This is the seventh anniversary of Spring Green, another one of my favorites, another story that revolves around France and sailing and that little marina in Paris. I wrote this story while in Wisconsin, attending a conference on, of all things, Frank Lloyd Wright, and in the tiny village of Spring Green. His Taliesen (East) is located there, as is his School of Architecture. Fascinating place, and if into architecture, or building in general, it’s worth going for a visit.
Going over this story recently I found so many indecipherable run-on sentences I grew embarrassed, so decided on a re-write, and this one from ‘top to bottom.’ A few minor plot changes here and there, but Spring Green is mostly as she was, just out for a stroll with a fresh new coat over her shoulders. Most of the story vis-a-vis the WWII encounter in Dole comes from long talks with a friend of my fathers, a B-17 pilot who was shot down in the region during the last year of the war, and who was taken in by partisans. He went to France several times a year to visit ‘friends’ until he passed. Certain elements of the ‘Ham’ part of the story are from his life, too. C’est la vie, Gus.
Such a beautiful life. What a friend. Anyway, here she is…
Things are never what they seem
Let a star be just a star
And a woman – just a dream.
Dreams Are Best | Robert Service
Oh yes, life is change…because as Yeats’ said – ‘things fall apart,’ and the fall can be brutal and direct – or – such change may arrive softly, with the coming of a breeze. Sometimes change arrives on vast columns of marching men playing dark anthems, yet too, there are those few times when change comes as gently as the night, in the form of a woman, perhaps, if you’re lucky. Our own cycles of life remind us – or they try to, anyway – that ‘nothing lasts forever,’ that we are here but for an instant and life will move-on dry-eyed without us after we leave. Still, for some people the very idea of change is foreign, the idea isn’t welcome; it takes a while for the idea of change to take root and grow. Call these people slow learners if you like. And while you’re at it, you’d better lump me in this last category. Slow, as in: it took me quite a while to figure out what was going on, and what it all meant.
So, to begin a recounting of these events – something unexpected comes along and bang: you’re in the middle of a big life crisis? Okay, like that’s gonna make headlines? Hold the presses? Film at eleven?
Not a chance. No, the change I’m thinking of resides in memory so deep you might think of it as, well, almost a genetic thing. This kind of change is easy to miss because the process is so incremental – change is small, slow, almost undetectable over a lifetime – and it almost always happens out of sight. This kind of change doesn’t jump out at you, rather it’s faintest outlines begin to emerge in memory. And although this is my story to tell, I couldn’t begin to do so without tracing a few of the faint outlines of my own ‘genetic’ memory. I’m hoping you might see parts of a greater story this way, because maybe, just maybe there are echoes of greater memories at play in the night, evidence of some larger process at work.
And I’ll have to begin this story by describing the most unlikely hero imaginable. I want to paint a picture of an older man, a man getting on in years but not yet so withered and worn down by change that he has stopped wondering about time, and the meaning of it all. I’d have you picture a tall man, say around six feet tall, and stocky in a muscular way that reminds you of youth. He had hair on his head once upon a time, but now all that remains is a thinning silver fringe around the sides, and when you see this man in your mind’s eye the one thing that will stand out most is his eyes. Cool and grayish-blue, the whites clear, they feel distant in a way but the closer you get the more you feel a certain penetrating warmth: you feel a contentedness in his eyes, perhaps an echo of this in his easy smile. You might see eyeglasses on the man as he reads a newspaper, but let’s visit him in our memory as he was before our last trip together. Let’s visit him in his office.
You’ll see him wearing an expensive, well-tailored suit, clothing that seems a natural extension of his body. He stands behind a large mahogany desk; beyond him is a wall of glass and far below, the lights of a large city shimmer in golden glory. This man should be, in your eyes at least, the very picture of success. He is Homo-Americanus and quite proud of the fact, and though he is but mortal flesh, in his own way he is unchanging, unyielding – immortal.
This man happens to be my Uncle Chuck, or Charles Wentworth Addington, Jr., and I use the word ‘unchanging’ advisedly, because for Charles change meant nothing at all unless he was the one in charge of it. Unless he’d massaged and shaped change – and beat the ever loving crap out of it when it didn’t perform as expected. Any other change was trivial, mundane, something to be dealt with by associates down in the Minor Bullshit Department. The type of change I’ve been alluding to, all that genetic hooey, tends to make a mess of things – and Uncle Chuck didn’t do messy – at least not that I was aware of. That kind of change is unpredictable, and Charles Wentworth Addington, Jr. just wasn’t an unpredictable, or even a spontaneous man. Spontaneous is combustion, often shocking, energetic and – always messy. Uncle Chuck was the polar opposite; he was glacial, as cool as they come — and as stonily deliberate and predictable as any glacier you’ve ever walked on.
Maybe he was too cool for his own good, because in the end he didn’t embrace change. Very few do, especially men like Uncle Chuck. Change, like time, is a predator. Change is patient, steady, waiting and ready to line you up in it’s sights – and pull the trigger – whether you happen to be ready, or not. Maybe that’s why, I think, he tried to hide from change. Because unlike most of the things I associate with life, change rarely misses it’s targets. Not even when men like Uncle Chuck get in the way, or protect the people they love from change.
But now’s the time to get a few other details out of the bag and right up front: this story isn’t altogether about Uncle Chuck, and it’s not just about change, though maybe I should make that Change with a capital C right about now. No, this story is, in it’s own roundabout way, a love story. Maybe love stories, as a matter of fact, layer upon layer of love, the kind that – as long as there is memory – never fades away. Falling in love is often a messy, unpredictable, and spontaneous affair, and falling in love often generates a little combustion of it’s own, leaves a little black soot on your sleeves that’s hard to wash off. I’m sure you get the picture, but if you don’t, well, just remember as events unfold that things Change, and Change almost always comes along when you least expect it, whether you’re ready for it or not.
Uncle Chuck, it seemed to me, lived out most of his life in an office on the forty-eighth floor of what was at one time the tallest building in Boston, Massachusetts. Forty-eight was of course the top floor, and Chuck’s office was the biggest one up there. Real nose-bleed territory, or so my father called it. And to give you proper context let’s add that Chuck owned the building, and the bank in it, the land the building was on and a lot of the land around it. Chuck was rich in so many ways. So many ways no one understood. Not even Chuck.
He had one son, to whom he was devoted completely, my cousin Ham, or Charles Wentworth Addington, III. He was called Ham because he had fat cheeks – that looked exactly like a hamster’s. The image that often comes to mind when I think of hamsters is that they run endlessly in little stainless steel cages, in the corner of your bedroom, perhaps, when you were a kid. I don’t like to say this now, because I find it odd even now, but that’s about all I remember of Ham. He was a hamster in a little cage, running and running and never getting anywhere. If you think about the clicking of a hamster’s little claws as it runs on it’s treadmill, well, that is, it seemed to me, the little creature’s life’s work. That was Ham, always running and never getting anywhere. Something else, too; I remember thinking all those years ago that the hamster he kept in his room was much happier than he was, but I guess some people make their own treadmills no matter where they go, no matter the circumstance.
But, and this is important, more than anything else in the world, Uncle Chuck loved his wife Ruth. She was the light of his life, and while, perhaps, his love for her was just another manifestation of his desire to hold Time in his hands – there was never any to doubt of his absolute love for her. She was beautiful, yes, but so much more than simple beauty shone through; her soul was of a timeless sort, one might even be tempted to call her’s an unchanging beauty, and when I speak of Chuck as we move along you need remember her presence was always in the air about him, even if she wasn’t physically with him. Let me add something in case I’ve confused you: what made her so staggeringly beautiful was the simple fact her beauty was so much more than skin deep. She was beyond nice. She’d come from old money yet she studied sociology, worked in soup kitchens and could always be found on Tuesdays volunteering at a hospital for crippled and burned children. Beautiful, and timelessly so, in so many ways. She was as beautiful on the occasion of Chuck’s fifty seventh birthday, the day she passed away, as on any other day I knew her. Everyone at the party said so, right up until she suffered the stroke that felled her – while she whirled about the room – as ever the perfect hostess. She was his partner, in the best and truest sense of the word.
That was 1969, which I remember vividly as the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius (enter Chorus, stage left – ‘let the sun shine in’). Is it just me? Because I remember thinking the very air that we breathed was alive with change.
Or was 1969, as I now suspect, a vast opera that felt very much like Change – but was instead a shimmering – chimera? Some might call 1969 a period of manifest change, even Hegelian change, but now, after seeing where it all led I’m content to call it a False Spring. The long winter of our discontent has yet to lift, or so it sometimes seems, and the bleak streets of winter linger on.
Anyway, Aunt Ruth passed away that year, but our 1969 was about all kinds of Change: Nixon lying and Cambodia burning, hippies tripping and Led Zeppelin screaming about a Communications Breakdown ( – it’s always the same – ), Barbie and Ken dolls and Kent State falling – and something even happened on the moon, but who cares these days about stuff like that. Music defined my life back then, maybe it still does, but the song that plays in my heart now, as it did that summer, was called Yesterday and Today, by a group called Yes. I can’t think of Chuck and Ruth and Ham without hearing that music passing by one more time.
And 1969 was also the year Ham left us, to fly helicopters in Vietnam. He returned, a decorated war hero – in a flag-draped coffin – a few weeks before Chuck’s 57th birthday, a few weeks before Ruth passed. I think that was Uncle Chuck’s first real experience with the spontaneous combustion Change can release. There was more change coming, of course, more than any of us knew, as it turns out, but let me say that Uncle Chuck came undone in the weeks before that birthday. So too did Ruth, and yet they seemed to be pulling out of that free-fall when…
But let me take another tack just now, show you a few other pieces of this puzzle before we get to the meat of the matter.
Ah, yes, my father, the missing part of this equation. My dad was the exact opposite of Chuck, his polar opposite. Chuck was Beacon Hill; Dad was The Cape. Chuck was Wharton; Dad dropped out of Harvard to go to Paris because it sounded like the thing to do. Chuck met Ruth at Penn and married her after a brief courtship; Dad was painting hookers on the Boulevard de Clichy one morning when an English girl happened by and, admiring his work, asked if he’d like to join her for tea at the Crillon. They married later that afternoon, or so the story goes, a large quantity of Pernod rumored to be a factor in their well-considered decision to tie the knot. But more on my mother in a moment; I need to talk about the dynamic between Chuck and my father just now.
These two brothers, it turned out, were more than just a study in contrasts: they were, rather, poised as mortal enemies, opposite particles of matter and anti-matter held apart by all the forces nature could muster. Their parents failed at the enterprise completely, by the way. I’ll spare you the details. But, and this might be important, the root of the idea of genetic memory I alluded to earlier was buried deep within this fertile soil. What grew between them blossomed and reached for the sky, then as suddenly withered and died – only to be reborn again and again, as though this cycle of hope and despair was the product of vast and inexorable influences between the moon and her tides. Once I asked my father about the difference between hate and love; he had no answer, and I think that summed up those two men.
My mom, on the other hand, has always been a rather contrary creature in and unto herself, a study in contradictions in her own right, so much so that her mere presence unsettles even the most well-adjusted people and, on more than one occasion, she was known to make Uncle Chuck consider a swan-dive from the top of his building – just to get away from her. I’m not going to waltz into the DSM-IV and say she’s bi-polar or has Multiple Personality Disorder; I will say that right up to this very day she’s doing her very best to keep half the psychiatrists in London quite busy. Mad as a balloon, as Douglas Adams said more than once, but lovely nevertheless. She seems intent on living forever too, and as she believes this possible I won’t be in the least surprised if she pulls it off.
Dad, on the other hand, punched out early. He’d had his fill of life by the time he was thirty, or so he told us one and all during one of his regular periods of self-examination; regardless, he was a free-spirit and died in his own free-spirited way, skiing in Chamonix. He was 59 at the time, and by then a decent if not very serious architect; when he passed I was in college and he’d just received word of Ham’s death in Vietnam. Mom was, God bless her, still at his side. He soldiered on into the great void with a smile on his face even if he did cry a little. He was wondering, Mom told us later, if they served Pernod in heaven, and was apparently quite put out when she said she wasn’t sure.
Dad’s main vice, aside from my mother, was the sea, and that pure love of the sea was the one thing both my father and Uncle Chuck had in common. They both reveled in the mere idea of being at sea, they breathed the sea and I’m sure salt water ran in their veins, but there was a perverse quality to their lust. On reflection it took perhaps twenty years of passive observation to figure out exactly what had so distorted their sea-fever. And yes, it has something to do with genes and memory and yes, change. And this is where I came to play a small, supporting role in the unfolding drama of their lives.
As it turned out, they both enjoyed racing sailboats, and they seemed to enjoy racing against one another. When they were both out on the water, which was often, and when they were in reasonable proximity to one another, it was like watching Athenians and Persians at the Battle of Salamis. Splinters and shouted insults between boats, shaking fists and trembling lips, and then – me. The little kid huddled just out of sight – taking it all in. I was, it turned out, the last witness to their continuing war, to the unending, everlasting fratricide that defined our family’s life. In the end, Dad stopped racing his own boat because he couldn’t get insurance anymore, and that was the end – for a time – of my life on the water. I’m certain this was all a prudent choice on the insurers’ part, as apparently sailing was just another venue for their little war, for them to tear each other to shreds, yet their tactical inexactitudes were not what the underwriters had in mind; still, while I was impressed at the time, you shouldn’t be. Destroying sailboats in random displays of filial hatred is a game best left to addled children, and, who knows, maybe all this was just another genetic issue working it’s way to the surface.
But even all that Death there was more Change in store for Chuck and myself; the sea kept calling us and eventually I returned to sailing, for you see, I too loved the water.
After Dad passed my sailing fires slowly burned down to embers, yet it was about that time Uncle Chuck caught the cruising bug; I would – on the other hand and in short order – become interested in girls – and cars. Yet the sea was always there, and I soon found myself thinking about Dad and his boats. Soon I wanted to sail again, sail all the time, and Chuck provided both the means and, unexpectedly, the end.
And I think our coming together again was as inevitable as it was unavoidable, and Uncle Chuck and I discovered we both missed my dad far too much to let go of one another. Soon I discovered Chuck’s ‘hatred’ had simply evaporated, and I have to admit it never dawned on me that what they had endured all their lives was a peculiar form of love.
Because frankly, I didn’t know Chuck very well, had not the slightest idea what made the guy tick. Dad had always painted an impressionist’s landscape of his brother: like a Seurat it made a peculiar sense from a distance – but the closer you got all form dissolved into blurry chaos – and while clearly in the noise there was color of a sort, in my vision of Chuck the truth was not so easily discovered – without a little distance, anyway. Yet I accepted this landscape without question, and accepted these distortions as our collective Truth.
I had so much to learn, and the world’s worst teacher as my guide.
After college I took a year off and wandered through France, my grandfather’s homeland – and I did so on foot mostly, but spent a few weeks on a canal barge – and while I might have been following Dad on his Parisian idyll, there were deep familial roots in France’s ancient soil, and I had yet to feel them before that trip. After father’s death I understood I needed to feel these roots, these connections. And I say ‘need’ intentionally, like we need air to breathe, like without exposure to these influences we might as well shuffle off this mortal coil. Anyway, call France an ‘Elective Affinity’ on my part; Goethe wouldn’t give a damn and it’s as close to the truth as words can take us. Besides, I found after graduation I had this complete and inexplicable desire to paint landscapes and eat snails drenched in garlic-butter. Boston offered little to satisfy these urgings and Mom decided to move back to England as well – so off I went.
But I note here that Chuck wanted very much that I come work in the bank, follow in his footsteps, and oddly enough it was this impulse more than any other that set me off on my wanderings. There is, you see, a certain gravity to the footsteps we follow. Uncle Chuck was a little miffed and I’m sure Dad was laughing his ass off while arm wrestling Toulouse Lautrec over a bottle of absinthe in the Parisian whorehouse that must surely be his heaven.
I had been around enough docks and boats by that time to know that families are like tides. There’s an ebb and flood to our anguish and joy, dangerous currents swirl around the rough edges of their need. But there’s a sort of inevitableness within these cycles, change is predictable within a certain range of movement. A family’s pain is often most apparent after a bad storm – but time heals all wounds, doesn’t it? – even if, after all is said and done, a little pain remains. I suppose it’s just our nature to go with the flow, so in time Chuck got past the desire to control everything and accepted my departure. You might say he was learning to accept change. Or perhaps the gravity of which I spoke flowed more deeply through our veins than even I suspected.
When I came back from France I started at The Fletcher School, at Tufts, and was taken with the grand idea that I might turn out to be a decent diplomat. So, I set my sights on working for the State Department, and Uncle saw this as well within a range of acceptable outcomes and gave up on the idea of my working on the 48th floor; soon he was inviting me, and an endless if stately progression of girlfriends, out for a spin on the Bay on his old racing boat, and then almost every weekend, too. Then it was every weekend. On Thursday evenings in the summer it was soon a given I’d crew during the informal races that took place in the waters off downtown. We soon developed, you see, a little gravity of our own, for I needed him as much as he did me.
He was a careful sailor, prudent, as unlike my father as he could be. Before casting off lines for even a quick sail out to the rocks and ledges around Flying Place, the tanks would be filled and the larder stocked, his battered Plath sextant ever ready to take a quick sight, or even a bearing-off if needed. He explained it to me thus one crisp autumn afternoon: suppose, he said, you’re out on Mass Bay, maybe headed out to look at whales or cross over to P’town – and the rudder breaks. Just snaps off. Soon you find yourself drifting off toward the Gulf Stream and your next landfall might be Ireland, or more fun still, Greenland. “Would you,” he said, “rather make the trip with a little food and water on board, or make do for six weeks on a six-pack of Dr Pepper and that bag of Doritos?”
An interesting philosophy of life, don’t you think?
So, he was Prudent. The laces on his boat shoes were always double-knotted – “No need to trip and fall overboard, is there!” So complete was my upbringing I didn’t even know there were people who double-knotted their shoes – until Chuck pointed this out.
While Dad didn’t mind somersaulting down the road less traveled, Chuck wasn’t about to go any such place with stopping by the auto club first. “Always keep your charts up to date! It’s a pain in the ass but keep up with your Notices to Mariners!” Always do your homework, in other words. Right, got it!
My dad had always been too busy hurling the middle finger at his brother to teach me a thing about sailing; now, at last I had a teacher, and a damn fine one, too. I paid attention. And soon he was looking over the girls I brought along, sizing them up. “Now that’s a damn fine woman,” he’d confide while we tied off the boat beyond earshot, or “Goddamnit, you can do better than that knock-kneed imbecile!” He was patient, steady, cool, and I was coming to feel quite at home with him. And anyway, he was usually right about the girls.
We started going out to dinner a couple of times a week, usually to talk about world events but sometimes to talk about football or – yes – sailing away to parts unknown someday soon.
He talked a lot about crossing the Atlantic someday, maybe cruising slowly through the canals of France in search of the perfect loaf of bread, that perfect bottle of wine he just knew was out there waiting – for those willing to look, anyway. I tried to get him to loosen up, to try to be spontaneous from time to time, to live his dreams. No such luck, he wouldn’t have it.
Those dreams were beyond the range of his tides, weren’t they?
But come August every year we looked forward to the boat show in Newport, and it was always a fine day when we loaded up in his ancient Land Rover and headed south down 95 to look at the newest boats and gadgets. We called it Dreamville. Odd, now that I think of it.
One year we went down and looked over a bunch of cruising sailboats: “Just the thing, you know, for a week in Maine!” or “Hell, you never know, I might just get an itch and have to do the Bermuda Race next June.” But there was a darker undercurrent inside his dreaminess: “Son, I’m getting too old to handle a big racing boat anymore.” I began to hear this more frequently, at dinner sometimes, and then after one particular boat show, when I had to drive the Land Rover back to Boston. And while his thinking was methodical, logically methodical, he kept his dreams within that precious range of the comfortable.
My last year of school, when we went to the show in Newport, I paused and listened when he talked to a couple of boat-builders about the best boats capable of crossing the Atlantic, about this or that feature, and though I heard him say “that’s just a damn fine idea” more than a few times, I could see he had his eye on one boat in particular. “What do you think of her?” he kept asking me, and “I like the lines of her, don’t you?” We kept coming back to that boat over and over, and we crawled below time and again; there had been a nasty recession on for a couple of years and the builder looked hopeful each time Chuck came by – and despondent each time he walked away. Late that final afternoon of the show, as folks were shutting down their booths for the year, Chuck ambled over to the builder and pulled out his checkbook. I thought the builder, a spry man from Maine, was going to have a heart attack right there. A Merry Christmas was, I’m sure, had by one and all that year.
But – had Chuck been Spontaneous? I wasn’t sure – maybe a glimmer, just maybe.
Graduation rolled around that next May and I was slated to head off to Virginia a few weeks later; Uncle was in a little bit of a funk, and hell, I was too. An important chapter in our lives was drawing to a close and we knew it; things would be Different. Our lives were going to Change, one more time. What was interesting about that brief interlude, as I look back on things from forty years on, was how much I had changed during those few brief years. The impulsiveness my father had posited in me had slowly, inexorably given way to more the more immediate gravity of his brother; I had become a little less spontaneous, a little more cool and reserved, definitely better suited to the life Chuck had made of his world.
I was driving down 95 through New Jersey on that first trip south when I pulled off the road to grab some coffee. I looked down and noticed my old boat shoes were double-knotted.
I didn’t see Chuck for a few years; I instead spent two years trapped in D.C. behind a desk, always preparing for another exam, and rarely had two consecutive days off. I did have one three-day weekend after my first year, so made it up to Boston for Chuck’s birthday, and that was also the first year I’d spent without seeing the ocean, let alone sailing on it. Mom got sick after that time and I landed a temporary posting to the Embassy in London; Chuck came over more than once to lend a hand and I kept him posted as best I could on changes in my life – but you could say at best those were brief conversations, short talks with plenty of time to spare for rambling discussions of the weather.
The temporary posting turned into a semi-permanent position and I took a flat near Paddington Station, an area teeming with Indian restaurants and short-posted diplomats; I proceeded to eat curry three times a day and soon developed all sorts of interesting gastrointestinal disorders. ‘The shape of things to come?’ I wondered. Mom got better – a relative term, I know, and I learned more about her family – and my own – and time passed gently by. Uneventfully might be a better word.
A year later I had a three week stretch of vacation lined-up for the coming summer and I called Chuck, let him know I was free; he had decided to do the Bermuda Race and had wanted to invite me along – but didn’t want to intrude – “In case you have other plans.”
“Well, you never know!” And I can still hear his voice. He was happy with the new boat and looking forward to sailing her, and sailing her hard. He reminded me of Dad when I heard the same deeply resonant, discontented happiness in his voice. “Doing an ocean race like this is a big deal,” he went on. “Grand memories are made on trips like this, William,” he told me time and again.
How true, how true. And how very much like my father he sounded on those brief, flooding tides.
I started relearning how to shoot noon-sights with a sextant and use sight reduction tables to sort out the math for Altair; I started exercising and going to a Japanese place near the Embassy to clean the curry from my system, and I even managed to find a couple of Brits with Admiral’s Cup boats who wanted a semi-seasoned navigator. I was in training! I started to run again, lift weights. Change was in the air!
About that time I had a semi-serious affair with a girl I’d met while out jogging one day. Sweet kid, really lovely – if a bit mad. When I looked at Angela West I got weak in the knees. Her clock was ticking, however, and I seem to remember all she had on her mind was making babies. And her taking me out to the family farm for a look-see one sunny April afternoon. She didn’t want me to go sailing; no, she wanted to go off on holiday and stay with her family in Devonshire. Let’s see…three weeks of up-tight cream teas or a mad ocean race with Uncle Chuck and three of his best, most disreputable friends.
Still, breaking up with Angela seemed to hit very hard. I can still see her face. She simply couldn’t believe anyone would walk away from the wonders of Devonshire and clotted cream.
I flew into Logan in late May, helped get the boat ready to race; Chuck took time to acquaint me with her updated electrical systems and the minor idiosyncrasies in the updated Nav setup. All this while we provisioned and got ready for the start off Newport. The Race Committee came by to inspect all the boats and their systems, and especially the safety gear. Seminars were held on the dynamics of the Gulf Stream and it’s atmospheric interactions; radio procedures for emergencies were detailed and our responsibilities thereto spelled-out. The whole affair was all very well organized, and the entire process seemed to enliven the physicians Chuck had invited to come along as crew. We were getting stoked; Chuck was flat-out beside himself with excitement. He’d never raced his own boat to Bermuda and he was all raging testosterone, almost like a predator sprinting in for the kill.
And really, the point I’m trying to make is this. The race was a big deal, certainly, but wasn’t it all about having fun? Still, whatever “fun” I found seemed to have gotten lost in Chuck’s free-flowing testosterone; as I looked around at the men in these pre-race seminars I saw more than a few hyper-competitive risk-takers among the people gathered, bankers and stockbrokers and lawyers, all well-heeled and prosperous I’m sure, movers and shakers each and every one of them. But were they having fun? Or were they just exporting their fierce competitiveness from the boardroom to the sea. Looking at Chuck was all I needed to know the answer to that question.
I would say happy, yes; maybe even having fun – of a sort. Maybe in the same way engineering the hostile takeover of a rival business can be fun. “Oh yes, George, sorry to have snuffed out your life’s work and put you on the street, but hey, it’s nothing personal. I’m sure you understand…” Maybe I understood, maybe I didn’t, but while I watched these men strutting about like peacocks in their plaid trousers and Polo shirts I began to feel a little uneasy. Maybe just a little out of my element. I think my father had been uneasy with these sorts, and all his life, too. Maybe he’d just taken to fighting the wars he could, fought the battles he thought he might have a chance at winning, or at least walking away not too badly injured.
I think I began to look at Chuck a little differently after that. If this was his idea of fun then we’d soon part company. I was, after all, my father’s son.
I don’t want to dwell on the race; it isn’t important. We knifed through the Gulf Stream with ease and negotiated the reefs around the north side of Bermuda with no problem. We finished second in our class, a respectable showing for a 42 foot cruising boat, and Uncle was pleased as punch. I flew back to London, Chuck and his doctor-buddies sailed on to Nova Scotia and worked their way back down the coast back to Boston; I heard later they ate a bunch of lobster, drank too much scotch and had a grand time. End of story.
Mom was much better by then, and good thing, too. Soon after my return the head of section called me to his office and told me to get my things in order and pack for a hot climate. He detailed my new posting and I groaned. I bitched. I hesitated – right there in his office. Thoughts of quitting and returning to Boston danced in my mind, of maybe moving up to the 48th floor and putting my recent experience to use in more profitable undertakings; all sorts of crap flashed through my mind – and then I remembered those strutting peacocks in their plaid trousers.
“Out of my element,” I said softly as memory washed away anger, revealing the cold stone walls of that other world.
“What’s that, Bill?”
I shook myself physically away from thoughts of Boston, returned to my flat and packed my things. A few days later I was on my way to Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon.
The assignment of my dreams.
Yes. My thoughts exactly. I spent the next few years of my life there, and saw Uncle Chuck only rarely. Sailing was soon little more than a fond, if distant memory, and I seem to recall my shoelaces came undone from time to time.
So the years passed with little said between us, and I really didn’t know what was going on with him during that period. He had tried to forget about Ruth, he wrote once, by sailing up and down the east coast, but that had been a bust. Then one day another letter came. He had taken-up riding, was cruising all over the country on a motorcycle. I sat up when I read that letter, if only because a motorcycle was a symptom of something deep and dark. Something he didn’t want to tell me.
I asked the ambassador for vacation and got a month, then called Chuck and told him I was on my way.
“Good,” I heard him say through the scratchy connection, “we’ve got some unfinished business we need to get out of the way.”
He met me at Logan, and yes, in the same old slate blue Land Rover he’d had since forever, and we drove over to his slate blue-hulled boat. He had The Baby Ruth completely provisioned and cleaned-up, by the way, and she shone like a diamond. Her teak freshly varnished and all the chrome glittering to a sharply faceted brilliance under that moist April sun, we jumped on board and I stood-to and cast off lines like I had so many times before – with him – and with my father. Chuck brought Ruth into the wind while I raised the main and unfurled the staysail, then the high-clewed yankee. Full sail set, we close-reached out the inner harbor channel, right under the final approach to Logan as jets screamed by just overhead, and as he pointed up a bit into the wind the cutter bit into the breeze and danced her way across the harbor. We quickly made our way out into Massachusetts Bay, onto waters so familiar they seemed like home to me.
We’d hardly said a word to one another through all this, and I wondered why that felt so natural. Had we really so little to say to one another? Or in the end, had we done this so many times we no longer had need for words? I watched him as he sat behind the wheel, his grey eyes focused on the pulling sails, his ruddy cheeks turned a little into the wind, to better feel each molecule hitting his skin. He made course corrections with each little change in the wind, and he made them gently, intuitively, and I wondered why other kinds of change had been so difficult for him. Was it that he didn’t know how to react to things he didn’t feel on his skin? Was the wind truly his only real companion?
Then I thought about Ham, his boy, his son, and all that had rained down on Chuck over the years after his son’s death. Had he handled that grief so badly? What would I have done that he hadn’t, I wondered: follow in my father’s footsteps – paint whores in Paris? Or…had all Chuck’s steely resolve been an act? Had he pushed change aside to provide stability and comfort for the woman he loved? Hell, hadn’t he done that for my benefit too? Had Chuck been trying to provide stability for his kid brother and in the end resented my father? Because within their own peculiar gravity, hadn’t my father always been so exuberantly, maliciously unappreciative? There had never been any doubt about Ruth’s love, had there? Or Ham’s. But what about my love for the old guy?
And what did it say about me that I had to ask that of myself? Had I been as relentlessly unappreciative as my father? I told myself I loved the old fart, but really, was love beyond my understanding too? Why hadn’t I fallen in love with Angela? With any woman?
I felt walled off from love, alone, adrift where love was concerned, but where had this wall come from? Would it take the raging winds of a storm to push me past the edges of understanding?
Just what would it take to come to terms with love?
“I don’t want to dwell on the reasons,” he said, “but there are a few things I need to go over with you, that you need to know.” He seemed unnaturally calm as he sat there in the boat, calm even for him. We’d just dropped the hook in the bay beside the Kennedy Library; he had of course already loaded sandwiches and soda before I arrived, probably enough to feed an army for three weeks. Surprise, my what a surprise! After eating in silence, the sun on our necks and a fresh breeze rippling through the remnants of our hair, this odd turn of phrase felt more than a little ominous. I noticed his shoelaces then – single knotted and one was coming undone.
“Is everything alright, Chuck?”
“Probably not.” He looked lost. “Maybe. Who knows?” He proceeded to tell me that over the past year he’d been treated for a mass behind his right knee.
“A mass?” I said — but I felt like the world had just dropped out from under me. “What is it?”
“It’s malignant, Bill! What difference does it make what the goddamn thing is.”
“Is or was? You said it is malignant?”
“Yeah, it is, and it’s not responding. Remission’s always a possibility, I guess. But look, that’s not what I want to talk about,” he turned away, turned to face the sea.
“Okay Chuck, let’s have it.” Why did it suddenly feel like I was the father, and he the son? What did he feel right now? Did he feel like he was talking to his son? Or to his brother? What about me? Did he feel like he was talking to a nephew, or was I suddenly something more – or less?
“We’ve got some papers to go over. Family stuff. While you’re here.” Now he was speaking in staccato bursts, like he had ‘change’ in his sights – just before the helicopter Ham piloted spun out of control and fell into the Mekong. “I’ve got a Will ready. There’s family I’ll need you to look after, William. Here, in Boston, and elsewhere.”
That was news to me. I struggled with the math: let’s see, there was Ruth — but I doubted she’d figure prominently in his will at this point. He had me, my mother. There was some distant family in France that I’d heard mention of once or twice in passing. But no one else – Oh! That I was aware of – I felt – Confused – A little – Upset – By the direction – This conversation – Was taking.
Something was – Changing – Something big – Unexpected – Out of – Character.
He was watching me, gauging my response. I remember my left eyelid twitching, my mouth dry as fields of cotton.
“My secretary,” he said – so softly. “Judy Masterson. You remember her?”
I did. And maybe I nodded my remembrance, and maybe I didn’t. I was shaking inside. Earthquakes tore at the foundations of my understanding of the universe.
“I have a daughter, William.”
“You know, Bill, you sound a little, well, like I imagine I used to sound. Disapproving. Pompous.”
“You left out incredulous. And maybe anger, too. Did Ruth know?”
He shook his head, looked away. “No,” he whispered.
“You have a daughter, you’ve provided for her for – what? For how long, Chuck?”
“She’s twenty one, well, she will be, this summer.”
“Twenty? She’s twenty years old? This has been going on for twenty years?” I was blown away, and certain I was beginning to sound more than a little hysterical.
He nodded his suddenly leonine head, but he looked tired as that moment drew near and passed us by. The tired and lonely of an old lion, I remember thinking. The head of his pride and no longer as quick as he used to be.
“Her name is Madison.”
“Madison Masterson?” I chuckled. “Isn’t that a little over the top?”
He shook his head again. “Madison Addington. I adopted her some time ago. I’ve called her Maddie for years.”
“That was thoughtful. Have you married, what’s her name? Judy?”
I think he was about to cry just then, but I don’t remember. Maybe I was. Then: “She passed away, oh, a few years before Ruth.”
“I see. Who raised her, Chuck? Did you hire someone, uh, to take care of that, too?”
“Fuck you, Bill.”
I looked away. I’d never heard him so much as whisper anything remotely resembling that word in all my life, and anyway, having been locked away within the inner sanctums of the diplomatic world for a few years his was an unforgivable breech of etiquette. My feathers were ruffled.
But maybe I deserved it. Every bit of it. I had cornered the market on assholes that afternoon, of that much I was sure.
“Alright, Chuck,” I said as I watched him, “what do you need me to do?”
He turned, looked at me with all the intensity an old lion can muster: “Cross the Atlantic. The three of us. I want the three of us to cross together.”
My world grew fuzzy and dim and I wondered why, then I heard myself laughing, laughing so hard I almost fell overboard. But maybe I was crying a little, too. Hard to tell, in a moment like that.
Things got a little quiet after that. We had trouble pulling the anchor up from the deep muddy bottom, and even the jets roaring over as we motored past the airport seemed unnaturally quiet. I found myself holding my breath from time to time, and I think I even wondered why once or twice.
We made our way to The Chart House for dinner, after we’d tucked the boat in for the evening; going there with Uncle Chuck had been a tradition for years, and it would be nice, I thought, to be on neutral ground. A safe harbor, you know, as in – any port in a storm? He did his scotch and water thing, and I had my usual Mai-Tai, you know, one of those drinks with a little yellow umbrella sticking out the slab of pineapple. Well, I take that back; I had six of ‘em – in the first half hour. I was well on my way to a full blown diabetic coma when Chuck told the cocktail waitress I’d had my limit for the evening.
Oh! Did I mention Madison was going to join us for dinner? The cousin I’d not known about until about two-thirty that afternoon?
Had the trap been perfectly set, or what?
She was, he told me, ‘somewhat-kinda-sorta’ bright. She was at Harvard finishing up her BS in biology – in three years, mind you – and going to medical school at Columbia in the Fall – at the age of 20 – well, 21. He was understandably quite proud of the girl, this daughter of his. He loved her, and after spending a half hour with her I understood why. She was just about the nicest human being I’d ever met and, Chuck advised, she was one helluva sailor on top everything else. She was smart as hell, sure, but she was nimble and quick-witted as well. I saw she’d come prepared to do battle with me that evening, but visibly relaxed when she saw she’d only have to match wits with a quite well-toasted, patently blithering idiot. She came with her boyfriend, by the way – whom Chuck quite naturally disapproved of. The hapless kid had majored in philosophy and wanted to go into the Peace Corps.
“Bad move, fella,” I slurred, “better take up Mai-Tais before your light fades from the universe.”
Yes, I was that charming.
But Chuck had already told Madison about his idea of slogging across the Atlantic – together, the three of us. She was all for it, head over heels infatuated with the idea – as a matter of fact. Yes, a nice little trap had been set. And I’d walked right into it.
“So when,” I tried to say as I picked at the salad that had, somehow, quite mysteriously appeared on the table before me, “do you plan on embarking on this little adventure?” I’m not sure, but I think I was drooling on my lap by that point.
“That depends,” Uncle said.
“On what, may I ask, does this jolly journey depend?” By the way, I talk funny when I’m inebriated, and it’s one of the few things I learned from father. I’ve taken to it quite naturally, or so I’ve been told.
“Me? Moi?” I launched into a grand soliloquy in my very best French, no accent, about how they were quite foolish to make this enterprise contingent upon myself; of course Madison came back in her very best French, no accent, that I couldn’t possibly be so selfish as to deny our beloved Chuck the chance to make this once in a lifetime crossing – the chance to make his dream come true. ‘True,’ I said in defeat. She had marshaled her arguments, was ready for me. Poor me, she said; I had come to the battlefield unarmed. Who knew a grown man could be so stupid?
“Moi? Stupide? Allez et laissez-moi en paix!”
“Oui, stupide, et vous sentez mal, aussi!”
Chuck, scotch in hand, watched the two of us going at it with his nicest, most paternal smile just barely out of sight. I had just met someone as stubborn and obstinate as myself. A good sailor, too.
The Bastard! He knew she had me, too.
I never had a chance. Not a prayer, even.
Which is how, three weeks later, I found myself sitting at the chart table starting our plot as we set a northeasterly course off the northern tip of Cape Cod. And here I need to digress.
Most people who make an eastward crossing of the Atlantic in small sailboats do so by heading for Bermuda, there stopping for fuel and a brief sanity check, and then, once insanity has been confirmed, by heading on to the Azores, and perhaps on to Portugal or the English Channel. Assuming, of course, they make it to the Azores in the first place.
Then there is another group, another type of sailor. Let’s call members of this group the ‘well-and-truly crazy’ crowd. Mad as a balloon does nicely, too. Fucked-up works, as well.
Those people whose insanity has never really been at issue, the ‘well-and-truly-crazy’ who walk among us, make their crossing by sailing along the western edge of the Gulf Stream, north and east past Nova Scotia, with an eye to skirting icebergs along a northern route that just misses Greenland and Iceland. Basically, the same track the Titanic took, only back-asswards. This route is cold, prone to sudden storms from both the north and south, and I’ll not forget to remind you that in mid-May icebergs are still present in rather alarming numbers. By the way, this is the route that ‘macho’ sailors take, those that are racing or trying to beat some sort of record. Or, as mentioned, the plain crazy among us.
Cruisers in small sailboats just don’t take this route unless they absolutely, positively need to. As we weren’t at the moment fleeing religious persecution I thought it safe to mention to Chuck that this necessity was in the instant case notably absent, that any decision to take the northern route was flawed, dangerous even.
I think my first hint that things were destined to be ‘interesting’ was when – on hearing the word ‘dangerous’ – Chuck and Madison smiled and nodded their heads vigorously.
C’est la vie. Il ya, mais pour la grace de Dieu je aller.
But the weather was glorious that first day. Even the first few days, as it turned out, and as I began to lay out our plot on chart after chart, the fresh sea air and abundant sunshine all too apparent, I had the audacity to think that our crossing might just be uneventful, and that we’d arrive in Ireland sometime in late-June with deep suntans and grand memories to share over pints of Guinness.
Like I said; C’est la vie. Je peux etre assez stupide.
I think, looking back on it all, the third day out we should have taken stock of things and turned back. I would have, anyway, given the choice.
Sometime after sunrise Madison and I were in the cockpit, the windvane was steering and I was feeling pretty good about the world when we heard an ungodly booming-smashing sound and the boat lurched sideways off a wave. Chuck was up the hatch a nanosecond later; in time, anyway, to see the nice bright blue and very nearly submerged shipping container that we had just slammed into. This metal colossus had struck us a glancing blow and was now gurgling away in our wake, in seconds it disappeared completely from view. Our target had been one of those box-car size iron boxes they stack about ten-high on large “container ships”; while Madison and I shook in our sea-boots Chuck told us that every year thousands of these things get washed off ships and float around like land-mines for years, hitting ships and submarines and, occasionally, sinking small yachts.
Oh gee, what fun! If I’d only known!
And we were, I knew, lucky. Had we nailed the thing dead-on our bow – instead of taking that glancing blow to the side – we’d have, I think it safe to say, very probably gone down in less than a minute. The ocean felt very big those first few hours after impact, and the boat very small indeed. That the hull was deeply gouged and had not fractured was testimony that Uncle had indeed chosen the very best quality boat he could have; I remembered the grateful old builder quite fondly from that moment on – and do to this day. ‘You get what you pay for’ had never been proven more aptly true.
For the next few days the weather remained fairly benign: cool and growing cooler by the hour, yes, but storms had so far passed well ahead of us, or developed so far behind that they posed no threat.
In the middle of my watch on our sixth afternoon I was alone in the cockpit, scanning the horizon for ships – or, yes, shipping containers! – when I saw our first iceberg. Humbling sight, really. I called out “Iceberg, Ho!” just like the lookouts on the Titanic, too. I assume the words had the appropriate effect, as Chuck and Maddie came dashing up, Nikons in hand and motor-drives firing away; then Uncle suggested we close on the berg and photograph the thing in earnest.
And so we did. Slowly, I might add, and carefully, too, the way one circles a rattlesnake on a cool morning, not sure of the chilled creature’s striking distance. We came within a quarter mile of the berg, and it was huge, or so it felt, and the water around the base of it glowed with an ethereal silvery-blue-green sheen, radiantly so. Uncle decided to inflate the Zodiac and we lowered him away; he buzzed off and took photos of the boat next to the iceberg – an image that still gives me the shivers to this day.
Yet within a few hours icebergs were no longer a novelty, and we altered our course south a little to clear the pack-ice that lined the northern route that year. An awe-inspiring sight, to see the moon rise over vast ranges of glowing mountains – adrift below an infinite sea of stars.
And yet need I mention it got really cold after we hit the ice, and that with May poised to become June. And I’m not saying it was cool out, not even chilly – it was cold, and interestingly enough I’d been living in equatorial Africa for quite a while. When the temp just barely made it up into the forties one afternoon I grew a little panicked; when I sat my watch that night, when it fell well below freezing under those same eternal stars, I became stoically resolved that death was imminent – and I didn’t give a shit.
Yet the experience was primal. It was immediately apparent to me that the boundary between atmosphere and space is immaterial; that we exist within this faint layer of gases between an unknowing earth and the vast infinity of our universe – that had never been more obvious to me and I found the experience humbling. I felt small out there, yet never had my life felt more precious.
Maybe that’s what Chuck had been searching for – some sense of himself beyond the stony persona he’d cultivated all his life, some sense of place beyond the constructs of the 48th floor. I remember him out there under those stars bundled up in his bright yellow parka, and with a musty old wool beanie pulled down smartly over his ears, looking up at the sky – the way a kid looks up at a Christmas tree. There was hope in his huddled form, hope that life went on somehow, but I think more than that, there was the simple aura of heartfelt gratitude blazing from his failing body.
Every voyage has its storm, just as each life comes face to face with events that define our strengths, and our weaknesses. Our voyage happened upon one doozy of a storm, but it found us well prepared and as ready as we could be emotionally. We had cleared Greenland and were in the gap between her vast mountains and Iceland, though both were still well north of our track, when a huge low-pressure system formed in the vast arctic north and barreled down on us. We had weatherfax on-board so had more than ample warning, yet sometimes warning induces more worry than is warranted. I can attest to that.
Gray clouds like mackerels’ scales drifted down from the north the afternoon before the storm hit; there was a large halo around the sun just before it disappeared – behind towering walls of storm cloud we saw charging down from the northwest. Seas built slowly with each increasing gust, and I waited – and watched – as each new fax came in. I plotted the center of the low on our chart, and I think I just managed to force a sense of control over myself, over my fear. The center of the low seemed to be tracking a little north of us and it soon looked as though we might escape being in the dangerous northeast quadrant of the storm, but as it always is, most things in life are relative. One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor and all that; what Chuck found exhilarating I found terrifying. While I was struggled to master my fear, Maddie became short-tempered and withdrawn. No one ate a damn thing for two days, yet I will never underestimate the nutritive powers of Gatorade ever again, though it tastes just as bad coming up as it does going down.
But whatever the nascent sense of control I’d fashioned from my efforts, it soon came undone as the center of the low approached. We were running before the storm under bare poles – just the storm’s momentum pushed us onward as we’d lowered all sail by that point – but mercifully the seas didn’t become unmanageable and the temperature actually increased into the fifties and (gasp!) sixties. Waves of maybe twenty, twenty five feet, winds in the forties with an occasional gust in the high fifties; not a hurricane certainly but enough to get your adrenaline going. Mine, anyway.
And yet, there was Chuck, tethered to the boat in his safety harness, smiling like the high school quarterback who’d just thrown that nifty touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to beat an old nemesis. He was in his element and happy as hell, happy to be alive and to be with two people he cherished. He never once felt like we were in any danger so I guess Maddie and I came to feel that way too. Chuck was the strength we tapped into, and his was a sustaining strength, a soul nourishing strength. If fear is contagious, so too can sustenance be found in a smile. Thank you, Chuck, wherever you are. Thank you for that smile.
Waves towering, winds howling, then scattered, scudding clouds, gentle warmth in the air. Maddie down below making fresh bread and some kind of stew that tasted better than anything I’d ever had before – or since. The bloody miracle of seeing a shadow! And what was that in the air? Earth? Tilled soil? Green hills on the horizon? I refined our position with fixes from all manner of bearings, and two days later we slip into the Irish Sea. Time ebbs slowly now, but soon the Isle of Man is ahead to port, Dublin not two days ahead. We could smell the Guinness from two hundred miles out and were intoxicated with the joy of our arrival.
It turned out we made good time; I had tentatively planned to leave Chuck and Maddie in Ireland and make my way back to Africa via London but now the thought of leaving before making a final landfall in France seemed obscene. I called Washington. I twisted arms. I begged. I got two more weeks so had three to go before I had to be high-tailing it back to Africa. It would be just enough, we reasoned, so we ‘re-provisioned’ and took to the sea together – one more time.
And yes, that finality was something new in our air: this would be our last journey together. It was unspoken now, but we all knew it.
Chuck’s plan was to take the boat up the Seine to Paris then wander the French canals for as long as he could. It was his life’s ambition, he’d told me more than once, to while away his last days on a slow boat as he drifted between limestone cliffs and vineyards bursting with life. Not a bad way to go, I remember thinking at the time.
We had another 700 or so miles to fetch Le Havre, where the mast would be un-stepped and stored, so with time and a bit of luck permitting, I’d stay with Chuck and Maddie all the way to Paris.
But the Irish Sea is a harsh mistress. She often has other plans.
Cold currents funnel down this stretch from deep beneath arctic seas; they collide with a weakening Gulf Stream as she deposits the last of her vast energy into the English Channel and North Sea. Cold air masses arc down over arctic waters and slam into warmer masses that have crossed the Atlantic with the Stream; when collisions occur between these air masses the results can be stupendous. The Fastnet Race is held in these waters, and in 1979 such a storm formed with little notice. Of the 306 yachts that started the race more than 69 dropped out, 23 were lost or abandoned, fifteen souls were dead and gone when the reckoning was complete. Clearly the area is not chanced upon lightly; the prudent skipper keeps his eye on the weather. Like a hawk.
These thoughts weighed heavily on my mind as we motored between Land’s End and The Isles of Scilly on a mirror flat sea; it was so calm and hot on this last leg of the journey that I’d have cheerfully gone naked had Maddie not been aboard. The deck broiled the bottoms of our feet and the refrigerator chose this most opportune time to give up the ghost. No storms threatened, the only thing standing in our way during this last passage was the heavy shipping that floods in and out of the Channel day and night, and while one does not cross this shipping lane without due care, radar reduces the stress of the exercise to modest levels.
So we made Le Havre with sunburned shoulders and blistered feet; checked into a decent hotel while the mast was removed and the balky fridge fixed, then after a few days standing under cool showers, we motored up the Seine. Calm this stretch of river is not; it comprises industrial wastelands punctuated by idyllic scenes of pastoral beauty, all underscored by heavy commercial barge traffic that roars by in a never-ending parade – yet the river was enchanting. I could see why Chuck wanted to experience this ancient beauty for himself, and make this a parting gift to us – and to not keep the magic to himself.
We made Paris in a couple of days and found moorage in the marina by the Bastille, then in a remarkable act of symmetry we took rooms at the Crillon – where my parents went for tea and Pernod the day they met. We spent a few days together wandering Paris; neither Maddie nor Chuck had ever spent any real time in the city, and both were fascinated, as well as good students. We even managed to look over the shoulder of a rather talented young fellow painting hookers on the Boulevard de Clichy.
When I left a week later Maddie remained for a time, they spent the summer together wandering canals and following their noses, I’m sure, to each new bakery, into each new alluring vineyard.
I remember turning and looking at him as I left; he was alone in the cockpit tinkering with a disassembled winch when he looked up and saw me watching. He smiled, gave me a little salute and smiled that gentle smile of his, and waved before I turned away.
It was the last time I ever saw him.
I took her call one day in April, not quite a year later. He was gone, Maddie told me, after a last brief struggle with his own wayward cells. Those cells had, I think, intended to impose change from within and Chuck simply wasn’t going to have it. Rather than submit to their prevarications I imagined him just giving them the finger one more time, deciding it was time to move on and find something more productive to do with his time. What was Death to a man like him?
I thought about Uncle off and on during the flight from Nairobi to France. I thought about sailing to Bermuda and crossing the Atlantic even as Africa slipped by miles below, and the thought hit me: were all those journeys little more than metaphors? What did they represent to Chuck? To me?
And, what of me? I’d been working at State for too many years. I could quit now without feeling remorse. I was young enough to start a second career, yet old enough to realize that was out of the question. I had so much of my father’s impulsive wanderlust thrown in with Uncle’s resolute curiosity, all my father’s antipathy for corporate nonsense and absolutely none of Chuck’s will to dominate that world; any business sense I had came from monitoring economic developments in faltering banana republics. So what? That and a dime, right? I could remain at State simply by giving in to inertia; my life would pass comfortably and predictably into – what? Memory? In truth, I had no one beside Maddie now; mother was falling into a fierce dementia and was beyond my physical ability to care for – she hardly knew what planet she was on half the time. I had no wife, no children, no prospects at all along those lines. And I was tired. Tired of an encroaching sense of pointlessness that lurked behind everything I thought I might try to do.
So, yeah. Change my life, and yet I had, for all my life, failed to understand one basic element of change. Change all too often is spontaneous, messy, combustive and unplanned for. It happens. Shit happens. When you least expect it perhaps, and whether you want it to or not, Change – like a leopard – finds you unawares and springs for your throat.
You don’t plan on that, do you? You can’t just go out there and change, can you?
I arrived at Paris/Orly in the middle of a hazy afternoon in April, and I made my way pensively into the old city. Maddie and her current beau met me at the Crillon and we raised a quiet toast to Uncle, wished him a ‘bon voyage’ at dinner that evening, but in the end we were not sad.
I think we settled on the idea that is was inappropriate to be sad about a life so well-lived. We missed him, as I suppose we’ll all be missed, one way or another, after we’re gone. Still, I felt him in that evening, alive, watching over us. Maybe having a good laugh, too.
The three of us walked along the Seine, from the gardens all the way to the Ilse St Louis, then across the little bridge that carried us across to the little marina by the Bastille. I wanted to go there once again and see the boat nestled in her slip, find Chuck stripping that winch and re-greasing it. I wanted to hear him cuss in his own unique way, like when he barked his shin coming up the companionway ladder. A particularly hard blow would elicit an ‘Oh, Fudge!’ but more often than not you’d catch an errant ‘Piffle!’ – or perhaps the ever deadly ‘Fark!’ might slip unawares from his lips. I remember him saying ‘Shit!’ only once, and when he turned and saw he’d been caught red-handed he turned red and then slunk off to hide somewhere. No kidding, he was that kind of guy. Anachronism doesn’t even begin to cover what he was; he wasn’t born in the wrong era – I think he ended up on the wrong planet and was just as confused as any of us might be when he figured that one out.
But as with everything he else he did with his time, he made all our lives better just by being here.
Eventually he found an end to his journey in a small city southeast of Paris, a charming medieval university town with the singularly discordant name of Dole. The boat was there now, too; tied up and getting filthy – I supposed. I could just see her gleaming teak now weathered and dull, bird crap an inch deep all over everything, and I wondered what to do about it.
So, you may now. if you’d like, think that it is of endings that I write, but I’d beg to differ with you. You might think our story had quite naturally found its way to an end, but in truth it was only just beginning. My understanding of Chuck was just beginning, and Maddie was as clueless as I.
Things are rarely as simple as they seem, at least not until you clear away the bird shit.
Change happens, I think I remember telling you some time back; and change happens whether you’re ready for it – or not. While change all too often marks an end to things, I was beyond any and all doubt unprepared for the beginnings that lay just ahead. No one was. There’s no way you can prepare for an emotional holocaust, just as there is little you can do to prepare yourself for a miracle. I think I was clueless about love, real love, and would need to learn how to accept love when it came my way. Even if I was completely unprepared.
21 April 1987
My next journey with Maddie, and her new boyfriend Stephen, began a little after seven the next morning when an unlikely looking train of abbreviated proportions pulled out of the Bercy-Gare de Lyon bound for Dijon, then Dole, a trip of about four hours if all went well. The countryside seemed to be just waking from a hard winter’s sleep, and yet just now we looked at pale traceries of spring’s green budding were everywhere we looked.
Villages began their working day as amber sunlight slanted through puffy clouds onto lanes that meandered like gently bubbling streams deep within their sheltering valleys. Little farms nestled sleepily into rolling hills; tractors smoked and bounced, were poised to till rich black soil – and so, yes, we looked out over a passage of renewal. As the little train creaked to stops in villages along the way, I looked at little snippets of the medieval world clinging to life in the late 20th-century, yet I thought about the contrasts between life here and the brutal existence that people clung to in equatorial Africa. Having now spend years in the region, I could see that life in much of Africa was much as it had been in medieval times, but people in the rural African villages I’d visited lived-on in that manner unknowingly, and usually, involuntarily. On this spring morning, when I looked out my window I saw villagers tending a usable past, stone walled sanctuaries where people manicured and watered their medievalism, nurtured and harvested their traditions. In some villages it was obvious this tradition was a cash crop, in others it looked like a cherished way of life – and these people looked ready to fight to the death to preserve their past.
Chuck had, apparently, spent a good deal of time in Dole on his last journey. Maddie told me, as the train rumbled across that waking landscape, that Chuck had made a lasting impression with the people there. Chuck had never, however, mentioned anything to us about the people in Dole, or his experience of the place, and yet she’d talked to him only a few days before he passed. She had, however, told these people our itinerary. Someone would be, she had been assured, on hand to meet us, and take us to The Baby Ruth.
It was, then, with no small amount of curiosity in our hearts that we took-in waving banners with our names on them as our train pulled into the station. There was an official looking delegation waiting on the platform, these men and women flanked by a small band playing The Star Spangled Banner. We saw a few old men in uniform on the platform, soldiers and airmen mostly. As the train thudded to a stop I looked at Maddie and she looked at me – and everyone on the platform was looking at us and pointing excitedly.
“Fark!” Maddie said slowly.
“Piffle!” I think I managed to say.
“What’s going on?” friend Stephen howled. He looked put-out, almost scared, but then again he’d never met Chuck. He had no idea what a force of nature looked like. Now the truth of the matter was slowly dawning like this Spring Green blooming all around us: maybe Maddie and I hadn’t known a helluva lot about Chuck, either, but his life was all around us now, in full bloom. I think I felt him smiling again, too.
I know I’ve mentioned more than once I really didn’t know Uncle Chuck all that well, and nothing speaks to that better than how the whole Maddie episode caught me so completely unawares. And yet I was coming to understand that what I had learned about him over the years had been rendered through the fractured prism of my father’s version of Chuck’s life. But Maddie didn’t even have that twisted compass to steer by – who knows what was running through her mind as she took in this impossible sight.
We got our bags down from the overhead rack and walked out into the craziest day of our lives.
Saturday, 21 April 1945
The day began, like so many others had for Captain Charles W Addington, U S Army Air Corps, with an early morning pre-flight mission brief. An hour later he was flying in loose formation, his squadron’s fighters high in the skies over eastern France. The day’s mission: guard a formation of B-17s lumbering towards Bavaria. Addington flew a tired but well maintained P-51D Mustang, and while not perhaps the best pilot in his group, he was certainly competent. He had three recent ‘kills’ stenciled beneath his canopy, and had flown dozens of ground support missions since D-Day. Now, with German forces scattered and in disarray, Allied air forces were mopping up the last bits of infrastructure that supported the German war effort; today’s B-17 raid was targeting ammunition caches in the mountains south of Munich.
It wasn’t a large force of B-17s, just 18 of the droning bombers were ahead and below his formation, but there were still enemy aircraft coming up to meet the threat. German fighters, now mainly older Messerschmitt 109s flown by impossibly young pilots, were still managing to shoot down a -17 every now and then, so Addington’s wing had been pulled from ground support and detailed to escort this morning’s raid. They had departed an airfield near Paris just twenty minutes before his squadron met up with the bombers, and now he was scanning the skies for any threat to the bombers.
Someone shouted. Three fighters below, ten oclock! Another large formation at three oclock, high and diving for the bombers. Addington’s section broke-off to take the three climbing from below, and he peeled away in a rolling left turn and – inverted and smiling because he thought this stuff was above all else really fun – he pulled back on the stick and dove down toward the threat.
The Messerschmitts saw Addington’s section diving and broke off; the -109s dove toward the countryside far below; Addington pushed his throttle to the stops and continued in a steep diving pursuit. The Rolls-Royce Merlin roared with unrestrained fury now; his Mustang leapt past 400 knots and the Messerschmitts, without a significant height advantage, were soon in his sights. Then the three German aircraft broke formation and scattered; Addington took the lead aircraft and followed, lined up the Messerschmitt in his sights and fired.
He could see bits of the aircraft rip and flutter away in the slipstream, could smell raw fuel misting in the air he passed through, then orange fingers of flame licking the sky ahead. A small town lay just ahead, and he could see a group of three German Tiger tanks – firing on the city – and then he could see men on the ground defending the town as he roared over – not a hundred feet below. Addington fired another burst at the German fighter, and the -109 burst into flames and fell beyond the outskirts of the little town; he pulled back viciously on the stick to climb over a wall of limestone cliffs suddenly just ahead, climbing through three thousand feet seconds later. Instead of climbing back to the B-17s, however, he rolled and reversed course, and dove back towards the German tanks.
He didn’t have bombs – but he did have six 12.7mm machine guns. He arced around the town in a sharp banking turn, looked off his left shoulder at the tanks below, saw a truck with anti-aircraft guns firing at him and pulled up sharply, then pushed the nose over and to the right. He continued his approach, decided to come in as low as possible, to use the hills and trees for cover. The mustang had literally tons of energy stored for the run; he climbed into a high banking turn then dove for the trees now five thousand feet below. He came over the last hill at well over four hundred knots and began firing at the Tigers and their support troops on the ground.
The tanks flashed by in a blur; Addington pulled back and climbed into a steep banking turn again, maneuvered to get in position for another run, this time from a different and, he hoped, a better angle. He looked at the scene below; one of the Tigers was in flames, troops were scattering in chaos.
He made his approach, decided to come in a little slower this run, came in right over the little town and began firing at the two remaining Tigers and the anti-aircraft truck. A second tank burst into flames, more troops fell; machine gun fire ripped through his right wing. Addington pulled back on the stick hard again, pissed off now and wanting some payback. The Mustang looped over and he leveled off in a steep dive – right back down onto the remaining German armor. He emptied his guns on the tank, ran out of ammunition before he could hose off the anti-aircraft guns blazing away just yards from the last burning tank. More cannon-fire ripped into the Mustang; he broke off and turned away.
But his Mustang was vibrating oddly, and as he looked at the right wing he saw smoke and flames coming out the right side of the engine, then oil splattered back and blacked-out the windscreen and canopy. The Mustang lurched and shuddered; Addington released the canopy and let it fall away, the he rolled and – now inverted and with his head pointed at the ground below – he released his harness and fell away from the Mustang, fell towards the French countryside thousands of feet below.
He pulled the ripcord, his ‘chute blossomed and jerked him upright and he settled into the yawing descent. He saw the town below, the river that ran through it, red tile roofs and narrow winding lanes. People were running, putting out fires and pulling the wounded from old stone houses that had just been shelled by the tanks. Something whizzed by his his face; he winced and turned, saw German troops across a field firing at him. About two hundred yards away, he thought; then a group of men who looked more like farmers and shopkeepers were firing at the Germans. He put his hand on his 45 as he drifted downward, reassured by the cold, steely presence under his flight-suit.
He looked down again; the town was coming up fast now, and he smiled in that moment – because now he understood how a fly –through its many-faceted eyes – might feel when it saw a flyswatter arcing-in for the kill.
Addington landed, if what he did might rightly be called a landing, on the steeply pitched roof of a four-story building; he tumbled downward among clattering roof tiles and scattering pigeons, vaulted off the roof at an odd angle, with his arms and legs flailing-away, as if trying to fly on his own, then he landed with a smacking-splash in a slime-filled canal lining the boundary of the town.
And he splashed into the canal in front of a girl who was at than moment washing her dying father’s blood from her hands; water from Addington’s splash mingled with tears on her face and she thought for all the world that tears from heaven had come to wash away her sorrow.
Then Chuck Addington sputtered to the surface a few feet in front of her, thrashing the water like a puppy on its first swim and yapping at least that much. She stumbled back against wall behind her and looked at the flailing man as she might an angel who had just fallen from heaven.
Captain Charles W Addington, U S Army Air Corps, spat slimy water from mouth and turned, saw a beautiful young girl staring at him in wide-eyed astonishment.
“Howdy-do, ma’am,” Chuck Addington said matter-of-factly. He watched as the girl’s eyes rolled back in her head and as her body crumpled like wet tissue and fell to the little tow-path along the water’s edge.
“Fudge!” he said as he swam to the edge of the canal. He pulled a clump of mossy muck from his helmet, then tried with little success to crawl up the canal’s slimy stone wall. He heard machine gun fire, felt the water erupt as a hail of bullets churned by his side. He turned in time to see a German soldier firing at him cut down, then a fat old man with a Tommy-gun ran into view and smiled, gave him a thumbs-up gesture before running off to join the fight raging on the south side of the town, leaving Chuck Addington clinging to the slippery sides of the canal – like a wet cat. Two minutes before he had been safe in his Mustang – and now this!
And to drown in a French sewer at the feet of a beautiful girl!
“Fark! Somebody?! Uh, anyone got a rope!”
21 April 1987
We stepped off the train and onto the platform – all was good-natured chaos, a carnival atmosphere prevailed. The little band, apparently prepared to play endless streams of rousing patriotic music, launched into ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home,’ little American flags waved everywhere I looked. We had, I can safely say from the perspective of passing time, stepped into another world, and while it was a world I knew nothing about, there was something vaguely reassuring about the comically riotous atmosphere.
Had this response been generated by Chuck’s coming to town a few months ago?
As the delegation approached my mind rebelled: ‘Not possible! This is not possible!’
There followed a short speech by the Mayor, where Captain Addington’s role in saving the village during the closing days of the war was recounted, and I listened mutely, tried to pick up every detail, every nuanced reference, because they were clues to this unfolding mystery. And everyone, it seemed, knew everything about us, about Maddie and I, and the whole thing was a little surreal. I remember feeling like a time-traveler I presumed might feel, or that this was what an altered state of reality felt like.
I heard a voice in the crowd say something about ‘the day Captain Addington got shot down,’ and my mind reeled. ‘He – what?!’
There had never been even one family story of Uncle Chuck getting shot down in the war, but maybe that’s because I’d never heard any stories at all of Chuck as a pilot! None at all – not ever, not even one oblique reference. Why? My dad mentioned once, I think, that Chuck went to Europe in the war’s closing hours – but, he said, nothing of consequence happened. Ooh-la-la! Remember I said my father’s impressionist landscapes of his brother were at best questionable representations of the truth? If that was so, and if Chuck had been reluctant – for whatever reason – to dwell on the past, well, there you have it! Case closed! Yet one simple fact remained: as I stood watching and listening to the town’s band and delegates I struggled to recall just one conversation with Chuck, and we’re talking more than thirty years worth of idle chatter here, where either France or flying in the war came up. Why would he be so silent? Had he never told my father about any of this? Why not talk about it? There was no reason I could see, none at all.
Yet there had to be!
Had to be!
Now, standing on the platform I felt a great ruse stood ready, and had indeed been waiting for some time, to be uncovered.
Hundreds of smiling faces, each wanting to say hello and bid us a warm welcome, waited beneath the soft medieval-blue sky. The train pulled away from the station, stranding us, leaving us no ready line of retreat, so blinking in the light we turned to confront Chuck’s past.
21 April 1945
Strong-armed men reached down and pulled him dripping from the canal. He was blue, cold and shaking, machine gun fire echoed off nearby buildings, small explosions drifted through the cool air – carrying acrid smoke everywhere. The girl, the one who had fainted dead-away, had been roused by his calls for help; she had struggled to her feet and looked down at him then run away as fast as she could.
Addington looked at the men; they smiled as they pulled him up to the tow-path.
The girl must have summoned them… he’d have to find her and thank her.
“We go!” one of the men said. “Fass! Dee Chor-mans, dey comink!”
Addington understood. Dripping wet and shivering, muscles aching and his tail-end hurting, he followed them down the stone tow-path until they ducked into a building. They were in sudden darkness and he couldn’t see a thing but the men guided him to a room and led him inside. They moved a huge stack of wooden crates and another passage was revealed; a few remained behind to seal off the escape route while Addington and his escort resumed their journey through what had to be an underground warren.
“You go there,” the toothless old man said, pointing to a heavy wooden door. “Go! There!” He turned and left; Addington went to the door and opened it. The room was well-lit, a radio set hummed against one wall, several men dressed in black, their faces blacked-out as well, sat eating bread and drinking beer.
One of the men motioned to a chair: “Come. Sit and have some cheese.”
“Right.” Addington pulled up the chair and the man passed him a hunk of bread and cheese and a tankard of ale. Addington ate.
“You the pilot?” one of the men said – in decent English.
“Guilty as charged, Your Honor,” Chuck Addington replied. No one laughed.
“Good shooting. My name is Yves.” The man held out his hand and Addington took it.
“Charles the first,” Chuck replied. “King of the Mustang Pilots.”
“Well Charles, if you had not happened along I’m afraid we’d all be very dead. Thank you.”
“Just doing my job, amigo.”
“The pilot? Of the German plane? We got him out. A kid, not old enough for even a mustache! Can you believe it!” Yves shook his head in disgust. “You want to see him?”
“Not really,” Addington said. He chewed the bread and took a sip of the warm beer. “Can you get me out of here?”
“There is no need.”
“Germans are laying down their arms all over the place now, yet a few fight on. Like these pigs this morning. There were a few hundred until you came along. Now maybe thirty or forty remain. Some British troops are on the way; they will be here soon then you can catch a ride with them.”
Addington nodded. “Good bread,” he said.
“I’m sorry we have no dry clothes for you…”
The ground shook, dust and dirt rained down from the ceiling, and Yves and the other man looked up.
Two more concussions, far away, then another almost over head, this one with shattering intensity. Men running. Shouted confusion. The door bursts open. Men explain, Yves listens, gives orders.
“I’m sorry, perhaps you’ll like to stay a while. The German has decided to counter-attack, the axis of movement is down the valley along the river. My men report several hundred men are approaching, and perhaps a dozen tanks.”
Addington nodded, smiled.
“Why do you smile like this,” Yves said.
“I guess you never know, do you? What people will do when there backs are against the wall.”
“No, I suppose not.” Yves grinned, nodded. “Indeed. Will you stay down here in the dark, or would you like to go fight some more Germans?”
Addington grinned. “I thought you’d never ask.”
21 April 1987
Lunch was to take place in a reception hall at the university; we rode with the Mayor in his car.
“So, how was your journey?” the young, well dressed and, if Maddie’s non-stop sidelong glances were any indication, handsome Mayor asked. “Any delays?”
“Well, no, but this is all a bit of a surprise?” I think I managed to say.
“A surprise, yes. I understand. Charles was…” he paused, as if he was searching for just the right word. “He was a bit of a character, sometimes. Yes.”
Okay buddy, you win the understatement of the year award, hands down. “Uh-huh,” I mumbled, my mouth slow and unsure of itself.
The mayor’s car turned down the Avenue de Addington and my stomach flip-flopped; Maddie turned and looked at me, her eyes growing wider and wider.
I shrugged. What the hell else could I do?
She shrugged too.
And friend Stephen picked his nose.
“We will have some lunch with interested people,” the Mayor continued, “then we will walk down to the boat…”
“Excuse me, but is this street named after my uncle?”
The mayor looked at me like it was simply stupid of me to waste his time on the obvious: “Yes, of course.”
21-22 April 1945
The first firefight had been a fast, furious affair, but it had simply been a probing maneuver by advanced units of the German counter-offensive, and no one had been hurt – on either side. Now, with night coming-on Addington could hear a large column of German armor coming down the valley toward the town.
Breathless reports came in, sightings of over a hundred tanks drawing near and more massing west of Saint-Vit to join the assault, troops in division strength. The town was in peril, there was no time to lose.
No official history of the night’s action remains; it was an insignificant battle in the greater scheme of things and of importance only to those who took part in it. The real war was being fought along the Rhine far to the north and east; the Americans and British were racing for Berlin, trying to get there ahead of the Red Army. Allied forces were overrunning concentration camps and encountering the remnants of unspeakable horror as Adolph Hitler crawled down into a shadowless earth to, presumably, end his life. A great war was ending, a new era beginning; the running battle that developed along the southern bank of the river Doubs the night of 21 April was but one of the dying beast’s death spasms, a furiously ill-conceived attempt by remnants of the German General Staff to divert Allied Army units from their final objective. That the attempt ultimately failed was of little interest to those who would study the war in years to come, but of intense interest to the citizens of small towns along the river Doubs.
All that stood between the town and the massed German infantry and armor that approached along the south side of the river was a handful of bridges; to keep the Germans from taking the town these bridges had to be destroyed. A handful of resistance fighters and British commandos worked through the night to cut off this advance, the German counter-offensive stalled and Allied air forces attacked before the Germans could regroup. Bridges could and would be rebuilt; everyone knew it is much more difficult to rebuild a thousand years of history…and these were a people who justly cherished their past.
Chuck Addington was one of those men who fought that night, one of those who helped save the town, though he was one of the few who had nothing to gain and everything to lose. He wasn’t a proud son of the town or a local resistance fighter, but that didn’t matter to him, or to the people who lived and loved there; here was a people facing ruin and in need of his strength, and as all he had to give was that strength he gave it gladly, and overnight he became something of a local hero.
The details are sketchy at best. Addington and a group of local partisans took out the bridge at Brevans in the early evening, the bridge at Rochefort-sur-Nenon fell just before midnight; the German formation rushed for the town but had been kept on the far side of the river and bogged down at a natural choke point near the village of Azans. The Germans rushed engineers to the front to span the river and take the town, but resistance fighters, among them Captain Addington, harassed them all through the night with sniper fire and grenades. As the sun rose on the 22nd a formation of low-flying American B-26 bombers arrived and decimated the German formation. The battle was over before it really began.
And Captain Charles Addington remained in the town for some time – a few weeks, anyway; he had not deserted the military, he just did as the locals suggested and waited for the war to catch up to him. He waited for allied forces to secure the area, only he had no idea their arrival would not happen for three weeks, after the armistice ending the war was signed.
And it was during this three week period he met the girl he had startled when he tumbled from the rooftops, trailing a ripped and shredded parachute, and fell so ungraciously into the Canal des Tanneurs.
21 April 1987
“It was an impossible night,” Yves Bertand continued, “impossible. There were so many of them, they just kept coming and coming…at one time more than we could count.”
Though there were, I think, about a hundred people in the room having lunch with us, every one of us was focused on this old man’s retelling of events that night in 1945.
“They were shooting their tanks at us, their machine guns, and we would change our location and start shooting Germans again. On and on it went, until your uncle figures out their tactic. They were pushing us away from town, and we were all that was left protecting the river. It was your uncle who broke off from the main group, and I went with him. He was a brilliant fighter, by the way. Did you know that, William?”
“I don’t know what to say, Yves. As I’ve said, he never talked about the war…”
“But of course he wouldn’t, he was never the sort to boast. But he was the man of action, was he not? I mean, in business? He was very successful, no?”
“Yes, he was. At business.” And need I have said, at life too?
“So you see, he remained the brilliant fighter! He never changed, did he? He was not the sort to give up! No, not our Charles!”
Our Charles. Our Charles. So that was it. They had laid claim to him, at the end of his journey. Uncle Charles was a part of their history, a solid, vital part of an ongoing, evolving mythology. And no, he never did change; he remained cunning and protective, merciless and loving, for the rest of his life. Indeed, right up into the very last moment of his life – and, no doubt, beyond.
“We got back just in time, too, William. The German were firing lines across the river, big thick ropes; they were going to pull some sort of bridge across, a floating thing, very clever. Men were swimming the river – it is still very cold this time of year, too – and no doubt they would have been successful had we not returned when we did…”
“Why was that so important?” I asked, and a pall came over the room. Yves shook his head – I was the stupid student who refused to grasp the obvious.
“But don’t you see? If the Germans had taken the town, when the bombers came they would have destroyed everything! The town would be no more!” He held his hands out and waved them around the room, gestured at stonework that was probably a thousand years old. “You saw the street, yes? The street named after your uncle? At the bottom of this street, down by the river,” and he pointed toward what I assumed was the river, “that is where our Charles made his stand. From there, he and the few of us with him stopped the Germans!” The old man told the story of that night as if it had happened just hours ago. He spoke a narrative that will slip into the realm of myth, but for now held the immediacy of personal tragedy. He spoke for some time, and we listened.
“And then the bombers came?” Madison asked when Yves was at an end.
“Precisely!” the old man said quietly. “You understand the night now. What Charles did for us.”
“But why,” I interrupted, “did the Germans want to take the town? What was so important here?”
“Here? Nothing, but beyond lay the center of France, the route from Paris to Lyon. Who knows what was in the German mind? Perhaps to drive a wedge into the heart of France and force a change of strategy? It doesn’t matter though, does it? Charles stopped them from destroying our town.”
I nodded. “I had no idea. Extraordinary!”
“We must leave,” the Mayor said, standing and looking at his watch. “Time to go to the river, to the boat.”
“But! But when are you going to…” Yves protested, and the Mayor cut him off:
“When it is time!” the Mayor whispered harshly. “Not now!”
Well, I love a mystery as much as the next fellow…
22 April 1945
He slept well into the afternoon, his body spent and beyond the grip of mere exhaustion. He had come back to Yves Bertand’s house and crawled up an interminable number of stairs and flopped down on a bed made of straw and horsehair and passed out. The others in the house left him alone, let him sleep, but soon everyone was talking about what the stranger had done during the night. People came by Bertand’s house to see the man and thank him for saving the town, but still he slept and no one would even think of disturbing him.
He woke late that afternoon, as evening came to the town once again. He stood too quickly and slammed his head on the sloped ceiling of the attic room and he cursed loudly: “Piffle!” he said. “Where the fudge am I?” He found his way to the stairs and looked at them, then remembered where he was and what he’d done during the night – and his surroundings rushed inward and real focus returned to his mind. His need to use the bathroom was, however, pressing – so he galloped down the stairs.
“Yves! Hello! Anybody home?” he shouted in his New England accent.
And there had indeed been someone home, Charles Addington found as he tromped down the wooden stairs. The girl from the river was home.
She had a tray of food and coffee, stood wide-eyed looking at the giant American as he thundered down the stairs and shuddered to a stop.
“Excuse me, but I really, really need to find a bathroom!”
The girl looked at him, her apparent confusion evident. He tried to remember the little French he’d learned in school.
“Excusez-moi, ou sont les toilettes? S’il vous plait, vite!”
The girl bit her lip and stifled the little laugh she felt rising: “Venez, de cette facon!” She led him down the stairs to the ground floor and to the little room and pointed: “La bas! De la bas!”
“Merci,” Addington said as he hopped into the room, “Vous avez sauve ma vie!”
He came out a while later and the girl had laid out his ‘breakfast’ on a small yellow table in the kitchen; Yves was sitting there, drinking black coffee and rubbing his eyes when Addington walked in.
“God but I’m tired, and I feel like shit!” Bertand said. His eyes were glowing red orbs, his skin sallow, almost lifeless.
“You look it, too!” Addington sniffed the air as he took the offered chair. Cheese, some ham and bread, coffee. The food looked old and past its prime but he knew it was probably the best they had; life in Vichy France had been pleasant for the few who collaborated with Germans but very hard for everyone else. He took a little and ate. He sipped the coffee and tried not to choke; the stuff tasted like it had been made from ground acorns and squirrel shit.
“Another column of British went by an hour ago; they are chasing the German retreat back toward Saint-Vit. I think they are finished now, at least here. There are many prisoners.”
“Prisoners?” Addington gulped. “Who’s going to take care of prisoners?”
Bertand shrugged. “The British, I suppose. Not us. We have no room here.”
The girl hovered just out of range, listened and tried to understand but her English was spotty at best; Addington tried to ignore her but found he couldn’t; his eyes kept drifting to her eyes. They were lovely.
“Who’s the girl?” he asked when he could stand it no more.
“Oh! Pardon! My little sister, Marie-Claire.” Yves turned, made introductions; the girl blushed but took Charles’ offered hand. “She says she thinks you are not a very good swimmer!”
“Ah! Well, tell her I did the best I could under the circumstances. Sorry I scared you.” he turned back to Yves. “So, this is your house?”
“My family’s, yes. We have lived four hundred years here, at least.”
“In this town, you mean?”
“Yes, yes, but in this house four hundred years, that we know of. Before that, we lived on the outskirts of town. I can show you if you like. Later.”
Addington shook his head. What kind of history guided the lives of these people! Time did not simply mark the seasons of life, time was the very fabric of life. Yves was clothed in this fabric, his sister, this house; everything he saw had been woven by time into the fabric of this town until all that remained was a brilliant tapestry.
To be cherished and preserved – at all cost.
“Where are your mother and father?”
“Mother is at the market. We heard a rumor there might be some fresh carrots and she could not take a chance on missing, you understand?” The season of renewal. Spring. Winter’s crops would be coming in, an autumn harvest planted, and life would go on, the tapestry renewed.
“Yes.” He knew. And yet, Yves hadn’t mentioned his father and Addington knew not to press. So many had died during the war – it remained far better to let these things remain unsaid – and yet the girl turned away to hide her grief.
They left after a while, walked down to the river and looked across the smooth water to the smoldering carnage wrought by the bombers – and him; the air smelled of burned rubber and cooked meat and Addington wanted to turn away when he realized the full extent of what lay across the river. The ground beneath his feet was a wasteland of stone, rubble, spent shell casings – and blood; the walls of houses everywhere he looked were pockmarked, windows speckled with tiny holes striated with spidery cracks held the last of the day’s sun.
“So much waste,” he said as he looked over the battlefield.
“Oui, so many boys perished last night,” Bertand said as he waved away the spirit of death that threatened to overwhelm him. “All to quench a madman’s hate – his thirst for revenge.”
“We can be a sorry lot, can’t we?”
Bertrand turned to look at the university, at the tower: “But we are capable of great things to, when we put our minds to better use.”
Bertand looked at Addington for a long time before speaking again.
“And what of you, Charles? Will you find your way back to the war now?”
Addington shrugged. “I fought all the war I wanted last night.”
“Yes, it is a little exciting, isn’t it?” Yves turned back to the river and pointed at the wasteland of twisted iron and burned flesh: “But that is the reality of war. That is…”
“…The reality of Hell.”
“Precisely. It is best not to make a home there, in your heart, for Hell? Better to turn away from hatred? All hatred, in all it’s many forms.”
Addington stayed at the Bertand house that night and many more that followed. He grew close to Yves’ mother, her soft smile and kind eyes, the way she naturally took care of him as she took care of her own children, in spite of her grief. Yves Bertand soon became like a second brother and Addington helped the townsfolk as they cleared away rubble and debris – and more than a few bodies – from the cratered streets and collapsed buildings that scarred the town. While he worked he thought of Ruth back in the States and all they had dreamed of doing together when he returned – yet – all that seemed so far away, like fragments of a once forgotten dream or wispy memories of a life that might have been, but wasn’t.
And on the third night of his stay Marie-Claire slipped quietly up the stairs into the little attic room where Addington lay, and she did not leave until the morning skies called for her.
21 April 1987
We walked down to the river and Bertand showed me the spot where that last battle had taken place. In the new cement tow-path that lined the river, brass shell-casings had been carefully placed along the edges, perhaps as a kind of memorial. Whether officially placed there or not, these casings had become a part of the town’s fabric too, a proof that the town’s mythology was not mere fantasy. A Mustang’s wing was nearby, to remind one and all that an American had once been among them, that he had fallen from the sky in their hour of darkest need, and that this stranger stood with them shoulder to shoulder and fought to save their history from the ravages of thoughtless men.
And so Spring Green was everywhere, life was everywhere, life nurtured by the blood of patriots. The field that had been a killing ground was alive; the river was full of life, all was just as nature intended. The seasons come and go, yet there is always the spring, this one season of renewal to hold on to.
To sustain the living…
I saw the boat through budding trees and white flowers; she was warped to a jetty along the river’s edge, and she screamed at me: ‘I am life! Take me! Let us run together again.’
The area was lined with chunky white powerboats – hired out for week-long holidays, the mayor told us – and Uncle Chuck’s sleek, blue-hulled sailboat looked like a hooker in a convent.
But she gleamed. The Baby Ruth was radiant, as gorgeous as the day she was launched.
Even from a hundred yards it was apparent every square centimeter had been polished to within an inch of it’s life. Dappled, water-borne sunlight reflected off the hull, starbursts flashed from polished chrome and her freshly varnished teak. I smiled at the latent possibility coiled up in the boat, at memories she’d help fashion from the raw stone of life. She had her own mythology now, too; she was a part of the town, and she always would be.
And, there was a man standing on her deck, apparently waiting for us to arrive, and as we approached I felt more and more that he looked familiar to me. The man watched us all the way, never took his eyes from me even as I walked up to boat, then he hopped down onto the wooden quay and stood resolutely in place, as if blocking my way. It was my father! My father dead and gone for years had been reborn and given a new life to squander!
Maddie of course had not the slightest clue; she’d never met my old man. The Mayor and Yves Bertand were by my side, however, and I waited for them to smash me over the head with this latest revelation.
The stranger held out his hand and I took it.
“You must be William,” he said to me, and then: “My name is Charles. Charles Bertand Addington.”
“Fudge!” Maddie said. I was tempted to say something, anything, but I was speechless. Not so long ago I had been alone in the world; now it seemed I was positively awash in relatives.
“Well, Piffle!” I think I said – eventually. “Don’t that beat all.”
For a Puritan, ole Chuck sure got around.
I take it Chuck hung around Dole a few weeks after his private war, until a group of British Army Pathfinders stopped by anyway, and then he was gone as quickly as he’d come. Swooped down from the beanstalk and saved the village from a big, mean giant, then just up and ran away. That was Chuck. And ever the honorable man he returned to the woman he always knew he was destined to love. And he did, too, in the end.
And yet I thought he must have never returned to Dole during all those intervening years, and once again Chuck proved me wrong. He slipped away from time to time, Yves told us, and came back to this other world, to his other family, and none of us in Boston ever suspected a thing. Business trips, I guess, can cover a multitude of sins.
So, when all was said and done, when I thought of Chuck as this poor old man – and all alone in the world – well, little did I know.
His affinity for France? Perhaps it was a genetic predisposition, perhaps it was his life having been subtly woven into the fabric of a faraway history that called out to him from time to time, but whatever the reason, he came to die with his family, to be with those who loved him most of all, with the other woman into whose sheltering arms he had once fallen.
There is a certain gravity, you see, to the footsteps we follow.
Charles had a fat envelope for me, along with instructions from Chuck to hand the package to me, and to me alone. We were sitting on the boat, in the cockpit when he gave it to me, and everyone seemed to read the storm clouds boiling over my head and moved off a discreet distance. Even Maddie, bless her heart, didn’t quite know what to do.
There was a letter on top of his Last Will and Testament, all stapled to a pile of important documents. His handwriting seemed at once so familiar, so comforting, and yet almost alien now – like it too was just another tool deployed over the years to hide his carefully maintained duplicities.
I’ll spare you the details and get to the point.
Near the end of his covering letter I came upon a couple of paragraphs that seemed so startlingly like Chuck, yet so different from the man I knew:
“I know, Bill, in your own smart-assed way you’ll find these facts hard to stomach, that you’ll struggle to reconcile what you’ve learned here today with what you thought you knew yesterday, and you’ll be tempted to say to yourself that you never really knew me. I hope you prove me wrong. I’ve tried to warn these people here, my family, my friends, that you have a dangerous side, a callous side, but I’ve asked them not to judge you too quickly, or too harshly. I think you always wanted your father to be one thing, probably more like me, and you’d have liked it if I’d been more like your father. You’ve never been an accepting person, you’ve always seemed to me to be afraid of change, afraid of anything that might upset the order you established to control your world. Now, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask something of you that will be terribly hard for you; I’m going to have to ask that today, right where you sit, that you sit up and take stock of your life. The time has come: you’re going to have to grow up. Yes, grow up, William. Accept the world as it is, not as you’d like it to be. Accept my family, William, your new family, because beyond all your posturing and intellectual bullshit, you need them. You need them more than you can imagine, more than you’ll ever know. And you just might find that they need you too.
“We made a journey together, you and I, and I loved you as much as, I believe, I would have loved my own boy – because I was able to accept you as you were. You were an important part of my life, and watching you walk away from the marina in Paris last year was the hardest moment of my life. I wanted so much to tell you everything, but I don’t think I could have gone through what I think you’d have put me through. So I’ve left you the boat and a few other things, but it is about the boat I need to talk about now. I didn’t put this in the Will, and so will have to trust you to do this for me. I know you’ll be tempted to put this letter away and not show anyone, but please William, don’t do that. Don’t end our journey together, not yet.
“When the dust settles, I want you and Charles to get the boat ready, and I want Maddie along, if that’s possible, and I want you to take the boat down to the Mediterranean through the canals, then I’d like you to take her back to America. The three of you. I want you to close the circle, William, this circle of life that was our journey together. And I want you to accept my love, and my family’s love, as a part of that journey.”
So, there you have it. The rest was about the disposition of his estate, some instructions about who to contact in the States for this and that. The sun was low in the afternoon sky and I think I might have been aware of it – but I doubt it.
Had I really been such an asshole? So unaccepting, so apparently afraid of Change? Why had he thought I’d try to get out of making the trip he suggested? What did he know about me that I, apparently, did not? Or was he simply wrong?
But Chuck had rarely been wrong, not about the important stuff, anyway.
He had been presented with an impossible dilemma, and in his indomitable way, rather than submit to the inevitable he had fashioned a compromise, and he’d done all he could to make it work. And in the process he did his level best to spare Ruth any pain, even my father. He’d fallen in love with his secretary somewhere along the way because he was a human being, because he had no illusions about human perfection, yet when what was done was done he picked up the pieces and made it as right as he could – and he spared the woman he loved – above all other considerations – the pain of his own resilient humanity.
Was he wrong? You can best decide that for yourself, but be honest with yourself.
I found it hard to do, myself.
Charles, Maddie and I sat in the cockpit as the moon rose, the town by our side. I read them Chuck’s letter, the part about his wanting us to finish the circle. Maddie smiled at nothing in particular, Charles looked away, wiped a tear from his face.
“I’m in!” Maddie said without hesitation.
“What about Stephen?” Charles asked.
“I think he left earlier this afternoon,” she said. “We weren’t his cup of tea, I think he said, or words to that effect.”
“Ah,” this new cousin said as he smiled. “William? What about you?”
“What do you mean: ‘What about you?’”
“I have always heard his stories of the sea, but we never had the opportunity. Of course I will go.”
“Oh? You do not like his idea, then?”
“No, Chuck, I do. I think it might be a good idea…what? Why are you smiling at me like that?”
“You called me Chuck, William. You called me Chuck.”
“So I did.”
Yes, so I did. I did because he was Chuck, just as I was Chuck, and Maddie was, too. The town was Chuck’s, and so was this night. We lived in a world of his creation, and we were all the better for it.
We went to dinner later that evening, when the moon was high in the sky, at a little place in the shadows up a narrow alley alive with flickering gas light. It was quietly gay, alive with a sense of place, of purpose. There was a waitress there, a woman about my age, a widow. Very pretty, gorgeous, really. I looked at her, and she looked at me.
“Where is Marie-Claire?” I asked, and Chuck just shook his head. What else was there to say? I wish I’d met her.
Chuck slapped me on the back when I asked about waitress. “She’s just your type, too!” he said.
“What? Moody? Pensive? A know it all?”
Maddie laughed at that, and I loved her for it.
“Maybe a little, Bill, maybe.” Then he looked at me with eyes I’d known all my life, and I knew him now. I knew who’s blood ran through his veins. “But she has a good heart, this woman. She knows how to love.”
Chuck turned out to be right about her, too, and a lot of other things. I found out all about love in the weeks and months ahead, on the journey we continued together, but that’s another story altogether.
©4/25/09-4/25/16 | Adrian Leverkühn | abw | this is a work of fiction, all the characters too, though some are more fictitious than others.
Hope you enjoyed this retelling…later. Aa