Saturday, July 4, 2009
Cavorting with sea gypsies
Dispatches from the edge of my vacation.
No matter the location a good bar will still follow certain rules which are actually closer to physical laws of nature. The best bars will not excessively water down the liquor, will toss out the chips and peanuts left over after closing, and have some standards on who they let in the door. This holds true even in Hilton Head, South Carolina that has long since lost most of its cultural soul to the hordes of golf playing middle-aged white guys wearing polo shirts and snazzy matching golf hats and slacks. Despite the best attempts of Tiger to add some color to this group, collectively they have far more in common with undead zombies than actual human beings. Such bar sanctuaries free of the decaying undead and those who enjoy hitting little white balls are hidden away in obscure corners of the island with elaborate rituals developed to identify those worthy of entering. So much to my surprise after stumbling upon such a place they let me keep my seat at the bar.
My discovery of a quiet oasis away from golfing ghouls was by sheer chance last Monday evening as I was strolling around the Shelter Cove marina marveling at the various sizes and types of sailboats tied up. Most of the sailboats, along with the larger and more ostentatious motorized yachts tied up as well, were dark and showed no sign of anyone being aboard. Although, a few offered, by way of partially open portholes, brief but tantalizing hints of a life that has fascinated me since I was a child. My fascination has only grown through the years egged on by my observations of a country having a cultural anxiety attack while swimming in a near boiling pot of societal rage causing me to daydream about sailing away and leaving it all behind.
Since my kids were safely engaged in vacation activities at the resort we were staying at and my wife was out raiding the local outlet malls of even more Chinese-made detritus I was free to wallow in my sailing fantasies. Even though I have absolutely no experience in sailing and have only read books on the subject, never the less as I wistfully looked over the moored sailboats in my mind I was sailing on high seas, visiting exotic lands, while in the company of a sultry island lady.
As much as it might be a surprise to those with their feet more firmly on the ground and reality excessive fantasizing really works up a thirst. So after seeing someone leave from a nondescript door attached to a building with extremely darken windows facing the marina carrying a bottle of Corona beer my well developed bar senses kicked into high gear. Figuring nothing was lost if it turned out I was wrong I headed for my possible watering hole.
Boldly stepping into the darken interior I was greeted by near phantom figures both sitting at tables and at the bar. Slowly my eyes adjusted to the lower light levels to reveal a cast of characters that I would come to know and like over the next several days. About the only thing connecting this definitely out of the ordinary bunch was that they were all dedicated and experienced sailors with a true love of the sea.
The first person I really could focus on was the bartender, a guy named Jake. Jake is an African-American fellow who unlike most of the others living on Hilton Head Island and calling themselves locals can trace his roots back to Civil War days after Union forces occupied the island. Born back before my often whined about golfing ghouls came and overran the island Jake learned his life lessons fighting for Uncle Sammy in Vietnam. Afterward, Jake at least got our favorite uncle to pay for his college degree in which after that he worked as an engineer for various construction companies all over the world. After getting fed up with all the cost cutting and backroom deals of recent years Jake left the crap behind, bought a boat, and sailed the oceans until he got word of family troubles back closer to home. His little bar has him partially and temporary settling down until as such time his family troubles are solved.
At the bar close to Jake was Frank who, once my eyes fully adjusted to the dim light of the bar, I realized looked like a freaking clone of Ernest Hemingway. Once I was told by Frank that he ghost writes for a lot of “famous people” who “don't know a semicolon from their asshole” I figured the look was a conscious business strategy and I didn't ask about it or that I have some interest in writing myself. Because like Poppa Hemingway, some of the stories Frank told me gave the impression that he was short a few french fries of a complete Happy Meal. After hearing a few of his sagas, complete with epic fishing stories in the Caribbean I half expected him to saying something about having drinks with Fidel in Havana.
Sitting at a table were Bill and Dawn, a married couple in their late twenties who looked like they had just stumbled out of time portal connected to 1969. Bill, dressed in a tie-dye t-shirt and cut off jeans was right from the start friendly and welcoming to me. All the others took some time to do the same, they looked me over like a sick lab rat until they figured I wasn't about to start talking about my golf handicap. What set Bill apart from the others was his long and braided beard and his Brooklyn accent .
His wife, Dawn, for me fed upon Bill's rehashed hippy look by taking the air of an “Earth mother” with magic fairy relations. Short curly brown hair hung down her shoulders connected to an athletic body barely concealed by a loose sun dress. Impish-like brown eyes sparkling even in the dim light of the bar gave her the look of patience and amusement of the activities of us lesser mortals, one being her husband who she clearly adored. During my visits Dawn rarely spoke but much to my surprise the first time she did with me in hearing distance I found out she did not share her husband's New York accent but spoke with a thick and sexy French accent. Where as Jake and Frank were at best semi-nomadic but living on their sailboats, I found out inadvertently Bill and Dawn lived permanently on the island and in fact I learned they owned a home in one of the more exclusive areas rubbing shoulders with the very rich and famous. Their sailing adventures were strictly limited to mostly week long excursions with their children who were being cared for by the nanny at home. Given their appearance I admit to some curiosity on how they financed their lifestyle but they remained mysteriously silent on the subject compared to the others.
About an hour passed with me nursing a beer and listening to the four others talk. I clearly got the impression that had they not accepted me after a few brief questions about myself Jake would have found some way to toss my out on the pavement outside. The stories they were sharing were grand and despite some of Frank's incredible exploits very possible, at least to an uninformed fellow like myself. What brought it, temporary, to an end was the arrival of Catherine.
I had seen her before coming into Jake's bar working on a sailboat docked nearby. She was in her forties with blond hair and a body that quite frankly put all my fantasies to shame. Her one flaw was that as I walked by earlier she looked up at me with blue eyes that were the most soulless and unforgiving I had ever seen. As she stepped in the bar the entire group fell silent. When she came up to the bar for her drink, something called an “Azul Aqua” I about melted when she not only acknowledged my presence with a nod but started talking with me. Catherine and I chatted for a few minutes as I noticed the rest of the group coming alive again, but very subdued. My first impression of her was only reinforced with me actually having an impromptu fantasy of forsaking my family and sailing away with her. Several minutes later, after Catherine stepped away to the lady's room, I learned her story and how she had actually gone done that very same thing.
Some years before Catherine herself had been happily married with a family. Her husband was successful and respected and her three children beautiful and intelligent. What Jake and Frank told me was that supposedly while on a “girls only” vacation down to the Florida coast Catherine had been seduced by the captain of the charted sailboat her and her friends had been sailing on. After several days on the water with the man when the group returned to port she waved goodbye to her girlfriends and sailed off again with her new love. Catherine went for many months apparently oblivious to her decisions and when she did surface long enough to contact home her husband had already gotten full custody of the children with divorce proceedings in full swing. Making matters worse once Catherine finally came to grips with the enormity of what she had done to her family she descended into a sort shock that annoyed her lover ending whatever interest he had in her. Several days later he left her penniless and with only the clothes on her back in Belize with a hurricane approaching. Later calls back home went unanswered by both her ex-husband and her parents but for them it was for a whole different reason.
Catherine did make it home only to find her ex-husband now seeing one of the friends she had been on original girls only vacation with, rejected by her children due to her abandonment, and finding out that her parents had died in a car crash a short time after she first called back home. She was an only child with no relationship with any of the more distant members of her family leaving her with no one to turn to for help.
Being about as alone as a person could be she made her way back to the coast finding whatever jobs she could. While with her lover she also fell in love with sailing and over the years worked to have the job she does now. She delivers various yachts and sailboats to distant buyers. Catherine is not beyond taking a lover, male or female, but like a Black Widow makes an almost instinctive point in destroying who she encounters. When she returned instead of talking with me some more she settled at a table in the far corner of the bar with the soulless look of her eyes returning. Jake made a point of bringing her a bottle of tequila and a shot glass, after that it was very easy to tell Catherine had drifted off to some other world far removed from the rest of humanity. I must admit even after hearing her story there was a still a strong attraction to getting tangled up with her.
The final addition to the cast of characters that evening were the arrival of a nicely dressed couple full of energy and good will. Gregg and Mary came in and after speaking with everyone, except Catherine, and took up court at a table in the center of the bar. Looking at my watch I figured it was time for me to head back and I was going to use their appearance to make a graceful exit.
“What is the rush?” Gregg boomed clearly looking for an audience for what was easy to see was going to be a new round of story telling.
“Well,” I meekly began, “I might need to head on back and check in before my wife comes hunting for me. I doubt she is back from shopping but its always easier for me to catch her first which puts me ahead of the game. I hate to be caught after something has happened and be marooned with the aftermath.”
Both Gregg and Mary gave me the strangest look after that statement looking around at those in the bar still living on the same world silently asking some sort of question. When none was offered everyone, again except Catherine, broke into laughter. Feeling I had stepped into something I ordered another beer and waited for the story to unfold.
Gregg and Mary had met the usual way. High school sweethearts that went on to attend college together and were married in their senior year. Gregg went on to law school while Mary became a elementary school teacher working at underprivileged schools well off the educational map. For years they were dedicated to each other each supporting the other when their respective careers looked to be going off the tracks. For Gregg it was an unholy work schedule doing every shit job those higher up passed his way. For Mary it was the frustrations of dealing with kids who often didn't want to learn, parents who at best looked to the teachers just as babysitters , and administrators who only cared for the more affluent and whiter schools.
Their big break was when Gregg became his law firm's star corporate attorney beginning a long history of excessive billing hours while winning cases that either protected rich clients or took chunks of money out of rich defendants. Mary fed up with working for an educational system that looked at failure and giving up on kids as the proper way for doing things abandoned her career. She became a socialite working the social scene of the law firm to prompt the advancement of her husband. Along the way they lost each other with Mary becoming an alcoholic and Gregg chasing whatever nubile college-age skirt that might cross his path. A sort of strange fellowship developed between the two with both looking the other way. They were far too tied together financially and by sheer marital inertia to change anything. However, like all arrangements made by people, no matter how secure it looked at some point it came crashing down. It was just a question of how that would happen.
Gregg and Mary never had children of their own. As they explained there were several reasons but it simply came down to both being far too busy to spend time with any children and both still retained enough of their upbringing to view the excessive use of nannies as a sort of abandonment. But Gregg did have a brother, far less successful, who had a son and like a good uncle and aunt they took up as much time with him as they could spare as well as showering him with all sorts of material goodies. All this was fine until Gregg received a panicked phone call from his brother saying his son had been diagnosed with cancer. Despite their distance from each other and being so tied to a material, social, and carnal world they had developed quite the love of their nephew. His rapidly deteriorating condition shocked them back to the real world and they threw all their money and influence into helping the boy.
Being completely riveted by their story the sudden silence that hit Gregg and Mary in the telling spoke volumes about the ultimate fate of their nephew. When they began the story again both realized what they had become and how much they hated themselves. They tried to return to what had been but were unable and for about a year went through the motions.
Gregg freely admitted what he was about to say sounded like something from a bad movie but he went into work one day began is usual duties and simply froze in place. He could not take it anymore, he walked out of the building and cashed in all his stocks and bonds. His intention was to present Mary with half of the money and just leave the country. Mary, who had adjusted somewhat better to the aftermath, when presented with the idea said she felt the same and simply said she was going with him.
After years of being a corporate attorney Gregg had amassed a rather large wealth and even while being a legal shark had learned to sail, as part of the proper social scene for him and his wife. Their search for a proper sailboat that met their needs began as an indefinite road trip and when it was found was extended to the sea. Adjustments to this new life were hard and time consuming. Not only did they have to learn an entirely new way of sailing, this was no simple day trip they were ultimately planning, they had to get to know each other again.
After learning what they needed to know about their sailboat, the sea, and more importantly about each other happy years went by with them circling the globe. It was not a “happily ever after” scenario by any means but it was one that at least saved their sanity. But human nature being what it was their old ways tried to reestablish themselves at times.
For Gregg and Mary it was when they were sailing the islands they described as French Polynesia. The blue waters and green tropical islands made their past lives seem so far away like a bad dream. Somewhat tired of the nomadic life and cramped condition living on a boat Mary started craving a more settled and roomer existence. Gregg on the other hand again started noticing all the beautiful ladies again and developing more than a passing interest.
One day while searching the island market for various items she spied Gregg coming out of the local medical clinic. This by itself was of little concern since they were both entering their golden years of life and all sorts of ailments were starting to plague them, even though both still looked years younger than they actually were. What bothered Mary was that the clinic's doctor was a hot young female Australian doctor with fiery red hair and blatant sexual disposition toward whatever man that caught her fancy. After spying some more over the intervening days she caught Gregg and the young doctor having a noon-day tryst. Far from being incensed to directly confront her husband she waited a few weeks when they planned to sail on to Australia with their ultimate destination being Sidney. It was their that they had agreed to look into becoming more settled, possibly staying permanently.
Along they way they stopped at some unnamed island for a rest before heading off on the final leg of their journey. The way it was explained to me that some islands have no way of supporting a permanent human settlement because of a lack of a fresh water supply but yet often host various plants that can be eaten allowing the tired crew of a visiting boat to forsake canned veggies for a short time. Without spilling the beans on Gregg's resurgent activities she stored a few items on the dingy before she sent Gregg ashore to find enough for a fresh salad.
Unknowingly Gregg boarded the dingy and once on the island started looking for the plants Mary wanted. After he disappeared into the tropical foliage Mary quickly made way under the power of the sailboat's diesel engine leaving Gregg marooned on the island. From what Gregg told me he came back to the dingy and instantly saw that the sailboat and his wife were gone. Right from the start he figured what had happened and began hunting through the storage compartment on the dingy for the small hand-held radio they kept on it. During his search he found bottles of water, some food, and a note from Mary explaining why she had marooned him. She went on to explain in the note that it was her intention to sail on to Australia, sell the boat, and settle down. She figured that since the island she marooned Gregg was on was well known in sailing circles at some point he would be rescued.
Gregg knew he was metaphorically screwed in way he had never been and he found that no matter how he tried he could not get angry at his wife. He eventually found the radio and tried to contact whatever ship might be near enough to hear his signal. After several hours he gave up and did what he could to make his stay comfortable. Mary, on the other hand, was quite happy with herself and filled with an indignant righteousness. After all they had been through for him to betray her again was the final straw.
Mary was almost a week out when doubts started to plague her. While the island was a stopping point for sailors like her and Gregg there was no assurance that someone would arrive while Gregg had water. Then, on a more simplistic and selfish thought, how was she going to explain her husband's absence when it came time to sell the boat? Realizing what she had done she turned the boat around and began sailing back to the island. Only this time she ran straight into a storm that would have made the going tough for both her an Gregg but next to impossible for her alone.
Gregg as expected ran out of water on the third day no matter how hard he tried to conserve. Food was not a problem because of island birds roosting, a fishing kit left in the dingy, and the fact that Gregg was heartsick over what he had done to his wife and really didn't feel like eating. What ended up saving Gregg was the same storm that was plaguing Mary. The finding of an empty container on the beach suitable for holding water for drinking was allowing him to catch the rain pouring down on his small island .
Never the less as the days passed Gregg was about to give up on everything when one morning he spotted his sailboat anchored off shore and Mary deploying the smaller inflatable dingy they had kept stored inside their boat. The two met each other about half-way, both begging forgiveness. Several days later after coming to grips with each other again they sailed off together for Australia. Far from ending their ocean going adventures they sailed on for even more and after this little story was told to me plan on spending the hurricane season close to shore and sailing for the southern coast of Argentina around Christmas.
After Gregg and Mary finished their story I really knew it was time for me to head back to the resort. I had been gone so long that there was a good chance that my son was back in the room talking to his girlfriend on the room phone. The fees involved for such a teenage-love inspired conversation could be enormous and as for my daughter there was a good chance she might have already attempted a coup at the resort. As I walked back I could not help but think of Dragonwife and what she would do placed in Mary's situation. All things being equal it was easy to come to the conclusion that it would be best for my well being to keep her off sailboats. Far from being marooned for a meaningless tryst I figure she would use me for shark-bait for far less.
***Author's note: Okay, for anyone hung up on such trivial things like the truth the following post is full of fictional facts and factional fiction as Jimmy Buffett would say. All the characters in this post were present at that bar I visited although the degree to which I wrote them up with their strengths and weaknesses open to the world is subject to my alcohol soaked memory at that time. Although some fellow fool once said facts should never play a hand in spoiling a good story.***