I was in the Cub Scouts for a very short time, but I soon acquired my own personal bully, so that was over quickly. A bit older, I considered Boy Scouts, but all of the Troops near us were sponsored by Catholic churches, which my very Lutheran Mom was not happy with. Maybe she feared I’d come home believing in transubstantiation? The Boy Scouts didn’t really appeal to me much anyway; I had already become one of those “not much of a joiner” types.
My only company was a little Sears AM transistor radio.
In 1971, when I was fifteen, some friends of mine signed onto the Sea Explorers. Explorers was Scouting’s program for kids between fourteen and twenty. This post (“Ship 2”) was also sponsored by a local parish, but by then Mom figured that I was old enough not to be tempted to the priesthood, so she no longer feared for my immortal soul, at least as far as Scouting was concerned. I’d have fought her if she had, because…boats!
It didn’t take me long to realize that the two adults in Ship 2, “George” the captain and “Joe” the First Mate, were mainly in it to have a boat that they could play with and drink on without the considerable expense of boat ownership. The mucky bottoms of the polluted waterways between our dock on Newark Bay and Tottenville, Staten Island are likely still littered with the beer cans that George and Joe used to fill with water (after finishing the beer, of course) and toss over the side with the cry of “DEPTH CHARGE!”
They avoided as well all of the work of maintaining a boat; they had us kids for that! Even the yacht club got in on the deal, using us as labor in return for donating us a slip so shallow that they couldn’t rent it to a paying customer.
But, I am not complaining. I had a great time on Ship 2, although I only lasted a year or so. We cruised local waters, had a big old steel rowboat we dubbed “The Iron Monster” that nearly drowned several of us in Newark Bay one very windy afternoon, and learned to drink beer. I even picked up some small boat handling and navigational skills. And I learned that I really love boats.
My time as a sailor is mainly a blur; I only remember the precise year because one of my favorite songs, “Maggie May,” was all over the radio that summer. Just two incidents stand out in my mind. One was the time some shipmates had a girl aboard who was as horny and willing to, um, explore, as they were and they didn’t invite me. The other was when we gathered with other local Ships, and terrestrial Troops, for a region-wide Scout gathering.
This was held at MOTBY, which was the Military Ocean Terminal Bayonne. MOTBY was one of the US military’s largest shipping facilities. We Bayonnites always knew when some hot-spot in the world was getting hotter by the increase in train traffic into MOTBY; I recall seeing trains hauling tanks (which are hard to disguise) into MOTBY for several weeks before the 1973 Arab-Israeli war officially broke out. MOTBY was closed in 1999. It is now, among other things, a home port for cruise ships.
But in 1971, MOTBY was still in full operation. Most of it was off-limits to us, but we did get a large field for pitching tents, and a dock for the boat-borne Scouts. Lucky us, we got to sleep on Ship 2.
Boats can quietly sink. Boats can quickly burn. It is always a good idea to keep a watch on board a boat of any size if people are sleeping below decks. I drew the next-to-last watch of the night. The evening had brought wind, unseasonable cold and drizzling rain, but I had not yet learned to prepare for any weather while on the water. I had only a thin jacket over a T-shirt.
Shivering and miserable, I stood my watch on the dock because pacing the wooden deck of Ship 2 would wake everyone up. As I walked back and forth, I could hear the water lapping at the creosoted pilings, the occasional snore of a sleeping scout, and the foghorns in the harbor; the basso profundo of freighters, the bright tenor of tugs, the piping falsetto of private boats. From there you can see New York City, Brooklyn and Staten Island. I could see the Statue of Liberty just to the north, and the spectacular skyline of Manhattan, four miles away across the harbor. The lights of the city glimmered over the rippled black waters as I kept my watch on the Jersey side. In the cold and wet, it seemed that everyone in the world but me was asleep, warm and dry in a bed or a sleeping bag, dreaming sweet dreams as I paced back and forth in the rain on that MOTBY dock.
My only company was a little Sears AM transistor radio. The batteries were nearly dead, so I had to hold it to my ear to hear the music and familiar DJ patter. A song came on I had never heard before, a new release by one of my favorite singers.
I have listened to this song literally hundreds of times over the years since. It still sits warm and beloved in my heart, ever since that wet, lonely night when James Taylor reassured me that, despite how cold people can be, I still had a friend.
A hyper-annuated wannabee scientist with a lovely wife and a mountain biking problem.