Careening off the end of Pier 1 on his trike and going overboard in cowboy boots, my kid brother learned to swim the hard way. But he owned Dinner Key Marina in a way I never would.
I focused on flying under Dad’s radar, but R.J. stacked up father-son adventures, onboard and off.
While I sweated over powers of ten in Mrs. Griffith’s class at St. Hugh’s, R.J. climbed into the basket of Dad’s bike and they headed out, hunter-gatherers, to cruise Coconut Grove.
R.J. fisted a couple rocks in case any dogs took offense to Dad’s foraging fruit from their yards. I’d ridden alongside them enough times to know the drill.
Like a beagle in the bed of a pickup, R.J. grinned at the wind, reveling in the bumps and turns when Dad got up to speed.
Dad’s basket filled up with oranges, grapefruit, mangos, a coconut and a sapodilla as they made their way from yard to yard.
On the way home R.J. rode on the bar between the handlebars and the seat. I had dents in my butt from riding on that bar—balancing, holding my breath, begging our destination to appear. R.J., however, only grinned wider.
Dad braked in front of the boxing arena. “Wait right here,” he instructed R.J. as he leaned the bicycle against the building.
R.J. stood on the sidewalk and wiped the sweat off his upper lip with the shoulder of his Mickey Mouse T-shirt and watched Dad greet a large black man who wore tape on his hands.
Dad motioned R.J. over. “Son, this is a famous boxer named George Foreman.”
Foreman smiled, bent over, and shook R.J.’s hand.
R.J.’s boat days were so crammed with exploits that he neglected to tell me about George Foreman until middle age.
Later, Dad and R.J. sailed our dinghy to a cove in Biscayne Bay for Dad to spearfish.
Dad gave R.J. ten minutes to swim with his mask and snorkel and herded him back into the dinghy so he could shoot fish beneath the boat.
Sun baked through Mickey Mouse and the zinc oxide smeared across R.J.’s cheeks. It pinked the unprotected back of his neck, the tender skin of his scalp beneath his white buzz.
Dad tossed a grouper into the dinghy and disappeared again.
R.J. blew out a breath. His eyes caught on the sail. In two minutes flat he ran it up the dinghy’s mast.
The sail caught wind and propelled the boat as far as its anchor tether allowed.
Five-year-old confidence flooded R.J. and he hauled the anchor into the dinghy. He pulled in the sheet line and grabbed the tiller.
Dad came up for a breath. His eyes scanned the cove for the dinghy. Silence ticked across the water as Dad’s brain assimilated R.J. and the boat sailing away.
Dad and R.J. hollered a discussion about whether or not R.J. would be able to control the boat enough to stay close by. Then, Dad pronounced R.J.’s adventure a rite of boyhood.
Me? I was a daughter. I took lessons on Saturday mornings at the Sailing Club. The classes were fun, but fell short of a patriarchal blessing.
For the next hour R.J. tacked and jived all over the cove, learning skills that would stick with him into adulthood and captaining his own thirty-foot sailboat.
I shouldn’t have been surprised R.J. taught himself to sail when he’d taught himself to doggy padddle at three. And he’d arced off the end of the dock on his tricycle, not once, but twice.
Not all R.J.’s adventures turned out so well. He barely stepped foot on his friend Josh’s seventy-five foot cabin cruiser when Josh’s German shepherd bit R.J. in the face. The forty-five stitches on the bridge of his nose, eyelids, and lips healed, but he’d wear the scars for life.
Still, R.J. told me more than once, these were the best years of his life.
Angst didn’t color R.J.’s relationship with Dad like it did mine.
Dad had waited six and a half years for the son he wished for when he got me as a booby prize.
But I couldn’t resent R.J. and his impish grin. And I sure didn’t envy his twenty-four-seven diet of Dad.
R.J.’s boat days may have been idyllic, but he paid more life dues than I did—thanks to our blow-hard stepdad, dyslexia, and his own set of demons. It would take a lot more than forty-five stitches to sew up the rips in his soul.
R.J. wasn’t alone in his appreciation of boat life. The three Canfield kids, and, likely, most of the other dock rats, adored marina life. Kate Canfield says those years were carefree, before the harder issues of life hit her as a teen.
Maybe because I lived my adolescence on a boat, I sponged my parent’s marital tension. My relationship with Dad tasted like gall in the back of my throat I swallowed down with grainy clams, rubbery conch, and a fish bone or two.
When the boat days ended with my parents’ divorce, I shut them behind Get Smart steel doors I’ve only pried open four decades later. Even my husband and kids are hearing the boat stories for the first time.
My cousin, Becky, though raised with a different flavor of the Fetterman dysfunction, recently called my childhood charmed. “Those of us who have never sailed on the ocean, explored ship wrecks, come face to face with sharks and barracudas, or even just searched for sea glass can only imagine it as magical.”
She’s right. It’s taken me a long time, but finally, I’m treasuring the gift my parents gave me—the one my brother always owned—the boat days.