Loyal Readers: when we last left you, the Near-Death Journey was about to begin. If you missed Part One of "My Old Man and the Sea," you can access it by clicking here. The story picks up from there, but with a slight detour first.
Last week, I had dinner with my Aunt Rita at my cousin Maria's house in South Jersey. Years ago, Aunt Rita (and my Uncle Leo) had retired to Andros Island, my father's (and Uncle Leo's) boyhood home in Greece. Aunt Rita recently came across some old photographs for sale in a store on the island. One depicted my father's grandfather's sailing vessel in their hometown harbor. It's the large one in the center. I'd say it qualifies as a ship, rather than a mere "boat." We know that this picture was taken sometime before 1937 -- the year that a bell tower was erected on the large church above the town.
It struck me as more than a coincidence that Aunt Rita gave me a copy of this photo while I was in the middle of writing "My Old Man and the Sea - Part Two," so I felt impelled to include it. This picture further drives home, to me, the long line of nautical excellence from which my father sprang. It's just that he sprang a bit too far! Ok, maybe a lot too far.
Back to the meat of the story. I know you've been waiting. Grab some popcorn.
Unfortunately, some 35 years later, not every detail is crystal clear, but the main points are. Like a soldier recounting a horrific battle, I think I've subconsciously chosen to repress some aspects of the ordeal.
The NDJ ("Near-Death Journey") was originally slated to be merely a joy ride. We were going to motor a short way out into the Atlantic, cruise around, then come back. No fishing was involved and, certainly, no near-death experiences were on the menu.
Truman Capote once said that there were only two emotions on an airplane: boredom or terror. That was often true for me when at sea on my father's boats. Well, come to think of it, throw "aggravation" in there too, for good measure.
We had a large group for the NDJ, possibly even exceeding the boat's recommended capacity. But, of course, my father never paid attention to such technicalities as the boat's "capacity." American rules of boating safety didn't apply to my dad; he was raised on the sea and knew it all. Or so he thought.
I don't remember the entire passenger list, but I know that my sister was on board, along with a number of our friends. Lee, Greg ("Eggman"), Domenic and Gina were definitely there. Also, most likely Brian, Marisa and, maybe, John.
We started out from a dock on the Jersey Shore's Shark River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean between the towns of Avon and Belmar.
And, shortly thereafter, an albatross dropped an animal skull onto the deck, causing it to explode like a delicate Christmas ornament.
Actually, I'm not sure if either of those things occurred, but, hey, it was possible.
My father was the captain, as always. He wore a traditional Greek fisherman's hat, black. However, as we all know, attire alone doesn't create ability. Rosie O'Donnell probably owns lingerie.
We had one crew member -- me. I did whatever my father told me, except in the rare instance when I could talk him out of some obviously foolish maneuver. And if I knew that something was foolish, then it must've been REALLY foolish. But this almost never happened. My father was not in the business of listening to my advice. Or anybody else's, for that matter.
"Boy! Boy! Lift the anchor!"
The anchor was puny and really served no purpose; ordering me to lift it was more for show than anything.
"Boy! Boy! Push off from the dock!"
A mate on a ship is customarily referred to as "boy" by the captain. This wasn't, however, why my father called me "Boy!" My dad used "Boy!" whether on high seas or dry land, it made no difference. He knew my real name -- it was also his father's, so it would've been hard for him to forget -- but he used it only when I angered him, which is to say fairly often.
English was my father's second language (he pronounced "depot" as "dee - pot," which would always send us into howls) and "Boy!" served his purpose well as a non-native speaker. It was short, descriptive and easy to pronounce. And, luckily for him, we only had one boy in the house. This moniker was also useful because it could be discerned through a mouthful of food, or heard clearly when yelled from three rooms away (I was also a Human Remote Control for the TV in those days, often coming from another floor to change the channel for my lounging father.) However, in what remains to me one of life's great mysteries, my sister was never "Girl!" She was always just "Maria."
"Boy! Boy! Fill the fish holding tank with water!"
This order was superfluous since we very rarely caught any fish worth keeping. From time to time, my father would show up at home with what he'd call a "fish finder." Usually, he bought these on the back steps of his diner from a guy who claimed it "fell off a truck." Maybe that's why none of them worked -- they had broken when they hit the pavement. To me, these devices looked like reconfigured 8-track players. When they'd prove useless, my father would eventually toss them into the Atlantic. Perhaps they hit some sea life on their way down, finally fulfilling their roles as "fish finders."
In case you couldn't guess, my father wasn't eco-conscious, and throwing malfunctioning electronics into the ocean didn't strike him as a bad thing to do.
We eventually pushed off and headed out towards the open sea on the foreboding afternoon of the NDJ. We started out fairly slowly -- there was a low speed limit to prevent people from creating large wakes in the inlet -- and picked up a bit of momentum as we went.
As we got closer to the bridge that straddled the mouth of Shark River Inlet and the edge of the Atlantic, the fun started. The sea was punching and slapping our vessel from below. We jerked from side to side at severe angles. I heard the theme song from "Gilligan's Island" begin to play just as I looked to my right and saw a boat from "The Deadliest Catch" hightailing it back to port. And that show wouldn't even be created for more than 25 years. That's how I knew this was bad.
Before I proceed, I'd like to make something perfectly clear. This is a fact that was lost on my fellow passengers back in the summer of 1975.
What set me apart from my friends, far apart, was that I knew, intimately, the limited extent of my father's skills as a sailor. Everyone else, besides my sister, assumed that my dad knew what he was doing, since he owned a boat and had grown up on a Greek island.
I'd equate the situation to dining out with someone from Napa Valley. Your natural inclination is to allow them to choose the wine. After all, they're from Napa Valley, America's Wine Country. But I have news for you: There are plenty of people in Napa Valley who don't know jackshit about wine.
Back to the boat.
We kept grinding our way along the Shark River, with the open Atlantic about 600 yards away. The chop was even more punishing now; our boat was riding the back of an angry, aquatic rodeo bull. We were a toy in the bathtub of a wildly splashing child. I felt certain that if the boat could speak, it would've been yelling out in pain.
You get the picture: IT WAS FREAKIN' ROUGH!
As the boat fell into another watery hole and jerked powerfully to the left, a portable radio flew from its perch and conked Gina on the head. Nothing was tied down on our boat. Safety precautions? My father had no time or inclination.
Gina laughed, unconcerned with the possibility of internal bleeding on her brain that could lead to sudden death. Was she insane? Had she been knocked silly in an instant? I dwelled on this thought for a short bit, until more pressing matters of personal safety recaptured my attention.
"What's wrong with you people, don't you realize that we're in mortal danger!" I screamed in my mind. Looking around, everyone else seemed to be smiling and enjoying themselves. This, I thought, is how people must've appeared on the Titanic, moments before meeting Mr. Iceberg. And I'm not talking lettuce.
Another wave delivered a powerful punch to the stern...or bow...I always mix them up. It yanked us dramatically to the left. Everyone grabbed something to steady themselves. We were rocking and rolling and we still hadn't made it past the mouth of the river into the angry Atlantic. The ocean was like a customer who had been on hold with Verizon, as I was the other day, for 20 minutes (I knew I could work my anger at Verizon into this somehow.)
By this point, it was clear to me that a watery grave was only seconds away. I tried to decide who would get my 1972 Oakland A's autographed baseball. The most likely recipients were on board and, I was sure, would suffer the same fate as me. I wondered if my mother would know to bury me with it. If I were smart, I would have left instructions before going to sea with my father.
I looked over at Lee. He was chewing some licorice and smiling. Greg, too, sported a smile. He was enjoying the sites. Domenic also appeared unconcerned.
Just as we motored under the Ocean Avenue Bridge, maneuvering between the imposing jagged boulders lining each side of the inlet's mouth, the Atlantic ratcheted up its fury to the next level. Our toothpick-hulled vessel heaved sharply from left to right, each time bringing the sea water almost up to the rail. Ah, what the hell, at this point let's just say the seawater was pouring in over the rail.
By now, everyone on board, save for my father, who managed to maintain his position in the captain's chair, was bouncing around on deck like ballet dancers on LSD. Yet, incredibly, they all seemed calm, the entire lot of them. Some even laughed. It was left to me to be terrified on behalf of everyone.
"MY FATHER IS AT THE WHEEL!" I wanted to yell, "WE FACE CERTAIN DOOM!"
But I knew it would be to no avail; they were all enjoying themselves, blissfully unaware of our crisis. Only I knew the true gravity of what we faced. I felt like William Shatner in the episode of "The Twilight Zone" where only he could see the gremlin on the plane's wing. Nobody believed him, but it was there.
At this point, giving in to my hysterical screaming, my father finally said "Gee gee Christ, it's bad out here. Maybe we should turn around."
"YES! YES POP! YES, LET'S GO BACK! NOW!," I yelled, piercing every other distraction with my terrified voice. I was only 13, and felt I was owed more years out of life.
Inexplicably, everyone else gave the appearance of being calm and controlled. These people, who I thought I had known well up until that day, were complete strangers.
And, worse yet, they had no appreciation of the fact that I was saving their lives!
I don't know how he did it, but somehow my father managed to turn the boat around in a very tight space, between hull-puncturing rocks, and get us back to the dock safely. I didn't literally kiss the ground when we returned, but I certainly did in my mind. The only thing preventing an actual lip-lock with Mother Earth was the thimbleful of dignity that I hadn't surrendered at sea. Needless to say, my friends razzed me for a long time for what they felt was my over-reaction to the NDJ.
Only if they knew the truth: that gremlin was out there...
The NDJ in 1975 wasn't my father's last boating adventure; oh no, far from it. He continued to own boats, both in the States and, later, when he moved back to Greece in semi-retirement. Despite his long familial lineage of seafaring excellence, and all his own years of boating, my father never really became a great sailor. At least not in my opinion. But being on the water was something that he loved with unbridled enthusiasm.
I learned many lessons from my father over the years, perhaps none more valuable than the one he taught me by example: If you love doing something, even if you're not the World's Best, keep at it for as long as it gives you pleasure. This principle applies, no doubt, as much to my writing as it did to his boating.
I leave you with a photo of my dad in semi-retirement back in Greece, circa 1994. He's on the last boat he ever owned, which was, I believe, the smallest and most modest of all. Nonetheless, it gave him great joy to fish off this little craft in the Aegean waters surrounding the island of his birth. So, my words of advice: whatever it is you do to make your heart sing, keep on doing it. The world could use more people like my pop.