Over the years, I’ve found something strange about myself. I may sometimes become nervous or fretful about future events, such as the ordering of steps to complete a project under deadline, or the progress of negotiations on a contract whose terms might eventually end up in court. A lot of this agitation has to do with the clock that’s continually running inside my head and my attempts to keep things functioning smoothly. Sometimes, also, I succumb to existential fears: the things unseen in the darkness but felt in the imagination that can spook anybody.
But from years of riding a motorcycle, I’ve noticed that my fear of actual and immediately present dangers seems to be muted—if not entirely absent. Looking back, I attribute this to an event that happened in 1954, when I was just six years old. I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating in terms of personal fear.1
My father loved boats and boating. From the early 1950s, he was a member of the Power Squadron, which was an organization of small boat owners to teach seamanship and good boat handling practices. We lived on Long Island, just northeast of New York City, and he bought a twenty-six-foot cabin cruiser. It was built by Steelcraft and thus was unusual for having a steel hull instead of marine plywood or, more recently, fiberglass. The design was originally for a boatyard launch, because the hull was so small, but various entrepreneurs had fitted them out with cabins in the same way that the people these days convert delivery vans into rolling living rooms. Because of the hull material, my father named the boat Rusty. And that was apt because, although the steel was painted, it still bubbled up with blisters of rust in the salt water of the Sound. Every spring he and my mother would spend a couple of weekends chipping the hull and bilges and repainting them while my brother, who was just eight years old, and I played in the sand nearby and occasionally tried to help out.
My family kept the boat at an anchorage on Manhasset Bay, and every weekend during the summer when the weather was clear we would take it up the Sound. We only went an hour or two, east to Lloyd’s Neck or Eaton’s Neck along the north shore of Long Island. There we would anchor in the cove, picnic on the beach, dig for clams at low tide, and sleep over Saturday night. It was our version of having a cabin on the lake.
In the summer of 1954, my father planned an extended trip to coincide with his two-week vacation. He would take our family in the boat around New York City to the Hudson River, up to Albany, through the Champlain Canal and the Federal Locks, and into Lake Champlain itself on the New York–Vermont border. He figured he could make it as far as Burlington, Vermont, at the center of the long lake, in the first week and return in the second week.
It was an idyllic trip. I remember long days on the river and canal, seeing West Point and Storm King Mountain, the paper mills around Albany and the pulpwood barges coming down from the plantations in Quebec to feed them, and Schuylerville—which I only learned later was the site of the Battle of Saratoga in the American Revolution. My father, who had grown up in the Hudson Valley, played tour guide during the day, and my brother and I scrambled around the marinas where we tied up in the evening.
The turning point, both literally and figuratively, came in Burlington. On the morning we were supposed to begin the return trip to New York City, the people at the dock warned my father that a storm was coming and this was no day to be out on the lake. My father was a good sailor, and he listened to the weather reports, too. But he also had a schedule to keep. And the sun was shining that morning when we cast off and headed south.
By late morning, the clouds had rolled in and the waves started to build up. What we didn’t understand but discovered later was that hurricane Carol, which was churning up the East Coast and aiming for Boston,2 had calved a secondary storm, not quite a hurricane but with high winds, that had gone up the Hudson Valley. We got caught in that storm.
Lake Champlain is not very deep, averaging sixty-four feet—although some spots go down four hundred feet. A relatively shallow lake can kick up some real waves in high winds. And, of course, we had the winds themselves to deal with and the sheets of rain that came with them. Champlain is also a relatively narrow lake, averaging about fourteen miles across, so my father didn’t have a lot of leeway—which is a nautical term for how much you can let yourself drift downwind before running aground—in which to maneuver.
I was standing in the main cabin with my butt and shoulders pressed against the door that led out to the back deck. My father was at the lower helm—he also had a steering position on a flying bridge mounted on the cabintop, but that was no place to be right then. My mother was helping him by turning the hand-operated windshield wiper—a relic from early automotive days—and wiping condensation from the inside of the glass. Both of them were too busy to bother about me.
The wind was coming from astern, and the door at my back was banging and rattling until it seemed about to blow in. I imagined a furious imp stood outside, pounding on it. When I looked through the window, though, I couldn’t see anything except the bare deck, with a little toy sailboat of ours that had been pushed into the scupper, and the waves piling up on either side of the boat. If the Rusty had a freeboard of about three feet, waterline to rail, then those waves must have been ten or twelve feet tall, and maybe more. They certainly towered above the boat to my inexperienced eye.
Inside the cabin, everything was chaos. My mother and father were fully occupied keeping the boat on course and hitting the waves at the right angles. So they had no time for anything or anyone else. The coffee pot with some of the cold morning coffee slid across the high dinette table and crashed into the chart bin next to me. Some of those charts carried brown spots and streaks for years afterward. The portable radio, which was our main source of news and weather, flew after it and shattered on the steel bulkhead. I watched all this and could do nothing, because I was fighting that imp.
We were kept in the storm—but off the shore, and didn’t sink—until late afternoon. Then my father could round the point of Fort Ticonderoga, which sheltered us from the winds. My mother went out through the bow hatch—which meant she was standing on the closed lid of the head, or toilet—to unclip the anchor, let it go, and pay out line while my father handled the engine throttle to put the boat in reverse and drag the anchor along the bottom until it could catch.
When we were safely anchored, my mother came back into the lower cabin. Even though she was wearing hooded rain gear, the wind had driven the rain into her face and hair and down her collar. At the same time, my father brought me forward and told her, “This little fellow needs some dry clothes.” My mother shrieked, “He needs dry clothes?” because the fronts of my shirt and shorts were bone dry. Then my dad turned me around, and I was as soaked as she was from rain that had blown in around the edges of the door.
And my brother? He slept through the whole experience in the lower bunk and only came awake when an onion from the galley rolled up against his nose. Or that’s what he always said. Not until forty years later did he confess that he was awake the whole time and terrified.
My parents spent the rest of the evening cleaning up the cabin, watching their bearings to see if the anchor was holding or had torn loose, and trying to nurse the shattered radio—luckily none of the tubes had broken, only the plastic case—to give them a weather report. By about seven o’clock the storm had abated enough that we could cross the narrow stretch of water to a town on the east side of the lake and get some dinner at a rustic local restaurant.
That day on Lake Champlain the entire Thomas family, parents and children, might have disappeared without leaving a bit of wreckage on the face of the water. We might have departed Burlington in the morning and never reached land, and no one would know. So it was a miracle—or good seamanship on my father’s part in dire straits—that saved us. But those five or six hours at the cabin door, fighting the imp and watching the waves roll past, high above my head, changed me forever.
At the age of six, I learned that you could think you were going to die, and you wouldn’t. You could hold out at your self-assigned station, bracing that door, fighting that imp, for longer than you thought you ever could. You could do this because it was your job, your part to play, your place in the family. And there would be no point in giving in to fear, because at the moment of crisis everyone else is busy and no one is going to turn around and take care of you.
That’s a tough thing for a child to learn, but I thank whatever gods may be that I learned it young.
1. See the third footnote to Son of a Mechanical Engineer from March 31, 2013.
2. Hurricane Carol was famous for blowing down the steeple of Old North Church in Boston. The original steeple—this one was a replacement—was the site of the lanterns signaling “one if by land, two if by sea” in the ride of Paul Revere. History is everywhere in the East—and everywhere else, I guess.