Ahoy, Matey

As a child, more than anything else in the world, I wanted adventure. I didn’t call it that exactly because I had the sort of parents that sought to minimize any and all crises by calling them “adventures.” Like, your dad runs out of gas on the side of highway on a snowy Christmas day? Adventure. The kitchen ceiling falls in during a dinner party? Adventure. “The doctor thinks you have spinal meningitis.” Adventure. “Kids, your father is having a midlife crisis.” Adventure.

But while these “adventures” would provide plenty of fodder for drunken anecdotes and future therapy sessions, I longed for the real thing. New Worlds. Strange  and Marvelous Wonders. Entire civilizations of people I’d never met, talking about things I’d never even heard about for reasons I couldn’t yet imagine. My favorite story as a child was always the “Wizard of Oz”, because it was about the journey and the people you meet along the way and the journey is always so much better than the destination because once you get there it’s almost time go home again and tell your unimaginative color blind Kansas relatives that I saw an emerald city. I slayed the witch. My new best friends include a talking lion with hair ribbons and is a sentient scarecrow who is sometimes Michael Jackson.

 My mountainous hometown marketed itself as some kind of adventure mecca. I was dubious. The mountains to me always felt claustrophobic and isolating and the communities among them built for the comfort of those seeking to escape the wider world as opposed to immersion in it. Besides, I wasn’t exactly stirred by a steep incline through the woods. Sure there were nice views from mountaintops, but there were also nice views from the terrace at the Grove Park Inn, where they had Shirley Temples and ample opportunities to pretend to be Katherine Hepburn. The way you do as a child.

But while I was, at best, indifferent, if not outright hostile to the charms of Appalachia, I was enchanted by the sea. It seemed to me to be a vast, mutable and thrillingly tempestuous path to anything and everything full of risk and reward. On summer vacations, I would stand agog at the lapping edge of the Atlantic fascinated by what lurked beyond the horizon. Spain? Morocco? Could I even imagine Morocco? Casablanca?  Tangier? The straits of Gibraltar where all of Europe nearly touched all of Africa? Two whole continents full of cool shit!  Between them, what unimaginable splendors! And sure, there were things on the other side of the mountains too—like Waynesville, North Carolina and East Tennessee—which didn’t exactly stir the same dazzling flights of fancy as all of Africa.

I suppose it was inevitable that I would become fixated on pirates. I liked striped t-shirts and statement earrings. I adored boats and Han Solo.[1] I had a mother whose own childhood obsession was Peter Pan, which we consumed in multiple formats throughout my young life. Mom liked the title character. I find him to be an insensitive blowhard in with terrible fashion sense and dangerously ill-formed ideas about gender politics, human development and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But I was utterly charmed by Captain Hook, a gorgeously attired, witty, delightfully evil man who seemed like the sort that could plunder a continent and host an elegant dinner party without so much as a wrinkle in his impeccable waistcoat. And from JM Barrie I moved on to Robert Louis Stevenson and from Treasure Island to a paperback book titled PIRATES! at the school book fair. I read it about 4000 times. I learned all the ships by name, all the captains, Blackbeard and Black Bart. Captain Kidd and Madame Ching. Francis Drake, Grace O’Malley, Jean Lafitte and the Barbary Corsairs. I imagined them a ragtag group of misfits, operating out of some collective anarchic spirit, stealing ships, treasures and headlines in order to survive on the on the outside convention, on the high seas, where it wouldn’t matter what you wore or who you loved or whether you thought Calico Jack was the dreamiest or whether you got off on setting fire to your beard in order to scare the pants off the British Navy. Piracy seemed the ideal profession for people society hadn’t made room for yet. You could be an 18th century woman in uncomfortable period underwear waiting to die in labor as you endlessly popped out babies for the husband that basically owned you, or you could be Anne Bonny, pirate. Likewise, you could be a chubby, unpopular eleven-year-old with a bad perm and almost no friends because even the nerds thought you were the wrong kind of nerd or you could be Alison Fields, swashbuckling scourge of the seven seas.

All of this goes some way in explaining how it is that I ended up at sailing camp. My mother was astonished when I told her I wanted to go. The word camp hadn’t crossed my lips willingly since I’d suffered wretched weekend at girl scout camp sharing a Conestoga wagon shaped tent with my grade school nemesis. She took great pleasure in my profound misery, as I shivered through long days of forced marches while my terrifying Valkyrie troop leader led songs about being about being happy whilst hiking– a bitterly ironic sentiment in my case– or getting dressed down for my failure to wear the uniform (which was hideous and inexplicably designed to make me look exactly the same as everyone else). I was told I was the worst girl scout in North Carolina. This was probably true.  I couldn’t build a birdhouse. I thought selling cookies was demeaning. And there no badges available for things I was good at—like the lyrics to the Cole Porter songbook or knowing the order of succession to the English throne back thirty places or impersonating Diana Ross and/or Barbra Streisand whenever I was close to anything remotely resembling a stage.

But when my best friend said sailing camp, seaside, no uniform, I recognized the siren’s song of destiny. I told my mother I’d need a foot locker and a clip-on fan, a deposit and a generous stack of trashy novels about prim governesses being menaced by a stately home with dark secrets. Two months later my mother drove me all the way across the state of North Carolina to Morehead City as I hummed a mix of “Water Music” and the the Go-Go’s “Vacation.”

The Camp occupied a grassy patch on the western edge of Bogue Sound, just south of Morehead City. The shuttered clapboard cabins were divided by age and gender, clustered on either side of a long pier, a bunch of primitive knuckleball tables and a whitewashed boathouse, where the camp unofficially held a dance every night they did not show “The Goonies” and old James Bond movies. Across the wide expanse of water was a strip of barrier island (Atlantic Beach). From the end of the pier, you could make out the slender silhouette of the causeway across to the island and, by night, the distant flickering lights of Morehead City and Beaufort, in whose harbor Blackbeard’s ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, had long ago sunk into the fathoms on the orders of a colonial governor I was evidently distantly related to. We were there at the least assuming edge of the North American continent, just south and inland from the Graveyard of the Atlantic and the wilder outer parentheses of barrier islands that lured Elizabethan colonists to settle and promptly misplace their first colony.

At eleven, I was among the youngest cadre of campers and our days were loosely structured, though we spent most of our time on or around the water, taking out tiny sunfish and officially learning the glorious poetry of both nautical terms (starboard, boom, alee) and curse words, so that if even if we did not become great sailors we could at least swear like them.  There’s a particular thrill to when you find your wind and the sail goes taut you fly over the water, forming temporary alliances with currents as you navigate through the ever-changing tidal topography of the sound. I touched a jumping porpoise that surfaced beside our catamaran and endured a drenching squall while bringing a boat to harbor with a counselor. I spent long blue afternoons floating out into the sound and violet dusks digging up clams in the grassy tidal pool by the pier. I wrote long, intricate letters, crushed on a sandy-haired, blue-eyed seventeen-year-old sailing instructor with an impossibly WASPy nickname (Quad). I drank green bottled cokes and decided that though the Violent Femmes were the best band ever, “Stand By Me” was the most romantic song.

Bad things happened, of course:  I wasn’t a natural sailor for one thing and I got bleakly seasick on a deep sea fishing expedition, which was humiliating. We went barefoot for three weeks, save the occasional visit into town, which led to all manner of horrors lodged in the soles of my feet. I was cut to shreds by the barnacles that grew on the pier pilings and the diving platform.  related. I was dragged out by a riptide while swimming in the actual ocean and scraped all the skin off my chin the same day trying to body surf. It was often incredibly, unbearably hot and the fresh water, kept chilled in giant coolers and drunk out of paper cones, tasted and smelled of sulphur. I had a falling out with a mean girl in my cabin that ended with me slapping her in the face during dinner one night. At the end of the first week, I was so sunburned I couldn’t sleep.

But after three weeks, I started to tan and my hair turned blonde without chemical enhancement. I returned to Asheville, triumphant, empowered, soon-to-be notorious pirate queen and captain of my destiny. I’d faced a gale in open water, hadn’t I? Middle school would be a walk in the park.

The thing about being in a small boat on a large ocean is that it’s completely unpredictable. The idea that can really control anything that happens is at best a transactional fiction. Every time you successfully navigate a sailboat back to port is a razor wire, best case scenario evasion of forces bigger and more powerful than anything you can summon. The sea treats all with the same brutal indifference. You can be the best captain in the world and still get smashed to smithereens by a rogue wave. You can be a complete idiot, mistake the Dominican Republic for India, kick of a continental genocide and become an international hero. There are no guarantees. There’s no such thing as a safe passage. You hope for the best, take nothing for granted and hope you survive in one piece.

Which is also a pretty accurate description of middle school. By the end of the second week of the sixth grade, whatever iota of confidence I’d gleaned from summer camp had all but evaporated. By the beginning of the seventh grade, I was quite sure I was the most hideous, grotesque abomination to slither up out of the fetid slime and have the audacity to present as human. And it certainly appeared that most the student body and some portion of the faculty agreed with me. Even my best friend from summer camp pulled me aside one day, when she knew no one one could see her talking to me and said she’d rather not sit with me at lunch anymore unless I could stop being such a pariah. No offense, she said. Nothing personal. I asked why. What did I do? Why did they hate me? She didn’t know, but she thought I might reclaim some ground if I tried to be more normal and stopped being so weird. And I tried, I really tried to take her advice. But the harder I tried to be normal, the harder I failed and failed again and again. And I spent a lot of time sitting in the blue tiled bathroom stall with my feet propped against the handicapped bar so no one would see me—any one-time hope of friends of fame having long been abandoned in exchange for an earnest desire for invisibility.

I made one new friend in the seventh grade, an eccentric ad executive who’d retired from Chicago to Flat Rock with his wife, his extensive exotic shopping bag collection, a 1961 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud with the steering wheel on the right side and what he claimed was the largest collection of books about Leonardo DaVinci east of the Mississippi. We’d become fast friends at one of my mother’s cocktail parties, when I ran outside to ogle his car and we ended up bonding over our shared enthusiasm for Home. A few a weeks later, I received a thick envelope in the mail with certificates signed by congressmen, senators, governors and then-president Ronald Reagan announcing that Uncle Bob was my Official Honorary Uncle. A few weeks later I went out to his house for a spring picnic and he let me drive his Rolls Royce,[2] which ended up being the first car I’d ever drive. It was easier than sailing. Even with the steering wheel on the wrong side. I wrote him long soul-searching letters and poems about the horrors of seventh grade. He replied with gifts of books about architecture, art and history and brutal assessments of my poetry. I would read his letters, as I sat weeping in the bathroom waiting for one of the Amandas to tire of leading seminar on what a fat disgusting pig I was immediately outside the stall door when she knew I was inside. Uncle Bob liked to tell me it could be worse. You could be burned at the stake for heresy or sold into slavery and forced into Gladiatorial combat or locked up in Bastille. It was true, I thought, but Uncle Bob had clearly never been a thirteen-year-old girl if he thought the Bastille was any worse than your average American middle school.

When I told my mother I wanted to go back to sailing camp at the end of my seventh grade career, my mother was uncertain, as I’d been anti-social and depressed for months. I told her my best friend was going, which seemed to make mom feel more relieved. I didn’t tell her that my best friend and I were barely on speaking terms and I wasn’t sure we had anything in common or that a not incidental number of kids that hated me from my middle school were also going. But I couldn’t spend another summer waiting around for no one to call, afraid to see anyone for fear that they’d smile with poison and slip tiny notes into my jacket pocket you’re disgusting you smell like shit and look like it you’re an ugly dyke if I were you I’d kill myself.

I packed myself this time and Mom drove me to the airport. I took a collection of tiny planes to a tiny airport in New Bern and then tiny bus to the camp. My age coterie had over-enrolled so my friend and I were placed in a cabin of girls a year or two older at a stage in life when a few months of age difference can feel like decades (even if you didn’t happen to be, as I was, a late bloomer). The girls in my cabin were fourteen and fifteen and looked about twenty-six.  I was thirteen and looked about ten. They gazed at me with as much suspicious disdain as I did at them with pure, unadulterated wonder. I thought I had never seen such dazzling beauty and sophistication in one place at one time.  Our counselor, a platinum blonde with a unisex name stomped into the cabin, shucked off her street clothes, put on a strapless bikini and asked if any of us had a light.

A girl with a spiky ponytail pulled a matchbook from her cut-off pocket. The counselor took it and walked to the screen door by the front stairs. “Three rules,” she said. “One: Don’t smoke inside the cabins. The Roach Lodge a total firetrap. Two: If I don’t see it happen, it doesn’t happen. So be smart. Hide you bottles, your cans and your roaches. Use condoms. Three: don’t try to steal the motorboats by yourself. They’re adult staff only. And if you’re gonna try to be pirates, let us know. Most of your counselors are very good at commandeering vessels.” With that, she saluted and thudded, barefoot, down the splintery front stairs. I don’t think we saw her again for the rest of the session.

I looked around the cabin at the other twelve girls, slouched, all shabby insouciance in cut offs and band t-shirts.  I’m sure I looked gobsmacked. This was not sailing camp of two years ago. I looked over at my best friend. She looked horrified “I think we should switch cabins,” she said to me. “I think we should try to get back into the cabin with our friends from home. They’re normal. And they’re not dangerous. And they’re the right age”

They sure were. They also hated me for being weird. And here, in this cabin, even among the Glamazons I could sense a touch of weird, the kind of weird I wanted to be. Was that a Cure CD? An asymmetrical haircut? A Sassy magazine? And Holy Mother of God, was that Wuthering Heights atop a short column of Anne Rice novels? I saw my cabinmates as a ragtag group of misfits, operating out of some collective anarchic spirit in order to survive outside convention, on the high seas, where it wouldn’t matter what you wore or who you loved or whether you thought Morrissey was the dreamiest or whether you got off on setting fire to hairspray in order to burn a ZOSO into the cabin floor. Piracy seemed to be the ideal profession for people middle school had yet to make room for.

“You go on ahead,” I said to my friend. She scowled adjusted her shirt and walked stiffly out of the cabin. I waited for a moment and then grabbed my book, the first of a two volume history of the French Revolution courtesy of Uncle Bob. He said he’d send along the other half, but only after I sent him a letter telling him what I thought of Robespierre. I thought I could sit on the pier with my feet in the water and knock out a few chapters before dinner.

Outside a couple of my cabin-mates were sitting on the railing, smoking cigarettes to the sound of a Michael Stipe singing about the end of the world as we know it and feeling fine about it

“Your friend seems pretty uptight,” said one of the girls.

I shrugged.

“She seems like a narc,” said the other.

“What about you?” asked the first. “Are you a narc?”

I looked out over the railing and watched my friend’s retreating figure cross the field into the welcoming embrace of the girls from home. They giggled and smiled and hugged and squealed. It was the kind of welcome I’d last gotten from someone sometime around never. I felt a wave of hurt followed by a wave of fury, or maybe vice versa. I tried to steer my ship back into the calm, cool waters of blasé and considered new lands, strange and wondrous marvels, the fact that there were civilizations full of people I’d hadn’t yet met that talked about things that I didn’t know about for reasons I couldn’t even imagine. I thought I want adventure. I thought I’m not a narc. I’m a fucking pirate.

 And I must have said it out loud because the girl on the railing raised her cigarette as if it were a glass and said “Yo ho ho.”

[1] I was exactly the right age to see “The Goonies” in the theater several times when it came out, but the single greatest swashbuckling pirate movie of my childhood was the original “Star Wars” trilogy, complete as it was with daring smugglers, taverns full of buccaneers, exotic ports, strange new lands, a young sailor hearing the call of the sea and an ever-threatening Imperial Fleet.

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