Dad, Mom, my little brother, and me on our boat

Hurricane Laurie gusted across the Gulf of Mexico, 105 mile-an-hour winds gunned for the Glades and south Florida. It was October 27, 1969, and my family barreled across Biscayne Bay under full sail, heading for a Hurricane Hole to wait out the storm.

I planted my eleven-year-old self on the foredeck, scanning the distant shoreline for a gap that might be our cove.                     .

I was not afraid. Dad would keep us safe.

But his tension bled into me.

Sailing was supposed to soothe, but even under clear skies, Dad stressed.

He could have taken a lesson from the hippies he admired. They rattled around Coconut Grove in beater Volkswagen vans, on bikes or on foot—wafting Patchouli oil, incense, and I-don’t-care in their wake. They didn’t care about jobs, haircuts, or monogamy. They ingested bean sprouts by the pound, brownies when they got the munchies. The women burned their bras.

I glanced back at the cockpit.

At the helm, Dad stood ram-rod in his crew cut. Mom posed at his side, her nurse’s uniform tented to symmetrical cones by a sturdy bra. They were a hip American Gothic portrait of monogamy.

We were coming up fast on a buoy. I shouted to Dad and pointed.

Dad levered the tiller hard to starboard, and the boat swerved and came about. He yelled, “What color is the damn buoy?” the second I remembered he was colorblind.“Red!” Mom shouted.

He angled the boat into the wind and we drifted past the buoy.

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Dad raised his voice over the flapping of the sails. “Annie, check our depth!”

I scrambled over the main cabin, readying for the thud of our keel hitting bottom.

Rigging clanged against the aluminum mast.

My fingers closed around the depth-sounder, a long mop handle with notches carved at one-foot intervals.

Patches of sand blinked through the seaweed below us, but we still floated.

Dad angled us back into the channel.

The sails filled.

I let the pole roll from my fingers, releasing a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding.

My five-year-old brother crouched in the corner of the cockpit, wide-eyed. These were the best days of his life, he’d tell me later.

Dad white-knuckled the tiller, his calming yoga work-outs not paying off. He’d lift his body off the dock with his hands and levitate his legs front or spread right and left. He did handstands while we kids counted the seconds. He sat Indian style with both heels up—like a hippie doing Transcendental Meditation.

I think Dad secretly wanted to be a hippie. But everyone knew flower children were young. Dad had rounded forty and was riding a Boston Whaler full-throttle toward forty-five.

But no hippie would coat his kids’ noses, cheeks, and shoulders in zinc oxide twenty-four-seven—when the rest of the world was frying itself in Johnson’s Baby Oil. Hippie dads wouldn’t make their kids check in every hour. They wouldn’t saddle their offspring with chores like painting a stretch of deck or stacking lumber in the aft cabin.

A hippie dad would be too stoned to make his kid read aloud Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop and phonetically sound out all the fifty-gallon words.

My stomach growled as my eyes swept across the seawall looking for an opening. I wondered if there was anything to eat on board that hadn’t lived in the bay. The beansprouts Dad grew in the cupboard didn’t count.

He ground conch in a hand-cranked meat grinder into chowder and fritters that had to be chewed twenty-five times and tasted like rubber hose. Clams were dug at low tide. We scooped shrimp—when they ran—in nets from the dock. Dad gigged, cast-netted, spear-fished our food. Once in a while he poached a Florida ‘lobster’ by reaching into a crawfish hole, ripping off its tail, and stuffing it into his trunks. He never got caught.

Dad hollered for me to take down the foresail.

While I worked, my brother manned the tiller, Dad downed the mizzen sail, and Mom—binoculars to her eyes— yelled, “There’s the inlet!”

Relief flooded through me, and the wind gentled as we closed in on the shore.

I needed to think about something other than food.

Dad didn’t just admire flower child freedom. He quit his job managing Shenandoah Pool to build our forty-foot yawl in the back yard. Then, the no-job lifestyle stuck. Mom’s nursing and Dad’s playing the market—his huge graphs spread across the fore cabin while he plotted his stocks—paid marina rent, Catholic school tuition, and kept us in bathing suits and zinc oxide. I don’t think he gave a flip that his BS in business from the University of Miami moldered while he boat and child-minded, bagged a Euell Gibbons life.

We slid into the mouth of the waterway, and I dropped the mainsail.

Dad yanked on the lawnmower cord to our ten-horse, secondhand, Johnson outboard, swore, yanked, swore.

My fingers clenched around the bowsprit as we coasted into the narrow inlet.

Mom sat at the helm, my brother smashed up against her side.

Finally, the motor coughed to life, and Dad muscled it down the stern into the water.

Ten minutes later we puttered into a virgin cove, surrounded on four sides by land and pines.

Dad killed the motor, and we glided into the perfect center.

We dropped anchors fore and aft and stowed sail to our transistor radio blaring the weather.

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Hurricane Laurie hooked southeast and headed for Mexico.

We cheered.

That night, in my bunk in the after cabin, I lie awake listening to the strange sounds of the cove.Dad wasn’t a hippie. Our car was a ten-year-old Plymouth Valiant he’d painted tan—with a paint brush—over the original white. But a picture from half a life ago lapped against my ear from the other side of the hull. I’d been five, and my parents quit their jobs, packed us up, and drove out west to pan for gold—in a Volkswagen van.

I shouldn’t have been surprised several years later when Dad grew out his hair like Willie Nelson or that he never again worked a “real job.”

Dad protected me from skin cancer, unhealthy eating, and a sedentary lifestyle. He gave me books, boats and the ability to write for twelve years without a paycheck. I have Dad to thank that I rebelled into conservatism and God. Conservatism may be expendable, but God I’ll keep.


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