Monday, July 18, 2016

Les Enfants

The man struck his hand out toward me and looked me straight in the eye as he shook mine.
“Hi, I’m Simon,” he said using the English pronunciation, but his Quebecois tongue whispered, sotto voce, that at home he goes by a different sounding name.
He had booked this private charter four and a half months earlier, in the dead of winter. I was glad that something which had been anticipated for this long wasn’t falling prey to bad weather.
We exchanged pleasantries and then I said that if he was ready, he and his group could board.
He turned around and shouted toward the grassy knoll. I couldn’t make out to whom he was calling.
“Enfants!” he yelled in Quebecois.
Ah, a family, I deduced and headed down to the ship to exchange verbal and implicit communication with my first mate, Mr. Wing, that we were ready for the sunset cruise.
I looked up and saw them coming down the dock. All eight of them, in a line. Eight men. All of the same age. (Mid to late 30s? I'm so bad at guessing ages.) All of them, the same look though not the look of blood relation. I went down the line shaking hands.
Once everyone was settled, I asked what occasion had brought them together for a sail on Lake Champlain. 
“We are all having our 40th birthdays,” said Simon.
I wished them all a happy birthday and then we were off into the lake.

Right after the sails were set, Mr. Wing retrieved their picnic coolers from down below. They began laying out the most delicious spread. There was wine, beer, sliced salmon, cheeses, two or three different kinds of sausages, and slices of baguette of course.
“I love the Quebecois!” I said. “Such style! Bravo!”
They swung back and forth between wanting to be entertained by local lore in English and and chatting amongst themselves in their mother tongue.
I could feel something fluid among them. Something that I can only describe as your favorite old sweatshirt. Known.
Eventually, I had to ask. 
“Explain again to me how it is that you all know each other?”
“We are all friends,” Simon said. “We get together every year since school. We have been friends all this time. This year, we are all 40.”
“Every year? Still? All of you?”
“Yes, this time, it is too bad, but three cannot be here. But yes, all of us friends for that long. And every year.”
Being on the verge of leaving to spend time with my family who does the same, after all these years, I was interested.
“All that time? Tell me more about that.”
“Well, this year, 24 years of getting together every year after finishing school.”
“It is not always easy,” another chimed in. “But we make a commitment to each other. It’s not always easy to commit to getting together with no wives, no children. Just us.”
“Yes,” piped up another, pointing to his neighbor. “His son? Yesterday? Birthday! But he is here with us instead of his family.”
“It’s not easy, but this commitment has a benefit. We can talk about things that are deeper. We know each other for so long, we can talk about things that are real. Not just sports and those kinds of things. We know each other. We can talk about what matters in our lives.”
“But it takes compromise.” Was it Simon, or someone else who brought that up? Every one agreed and added their own example.
“Who organizes? What do we do? Sometimes, we solve it by playing a game. Yesterday, we could not agree: Do we go out to eat or cook for ourselves at the cabin we rented? We were split, 50/50. So we played a game and the winners of the game got their way.”
They went back to bantering in Quebecois. I settled into a recline on the aft deck while Mr. Wing was at the helm sailing us back toward Burlington after we had rounded Juniper Island.
I kept ruminating about the components of longterm relationships, whether they be friendships, family or marriages: Commitment. Depth. Compromise; sometimes through humor.
Simon and his “enfants” will be friends for the rest of their lives. It's rare, what they have.
Tomorrow, I fly to Europe to be with my family for a week. I look forward to being back together with my siblings and the partners, and all of our children. It's rare what we have.
* * *
(This is also posted at my Facebook page:

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Swimming to New York

Something seemed off about the person in the water about 1,000 feet away. It was too far out in the lake for a casual swim. Even if they were out for a swim, it was a dangerous place because it was in-line with the harbor entrance. There was no nearby kayak or windsurfing board from which the person could have fallen. 

Mostly it was the odd movements that caught my attention. Not swimming and the head wasn’t steady enough to be treading water.  

I had a complement of five guests aboard. With mainsail still up, I threw on the diesel motor and told Evan, my first mate, to prepare for a possible rescue.

I motored over to what turned out to be a young man in his mid 20s I guessed.

“Do you need help?” I called out as we got close.

I couldn’t understand exactly what he said, but his garble was answer enough. I threw him a floatation cushion and told him we would be right back. 

I ordered one of my guests to point his finger at the “man overboard” and never take his eyes off him no matter what was happening on the boat. Evan and I lowered the mainsail. I circled the boat back and pulled up to the man. He grabbed onto the side of the boat, but had no strength left to hoist himself. He was a big-framed young man. He was, as we say, “all there.” Evan and I pulled each arm until the man could flop onto the deck, then we pulled his leg up until he was lying on the boat in his swim trunks. 

We covered him in blankets. He just laid there as I started my list of questions. Was he injured? Was he with someone else that I should be looking for? Was there any condition I should know about him? Was there anyone we could call on his behalf?

Eventually, I got to the question on everybody’s mind: How did he end up, drowning, in waters of Lake Champlain?

“I was swimming to New York,” he said. “I could have made it. I’ve swum distances like that before. I’m a champion swimmer. Could have been an Olympic athlete.”

I had him drink water and encouraged him to keep talking.

His story was a rambling one. He was swimming to New York to be with a lover. He didn’t have enough money for the ferry. The lover in New York had rejected him, but he wanted to win her over again.

It’s that last comment which taints us toward him. We want to say: Accept. Move on. It’s not heroic what you’re doing; it is badgering.

I couldn’t help but feel deep empathy for him. How many times have I contemplated my own versions of swimming to New York?

By now, he had regained enough strength to sit in the cockpit.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Jonah. Like the one who got swallowed by the whale.”

“Yeah,” I laughed. “But this time, it was Lake Champlain’s sea monster Champ who would have swallowed you.”

For the first time, Jonah laughed.

“We try to get away from God, but we can’t,” he said.

“No, we can’t,” I agreed. 

In the Bible, the Torah and the Quran, Jonah tries to escape God’s call to Jonah and ends up on a ship in a storm at sea. Jonah admits to the sailors that the storm is caused by him and so he is tossed overboard, whereupon he is swallowed by a whale. A death, which becomes a rebirth after three days.

I’m not a religious man in the traditional ways, but I am one who believes that in words and metaphor are the greatest powers I know. My favorite line from the Bible is, “In the beginning was the Word.”

So, for me, Jonah’s mantra was an immediate reformulation in my mind: “We try to escape ourselves, but we can’t.”

We docked, and after the guests departed, my mate Evan and I tried to get Jonah help. We called his mother, but she refused to come. Jonah told us to call the local mental health agency, but they said that unless he was a danger to society or himself, they didn’t provide such services.

Jonah said he supposed he could return to his apartment. We called a cab for Jonah. I paid the cabbie, told Jonah to keep the fleece jacket, gave him some extra money, and bid him farewell. 

Godspeed, Jonah.

(This post is also here at the Facebook page of my sailing tours operation: Whistling Man Schooner Co.)