Cast Iron Seagull, part II

“Seagull engines! They’re an outboard motor, from England. The company’s defunct now, but their engines were just wonderful. I find them as basket cases and rebuild them with other found parts. They’re amazing. You should try one!”

This sounded dubious. Outboards are notoriously finicky little creatures and the idea of getting an old one made by a company that no longer exists just seemed like a recipe for disaster. I listened as Ian went on espousing the benefits of his much loved Seagulls and as he explained why he was so enamored of them, (i.e. their simplicity, durability and love of salt water) the prospect of having one seemed better and better. In retrospect, this might also have has something to do with me refreshing my cold compress a few more times at the beer cooler. Eventually, he talked me into it and later that week, I dragged home the scruffiest, most disreputable looking outboard I’d ever seen outside of a Warner Brothers cartoon.

There was going to be a learning curve on this thing, to be sure.

The power plant (and I use the word, “power” gently here) weights only about nine or ten kilos, or a little over twenty pounds and is easily carried in one hand, providing that you don’t mind coating your self in a light sheen of oil and gasoline as you tote it down the ramp to your boat. There are no cans or hoses to deal with since the gas tank is bolted firmly to the top of the whole unit, just behind the flywheel. No pressure bulb to squeeze here! Good old gravity feeds the system.  Meanwhile, on a Seagull, the afore mentioned flywheel does not sport the expected, teardrop sleek cowl over it and the internal guts such as you’re used to seeing on outboards. If it did, you wouldn’t be able to hand wind the starting rope around the flywheel to get the thing running. As I screwed the contraption down to the wooden transom of our little rubber boat, I eyed the whole thing with a mixture of pride and dubiousness. My family and the marina attendant looked on with their own mixture. I believe I detected both amusement and fear.

It was “go” time. Would it work?

Though Ian had gone over the startup procedure with me two or three times, it had been several days since. Now, looking down at it clamped to our boat, the finer bits of the sequence became fuzzy.

I’d just wing it.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

First of all, there’s the remembering what buttons need pushing and what knobs need pulling and then there’s the throttle setting and then… there’s the flywheel. Most of us are familiar with the old yank line that’s used to start up the small engines we’re forced to deal with such as lawn mowers and snow blowers. But even these are now fast disappearing with the arrival of smaller, electric starters entering the fray, and honestly, who doesn’t like an easier to start engine? Still, I had been assured that in this case, my engine would not disappoint. The Seagull’s design is a throwback, even in its day, and uses a system that is the predecessor to the modern pull cord starter. In my hand, I held the starting rope, a knot in one end and a small chunk of hand whittled wood tied to the other. It is detached from the motor in every way. Don’t loose it. The knot fits neatly into a notch on the top of the flywheel and you coil the remaining length around and around in a little groove until you reach the end, which I now did.

“Ready?” I looked up at my family (worried) and the marina attendant (smirking) who were lined up in revue at the dockside. Deep breath now… “How hard do I pull this, I wonder?” went through my mind and I thought back to every 1930’s cartoon I could think of that involved an outboard. Surprisingly, there are really quite a few. “Just a gentle, little yank” I decided.

Bad choice.

With my anemic but long pull, I did manage to start the motor on the first try, but NOT dislodge the end of the starting rope from the flywheel. As the ancient outboard barked to life, it began to swing the chord over its head like medieval knight attacking peasants with a flail. The wooden toggle tied off to the end of the line made an unexpected and formidable weapon, smacking me three times in quick succession right in the back of the hand that started it. It was if I was being angrily punished for waking it from its long slumber. It only took a second for me to figure that this was going to end badly, possibly with me in the water, if I didn’t jump in and try to kill this thing fast. Reaching below the visible arc traveled by the whipping length of rope and wood, I stretched my injured hand toward the throttle switch while covering my face with my good one. With a quick flip, I shut the gas supply off and the mad thing coughed to a stop with what seemed to me, an air of smug satisfaction at having drawn first blood.

I clutched my teeth as well as my injured hand and looked down at my attacker through narrowed eyes. “So that’s the way it’s going to be, eh? FINE!”

I glanced back up at my audience.

My children looked rather worried while my wife and the attendant were doubled over laughing. Soon, so was I. Though the Seagull had indeed laid a good and bruising beating on me that smarted like crazy, I also didn’t want to worry my kids. That, and I could only imagine how funny that whole situation had looked. As it turned out, imagining my self as a cartoon had been closer to my reality than I had expected it to be.

“Okay, let’s try that again, but this time, without the death rope.”

I didn’t wait for a response since the adults were still laughing. This time, it worked. It really WORKED! And I didn’t have to jump back from an angry flail monster or anything! There were still finicky bits to work out on the thing, naturally. Engines of this vintage and level of, let’s be honest here, crude construction always require a “feeling out” period. You have to get to know their quirks, what sounds right and what sounds wrong, when to lean the mixture and how to stay the hell away from that damned flywheel. Also, with a Seagull, you have to get used to having no way of going in reverse. The engine only goes in one direction and you cannot, in any way, turn it farther than about sixty degrees in either direction, let alone spin it all the way around. Riding with one requires some forethought.

As it turned out, that’s fine. For all its idiosyncrasies, Ian has been proved one hundred percent correct about the little, stinky marvels. Mine has been humming and sputtering along the bay on the back of our rubber boat for three years now and considering that it was manufactured some time in the sixties, that’s pretty impressive. We’ve come to rely on it, if not for needed transportation services, then a source of summer fun. With the imminent end of the warm seasons upon us, it was time to consider pulling our rig out finding it a home for the winter in a corner of the basement. But first… we needed to have just one more outing. The day was beautiful, the air crisp and the last of the mixed gas for the Seagull, just begging to be burned. Plus, it was a drainer.

Everywhere you looked, islands showed off their lower reaches and what normally are no more than a few rocks even at low tide, were now throwing open hidden beaches, most often reserved only for sea life. How could we resist?

With the tourists mostly gone, the boat traffic was sparse to say the least. Even the ubiquitous flotillas of sea kayaks had fled the waters around our island home. It was heaven. We packed our life jacketed kids into the boat and putted off. Visiting a near by, tiny uninhabited island, we marveled at how it has grown with the receding big tide. We poked about, found hermit crabs, saved a beached fish and skipped rocks on the glassy surface of the ocean. The kids were in their element as they charged around and around, making a circuit of the beach. The low light of the end of the day lit up the trees on the coast like they were in spotlights and the whole world seemed to just stand still. It was amazing. I guess that’s what having a boat is all about, really.

Motoring home, I hummed happily to myself, assured that my family wouldn’t be able to hear me over the thrum of the Seagull. It’s a loud little sucker, but it runs and runs reliably. I was a very happy boater and tried not to think about having to wait a whole season before doing this again. I don’t know how or when exactly it happened, but I had turned into a boat guy. “What we need,” I caught myself pondering, “is something bigger. Something that we can take out a little farther. I wonder if I can find a longer inflatable?” Naturally, we’d need a bigger engine.

Luckily for me, Seagull made them.

I guess it’s time to go talk to Ian again and see what he’s got hiding on the work bench. I don’t’ know how I’m going to make time for this new hobby, but at least I can justify it. Hey, I live on an island, after all!

I NEED a boat!

Cast Iron Seagull, part I

There is something just amazing about a super-duper low tide when you live on the ocean. It’s as if all the land has taken a deep breath into its lungs and floated just that much higher than it usually does, giving you the chance to go and gaze at its normally water covered navel. In local parlance, it is referred to as a drainer (pronounced: drain-ah). Our little corner of the coast takes up a diminutive bite in the greater Gulf of Maine and goes by the name, Casco Bay.  The particular island we live on is flanked by a few small, uninhabited islets, which offer adventure, discovery and poison ivy galore if you’re careless. To visit these little, cut off worlds though, you have to possess the means to get there.

That is to say, a boat.

Boats… Ah, boats. They are wonderful, fun and thoroughly evil little things. They are problematic right off the scale and unless you are a boat person who thinks of nothing but bobbing on the waves and smelling the sea breezes AND doesn’t mind pouring all their time and money into a hole in the ocean, then boating really isn’t for you. Owning a boat in freshwater is hard enough. Owning one that sits in salt water compounds the issues by a factor of about a hundred. The corrosive nature of the water, unexpected storms smashing the hull against the dock, filling with rain water and even just the relentless sun pounding on them does exhaustive damage requiring constant maintenance to keep them ship-shape. And that’s not even mentioning the engine!

Boats are one gigantic pain in the butt.

They are also, admittedly, fun and my wife wants one in the same way an eight year old girl wants a pony: with every fiber of her soul.

The problem is, the buying of said boat is the cheap part… and even that, if you’re careful, isn’t very cheap. If you want something that isn’t going to need to be completely overhauled from stem to stern before it’s safe to try floating off the boat trailer, then you’re going to need to pay up front for quality.

Then there’s the whole “ocean” aspect to consider. We do not live on a pond or lake and if you want to use a boat for transportation rather than just fun on a sunny and calm day then size, I assure you, does matter. Also you need to consider the hull shape, the type of drive system, the ability to get under some sort of shelter when it gets snotty out and how much fuel it burns per hour. All of this I let wash over me like a figurative wave as I listen to Action Girl enthusiastically expound on the latest boat for sale she’s found and how this one would be the perfect match for our needs.

The problem here is two fold:

Firstly, I am most definitely not a boat person. What I know about boats, I have pretty much learned from her. There is no doubt in my mind that she knows her stuff cold, don’t’ get me wrong!  Being a commercial boat captain, she’s out on the sea almost every day and after years of familiarity, can read the waters like a book. She knows where to go and when. She can make a many, many ton vessel dance like a dry leaf in a dust devil and not put down her coffee while doing it. She is incredible at her job. She is also at it quite a lot and thus, not exactly rich in free time. This means that caring for the boat will fall to… me, the “not-a-boat-guy” guy.

Secondly: I need a new hobby like I need a disgruntled porcupine in my underpants. Even if I was so inclined to dive head first into the deep, bottomless chasm that is being a boater, there is no way on God’s green Earth that I have time for it. When a person looks at taking a shower as a significant portion of their “me” time for the day, that’s an unmistakable indicator that the candle might just be burning not only at both ends, but a touch in the middle as well. I had hobbies once. I had lots of them. They all now sit in my basement with about eight centimeters of dust on them. I only hope that when the day comes that I again have the opportunity to get back to them, I won’t be so soft and squishy to get back to it all.

We obviously needed a solution that all parties could get something out of. A way that would keep me from getting devoured whole by a task not of my making or wanting, yet also get my sea loving wife out on the water when she wasn’t at work… out on the water. Hmmm…

Our answer came smunched and flattened in a huge, impossibly heavy and ungainly nylon bag. It was a boat, some assembly required. Happily for me, all the assembly entailed was adding air. Through a series of events both odd and unexpected, we had wound up with a rugged little inflatable boat. We couldn’t use it to commute, but it would be a lot of fun AND easy to take care of! Living with two, small children, if there’s anything I know how to do, its patch holes. The boat’s tiny, measuring only about three meters long and of the type that would be dragged behind something much, much bigger and more impressive as its dingy, but still, it was ours! It even came with a broken, non-fixable engine!

The engine was going to be a problem.

Calling it unfixable isn’t really fair. After all, everything is fixable if you sink enough cash into it. In this case, according to the marine engine mechanic in town, that number was going to be in excess of seven hundred dollars. That’s a lot of cash for a free, five horse power, two cycle outboard of unknown abilities or hours of use. It’s also indicative of how price structures work when talking about anything that goes on a boat. Every figure needs to be shot through the magical “boat pricing prism” so that a doodad that would normally cost ten bucks will now run into the hundreds. It’s magic, I tell ya! Fixing a lawn mower might have set me back a couple of hundred bucks, but THIS thing touches WATER! Needless to say, there was no way we were going to repair it and in one fell swoop, the dead engine graduated from “outboard” to “anchor.” Not literally, of course, but you get the point.

So, there was a lot of rowing to be done and row we did. We rowed here and there and the kids seemed to really enjoy their mini-adventures even if they did need to stay low and clear of the swinging oar ends as my wife or I pulled away hard on them. We got some fun use out of the little inflatable. The reality of the situation though, was that rowing is something more fun to watch than do, especially if the boat you’re rowing is essentially a beach ball that is at the utter mercy of both the wind and tide. I has no keel and so, doesn’t track well at all and because it’s only floating perhaps an inch and a half down in the water, any good breeze will move you where it’s blowing, regardless of where you want to go. With those two factors close in your mind, you stick pretty close to shore and none too far from the dock. After all, you need to have enough oomph not just to row where you want to get, but also to row back. Enter our friend, Ian.

Ian, like me, has a weakness for poking at broken stuff. The advantage he has over our affliction is that he’s managed to focus that weakness to just one kind of broken thing. He rebuilds antique outboards. I had no idea about this until I was chatting with him at a summer barbecue and telling him about my rowing related blisters as I cooled them with a cold beer.

For medicinal purposes only, naturally.

“What you need, is a Seagull!”

This is not a sentence you often hear used in Maine. In the past, I’ve heard people refer to pigeons as being, “sky rats” and to extend the analogy to seagulls, I think you’d wind up with perhaps a sky badger or maybe, sky weasel. In short, they are not pleasant creatures.

“Beg pardon?” I took another long pull from my cool pack.

 

To be continued…

The Old Ways

I have always had a fascination with cemeteries, the old ones, anyway.

Growing up in New Hampshire, the heart of the “old”, New World, gave me some wonderful opportunities to spend rather a lot of my younger years walking among the stones, reading the inscriptions and appreciating the handwork that went into them. My particular hometown was settled in 1735, and though there are other towns and cities a few hundred years older in these parts, I always thought that the mid 18th century was a respectable time for a New England town to start. It also gives the old burying grounds some wonderful character.

It gave them slate stones. And there is nothing like a slate stone.

Slate is simply amazing material. It is both fragile as glass and stronger than steel. It will shattering easily if hit by anything of any hardness, (a lawn mower, a car’s bumper, even the frozen ground if it falls in the winter before the snow covers the brown grass) but if left unmolested, it will hold the smallest detail of the craftsmen’s chisel for hundreds of years without wear or blemish. It will not take a high sheen, and yet, it will not loose any of its beauty for lifetime, after lifetime, after lifetime. I have always loved slate stones.

On weekends or long summer evenings, I fondly recall going for bike rides with my Dad, a man who also enjoys a good stroll through a graveyard. It was he who really got me interested in the stories you could find there and the two of us would often wind up in one after a bit of peddling around our end of town. I can think of one burial ground in particular and for two distinct reasons. The first is that it is located on a very old crossroads, not more than a stones throw down the street from an old, 18th century tavern, now a private home. The character of the whole place seems frozen in time and I have no doubt that if you could bring a town man from 1780 to that spot, he would know exactly where he stood.

If not for the fact that he would also be very, very dead.
But hey…!

The echo of ages past is strong there and adds real gravity to the tall, black slates standing like quiet bedsteads in the tall grass and leaves. The second reason that particular place stands out in my mind is because it’s where I ate a spider. It’s the sort of thing that you don’t forget and it’s not something I’d recommend making a habit out of.

As I walked through the old grounds, I had turned my head to say something to my father. At the moment my neck swiveled back forward, I walked between two stones, directly into the web cast between them and, POP! The spider went right in. It was an… interesting moment. The problem was that he was pretty far back there, past my tongue, actually. Spitting him out would have required more tonsil control than I had, so, there was only one thing to do. I didn’t even have any water to wash him down. I recall a lot of grimacing, squinting and dry swallowing.

Despite my little impromptu meal, I still enjoy visiting these places, though now, with a wary eye cast about for unexpected webs.

I tend to travel with water now, too.

Spiders or no, I keep going back. I can’t help it. I find these places to have a magnetism I simply can’t pull away from for long. Oddly, they make me happy.

Well, maybe not happy. Peaceful.

Alive.

Serine.

I think I know why. Here, in the burial ground, everyone is good. They are mothers and fathers. They are sons and daughters. They are old, young, middle aged, and missing but for a stone. Their past transgressions are lost to time. They are just families.

And sometimes, more and more now, it seems, the families are there, but missing stones, which brings me to Susan Jane.

In the ancient cemetery down the road from my house, lays in rest a mother and two of her children. A son, George, died as an infant. He daughter, Susan Jane, died when she was five years and eight months old. The year of Susan’s passing was 1835 and that’s more important that you might think. The mother, Lucinda, had passed away only a few years after her daughter, and her slate slab stands true and clear to this day. The V cut letters are bold and easy to read. If you get close enough, you can see the individual chisel hits in each letter. Only the telltale scrapes at the bottom from careless lawn moving mar the smooth surface. Lucinda’s slate stone stands out sharply in comparison to her children’s unreadable white lumps. By the 1820’s, slate was fast falling out of favor for gravestones and marble soon took over completely. You might wonder then, why her stone was slate, while her children’s were marble. Well, even if you didn’t, I’ll still tell you why:

A lot of people bought their own grave markers in their young adulthoods. They would simply store them in the attic, shed or basement until they were needed. It was seen as a way to get what you wanted on the stone as well as being a courtesy to your family. That, and you didn’t have to set aside part of what you left behind to pay for your marker. Think of it as grave insurance. I’m willing to bet, this is why Lucinda’s stone is slate. It would have still been in vogue when she entered childbearing age. Her young children had passed after the age of slate had pretty much come to a close. And this is a problem.

We are loosing about a hundred and seventy years of history in the blink of an eye, because it’s cut in marble.

Marble is a beautiful stone. It’s wonderful to carve, brilliant when polished and, sadly, melts like salt when exposed to air pollution and acid rain. When I first found Lucinda’s stone, I crouched down to read the inscription, checked her age and then, looked around. She was married and in her thirties so there were probably children here too. To her left, a small marble stone and to her right, a slightly larger one. They were nearly unreadable. The only parts I could decipher from the smallest stone was, “GEO.” at the top, and the word, “died” Everything else was scrubbed away. The larger stone had slightly more. The name was obliterated through pitting, but, “Daughter of Benjamin and Lucinda” as well as the month and day of her death. Most of her name, the year of her death and her age were missing.

It was a worthy hunt.

One of the wonderful things about a small community like the one in which I live is that someone is bound to know local lore, and mine was no different. It only took about three tries before I found the right person to talk to. In her possession was a book compiling all the inscriptions, names, placements and dates of everyone in that particular cemetery. It had been made long ago, before the ravages of pollution had done such a number on our past. She had everything I was looking for. I was ready for the next step.

Now, the family to whom Lucinda and her children belong has long since left this island. They are scattered to the winds and I have never heard of any of them returning for a visit. At least not in the past eighty years or so. I wouldn’t know where to begin to start looking. What I do know is that in just another five or six years, the last traces of text on George and Susan Jane’s stones will have disappeared forever. The pieces of marble that mark their final resting place are now broken at ground level and crumbing like bread. Soon, they will sink away into the soil. This will happen within my lifetime. Marble has betrayed yet another piece of history. But slate though…

So, with my love of the old ways, much of my time spent doing one form of art or another and my particular interest in this one family, their last mark to show they were here, I’ve decided to do something. I’ve decided to carve in slate.

Some people don’t even call slate a stone at all but simply metamorphic rock. I don’t really understand this but the semantics really aren’t important. What are important are these facts:

Slate carves like nothing else. It is so soft that you can scratch it with a hard fingernail, and yet, it will stand unmarked by three or four hundred years of weathering.

It has a very fine composition, unlike the fat crystals you’ll find in granite and so the detail you can get in slate outshines the finest granites.

Also, slate is the best at resisting that enemy of graveyard inscriptions everywhere, the lichen. Granite might be stronger and Marble more brilliant, but both succumb to lichen quickly and loose their identity beneath a thousand islands of the little blooms of growth. Slate, so long as it isn’t toppled or split, will out live all other options by centuries. Plus, I find it beautiful in its simplicity.

I have decided to start with Susan Jane’s stone first and have already done some test pieces. The profile of her original stone is still identifiable and so, I’ll mirror that in her new stone as well. As for decoration, if there ever was an image at the top (called the tympanum), above her name, then it is gone entirely now. This took some serious thought and in the end, I picked something that I hope would have made her parents pleased. Here in Maine, the black cap chickadee is not only our state bird, but a sweet little bird as well. It stays here all year long, through all seasons and its call is immediately recognizable and beautiful. Hearing and seeing one has always made me smile. It’s a tiny little thing, but then, so was Susan Jane.

What has surprised me the most about this endeavor is the reaction I’ve received from those whom I’ve talked with and the positive remarks have been very encouraging. So now, I have some more work to do this winter. Right now, the ground is frozen hard as the grave markers in the burial yard and a fresh coat of snow has been pulled over the children’s markers like a heavy down quilt. It will be some months before I can bring in the new, purple-black marker and set it home beside Susan Jane’s mother. I’ll bury the old stones just below the sod so they can be retrieved if desired, but I think it likely they will rest there with the occupants for a long, long time.

Who knows? This could be habit forming and with time and practice, I might just become proficient enough to make some real work out of this. In the mean time though, I’ll happily continue on in this fashion. I’ll look for the shattered or pitted slabs, now unreadable or just about to become so and see if I can help out in my own way.

Perhaps some day, a hundred years or more from now, some wandering soul taking a walk through the cemetery will stoop over to read the stone of a little girl who died when Andrew Jackson sat in the White House, read her short story and marvel at how crisp the letter cutting is. They might reflect on what she saw in her brief years and remember her name for just a little while longer.

What I do know is, without a new slate monument, she will never be seen at all. And that would be too bad for all parties involved.

So, I’ll make my self a sandwich for lunch and sit down with it, the blank stone and chisels and eat as I chip away on this sunny afternoon. We shall see how it turns out and if it’s worthy of marking such a long lost treasure.

Just hold the spider, please.

Type-oh



Pool Time

Airport hotel pools are the best pools ever, in my opinion. The guests at such an establishment rarely make use of the facilities since they are normally transitioning from one plane to another and spending only the one night. Consequently, the pools are almost always empty and clean and today was no exception. As we sat on one of the sea of empty sun chairs, I puffed away in my attempt to inflate the little yellow water wings that Short Stack was going to use while he amused danced around in wild expectation of splashing everything in sight. A rare treat.

At home, we don’t have a pool to play in and if we did, it certainly wouldn’t be this warm. Normally, I’m not a swimming kind of guy and to be honest, I think a good part of that is due to the chilly factor. The pools in New England, unless connected to a heating system that would coast you a mortgage payment to run each month, just don’t get that nice to be in. The very best you can hope for is about a one week window that will appear some time in late August where the water goes from “breathtakingly cold” to “pretty damn brisk.” It’s gotta be a scorcher to convince me that diving in will be fun. Then, there’s the fact that our island is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and there is no reason good enough for me to climb into that ice bound embrace. Pretty much, if you find me floating around in the ocean in Maine, please help fish me out because I obviously fell in. Short Stack however, like any other kid his age, seems to be impervious to these mind numbingly cold water temperatures. Here, in Florida, this was going to be like bath water for him. With tiny black spots dancing before by eyes, the last air bladder on his water wings was inflated and we hopped in.

I was exhausted.

He was wired.

This was really my first clue about how this trip was going to go.

For the first time since falling asleep in my own bed the night before, I was finally relaxing and that moment of calm reflection brought the scope of this trip into sharp focus and it rolled over me like a wave. Then again… it might have been the waves my son was making just a few feet away as he reveled in creating splashes that would have gotten him in serious trouble in the bath tub. I was on duty and there was no one coming to relieve me for almost a week. My body wanted to do nothing more than go limp in the water and close my eyes and I had to consciously fight the impulse. I had to watch my son… and with a memory that chose that moment to float through my head, I had good reason to snap back to that very sobering realization.

When I was young, almost as young as Short Stack is right now, I was on vacation with my family. We too were in a tropical setting and the hotel pool called to me like the sirens to Ulysses, as it does to all children. Back then, you never saw kids with floatation devices like water wings or swim suits sporting integral air bladders. Unless you were in the ocean, you swam without and if you did have one, for whatever reason, then it was a bulky orange life vest. I guess the thinking was that if you needed something to keep you afloat, then you had no business being in the water. That might come across as sound thinking but there is one major flaw in the plan.

Me.

For what ever reason, muscle to fat ratios, high bone density, possibly unknowingly desecrating a shrine to some ancient sea god… whatever…. The fact of the matter is that I can’t float. I’m a sinker.

My wife, who would love nothing more than to live each day playing in the water, thought for years that I was simply being a frump when it came to going swimming. It’s something that she enjoys more than most do and she could never quite understand my reluctance to join her in the fun. The whole sinking thing sounded preposterous and more than a little like an invented excuse.

“Everyone can float!”

“Nope. Not me.”

“You just need a big breath in your lungs.”

“Filling up my lungs just doesn’t cut it. I sink.”

“Oh, Come on. Let’s just swim! It’ll be fun!”

“You hop in. I’ll sit here and watch.”

This conversation, in various versions, happened many times over many years as we dated and it wasn’t until some time later that she finally got to see my amazing anti-superpower it in action. One day after being once again implored to simply join her in the water and have fun, I decided that it was time for a demonstration. Kicking off my flip flops, I walked up to her in the shallows of the soft, sandy beach.

“Watch this.”

And taking a full, healthy lung full of air, I walked out to sea and disappeared under the waves. Under water, I strolled in a slow motion pantomime across the sandy bottom, each footstep taking me deeper. I kept this up until my one, big breath of air supply began to give out. I crouched down on the seabed and sprang to the surface, sucked in another breath, flipped onto my back… and slowly settled to the bottom once again.

I can swim, mind you. It’s just all work. The whole “effortless” part of the equation is missing for me.

This brings me back to my childhood in the pool. It was an important moment for me and one I can remember perfectly, though it was almost a lifetime ago. It was the day I discovered that I sink and that you can’t call for help under water.

Early that tropical morning, I had successfully convinced my Father to take me down to the deserted swimming pool and let me play before the other hotel guests roused them selves and filled it up with their own games and antics. We had wandered down past the palm trees, placed our stuff on one of the empty deck chairs and I was now happily playing in the shallow end and loving every minute of it. My Dad was close by and watching me and other then the one other kid who was apparently old enough to go swimming on his own, we were the only two there. I come by my chatty nature honestly and as I paddled around, Dad was striking up a conversation with the only other poolside visitor by asking the kid where he and his family were from and what they had seen there already. I was lost in my own little world of splashing and play and paid little attention to the two of them as they sat on the edge, legs dangling in the water. I was never more than one good lunge away from Dad and he was doing his job keeping me safe. Things seemed fine. The problem is, no matter how hard any one tries, no matter how vigilant you are, no matter what you do to stay focused on the task at hand, no one can sustain that level of diligence indefinitely. And it only takes one second.

As I walked about in the shallow end, I neared the edge of my approved domain and my foot accidentally stepped over the submerged edge. The pool’s bottom fell away beneath my foot and the surface of the water sucked away any call for help. I can remember graphically the sensation of sliding down the steep incline, unable to arrest my descent and trying to stay on my feet as I slid along until I had reached the bottom where I stood as rooted as I would have been standing on the grass above. At this point in my life, I did not know well enough how to swim back out.

What I remember most keenly from this terrifying moment of my life was how un-terrifying it was. I knew I was in trouble and I knew that the situation was pretty dire, but the overwhelming thought that went though my head was, “Really? Like this? I’m going to drown?” Looking up through the deep, impassible water, I could still see the legs and feet of my Dad and the other boy as they sat on the pool edge, still chatting and I was struck with the notion that though I could easily see my Dad, I couldn’t call to him. I was stuck only a few feet away from my savior and I could do nothing but wave frantically and hope to be seen. It was a very humbling experience.

I don’t actually remember Dad pulling me out of the water, though only a second or two later, that’s just what he did. I had been noticed looking back up through ten feet of water and he had dove and pulled me out. After expelling what water had collected in my respiratory system, I was fine, though I think Dad was more heavily shaken the I was. I remember him holding me tight as we dripped on the ground and apologizing over and over. As a child, I found this to be completely strange and backwards. It was I who had stepped into the deep end. It had been my fault getting in that terrible situation in the first place, hadn’t it? I didn’t exactly understand.

Now, I’m the Dad.

Now, I understand.

Since the experience frightened my father far more than it did me, I spent a lot of time over the rest of the vacation getting swimming lessons from Dad in that very pool. When we got home, I was enrolled in swim classes at the local YMCA. I can swim well now, but I never forget that I sink.

Short Stack wasn’t about to sink at all. Though he has a good understanding of the exercise, he has no interest of finding out if he can do it on his own. The water wings clung to his upper arms, each a mini life jacket working to keep his head up and out of the water and his toes never leaving the safety the reachable bottom. If he wanted to venture out farther, it was with the demanded assistance of being able to cling, lemur like, to my side, my arm wrapped tightly around his waist, and that was fine with me.

Casting aside any more thoughts of relaxation for much later, I joined in with gusto as we splashed, hooted, laughed and played in our private little oasis. The sun loungers were empty but for our own towels and clothes and other than our own voices and the occasional jet overhead, the prevailing sound was of the palm fronds overhead as they clacked to each other in the late afternoon breeze. I glanced at a sign posted at eye level for pool goers. “No Glass Cups or Bottles Near Pool”

Glass Bottles…

Beer.

OhBeer! A beer sounds good!

Maybe later.

Tickets, Part IV

As things turned out, timing was actually going to be on my side for once. That particular Thursday morning we would all be visiting my in-laws in central Maine. Because of my wife’s somewhat unusual choice of profession as ferry captain, it means that her workweek is anything but the Monday through Friday, nine to five routine which most folks live in. Much of the time she works second shift type hours and weekends fall… well… wherever they can. We’ve done Tuesdays and Fridays; we’ve had Mondays and Wednesdays. You name the combination and she’s had it. All, that is, except for Saturday and Sunday. That’s something that just never ever happens in her line of work except for the very most senior of the senior captains, which se is not. Not yet, anyway. With her current schedule however, our weekend, for the moment anyway, was Wednesday-Thursday. That, and because I’m a full time stay at home Dad, my weekends are… frankly, never. BUT! I don’t have an office to go to. That is, unless you count the kitchen.

We arrived on Wednesday afternoon and after the various pleasantries about the drive, how we’ve been and what should we feed the kids, I explained the situation to my wife’s folks. Tomorrow morning we were going to need the computer. All of the computers, actually.

Being a huge tech geek and former I.T. director, I admit that I like computers. That’s not quite right. I LOVE computers. I like them powerful and portable and I had made darned sure that my wife and I had our laptops with us and ready to go when the time was nigh. To make things even better, my in-laws had just recently switched from the slow-as-tar-in-January connection that they had to a super fast cable connection full of wonderful high speed broadband goodness. Now, it was time to stop rowing and start hoping.

After reading and then rereading the rules of the game on the Kennedy Space Center website, I explained it to my wife.

“Okay, here’s how it works. At eight forty-five the site will open a page that will let us in to a virtual waiting room. Once the virtual waiting room fills up, they will close it off to new arrivals, so we have to be very, very fast on that.”

“And then we can buy tickets?” Action Girl looked a little groggy as she hovered over her steaming mug of coffee, but she was doing her best to look attentive.

“No. Not quite” This was where things got interesting. “That gives us the chance that we might get picked at random while in the waiting room to be allowed to buy tickets, providing that someone else hasn’t hovered them all up already.”

“That’s stupid.”

“Agreed. But that’s the way they play. And it’s not over yet. IF, we get into the waiting room and then IF one of us gets picked then we will be given exactly two minutes to fill out the information to order the tickets. If we go over the two minute mark, we get bumped back into the waiting room, but by then it will probably be too late to get picked again.”

Blank, semi-caffeinated eyes looked back at me. One eyebrow arched and was followed by a very flat, “What?”

“Yah, so we need to be ready.”

“I’m gonna need more coffee.” And with full mugs in hand, we sat down and got prepared.

I set the two laptops up on the dining room table and once they were set at the right page on the Kennedy Center’s website, I then attended to my in-law’s machine. Everything was ready and we all had our jobs. Mine was the laptops. My wife’s was the other desktop computer. My in-law’s was to keep the kids entertained and prevent them from trying to climb into our laps and demand to watch (in my daughter’s case) kid shows such as Miffy, Kipper or Maisy Mouse, or (in my son’s case) videos of rockets or the Space Shuttle. This had an added difficulty factor being that the page we had to wait at was covered with a rocket and space motif. Once Short Stack spotted that, the pleading began instantly.

“Later, I swear. Right now we need to do something important.”

“But Daddy, can’t we just watch one video? Puh-LEEZE?

The easy thing to do would have been to simply explain why I couldn’t. I could just tell him that we were all trying to get tickets for him to go and see these things in person and just how awesome that would be. He is three, and the idea of putting off a little enjoyment now for a lot later on is a difficult concept for him to grasp, but I had met with some success there before. The very real problem was possible failure. Very possible, actually. I had no idea what our chances were to get launch tickets and the idea of getting him all cranked up to see something that would blow his mind that much… and then not making it out of their hideous little virtual waiting room… well, I just didn’t think I could deal with that sort of guilt. I know it wouldn’t be my fault, but still, the look of a deeply disappointed child, YOUR deeply disappointed child is just too withering for me to want to get anywhere near.

I’d rather eat bugs.

So, with my in-law’s best attempts to get him distracted, Action Girl and I sat, drank more coffee and waited.

8:36

*Slurp*

8:41

*Slurp, slurp*

8:44

“Get ready…” I didn’t take my eyes off the clock on my laptop. The clock that is set via the Internet, so you just KNOW it’s right.

8:45 “NOW!”

Three clicks and all three computers navigate away from their page and into the waiting room. “Okay, so we’re in. Now we wait.”

Here, I give my wife some serious credit. While we had been waiting, it was her idea to copy down all our information, credit card numbers, addresses, names, etc, on another document on the computer. Then, if one of us got in, we could simply cut and paste it all into the appropriate fields without worry of error. That, and it would be faster.

Brilliant!

It was all set to go and just as I had hoped, BING, I was in.

The computer that got he magic pass happened to be my own and with a whoop, I quickly focused on filling out everything perfectly. Easy! And as I typed, I realized that it was going to be even easier than I thought! The information that is so commonly needed on forms like this is cached in your computer’s browser memory and the auto-filling took over as I zipped though. Names and phone numbers appeared without me having to do a thing! The only thing that made me pause was when I had to decide on the type of ticket.

Causeway or Space Center?

Causeway was a better view.

Space Center had stuff to look at.

What to do?

I looked at my son who was at that moment playing with his wooden Space Shuttle, making a low pass about three millimeters over his nose as he added rocket noises for effect. He worships rockets. He loves them. He needed to be surrounded by them when the moment came. That, and like I said, they had bathrooms.

Space Center, it was.

I clicked the appropriate button and hit “Complete”

I reached the end with time to spare. I smiled… then went bug eyed.

Instead of being shown the “You’re all set, you lucky boy” page, I was looking at my form again with a message stating that there were, “some errors.”

WHAT?! WHERE?!?

As I looked down the list of information, I realized that I had been sabotaged by my very own machine. Auto-fill had been less than perfect, but that didn’t stop it from trying! Here and there, I started to see where, in an effort of helpfulness, my computer had put down things that didn’t make sense. Phone numbers that were in wrong fields, Addresses that were either incomplete or overly so. I had to do some quick triage.

A few seconds of work and… “Complete.”

“There are some errors that we…”

AAAAAGH!

I scanned though the form again looking for the offending fields and tried and mostly failed to stop swearing in the presence of my children. I felt like I was an involuntary contestant on some evil game show. I do not know who programmed this site or decided on its rules, but I can safely say that if they were present at that moment, I would have elbowed them in the groin. “Accidentally,” of course.

“Third time’s the charm?” I clicked “complete” again and mumbled through clenched teeth. “Come on you bastard. Take it!”

“Congratulations! You are reserved for two tickets at the viewing area at the Kennedy Space Center for STS-131 on March 13th.

(Note to readers: We didn’t’ miss nor see the launch already. It was rescheduled for April 5th. More on that later)

I’m not certain, but it sounded to me like I let out at least three lungs worth of held breath as I rocked back in my seat and smiled. We were in. We had the tickets. Nothing would stop us now.

“Hey,” My wife said excitedly. “I just got picked from the waiting room! Do you need any more tickets? Are you sure you’re all set?”

It was an odd moment and a possibility that I hadn’t really considered. Did I need any more tickets? I had heard about tickets being resold on eBay for over a grand each and the reality of that notion hung there in the room like low fruit. “No. I’m all set. We’ve got what we need.”

Let someone else get the tickets. Perhaps there was another father and son who were dying to go. Perhaps they were still languishing in the waiting room thumbing through dog eared virtual copies of Field and Stream and LIFE Magazine. To take there dreams away would be totally unfair. Hopefully, they’d get called up next.

With that, we shut down the computers, stood up, stretched and topped up mugs with more coffee. We did it.

“Dad, NOW can we watch some rocket videos?” His Shuttle was gripped in his hand as he looked up at me.

“Yah, I think we can now. What one do you want to see?”

With that, I sat back down, reopened the laptop and let him scurry into my lap as I punched in the URL for YouTube and searched for the NASA channel.

“Let’s watch that one!” and a little finger shot out to direct me to the chosen clip.

“Sure Buddy.” I was one happy dad, and now so was he. All we needed to do now was get there.

Passport, Part Two

Being anything but shy, I completed my deliveries with a grin and a little light conversation (all part of the service). I don’t recall if I made any tips, but I’m willing to bet that I made some good will, which is saying something when you consider that easily a quarter of the ordered drink was likely sloshing around the wrong side of their glass and collecting at the bottom of my little serving tray. Though I seriously doubt that my own son will have the opportunity to reenact my mini-bar delivery service, the point is this: He would if he could.

If Short Stack thinks that there is a modicum of a hint of a possibility that some random person might like to know what he’s thinking about, rest assured, he’ll let them in on it. It would take little coaching to get him to pin wings on his shirt and set forth to take stock of what was going on with each and every person on that flight. This links into reason number two as to why I want and secure a passport for my chatty little munchkin.

The darker side to being an open and talkative kid is that you inevitably give your parents nightmares about someone walking off with you. I don’t know exactly how many times my own folks and I had “The Talk” about being careful and not too trusting of strangers, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find out if it had been weekly.

Mom: “What ever you do, don’t go anywhere with someone you don’t know.”
Me: “Yah. I know.”
“Dad” “REALLY! It’s not safe! I know you like to make friends, but you have to be careful!”
Me: “Ok. I will. I promise.”
Mom: “Good, it’s just that you’re so friendly and… well… we want to keep you safe.”
Random Stranger: “Oh! You must be Matt’s parents!”

You can see why I caused them fits. Now it’s my turn to get to see it from the other side and I’ll tell ya, nightmares a-plenty.

So, I wanted my son to have some I.D. and being in character with my normal modus operandi, I had pushed things to the edge in terms of timing. The turn around time to get your passport is four to six weeks. Out trip would be in almost exactly four. I must like living like this, because it’s how I seem to do things the vast majority of the time. Pressure is my friend, if not at least my excuse to have another cocktail.

“Ok Buddy. We’re going to town this morning so I need your help with getting ready, OK?”

My statement of encouragement might sound benign enough but there was some serious pleading involved in a sort of “as read” kind of way. Short Stack is not the most responsive person in the world when it comes to hurrying. As with most of us with active imaginations, what’s going on inside the head is often far more engaging that what’s happening outside. Unobserved, time tends to slip away like water down a storm drain. Add to this mix the fact that we live on an island where the ferry waits for no one, and the race out the door can get down right exciting. Luckily, the landing is down hill. Come to think of it, if it wasn’t, I think I’d have bigger problems.

As my son sat at the breakfast table ignoring his waffle in favor of pretending his hand was the Apollo Lunar Lander, I busied myself with gathering necessary documents needed to prove that he was whom I purported him to be so we could get his own little blue book with the eagle on it. We had fifteen minutes until boat time. Plenty! As I dug through the fire proof safe where we keep the really important documents, I started to sweat.

“Honey…” I tried to keep the panic from my voice. “Where’s his birth certificate?”
“It’s in the safe. Right? Isn’t it?”

No, no it wasn’t. This was bad.

Twelve minutes to boat time.

My wife and I have many strengths. She can cook sumptuous meals for any number of guests. I can wield just about any kind of construction tool and do a pretty good job with it. She can pilot huge ocean going boats. I can quote Monty Python ad nauseum until your ears bleed. What we are bad at, in fact utterly fail at, is paperwork. We both hate it, avoid it and try not to think about it. So, when we have something important that needs to be filed and kept, there is just one place for it: The safe. When it’s not there, God only knows where it might have gone.

*Insert comical running about and tearing the house apart routine here*

As the two adults ripped though piles of ancient and semi-discarded documents which lived in jaunty piles throughout the house, Short Stack did a perfect landing in the Sea of Tranquility, completely missing the luke warm waffle, forgotten on his plate and utterly ignorant of the mad rush going on around him, either of which might have jeopardized his mission and the crew entrusted to his care. President Kennedy would have been proud.

Eight minutes to boat time.

I stood in blank resignation, rooted to the spot in the basement where I officially ran out of ideas where it could be. Doom. Ah, the peppery smell of doom.

“Found it!” The triumphant cry from my wife sent me bolting up the stairs, taking three at a time.
“Where!?”
“Never mind that! Get Short Stack ready!”

She was right of course. I could let her take care of her end. My job was to pour a three year old into a coat, shoes, hat and mittens, all in less that a minute. It’s at times like this that it’s simply easier to handle a child like they are a large doll. Giving them instructions will only slow everything down. With a scoop under the arms, my son was swept off his chair, over his little sister dutifully getting into the box of cheerios in the middle of the kitchen floor and right to the front door. He’s used to this sort of treatment by now and puts up little resistance. Mostly he was ticked that I interrupted Neil Armstrong’s historic moonwalk.

Six minutes to boat time.

As my wife wrestled the baby album that held the now found birth certificate, I wrestled winter gear onto Short Stack.

“Screw it! Take the whole page!” The album had apparently steadfastly refused to release the document and she had officially had it. With a pop, my wife simply yanked out the offending leaf from the book, pictures and all. I dove into my own boots and coat, grabbed my bag, my son, the birth certificate and fled the house.

Four minutes.

Letting Short Stack walk under his own power was right out if we were to have any shot at all of making the ferry and since my wife was less than enthused at the idea of me ploinking him onto my shoulders and then running down the sand strewn street to the dock, she kindly drove us down at, if not break neck speed then at least at sprang neck. We made it on with at least two minutes to spare. We weren’t even the last ones. That’s all I ask. I just don’t want to be last.

The opera that is leaving the house, being over, the two of us settled into a seat and watched out island shrink away as we cruised across the bay.

“Daddy, did you bring…”

With a flourish and before he could finish, I reached into my satchel and produced the most important piece of our outing. His wooden Space Shuttle.

Within seconds, he was someplace else and in charge of yet another space launch. Yes, this would all be worth it.

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