Thursday, September 21, 2006

Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This


Not really. I just like the song.

If you don't mind, we're going to try something different today. The following is a couple of related excerpts from a childhood memoir I've been writing, tentatively titled No Place For a Girl Like Me. It has to do with boats, and a whole lot more. This is my first draft, so be gentle with me.
*****
The summer I turned seven, my father bought a cabin cruiser, a 32 foot Verity Skiff with lapstrake hull, built in Baldwin on Long Island. My parents took a Safety & Navigation course given by the Power Squadron, and my father bought a Captain's hat for himself and a First Mate's hat for my brother. I demanded to have a hat, too, because I sensed the status involved, so he got me a sailor's cap. I knew that cap bestowed no status at all, but it was all I could get. We joined a yacht club and went on long trips to Nantucket, Block Island, Martha's Vineyard, and the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence Seaway.

We were on Lake Champlain in Vermont as the golden dawn broke, anchored on the still water, the smooth surface broken only by small silver fish leaping out of the silvery ripples. I was alone on deck, too excited to sleep, and everywhere I looked was gold and silver, like a fairy tale.

After breakfast, we fished from the deck. My father baited my hook with thick, lumpy bloodworms.

"Fish are sentient beings and we don't want to hurt them," he said.

I didn't know what "sentient" meant but I was glad we didn't have to hurt them. I didn't even want to eat them. I wondered why it was okay to hurt the worms, though.

When I get the hook caught in my lower lip, my father removed it by pushing it slowly backward so it would do the least damage. I knew that my father could fix anything because he always said so, and it was a good, safe feeling. Later I caught three tiny perch, which he strung for me while I posed for a picture. Then we threw them back because they were too small to keep. I hoped he wouldn't notice how small I was.

*****

One day we left our boat slip in Freeport and cruised through the Woodcleft Canal out to sea. It was a beautiful August day and my brother and I were sitting in the fore cockpit with our dog, Patty. Our perch in the bow of the boat had no access to the cabin below; to get there, you had to walk around the catwalk holding onto a rail along the edge of the upper deck, above my reach. The sun sparkled on the waves as we plowed through them, and soon there was no land in any direction.

We cruised through this glorious wonderland for a couple of dreamy hours until suddenly Richie and I heard a loud explosion. Turning, we saw the cabin in flames. My brother, a good swimmer, tossed our dog into the ocean and jumped in after her. I was afraid she'd drown but didn't know what to do about it. I didn't know what to do at all, so I waited. The flames leaped higher into the blue sky. The heat was intense and the air looked wavy. It would have been beautiful if I weren't so scared.

After several minutes, my father eased his way around the catwalk with an adult life jacket in his hand. He tried to drape it around me, but his hands were burned and it fell on his new Sperry Topsiders and bounced into the water.

"Should I jump?" I asked.

"I'm afraid you'll have to," he said.

He seemed apologetic, which I noted because I had never known my father to evince any kind of remorse before.

I held his pinkie for a second and jumped into the cold water. I didn't know how to swim so I paddled as fast as I could to get away from the flames leaping off the boat as it burned down to the waterline. Within minutes, there was almost nothing left of it, just flames and smoke, black wood hull that got smaller so fast it looked as if something was eating it.

The water was freezing and dark.

An hour later, three men in an open fishing boat came along and held a long pole with a hook on the end for me to grab. They pulled me into their boat and wrapped me in a gray blanket. I was shaking violently and burst into tears.

"Why are you crying now?" chided one of the men. "You're safe now."

I stopped crying immediately, gulping and snuffling, ashamed of my Childish-Emotional-Display because I forgot I wasn't allowed to cry. They took me into port, shaking and holding in my tears, and handed me off to a policeman on the dock. My family was nowhere around.

The next thing I remember is visiting my mother in the hospital where she was being treated for third degree burns on both her legs. She was standing above the hatch when it blew up. Her legs were slathered in vaseline and covered with white gauze bandages.

She noticed that I had washed only my face for several days, the part I could see, and all around it my skin was grey and grungy. She asked a nurse for a washcloth and rubbed my neck hard until it was sore while the water dripped down my back.

Many years later, I ponder why my father, an excellent swimmer, didn't put me on his back and keep my mother afloat, too, instead of consigning a seven-year old child to the deep, to literally sink or swim.

I swam.

24 comments:

The Law Fairy said...

Wow!! Great writing!! I hope you'll post more as the book comes along :)

Jonathan America said...

very nice!

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Law Fairy,

THANK YOU!! That's so encouraging. It just seemed time for some first readers, although with excerpts in no particular order, it isn't quite the same thing.

Jonathan,

And thank YOU for your kind words and your first visit.

Michael C said...

Honestly...wow!
I definitely wanted to read more!

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Thanks, Michael.

There will be more, now that I've taken the first difficult step. I've kept my "real" writing separate from my blogging until today, but maybe that isn't necessary.

I really appreciate your encouragement.

Christina_the_wench said...

Girl, you got that writing gift. Please continue to use it to entertain us readers, ok?

Is this fiction or non-fiction btw?

jali said...

I'm glad there will be more - I loved it!

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Christina,

It's non-fiction. I couldn't have invented this. Thanks for readiing it.

Jali,

You're always there for me. I appreciate it. TY.

urban-urchin said...

What an utterly terrifying experience. And beautifully written. Do you have an aversion to boats or the water now?

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Urchin,

Strangely, I don't. I've wondered about this myself. Body surfing in big waves that break on me makes me very nervous, though.

Incidentally, the next year, my father bought another boat and we got caught in a hurricane at night on Block Island Sound. When things looked hopeless, two dolphins appeared in front of us and led us into port at Nantucket.

Thank you for your kind comments!

curmudgeon said...

His way of expressing that you were too small to keep without saying it? :)

Good story though!

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Evidently. Look what happened later. :(

I've been meaning to tell you I love your animation. You must get very tired of bobbing around all the time, blowing smoke.

~Macarena~ said...

It's beautiful, but I find the present tense disconcerting.

Why did your brother leave you?

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Macarena,

I don't think he thought of me.

Thank you for your constructive criticism. I was experimenting with tense, and thought that telling it in the present made for more immediacy. Maybe not. Really, thank you!

Odat said...

Great writing....wow...some memory..got me right in the heart!
Looks like you're still swimming tho...way to go!

Peace!

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Odat,

Some experiences can't be forgotten. Although I've tried repeatedly and can't remember what happened between being taken back to port by the fishermen and seeing my mother in the hospital. Several days must have elapsed because I was sporting a LOT of grime on my little self.

The whole episode was never discussed at home, except for my mother's extensive burns, which healed nicely. I'm kind of haunted by the question of whether they expected to ever see me again. As a parent, it's hard to get my mind around that.

kim said...

how scared you must have been ...and confusing too ...the world is such a scary place when youre a kid ...*hugs*
dont forget to share the rest so i can keep up :)

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Hi Kim,

I've often thought that adults don't always do such a good job, and that somebody else should be in charge.

katrice said...

This is positively fascinating. You never know the adventures real life has brought to people. And it's amazing the things that children survive.

I can't wait for more!

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Katrice,

Thank you! I guess if we're still here, we're all survivors of our own lives in one way or another.

I attribute the fact that I'm here to a very overworked guardian angel. Maybe several of them working as a tag team. I owe them gratitude and some apologies when I get there. And a long vacation.

~Macarena~ said...

I used to resist the past tense, but you said it's a memoir, so it brought me up short. Forced present tense (not that you were doing that) is used to sell documentaries on long-dead people. I don't get that at all. Pretending it's not history isn't going to make history more appealing.

Well, at least your brother liked the dog.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Macarena,

I am not a long-dead person.

I'm trying to tell it from the point of view of the child I was. After a couple hundred pages, I still haven't decided if this works for me, and keep going back and forth between past and present tenses.

My brother was 13 at the time, not an age known for altruism.

d~ said...

After some consideration, I've decided that I agree with macarena about tense.

H, not only do you have the gift of writing powerfully, but with your life experiences, you have stories that NEED to be told. Please tell them.


*slipping in a hug*

heartinsanfrancisco said...

d~,

Thank you so much. I'll probably post the next excerpt in the past tense and see how we like it.

I really need and appreciate criticism because I want my book to be as good as I can make it.

Hugs to you, too.