I’ll post the combined story over at LIT, but for now, here’s the conclusion.
Straight On ‘Til Morning (WIP, part II)
Storms are a part of every voyage, just as storms are elemental to life itself. They are, oddly enough, a part of everything we do, behind many of our darkest memories, and fear of storms has been, I’d say, a basic human preoccupation since we developed the capacity to think beyond the day after tomorrow.
Life in the Caribbean, especially in summer, is defined by a healthy respect for hurricanes – until one heads for whichever island you happen to call home. Then respect turns to fear, and that fear grows in direct proportion to the force of the storm. When you are on a small vessel in the Caribbean, taking a direct hit from a hurricane becomes an immediate life or death struggle, and death usually wins with almost no effort on it’s part.
We were a hundred and ten miles NNE of Aruba when the first hurricane warnings were issued, and our warning was relayed by a passing US Navy guided missile frigate. The storm was, we were advised, well north of our track, but a second, more virulent storm had formed south of the Cape Verde Islands and looked like it would take a southerly track, perhaps end up hitting the Yucatan. Aruba and Curacao, we knew, were too far south of the usual track to be battered by direct hits, but the islands did occasionally get sideswiped by wind and storm surge, so we took the warning as simply that – the storm behind us became one more item on an increasingly long list of things to watch out for, but one that had the potential to rear it’s head and swat us like a errant fly.
The southern Caribbean in the mid-1960s was nothing at all like it is today. There were no mega-cruise ships, and no 747s dropping off hundreds of divers per hour, and Aruba was as yet undiscovered by hordes of hippies seeking elicit stashes of Dutch hashish. The place was quiet, more a commercial hub than a tourist mecca, and we’d heard that – as one of the last vestiges of Holland’s once great trading empire – it had an elusive, old world charm about it, and that’s why we’d decided to make it our first port of call.
The island lies just off the Venezuelan coast, not at all far from the Gulf of Venezuela and Maracaibo. Beyond Maracaibo is a mountain range, the Cordillera de Merida, and these mountains, essentially the northernmost reaches of the Andes, go from sea level to over 12,000 feet in an unusually short span. In certain conditions, when strong low pressure gradients form offshore, winds rush off the Cordillera and out to sea. These winds often dance right past hurricane force, and they tend to hit Aruba, and often with dramatic effect.
My father came up into cockpit, his face scrunched up in a deepening scowl. “The Venezuelan Navy just put out a warning for hurricane force winds, out of the SOUTH,” he said, emphasizing the unexpected direction. “Maracaibo just closed it’s airport, and they’re reporting 60 knot winds, with gusts over 90.”
“Bearing and distance,” my mother asked.
“Two-two-five true, two hundred nautical.”
She looked to the southwest – and we all looked in that general direction – but all we could make out was an indistinct line of reddish brown haze along the far horizon.
“Call it two hours max ‘til it gets here,” my dad added. “Maybe an hour,” and he looked at her long and carefully.
We had, literally, just passed the northwest tip of Curaçao, and mom looked over her left shoulder, then at dad. “How far to the entrance at Willemstad?” she asked.
“Twenty six,” he said.
“And how far to San Nicolas?”
“Call it fifty two.”
“Get ready to come about,” she said gently, and Paul and I hopped to, got ready to re-trim the sails, and she threw the helm over, set her course for Willemstad, Curaçao, once dad passed it up. We started looking over the other shoulder now, not at the storms running in from the Atlantic, and it was an abject lesson in focusing so hard in one direction – while you forgot to look the other way.
Which was, of course, exactly what had been going on between Mary Ann and Jen. I’d been so focused on Jen causing trouble I never saw it coming. Mary Ann was having issues, it turned out. She was not happy. And not just with Jen.
She was unhappy with me.
Because I had, predictably I could easily see, been so concerned with Jen causing trouble I was paying a lot less attention to Mary Ann. You take women for granted at your peril, I think was the lesson learned, and the situation was ripe to blow up in my face once we hit Willemstad.
I think the other thing that bears repeating here is that we were, by and large, eighteen years old. I say by and large because there were times when my parents were acting eighteen, particularly when mother got grumpy and grabbed dad by the nuts and pulled him down to their bunk. Sara, too, was a little older, but she was the ancient among us, wise beyond her years. We, the real eighteen year olds, were getting kind of jealous of my parents and their nonstop sexathon, too, but that in no way diminished the existential angst Mary Ann apparently felt after just two nights at sea watching me and Jen.
Our first day out of Virgin Gorda had passed quietly enough, or so I thought, and while I’d kept an eye out on Jen I spent almost every waking moment, as I’d promised the night before, by Mary Ann’s side – and it’s impossible for me even now to describe how much I loved her that day. With her dark, Acadian beauty, she was an improbability to me – and by that I mean she was in every inch the exact opposite of my mother. Where my mother was willowy and off-puttingly athletic, Mary Ann was embracingly enveloping, often voluptuously so. Put another way, if my mother was an iced Pinot Grigio, Mary Ann was the noblest Cabernet you’d ever had, and she was definitely at her best when served at room temperature.
Looked at another, more relevant way, Mary Ann was the exact opposite of Jennifer, yet they did not attract one another. They repelled, and with exacting force, their gravities pushing each of us apart. We saw it that first day, too; we all felt the coming conflict. My mother watched it coming, my father looked and turned away. Paul shrugged and seemed to say ‘I told you this would happen,’ while poor Sara worked away in the galley or sat on the foredeck, picking away at a mandolin she’d brought along for the ride – watching and waiting.
We ate pear salad and little slices of prosciutto that first night, and drank red Kool-aid while we watched the sun set, and mom put Jen on watch with her and Paul so they stayed on deck while the rest of us cleaned up and hit the sack. It went well enough, I suppose, for the first half hour anyway, then Jen felt the first fluttery wings of mal-de-mer and was soon looking over the rail, feeding the fish – as the old saying goes. And she couldn’t stop, either, so mom took pity on her, sent her below, and Mary Ann came up to take her place. I came up at midnight, and so did Dad and Sara, while they went below, but not an hour passed before Jen came up into the cockpit – and of course she tried to settle in by me. I grabbed a flashlight and went forward to check the sails for chafe – per mother’s orders in the Log – and when I came aft she was cuddled up on my father’s lap – snoring away. He looked at me and grinned, shrugged his shoulders and glanced at the compass before scanning the far horizon.
Jen was still there a half hour later, when mom came up into the cockpit. She looked at Jen, then at my father, then she went over and grabbed him by the nuts and pulled him below; Jen sat up, flustered and suddenly awake, while Sara groaned and said something colorful about the sexual appetites of old farts.
“What happened to your dad?” Jen asked.
“Raising the flag on Iwo Jima again,” Sara sighed.
I shook my head, rubbed an eye with my middle finger.
“Oh,” Jen said, then: “Again?”
“Hell hath no fury,” Sara added, just for good measure, I assume.
“Huh?” Jen said, then she yawned and put her head down – this time in my lap.
And so, yes, of course Mary Ann came up a few minutes later. She looked at me, the wide-eyed boy with the cute blond’s face plastered to his groin and she kind of grumbled, then went back to our berth. The door slammed hard, too, I seem to recall.
Dad came up a little while later, with mother trailing an inch behind, and she grabbed Jen by the short hairs and took her below for a chat, and two hours later, like two ships passing in the night I went below – as Mary Ann went topsides to stand the four to eight watch.
“Happy trails,” I might have said in passing.
With a sixty two foot waterline, Sirius was a real greyhound. Close hauled, driving into the wind, she roared along making nine knots look easy, while off the wind and with acres of sail up she broke through eleven knots that second afternoon – and we were ecstatic as she arced through that gentle sea. Sara made some sort of Lebanese salad of cracked wheat, tomatoes and lemon, along with a vat of something called hummus, and we soon realized we were all going to get fat with her in the galley, yet we were, all in all, a happy lot. The miles cracked off with monotonous regularity and the sun felt good after ten years in Massachusetts, and I remember looking around at one point, thinking that this magic carpet was all mine. I was eighteen and owned a magic carpet!
Pride goeth before the fall, does it not? And, needless to say, some falls are bigger than others.
Willemstad was, in the summer of 1965, almost quaint and certainly charming. The inner harbor was, of course, a swampy mix of industrial plant and oil refineries, yet the entrance canal was something to behold. Little dutch shops and houses, all decked out in their ornate rooflines and soothing pastels, had yet to be razed to make room for super-sized cruise ships, and we’d tied up alongside the Handelskade and cleared customs by mid-afternoon. My parents – along with the Paul/Sara train – pulled out of the station as soon as the parade of officialdom left, leaving me alone to wait for the Jen-Mary Ann express to pull in. I didn’t have long to wait.
Mary Ann, duffel in hand, came out into the cockpit and without saying a word hopped ashore and walked off towards a sidewalk café – daring me, I assumed, to follow. So I hopped off, not realizing that two days at sea completely affects balance, and negatively. I managed a drunken, lopsided jog and caught up with her, grabbed her duffel and pulled her to a halt, then I just looked at her, wondering what to say.
“Don’t do this to us,” I said.
“Me? What about you? What have you done to us?”
That was not the right thing to say, and she snorted, pulled her duffel out of my hand and resumed her onward journey. To the airport, I think, but she stopped at a café and put her bag down by a table and ordered coffee.
Then she flipped the bird at the boat, and turning, I saw Jen sitting there, smiling at me.
And the Doc’s words came back once again, and this time they slammed into me like an out of control freight train. I turned to Mary Ann and walked to her, sat down at the table and recounted the entire conversation – the Doc’s final lament about his wife and daughter – and she listened attentively, even compassionately, then she just shook her head.
“So, let me get this straight. He told you all that, and, presumably, you believed him? And she’s curled up by you in the cockpit with her head on your lap? At two in the morning?”
“I was steering. She was snoring. What? Do you think she was giving me head?”
Once again, the wrong words at the wrong time. What can I say…it’s a gift.
“Wow,” she sighed. “Can I pick ‘em, or what?” The look in her eyes was brutal, kind of like a hurricane warning received too late to make much difference. “Maybe you’d better get out of my sight, while we’re still friends.”
“You’re leaving? You’re really going to leave? Now?”
“You’re not as dumb as you look, Spud.”
“Well, I guess better to get this out of the way now, than wait for it to happen a few years from now.”
“What?” she said, her voice now laced with contempt.
“If you’re going to run away at the drop of a hat, it’s better to get it over with now, don’t you think? I mean, if that’s the way it’s going to be, why bother? I didn’t do a goddamn thing, and if that’s all it’s going to take to set you off and run home? Well, the Hell with it – and the Hell with you!”
And I got up and walked back to Sirius; I hopped aboard and stormed past Jen on my way below, then slammed the door to my stateroom. I turned on the radio and tuned in some funky Calypso-Dutch-station and tried to close my eyes – just as the cat-fight-from-Hell started in earnest. Screaming – insults I’d never heard before – foul language I’d always associated with stories of seamen brawling with prostitutes – you name it…it went on for a few minutes – then – nothing.
Then angry footsteps on the companionway ladder, a sudden knock on my door.
“Go away,” I said, my voice tired now.
“Did my father really say those things to you?” I heard Jen say.
I went to the door, opened it and looked into her eyes – and I did not say a word.
Yet she looked into mine. Then she saw the truth for herself, and she quietly fell away into a very dark place. Mary Ann was on the steps above, looking at the damage she’d inflicted, watching Jen implode – and guilt shook her, her healing nature took hold and she came down, grabbed Jen by the shoulders and pulled her close.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Mary Ann sighed, but Jen was in full melt-down mode just then, and her’s was not some pretend episode; no, this was a complete unraveling, the real deal, and I went to Jen and picked her up, carried her forward to her stateroom and laid her on the berth. I sat with her for hours, stroked her head, tried to help her through the storm – but this one had caught her without warning and laid waste to her soul.
Mary Ann came in a while later and brought us tea, then she sat on the bed and laid her head on my lap, and she held Jen’s hand while I rubbed both their heads. My father poked his head in the door towards evening and asked to speak with me, and we tucked Jen in and both of went topsides. Mom and dad were waiting, of course, and Paul was too.
“What happened?” my father asked, and Mary Ann told the tale, ran through the sequence of events.
“How is she now,” my mother asked.
“Catatonic,” Mary Ann said.
“Time for Jack Daniels,” mother said, and she went below, got a bottle and poured a glass, then went to Jen’s room.
“Have you had anything to eat?” Dad asked.
We both shook our heads.
“Sara found a surreal place a few blocks away. She’s waiting for us.”
“What about Mom? Shouldn’t we…”
“Nope. Just leave her to it – she knows what to do.”
Mary Ann, now grief-stricken, her head down as we walked along, took my hand – and I put my arm around her, kissed the top of her head – and I could feel Paul as he walked ahead, shaking his head, seething. I didn’t need to hear his ‘I told you so’ – it was unnecessary now, anyway – yet I knew it was coming.
We ate in silence, and the only thing on my mind was how to make this work before everyone got up and left. Jen had as much, if not more right to be here than anyone, yet she was, true to the Doc’s word, simply incapable of not stirring the pot. And I was, apparently, so afraid of offending anyone that I’d become incapable of setting boundaries. Of course as soon as I thought that, I saw Dad sitting by the wheel with Jen’s head in his lap – and as soon as that image faded I heard echoes of Paul chastising me for trying to blame my issues on other people’s presumed faults.
So yeah, this was my problem, or more accurately a problem of my own creation – so I had to fix it. The obvious solution was to toss Jen off the boat, fly her to Texas and let her get on with destroying someone else’s life, yet I heard a little voice somewhere in the gray matter, an echo, really, of the most perplexing words I’d ever heard.
“…take care of her as best you can…”
There was an implied promise, of sorts, in my taking Sirius. A promise to take care of her, as best I could. Sirius, of course, but Jen as well, yet how could I do both and be true to Mary Ann at the same time – let alone my tacit promise to the doc.
The easy answer, of course, was I’d created an impossible problem – so I had to fix it. If you assume, as I did, that flying was my life, that conferred a certain way of looking at the world. Simply put, if flying an airplane had taught me anything at all it’s that you can’t quit working the problem. When you’re up there and shit hits the fan, you’ve got to fly the airplane and work the problem at the same time – and quitting isn’t an option – unless you want to go down in flames. Dad had drilled that into my head since I was old enough to reach the rudder pedals, so the concept was second nature to me now – and I saw Jen and Mary Ann in the same light: I had to work the problem – now, not tomorrow – or we would all go down in flames. And – I had to keep the three of us together, somehow, and yet keep us from tearing each other apart.
Of course, my mother had seen that coming as soon as Jen showed up.
And she was busy fixing the problem the only way she knew how, but that wasn’t going to let me off the hook. Not by a long shot.
When we got up to leave, to walk back down to the water’s edge, Sara asked me to hang back for a moment, and after everyone was out on the sidewalk she leaned close.
“Maybe it’s time to face the music,” she said, hesitating, not knowing the limits of our friendship yet, “because it was all I could do to keep Paul from taking off today, going home. He’s pissed, Spud. You can’t ignore problems like Jen, hope they’ll just go away. They don’t, and she won’t. They just fester, get worse, create newer and bigger problems.”
I nodded my head.
“So, what are you going to do?”
“Take care of the problem.”
She laughed, a little, anyway, then she shook her head. “You need to grow up, Spud, before you find yourself making the same mistakes over and over again.” Then she walked out and joined Paul, leaving me standing there – with one foot still in my mouth, the other firmly up my ass.
When we got back to Sirius mother was still in Jen’s stateroom, and they were both passed out – naked as the day they were born. Comatose, I think, was a good descriptive, and there was an empty bottle of Jack Daniels on the foot of the berth. They were holding on to one another, snoring open-mouthed like a couple of drunk sailors, and Jen’s face was resting on my mother’s bare breast. Dad poked his head in and looked at the scene, then started whistling that ditty from The High and The Mighty. By now you should understand that when he whistled that particular tune he was mightily impressed. Then Paul stopped and looked at the scene, and his eyes went round as tea saucers – so of course Sara had to come take a look. She too poked her head in and she too looked at my mom and Jen, yet she came out giggling – until she could get up on deck. They she was rolling around on deck, laughing her ass off.
Father of course went for his Leica, and some time later 5×7 glossies were posted over the chart table. Neither Jen nor my mother claimed any memory of the event, yet after that we had peace and quiet onboard Sirius. Mother still drained Dad’s nuts two or three times a day, but in Jennifer my mother had finally found a kindred spirit. Lest you think something inordinately perverted was going on, I had my doubts then, and still do. We rarely saw them together after that evening, and what we did observe was more often than not platonic, but I couldn’t help seeing a sly little gleam in father’s eyes when he saw them, or when he looked at those pictures. I think he had great plans for the three of them; I just hoped I’d never find out if it happened.
The fuel we topped-off the tanks with on Virgin Gorda was full of algae, so the fuel filters and tank needed to be cleaned, and this took all the next day. Mother supervised the boys while Sara and Mary Ann made several days worth of salads and stuck them in the ice-box. Jen went ashore with her Nikon and was gone all day, and she returned, as the sun was setting, while we were loading a couple of fresh 50 pound blocks of ice into the box. She was red-faced and flushed, looked to me like she’d gone ten rounds with at least three men, and she disappeared into her cabin – saying she wasn’t hungry when Sara called supper. As long as she didn’t bring men onboard we had to remove ourselves with her more frivolous self-destructive impulses – and try to help her understand what she was up to, yet I could tell my mother was more than concerned. After dinner Sara tried to talk with her – and that did not end well.
We left early the next morning, before the sun was up, because the tides were favorable and that second hurricane, the more southerly of the two, was racing for Barbados – and it was much further south than was the norm. We cut south, squeezing between Aruba and Cape San Ramon, then we moved further offshore. Two reasons for that, really: the first was to give us more room to maneuver if that hurricane came west instead of moving to the north, and the second concerned pirates. The Venezuelan Navy was broadcasting notices that pirates were actively working the area between the Gulf of Venezuela and the Columbian border, and as we’d been hearing more graphic descriptions of these pirate’s methods in Willemstad we decided to stay well offshore.
Yet we had perfect weather all the way to the San Blas Islands. Generally out of the east at a constant 20 knots, and Sirius took off like she’d been shot out of a cannon. On our second day out, after the wind picked up a little, she averaged twelve knots for ten hours – a blistering pace for an old, heavy schooner. Her sails were new, however, and the rigging updated, and I doubt pirates would have had an easy time catching us.
We anchored, unmolested, off Isla Chichimé three days later, in the clearest green water any of us had ever seen. There was one other sailboat in the anchorage, a thirty foot cutter flying a British ensign. My father was about to dive into the water when the cutter’s sole occupant yelled something to the effect of “You’d better not!” – and pointed out a rather large tiger shark cruising the nearby reef.
“Thanks!” we replied – in unison – then we inflated the Zodiac and hoisted the little Seagull motor onto her transom, then Mom and Dad and Jen motored ashore. The young man on the cutter took one look at Jennifer and hopped into his inflatable and followed them ashore, and Paul looked at me, then at Sara – and we all said – together, in one voice – “No way!”
Mother of course invited Douglas Cunliffe to dinner that night, and the next day Jen departed from our midst. I did not hear from her again for almost twenty years, and that resulted from a chance meeting at the airport in Tokyo, Japan. Anyway, they left Panama and passed through Polynesia on their way to New Zealand, then they headed west to South Africa, to Cape Town, and from there north to the UK. They’d written a book about their adventures, she told me that day in Tokyo, and they’d gotten married in Auckland along the way. She had four boys, all blond, and she still looked gorgeous.
And alas, poor father. He never got his threesome.
Still, he wasn’t complaining.
Mother saw to that.
Transiting the canal was anti-climactic. A half hour of pure, unmitigated terror in the Gatún Locks followed by endless hours of mosquito infested motoring with a seriously bored Panama Canal Company Pilot who, by law, had to steer the entire crossing, all the way to the Miraflores Locks, where another half hour of terror lay in wait. I say terror advisedly, as you motor into the lock behind something petite, like a super-tanker loaded with forty trillion armadillo turds, and then the lock floods (in Gatún) or empties (in Miraflores) and your little sailboat bobs around like a cork in a washing machine, while the SS Armadillo Turd looms overhead – straining at it’s lines. That’s about the time you realize if the lines holding the SS Armadillo Turd’s break, you and your boat will end up looking a little like an armadillo’s turds.
Beyond the surly pilot’s cheerful demeanor, the only thing any of us remembered a day later was the constant barrage of mosquitos. As malaria was still an issue in those waters, we doused ourselves in all manner of insect repellant, and if someone had lit a match I think we’d have all combusted.
After losing that day in Willemstad we didn’t take a day off for sightseeing; we instead refueled, and filled ten five gallon ‘jerry cans’ as spares, then lashed them just forward of the aft mast. We went to a Navy PX (thanks, Dad) and loaded up on American produce, including FRESH MILK, and we replenished the ice in the box. That done, and in record time, too, we cast off and started the long slog west to Hawaii.
I wish I could regale you with tales of heroism in the face of monster storms, but in truth it was a nineteen day idyll. Sara cooked, Mary Ann and Paul read Sartre (aloud, for god sakes), and then Paul tried to put it all to music – which, sad to say, did not work out well. We had one storm, a small one in the middle of the night, and we all rushed on deck to douse sail and tie things down before a freight train of thunder and lightning swept by, knocking Sirius on her beam ends for a split second, but that was it. I was almost a proficient sailor by that point, which left mom with tons of free time on her hands, or, as the case may be, to use her hands on Dad, and sure enough, a week shy of O’ahu mom started vomiting – in the morning, usually. Forty seven and preggers. Me, nine months away from becoming a brother – and what do I do? Well, in no time flat Mary Ann, now nineteen, was pregnant too – with our first and only. And, strange to admit, she was on The Pill, too.
So, what about Paul and Sara, you ask? Mr and Mrs Responsibility? Nope. They didn’t get pregant – ‘til October, anyway.
Maybe it was something in the water.
Or maybe something else was at work. Something like destiny, but who the hell knows.
We had three and a half weeks until class started, call it twenty five days and change. We could just have, conceivably, made it in twenty days – but the slog to San Francisco from O’ahu involves heading north a bit, in effect heading as if sailing to Vancouver, B.C. about a third of the way across, then taking aim for Portland before sliding into the approaches for the Golden Gate. This trip depends on knowing the precise location of the North Pacific high, as well as the various currents that arc under the Gulf of Alaska and along the coastline of the Pacific Northwest. And though I’d been studying the interplay of weather and current for weeks, I’d come to realize that these juxtaposing elements were capricious – and not so easy to predict.
To complicate matters, mother had zero experience sailing in the Pacific, not to mention she was sick as a dog several hours each day, and in the end that settled the matter. We tied Sirius off at a yacht club near Honolulu and flew home, the idea being we’d resume the voyage early next summer.
With two newborn babies, I wondered?
“No, that’s not going to happen, and you know it as well as I do,” Dad said, and I had to agree. In the end, we decided to ship Sirius to San Francisco, and after the paperwork was done she was scheduled by an agent we were told she’d arrive in mid-November. Paul moved Sara to an apartment near downtown LA and he went off to USC where, as I’ve mentioned, he ended up playing football when not doing the Pre-Med thing. Sara thought she’d teach music but instead found steady work as a studio musician at MGM.
Mom and Dad, of course, went back to Dallas, to our old house on Belclaire. To the best of my knowledge, she never drank then, not a drop. I think the whole sex thing dropped off for a while, at least until Viagra came along, but Dad continued to fly until he couldn’t. When Ben, my kid brother, graduated from Deerfield, Dad was headed towards seventy years young. When Ben announced he’d made it into Harvard I think Dad got to work on making another brother, but that didn’t work out.
Which brings me to the next part of this tale.
The sad part of the story.
The part where, flying over North Vietnam, I was shot down and killed.
Which takes me back to San Francisco, circa August, 1965. Mary Ann and I flew into SFO and I set about finding a home for Sirius. I did, in a marina near San Francisco International, and secured a slip there beginning that November; then I registered for classes and moved all my worldly belongings, one duffel bags worth, anyway, into one more naked dorm room. Dad drove out as soon as Mom was settled and under a doctor’s care, he drove his twenty year old Willys Jeep across the western half of the United States and left it with me, then helped get Mary Ann settled at Stanford.
She’d been on a full-ride scholarship at Deerfield, but her family was, to put it charitably, very poor. High school had been, oddly enough, her first time away from home, yet she never went back to Louisiana after her arrival. She went home with friends instead, roommates for the most part, so she’d been cut off from family as soon as she left for Massachusetts – at this point four years earlier.
So my mom and dad had, for all intents and purposes, adopted her, and they began seeing to her financial interests as soon as she became pregnant. I know it’s strange to admit this, but I didn’t meet her family for several years, and during this part of our life together they remained a great unknown. She never talked about them, and while I should have asked, expressed some curiosity, I didn’t – and I never pressed the issue.
Dad, on the other hand, did what Dad’s do best. He sent detectives to Louisiana to find out what the real story was. There are two points worth remembering about all this: whatever he found out, it was grim and he didn’t tell me a thing, and whatever he learned – it only made him love Mary Ann all the more.
We went to Trader Vic’s downtown before he left to go back to Dallas, and he introduced me to Suffering Bastards, and the two of us hoisted our glasses to Sirius, and to Jennifer – and to endless runs under the sun. Mary Ann drank water, thank you very much, but even she cried a little as we talked about our experiences. We’d had a helluva time, even if everyone got pregnant. The days and nights we spent in the Pacific took on a new meaning, became larger than life – indeed, bigger than they really were – but recollections of long trips in small boats often turn out that way.
Then Dad left and classes started; I drove the Willys down the 101 on weekends and we hung out at the library, just like any fourteen year old boarding school student. I thought about all that freedom stuff I’d felt after graduating and realized that kind of freedom was little more than an illusion, and that the only freedom I’d ever felt, as such, was out there in the middle of the ocean. That kind of hit me hard after we got back into the old boarding school grind.
So, we ate hot pastrami sandwiches at The Oasis and drove over to Half Moon Bay and picked artichokes, then had them cooked under the little tents that farmers had setup along the side of the road. We ate them in the sun, dipping them in lemon butter and wondering why anyone would ever live anywhere else, but our eyes turned to the Pacific from time to time – and we knew that time had created a new bond between us. We went down to LA and visited Paul and Sara when they phoned and told us Sara was preggers too, and she cooked one of her wild curries that night and we ended up talking about the Pacific.
The trip, you see, just wouldn’t let go of us. I guess that’s true of most voyages, and we each admitted to regretting not finishing the trip by sea. The words hung over us for a while, too, and it turned out we all thought about the consequences of the decision more than we’d have cared to admit. We flew back north lost in thoughts of ‘what if.’
And soon enough Sirius was unloaded from a huge Matson freighter in Oakland, and after a few hours work in a yard there she was again – and our spirits soared. We motored across the bay to her new home, got her tied off and over the next few days we moved back aboard. With Thanksgiving ahead we planned to have a big blowout aboard, but Paul had a game in Oregon and both Sara and Mom didn’t feel like traveling. Dad came out that next week, however, and we sat aboard that night lost in the warm glow of oil lamps and candles, and we realized there wasn’t one heat source aboard – and it was 39 degrees outside, with 90 percent humidity. The walls began to sweat, then were literally running with streams of condensation – and while we laughed we realized how much work needed to be done to make her a home suitable for Northern California. True to form, Dad tackled that project over the next few days, and the three of us had an early Thanksgiving aboard before he got in the Baron and flew back to Texas.
We had a few friends from school down for supper on the boat, but by and large no one could relate to her, or to what we’d done with her over the summer. She was huge, and the story I told of how I’d come to own such a beast sounded, at best, improbable. It was, I had to admit, an improbable truth – yet the Doc seemed so far away now. All that was a dream, now. Was it real?
All of us, Mom and Dad and Paul and Sara made it for Christmas, and we set up a little tree and put presents under it, hung some lights and made ornaments and hung those too, and then one moment we noticed Mary Ann crying.
Sara sat with her, asked what was wrong.
“This is my first Christmas tree,” she said, and we fell silent, my father particularly so – yet after we looked at her – and within ourselves – right then and there we decided this Christmas was going to be Mary Ann’s Christmas. There’d be a world full of new babies next year, but this year it was going to be her turn.
When the morning came she had more stuff under that silly tree than any of us thought possible, and we watched this pregnant, nineteen year old girl turn into a five year old for about an hour or so, and I think we had more fun than she did. It was a glorious morning, a wonderful day, and it was hers – and maybe ours too.
And there was one thing she’d really wanted more than anything else: a camera, a real camera. And she’d wanted one ever since she’d watched Jen walking around with that Nikon F over her shoulder.
So Dad and I went out and got her a Leica, along with a couple of lenses, and for the next week she went out with me or Dad, usually Dad, and we taught her what we knew about taking pictures. And of course, by the end of the week she was a Photographer. I had no idea what her IQ was those days, but it is somewhere high up in the stratosphere, and when she put her mind to something she mastered it in a few hours.
Still, more to the point, Christmas was the first time in her life she’d been completely surrounded by people who loved her unconditionally, and I think that week was a real turning point for her, and for us. She knew how to love – that had come easily to her, easily in the way a puppy starved for affection knows just what to do. I thought, at the time, anyway, her problem might have been how to accept love from others.
I wasn’t wrong, of course, but those few days marked the point in her life where she finally accepted that love could come without conditions. And without risk. She’d grown up in a mobile home, in the wooded swamps of southern Louisiana. Her mother worked, I learned later that year, as a mechanic in a gas station north of Chauvin, while her father worked on shrimpers and was gone for long stretches of time, out on the water. She grew up alone, in a place where older cousins and uncles came by for entertainment, and she was the floor show.
What saved her, I suspect, was a student teacher doing her internship at the local school, a bright girl who figured out Mary Ann was some kind of rocket scientist and got her tested. Teachers took an interest, administrators found out what was happening to her at home, and a local politician figured out how to get her into his alma mater. That’s how she came to me, into my life – the tortured, circuitous route that carried her along – like a leaf in a gale – to that Christmas morning. Her father, it turned out, liked to import certain less than legal pharmaceutical products when he was ashore, and had spent some hard time at The Farm, as the state penitentiary in Angola is known. Colorful people. She did not like them in the least.
When my father hired the private detective to dig into Mary Ann’s family background, he deliberated a while before deciding to make contact himself, then one day he flew over and had a local sheriff take him down to Chauvin to meet his future in-laws. Patricia Oberon was home that day and he talked with her a while, then the sheriff took him back to the Baron. My father asked the man to keep an eye on them, and to let him know when Patricia got into trouble.
Many years later father related that conversation to me.
Mary Ann’s mother was, he told me, pretty enough, and she was bright, too. Not smart, he said, but clever – mischievously so. She was also an addict, heroin, the sheriff reported, and she had a long arrest record. When he told Patricia about Mary Ann, about her life with me, as it had evolved since the little girl left home, she just smiled and said something about someone finally getting out. Getting away from the hell she had, herself, grown up in. There was no discussion about Mary Ann’s father, Clyde, or his whereabouts. He was on the run, she inferred, the police had several felony warrants outstanding, and in any event, my father did not want to meet the man – but what he saw that day stuck with him. He saw Mary Ann as a miracle of perseverance after that, and, as I mentioned, he only loved her more.
We had our baby in mid-May, and that about a week after my brother Ben came screaming into the world, and I couldn’t help thinking that, as usual, I’d pushed the whole ‘growing up too fast’ thing to the limit. We were nineteen, we had a kid, and were living a life most people in their thirties lived, except Mary Ann and I were living on a seventy two foot schooner on San Francisco Bay. Everything about this reality was surreal, if only because I hadn’t earned any of it. It had landed in my lap, so to speak, and I was, really, clueless about what it all meant. What it was worth, in human terms.
But I focused on school, studied engineering during the day then came home and spent evenings with my wife and daughter. Mary Ann managed to keep up with her school work, managed to keep her 4.0 grade point average intact, and as trite as this sounds, we fell into a routine and, somehow, we made it work. Paul and Sara did too, oddly enough, and in time we only grew closer. They came up on weekends and spent time on Sirius, we sailed together and reminisced, the Pacific so close, yet so far away, and time passed quickly.
I still flew, in fact more than ever, and when I graduated I opted to go into the Navy. Mary Ann made it into the med school at Stanford, Paul into UCLAs, and my mother visited that summer, little Ben now not so little, and she told me that she and my father were going to divorce.
I think it’s called ‘Middle-Aged Crazy’ for a reason, and probably wth good reason.
He came out one day, out of the blue, and we sat in the cockpit and talked about what had happened. He could not, he said at one point, keep it in his pants. But, he said, he’d never been able to, and now his flagrancy had caught up with him.
He always had several secretaries working in his office, and a couple of them had stayed with me before I was shipped off to Massachusetts, kind of baby-sitter/nanny assignments they undertook with smiles on their faces. They were all, at one time or another, sleeping with him and, I suspect, hoping to find a way to push my mother out of the picture and move into greener pastures. That never happened, of course, and as a result there was a constant flow of women moving into and out of his office, and my mother, not being stupid, knew what was going on and retreated more deeply into her private conversations with Jack Daniels. Their’s was, in the vernacular of the day, a game of mutually assured destruction, a cold war stand off all their own – and we talked about that war in light of what they had rediscovered on our sailing trip.
“That was a miracle,” he sighed, speaking of their coming together again, and of Ben’s coming into our life. But she had, he continued dourly, done with Ben what she’d done with me. She had shut him out, turned him away, and with nowhere to go he fell into the gravity of a new secretary’s orbit – again. “Only this time, Spud, it’s different.”
I nodded my head, could see it in my eyes. He was in love again, with this new girl, and of course – she was preggers. We met for dinner a few weeks later, at Trader Vic’s up in The City, and she was indeed a lovely woman – seriously easy on the eyes, genuinely warm-hearted and giving, and in a way I felt happy for my old man.
But not nearly as bad as I felt for Mom.
I left for Puget Sound a few weeks later, for Officer’s Candidate School, and my mother moved onboard Sirius – with Ben. I suppose in other circumstances it would have seemed weird, but we realized with starting med school soon, Mary Ann was going to need all the help she could get.
Yet at the time nobody realized just how much help my mother was in need of. Still, Mary Ann figured that out quickly enough.
And so, in the company of babies made at sea – they grew close.
Not quite a year later I finished jets in Pensacola and was to report to Puget Sound again, in two weeks, this time to qualify on the A6 Intruder, so with two weeks off I went home – to Dallas, to check-in with father and see his new family – before setting my course back to Sirius.
And I hardly recognized anyone there.
My mother, still not drinking, had gained serious weight. Like eighty pounds serious. She had stopped running, stopped playing tennis, and the transformation was disconcerting. But then I saw Mary Ann.
Who had, apparently, stopped eating. She was a wraith, pale and ghost-like, a woman who hadn’t seen the sun in months.
And both were seriously depressed. When I stepped aboard both clung to me like ivy on a brick wall – and I doubted the wisdom of all my choices as I never had before. I should be here, I said, taking care of them. Taking care of these kids.
And we talked, the three of us, about what lay ahead. Four more years away, maybe at home a month a year, but they reassured me they had things under control and that what I was doing now was as important as Mary Ann’s medical schooling. And I listened to them, I even believed what they said – perhaps because it was what I wanted to hear – and I went north. Not too many months later I found myself walking the decks of the USS Constellation, a nugget in VA-165 getting ready to fly my first combat mission – over North Vietnam.
We flew a variety of missions over the north, from SAM suppression to hitting military targets in and around Haiphong, and we usually flew at night. I’d completed a dozen missions when orders came down that a Soviet freighter was inbound – carrying dozens of new, and very advanced, surface to air missiles. Our mission was to hit the docks along the Cám River – and only the docks – just before the freighter attempted to tie up alongside.
We took off at midnight – in a raging gale. These conditions were the Intruders specialty, however, and we wouldn’t be expected to strike on a night like this.
Of course, no one told that to the Soviet radar operators watching as we approached the coast, and no one bothered to mention that to the pilots flying brand new Mig-21D all weather fighters – as they took-off and turned to intercept our formations.
The kid on the other team was named Durong Thánh; he was not quite my age and had been schooled by the French in the south, he spent time in France as a kid with his diplomat father, and learned to fly in the Soviet Union. He was, and remained, a fine pilot, as good as I was, anyway.
In this attack plan, my section of four approached Haiphong from the east, and we came in low with an EA-6 jamming enemy radar sites all along the river entrance. The alleged main attack vectors were from the southwest and north, and they were high altitude sections easily spotted on radar. These two sections were supposed to draw enemy fighters to the north while our group came in low from the east. The plan might have worked if we hadn’t tried this little stunt a few times before, but we had and it didn’t.
About two miles from the river threat receivers started howling – SAMs, we thought. Then air-to-air radar receiver warnings started screaming, meaning we had enemy aircraft on our tails and air-to-air missiles were locked on our aircraft. We called our CAP, our escorting F4 Phantoms, but they were north of us, and at very high altitude.
My BN, or bombardier-navigator, a kid named Norman Puckett, started jamming radars, I started pumping off flares and chaff – as my section spread out for our final approach. The Mig’s first missiles went wide, our Phantoms joined the fight, and small arms fire started reaching up into the night, rounds slamming into the Intruder, sounding a little like metallic hail-strikes. I pickled my load and turned hard left over the city, saw an air-to-air missile streak by just yards away – then detonate in the sky just ahead – and little shards of the windshield and canopy came in on us. Fire warning lights started popping and hydraulic pressure falling, then oil pressure and engine ratios, too.
Durong was still behind me, still trying to get off another shot, when we decided to eject. We were too low, but the aircraft was coming unglued – so I gave the order and we reached overhead and pulled the lanyards.
And nothing happened. Well, almost nothing happened. The canopy did it’s thing and blew away in the slipstream, but the seats resolutely refused to fire – and then Puckett looked at me – and we both started laughing.
“Well, Spud, we’re somewhat kinda screwed, ain’t we?”
And just then, for some reason, I thought of Jennifer. Jennifer, in the field across Greenfield’s Road in the autumn before we broke up. I could see her by my side, smiling at me, her eyes at peace – and I leveled the wings, popped the spoilers and tried to bleed off as much energy as I could – before we slammed into the muddy waters of Ha Long Bay.
Durong Thánh apparently never knew a Phantom was behind his Mig, and never knew two Sidewinders were sliding up his tail – but somehow he managed to eject – and his parachute blossomed overhead, his seat fell away, then he looked down at the sea below.
And who know? Maybe he laughed I would have..
Because we, Norm and myself, were about five hundred feet below, climbing out of our Intruder’s cockpit as it filled with water, and we watched as his Mig came apart in the sky and cartwheeled into the sea.
I saw him first and pulled my 45 ACP from it’s holster on my thigh, and I chambered a round. I sighted in on the falling pilot, was going to shoot the ever-lovin’ hell out of his ass, too, but for some reason I didn’t. Instead I watched him fall into the water and struggle with his parachute. When I was sure the guy was about to drown I dove into the water and swam to him, helped him out of his harness and pulled him to our still-floating aircraft, then Norm helped us up on the wing and the two of us sat there, gasping for breath, wondering what the hell had just happened.
Then Durong started cussing – in French, mind you – and of course, having gone to a school that valued such things, I began cussing out Durong for having shot my ass down – in perfect schoolboy French. Norm crossed his arms and picked his teeth, wondered when this little dog and pony show was going to wind up and leave town, then he noticed I was bleeding. Bleeding all over the place.
One of the Phantoms was circling overhead and Norm got on his handset and gave a rundown of our situation, and the Phantom driver told us a helicopter was inbound, and that it looked like our Intruder was sinking – which of course it was. And I was bleeding out too, my blood flowing out into the sea in huge billowing clouds of dark red life.
Sharks heard that dinner bell ringing, and they came running, were soon circling our sinking aircraft.
Norm and Durong figured out what was happening and got the life-rafts from under our seats deployed, and me into one of them, just as two Sikorskys roared by. We were hoisted aboard and took off for the Connie as Boomer five-oh-five slipped beneath the waves. I nearly lost my leg as a result of the night’s festivities – not from lacerations but from, rather, organisms in the water that got in the tissue and caused a series runaway infections.
Durong Thánh was taken to Hawaii for a little chat with some new friends, and from there to Leavenworth, Kansas, for a prolonged visit to the interior of our country; I too visited Hawaii, but stayed in a somewhat less than pleasant medical facility, but that’s not how the performance played out back in California.
Several aircraft were shot down that night, a few airmen killed, a few taken prisoner, and so in the confusion Mary Ann received a telegram from the Secretary of the Navy telling her that I’d been killed. My mother came unglued, father flew out to console them, and was there when a second telegram arrived, indicating that, no, your son is not dead. I was, rather, en route to Pearl Harbor where no doubt an endless procession of round-eyed nurses would fellate me into oblivion. Well, that was Dad’s version of the telegram, but I think you see the nature of the sequence.
Our presence in Southeast Asia diminished somewhat after that, and I left the Navy after my time was up and returned to San Francisco somewhat different than I’d been just a few years before. I was older, true enough, but I was no longer in any real hurry to grow up.
Life’s funny that way.
I haven’t talked much about my daughter, Mary Claire. It’s a difficult subject.
After I returned from my time in the Navy I went to work trying to find a job flying, and it was not easy. Airlines were struggling with inflation and higher fuel prices, along with people generally not traveling as much as an economic downturn hit, and that meant a tight market for pilots – despite many hired after WWII and Korea retiring. And wanting to be based in the Bay Area further constrained my choices. I ended up working for Air California, flying 737s to Orange County and back, for a couple of years – before I got on with Delta, which I considered my first real job. It was also my last real job. I stayed with them until I retired, and I mention this as a frame of reference. It’s what I did, what I’d always wanted to do, and Delta was one of the few constants in my life.
Mary Ann seemed to find equilibrium after I returned, and she finished her internship at USF, and then her residency at back at Stanford, where she specialized in pediatric cardiovascular surgery. She was busy, and in demand, from the beginning, and she became less a resident and more an infrequent visitor to Sirius.
Mary Claire’s was a sad, burdened soul from the beginning, like she knew her life was going to be short and full of pain. While I was still at Air Cal she was diagnosed with leukemia, and while her fight was valiant, it was brief. She passed a few months shy of her tenth birthday, and her death marked a terrible turn in all our lives.
We were together, the three of us, almost all the time our first four years, so we were extraordinarily close. That time together, those first years, grounded me in who I was – and by that I mean when I thought of myself in passing I thought of myself as her father first, above anything else, and the hardest part about being in the Navy was being away from her. After she left us I spent a time not really knowing who I was anymore – like if I was her father above all else, then what was I now – now that she was gone?
And Mary Ann wilted after her death. A physician unable to help? Unable to change the outcome of her own daughters fight? The experience left her burdened for years – and her work placed her on the front lines of endless desperate fights, with children facing death, her patients facing impossible odds in their fight for life. I watched her struggle under the load for almost ten years before I knew she was finally going to be alright.
And then there was Paul and Sara. He breezed through school, zipped through his training and went straight into general surgery, and they bought a house, once, in the Hollywood Hills and there they lived. Sara played for studio orchestras while she went back to school, and began teaching Music History at USC after her three kids were out of diapers.
And it’s kind of funny, but I looked at my experience with Jen, then Mary Ann, and I looked at Paul’s with Sara – and I found the differences amusing, if instructive. He always knew what he wanted to do, as did I, yet he’d never been possessed with the almost self-destructive impulse that had gripped me in high school. There were no Jennifers in his life, there had just been that one moment at the coffee house in Cambridge when he met Sara. He knew, he just knew. So did she, and that was it. I always wondered why, what made us so different? Simple chance, nature versus nurture? What? What made our experiences so different?
Just life, you say?
Father’s divorce wasn’t so unpredictable, was it?
Two people more different was hard to imagine, yet I think he never stopped loving my mother – yet because my mother set such an impossibly high mark their marriage was troubled from the start. We lost touch during those years, but he came ‘round more when Mary Claire got sick. He was divorced by then of course, and he stayed with Mom more and more when he visited, and Ben was ecstatic.
Yes, Ben. He was my daughter’s age, yet he was my brother, and he was there with us all along, yet when Mary Claire fell ill I think it hit him hardest of all. He wasn’t her brother, after all – he was her uncle. An adult relationship had been, in effect, forced on him – if only by social convention – yet I think that set him on his way. On my way, I mean, on wanting to be an adult before he’d had a chance to fully experience being a kid.
So when my mother and my father drifted back into the same orbit their children, both of us, were only too happy to see it happen.
I could say that the story ends here, but it didn’t.
It couldn’t say that now, you see, because the most important part of the symphony, the conclusion, had yet to be composed. And the composer, if you will, had yet to play much of a role in our lives – beyond trying to kill me one dark and stormy night.
Sirius was a wooden boat, and time does not treat such things kindly. She required regular, extensive work on such varied things as her hull, the decks, and even her masts. Over the years we’d kept her in just two marinas, one by the airport and the other downtown, and she was surrounded by other boats we called Clorox bottles – or fibreglass boats. Plastic boats, in other words, unstable little things that stank of industrial solvents from the day they were made ‘til the day they started cracking up from too much exposure to the sun.
Plastic boats don’t require too much cosmetic maintenance, which is why they’re so popular, and the people who buy plastic boats tend not to invest much time or energy into their upkeep. Their hulls become chalky, the cheap plastic portlights misty and streaked with crazing, and most of them tend to be under-built with the cheapest grade hardware the builder can get away with. There were exceptions, of course, but many plastic boats, most built in Florida, were a danger to their owners if they were used for anything other than dockside condos.
But so are wooden boats – if you don’t keep up with the regular maintenance required to keep them seaworthy. We did, and for fifteen years our efforts kept up with her needs, but then seams started to open in her hull planks, and the teak decks had been sanded all they could. The time had come to make a decision: invest real money in a major refit or put her on the market. All of us, including Paul and Sara, met one Saturday morning to talk about the old girl’s fate, and that discussion rightly centered on what our plans for her going forward might be.
The truth is, Mary Ann and I were ready for a house, but we weren’t ready to get rid of her – yet. After Mom and Dad remarried, and soon after she returned to the old house on Belclaire, yet she had come to view Sirius as a vital part of the fabric of our lives, and my father echoed that very sentimental view. It was Paul and Sara that, of course, held to a singularly practical view of her role in our lives: make plans to sail her, they said, and sail her hard, or sell her. Boats like Sirius were meant to be sailed, Sara said, and to see her relegated to life as little more than a mobile home wasn’t right.
We knew she was right, Mary Ann and I, but the truth of the matter is we were not even forty years old. Retirement was decades away, for four of us, at least, and that’s when I noticed Dad leaning back in his chair, grinning as an idea bubbled up from just under the surface and sprang into life.
“What if your mother and I clean her up and take her out for a few years?”
“What?” my mother said, smiling. “Are you serious?”
And we all started talking about the difficulty two seniors faced if taking a 72 foot monster out into the Pacific – alone. Of course the more we said about that, the more both my mother and father grinned, the more they wanted to do it.
Then Sara chimed in again: we could, each of us – she said – join Sirius whenever a long ocean crossing was in the offing, and the old farts could enjoy her when they got where they were going. So a list of possible places to visit took shape in the air and that was that. Mary Ann and I bought a little shack in Menlo Park and settled in, and on my days off went to the yard in Sausalito, where Sirius was undergoing major surgery, to get paint under my fingernails. Eight months – and almost 200 grand later – she was back in the water, ready to go – and she looked brand new again. We sailed her back to the marina in downtown San Fran and tourists regularly came by and snapped rolls of film standing beside her.
Mom and Dad moved back onboard, and though Ben was now a junior in high school – yes, in Massachusetts – he planned to take part in the first leg of the adventure that coming summer. We all, as a matter of fact, were planning to take part in this second coming of Sirius, her first real trip in almost seventeen years. The plan took shape quickly, too: sail through the Golden Gate and on to O’ahu. Kind of closing the circle, I think you could say, before helping Sirius begin the next part of her life.
And we, Mary Ann and myself, began looking at life shoreside as the beginning of the second part of our life together. I have to say that, after just a few weeks in the new house, we began to regret the decision to move ashore. And the house was empty of kids, of all the routines that make a house a home. We tried to have another, but something was wrong, and all of a sudden that little house felt like a hall of carnival mirrors. We were lost, bumping into each other, trying to find a way out of the maze we’d just created for ourselves.
About that time I bid for and started flying from San Francisco to Tokyo; as a result I was away from home more than I ever had been before. When I was home Mary Ann was the same, yet different. She was all work, until she wasn’t, then we would go out, go for drives on weekends or up to the city to bother my parents. We were everything but intimate, and suddenly I realized we were falling away from one another.
And then the thing I hated most about my father happened to me.
Here name was Patty. Patricia Brody, a wild-hearted, red-headed Bostonian who was, of course, a flight attendant. And she was, more often than not, on my Tokyo flight, and we were, more often than not, billeted in the same hotel. And one day it just happened. I’d known her a long time, had never thought of her as someone I’d like to spend that kind of time with, but it happened.
We went sight-seeing. We talked and laughed, I helped her pick out a baby Nikon and taught her the ins-and-outs of composing a photograph, to treat a camera with respect and to not waste time taking simple snapshots. Kind of ironic, don’t you think?
We went to see The Empire Strikes Back and rolled in the aisles – laughing our asses off – as we watched Han and Luke screeching their lines – in Japanese. Of course we got around to talking about the sore subjects in our life, and for the first time ever I found Mary Ann at the top of that list.
So of course, before the night was over we had done the deed. We had cemented a new union, of sorts, yet another chapter of the Lonely Hearts Club was created – and we continued weekly our meetings for a while. I assumed Mary Ann never suspected a thing, and of course I never said a word about it. We had by that point abandoned the idea of having kids – and gravity took over. I doubted it would take long to come undone and spin apart.
Summer intervened before things got out of hand; gear and provisions were loaded on Sirius in one long weekend, and on a foggy Monday morning we motored through the Golden Gate towards the Farallon Islands, Dad at the chart table, Mom on the helm, Paul and Sara and their three kids – sitting on the deckhouse keeping a lookout for Great White Sharks – leaving Mary Ann to commune with Ben – and me, sitting by myself on the aft rail, looking back at our gurgling wake – watching that red bridge – and Patty – disappear in the mist.
We motored past the Farallons, keeping them to port, and by late morning the sun obliterated what fog remained and a breeze filled in. Sails went up, Dad and I shot noon sights and restarted our plot, turning to the next page in the logbook – that hadn’t had a new entry in a very, very long time. The wind filled in, 20 knots solid off the starboard beam, and Sirius found her groove again, became the ocean greyhound we remembered from the summer of ‘65 – and we began cracking off real mileage that night.
With that much wind across the deck we kept the kids harnessed up and in the cockpit until they knew the routines better, and the old hands kept watch that first night out with everyone tucked away safely below.
I remember a full moon behind clouds racing south, big-fat clouds, white-rimmed and dark bellied – and waves that were soon in the ten foot range. Sirius flew off the wave-tops and plowed into the base of the next rolling mountain, sending walls of black water over everything topsides. I think the water temperature was 55F, the air temp around 45F, and we were soon cold, chilled to the bone.
Paul was with me then, in the cockpit, and we’d been alone together for a while when he leaned close.
“So, what’s her name?”
“Sara thinks you’re seeing someone. What’s her name?” He was giving me that look, the ‘don’t bother lying to me – I know you too well’ look.
“Patricia,” I said.
“I’m not going to ask why. I guess it’s none of my business, anyway, but you’re married to one of the world’s great women. I hope you haven’t forgotten that.”
“We’re going through a rough patch,” I said – as another mountain of ice water roared by.
He snorted. “Hell, what marriage doesn’t?”
“What about you? Have you…”
He shook his head. “No. I mean, why bother? You’re going to take your same way of dealing with the world into a new relationship, and odds are you’re just going to create the same problems all over again. I think it’s better to just deal with the problems you have, work them out, sort out what’s most important and focus on that.”
“That’s worked out well for you?”
“Well, you’ve got kids to think of…”
“Is that what’s bothering you? Kids?”
“It’s become a dividing line, something we can’t get around.”
He nodded his head. “Sara thought so too.”
“Well, she would. She’s one of the world’s great women, too.”
“She has her moments. You still love Mary Ann?”
“Yup. More than you know.”
“I doubt that. Still, she’s not stupid, Spud. She deserves the truth, you both deserve time to work this out without some other woman breathing down your necks.”
The cockpit was right over the aft cabin, the cabin where Mary Ann and I slept, and she was down there. There was a portlight in that cabin, a portlight that opened into the cockpit, and it was open. She was sitting in the dark, listening to every word we’d just said, then I heard that portlight shut, heard her dogging it down, then I heard her putting on her foul weather gear – and I saw her coming up the companionway steps a moment later. She stepped into the cockpit and came over to me, sat down beside me and kissed me, once, on the lips, then she looked at Paul.
“How does the helm feel?” she asked him.
“Lots of vibration still, and kind of heavy.”
“Why don’t you go below, get some tea and warm up.”
He nodded his head and she slipped behind the wheel, steered over a looming wall of water and surfed down the backside. When Paul was below she spoke again – keeping her eyes on the way ahead. “How far has it gone?”
“I don’t know.”
“Nothing’s ever too far, Mary Ann. Not where you and I are concerned.”
“I’m not going to ask why…I think I know, and I think I understand…but don’t do anything drastic without talking to me first.”
We sat in the dark watching marching waves under a kaleidoscope of moonlit spray, the way ahead shades of black and dark silver.
“Maybe you should just get it out of your system, you know?” she said a half hour later.
“Too confusing. I was never meant to love two women.” I had been looking at her all this time, at her and the passing spray, dissolving diamonds falling from the sky. I studied her face, her face so familiar, so much a part of who I was now.
“Oh?” she said, looking at me for an instant.
“I think I was born to love you.”
“I fell in love with you the first moment of our first year, before school even started.”
“I don’t remember that?” I said. “What happened?”
“I’d just arrived. A social worker put me on a bus in Baton Rouge. To Boston,” she said, “then got on one of those Peter Pan buses to Springfield. Someone from school picked me up, and on the drive north we stopped at that little airport in Northampton. Your father and you were standing by an airplane, then I realized it was your airplane. I had no idea anyone could own something like that, and I’d never known anyone who could fly.”
“I remember that now. The old Travel Air.”
“You looked like a God to me, Spud. Standing there in the wind by that airplane. Now you put on that uniform and go fly those huge airplanes – like maybe just anyone in the world can do what you do – but they can’t, Spud. To me, you’ll always be that God, that wild, wind-blown God, and I’ll never love anyone else. I can’t, I couldn’t. I worship you, I always have.”
“Because I feel like I’ve let you down. It’s me, Spud. My plumbing broke, and we won’t have another child because of me.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because I let you down. Maybe I thought you needed to find another woman, have kids, move on to to a new life. Because that would be better for you.”
“It wouldn’t last. I can’t breathe when I’m away from you for too long.”
She laughed. “You’d learn, Spud.”
“Doubtful.” I sighed, wondered if I should take the next step, then I went on, stepped into the darkness. “Do you remember Durong, Durong Thánh?”
“The pilot who…”
“Yes, of course.”
Durong Thánh, Mig-21 pilot who shot my ass down. I was his fifth, so he made Ace on me. Durong, who, when he discovered my BN, Norm Puckett, had a dislocated shoulder and that I was bleeding to death, got to work with first aid kit in his teeth and kept me from bleeding out. He worked on me in the helicopter, he kept working on me all the way to the Connie’s Sick Bay. Puckett told me the kid saved my life, and he was treated civilly until he was released after the war wound down, I think in no small measure because he had.
He called me the day he was released, asked if he could come meet me somewhere and talk.
For some reason the Navy cut him that much slack, and he came to San Francisco, visited me on Sirius. We talked about that night, about how it was nothing personal, just war. He’d been locked up for a couple of years, and he’d done nothing but think about that night. About how one minute he’d been trying to kill me, and the next trying to save my life. Nationalism fell away in those moments, all the patriotic fervor he’d grown up around simply vanished as he watched my blood billowing out into the godawful brown water.
The State Department let him stay aboard for a few days, and I assumed responsibility for him, promised that I’d get him to a charter flight to Hanoi a few days hence, and I did. We talked all the while, this kid about half my size and three years younger than I, and somewhere in there we slipped from the uncomfortable terrain of adversary into the uncharted water of a new friendship. When he left, before he walked out to the DC-8 taking him home, we hugged, and we promised to keep in touch.
And the funny thing about this is – we did. Regularly, as a matter a fact. And when I started flying into Tokyo we met up from time to time. He was a captain by then, for Vietnam Airlines, flying Boeing 707s from Hanoi to Tokyo and back. I’d just met his wife, before we left on the trip to Hawaii, and we’d discussed life back in America. Mary Ann and the baby situation came up and she looked at me, asked me a question I’d never expected.
“Do you want a baby?” she asked.
“I think I do. I think Mary Ann would too.”
“It is not a problem, you know. We have hundreds of orphans in Hanoi alone. There are no homes for them, and it is not a problem to adopt.”
“I didn’t know you’d kept up with him,” Mary Ann said, looking from the wave-tops to me and back. “How is he doing?”
“He’s actually doing good. Real good.” There are symmetries in life that haunt us, follow us unawares, and I mentioned this. “His wife is a doc, an obstetrician.”
“Oh? That’s kind of funny,” she said.
“I met her a few weeks ago.”
“Oh? Is she nice?”
“I talked about us. She mentioned that there are hundreds of kids in Hanoi alone, orphans. She said adoption is no problem.”
And she looked at me, stopped looking at the waves and just looked at me. I jumped behind the wheel, took over as she slid away, made room for me.
“And what did you say?” she said after a long pause.
I shook my head. “Not much. I’m not sure how I feel about it – not yet, anyway. You?”
She sighed, shook the cold away. “I love the idea. It’s the reality I’m not so sure about.”
“Do you think we could go over there, have a look around?”
“I think so. I’m not sure what restrictions are in place right now.”
She slid close again, put her head on my shoulder. “This is kind of a crazy, mixed up world, isn’t it?”
“Holy-mother-of-God!” I yelled – then – “Hang on!”
A huge wave – I’d guess now, looking back on the moment, perhaps the height of a two story building – came up out of nowhere and Sirius raced up the face, hesitated a moment, then fell off the backside – surfing down the wall at breakneck speed.
And there was an even bigger wave waiting in the night, just barely visible now – a huge, feral monster – rising up like a mountain range, suddenly looming overhead.
Mary Ann darted below, slammed the companionway hatch shut just as this next freight train slammed into the hull, and Sirius rolled drunkenly to her beam end – and as this second wave broke over us Sirius rolled further and further over – until her masts pointed to the seafloor, perhaps three miles below.
Rushing water filled the cockpit and I lost my grip on the wheel as we turned over – and the next thing I saw was Sirius, upside down, sails ripped from their tracks, lines coiled like snakes hovering everywhere in black shadows cast by the scudding moon, then bubbles everywhere. Then tons and tons of lead in her keel exerted force against the water and slowly Sirius began to right herself. It took what felt like hours, but in reality was probably less than half a minute – and when I came to the surface I saw that I was perhaps twenty yards away from my boat, my home, and that her sails were filling fast. I was swimming for my life as she began sailing away, and the last thing I saw was Mary Ann coming on deck, looking around for me – then screaming.
I think not even a month later we were in Hanoi, walking with Louise Thánh through the obstetrics hospital where she worked, and Mary Ann was, I could tell, aghast. To call conditions there primitive might have been going to far, but for someone working on the leading edge of a rapidly changing branch of medicine, what she saw during this slowly unfolding tour was just hardly bearable.
We came to a neonatal unit, what might have been a neonatal unit in the States in, say, the 1950s, and she looked at a row of blue-skinned babies dying and she turned away.
“What is wrong?” Louise asked.
Yet Mary Ann tried to keep to herself, tried to turn away. She knew the problem, knew the solution, yet the solution wasn’t available in this country – yet. So she looked at those half dozen kids, who all would die within hours, and she was overcome with helplessness. Then anger. She went to one of the neonate nurses and asked for a chart – in French – then she read through the chart, slowly, carefully.
Then she turned to Louise.
“There is no treatment plan. Why?”
“These babies will die soon.”
“Yes, I know that, but what are you going to do about it?”
“There is nothing we can do for these babies.”
“You wanna bet?”
“Find me an anesthesiologist. Quickly, if you can.”
I looked at Mary Ann, knew that tone, and yet she’d promised me she wouldn’t do this.
A harried looking doc came by, and for some reason the kid spoke decent English and Mary Ann drilled him on what she wanted to do.
“We have no surgeon here who can do that,” the anesthesiologist said.
“I’m going to,” my wife said.
“You are not on staff,” Louise said. “You cannot do this.”
“Why not? I can save this kid. It’ll take me twenty minutes.”
“You are not serious,” the anesthesiologist said.
“If you’ve got a pediatric surgeon around, I can do it in even less time, and I can teach him the procedure.”
Louise took off in one direction, the anesthesiologist in another. Fifteen minutes later she was scrubbed in, starting the procedure. It took her twenty five minutes, and the kid was pink and full of life the next morning.
We had come to look at potential kids to adopt, and all of a sudden Mary Ann had an epiphany. Over the next week, talking to Norman Shumway, her boss at Stanford, and members of the hospital’s government ministry, she developed, on the spot, a teaching program she wanted to set up there. She would volunteer to teach one week a month, for a year, and nurses, techs, and Stanford anesthesiologists would come with her. There was equipment back in Palo Alto no longer in use that could imported, that could save lives, so much we can do…
And the ministers balked.
Mary Ann was in tears. “Why will you do nothing for these children? We’ll bring a new level of medicine to your country…?”
“Perhaps,” I said later, “because we brought a new level of devastation to their country. Perhaps because they don’t like to be reminded that America once lorded over them. Perhaps because the resent the Great White Fathers once again sticking our noses into their business.”
That evening another ministerial type came to our room, just after Durong and Louise arrived.
“Could you come with me, please?” the man asked. “All of you?”
For a ride in the country.
We came to a house. A nice house, clean and small, but not fancy.
We went inside, and found in an ancient man in bed, a nurse be his side. He was thin and pale, looked vaguely familiar, and he spoke perfect English after he’d looked over Mary Ann.
“You have kind eyes,” he said, and there was an air about this old man I had a hard time pinning down – and suddenly I wished Sara was with us.
And without saying a word Mary Ann was at his side, feeling this pulse and that, looking over his chart, then she moved to his ankles and felt here and there. She took a nearby stethoscope and listened to his heart, then his lungs, had him lean forward and she listened again. When she was finished she stepped back and looked at the man, and waited.
“How long will I live?” he finally asked.
And Mary Ann shrugged. “A week, perhaps.”
“And from what I’ve heard, you can repair this?”
“With the proper equipment on hand, the operation might take an hour.”
“And I would live?”
She nodded her head.
“I see. And you do this for children?”
“That is my area of expertise, yes.”
“I have been told about what you did. And what you want to do. Could you tell me why?”
“Because I hate suffering. When I see a problem I know I can fix, I want to do so.”
“And you see a problem you can fix?”
“No, I see suffering I can alleviate.”
The old man nodded his head. “I understand. I would like to know of another thing.”
“I have been reading of this trip you made, by sea, last year. And about the storm you endured. The news accounts were vague, so I wondered. You saw your husband in the sea, and you dove in after him. Why?”
“Because without him I would not want to go on living.”
“It’s as simple as that?”
“Yet your friends were able to turn the ship around and get to him, to you both, with little trouble. Why did you not wait?”
“Because I did not want him to be alone. I had no way to know we’d been picked up, and I did not want him to die alone.”
He looked at her the longest time, his eyes measuring hers. “Your kindness is true, I think. In my next life, I would hope to meet you.” He coughed, had trouble catching his breath, and Mary Ann went to him, held his wrist and felt his rhythms.
“I can have the equipment needed her within a day. I can have you walking within a week.”
“I will consider this. In the meantime, I want you to move forward with your plans to teach. You will find no further obstacles along this path.”
And as Mary Ann began crying the old man suddenly became grandfatherly. “Yes, I would pray that I meet you in our next life,” he said gently. “Please, do not cry. I know these are tears of joy, but you have much to do now. Certainly there is no time to spend with tears?”
“Yes. You’re correct.”
“Will you do my operation?”
“I will assist. There is another man, much more experienced with your procedure than I, who I will ask to come.”
“I would like you there.”
“Then I will be.”
“There are two people I would like you to meet now,” he said, and a door opened. Two kids I thought might have been three or four years old came into the room, and they stood beside the old man’s bed with their heads bowed. “These are my grandchildren. Their parents were killed several weeks ago, and I am concerned for their future. I understand you are looking to adopt children and I would like you to consider raising this remnant of my family.”
Then he looked at me, asked me to come closer. “Durong, you too. And Louise.”
My friend came and stood by my side, Louise by Mary Ann’s.
“You were my enemy once, and yet you chose to treat my son with great respect. You call each other friend, do you not?”
“Yes, father,” Durong said. “I believe he is worthy of that name.”
“And you think he would treat my grandchildren with equal respect?”
“I do, father.”
Then the old man turned to me. “This was my son’s idea. At first I could see little wisdom in his choice, but now I do. I hope you will consider this, and when it is time, I hope you will let them return – with what you have taught them. The world needs understanding, does it not?”
“It does, sir.”
“This was good, but now I feel I must rest,” and he seemed to wither before us, and his grandchildren looked first at him, then at me.
If you live near – or on – the sea long enough, you realize that life is defined by tides, by orbital cycles, if you will, and that all life revolves around ebbs and floods often greater than the sum of their varied currents. You see that each tide is subtly different, too, that no two are ever quite the same, and that there are at least two ways of dealing with the flow. You can work your way against the tide, push against the currents, or you can turn and run with the flood. In time you understand that running with the flood has certain advantages, but you can easily end up on the rocks and spend the rest of your life repairing the damage – so you have to chose your moment well. You have to watch the water, wait for the most opportune time, then you have to strike out into the water and follow your instincts as the current carries you along and, mindful of rocks along the way, reach for the sheltering sky – and the love that waits for your grasp.
I am, of course, not talking about tides.
No, I speak of my Jennifer, who slipped from my fingers once and fell away to other arms. I thought she was my Peter Pan, the child who could stay my rush to responsibility, but I saw her hook just in time. It was you, Paul, who saved me. And you too, Harry.
I speak of my children, our twins, and the day I watched them graduate in Massachusetts, with my mother and father gone, yet with my improbable brother standing by my side, cheering. The day would have never been – had it not been for war, distant, far from home, and a warrior trying to kill me. I would not have watched their graduation in Palo Alto a few years later, nor would I have seen them move into medicine, or been able to help with their return to Hanoi. I would not have been part of an extended family in Vietnam, and would never have known the joy that helping Mary Ann’s efforts take root could bring. A simple twist in time, and so many courses altered. And of course, none of it would have happened without Paul keeping me grounded to the pull of Mary Ann’s gravity.
And of course I speak of my mother and father, and the swirling currents that surrounded them. I think of my mother holding Jen to her breast in that cabin – they were in that moment twin sisters joined at the heart. I think of the morning I received a call from mother, in New Zealand, telling of father’s passing. He had been working on a balky fuel filter, had just asked mother for a wrench, and he looked up, said “Oh…” as life came, and went – and that was it. They were alone then, alone together, but not long after my mother joined him. Sirius remained in New Zealand for many years, under the care of woodworkers who cherished her lines, able men and women who kept her sound while she waited for her master’s return.
Of all the currents that swept me along, Mary Ann’s was the smoothest. She was my guiding star, my purpose. Not so many days ago I lay with her as she passed, and I held her into the night. With my parent’s gone, Paul and Sara too, I am now the only one remaining from that first journey.
Ben was with me on Sirius this morning, standing on her decks together one last time. We had an urn in hand, ashes from five lives mingling in the moment, then we cast their fates to the wind and watched them drift away. We said our goodbyes and I watched him motor ashore, then I went forward and cast away her mooring line, setting Sirius free again. I raised sail, heading north, no idea where we were going, only that go we must. It is time.
I sat on the deckhouse this morning, where Mary Claire used to sit and dream, and I recalled watching my wife and daughter sitting there one morning, a morning not unlike this one. They were reading Peter Pan, and I heard a little voice say “second star to the right, and straight on ‘til morning,” and I understood just then. She was my Pan, but so too were they all.
(C)2017 adrian leverkuhn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | firstname.lastname@example.org | this was, of course, a work of fiction.