Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Winter Recess 1977: Stop the Boat, I Want to Get Off

Accompanying the youthful exuberance of departing for college is the belief in limitless possibilities, the sense that life has expanded beyond the mundane existence of suburban New Jersey. I had just completed my first semester at Wittenberg and was home for Winter Recess, disappointingly bored with my hometown after three months of independence, new friendships, beckoning adulthood, and a fresh understanding of life and the world. I had a restless heart, otherwise known as the perilous existence of an 18-year old male with time on his hands. Although I had been looking forward to Christmas and catching up with my parents, reaffirming my affections for Lady, the family dog, and reacquainting with old friends, I soon experienced the routine normalcy of pre-college home life.

With gratitude, therefore, I accompanied my parents to Florida after Christmas to visit my mother’s brother, Norm, and his third wife, Mary. My Florida relatives – two uncles and a grandmother, all on my Mom’s side – always promised fresh perspectives and a few good laughs. My grandmother had recently buried her fifth husband and, before the glue dried on the coffin, rejected marriage proposals and the courtship of two men vying for her affections at the youthful age of 75. She explained later that Frank drank too much, while Bob was too religious and thus a touch boring. Anyone who spent a little time with my grandmother was sure to leave with a story. A woman of grand contradictions, she was both a fundamentalist Christian and a staunch Democrat who carried a bottle of whiskey marked “medicine” in her glove compartment. Although she would live to be 100, she had already lived an interesting, if difficult life, holding two jobs into her seventies and struggling always to make ends meet.

Next in line was my Uncle Billy. Approachable as a teddy bear, loved by all, one never saw Billy without a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, the time of day notwithstanding. In some ways, Billy had lived a charmed life. He was married to my Aunt Shirley, a woman of class and grace and wholesome good looks; much too classy for Billy, she remained, somehow, beholden to his sentimental charm. An uneducated man with few accomplishments, Billy was nevertheless my grandfather’s favorite son, having remained in Ohio for many years to help train racehorses, while the other children – Norm and my mother – departed the Akron hillsides and chose to live apart from Grandpa’s narrow confines. Billy had never really worked an honest day in his life – he spent many of his days drinking, gambling, and hanging out in bars – yet it was impossible to become angry with Billy, for he had such sad, droopy eyes, the kind that made people melt like putty in his hands. A flawed man with a huge heart and a generous spirit, he adored Shirley, took care of my grandmother, and was always good to my Mom, so Billy was all right in my book. Although he was not much of a role model, certainly not someone you wished to emulate, we eagerly sought and anticipated his company.

Perhaps the most normal of the bunch was my Uncle Norm – though the benchmark for normalcy on this side of the family was a red flag in itself. Norm was the educated, seemingly wise one, the oldest brother; he had served in the military, earned a Ph.D. in psychology from Case Western Reserve University, and possessed a sharp wit, deep intellect, and liberal politics (completely the opposite of Billy and my grandfather). Though he made his living as a clinical psychologist – we jokingly dubbed him a cynical psychopath – he had wide and varied interests, each usually accompanied by a stiff drink and a good joke.

One of Norm’s interests was boating, for which he spoke like an old Navy man who had heroically sailed the high seas and successfully navigated the oceans in demanding conditions. Eager to display his nautical skills, Norm offered to take us out in his new boat the morning after we arrived. Looking for adventure and possessed of an undeveloped sense of wisdom and incapacity to understand the limits of my mortality, I eagerly accepted. My father would go along for the ride, as would my Aunt Mary. My mother, in her typical display of foresightedness, declined.

“Are you sure the weather is alright to go boating?” my mother asked as we walked out the door.

“Nothing to worry about, Janie,” replied Norm, “if the boat capsizes we’ll tread water and down a few slugs of whiskey.” Norm looked at me with a devilish grin and one raised eyebrow, satisfied that his sister would worry in vain the rest of the day.

Norm’s boat was a small, modest, motor-powered vessel, not likely to be on display at the annual Yacht Show. As we left for the dock, I noticed that the sky had become dark gray, the air damp and chilly, with the wind growing progressively stronger. Mary turned on the radio, which broadcast official sounding, stern warnings for all boats to stay out of the Gulf of Mexico. Norm was not easily dissuaded, however, believing that the forces of nature did not apply to him; a skeptic to his core, he rejected any perceived or imagined signs from God. Norm was used to dealing on life’s margins; a pathological risk taker and non-believer on matters of religion, he liked to drink, smoke, chase women, and have fun. My father, risk averse and devoutly religious, considered Norm a suicidal maniac.

Figuring that Norm was an experienced boatman, we hopped aboard and set for sail. The water below was choppier than I had expected, but being a novice in oceanic travels, I protested not. As the wind grew stronger, the clouds darkened and hovered ominously above us. When we finally reached the Gulf, the waters had become rough and storm worthy, the wind blowing in our faces with an unwelcome fierceness. The environment had turned cold and harsh.

“What do you think, Norm?” my father queried.

“Don’t worry about a thing, Eddie; the water’s not that deep. Pour yourself a drink.” Norm laughed as if half-crazed, happily engrossed at the thought of venturing into rugged waters in storm-threatening weather with a boat the size of a bathtub. My father looked at me with a hesitant grin, shaking his head as if to say, “This crazy family I married into.” I suddenly missed the boredom of central New Jersey.

As we ventured further out into the Gulf, I noticed to my increasing dismay that not another boat was in sight. The shoreline became a mere speck on the horizon, uncomfortably distant. My father and I sat in the stern, watching anxiously as Norm frantically steered over and around each wave, intermittently joking about the perils of boating and laughing hysterically, steering wheel in one hand, gin and tonic in the other.

With swells of water crashing down on the hull and gusts of wind pushing us erratically in multiple directions, our little vessel rocked violently back and forth. Soaked from head to toe with the taste of seawater in my mouth, I was unprepared for this particular adventure, wearing nothing but a loose fitting windbreaker over a tee shirt, jeans and sneakers. Holding intently onto the grab rails as Norm forced the boat into the eye of the wind, somehow managing to stay afloat and keeping the boat on course, I had visions of sharks and eels feeding on us when we capsized.

After what seemed like an eternity, our planned destination, a small island with a dock and a restaurant – a sliver of civilization in a desert of rocky waters – appeared as an oasis in the distance. Little did I know, however, that maneuvering the boat to shore was going to be difficult and dangerous. The trick was to prevent the boat from being caught sideways by a breaking wave, for this boat could easily capsize. Mary delicately navigated Norm over and around each passing wave. My father kept a watchful eye on waves approaching from the rear, sticking his leg in the air when one came too close. I am uncertain from where he learned the ritual – perhaps divinity school – but it seemed to work.

Then, as we moved closer to shore, I turned to my left and felt a vast rush of water, as a large, monstrous wave approached us from portside. I looked in Norm’s direction, but quickly discovered that no one else was aware of the impending danger. A scene from the Poseidon Adventure flashed before me, the oncoming rush of water about to swallow our little boat and send us into the deep, cold waters of the Gulf.

“Look out!” I yelled, frantically pointing at the advancing onslaught, my blood anxiously rushing to my head. My father looked behind him, staring back at me with panic-ridden eyes. He stuck his foot out in a desperate, final effort to alter nature’s course, but his foot was no match for the fierce pounding of the Gulf’s fast moving swell of water. The wave crashed down on us, knocking the boat off course; Norm steered instinctively, rapidly, fueled by adrenaline and gin, as the boat dodged and weaved along the break line. By some work of magic, divine intervention, or both, we managed to stay afloat.

“That was a close one. How y’all doing back there?” Norm looked back as he broke into a large grin, unable to resist delirious laughter. “Isn’t this fun, Mark?”

“Barrel of laughs,” I replied, to which Norm inexplicably broke out into renewed hysterical peals.

Cold and wet, we docked the boat and quickly advanced to the restaurant, where we drank and ate and drank some more, laughing about our great adventure, with Norm and Mary sharing stories of previous perilous undertakings. I drank to celebrate life, Norm to recognize a good time. Happy to be on land again, we sat and relished the morning’s experience, failing to consider that we had yet to return from whence we came.

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