A few weeks back I mentioned a bike ride I made when I was just fifteen, a solitary ride through a dark and silent New England night with my nostrils filled with the salt smell of the Atlantic and my eyes filled with the sight of a jet-black sky strewn with a million stars. It was a great adventure for a 15-year-old, one I will never forget, but it led to one of the most confusing days of my life.
I thought I was going to be too late to catch my friend Earl before he cast off the lines of his 21-foot sailboat and nosed her out into the slow moving current of the Niantic River. Happily, I was wrong. I was an hour late, but there was Earl, all tall, lanky, serious faced, knotty muscled, six foot four inches of him, frowning at me as I pedaled up to the riverbank.
Earl was the thinker of our group. Some of the things he came out with at times quite literally floored me, they were so deep, so esoteric, so far beyond anything you might expect a sixteen year old to be thinking about.
But, today he was in different mood. "You look pooped," he said, breaking into a grin, as I stashed my bike in some brush.
"I am," I said, spent, but happy.
He chuckled. "C'mon, let's shove off. I called George and told him we'd be late." Hopping aboard, he added, "I'll show you how to sail this thing on the way over to his place."
My sailing experience was exactly zero, but as we moved out into the slow river current, Earl did his best to change that. My education began with learning to raise and lower the centerboard, a section of sheet steel in a slender box-like affair open to the water, amidships
The centerboard, hinged by one corner, so it could be hauled up as needed, took the place of a keel and allowed the sailboat to navigate shallow water. I soon saw why it was needed in Niantic.
The Niantic River opened up into a wide bay enclosed by a railroad embankment. It was low tide and there were sandbanks all over the place. We passed over some of them where the water was barely knee deep. With a fixed keel beneath the ship we would have been limited to the center of a narrow channel.
Earl had named his sailboat the "Karakal," after the mountain in James Hilton's wonderful book, "Lost Horizon."
As we swung around the bay, sometimes running before a stiff breeze that had blown up overnight, sometimes tacking cross-wind or almost directly into the wind, my education continued. I learned how to tie and untie ropes, clamber up the mast, keep from being swept overboard as the boom swung on a new tack, and even how to control the "Karakal" with her small rudder.
By the time we got to George's place and he joined us, smiling as always, of course, I was hooked on sailing.
I wish you could have seen George's big toothy Norwegian smile. Even after all these years it's the thing I remember best about him. Six feet tall, broad-shouldered and blond-haired, George and his bright smile were very popular with the girls.
I'm sure he must have frowned a thousand times during the the years I knew him, but I don't remember it. I just remember six feet of Norseman wrapped around a smile.
Good thing, too--as you'll see.
After George came aboard, he and Earl took over the sailing of the "Karakal."
Earl had been right; I was pooped. I went up forward, sprawled out on a small deck, put a happy cheek against sun-warmed spar varnished wood, and promptly fell asleep to the sound of waves breaking under the bow.
There are two things I remember about waking up: One is the sound of Earl and George calling to each other as the sail flapped noisily for a minute, as the ship heeled over on a new tack. The other is what I saw just forward of the mast as I rolled over and blinked at the sun. Sometime during the time I was zonked out on the forward deck, Earl and George had picked up the cutest little blonde thing I had ever seen in my life.
Much to my delight, the blonde thing suggested that I come and sit next to her. I didn't argue. And when I got there and she brushed my then blonde -- and now missing -- hair off my forehead with a soft hand, I think I may even have purred. And then, when that certain look that passes between a male and a female at times passed between us, and we kissed within two minutes of having ever laid eyes on each other, I know I purred.
Oh my, what an afternoon! We cuddled up close together and kissed, and kissed, and kissed. Up the bay. Down the bay, into the wind. With the wind. You name it.
When Earl dropped anchor along the south shore of the bay some time later to let Mary Ellen off, I went with her. We spent the rest of the day together. It was a good day.
However -- there's always a danged however, isn't there? --when I went back to retrieve my bike, I met Earl sitting on the bank of the river with the oddest look I'd ever seen on his face.
"Tell me something, Garrett," he said, half-frowning and half-smiling, "Did you know that Mary Ellen was George's girlfriend?"
Well, no, I didn't.
End of story? Typical male way of handling things. George never said a word about it. I never did either. I never dated the girl.
I don't know to this day whether George ever did or not. He and I were the best of friends until we parted company on a fall day five years later, when the Air Force sent me off to Iceland and George went back to college.
You know what they say --live and learn!
And, I did. I learned how to pull up a centerboard, how to duck as the boom swung by over my head, how to tie a sheepshank knot, how to....
But as for what was really going on that day? You tell me.