#4 of “23 Stories of Change” for our City Skyline Challenge!
For years, I had long, thin, faint, and then fainter, scars on my upper back and shoulders. I took pride in them and never said what they were from, hoping it would make me seem mysterious, for a Manhattanite anyway. They were from ropes. Specifically, they were sailboat ropes, the kind that have nicknames like “halyard” and “bobstay.” During the gale, they writhed around the deck like eels and lashed me as I rowed, and Billy stooped over me and hollered in my right ear what exactly was a stake. Dear life.
Maybe not, I think now from the safe harbor of my San Francisco single-family home more than 30 years later. Maybe it was only a typical Down East summer storm. Maybe Billy, the Vietnam vet, was having us row with all our might to pull the open-deck boat away from the jumble of sharp shore rocks as an exercise in courage for young city slickers who measured bravery by gulping their parents’ vodka. Even so. It scared the bejeezus out of me. As a middle-aged guy who sails his Prius to work every day listening to light jazz, I’m still puffed-up proud of how hard I pulled those oars that morning as the flailing ropes snapped and brought up beads of blood on my back.
Outward Bound, for me, was summer school, a last minute negotiation by my father – a lawyer – to make sure a disinterested student graduated from a disinterested public school. I skipped dozens of days. So, instead of learning calculus in a humid, half-empty classroom, I learned night navigation on an open deck boat off the coast of Maine . As we sailed soundlessly in the dark by the beacons we could feel the warmth of the passing, invisible islands. Once, we heard the bleating of sheep. It was …beautiful, a concept shunned like Victorian love poetry by the teenage boys who stalked Wollaston Beach, an old bandaid of sand and working class houses south of Boston. A girl could be beautiful, of course, a double play by the Sox, somebody’s souped-up car. I just didn’t have the vocabulary to describe how the sea feels at night when, beside us dolphins – DOLPHINS – streamed by in a pod leaving glowing contrails of blue-green bioluminescence. It was like a reflection of fireworks. And it was. So, so many stars.
Billy had us sail up to a tidal rock one morning. We weren’t suspicious. I lodged the anchor in some barnacled boulders and looked up to see what I was supposed to do next. PICK SOMETHING OFF THE BOAT. Wha? PICK SOMETHING, NOW. (Billy doesn’t need exclamation points, he was an exclamation point, with a green beret.) We picked a loaf of wheat bread. GET OFF THE BOAT. Wha? NOW. Panicked, we picked a few other things – some paper, a pen, some life preservers. Then, he had me hand back the land anchor. He sailed away. Many, many things have faded from my memory in the three decades since I spent the night on that shrinking, sharp-edged heap bleached with seagull shit. I remember Craig. He had a wispy beard and blue eyes and sunburn that only blonde people get. I remember these details because I held that pimply boy in my arms that whole freezing night. Craig, I can recall as well as my daughter’s birth and my marriage proposal in Seville , was warm.
These days, I am a grizzled car camper. I am handy with a tent and can quickly light a fire with last Sunday’s New York Times and some wood that I bought from the campground manager at $5 bucks a pop. I’ve been on a sailboat a few times since, once off the turquoise coast of Turkey and maybe a low-rent yacht or two. I have never since sat riding in a bow in a big Atlantic swell with my legs splayed out and my hair stiff and streaked with salt spray. I have rarely eaten anything as satisfying as the pail of mussels I ripped from the sea rocks near Hurricane Island and cooked up with some butter in an old pan. I hope never to be shamed again so badly as I was when I failed as that day’s captain to get us all to Isle a Haut on time because I was lazy and afraid to order my friends around. Dammit. I can still close my eyes and hear us row through the fog and see the pine trees as a diffused green glow and the man who came out on the deck of his sailboat and gave us no hello, but began playing a bagpipe. Our oars creaked and dipped into the smooth water in time as we moved away. First he disappeared in the mist, then his piping, faint, and then fainter.
You can make an expedition possible for a student by participating in or donating to the City Skyline Challenge! As Sean shared, your gift can make an impact that resonates in a young person’s life for years and decades to come.