Although I try to view boat ownership as a recreational activity, it’s undeniably the people they bring you in contact with that provide the majority of your entertainment value. Spend time at a local marina and rest assured, you’ll be exposed to the most interesting individuals an area has to offer.
Old salts believed meeting a mentally unbalanced person while heading toward their ship bespoke a safe, prosperous voyage. It’s a strangely comforting thought to look back on my years as a liveaboard and realize most days afloat my safety was probably guaranteed to the third or fourth power. In support of this I need look back no farther than one sultry afternoon in Ala Wai Yacht Harbor, Hawaii, as I hung bat-like inside the aft storage locker of my last boat, futilely attempting to decipher the previous owner's thirteenth non-standard modification to the electrical system. Feeling someone jump aboard, I glanced up and over my beer gu…ah, liquid grain storage facility, to see what appeared to be an elderly lady wearing a white trash bag (complete with eye and mouth holes) peering down at me.
Now this occurrence was greeted with a great deal of interest on my part. It had taken a good five minutes of careful squirming just to reach my current ungainly position and chances were extracting myself would take at least as long. Who knew what deviltry could be visited on my person in that amount of time? As a few of the more interesting scenarios flashed before me, my unusual visitor nimbly hopped over the open locker and out of sight.
A few moments of spirited wiggling and sacrificed skin placed me on deck, ready to face Trashlady, who even now was heading toward the companionway and skullduggery one could only imagine. She turned and started screaming in Korean, of which I knew just enough to catch the “all men are evil-all men are wicked” part. That's when she began a sort of high pitched wailing, all the while stabbing the bony, outstretched fingers of both hands in my direction, as if trying to throw a mojoe on me.
Now I’ve never been one prone to superstition and such, however I am a sailor and why take unnecessary risk? Feeling it my parental duty to remain unaccursed long enough to keep future heirs from being born with two heads or some similarly induced hoodoo affliction, I of course advanced with a bobbing, weaving motion in efforts to dodge whatever it was she was flinging.
Seeing I knew what she was about, Trashlady backhanded one last curse in my direction and deftly vaulted over the lifelines. Landing amidst an eerie rustle of garbage bags and brown calico stretch pants, she flapped her scrawny arms in a chicken-like fashion and scurried down the dock.
Hmm. Time for a new lock on that gate.
Despite such incidents, the first marina I lived in at Topsail Island, North Carolina stands proof against the idea one has to visit strange lands to see folks acting strangely. It still holds hometown advantage in “most colorful individuals I’ve known” category.
I’ll call them Ted and Frank (mainly because that was their names) and no description, be it written or verbal, can possibly do justice to the experience of having them as neighbors. While living there in the early eighties, these guys were a sure-fire panacea against boredom, no small accomplishment considering how dead the island was during the winter months.
Ted, who was around forty-five or so, was the only person I’ve ever met who could have doubled for Blackbeard without makeup or role training. He was as big and hairy a guy as you could imagine, with a coal black beard so thick and bushy I always thought he looked like one of the ZZ TOP guys who O.D.’ed on steroids and Minoxidil.
Frank was the anti-Ted as far as appearances went. Gray headed and with a short, silver beard, he was so thin that when he turned sideways and stuck out his tongue, he looked like a winch handle.
Despite these outward differences they did have one thing in common, and that one thing was beer. To this day I’ve never seen anyone come close to consuming the amount they did on a regular bases. Weren’t no worries about expirations, or born on dates with those two. I once asked Ted what his favorite brand was, and he replied in a gruff voice “Whichever one I can reach without getting up.”
The only other activities I remember them engaging in were poker and smoking. I never did figure out just how they supported themselves. Ted always complained about the money he lost after backing some scheme to raise baboons for a petting zoo, while Frank claimed he hadn't been able to hold a steady job since fighting UFO's off the Presley Estate.
Some of the less open-minded folks in the marina complained about having them as neighbors, but they sure took care of me. I had a mechanic rebuild the engine for my boat once, and Ted thought his fees weren't above board. Whenever he saw the guy working on my boat, he'd walk over with a rolling gait and plop down on one of the uneven pilings sprouting from the dock. There he'd sit, beer in hand, unbuttoned Aloha shirt flapping in the breeze, scowling. I've always read about people scowling, but Ted was the only person I’ve ever met personally who did it in the manner I’m sure the word was meant to describe.
He’d sit there hours on end, moving only when he needed to requisition a fresh one from the icebox. Every couple of minutes he’d take a sip of beer, scratch what I always assumed was his chin (his beard started right below his eyeballs and was so massive I never could tell with certainty just what he was digging at), lean forward and growl in a loud voice, “How much did ’ja say you’re charging him for that?”
Jake Philips was another individual rating pretty high on the Strange-O-Meter. We met at a Florida marina, the exact name and location of which I'm obliged to withhold for fear of possible legal reprisals concerning an alleged event that may have occurred one night in August of 1987; details to follow.
Jake cut quite an imposing figure, lean and grizzled as he was, and although his crew cut and scruffy beard were peppered silver he could have easily passed for a man 20 years his junior. He had an air of quiet confidence about him and while I admired the strength of his convictions concerning headlines of the day, I also felt it’d probably be a good thing if the number of people sanctioning his theories didn’t exceed the capacity of our nation’s mental institutions at any given time.
He’d retired from the CIA in the late seventies and the only things more sobering than his conspiracy theories were the compelling, logical arguments that invariable accompanied them.
“Smurfs,” he growled one muggy evening, as we took in another beautiful sunset from the deck of his old Chris Craft. “Ever see them things on TV?”
“You mean the cartoon? What about ’em?” I ask warily, mentally reviewing tonight’s topics so far: the grassy knoll, gun running for the Contras, Pol Pot’s Tupperware fetish, and the frightening implications surrounding the fact no one’s ever seen a picture of Michael and Janet Jackson together.
“Biggest damn subversive communist push into American society since Gilligan's Island!”
“Jake, first of all you’re beginning to scare me and secondly, no more rum punch for you.”
“Sure, go ahead and laugh – that’s what Carter did, but the facts are there for them with half a brain and eyes to see. Think about it. Each has a specific job and they follow a guy wearing a RED hat! It’s as communist as Vodka and hairy East German female athletes, comrade.”
And so it went, just another night in paradise. Or so it seemed. Best I recall, Jake was describing the layout of Area 51 when it happened.
“Oh my God, Jake. What on earth is that?!”
“Chills you, don’t it?” he replied through clinched teeth, eyes glaring shoreward. “First night it started I laid up in the forward berth till morning, bathed in sweat. All I could think of were the screams I once heard in a Chilean Death Camp.”
Seems each Tuesday night marina patrons were treated to a weekly trip into the darkest pit of bone-numbing Hell, otherwise billed as Karaoke Night at the Rum Runner Bar and Jake’s slip just happened to be within a hundred feet of the two-story structure.
“They taught us how to take ourselves out when captured, you know… if the pain got unbearable,” he commented after the third, monotone rendition of Born to be Wild.
“She’ll sing that at least two more times tonight. That’s what makes it so brutal. There’s only two or three of 'em that get liquored up enough to actually get up there and sing. Unfortunately it’s the same two or three, and they sing the same songs over and over.”
It was indeed a fate worse than deaf.
"How long does it last?" I asked an hour or so later, glancing hopefully at my watch.
"They're supposed to wrap it up around midnight, but I've seen times where they carried on till two, maybe three in the morning."
More screeching and a strange, gurgling noise as one performer struggled with alcohol and puberty to reach the higher notes of Unchained Melody.
"I'm not a particularly strong man, Jake. Making it to midnight's questionable, but if it goes past that I'll be laying in the quarter berth trying to smother myself."
Jake's eyes gleamed with an unholy light as he leaned forward, placing a worn, canvas bag on the table between us.
"Bought this last year at the marina flea market…knew it was only a matter of time before some like-minded individual with grit in his craw and fire in his blood showed up to help an old man out in his hour of need."
Sliding the bag in my direction he leaned back, a thin, reptilian smile crossing his face. "Take a look inside and tell me what you see."
Fumbling briefly with the knot, I dumped the bag's contents on the table.
"Looks like one of those water balloon sling shots," I replied, picking it up.
"And two jumbo balloons," he continued eagerly, reverently holding them up for my inspection. "I'm thinking a couple of these babies lobbed towards the second deck will have a soothing effect on my nerves. I’ll lash one end to the rail while you hold the other. Repercussions might be a little stiffer than that probation letter I got from the marina for yelling 'YOU STINK!' over my loud hailer after each song, but I'm willing to risk it. You with me?"
I glanced towards the bar, where amidst the vigorous clapping of three people the fourth performance of Born to be Wild was already in progress."Do you think two will be enough?"