Life at Sea: Storms on the Atlantic
One ~ Cast Upon Strange Shores
He had no
memory of his mother's womb, so he had to rely on family stories
about his birth. Sometimes his mother said she almost died when
he was born, and that he was saved by a doctor with quick hands
and metal forceps, while his father mainly remembered having to
make his own dinners for a week while she was in hospital.
to the medical records, he would listen while they described whatever
aspect of his birth they found the most useful at the moment,
depending on what they were asking him to do. That meant he heard
the stories out of order, and the versions contained information
that was obscure, mundane, or anatomically suspect. The details
surrounding his birth were scattered wood from a wreck, a sandy
shore littered with a story impossible to reassemble.
have snapped your neck when you were born," his mother said more
than once, accompanying the statement with a playful hand on the
back of his neck and friendly squeeze. His father would talk about
his nascent mastery of golf, and how he was about to move from
simple putts to long shots above the entire green, but that had
been interrupted by the late arrival of a baby when they'd already
given up waiting.
itself was difficult by all reports, but he was nearly sixteen
when his father confessed that Sam owed his existence to chance.
Although his father had momentarily returned to smoking, and the
basement was redolent with cigarettes and the whiskey he spilled
on the workbench, he was coherent enough to relate a story that
was as improbable as it was evocative. The amniotic sac was a
tangled mess of cords and appendages, according to his slurred
story, and his mother had laboured well into her second day before
a doctor came to work on Monday morning.
was made abruptly, and according to his parents, without consulting
them. His twin was unraveled so that he would have room in the
birth canal. At the time he felt-in his teenage way-that such
a birth explained why a part of him had always been missing, but
as he grew older he wondered why his father would invent such
tale hovered over and interrupted the earlier version, as though
his twin had come to life with the telling and was now albatrossed
around his neck. When he recreated the moment in his mind, he
thought of both versions as true. He was born after twelve hours'
labour to loving parents attentive to his every need, and he was
the result of an early fratricide. Although he couldn't be blamed
for his action, he'd wrestled away his brother's life.
had her own story. She talked about the eagerly awaited child,
the room that had already been painted, and how she had proudly
shown him around to the neighbours once she could bring him home.
He'd been sickly, she admitted that, but she blamed his father's
parsimony. His father fancied he could trim more money off the
oil bill every year, so he kept the house cold. By the time Sam
was four his mother had taken over control of the heat; that meant
that for the longest time Sam thought he was raised in the tropics
of his bookish youth.
He knew nothing
of his puling days, in which he crawled on the floor and put dirt
in his mouth, and his parents were silent about those desperate
times. His mother told him that his father had been let go from
the warehouse and was seeking other work, and the stress of a
newborn weighed on him. His father said that a real man wasn't
involved in childrearing and he'd spent his time in the pub. Reliant
on such sparse memories, Sam used television to supplement his
He'd had a
stuffed cat. He remembered a vision from a high window he presumed
was a hospital, and he had a scar on his arm because he'd rolled
down a flight of stairs when he was left unattended. How a solid
infancy could be constructed from such fragments he didn't know,
but for all his effort to make his childhood become clear, he
was left with just pieces of things.
He saw his
own hand reach into a tidal pool for a hermit crab, and he either
remembered or was told that he had tottered up to a complete stranger
and told her he needed to pee. Television was a land of dreams,
although those mostly had to do with Sesame Street puppets, and
school work limited to his mother teaching him to write his name
before he went to school.
He had only
the vaguest recollection of his first days in school, the long
line of yellow buses and the impossibility of finding his own.
He remembered listening intently to instructions, determined to
follow them to the letter so that he might be able to get back
home. Although he didn't realize it at the time, he was arbitrarily
moved from class to class so that his teachers might balance out
their load, a pawn in a mathematical game before he could even
count. Although they'd told him he'd been given a rare opportunity
to compare classrooms, he merely remembered new faces-by turns
open and friendly and scowling and evil-that had to be negotiated
in the first few days until he was moved again.
the new kid in the class meant that he became friends with children
who either had recently arrived or were about to leave, the rejects
of the kid world. One boy, Jerry Eagle, was his friend for nearly
a month. They met in the corner of the playground closest to the
side of the school with no windows. It was out of sight of the
teachers who monitored the monkey bars, who were competing for
falling children. Everyone wanted to be the teacher who saved
the child. Then they would be allowed inside and they could both
get warm. Jerry was lonely too, and they both avoided Jim, who
was always fighting and whose fists were honed by use into sharp
knives. Another boy came with Jerry, but in Sam's mind they was
just the two of them, and when his father told him the story about
his twin, for some reason he imagined Jerry.
friends because they had no one else, but also because they each
were a line thrown into the whirlpool of primary school. When
a man living beside the school went berserk because someone had
thrown a rock into his back yard, Jerry stood by Sam and denied
they were involved. Sam had thought of the rock as unnecessary
ballast, and he never really considered what was on the other
side of the fence, but somehow-perhaps because he was always moving-Jerry
saw a few seconds into the future. For Sam, that future contained
Jerry, and he would speak of their high school years as if the
trades couldn't help but blow them both in that direction.
thought later, that growing attachment was what had driven Jerry
away, for he wasn't in school on the following Monday, nor the
rest of the week, and when he asked his teacher they said his
family had moved away. Sam went back to avoiding Jim on his own,
and although he struck up other friendships-like when he let Walter
throw his cereal box toy onto the roof-he was careful to keep
In his various
classrooms he sat apart, as though the space between him and the
other children was decided by some value beyond mere metres. The
distance suited him, and he learned how to placate his teachers
more quickly than the other students. He'd had enough experience
by grade three to know the teachers needed to believe they were
the smartest in the room, and although he was a decade away from
realizing why they needed such affirmation, he was adept at pretending.
He would parrot their answers back to them, give them exactly
what they wanted on the tests, and like the other students they
liked, they would give him extra work to do for extra credit.
He would lose a few minutes that he would have wasted anyway,
but his marks in general went up even if his performance didn't.
He began to see the entire enterprise as a game, and he was learning
to mimic the rules even as he refused to play by them.
other students who had figured out the system, but they didn't
accept him. His parents were a shade too working class, or didn't
bow before the pulpit enough to meet their stringent criteria.
They never made their implicit judgement overt, but it became
apparent when he was asked to join their groups for an assignment.
They would assign him an exercise and then take the credit for
themselves. He hadn't learned yet how to deal with his peers,
and just when he thought the teacher kids like John and Christina
were about to accept him, he found out his parents were moving
In his mind
he was following Jerry, but emotionally he felt as though he were
instead diffusing, as though his selfhood was flaking off and
disintegrating. If he'd heard his father's unbelievable story
about his twin at the time, he would have thought he was following
him into oblivion. The differences between the city and the town
he'd come from were clear at first. He saw women downtown in skirts
that his father looked at and then quickly away, and he noticed
his mother pursing her lips. They began to attend a catholic church
and outside on Sunday he passed by a few panhandlers with their
hands out. The bustle of traffic, the tall buildings downtown
and the shows at the theater where his parents made him sit on
his hands and be quiet, paled beside the orgy of evidence that
the city was different than anything he'd ever experienced.
When he went
to school, the differences became more apparent. The kids had
an edge to them, and some of them were more brutal and cruel than
Jim had ever been, with his playful punches in the hallway. More
than one kid returned to class beaten and bloodied and the teachers
averted their eyes. He began to look for tendrils of influence,
the car dealer's kid with the short hair and Jesus talk who smoked
by the birch trees and tried to get girls to go with him into
the woods. Somehow his depredations were ignored, while Len-his
new school's version of Jim-was strapped publically and humiliated
by everyone from the principal on down. He watched with a line
of other kids, on their way to the cafeteria, as the French teacher
pounded Len's head into the wall, shaking him back and forth while
she berated him for not listening. He wanted to be someone who
would stand up to her, who would put his own life on the line
like Jerry had for him, but he looked on with the others, and
when he got to the cafeteria he ate with the rest.
dismay got him through grade four and five, but he began to wake
early from dreams about running or falling when he thought about
entering junior high. He needed a new strategy. The teachers were
busy catering to those kids with connections, and his parents
were new in town and his mother worked in a shoe store, his father
in insurance. He couldn't curry favour by being the good kid,
for weaker students resented the nerds, as they called them. He
entered his first day of junior high with a few hundred other
kids from around the city, their walk belligerent with first impressions
or timid with camouflage. He tried to run some middle line, pretending
that his father hadn't just dropped him off with the other parents,
and that he was somehow indifferent to the sneers that were sent
in his general direction.
In the end,
the strategy came to him, for the school had organized a library
tour for all the grade sixes, and although it was a thinly-veiled
way for the teachers to postpone teaching for another few hours,
Sam was entranced. He went back at lunch, and the kindly librarian,
Karen, welcomed him as he tentatively entered the door.
"You can sit
over here," she told him, beckoning to a few chairs clustered
around a low table, as if it were an imitation of a dentist office.
He went through
the bookshelves, going first to the magazines meant for kids,
and then-growing in confidence about his interests if not how
he fit into the school-he began to read. The books were adventures
at first, silver boxes found in oak trees after a storm which
uncovered deadly plots, diamond-etched notes on windows which
revealed hidden passages in old houses, hermits alone in the woods
who recited Greek poetry and raised cats, but the adventuring
soon turned to the sea. The more he read the more he realized
he was born to breathe salt air and to walk a wooden deck. Far
from the tumultuous classes where teachers ignored some behaviour
and punished others, where Tom's jackknife was merely for whittling
while Sherry was sent home for cutting paper with scissors, Sam
began to dream about going to sea.
of the seafaring life was limited to what he'd read in books,
however, and if he were older, or perhaps more honest, he would
have admitted that his tastes ran more to boyhood adventures rather
than factual accounts. He devoured the Hornblower series and Treasure
Island, held his breath through Skin Diver and Lost
on an Island, but he plodded miserably through Robinson
Crusoe and Moby Dick. He only read Melville's classic
because it promised a devouring whale, and he found the nautical
language verbose and tedious.
When the family
moved back to Nova Scotia, they went to Lunenburg, which he only
knew from aspirin commercials on the television. There he felt
the wind off the ocean, could see boats at anchor in the bay,
and in the foggy days of spring heard foghorns both beckoning
and warning, sounding an alarm and providing solace. In his taste
for salt water he instinctively knew that a ship had to suspend
itself between sea and land, that the lighthouse which reached
into the dark was a signal which called the ship to the harbour
but which kept its eager advances at arm's length.
was smaller and he learned to imitate the accent of the fishermen's
sons, to wear rubber boots with the pride of a working man, and
that the fights were honest and never accompanied by a weapon.
His marks improved, even though he was no longer a favoured pet,
and although he was still alone in the library, the books were
more nautical somehow, and those he'd tried before, like Swiss
Family Robinson and The Old Man and the Sea, suddenly
made more sense. On Saturdays he began to take his voyages to
the shore, and sit in the sun or shade depending on the day, he
would let the waves of the bay lap against his notion of an adventure.
going along the docks where rough-mannered men hollered instructions
into the sky, where slicks of oil calmed the few waves blown up
by land breezes, where he would sometimes be asked to hand over
a line-he'd learned they were not to be called ropes-or pull a
vessel in closer to the dock. The salt air was different than
it was described in his books, more fishy and rotting seaweed
than the rich ozone he'd been led to expect, more heat on dead
seals than a marine tang, but he brought home pieces of lobster
traps, collected lengths of line, and began to itemize the shells
that washed up on the shore.
to be a fisherman," he told his dad one Sunday afternoon. "I'm
going to work the boats."
had glanced down at him and then away at sea, as though he'd seen
something of Sam's future. "It's the getting up at four that I
couldn't stand. That and the seasickness."
"I don't mind,"
Sam had said, but he hadn't thought it through.
fish, so there's that."
attempt to be supportive somehow undermined Sam's dream, and he
returned to his books. Perhaps he would be an explorer, and find
the hidden emerald isles described in his books, or he might explore
for his own delight. Like Slocum, he might sail around the globe
for no reason other than to satisfy his urge to travel.
to the dock were informed by his new resolve, and he wandered
along to where old fishing boats were dumped and left to rot.
He would spend hours creeping through their disintegrating superstructures,
searching for nonferrous metals which had somehow escaped the
general decay. He found door hooks and brass hinges, galvanized
cleats and stainless steel screws. Soon he had a hoard which would
have been useful had he been a repairman, but instead it merely
brought the smell of the docks into his room. His hands smelled
like creosote, and once when he helped a shrimper into dock the
man went below for a crate of shrimp. He took it home proudly,
although it meant they ate shrimp for a week and the fridge smelled
of rotting fish for months after they'd thrown out the last of
to buy an old boat," he declared over dinner one night. "And I'm
going to sail around the world."
"A good cheap
way to travel." His father took another helping of potatoes and
Sam waited for more.
lucky to earn enough for a rowboat if you don't get your marks
up." A plain cook of a woman, his mother was a clatter of metal
gears in the background normal of his life. If anyone had asked
her she would have said that she was a reality check, but in fact
she tasted more of salt than seasoning and her vision was more
black than white.
life was based on the worn pages of his favourite books, the dull
cycle of his passage to school and trudging home became luminescent.
The walk over the bricked-in sidewalks rung with the sound of
feet on boardwalks, and simple bungalows were ramshackle lumber
nailed into buildings by incompetent and underpaid workers at
the ends of narrow fjords. His hands were calloused with lines
and oars, and his back was bent to the endless labour that kept
the sea at bay.
when the notion had first began to infect his mind, rising like
a slow fever through his bloodstream until he was determined to
stick his thumb out at a car and make his way to the Halifax harbour,
he thought of voyaging with his friend. Paul was the boy who lived
up the road, and their friendship began with fishing and building
cabins, and proceeded to awkward fights. In the halcyon days of
their earliest relationship, he never dreamed that the boy he'd
watched attack a jar of peanut butter with the biggest spoon he
could find would eventually be a trucker with a heart attack at
He never imagined
that in the routine of Paul's daily work, he would complain about
each tedious moment. That he would publically declare what he
despised on Facebook for all to enjoy. Paul's dislike of weather
would find him squinting through his sunglasses if the sun were
too strong. If it rained, the road was too wet, the trees were
in danger of uprooting, and the tires refused to keep between
the lines. He saved his worst declarations for snow, and although
he was a safe driver who took no risks, mere life itself often
proved to exercise him enough.
When he imagined
Paul with him on deck, he pictured him worried about their destination
as well as leaving the shore. Somehow he'd learned enough about
his friend to realize the complaints of his later life would reach
into his childhood and trouble him there, so he often muted his
friend in his memory. He never told Paul about his shipping as
crew, and although he imagined them working side by side, he never
tried to encourage him to practice swimming. Ever since Ken had
died in the river, clowning with his friends by the bank and then
stepping too far out for a boy who couldn't swim, his cold white
face watched them from the coffin in their mind. Many of the parents
in the town had pushed their children to swim after the drowning,
pushing past their reluctance so that they would forget where
Ken had gone in, even as their cold toes fought the sand and shifting
gravel for a foothold.
push Paul to swim, or work with the many lines that a sailor had
to know. Nor did he suggest he learn to navigate by the stars,
or learn the cryptic system of knots and string that kept the
Polynesian sailors on their course. Sam had briefly flirted with
learning the use of various knots, but even that modest goal was
confounded when he never mastered the proper way to tie a reef
knot. He would instead return to the sheet bend, and then do it
incorrectly, which followed what the rope more naturally wanted
to do. He could only tie a bowline if it was the tag end of a
rope, and found putting it around a shaft first endlessly confusing.
He was in no position to teach Paul, but he still, at least for
the years of his childhood, he still thought his friend would
be at his side at sea as well as at school, that their childhood
squabbles would pale alongside the adventures they would have.
As he grew
older, he found Paul less like him than he'd initially supposed.
The tang of the salt air didn't attract like he'd learned to expect.
Paul would whistle while he tore apart a carburetor, and curse
when a team refused to kick the ball enough, or had kicked it
too much, but his hands creased on a steering wheel, and sat uneasy
on a tiller.
canoes in the narrow waterways of the forests, and even attempted
a sail on the wider river, but without someone by his side he
felt as though he'd placed his hands in deep pockets and they'd
proved reluctant to emerge. The tall tales of giant squid and
wrecks found on the shore after a storm still drew him, but for
a time he stopped considering that he might make his own.