Somewhere Beyond the Sea
by Bill Prindle
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5,
When eleven-year old Michael Walker and his father are temporarily shipwrecked on a remote Maine island, Michael meets and falls in love with twelve-year old islander Bess. After sailing home, Michael discovers that nothing on the island was what it seemed, including his beloved Bess.
Four people know this story. My father, mother, and I kept it secret, and it was only after they were gone that I told a woman I thought I might marry. We were sailing on Penobscot Bay, not far from where it happened. She understood why I’d been so haunted by it and why I’d kept it to myself all these years. Whether or not she believed me, I’m not certain. I probably wouldn’t have believed it either.
Scenes from that story revisit me with such frequency and clarity that I’m astonished to think it occurred almost sixty years ago.
I thought that if I wrote it down and once again gave voice to the Clements, Dad, Mom, and my eleven-year-old self, I’d find some respite. But as I write, my heart is overwhelmed by the same feelings of love and grief, and the unfathomable mystery of what happened.
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“Now Harry, you know what you’re doin’ out there?” Alonzo Gray squinted into the sun as he handed my father the gas can he’d just filled.
“Lon,” my father said, “I grew up sailing. Don’t worry about me.”
It was nine o’clock, Friday July 21, 1951, a perfect Maine day, the sun bouncing off the glassy water so fiercely it hurt to look at it. I was almost twelve and giddy with the scent of the salt air, the dank aroma of the seaweed hanging from the wharf pilings, the pungent gas fumes, and the excitement of sailing with my father. Alonzo looked at the clouds gathering to the north and adjusted his cap, revealing the white skin above his weathered, whiskered face.
“Something might be brewin’,” he said. “Keep a weather eye is all.”
What Dad hadn’t told Alonzo was that his seafaring experience was limited. He’d learned to sail in an eight-foot dinghy at summer camp on a lake and, years later, after he’d returned from the war, he’d charter a small sailboat for a week every summer. He’d fallen in love with sailing, and a few weeks earlier, Dad had bought Sadie, a twenty-six foot daysailer with a roomy open cockpit.
He couldn’t wait to sail it down Penobscot Bay, but we’d had two weeks of rain, fog, and squalls, and today was his first chance to take it out. Mom had driven up to Bangor that day to buy a new clothes washer, so it was only Dad and me going out. He told neither Mom nor Alonzo our destination that day.
Dad yanked on the starter cord of the old Johnson outboard, and on the sixth pull, it emitted a puff of blue smoke and coughed to life. I cast off the bow and stern lines, and we moved slowly away from the float, steering southwest along the peninsula’s shore and toward the Bay and the dark islands beyond.
My friend Davy Moore buzzed us in Sea Witch, the speedy runabout his father had given him that summer for his thirteenth birthday. I was deeply envious he had his own boat and such a fast one, but as I waved to him from Sadie, I tried unsuccessfully to muster the disdain sailors feel toward power boaters.
The breeze was light, and Dad delayed on hoisting the sails until we got clear of the harbor. As we putt-putted along, he challenged me to name the white clapboard houses we passed onshore. Houses in Dark Haven didn’t have numbers and took on the names of the owners, but with some, the name of a long-dead owner clung to the house in perpetuity.
The Brophy Cottage was so named although no living Brophy had set foot in it for over a hundred years. My father was a high-school history teacher and had a scholar’s keen interest in the town’s past, extending back to the first colonists in the 1500s and the Indians who preceded them. I’d adopted his enthusiasm and eagerly named each house and also gave my account of a small earthwork fort the colonials had erected to fight off a British warship during the War of 1812. Unimpressed, the Brits took the town anyway. Of that brief occupation all that remained was the grave of a single British soldier in the town cemetery.
Dad loved being on the water, and I believe sailing allowed him a sense of peace and contentment that was difficult to find elsewhere in his life. Perhaps it was how everything on board a ship had a distinct purpose, and sailing demanded a certain way of doing things: using the right knots, trimming the sails just so, coiling the lines, sensing the shifts in the wind, setting a course and keeping to it, and the many other small details that required his attention.
And then there was the sheer pleasure of the sailboat pitching into a wave, then rolling easily up and over the next one or changing course from a demanding upwind tack to the ease and quiet of having a stiff breeze astern, running before the wind with the sails fanned out like wings and the sun warming your back. I never heard him analyze it, but when Dad was out on the water, even if the weather were foul, his darker moods were banished.
Other times, when he became withdrawn or spoke sharply, Mom explained that it was his service as a Marine in the South Pacific had deeply affected him, a part of his life made even more ominous to me because he never spoke of it. He’d had a rough start in life as well. His parents had died in a car accident when he was seven, and he’d wound up with an aloof great-aunt, who immediately shipped him off to boarding school. It was she who, one summer, brought him to Dark Haven.
When she died in 1949, he’d received a modest inheritance that allowed him to take his summers off, so he could write scholarly history articles and sail, a happy routine he did for the rest of his life. He once told me that the only thing that kept him going on Tarawa and Okinawa was the hope of returning to Dark Haven, buying a summer house, and sailing Penobscot Bay.
“First Mate, the Captain needs his thermos and chart,” Dad said. I crawled under the foredeck to retrieve the canvas tote bag. I poured the steaming black coffee into the cap and handed it to him. He offered me a sip, which I took, and even though I now drink my coffee black, that day I found it so bitter I spat it overboard — to leeward, of course.
He spread out a chart of the Bay on the bench seat and pointed to our destination, Hatch Island. When we’d sailed with friends, we’d picnicked on some of the nearer islands — Hog, Pond, Fiddlehead, Butter, and Barred — but Hatch was well past them, way out at the mouth of the Bay, almost eighteen miles from our starting point at Gray’s Boatyard.
Back then many of the bay islands were no longer inhabited and were owned by the state, open for anyone to explore. I guess Dad wanted to have a look at Hatch and also be out on the water as long as he could and still return by night.
When we came out of the lee of the Dark Haven peninsula, we caught a freshening southerly breeze. Dad brought Sadie into the wind and told me to take the tiller and drop the centerboard while he hoisted the jib and mainsail. He retook the helm and mainsheet, fell off the wind, told me to trim the jib, and Sadie’s sails snapped full. She heeled over, bounding over the choppy waves like a lively colt. We braced ourselves on the windward side of the cockpit, chilly spray blowing in our faces as Sadie bucked through the waves.
I was thrilled to be out there that day. Most of the time, Dad and I had an awkward relationship. I attended the private school where he taught and which he’d attended as well. He was a popular but demanding teacher, and I think his sense of fairness dictated he had to be even more exacting with me than he was with his students.
After school, I’d come home, start my homework, have dinner, and then he’d read or correct papers while I finished my homework. No idle chatter. I sometimes sensed he wanted to show more interest in me, but after being rebuffed a few times, I became more and more reticent around him. What attention I received came mostly from Mom. I was just another student, and he wasn’t the kind of teacher who had favorites.
But when we were on the water, we could assume the roles of Captain and First Mate, and it worked for both of us. I could tell he appreciated how hard I’d worked to become an able hand. I’d learned all my knots and splices, could name every part of a sailboat, knew the different rigs from ketch and yawl to bark and brigantine, knew my points of sail, could steer a true course, and read a chart. Every now and then he’d ask, “How’re you doing, First Mate?” and I’d beam up at him and answer, “Never better, Captain,” and it was true.
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Copyright © 2017 by Bill Prindle