June 18, 2012
SAILING WITH MY FATHER
EAST MONTPELIER, VT – On Fathers Day 2012 I did something that my father, in all his one hundred years, never got to do. I rode in a dinghy tender with some friends out to their sailboat, got everything ready for a puffy day, and cruised out of McNeil Cove for an afternoon on Lake Champlain. White sails dotted the blue lake; puffy cumulus clouds hung over the high peaks of the Adirondacks and the ridge of the Green Mountains, where the rising warm air cooled; a husky southeast breeze raised whitecaps under a cerulean sky. Beer cooled in the icebox in the galley. Nothing could have been nicer. Yet I wished the old man could have been here to enjoy it, instead of me. God knows he had it coming.
He was an overachiever. Named after his father and grandfather, he was second-generation German-American and expected to do great things. Then, just as he entered puberty, he came down with spinal meningitis and awoke a week later to a note handed him by his mother: “You cannot hear.” This was a calamity for the extrovert that he was.
But he remained an overachiever: high school in regular classes with an occasional interpreter; college at Gallaudet in Washington, DC; a brief, unsuccessful attempt to learn his father’s business, pharmacy; a stint, during my childhood, at the local meat packing house; and finally, after years of study at home, ordination as an Episcopal priest ministering to the deaf.
He walked with a brisk, athletic pace that only my high-speed tricycle could match. He killed only cockroaches and earwigs; hornets, bees, and snakes he carefully coddled to safety away from fearful family members. He shot and edited really good 8-millimeter color films, which needed no captions or commentary, because the stars were mostly deaf and spoke in sign language. He loved to drive, which was a good thing; he had twenty different congregations scattered over most of New York State, and visited each one at least once a month. With his big convex rearview mirror – I still have it – he could see all around him inside and outside the car, and often pointed out that deaf drivers had better accident records than hearing ones because, presumably, they were more alert.
Dad had a secret passion that became apparent only occasionally: He loved water. I suspect he learned swimming at the YMCA – that’s where he sent me to learn it, in 1944 – and swam the same way he walked: overhand crawl with a mouth-open gulp of air on each roll, for miles at times. We rented a camp on Warners Lake each summer for a week. In his old dark-blue itchy wool swim suit he swam across the lake and back with no apparent thought that he might not make it. He tied around his waist the painter of the big gray wooden rowboat that went with the camp – you know the kind, with the bottom boards nailed crossways – and for exercise pulled my sister, me, and our mother down to the end of the lake, where he captured painted turtles for us, and then swam back up the lake to camp with us. A walrus, he was. He was our lifeguard when my sister and I made a pirate’s plank of two oars projecting from the dock and forced each other off into the lake with the support pole from the clothes line.
There was an icebox at the east end of the back porch of the camp at Warners Lake – in our kitchen at home, too, come to think of it. A brown canvas tarp sheltered the box from the morning sun. After noon Dad took down the tarp, carried it down to the dock, and loaded it into the boat. We rowed to the windward end of the lake, where he spread the tarp into a heavy, opaque square sail with the oars, and then down the lake we drifted – or careened, depending on the wind. Looking back, I can’t recall when I ever saw him elementally happier than when the tarp pulled at his muscular arms and the bow wave bubbled past the old scow.
Now and then over the years I’d see a Popular Mechanics or a Mechanix Illustrated magazine lying open at a set of plans for building a small sailboat. How I wished he’d try it! And he could have done it; he was as good with wood – and with no shop to work in – as a Cuban shade-tree mechanic with old cars. But it never happened. There was never a day unbroken by some other obligation.
Later, when I learned to sail myself at summer camp and still later went to work at the Outward Bound sea school on the coast of Maine, he listened to my tales of our exploits and adventures in 30-foot open boats with what seemed ambivalent interest, much as I might listen to my own son describe hunting elk in Wyoming. I had gone where he hadn’t managed to go; so, though he was happy for me, nodding approvingly, he couldn’t feel the wind in his hair.
I’m now where he was about 25 years ago: a little too old and stiff to go skipping forward with the boat hook to pick up the mooring in a fresh breeze, and a little too poor to own a boat – much as I fancy I’d like one – bigger than a canoe or guide boat. But on this Fathers Day I could imagine he was with us as we threaded through the moored boats in McNeil Cove. Stephan used the diesel to get us clear, and we sailed for a while on just the genoa jib; then, as the wind dropped a bit, on a double-reefed main; and finally, just before turning downwind for home, with the full mainsail and jib wing-and-wing. The water bubbled past, just as it had so long ago beside that old wooden tub of a rowboat. Each puff of the afternoon breeze picked us up and pitched us forward with a fresh impulse. Linn handed up glasses of seltzer from the galley and shuffled forward to lie on the deck. I could feel the old man sitting ghostly beside me, the wind ruffling his wild curls, looking at me and nodding as he often did, and holding his thumb against his breastbone with fingers extended upward in a fan, signing, “Fine! This is fine!”