I sat on the docks in the late afternoon and watched the sailboats do figure eights. It made me smile.
I once had this crazy idea that I wanted to take up sailing. And when I get ideas I can’t be stopped. I don’t want to say that I’m stubborn. So I’m not going to say it.
I had always wanted to sail. I started looking in the classifieds for boats. I visited everywhere from Mobile to Panama City looking at them.
I finally found a twenty-six footer in Fairhope. It was old, and ugly, but seaworthy.
It was a big step for me. I’d never done anything notable except once, when I slid down a bannister with the wood grain facing the wrong way.
This does not give you the same exhilaration as sailing.
The man on the sailboat was waiting for me. I waltzed along the dock and I declared that I would buy his boat. Then, I handed him a check.
“But you haven’t even seen it yet,” he said.
“No, but I’ve seen enough bad boats to know when I’ve seen a mediocre one.”
That man took me on my first voyage. I sort of discovered myself on that Fairhope water. I didn’t think it would be that easy to find yourself, but sometimes it is.
For three months, that kindhearted man gave me lessons. He taught me to raise the main, to trim the jib, and he taught me to sail single handed.
And after my first successful solo sail, he handed me a cigar and said, “I bought these for celebration.”
“No thanks,” I said. “I don’t smoke.”
“You do today.”
In the following years, I would use the boat with my wife, my dog, or some unfortunate friend. And I would demonstrate my newly acquired knowledge by sniffing my nose and saying things like:
“All hands on deck, secure the scuttlebutt on the starboard side! Prepare for portside tack!”
Sometimes a man just needs to get it out of his system.
When I was a boy, my father told me he had always wanted to be a fighter pilot.
“Why didn’t you ever become a pilot?” I once asked him.
“Because,” he said. “Your old man’s eighty-percent deaf in this ear. I walked into that Navy exam room, the doc took one look at my bad ear and said, ‘Sorry, son. You’ll never be a pilot.’”
And that, by God, was that.
My father promised himself he wasn’t going to give up on his dream. He swore that when he turned fifty he would take flying lessons.
For the rest of his life he collected jet calendars, fighter plane posters, and aviation wrist watches. Sometimes, he’d sit in his workshop and stare at a poster of Cessna 172.
“Fifty’s getting closer every day,” he’d say. “Wouldn’t it be fun? You and me, flying to Texas, or Tennessee, or anywhere in the world, then smoking a few cigars to celebrate?”
“You don’t smoke,” I said.
“Well, maybe when I’m fifty I will.”
He never made it past forty-two.
For some reason, that particular memory is burned into my mind. The night of a forty-two-year-olds funeral, I replayed it until I wore out the record.
With my new boat, I participated in sailing races. I raced on weekends against other day sailors. I am not a good seafarer—actually, I’m god-awful—but I am an expert when it comes to fun. I did my undergraduate studies in fun.
But over the years, I found myself getting busier and sailing less. So, I finally sold the boat because it costs money to keep a boat. Especially a crummy one.
A man from Panama City came to look at it along with his nineteen-year-old son. The man announced that he wanted the boat before even stepping aboard.
“Don’t you wanna inspect it first?” I asked.
“Nope. I’ve wanted to learn to sail since I was a little kid. I’m ready to finally do it.”
I gave the man and his son a few lessons. They were naturals.
On the day they sailed home, I was emotional. The man had brought his three boys with him. They took pictures of each other. They laughed. They looked happy.
They were about to shove off when his oldest son started the others singing “Happy Birthday.”
The father blushed, then shook my hand and said, “Forty-two sounds so old, doesn’t it?”
No, it doesn’t. To me it’s an age that will always seem too young.
They hit the open water, and I watched them do figure eights in the water until the sun went down. It was magnificent to see.
I smiled about it then, and I’m smiling about it now.
I hope they found the cigars.