We grew up at the
New Jersey shore in the summers, where
my family had a little house on , a wide tidal
estuary that dumped into Barnegat bay.
We could walk out of our house, cross
a very unbusy street and walk down a sandy path to the water’s edge to swim and play. Catching baby eels and crabs in our hands was a common
pastime. We always threw them back alive after playing with them. Toms
Into this little paradise entered a used 12-foot long wooden rowboat, which my father bought when I was around 7 and sister Janet was 10 years of age. It cost him $80 at Hotaling's Boat Yard in Toms River. It was solidly made and had a dory-like bow. It had big wooden oars, which we lugged down to the little pier in front of our house where the boat was docked. We had only to pull up the oarlocks, insert the oars, and cast off from the pier to gain the freedom to go wherever we wanted to. We more or less stayed in sight of our house, but we coulda rowed to Spain!. We didn’t have to wear life preservers in those days. There were flotation cushions in case we got in trouble, but in those early days, we never did.
Here is a picture of us crabbing on the little pier. The back of our rowboat is on the lower right edge.
We learned that it’s no mean trick to keep a wooden boat from leaking and rotting. Every spring my father would start the process of preparing the boat to go in for the season. We would help. We scraped old paint (always peeling), we sanded, and most fun of all, we caulked the seams that ran along the bottom and side boards. I loved caulking, and my father praised my great caulking skills. Finally, we would prime and paint the boat, including the trim and floorboards and seats. Despite all that effort each year, the boat leaked like a sieve, so part of our boating activity was constant bailing. I loved bailing, and my father praised my great bailing skills. After a couple of years, Daddy attached fiberglass to the bottom of the boat, which he did himself, not well, but which stopped the worst part of the leaking.
The boat made me into a Huck Finn, competent on the water, close to nature. Janet remembers it as our passport to a free life. We experienced seashore life more acutely because of it. Preparing it for a hurricaine was always thrilling—mainly it meant taking out all the moving parts and floorboards and tying extra lines
to the boat from the pier. It often sank to the bottom during these storms. After one big hurricaine, we discovered it gone altogether. Not sunk, just gone. We’d lost it. The water had risen so high that the ropes had slipped off the poles. We rode on our bikes and in the car up and down the river on both sides, but it was gone. We assumed it had sunk somewhere in the middle of the river. We cried. To console us, our parents took us into downtown Toms River. As we were passing a marina at the entrance to the town, sister Joan, then no more than 4, cried out, “There’s our boat..”
Sure enough,. there it was, in the water, tied to the back of a yacht. The yacht’s owner told us he’d discovered it early that morning, just bobbing up and down in the middle of the river, so he brought it with him in hopes its owners would find it. We were ecstatic,
In honor of Joanie's great discovery, my father named the boat “Toopie”, his nickname for her. Despite the fact that I was always jealous of my little sister, I had no reservations about giving the boat that name. From that day on, it was called The Toopie.
The Toopie continued to entertain us as we grew older, but it also was the scene of the most traumatic event of my life, one that has stayed with me to this very day and affects my attitude toward danger. At some point, my father had bought a 7 ½ horsepower Evinrrude outboard motor. On weekends, he’d lug it to the boat and attach it to the stern. It's handle acted like a rudder. It was so heavy that the boat would not plane when it was underway. So, there we would be with the bow half-way out of the water, while my father sat in the stern unable to see except by looking around the sides.
In 1955, when I was 10, my father decided we would cap off the season with a boating excursion to the other side of
. That entailed motoring to the mouth of the
river (only a half mile or so), and then across the bay for about 2 miles. We’d never been out on the bay with the boat. My father, Janet and I started off on a very
hot Labor Day Sunday. Janet was
steering, and my father was in the bow, navigating for her. I was sprawled across the
middle seat with a towel over my head, dozing.
Suddenly, I felt a thud – that’s all I remember – I looked up to see my
father smiling at me with blood gushing out of the top of his head. I remember screaming, “Daddy, you’re
bleeding!” He smiled again, put his hand
up on his head and pushed back the U-shaped flap of skin that had been sheared
back on the impact with a speed boat. Neither boat was damaged, probably because my
father had lunged out to push the speed boat away as it hit us in the bow. Barnegat
Another speedboat named “Sea Witch” came up and took my Dad with them and disappeared to a big dock on the other side of the river where they could get him to the hospital. The teenagers in the boat we’d hit guided us to that same dock. Janet managed to keep her head together to get us safely to shore. I remember running the length of the dock to the shore and feeling as if my whole body was light and bouncing. By the time we got to the shore, the ambulance had already left for the hospital.
I have no idea how we got back home to our house on the other side of the river. Were we driven by car? Did our next door neighbors the Furhmeisters come out in their big motor boat to pick us up? It’s all a blur. My mother had already left for the hospital, so we joined Joanie at the Fuhrmeisters’ house. . I remember sitting at the Furhmeisters' dinner table enjoying the most delicious roast beef, asking for seconds. The. Fuhrmeisters were the kindest people, with four grown children of their own, and I am sure that they would have told us that our father would be fine.
Later that night my mother arrived home with my father, who insisted on being discharged after receiving 82 stiches in his scalp. I remember him lying in bed that evening with his head covered in bandages seeping blood and my mother fretting. Finally, she called home to our
town, and an hour or so later the Amvets ambulance arrived and transported him to our local North Jersey hospital. A bit later that night after hurriedly packing up all our summer things, Mommy and the three of us piled into the car and drove the 65 miles home. I cried all the way, while both Janet and Mommy derided me for my hypocracy. I had no right to cry now when I had had such a healthy apetite at the Fuhrmeisters.
Later we learned that my father had fractured his skull but suffered no internal bleed .and there were no long-run consequences of the head injury. For me, though, the long-run consequences have been major. In the blink of an eye I had gone from a 10-year old’s sense of control to the realization that catastrophe could come at any moment. I have never been able to sleep in a car. I’ve never been comfortable with other people driving. For many years I had trouble making decisions about which route to take on a trip, for fear that I would make the wrong decision and end up in an accident. Finally, at age 45 or so, I learned how to trick myself by imagining equally awful things about each alternative, thus freeing myself from the responsibility for a poor choice.
The Toopie lingered over the years. We became more desultory about launching her each spring, and she finally rotted away behind our garage.
Throughout my adult life I have fantasized about having the money to buy a house on a lake, with a pier and a wooden rowboat securely tied to it. I’ve rented rowboats, but it’s not the same, because the rental agencies always require you to wear a life vest. I even rented a rowboat on
in Italy 15 years ago so that I
could know what it feels like to row a boat on an Italian lake. (Frederick's escape to Switzerland in A Farewell to Arms was my model.) My rented boat was very tiny compared with Lake Como's Lake
Como Yachts. Here is a picture of me rowing in the rain on Lake Como in 2001. Excursion
So, even though the Toopie is associated with a chilling memory, it is also a symbol of the perfect life. A little house on a clear lake with a little pier and a wooden rowboat with big oars waiting for me every morning.