This post is in the theme “My Aquatic Childhood and my Father the Pirate”. Read the first.
May 28, San Diego: When I was three my parents sold the house, sold the cars, and bought a sailboat. They were burnt-out, unhappy, and they needed a break. The idea was to take something along the lines of a ‘six month vacation’ and go cruising. Cruising, in this sense, means living on a boat and slowly making your way from anchorage to anchorage. We lived in a marina in Louisiana for a few months while they built up the courage to leave it all behind and then, one day, we cast off. And me, I was just a the tiniest little thing, in a series of oversized life-preservers, tethered to the compass in the center of the cockpit and perpetually slathered with suntan oil. My grandparents were terrified.
We lived on that boat, the “Mimi”, for about six years. We spent at least two of those years just cruising: down the Florida coast and through the Keys, then across to the Bahamas where we spent six months island-hopping. We made cruising buddies, we snorkeled for conch that we prepared and ate fresh, they trained me to climb trees and knock down coconuts that we’d break into for the juice. One time I convinced my dad to buy a whole bushel of bananas over his objections and we ate nothing that didn’t include bananas for a full two weeks.
As an only child on a sailboat you have one true nemesis: boredom. (Also, falling over the side and drowning, but I had a million life preservers to protect against that.) Boredom is always there, always lurking. The adults have saved up their money for this, for a life in which they have nothing to do. But for you— it is a watery prison. From Louisiana to the Florida Keys I was accompanied by a small television that ran off our on-board electrical power. I’m sure my Dad hated that I was sitting there draining the batteries, but at least I wasn’t bored. This was the time in my life in which I really watched a lot of He-Man. That’s what most kids my age were doing! Anytime they weren’t running around the yard (I would have drowned in our yard, so it wasn’t an option) other kids were plopped down in front of the boob tube basking in the nuturing glow of animated entertainment.
Then the TV died. It died once and we brought it to get repaired. That involved loading it into a dinghy, ferrying it across a busy anchorage, lifting it up to a dock, walking to hail a taxi, and then trekking it to a TV repair shop. A week later we reversed the trip. And it was in the dinghy, ferrying it across the busy anchorage, that we encountered a passing cruise ship with a wake so large it swamped the dinghy and there I was staring at a television sitting in six inches of seawater. I started to cry. The TV repair shop laughed at us when we brought it back. And that was the end of the TV.
Boredom began to win at this point.
We sailed from Marathon across the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas where we sailed from island to island, lazily exploring drifters. And while there was much to see, the pace was slow and I found myself trying to pass the time with books. Books! We had a couple of versions of “Clifford the Big Red Dog”". I wore those puppies out, natch.
I forget what island it was on, but along the way we met a pair of English schoolteachers. They kept a house on this little island with a single school in which they taught students of all ages. They invited me to read “Clifford the Big Red Dog” aloud to the class, all very impressed with tiny four year old me and my endless head of curls. Knowing I was a reader, and probably suspecting that I was slowly dying of boredom, the schoolteachers gave me a parting gift. A book of their son’s, who was away at boarding school: The Hardy Boys Arctic Patrol Mystery. An absolutely random single selection out of the 52 hardcover books by Franklin W. Dixon (to say nothing of the hundreds of paperbacks that followed).
This book was, to be generous, well outside of my reading ability. But in this boredom became my ally, my greatest strength. And I struggled through that book. Many times over. Reading it aloud to myself in the cockpit, asking my mom what words meant, then slowly starting to read it silently.
In the years that followed I read every Hardy Boys book I could get my hands on. I owned the full 52 book hardcover set. I would devour them if found at the library. The formula was simple— twenty chapters all the same (in eighteen they’re always kidnapped!)— so simple that I even tried to write one, by hand. It included a young boat-dweller named Andrew who was a friend of Chet Morton’s, and I believe it was about snorkeling for sunken treasure. I also only ever wrote the first and last chapters and left Franklin W. Dixon a note to fill in the middle.
It is thanks to these little books that I love to read and to write. There was no great joy re-reading this one, no spectacular turns of phrase or unlocking of hidden memory lockboxes. Just some worn-out and cliched prose in a pattern I knew by heart. But I have that book to thank for so much— for teaching me new words, for opening up a world of learning outside the television, and for helping me to defeat boredom on the high seas.
You too can buy a Hardy Boys book from some used bookstore in Pennsylvania and have it sent to you through the Amazon-matrix.