Somehow in those big seas, with the looming white stern of the Coast Guard cutter rising and falling, and the Grief’s humble bow doing the same – but not at the same time (for crewmen on either boat it was like riding a Surrealist mid-ocean teeter-totter) – somehow a line was thrown across and secured to the Grief’s forward cleat.
And, just like that, we were moving forward, toward deeper water, and away from the surf that would have dashed our wooden hull to splinters. (I had thought, selfishly like a 13-year-old, that we could save ourselves no matter what. And I was probably right about that. What I hadn’t fully appreciated was how stricken my father, the captain, could be over the possible loss of his ship.)
In our haste to secure the towline we had neglected our anchor, which had been let out in a last-ditch ploy to keep from running aground. Now we needed to haul it in, and the job fell to me. After hours of passivity, of more-or-less helpless inaction, here was something to do. In a placid sea the work would be strenuous enough pulling up the line and chain, and the heavy galvanized Danforth itself. The additional drag from the elevator swells, plus the forward movement of our slow tow, had the effect of planting me Sumo-like on the foredeck – as if my feet were glued in place.
It was marvelously freeing. I leaned back and hauled, one or two or three overhand grabs in succession, working at the limit of my strength. This made climbing the rope in gym class seem like child’s play.
Spray from the whitecaps salted my arms and face. Strany stowed the retrieved line down through the forward hatch.
I’m pretty sure I clanged the anchor, once I had hauled it out of the water, into the Grief’s hull. It was a minor infraction, given the circumstances, but a bit of bad form I wished I could have avoided. Dad was never harsh about such things; everyone clanged now and then. But he had instilled in me, in all of his kids, a pride in doing things right, doing them precisely. There was a beauty in that, an order that Dad had honed as a young officer candidate at Occidental College. While he was there he led a precision Navy drill team that was so good it won a string of competitions.
Dad had taught each of us how to march and how to salute (“Saluuute – Two!”). It wasn’t like we were martial crazies. It was occasional fun that allowed us to be a team and Dad to bark funny-voiced orders. There’s a photograph somewhere of him raising the flag in our yard on Flag Day or the Fourth of July, and the four of us kids down to little Tommy at something like three years, standing at attention, saluting with fingers and elbows just so.
When we finally made it inside the jetties, the sea and sky were almost drained of color. On a smooth eggplant surface the cutter turned sideways to the coasting Good Grief in preparation to cutting us loose.
In the calm water Dad had started the engine again. The condensation in the fuel tank, or whatever it had been, had settled or separated, or something, and the motor fired up. I’m quite sure the propeller wasn’t engaged though, because we had no steerage and continued to coast along toward the cutter’s starboard side.
And here’s where confusion in memory mirrors what was surely confusion on the two boats. I’m not sure if I was at the helm or up on deck with Dad at the wheel. In either case, the Grief’s rudder had been turned all the way to starboard, but she just kept plowing, slowly, heavily, straight ahead. We rammed the cutter with a shuddering crack. There was nothing anyone onboard the Grief could have done to slow our momentum. (Or maybe there was. Maybe I was at the helm and should have thrown the lever into reverse but didn’t?) In any case, the guardsmen should have been watching out and placed a fender over the side to cushion the blow. But they hadn’t, and it was the final insult in a long day.
Dad was livid, but he couldn’t very well express his anger at the young men who had just saved us from the rocks. (The damage to the Grief’s prow was reparable. The cutter suffered no more than a dent and a smear of black paint.)
More than angry, Dad was disappointed, in the guardsmen for not being more professional, in himself for somehow not foreseeing and forestalling this breech in nautical etiquette. Though I wonder now if the botched uncoupling didn’t somehow mollify Dad’s base embarrassment at having to be rescued.
That gut-level disappointment was the emotion I most feared in my dad. Though I didn’t feel it from him often. It’s one of the few things that would genuinely horrify me to this day: to fail in such a way that I was a disappointment to my father.