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I dug my toes into the sand of the Delaware beach, hugged my knees, and drew as close to the campfire as I could. The flames warmed our faces while behind us the night air chilled our backs. Huddled with my sisters and cousin, I smelled the burning logs and breathed in the fire's heat. We all sat in awe of my father. He stood across the campfire from us, a figure a-swirl in rising heat and smoke, his face underlit by flame as if he were a prophet on Mount Sinai. We clutched each other as he wove his story. And we didn't dare look over our shoulders toward the ocean, lest we catch sight of-
"The Flying Dutchman!"
My father's eyes widened as he fixed his gaze on us. "Just a few hundred yards across the water, he was, standing on the bow of his ship. He was so close I could see the glow of his pipe!"
The campfire crackled and popped, a burst of sparks twirling upward in the smoke. Another wave crashed on the sand, shissh-SHING, spilling its white foam over the ridge of the beach. Each wave edged closer to our campfire than the last one. Now I couldn't help myself. I peered over my shoulder, wondering if the Flying Dutchman's phantom schooner was out there, somewhere on the dark ocean.
"All the mates on board our ship had nearly given up," my father intoned. "Our vessel had been caught for five days in the Sargasso Sea. The thick seaweed had entwined our rudder and held us fast in its deadly grip. The water supply was gone, and our tongues were cracked and swollen. We knew our hope was spent when-"
"You saw the Dutchman," my sister whispered.
"Oh-hoh! you're a sharp lassie," Daddy commended.
We knew the legend by heart. It started on a wind-whipped, stormy night in the 1600s, when a Dutch sea captain steered his ship into the jaws of a gale at the Cape of Good Hope. The mounting waves hammered the vessel's sides, and the ship began to sink. As raging waters flooded the deck, the captain raised his fist and railed, "I will round this cape, even if I have to keep sailing until doomsday!"
As the legend goes, he did. And anyone who had the misfortune of sighting the old Flying Dutchman would surely die a terrible death. To this day, if you see the dark clouds of a gathering squall looming on the horizon, beware. You may spy the old Dutch sea captain smoking his pipe, and if you do, you too may seal your fate.
"But if you saw the Flying Dutchman when you were caught in the Sargasso Sea," one of us asked, "why didn't you die?"
We knew the answer. But we had to hear it again.
"Your daddy isn't afraid of any old curse," our father declared. "Why, I looked over the bow of our ship, and I spotted a great devil-fish. That gave me an idea."
I didn't know what a devil-fish was. But as Daddy spread his hands wide and flapped his arms, I knew it was something really big and powerful, like a giant manta ray. "I called for a harpoon," he gestured, "and waited for that devil-fish to float by. Slowly, I took aim-and I hurled the spear into his back!"
"The great fish strained against the rope, but I held tight, calling for my shipmates. 'I say, you, Angus Budreau, and you, Georgy Banks! Tie the end to the capstan!' They moved quickly while the fish pulled harder.' Up with the foresail and mainsail and the mizzen! Set the jib and the flying jib!' I yelled.
"Slowly, our ship began to creak and groan. She was inching forward, pulled by the two-ton fish, straining and flapping his wing-fins with all his might. I could feel the weeds snapping beneath our hull-"
Our own muscles tightened at the mighty fish's effort-
"-and suddenly, we broke free. The sails began to flutter and fill with air. Finally, a gust caught the mainsail. The crew let out a cheer. Our ship was freed from the grip of the Sargasso Sea! As that tired old devil-fish sank into the murky depths, having spent his strength, we waved our sailor's caps farewell. And once again, we hit the high seas."
I felt sad that the devil-fish had to die. But I was glad my father had lived to tell the story. So was Mom-I could tell by the way she looked at him. I always searched her face after Daddy ended a story, to see whether the tale was true. She never gave anything away, though. She just stood up to throw another log on the fire. If one of us asked, "Mommy, is that true? Did that really happen?" she gave a sly grin. Maybe she didn't believe Daddy's stories as much as we did. But to her credit, she didn't let on. She always left us thinking there may be some truth to his tales, with her faithful answer: "Good story, Cap'n John!"
A burst of sparks exploded from the fire, and a gust scattered them in the night.
"There's his pipe!" someone cried. "I see the sparks!"
"No you don't."
"Yes I do!"
It went back and forth that way, don't-do, don't-do, until Mother stopped the motor, shushing, "Quiet, you girls."
"So, what happened to the Flying Dutchman?"
My father stood silent for a long moment. All was quiet except for the pounding of waves. Smoke and flames danced in the wind, causing shadows to flicker in all directions. Daddy slowly ventured a few steps toward the blackness that was the ocean, the stars, and the night. I grew nervous as he moved away from the well-lit safety of our campfire. He stopped, placed his hands on his hips, and peered into the distance as if searching for someone.
"I escaped the Dutchman," he said softly. "Not many do, but I was one of the blessed ones." My three sisters and our cousin, little Eddie, leaned forward to search the darkness too.
"Don't look too hard for that old seaman," Daddy warned, "for you may not be as fortunate as I was." His voice took on an ominous tone: "You may one day hear, 'Heh-heh-heh!'" With that, he turned around swiftly, rubbing his hands and snickering in sinister glee.
We squealed and grabbed onto one another, kicking sand to keep the ghost at bay. But the tale-teller was finished now. He gave a swooping bow, and we applauded generously.
"Please, please tell another one!" we chanted.
No, enough was enough. My father was always one to leave us hanging for more. I was glad for that. It made whatever else we did next sweeter. Like singing. When the stories ended, it was usually time for songs. Campfire songs, Girl Scout songs, hiking, sailing, or cowboy songs.
My mother and father crisscrossed more logs on the fire, creating an inferno, and we kids backed away our blankets. We had all spent the day digging for clams on the other side of the barrier island. The shallow, clear water of the Indian River inlet there concealed hundreds of fat clams just inches below the sand. The day's labor had been successful, and now our white-canvas Keds were lined up by the fire to dry out. My father's best friend-Uncle Eddie to us-ambled over and plopped a couple of ice buckets next to his son, little Eddie, "our cousin." They were filled with clams.
We each reached in and took one. Squinting our eyes against the heat of the campfire, we carefully placed the clams on the end of a log near enough to the flames to steam them. Soon the clams were bubbling around the edges. One by one, they popped open. Using our thumb and forefinger, we gingerly picked up a hot, half-opened shell, ouch!-ing and blowing on them until they cooled. We could hardly wait to get the clams, wet and salty, hot and chewy, into our mouths.
Daddy tilted his sailor's cap and began dancing a silly jig. He launched into a song written for him by an old sweetheart from his merchant marine days, in the early 1900s. It was a song to eat clams by.
I would not marry an oyster man, I'll tell you the reason why: His boots are always muddy, his shoes are never dry. A sailor boy, a sailor boy, a sailor boy 'twill be. Whenever I get married, a sailor's bride I'll be!
Reaching farther down into the ice, past the clams piled on top, we pulled out fresh oysters. Our Uncle George, Daddy's brother, was in charge of knifing them open. This was one of those artful Maryland skills we hoped we too would one day excel in. It requires piercing the shell, heart, and muscle in a way that keeps the oyster plump and intact.
Uncle George passed out the opened oysters to us, and I held mine up, comparing its size to my sisters'. To hold in your hand the biggest and juiciest was a triumph in the art of gross. Balancing mine just so, I flattened my bottom lip, pressed the edge of the shell to it, tilted the oyster slightly, and slurped. I had seen some people swallow an oyster whole, but I preferred Daddy's way: chewing it. It tasted better that way, releasing a musty, salty flavor. The ritual never seemed odd when I was a child, but years later I would understand what people meant by the phrase "acquired taste."
Sea songs eventually gave way to cowboy songs, and then, when Daddy was sure we'd squeezed all the play we could from the evening, we sang hymns. Suddenly, the scene around the campfire was transformed from one of clam-slurping, sand-kicking, and tall-tale camaraderie into a sanctuary under the stars. The glowing sparks that rose now didn't come from a seaman's pipe, and the Atlantic Ocean no longer held fearful secrets of Davy Jones's Locker. Even the hissing foam of the retreating waves sounded soothing. Never was there a sweeter satisfaction than to lie back on a blanket, my hands under my head, and gaze at the starry dome above while singing a hymn.
I forgot all about tall tales as my father, full of warmth and tenderness, led us.
On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross, The emblem of suff'ring and shame; And I love that old cross where the dearest and best For a world of lost sinners was slain.
We all joined in on the chorus. I loved adding harmony, fitting my notes under my parents' melody. We swelled the first part, like the flowing of the tide, and then sang gently on the last part, like the tide as it ebbed.
So I'll cherish the old rugged cross, Till my trophies at last I lay down; I will cling to the old rugged cross, And exchange it some day for a crown.
As the rest of the family went on to the second verse, I stopped singing. I was listening to a larger song, one that came from the star-splattered heavens. With my knees bent heavenward, the fronts of my legs caught the heat and light of the campfire. A deep, cool shadow was cast over the rest of me as I lay listening to the universe drift by. Tiny clusters of stars and great constellations speckled the night, while the surf pounded away. The Atlantic Ocean was yet another universe of mysterious currents, touching the toes of Ireland and England, places too far away for me to believe they were real. And here we were, huddled around our small fire, a tiny ember on a beach stretching north and south for miles, with nary another camp in sight. We were a single point of light among thousands that night on the eastern seaboard, a coast on one of many continents, all on a planet dwarfed by galaxies spinning above.
I had never felt so small. Yet so safe.
Safe, secure, and significant. I couldn't imagine a kid anywhere else on the planet that night, much less among the sand dunes of the Delaware coast, who felt as safe as I. Part of that feeling was the stories. Most of it, the hymns. When someone started up, "I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses," I felt as though God himself were among us, illuminated by the fire and breathing a sigh with each wave.
My earliest recollections of being stirred by the Spirit happened through hymns. Soft, sweet, old hymns-the kind my Aunt Kitty liked to sing when she and Uncle George visited us on Friday nights, to go over the books from Daddy's business. Or the kind we sang at our little church in Catonsville. The sort of hymns we sang in the truck as we came over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to the eastern shore, down Highway 1 through Queen Anne's County, over the bridge to the barrier island and our camping site. The same hymns whose words I knew by heart yet could not explain.
I know whom I have believ-ed and am persuaded That he is able to keep that which I've committed Unto him against that day.
I treasured this family hymn, but as for its meaning, I was clueless. It didn't bother me that I couldn't grasp it. Five-year-olds are able to tuck words into cubbyholes in their hearts, like secret notes stored for a rainy day. All that mattered to me now was that these hymns bound me to the melody of my parents and sisters. The songs had something to do with God, my father, my family, and a small seed of faith safely stored in a heart-closet.
"Come on, everybody!" Daddy clapped his hands and roused us from our blankets. "Up on your feet and try this one."
Climb, climb up sunshine mountain, heavenly breezes blow
We climbed the air and waved our hands hula-style-
Climb, climb up sunshine mountain, faces all aglow
-made flower-faces with a smile-
Turn, turn from sin and sadness, look up to the sky
-we frowned on the word sin and lifted our faces on the word sky-
Climb, climb up sunshine mountain, you and I.
-we pointed to someone else's heart, then to our own.
A hymn or Sunday school song that included hand motions demanded to be performed with no less confidence than a secret clubhouse handshake. Anyone who missed making like a flower, or looking sad when singing sin, was demoted to the last rung of the clubhouse ladder and thereby eyed carefully on the next motion-song. One had to keep up.
The hours around the campfire passed too quickly. Mother hadn't piled any driftwood onto the glowing coals for a while, and now the embers merely breathed small ghosts. We closed out the campfire with my father's favorite hymn. It was a hymn of the sea:
Brightly beams our Father's mercy From his lighthouse evermore; But to us he gives the keeping Of the lights along the shore. Dark the night of sin has settled, Loud the angry billows roar; Eager eyes are watching, longing For the lights along the shore.
Excerpted from The God I Love by Joni Eareckson Tada Copyright © 2004 by Joni Eareckson Tada. Excerpted by permission.
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