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A Boy and a Boat
My first boat sank. I was six years old and had hammered it together from old orange crates and split firewood, sealing the cracks with bumper stickers from an Ann Arbor City Council candidate named Ulrich Stoll. When it was finished, I walked around the neighborhood and invited people to the launch. Saturday morning, at the pond.
On the big day, my family, a few neighbors, and one or two of their dogs dutifully assembled at the small, reedy marsh at the end of our block. As my mom cinched on my life jacket, my dad set the boat in the water. More excited than nervous, I stepped aboard.
It was a short voyage—straight down. Within seconds, brown water started gurgling up around my ankles, then gushing over the sides. Before I could even think about abandoning ship, it was all over. There I stood, knee-deep in water, my boat stuck fast on the muddy bottom.
Afterward, I wheeled the boat home on my wagon and junked it behind our garage. But I wasn’t discouraged. I was happy—I had built a real boat! And I was already thinking about my next one. I would just have to build it out of something guaranteed to float, no matter what.
I eventually settled on wine corks, the kind my parents pulled out of the bottle at the dinner table once or twice a week. Since it was impossible to sink a cork, I reasoned, it would be even more impossible to sink a lot of corks.
And so I started saving them, one by one.
From then on, all my parents’ corks went into a wooden bowl on the kitchen counter. To them, whether or not I could ever save enough corks was irrelevant. In our family, imagination itself was a prime virtue, and they encouraged my older sister, Sara, and me to let ours run free. In a home governed largely by expectations, not rules, I can remember only one explicit mandate from my mom: we weren’t allowed to get bored. Sara and I—separated by only a year and a half—were united by that challenge, and we constantly conspired to keep things interesting.
My parents set a good example. My mom was always busy in those early years, teaching dance and running local political campaigns. Apart from the surplus bumper stickers we often got as a result, Sara and I also learned that hard-fought battles, even losing ones, were worth the effort. In 1972, the two of us organized a dozen neighborhood kids to hold a bake sale for George McGovern, pulling an assortment of cupcakes and cookies from house to house on our wagons. I recall hauling them up one especially steep driveway, a veritable Everest, and ringing the doorbell at its summit. I can still see the owner, in a dark blue dress and towering bouffant, answering our pitch with a friendly but firm “I’m sorry. We’re for Mr. Nixon.”
My dad was a popular professor of geophysics at the University of Michigan, where he still teaches today. Always eager to travel the world, he saw no need to choose between family and fieldwork. So wherever he went, we went, too, whether it meant flying into the Amazon on a rattletrap Cessna, ply- ing the waters of Lake Titicaca in a traditional reed boat, or jouncing down some of the worst roads in Africa in a mud-spattered Land Rover.
If our family travels weren’t always comfortable or easy, they were never dull. In Zambia, we once picked up a tall hitchhiker in a red jumpsuit who carried a nine-foot spear. He smelled terrible, and Sara and I, sharing the backseat with him, secretly held our breath for as long as possible. Another time, when we were camping on an uninhabited island in Africa’s Lake Tanganyika, Sara spotted a cobra slithering toward our open tent. Within seconds, my mom grabbed a nearby shovel and, swinging it like a machete, chopped off the snake’s head.
Later that same year, as we were crossing the Zambezi River from Zambia to Botswana on a small, jerry-rigged ferry, a patrol boat from Rhodesia roared up the river and began circling us like a shark, trying to swamp the ferry’s outboard and send us drifting downstream into Rhodesian territory. Much to my dad’s dismay, my mom gave the soldiers a defiant, international gesture for “kiss my ass.” But we made it across safely. Sara and I assumed all of this was quite normal.
Back home in Ann Arbor, we traveled just as widely in our minds, reading book after book about explorers, pioneers, and inventors who helped make history and change the world. In our basement, Sara and I transformed an old refrigerator box into a spaceship, where we spent many happy hours exploring strange planets in faraway galaxies. I even sacrificed a few corks—the kind with plastic tops—for the cause. Inserted through the cardboard walls of our spacecraft, they made excellent knobs for adjusting the booster rockets.
When I was eleven, we moved to England for a year, for one of my dad’s sabbaticals. We lived in Durham, a small north- ern cathedral town, in a four-hundred-year-old gatekeeper’s cottage overlooking the River Wear. Every morning, Sara and I would put on our school uniforms and trudge off to the Durham Johnston Grammar Technical School, a gray, Dickensian institution where teachers—or “masters,” as they were called—required us to stand at attention whenever they entered the room, and complete our lessons with fountain pens.
But if the stern traditionalists at Durham Johnston were inclined to view Sara and me as wayward, latter-day colonials, we took it upon ourselves to excel to such a degree that there would be little doubt that the “Yanks,” as we were known, had not only won the Revolution but were first in their class, too.
And then, in a few horrible moments, my whole life changed. Leaving England, we took a family trip to India. After sharing a fun week aboard a houseboat on a gorgeous lake in Kashmir, my parents hired guides to take us all pony-trekking up into the Himalayas. Crossing a swollen river, Sara’s pony slipped on a rock and threw her into the rushing waters. My dad and two of our guides sprinted in to save her, but the thundering rapids and boulders overwhelmed them. Sara, along with one of the men who tried to save her, hit the rocks and was swept away. We searched the river for two days as we hiked out, but never found them. She was fourteen.
I was devastated beyond comprehension. Sara had been my best friend, and in a single, terrible fluke—just a few yards from safety—she had been taken from me forever. Gone were the games, the laughter, the mischievous conspiracies of our childhood. And gone were any illusions that the world was safe, that parents were all-powerful, or that life was fun. I might still have been a kid, but my childhood was over.
Already a close family, we pulled together even more. Still, the years of adolescence that followed were an exercise in abject misery, and I struggled through by channeling my grief into a frenetic schedule of study, sports, and music lessons. One of the few bright spots in junior high was building a raft with my best friend, Andrew, out of 126 cardboard milk cartons and several rolls of duct tape.
About ten feet long, the boat featured a sweeping prow that resembled a Viking ship, complete with a dragon’s head whose pointed horns were half-pint cartons, emptied of their half-and-half. We called our vessel the SS Milky Way, and launched it in the Huron River to a smattering of applause from friends and family. It floated beautifully, and we gave rides all afternoon before bringing it back to Andrew’s house. Unfortunately, only a day or so later, our craft began assuming the look and the smell of blue cheese. Only reluctantly, and at the strong insistence of Andrew’s dad, did we haul it to the curb for the garbage man.
Some years later, after high school, I took a summer job as a hotel groundskeeper on Mackinac Island, a small, historic resort island in Michigan’s Straits of Mackinac, at the confluence of Lakes Michigan and Huron. I had first visited the island in third grade, and was fascinated by its old colonial fort and the fact that it banned cars altogether. If you wanted to get around on Mackinac you either walked, rode your bicycle, or climbed aboard a horse-drawn wagon. More than anything, I loved all the boats that jammed its harbor, and went there hoping to spend time on the water.
Seeing I was young and fit, the head groundskeeper assigned me the task of moving rocks, work that made the prospect of two months on Mackinac seem more like a sentence on Alcatraz. After two days at hard labor, I hatched a plan. I had brought along my violin, and convinced the resort’s owner to give me a tryout as a violinist in his restaurant. “I’ve played the violin since I was four,” I said, concealing my nervous- ness. “I can do more for you making music than I can moving rocks.”
Something of a wheeler-dealer himself, he admired my chutzpah; he also liked the idea of replacing his maître d’s George Winston tapes with some live entertainment. So, for the next few days, I moved rocks by day and played violin by night. Then, when I complained that my hands could only manage one or the other, the owner shifted me to musical work altogether, and I traded my grubby jeans for a black suit, bow tie, and the easy life of a solo, strolling violinist.
The head groundskeeper grumbled at my escape from his rock pile, but I didn’t care. My quarry had now become all those romantic couples who tipped so generously for a few songs at tableside.
When I was done for the night, I’d walk home and pull the crumpled bills from my pockets—along with that night’s haul of corks. Not that I had plans to build the boat of my dreams anytime soon, but saving those corks reminded me, somehow, of happier times. By summer’s end when I shipped off the island, I had several hundred.