Blogger's Note: This is for my friends who don’t know how to read prose and complain about my stuff being too long. This isn’t very long, in fact, for me it’s like telling a joke. After all, Tolstoy is my hero and there are plenty of pictures. Enjoy!
I had several friends who I knew before I started kindergarten and who I stayed friends with well past my college days. One of these guys was Mark. And the thing was, these few guys were like “peripheral” people, not like mainstream people.
None us ever got interested in spectator sports. We were all raised on the Almaden farms. None of us ever pursued wealth, but we were all considered “bright and intelligent” and all of us were goal-driven, if even to extremes.
One of these guys had an idea for a “self correcting” golf putter in the middle of his college career and 40 years later he is still actively refining its design. He has never sold one single unit. I always wanted to be a writer, and I read everything under the sun. I finally self-published my first book just before Christmas of 2011. It takes me a while to get revved up. But our concern here is with Mark, a guy born with a lust for the south seas.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor to bring the U.S. into World War II, and I don’t mean eleven. I read a story in the newspaper the other day about an older fellow who goes round to local elementary and middle schools and tells the kids about his army experiences. He said that two or three kids every week ask him if he was in World War eleven.
Mark’s mom was a Navy nurse at Pearl Harbor. She saw the bombs drop on the battleships and she heard the strafing machine guns. While this was happening in Hawaii, Mark’s father was surveying the islands of Micronesia, in the South Pacific. The American government grabbed all of its nationals all over the Pacific and sent them to Pearl Harbor for their safety. Plus, the government needed lots of talents and skills to implement the war. They had Mark’s dad go back to the South Seas and survey and direct the building of air strips. And thus he met and married the Navy nurse and Mark was born with a lust for the South Seas from the very start.
As we grew up in our very close and closed little community in Almaden Valley, Mark’s parents were the peculiar and nutty couple who were just way too interested in art, progressiveness, intellectualism and, be it known, the South Seas.
Pa nearly always wore a light weight, flimsy, flowered Hawaii shirt about which the farmers, in their khaki or Levi's blue work clothes and the ever present baseball caps, would constantly tease the world traveler. Ma was an opinionated homemaker/artist who was always making reference to Gourmet Magazine, The New Yorker, or National Geographic. Of all of my second sets of parents in the Valley, this was my favorite. Ma was constantly encouraging any of my artistic efforts, unlike my actual Ma, who constantly discouraged such efforts.
When we reached the age of 15 or 16, Mark took all of the money he had saved from “cutting cots” (hand processing of apricots), picking prunes (exactly what it sounds like) and whatever other job we got payed for during harvest and bought the fiberglass hull of a South Seas sailing boat.
We didn’t get anything for plowing the fields, or tending to the irrigation. Those sorts of things were a “privilege” for us kids, we wanted to drive the tractors and pull the plows, so we were allowed to do these things. Why pay the kids to do things they wanted to do and purposely asked to do? Paying them would be dumb when they wanted to do it anyway. The hull was that of a 32-foot-long “Islander” sailboat, with a keel and no deck.
The big, white hull was delivered on a huge 18 wheeler Mack truck towing a monstrous fork lift. The coven of high school boys bustling around the boat on the trailer were just giggling with wide eyes and unbelieving awe. How ridiculous to have this huge, plastic dinosaur in the middle of a prune orchard, next to a ram-shackled shed that was in the slow process of caving in on itself. The hull’s landing place was just outside the ring of shade trees next to this shed. It was held up in a simple cradle of pine planks with its criss-crossing reinforcing supports in such harsh contrast to the smooth lines of the hull.
This vista, from the road in front of the “homestead,” truly was ridiculous. For the span of years that the boat sat on that cradle, for the many times I had helped bond lead in the keel, mate the deck to the hull, mount the mast and stretch its rigging tight, for all that familiarity with the boat, every time I drove past the cluster of trees, the boat's presence would jump out at you and make you take your foot off the gas.
The inconsistency, the improbability of having a fully rigged sail boat in this quaint little valley under the mountains, in a fruit bearing orchard, its vista always broke whatever train of thought you had going on in your head. It always made me smile; what audacity, no, what nativity! When we could, we did whatever we wanted, in our orchards and in our fields.
Obviously, Mark worked on the boat in the orchard for years. The guys and I were always on hand to provide aid whenever Mark needed it but no one took it on as a steady project. It just required too much commitment. Mark had put a deposit on a docking slip at a small boat harbor in Waikiki, which had a five-year waiting list.
His slip became available and Mark sent them a few hundred dollars for a one-year extension. Even that wasn’t enough time. The next year he broke down and had another Mack truck come and lift the boat in the cradle onto its trailer. The sailboat was hauled to Oakland where it was lashed to the deck of a freighter bound for Hawaii. For the first time since its birth, the boat was finally out of the cradle and in the water. It was finally where it belonged.
Periodically, Mark would make “crossings” back to the mainland. He’d “crew” on other sail boats by working as a deck hand. He saw these as educational outings. He got to learn the sailor’s trade as he never could in the orchards.
I don’t remember how many crossings he completed but it was more than a half dozen. However, with each one, he became more and more mundane about his boat’s status. Then he started complaining about it. While the plan was always to live on the boat as he finished it up, the finish never came and he shared an apartment with a series of roommates. Mark had come to hate pulling out the fiber glass strands piercing his skin. He hated the stinky, oily smell of the ever present Volvo marine engine mounted just below the floor boards..
One time he sent me a postcard to share with the boys. The front of the card had a panoramic picture of Honolulu at dusk, with all the city lights turned on. On the back, he wrote, “another shitty day in paradise.” Oops, he was sulking. He hadn’t connected with any beautiful, sun-tanned girls. He hadn’t sailed to the south seas. I don’t remember if the boat ever actually became totally seaworthy while he owned it. And he was way too poor. Nope, that was not a good situation in paradise.
For the past 25 years, Mark has lived in Montana, on a horse ranch. And no, there are no big, white dinosaurs in any of the paddocks. And no one has heard too much of him. But, I remember him bragging about what a good sailor he had become after all those crossings. In fact, he used to brag that he could pilot a boat to the mainland blindfolded. He said: “Head due north for two weeks, then turn right.”