All at sea in my mind, a boyhood reflection by L.E.Taylor
A COUPLE OF DAYS AGO, I had cause to reflect on lives lived and now over.
A week earlier, I’d received the Ancestry.com report on my personal DNA analysis. It concluded that my lineage goes back to the British Isles (I know), Scandinavia (Vikings and all that), Central Europe (sauerkraut, beer, Lutherans), and traces of Mediterranean mischief.
That last one got me thinking. Not very hard, of course, just musing. Then a spiritualist friend of mine teased me with a tidbit of news: She claimed I’d lived before, died young, had been a sixteenth century Italian, and a seventeenth century Irishman. A writer both times. Okay, relax; I’m no mystic, and only gullible to the extent that my creative work leans toward the romantic. But, as I said, it got the wheels turning. I am, after all, a writer.
I set about crafting a fictional tale using the far-fetched nudges I’d just received, both the scientific and the supernatural. My imagined story would begin with the near-drowning of a young Latin (?) sailor off the Coast of Ireland in the storm-tossed sinking of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
Got it? Okay, more on that another time. For now…
My boyhood during the Second World War was lived in my birth place of Detroit – and summer-times, with my great aunt in an old house on Lake St. Clair in Ontario, Canada.
Most Americans are unacquainted with the upper Midwest. They think of farm lands and smoky crowded cities, dark skies, snow and cold. But Michigan is a maritime state. The water is fresh, not salty, but it is deep and broad and wild in its storms of both winter and summer. Half of the state is water. Michigan’s two peninsulas are defined by massive fresh water inland seas. Michigan has over three thousand miles of coastline, more than any other state but Alaska.
In most states the 12 mile wide Lake St. Clair would be considered a “great” lake. In the chain of seas called The Great Lakes, it is just a wide place on the strait between Lake Erie and Lake Huron. Impressive, dangerous, deep enough to have an international shipping channel, but, alas, not a Great Lake.
It seems I’ve always been drawn to the big water.
One summer day in my eleventh year in Detroit, I pulled on my Buster Brown clod-hoppers and set out from my home; I would walk until I came to the “river.” What did I know? Not much. But the water beckoned. I was actually walking to the lake. I didn’t tell anyone and I didn’t even think to tie my shoe laces.
The trek was eight miles. One way. Presently, I saw the lake, looked at it for a minute or so, thought about my Auntie Kane over the horizon in Canada, and headed homeward. I was tired, thirsty and hungry. When I arrived back at 5770 Harvard Road my heels were bloody and I knew a little more about the geography of my universe.
That same year, with fall still weeks away, a couple of lads came around on a sunny day to recruit boys into the Sea Scouts of America. They were teenagers, what we called “big boys.” Handsome, blond, uniformed, and energetic. I was impressed and entranced with the idea of sailing the lakes, but I was small-fry, they were not good recruiters, and they moved on. I was left with my dream of sea adventure aground.
Preparing to write my fictional story this week, I researched the sinking of the Armada. Then I found myself reading all about sailing craft, rigging, architecture, nomenclature, history.
Today, patient reader, if I were as young as I was then, and as wonderfully smart as I am now, I would make learning to sail wind-driven boats a serious ambition. I’d start with dinghies, then I’d learn (and earn) my way up to a sloop or a ketch. If I hadn’t the wealth to own my own craft (unlikely, if I really wanted it), I would hire onto a crew and ply the seas as a blue water mariner.
Not yet into the actual writing of my fantasy, suddenly it dawned on me that such was exactly the route taken by my Uncle Bill. My mother’s kid sister, Helen had married Bill Barber, her high school beau. They married right before Pearl Harbor. His wartime adventure as skipper of a sailing craft in the South Seas is acknowledged briefly in my book, Elgan and Grace. – A Twentieth Century Saga (pp, 309-311).
Bill Barber and I were brothers of the soul. We sparred occasionally because we were nothing alike except in spirit. My father, himself a restless fugitive from the Kentucky coalmines, was far more like Uncle Bill than he, a self-made businessman (not a wandering seadog), would admit. Like all the characters in my book – or for that matter, anyone’s book – both were flawed. But Bill’s calling to be a mariner, specifically a sailor, whatever that would mean in sacrifice of bourgeois refinements, was true and impervious to reproach.
Now, in the autumn of my years, I view the course of life organically. Whether as sailor or surgeon, merchant or magistrate, poet or preacher. The calling to engage with life feeds a certain readiness of soul, I think, and may be more than a vagabond wanderlust. It’s the affinity for challenge – of intellect, sinew, spirit, and courage.
All vocations may not be equal on the scales of Providence. Self-indulgently, for the moment, I just write stuff that may amuse you.