A Smoko for Sweet Fanny Adams

A lot of things that we think matter a lot turn out to be worthless. During this pandemic I’ve spent substantial time reflecting on what holds value and what is just a Sweet Fanny Adams[1]. Another Fanny, this one from Broadway, sang, “people who need people, are the luckiest people in the world.”  Those are the people who will always remember Spring 2020 as a bleak and lonely season. Regardless of the plight of humanity, the earth continued to spin on its axis, days grew longer, and boating season returned. People who need boats are the second luckiest people.

Joshua Slocum was a self-sufficient 19th century sailor who circumvented the globe alone. His life partner was his boat, Spray. He found people were like Sweet Fanny Adams, they were insignificant, except to buy his book. While Slocum was obsessed with single-handed sailing, I prefer Noah’s two by two plan for crew on the Ark. I can’t do with both hands what Slocum did with a pinky finger. Sometimes it takes four or six hands to keep Ex Libris afloat.

Forget Waldo, Where’s the Leak?

This past weekend I filled my tanks with fresh water and was startled to note that the head (bathroom) floor had quite a bit of water that seemed to be coming up from the shower drain. I wiped it up and found that it wasn’t a trickle of tinkle. The water was clear and odorless. The last time we found water dripping in the head was on a New Years Eve when our boat was taking on river water. This puddle did not resemble melted yellow snow.

Fully embracing the “many hands less work” theory, I hailed our good friend, a retired Naval engineer who spent his career working with nuclear submarine engines. I fretted that we could sink from the sink, after all water drains from the sink into the river so what’s to stop the reverse? Joe troubleshooted how sink water could appear on the floor of a different cabin. He taught me how to check sea cocks and blow out clogs from a drain. Heady stuff that appeared to quell the leak. We kept to our plan to socially distance our two boats overnight on a quiet slough off the Mississippi. I relaxed knowing a guy who spent most of his career under water wasn’t concerned about puddles in my head.

We dropped anchor. I sopped up another pint of water and tried to remember the first prayer on a rosary chain.  After a fine meal on deck, George went below to use the head and shortly called up, “I fixed the leak!” The submariner and I were baffled. George, who is a damn fine first mate is not noted for his acuity for fixing things at sea or on land. Beaming a broad smile, he tossed me a nearly empty gallon water jug kept in the bathroom on a low shelf that we use to flush the head. It was dented and had a small bottom crack. Only a couple of ounces of water remained at the bottom of the jug. He had fixed the leak.

The next day, George and the submariner took a smoko. That’s an old naval term for a taking a break from all seaman duties. They savored a couple of expensive cigars together (appropriately distanced) and spoke quietly about the many things men do at sea and with boats. Some, like engines that won’t kick over are serious. Others, such as distilled water jug floods are not. We were glad to be in the company of a Navy sailor on this Memorial Day weekend. He recalled another sailor who advised; the first thing to do on a boat is raise the flag. The last thing is to take it down, fold it respectfully, and store it until the next time. It’s good to honor our troops, past and present whose heroics big and small are never Sweet Fanny Adams. Life is more than luck. Few of us can make it single handed. We need people like them to keep people like us safe.   


[1] An old Royal Navy saying referring to the content of tinned meat rations that were considered worthless. It’s a twisted tale born of a tragedy but kept for something.

Constant Vigilance

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Bald Eagles’ Aerie. Symbols of constant and eternal vigilance. They are there. Memorial Day, 2018, Photo JAL

Memorial Day weekend is here in the climate-confused Midwest where we are setting records for the hottest May Days outside of Hades. Choosing something to wear should be easy as nothing, fits. Nature crash and burned spring straight into the dog days of August. Nary a breeze can lift herself from the oppressive sun. The wind has sucummed to an overdose of humidity. Undaunted and perhaps unwisely, we spent the weekend aboard our sailboat, Ex Libris on the Mississippi River.

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Cap’n Barrett sporting his Brown Crew cap navigating his way around Catalina Island, CA.

Meanwhile,  our son Barrett, hopped a ferry from LA to Catalina where the winds were fresh, the seas were calm, and small boat rentals were affordable. Randall opted for the grand opening of his community pool much to the delight of my grand daughters who initiated the first swim of summer vacation.

Amberley explored fiords in southwestern Norway. It’s a country where where summer lasts for 23 minutes and SPF 200 is not adequate sun protection for the locals. As you can see by her photo of Bergan, the Norwegian harbors are just like the Alton Pool’s  except ours’ are the color and consistency of coffee dregs.

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Fiord Festivities @ Norway

Being a Mom, I worry about my family when they are far away frolicking with water sports. Accidents happen. Water always wins. There’s always a bigger fish. Your playground is homeport to mllions of non-human residents. We must all take the wizard of Hogwarts’ advice; “Constant vigilance!”

Paying attention is a survival skill for there are plenty of hellish things in the details that lie quietly and patiently seeking prey. Yesterday, we anchored off a mid-river island and were fascinated to observe a Bald Eagle family nesting. My attention was shifted by a subtle change in Marina’s panting. Although she was shaded, a 16 year-old dog is no match for the incinerating torch of a mid-day sun.

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You never know what lies beneath or behind. 

We quickly motored back to the harbor to head home and escape the dangerous heat. Dockside was equally perilous. I was startled by ravenous Water Moccasin that swam a few feet from the dock and slithered along the shore. I knew the snake was hunting for if not for the hunger instinct it would’ve avoided the filthy water and been content to digest privately in an undisclosed location. I told Marina, who is mostly blind and deaf that if she fell overboard, she was lunch.

Freshly regenerated via the AC, we returned to Ex Libris. After a relaxing dinner aboard, George went to snag a cookie off the galley counter. He abruptly roared, “D¶•§ Son #$ %^$# BIT ME right on my head!” He swatted, swore, and swelled. I’d missed a wasp nest during my ritual debugging of the cabin upon arrival. Bees and wasps are avid boat lovers when people are absentia. The previous day I’d destroyed three wasps nests and too many mud daubers’ messy abodes to count.

George is allergic to bees. Over the years he’s had increasingly bad reactions to their stings. Still yelling, digging for ice in the cooler, he ripped off his shirt afraid that more bees were attacking. We boot-scooted home for emergency First Aid. George’s glaucoma eye was already swollen shut.  His armpits  and hands itched madly and swelled exponentially. Still, his testosterone-histimine-saturated-resistance to the logic of an ER visit prevailed as he ranted, “It’s a holiday, only drunks, car wrecks, addicts, and city shooting victims go to ERs on holidays.”

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Not Big G’s Best Look. Abundant hives too. Even his armpits swelled. 

Fortunately, Barrett was home from his island adventure and he took my call. He’s a physician and advised an immediate trip to the ER. He also inherited a tad of stubborn-ness from his father and understood negotiations were off the table. Dr. Bear recommended a double dose of Benadryl, a blast of Prednisone, ice packs, and spousal patience. His Dad survived.

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A family’s physician is never really and truly off-duty when Mom calls.

Constant vigilance is a mantra for those with the wisdom to know that the world sits at the cross roads of good times and dark times. My grandmother, herself a Gold Star mother, referred to this day as Decoration Day. She didn’t view it as a holiday but as a private holy day of remembrance and gratitude. I see the wisdom of both approaches. It’s a day to celebrate the eternal vigilance of our military. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. It’s also a day to be aware of the vipers and wasps that live as they as they are even though their ways are often not compatible with ours’. We live in a brave new world where “eternal vigilance is the price of human decency.[1]” Hoist a flag. Remember. Be vigilant.

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Wrong, Captain Ron. It didn’t happen “out there” – it happened right here! Sioux Harbor, MO

[1] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World. 1932

Of Marshmallows and Whalers

 

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Whalers @ Middlebridge, Narrow River Photo by JAL

Humans have an innate thinking strategy designed to deliver us from temptation. People are wired with that knowledge that, ‘You can’t always get what you want” – at least not right now. Discerning between wants and needs is tricky. Not getting something on demand is probably being erased from our neural circuits by repeated encounters with the TV remote and Siri.

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Eggs (circa 1968) waiting to grow up to be Ghostbusters’ Stay Puff Marshmallows Man

During the turbulent Age of Aquarius, a Stanford researcher with the ethics of Willy Wonka lured unsuspecting but ever so bright preschoolers (kids of faculty and smart students) to his study. They were tempted not by a proverbial apple – but by puffy globs of corn syrup, sugar and gelatin, affectionately known as marshmallows. The experiment was a simple test of kids’ ability to accept a small reward now for a big payoff later. It played out as a game; present the kids with one marshmallow. Tell them they have two options; 1) ring a bell and the marshmallow is yours, free and clear, 2) chill, wait for the researcher to come back in about 15 minutes and get two marshmallows. Hardly the stuff of rocket science but it changed how we envision self control.

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I learned about delayed gratification when growing up on Long Island Sound. First, kids had to earn Red Cross Beginners Certificates to be allowed to swim past the safety section roped off for free whizzing toddlers and leaky old ladies in baggy black swim suits. Second, swim lessons always begin the week of high tide and wrap up the second week during low tide. The difference between tides is that at first the swimmers practice blowing bubbles into frigid somewhat clean water and wind up sucking tepid mucky sulfuric smelling sludge into their mouths week two. Most kids endured paddling about in murky stench by focusing on the big kids jumping off the swim dock anchored out past the baby old lady cage. Nobody ever signed up for two sessions of swimming lessons. Freedom was already just another word for nothing left to lose. Hang in through the second week and the entire harbor is your playpen.

Third lesson of growing up in salt water – by their teenage years, everyone has a boat. Everyone that is, except my rag tag friends and me. Parents do not count in this scenario. My parents had a boat but I did not. More than anything in the world, I wanted my own 13’ Boston Whaler. These sturdy skiffs boast the ability to stay afloat even when cut in half. I pleaded my case, “Pop, all the kids have their own boats. All I want is a little Boston Whaler. I’ll even take you fishing sometimes if you buy the gas.”

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Prop Walk in a Shallow Story

Pop was all for it – as soon as I got a job and paid for it. Pay for it? I babysat every weekend for a whopping 50¢ an hour. The usual gig was from six ‘til midnight on weekends. If I saved $3 a week ($156 a year) it would take a hundred years to pay for a boat! This was not a funny situation – relying on OPBs (Other People’s Boats) simply would not do.

I needed to be like the Stanford kids who patiently endured 15 minutes distracting their attention from the spongy confection by humming Mozart’s hits, rhythmically kicking their heels on the chair rungs as they visualized twinkling stars and the alphabet letters in sequential order (AB, CD, LMNOP). These were the kids who successfully delayed their gratification, earned two marshmallows, eventually earned top grades on the SAT, and adhered to Nancy Regan’s advice to just “Say No”. Not only did these kids grow up and snag the best jobs in Silicone Valley but for every minute they endured past the urge to snatch and scarf the first marshmallow, 30 years later they had a .2% reduction in body fat over the grab and go kids! Marshmallow therapy made them rich and skinny!

“Keep your eye on the prize, work hard, dream big and it’s yours” was my mantra. At 21 my first boat transaction went down. It was a used, aluminum 12’ Sears Roebuck fishing skiff, with two oars, purchased from my employer, Mrs. Main, who paid me $1.25 per hour for doing clerical work at a nonprofit. The boat ate my first paycheck.

Ten years later we bought our first powerboat, a solid old Mark Twain 20’ inboard outboard (IO) for playing on and in the Mississippi. It was not a Boston Whaler because there simply weren’t any to be found in middle-American boating venues. Unfortunately, we sunk it on a rock dike about two years later. You can’t really sink on a dike as rocks the size of beach balls are smashed more in than under the hull. When a sinking boat is towed to a harbor the river doesn’t bother asking permission to come aboard. It fills the craft up to it’s gunnels. George abandoned ship. Even then, it didn’t sink all the way to the bottom because evidently boat builders expect people to do stupid things with small craft and so they build them with stuff that floats even under extreme conditions such as the Mississippi current hissing, “Surrender the Booty.”

At 39, I owned my first sailboat, a 12’ slab of fiberglass that resembled a faded orange surfboard with a sail. It was sitting forlornly on the front yard with a cardboard, “For Sail, Cheap” sign. It would have cost an entire summer of Saturday night babysitting back in my high school days, but now I was a college professor and could afford to splurge fifty bucks. It was a cash on the spot deal.

Many boats transactions followed – some with sails, some with paddles but none with the seductive allure of the bright blue deck paint of Boston Whalers.

Fifteen years ago, I called home from a Rhode Island marina parking lot, my voice flooded with emotion, “Hey, Pop, I did it. I just bought that 1968 Boston Whaler – paid cash.” The hull cost the same as it did in ’68 and the engine was less than 10 years old. It was mint and mine.

I’m at an age where some pessimistic, “got to get it now people” are joking that they don’t buy green bananas. They are probably the same kids who were happy with just one marshmallow. I’m two feet and two Whalers past my first. When I look at it straight on – my grins are reciprocated as I hum, “If you try, you just might find, you get what you need.”

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Seeing is Believing – You Just Might Try