtures and a mahogany-stained deck, and its name was printed in fancy script on the side: Little "Mo."
"Boating was the up and coming thing in those days and water skiing was popular," says Kelly, now 48. "My father was not a builder by profession, but he was good with his hands and loved to fix and repairs things around the house. He built the boat the same year he married my mother."
The young family eventually moved to Pleasanton and the handcrafted Little "Mo," named for the mighty battleship USS Missouri, became the center of family vacations. Each summer they would join friends and family at Indian Beach Resort where they would have fun water skiing and catching catfish and crappie.
"That boat was a dream come true for Purman, and we were both incredibly excited about it," says Shirley Hale, 75. "While he was building it, I'd peek in and check on his progress. We loved boating and, as the children came along, we kept going to Clear Lake for vacation. We had wonderful times with that boat."
Purman Hale sold the boat 10 years later to buy a bigger one for his growing family of four children, Rhonda, Dan, Kelly and Jodie, and, to this day, the family continues their lake vacations with spouses and grandchildren. But Kelly Hale never forgot Little "Mo." Even though she was only 5 when it was sold, her early memories were enhanced by black-and-white photos and old home movies of their vacations.
Hale, who now lives in Martinez, thought about the boat from time to time, wondering where it was. But it wasn't until her father died in 2009 that she began the search for it in memory of his love of boating.
"I had no idea what my chances would be of finding it after so many years. But one of my dad's mottoes was 'Never give up,'" said Hale, "and I was determined to find the boat that was so much a part of my dad."
Luckily, the registration number was clearly printed on the side so it was easy to see in the photographs. She sent it to the DMV, filled out lots of paperwork, and then waited. Six weeks later, she got her answer: the boat was not only registered, but owner John Walden lived around the corner from her sister in Livermore. She immediately called him and arranged to see the boat.
"I had a lump in my throat as I walked with John to the backyard," said Hale. "When I saw the boat, and especially the back by the motor, the memories came flooding back. I just lost it."
It was a memorable moment for Walden as well.
"It was a very emotional reunion for Kelly," said Walden, who had restored the boat 10 years earlier after finding it lying dilapidated in someone's yard. "Once she told me the story and showed me the photos of her family with the boat, I knew that it wasn't mine anymore. It belonged to her."
Within the year it took for Walden to find a new boat and deliver the old one to Hale, this February, she became very knowledgeable as she spent months searching the Internet to find the missing parts to duplicate the way her father had built it.
Among her many finds: a replica of the boat's missing windshield, an exact match of the boat's metal motor cover, and a speedometer from that same era. But most importantly, she found restoration experts who ended up caring about the project as much as she did. The full restoration was completed in September.
"That was a real special project for me because I knew how much it meant to Kelly and her family," says Clarence Wilson, owner of Sacramento Outboard Services, who miraculously brought the historic motor back to life. "It was a pleasure to be there when they came up to see the final product after so many months. There were tears and hugs all around."
So on a beautiful fall day in October, Kelly Hale and her mom brought Little "Mo" back to Clear Lake after four decades. The freshly painted red-and-white boat had re-chromed fixtures, a re-stained deck, new aluminum trim, and its name carefully reprinted in the identical '50s script.
With her heart pounding, Kelly started the motor for the first time, then climbed to the front and placed her hands on the cherry-red steering wheel she remembered so well.
"The water was perfectly calm as my mother and I slowly circled the cove," said Hale, who wore her father's old fishing hat for the occasion. "My dad put his heart and soul into this boat, and I felt like he was smiling down on us. It is such a treasure to have it back. It will never leave us again."