Sea Horse

I was sixteen the first time I went to sea. JFK was still in the White House, gasoline was twenty-five cents a gallon, and nobody had heard of Da Nang or My Lai. The world was on the cusp of change but, of course, nobody knew it.

“Michael, I’ve found you a summer job,” my father, the Commander—an appellation he had carried over from his navy days in WWII—announced one night. When I complained that I wasn’t looking for a job, that none of my friends had jobs, he cut short the discussion with, “I’m not their father,” his stock response. “I’m yours, and I’m telling you it’s time you learned to shoulder some responsibilities.”

I made several more attempts to change his mind, but it was hopeless. Once the Commander set his course, no one could change it.

The job was at the Henley Boat Works in Manset, Maine, on Mt. Desert Island, where we had a summer home. The Commander had purchased a sailboat from the owner, Henry Henley, the year before, and I have a strong suspicion my employment there was more like a thank-you note. My duties were simple: be on time and do what was asked of me. I worked on the dock, helping to catch the boats as they approached. I also helped the owners ready their boats for the season. Often I would accompany them on an afternoon sail to make sure everything on board was working. All in all, it wasn’t a bad way to pass the summer, and I earned my first paycheck, which felt good.

The opportunity to go to sea arose shortly before my employment there ended. We, Henley’s son Henry III, whom everyone called Trip, and I were tasked with bringing a sailboat back from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. That meant crossing the Gulf of Maine, placing us out of sight of land—technically offshore—for a significant portion of our journey. That fact, combined with traveling to a foreign country, even if it was only Canada, qualified, in my mind at least, as going to sea.

“It shouldn’t take you more than a couple of days, start to finish,” the senior Henley told us. I couldn’t tell by his expression if the observation was an encouragement or an order. Henry Henley was a typical Yankee—taciturn, stubborn, with a flinty temper that matched his ginger hair. Over the summer I’d seen him dress down more than one worker for some infraction or other. I’d done my best to stay out of his way.

“Trip’s in charge,” he announced. “Don’t dawdle, you understand?” I started to respond when I realized that last order was directed at his son.

“Yes sir,” Trip answered and for a split second, I thought he was going to salute. Instead he adjusted his cap and turned to me.

“I’ll see you at the pier at 0800 hours,” he said. We were taking the Canadian ferry Bluenose, which made the daily round trip between Bar Harbor and Yarmouth. “Don’t be late,” he added and walked away.

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