Water Under the Bridge

When I was 6, I snuck into my parents’ bedroom early one morning armed with a trumpet. Stifling a huge grin so that I could get the mouthpiece working, I lifted the bell of the horn inches from the head of my peacefully snoring father and blew a loud wavering note that would have done damage at Jericho. He not only awoke, shouting, but vaulted off the opposite side of the bed taking my mother with him. The whole Cuban missile crises thing had made the atmosphere a little tense.

It was with that same suddenness that it occurred to me a couple of Fridays back, as I was sailing around the San Francisco Bay with my co-workers, that I had never attended a Stanford graduation, a thought not as random as it may first appear. And before my US history and music professors can shout, “I told you so!” I hasten to add that I completed all the course work; I just didn’t get to the ceremony.

Love. Adventure. Sappy dialogue. High seas drama.  An emotional Armageddon which I had been sure would haunt me every day for the rest of my life. Much of which I had completely forgotten.

My momentous summer of discontent had been sleeping soundly for decades and had even slumbered peacefully through a week’s worth of calls to fellow Stanford grads pitching our 30th reunion (“Ed who?”).  But as the skipper of our 51 foot ketch asked our team if we would rather scoot out under the Golden Gate for a bit, or head down toward Alcatraz, it awoke. Knowing the water under the bridge could be a bit dicey, I pointed toward Alcatraz.

At the root of it all, of course, was a girl. My senior year, I was smitten –waist deep in love with a mesmerizing junior who loved me almost as much as the guy she would eventually marry. My obsession with her was to good judgment what fog, a moonless night, and an Epileptic seizure is to navigating with a sextant.  On the morning of graduation, while all my classmates were slipping into caps and gowns, contemplating their soon-to-be roles as healers, financial movers and shakers, technology innovators, and inspirational political leaders, I was climbing into foul weather gear getting ready to sail a 39-foot sailboat on the San Francisco-Kauai race, thinking only of the girl.

My mother was crying. She had been beaming after mistakenly identifying a meticulously prepared 62’ ketch for my boat. She realized her mistake when she saw the crew of the boat next to it start to wave me over. It was ½ the size of the immaculate ketch, crates of oranges on the deck, bags of food yet to be stowed, a guy hoisted in the rigging, swearing, making a last minute repair.  My father asked where the closest pay phone was so he could quickly call and double my insurance policy. He was also making references to wanting a refund for missing a graduation he had paid a lot of good money (4 years tuition) to see.

For my part, all I really remember was sitting at the bow of the boat on a pile of sail bags, mistakenly thinking I was alone with my heartthrob, waxing poetically why we should be together until the end of time, or at least through August.  Mercifully, my mind has blocked out the majority of what I said. However, there was one point in the conversation when I responded to her insistence that she did love me (though she was heading off to live with another guy for the summer or until the end of time) by handing her a plane ticket and asking her to meet up with me in Kauai. “The proof is in the pudding.” I still get mild abdominal pains at the thought that I actually said that. With lines like that, even I would leave me.

It took me several nights of pudding desserts to realize that a number of the crew had been listening to the entire conversation I had had with her on the foredeck.  To everyone on board, she became known as “Pudding”, and I was subject to several reenactments of some of the more impassioned high points from my conversation with her, as well as a few choice recitations from Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Water, water, everywhere,/And all the boards did shrink;/Pudding, Pudding, everywhere,/Nor any drop to drink), and  Moby Dick (“…and Pudding still beckons” and many a chorus of “thar she blows” as they pointed toward the mainland).

My strategy had seemed sound. A dramatic and abrupt exit to sea, and she would shout from the dock for me to stay, or through tear streaked eyes would promise to be waiting for me on the islands. As I climbed into my berth that first night, remembering her big smile and tearless shout to “HAVE FUN!” I started to feel a poignant kinship to the engineer who had labeled the Titanic “unsinkable.” Pudding was no doubt with her great white whale, warm and stationary.  I was soaked, cold, and wedged into a pipe berth bobbing around the Pacific Ocean in 12 foot seas and 25 knot winds, destined to spend 14 + days with seven other guys in a living area the size of minivan.

Racing to Kauai June 1980

As a general rule at sea, and not a bad one for life, refrain from uttering or thinking the phrase, “well, at least it couldn’t get any worse.” Don’t tempt fate, even if you are heading feet first into a running wood chipper.  Worse is always an option – accentuate the positive. I fell asleep that first night with that “it couldn’t get any worse” notion and awoke a projectile.

Having shivered myself to sleep, slumbering fitfully in a down bag that was functioning as a giant blue sponge,  I was trumpeted awake with a chorus of shouts from on deck of “LOOK OUT!,” followed by the  formidable boom of a rogue wave against the side of the hull. The force of the wave, combined with the sudden repositioning of my bunk from windward side to the ceiling, shot me from my berth and catapulted me across the cabin.

I was completely airborne, giving new meaning to the concept of head over heels in love. My elbow struck the mast midflight, hyper extending it, before I landed squarely on another crew member in the opposite bunk. An impressive stream of ocean was pouring into the main cabin, and the boat pulsed loudly as the boom and sails bounced along the water. A few seconds later, the boat lurched back, sending me hard onto the floor under a cascade of water, another crew member, and random stuff that had shaken free.

Open overhead bunks carefully in that people and objects may have shifted during flight.

The whole event came and went in under 10 seconds, though when you  bolt awake in pure abject terror, Einstein has proven that seconds actually move in increments of approximately 7 ½  minutes. And then we were rocketing along again in the darkness. The guys on deck were hooting, hollering, and laughing, a reaction which had less to do with the fun of it than it did with 1) the surplus of adrenaline combined with 2) the general surprise and elation that there were still eight of us, and that we weren’t in the water arguing about who should have detached and inflated the emergency raft before the boat sank.

In the red glow of the cabin’s night lights, my pal George was looking me over. I was sitting cheek deep in saltwater dressed only in a pair of boxers, my right elbow quickly becoming the size of Kennebunkport, with a fork embedded about a half inch into the right side of my left foot.

And I was still thinking about the girl.

Small fiberglass boats in heavy weather make a lot of noise – wind in the rigging, lines and blocks rattling, water pounding and gurgling everywhere.   So when George extracted the fork and then leaned forward to speak to me, he wasn’t exactly the embodiment of what I would call soft spoken empathy and support.  He spoke loudly, as if one of us was hard of hearing.

“Hey,” and he pointed the fork toward the mainland. “There are no lights on over there, and I guarantee you she isn’t sleeping. “ He handed me the fork and smiled. He capped off his brief pep talk with some sagely wisdom I found hard to absorb at that particular moment.

“Trust me. You’re going to have worse days…. so enjoy this one.”  He helped me up, handed me a towel (a dry one, which I still can’t figure), and I sloshed back into my sponge. I lay gingerly on my left side, dumbstruck and clinging to the fork, which I planned to stab him with the next time I pin-balled across the cabin.

Graduated. Painfully obsessed with another man’s pudding.  Forked. Sailing away from the cocoon of college and into the “real world” armed with a long term strategy that was short on “long” and shorter on “strategy,” which at that point consisted of the single adage, “don’t fall off the boat.”

It was quite a ride – the girl, the sail to Kauai, that whole summer. I would have to say unforgettable now that I remember it, and ultimately good. I scrambled across and out of that summer more awake than my father had been when he had careened across his bed following my stunt with his horn. And just as he had stifled his instinct to strangle me (relieved that Russians hadn’t overrun the house brandishing trumpets and nuclear warheads), I eventually stifled my natural instinct to wallow, encouraged primarily by all of my close friends and several strangers who were either going to kill me or themselves if I didn’t stop mentioning her.

Hard to believe all that was way back in 1980. But as that first trickle of bay water snuck under the collar of my jacket, and the swells that were drifting in through the Gate began to nudge us, it all came flooding back.

Seems like it was only 29 years ago.

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About Ed Manning

Father. Husband. Writer. Songwriter. Pianist (careful how you say that). Market research, Technology Biz Dev and Sales. Aspiring (aspirating) Triathlete.