I had been dating Georgia for a year before she introduced me to her parents. Cora, her mother, was sweet but strong-willed. When you met her husband, Georgia’s father, you understood why strong-willed and charming went together so well. The Cap’n was at best taciturn. Despite having swallowed the anchor and come ashore at the close of the Second World War, he acted as if he was still on the Bridge of his last command. Cora was a sweetness to his taciturnity and strength to match his power. Cora did not cling despite seeming to lean on the Cap’n. There was nothing queer or odd about their relationship once you understood the power dynamics of that family. Life with the Cap’n was always a test of wills.
He was continually dissatisfied with Georgia’s selection of a male associate and did not bother to hide it. I was just the most recent. He pretty much ignored me for as long as possible.
Early on, I learned his signature move. He’d fill his pipe while looking you in the eye, slowly light it, puff it to life while weighing you and finding you wanting; then he’d point the pipe at you and tell you how it was going to be. I imagined that he’d refined this tactic over the years serving on many merchant vessels. The wall above his desk was almost littered with the various Master’s Certificates ( he called them tickets), commendations, and photos of his old ships. Later on, he confided that his first passage had been in a sailing vessel carrying stone to Boston – If I recollect correctly, the stone was for building the tower on the Boston Custom House. He was age nine. Besides schooling, his career was at sea until he swallowed the anchor and came ashore at the end of the war. Then he became a bare-knuckled salesman for a soap company. He prospered.
After the initial contact, he avoided me or ignored my presence. That only changed the evening that Georgia delivered the news that we were engaged. Then a look came into his eyes that foretold a storm. I was once again weighed, measured, and found wanting, but he realized he was stuck with me. He decided I needed completely immersive training in coastal life. Psyche, his thirty-four-foot ketch, was to become the classroom for the essential parts of the tuition: teaching me how to hand, reef, and steer. Despite having served in the Navy and done “Blue Water” time, I was a total noob on a sailboat. He told me at the start that I was Ordinary Seaman material, and the idea was to make me into an AB- an Able Bodied Seaman. An AB could handle sails and ropes, reef sail as needed, and steer by the compass or the wind. Sometimes I just felt as though I had returned to Navy boot camp.
In his eyes, I had a further handicap; my Dad was a marine engineer. Engineroom and Bridge see things differently. On the few occasions that my Dad and the Captain got together, Georgia and I always hoped that they might bond over the shared experience. Never happened. They were formally civil, but not a bit more. To the Cap’n, it was an additional item that I had to overcome.
The Cap’n began to take me around. I acquired a fundamental familiarity for every boatyard and marine goods store in the area. I met ninety percent of the five hundred year-round residents in Town and the surrounding area. I was studying anthropology, so an ethnography of the Town began building in my mind. Georgia was thrilled. Nothing could be better than Wes getting over those silly ideas of being a professor and settling down in coastal Maine in her eyes.
The true love of his life, the thirty-four-foot ketch Psyche, became the focus of my education afloat almost at once. It was not just sailing. I rapidly became the maintenance crew helping to put the masts into the mast steps every spring ( this was called “fishing ” the masts in); I also had the pleasing duties of sanding, scraping, varnishing and painting. I had a bit of basic marlinspike knowledge ( rope splicing and the like), but the Cap’n took fault with my long splices when he found that my Marine engineer dad had taught me. I learned the truth of the old sea aphorism my father taught me: “different ships, different long splices.”
After a few years of this, the marriage faltered, and the relationship came to a slow, grinding halt. But not due to the Cap’n. Wes was not going “home” to live on the coast of Maine. Long festering ideas of how a marriage should operate and many other issues caused a final breakdown. Neither of us could cling to handy fictions any longer. Cora was upset; she wanted us to succeed. The Cap’n filled his pipe and glared.
I had learned to hand, reef, and steer. I had learned a lot about coastal life, and I now write about it. Yet Georgia and I had failed to learn much about marriage. She had been eager to have me bond with the most important man in her life. In error, I had agreed. And done everything I could to make that happen. It seems like most of the marriage had been spent on her father rather than on Georgia and me. In her later marriage, and in my current marriage we both demonstrated that we had learned the lesson.