My wife is from Tennessee and before serendipitously landing on the island where we met, to her a boat trip was something you took on two aluminum pontoons, a platform covered with indoor/outdoor carpet, a small outboard engine, frilly canopy and a few cases of beer on a flat, calm pond on Sundays somewhere out in the country, maybe rafting up with a few other families for a party. Once on Cuttyhunk, her assumption was that if anything ever happened to our boat, we would each take two kids in life jackets and swim for shore. That was until she caught the tail-end of a conversation someone was having about hypothermia. Comfortable with her ignorance, I had failed to mention hypothermia. That was the end. Today if I ask her about her most terrifying trip she will say, “All of them.” Summer, winter, flat calm or northeast gale. All of them.
As far as our four children are concerned, I was under the illusion that since they had spent so much time on the water and had become sailors and sailing instructors that it had all blended into a great life on the water. But no, they have their nightmares. When I asked them about memorable crossings, it was like trying to unlock a long closed vault in each one of them or trespassing or walking into rooms without knocking. The first reaction was a deep breath followed by, “Whoa, I’ll have to think about that and get back to you.” I’d forgotten they were real islanders born and bred and traumatic crossings were locked away forever — almost.
Boats and I go way back to when I was about five, when life was beautiful. We lived in a house partially built over the water and had a dock for a back porch. By age five I had my own rowboat that I used to visit my friends on the river who all had back porches on the water. Sometimes I would row out as far as I could and still see the bottom and let the tide take me down river while I hung over the side and tried to make out the shapes and movement on the bottom, never trying too hard, preferring to let my imagination turn it all into fantasy. After storms I would row out to rescue small boats that had torn away from their tie ups and moorings and use them for a few days until their owners came looking for them. Once I found a canoe that had been cut in half so I put a pile of rocks in the good end and sat on them with my paddle and headed out, the cut end high enough in the air that the water couldn’t come in. Life preservers were unheard of then except for the two rotted cork ones in the basement which I guessed were someone’s World War II souvenirs, and as far as I was concerned the war was over. This was around the time of hurricane Carol on September 11, 1954, my sister’s fifth birthday. I can remember when the water came into the house and we were rescued by our uncle John in his red Chevy pickup truck, all of us squeezed into the front seat, holding my sister’s cake high in the air so it wouldn’t get squashed while trees fell all around us. That was the same uncle John who sometimes came on Sunday morning to mix up some potion on the hot plate, spread it out front and pick off the rats that came out of the wall and had been gnawing at the floor at night right under the mattress we all slept on. Our dad wasn’t there for any of that. Sometime later we would learn that he had another family to take care of.
After Carol there were plenty of boats strewn around. If it could float I would float it and test it for its fine seakeeping qualities.
Those were happy times that carried me a long way once we crossed to the dark side. Luckily for me the orphanage was on the same river of better times, albeit 30 miles away. But the strong bond was always a clear memory to a better time and a hope to return, which I’m still trying to do, I think. As I got older I could slip under the fence and jump over the railroad tracks still used then by freight trains in the night that seemed to take hours to pass, rocking us to sleep with a pulsating, comforting vibration. I’d jump down an embankment to a beach out of sight of the so-called home and spend hours there collecting driftwood and rope, building rafts and floating out onto the river, dreaming of an escape that I never tried, then taking them apart to hide the evidence only to start the fantasy all over again the next time.
The other comfort in my life at that time was meeting with my little sister in secret just to talk, as we were not allowed to otherwise. Sometimes it would be about the past and other times it would be about the possible future or elaborate, naive schemes to get our parents together. Really it was to reassure each other of that fact that there had been another life and to give each other comfort.
The emotional memory I keep is of my sister in the black and white dress she got one Easter, puffed out with petticoats in black patent leather shoes and frilly white socks, waiting at the end of a long, darkened empty hallway for her big brother to come with some words that will make it better. I am walking to meet her, trying to think of something profound to say that will make it all go away, but I never do and still haven’t.
I thought, once that part of our life was behind us, she and I would be close friends, bonded by the experiences we’ve shared, but that’s not the case. The truth is we rarely see each other because it triggers memories that are just too painful. She told this to my daughters. That’s how we communicate and let each other know we’re okay, through my daughters. When we are face to face there are just too many layers of pain and protection to work through in a short time. Even a lifetime may not be long enough, but I take comfort in knowing that she’s in there somewhere hiding and giggling mischievously in her black and white dress at the game it has become, happily watching me surround myself with the water that has always kept me safe.
Will Monast and his wife Leslei live in West Tisbury. They washed ashore after spending 25 years on Cuttyhunk raising four children, but that’s another story.