Riverman Ch. 02byAdrian Leverkuhn©
(c)2007 'Adrian Leverkühn'
I hate to paraphrase Nietzsche, but to forget one's purpose is the commonest form of stupidity.
Of course I turned to the south, of course I turned away from Betty Hutton. But please, let ole Fred Nietzsche speak for me again, if you'd be so kind: To predict the behavior of ordinary people in advance, you have only to assume that they will always try to escape a disagreeable situation with the smallest possible expenditure of intelligence. Come to think of it, didn't I mention somewhere along the way that I was now the apostate eternal optimist? So let's just dispense with all talk of my native intelligence from here on, OK?
So, yes, I turned toward Beaufort. In order to see the truth, you need to listen with your heart.
And no, that's not Nietzsche.
That said, I set my course for Red Nun Number 2 at the entrance to Adams Creek, and as I looked over my shoulder I vowed to never look back. The main channel turned south then west, then south again, and narrowed to a width little wider than necessary for two boats to pass. The miles passed as the sun arced overhead, and with each passing mile my heart began to ache a little more. No sense of the ironic . . . that's always been my problem . . .
So no, I didn't listen. Not with my heart, anyway. Maybe with my ass, but that conjures up all sorts of unpleasant images I don't want to deal with. Maybe I wasn't any good at listening anymore. Take it for granted - I wasn't listening to my heart; I wasn't listening to Turtle-man, either. And I hadn't listened to Betty Hutton. Why should I trust her? Why?
Couldn't . . .
Wasn't ready . . .
No time . . .
Any number of excuses ran through my mind . . .
Another hour passed, and I was in Core Creek, then the Newport River, and as I passed a little airport I turned left down a narrow channel and waited for a bridge to open, then motored into Beaufort. During that last stretch before I docked on the waterfront, I watched as the engine temperature began creeping up and I hastily shut it down right as I pulled into the slip the dockmaster indicated.
Fine. So that's the way it was going to be. Even the boat knew I'd made the wrong choice -and now it was pitching a hissy-fit. What the hell, she was Swedish. What can I say? My boat knows me better than I do.
So, I hopped off the boat, trudged up to the Harbormaster's to pay dockage, then asked where a good diesel mechanic might be found. There was another fellow in the office putting a business card on the bulletin board by the door, and the Harbormaster indicated that the man was the best in the area. I called him over, detailed symptoms. He listened attentively, looked intelligent. Name was Sven. Hey, is that instant karma, or what?
"I can get to it in the morning if you're in a hurry. Or I can wait 'til Monday. Save you on the overtime that way. Mind if I come down and take a quick look at it?"
"No, not at all. Ready when you are."
"Which one is it?"
"The white Hallberg Rassy down on the end. Liebestod is the name."
"Holy shit, a Wagnernite. Don't see that name around on boats much, you know. Pretty fatalistic, don't you think, for a boat."
"It was my wife's idea."
"Oh, she down on board?"
"Only her ghost," I said as I slipped out of the Harbormaster's Office. Just like a ghost . . .
The mechanic clunked and thumped around in the engine room for a few minutes, then came up topside for some air.
"A Volvo diesel, huh? Don't see many of those anymore. Everything these days is Japanese."
"Swedish boat, ya know."
"Yeah. What is she, forty, forty-two feet?"
"Forty three. A little over a year old."
"Pretty wood down there."
"Well, it's my home now. I didn't want to live in a Clorox bottle."
"Know what you mean. Well, I think I know what's wrong. It shouldn't take more than an hour or so to fix. See ya first thing Monday."
"Well, we'll be here." The mechanic took off and I went below and turned on the heat. After a quick shower I steamed an artichoke and fixed some Earl Grey, then pulled out a cruising guide to the Carolina coast and flipped through the pages before settling on the section detailing the area around Beaufort. Where was the section on running away from your destiny?
But . . . doesn't your destiny always catch up with you . . .?
I was reading when I heard a familiar knocking on the hull.
"Marty? You down there?"
It was Turtle-man.
Oh, JOY. Not exactly what I had been hoping for . . .
"Howya doin', Hank? So, you decided to head south too."
"I was about a mile behind you when you cleared the second bridge, and holy shit, Martin, your boat took off like it had been shot out of a cannon. Man, ain't you ever heard of reefing the main? I never seen a sailboat rockin' and rollin' like that!"
"Some days, Hank, you just gotta say 'what the fuck'; this was one of 'em."
"So, no Betty Hutton for you, huh. Kinda surprising."
I looked down as he said that, wondered why his talking about it bothered me. Actually, thinking about Betty made me hurt inside, and that's when I realized that I hadn't been obsessing about Ruth for most of the day.
"I'm still not sure what I'm going to do about that, Hank. I had a temperature problem, you know, with the engine, show up, and thought there'd be better mechanics down here." I hated the lie, but there it was. I was making excuses, covering my ass. Hank looked at me knowingly.
"Sure, buddy. You had dinner yet? Smells weird down here."
"My God in heaven; you trying to poison yourself? There's a great, I mean great burger place up the road a piece. Good honky-tonk music, too."
"No way, Hank. Not tonight. I got way too much sun today."
"Really? Too bad, cause you're coming with me."
"Shit, Hank, what is it now? You found more women?"
"One in every port, Marty. One in every port."
We walked into town and found Hank's honky-tonk, and I sat with him and had a beer while he ate his cheeseburger. The place was quiet, and I could see an air of quiet desperation on Hank's face. Alone only a few days, and he was desperate. I could just imagine it: he and his wife hadn't touched one another in years; from what I'd seen and heard, I couldn't blame him, but that's the trouble with making snap judgments like that. You never know until you hear both sides. Again, ole Fred said it best: Judgments, value judgments concerning life, for or against, can in the last resort never be true: they possess value only as symptoms, they come into consideration only as symptoms - in themselves such judgments are stupidities.
The trouble with being a cynic, I was learning, was how totally stupid I had become.
But, I digress.
I called Betty later that night, after I walked a dead-drunk Hank back to his boat and made sure he found his way down below without breaking his neck. It was late, and I hoped I wouldn't be waking her, but I figured by this point I owed the woman at least an explanation of my recent movements. She picked up on the third ring.
"Hello?" Her voice sounded tired, anxious, sleepy.
"It's me. Martin."
"Where are you?"
"Beaufort. Engine trouble." I wanted to get that out there before I changed my mind. Anyway, I figured it would ease her sense of rejection.
"Yeah. Mechanic will fix it Monday morning."
"Uh-huh. So, what are you doing after that? Headed for South America?" (!)
"I've been thinking. You said you were curious what it's like, what it's like to live aboard, go sailing. Did you mean it?"
"Yes, I did."
"You want to come down next week? Spend some time here, maybe go out a couple of times and get a feel for it?"
There was a long silence. Too long.
"I don't know, Martin. Let me think about it, would you?"
"Sure thing. Take your time." I hung up the phone, disgusted with myself.
I woke up the next morning feeling completely stupid. I was a total Nietzschean now, if the way I felt was an accurate indication of my new station in life. What did he say about women? Ah yes, women: They make the highs higher and the lows more frequent. I reckon he said that after getting the clap from a hooker in Cologne. Wonder how high he got with that one?
The mechanic was true to his word and was there first thing Monday morning; I had coffee going when he tapped on the hull, and invited him down for a cup before he got started. We sat in the cockpit as the sun rose over the dockside buildings and talked about sailing for a while, then Turtle-man stuck his head out of his shell and squinted at the world before he walked on up into the light of day. He saw me sitting in the cockpit and waved, then walked over.
"That coffee? Got any more?"
"Sure Hank. Help yourself?"
"Where you keep the cups and stuff?"
I excused myself and went below - fuming as I went - and fixed another cup for Hank, then went back up and gave it to him.
"You gonna head out today, Marty?"
"We'll see what the doc here says, then figure out the next move."
"Oh, you'll be good to go by ten at the latest."
I heard my phone ringing; it was down on the chart table so I ducked back below and flipped it open.
It was Betty.
"Martin? You there?"
"Ah, yes, I am."
"You planning to stay in Beaufort?"
"Ah, yes, for now."
"Could I take you up on your offer?"
My heart skipped a beat.
"Ah . . ."
"Martin, I know. I'm sorry. You reached out for me, and I hurt you. I'm sorry, alright?"
"You don't have to apologize."
"Well? I want to join you for a . . . Look, I've got someone looking after the shop for a week, a close friend. Could we try it for a week?" The reception faded for a moment while she talked, but it came back strong.
"Where are you?" I asked.
"And I see you."
I turned and looked up to the boardwalk above the docks; there between a host of radio antennae and sailboat masts I could just make her out. She waved at me, and my heart about leapt from my chest.
"Excuse me," I said to Hank and the mechanic as I jumped from the boat, and I walked hurriedly toward the gate by the Harbormaster's Office. She watched me, then started to walk toward the gate, and we met there and I kissed her. I kissed her hard.
"Stuff's in the car," she said when we finally came up for air. "I didn't bring much. Hope that's OK."
"You're here. That's all that matters." We held hands as we walked. We walked for what felt like hours. All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.
"Hey, y'all," Hank the Turtle-man said as we walked up to the boat an hour later. "Mechanic said you could pay his bill at the harbormaster's office; he had to take off. I think he finished all the coffee, too." Funny how you can tell someone's lying - you know, the way they can't make eye contact, the way they look somewhere else - and not at you - when they lie.
"Yeah, thanks, Hank. Hope you enjoyed it."
He hopped down and scuttled away while I helped Betty step-up on-board.
"So, where you wanna go?" I asked.
"OK, well, how about Tahiti? Bermuda? Maybe the Sandwich Islands?"
"Never-mind. I promise, you don't want to go there."
"Well, think in terms of a week."
"Well, we could duck outside, sail around the Outer Banks and up to Norfolk, then come down through the Dismal Swamp, back to Elizabeth City. You really ought to see that from the water, if you haven't already."
"Sounds good to me, Martin. Could we leave the car here?"
"Don't see why not, but I'll ask up at the office. What kinda clothes you bring?" We inventoried her stuff. She had everything but offshore foul-weather gear, so we ran up and bought her some basic gear, then stowed her new stuff below. We had to re-park her car, but that was it - that was all she had to do to cut the ties that bind us to land and that sense of place we take for granted.
I think she found that disconcerting.
By noon we backed out of the slip and sailed from Beaufort and regained the Morehead City Channel, taking Fort Macon to the right and Shackleford Point to our left, and with that we turned about and looked at the land behind us slipping away like memories we both no longer needed, or wanted.
You can question the wisdom of taking someone who's never sailed before into the waters off Cape Hatteras all you want, but if you pay attention to the weather it's not all that bad. The waters near shore aren't terribly deep, and consequently quite rough; not so if you plot a course well offshore and steer northeast past Ocracoke and the Cape itself, then bare north along Currituck Sound overnight until your radar turns it solid mush. Confusing? When the radar goes wonky you know you're close to Norfolk; as you approach these waters every naval vessel on the east coast turns on it's radar jamming equipment, and you keep a steely-eyed watch out for mammoth-sized floating islands called aircraft carriers as they lumber in-to or out-of Chesapeake Bay via the Thimble Shoal Channel. Quite a sight, really. Unless you get in their way.
It would make a decent introduction to sailing for Betty.
We covered all the basic stuff, trimming sails and how to steer, and she seemed to enjoy herself as she walked the boat over swells and danced her across mounting waves as the afternoon progressed and the breeze picked up. She began to take a beating from the wind and the sun, so I set up the sun awning and cooked dinner while she steered us toward that first evening. I set up the cockpit table and carried chow up and we ate as the sun set.
I was looking ahead - thought I could just make out a hazy speck on the northern horizon - and I watched in horror as the speck grew insanely fast into flaming streak. I just had time to say 'watch out' when two Navy jets went silently by a few hundred feet off our right side, then their sonic boom hit.
It hit like a physical blow. The boat - all 25,000 pounds of her - heeled over sharply to port as the concussion slammed into us. Food flew off plates as we listed, and I grabbed Betty as she slipped from her seat toward the water. The boat righted itself after a moment, and I cussed at the now invisible jets. There, about a mile behind us, a U S Coast Guard cutter was steaming towards us. Oh, this was just ducky!
"Liebestod, Liebestod, stand-by to be boarded. Liebestod, this is the U S Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton, please acknowledge."
"Coast Guard, this is Liebestod. Understood."
"Roger, Liebestod, maintain present course and speed. Out."
Presently a huge inflatable boat with about five or six uniformed - and well armed - sailors began to crash through the swell on it's way to our position, and as they pulled alongside I opened the boarding gate in the lifelines on the left side of the boat and stood back as the first of four heavily armed soldiers jumped on board.
"Just stay where you are and keep your hands where we can see them!" the first one aboard said.
"Not a problem," I said to the hawk-faced young man. His eyes flicked about the boat, taking in possible threats as he did, but his hand never left the sidearm he carried. "What can I do for you men, today?" I said.
"Just shut up, sir."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Just shut up! We'll ask the questions!"
"I see. Could I speak to your Captain, please?"
"Just move out of the way, sir, while we search the boat."
"Help yourself," I said as politely as I could manage. Hawk-face ducked below; another machine-gun toting lad followed. Two more remained on deck; one of them walked over to me.
"Sir, hope you'll excuse Cargill. He's just out of Academy, takes things a little too seriously, if you know what I mean."
I looked at the two on deck; they were sweating and looked ill-at-ease.
"You men like a Coke or something?"
"Not allowed, sir."
"Fun job, huh?"
"Has it's moments, sir."
"Captain!" came the call from below. "Need to examine ship's papers!"
I went down the companionway, but not before asking the sailor to keep an eye on the helm. I slid into the seat behind the chart table and pulled out my Documentation papers and Ship's Registry information, and passed them to the young officer. He flipped through the pages quickly, then passed the books back to me. He, too, looked hot and sweaty.
"Can I get you and your men a Coke?" I asked.
He looked around furtively, said 'yes', and I went to the icebox and pulled out a couple and tossed them to the men.
"How 'bout the men topsides?" I asked.
"Hardesty! Miller! Grab a Coke, but keep 'em outta sight. The old man will scream if he see's 'em!"
"Yessir!" came the topsides reply, and I tossed up a couple more.
"We'll need to go over your safety equipment, sir, then we'll be gone."
"What were those two jets doing out here, if you don't mind me asking?"
"Couldn't say, sir. Need to see your man-overboard gear now."
I took the officer and his men around the boat and showed them the requested items. The officer seemed genuinely disappointed that he couldn't uncover a safety violation.
"Nice boat, sir. We'll be off now. Appreciate your courtesy."
"Right. You might keep in mind that people out here would appreciate a little courtesy too, now and then. Good day to you, too, by the way."
The men jumped off as quickly as they'd come, and buzzed off in their inflatable.
Betty looked pale and upset.
"Martin, you'd better sit down before you have a stroke!" she said.
"What . . . why?"
"Martin, you turned as red as a beet when that young officer popped off at you."
"Shoulda thrown his ass overboard!" I said.
"Glad you didn't," she rejoined. "Hate to spend the rest of our first trip sailing this thing back in by myself." She smiled as she said that, but still looked ill-at-ease.
"Yeah, well, how 'bout you? Want a Coke?"
"Sure. I could use one."
I went back below and reached into the fridge. No Coke left.
That felt about right.
We got the dinner mess cleaned out of the cockpit and I brought up some fresh fruit just as the sun dropped below the horizon. I could just make out land on the radar, out at it's maximum 24 mile range. Occasionally the radar would fill with pencil line beams as some destroyer or aircraft jammed every radar signal in the area, then just as quickly it would clear. All very weird.
I opened a bottle of port and we had a glass, and I began to settle down. The air cooled down a bit, and we put on jackets, then I steered by the soft red glow of the compass.
I felt Betty's hand dancing on my thigh, and I was suddenly very aware of her presence. Her fingernails traced little currents of arc across the skin of my inner thigh, and I shifted in my seat as the need to, uh, straighten out became a little more urgent. She took care of that, too.
I felt her hands work my belt buckle free, and the zipper on my shorts mysteriously worked it's way down. Only too appropriately, we listened to Coldplay, A Rush of Blood To The Head, and I danced inside to Daylight as she worked my shorts down and took me in her mouth. I set the autopilot and gave in to the sensations that gathered in my belly - surrendered as she worked the tip with her swirling tongue, and I listened to the swirl of water as it tried to cling to the hull, then gave up and sighed away behind us in a phosphorescent blaze. I felt fiery pinpoints of light in my head when I shut my eyes, then leaned back, opened my eyes, and looked directly overhead at Vega and the explosion of stars surrounding Pegasus and the Andromeda Galaxy. I ran my fingers through her hair as the universe gathered itself around us and we all joined in our prayer of release and dissolution.