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Authors: Chadwick Wall

Water Lessons (10 page)

BOOK: Water Lessons
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His daughter sat in silence, blushing away, but watching her father.

"He liked his drink. Right after I hired him, he wasn't all that bad. And he knew more about boats than anyone I've met in a while. He crewed in the good months on yachts in Newburyport, Marblehead, and Boston. But his problem worsened, and I confronted him about it. But ultimately, the drink fueled his other problem."

The couple was silent.

"Mac also, God help the man, was quite a gambler, addicted to the roulette table. I had no idea he was sneaking off some nights and weekends to Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun to try his luck. His boozing led to riskier bets. That's when I caught him fudging the books. He blew his cover returning late with a thirty-five foot sloop, a boat he was scheduled to deliver in a few weeks on Cape May, a boat I'd actually already
. I found some pink panties in the cabin section. Not to mention the brig reeked like a frat house. Beer cans, wine bottles all around. I spent the morning really studying his books."

The old man shook his head with weariness. "He had me fooled. He was once a good guy with a few weaknesses that really spun out of control. I chose you, Jim, because I know I can train you, but what is more, because I can trust you. Ah, Jim. Beauty, vigor, the mind: they all decline. And sometimes disappear outright, before the last breath. All that remains in the end is honor."

Jim gave a faint whistle. So Walter did have a soft spot for the old hell-raiser. Jim wondered if this lecher had hoodwinked Walter from the outset. Or if McTierney had really been a decent man at the beginning, who simply allowed his addictions to corrupt him. Jim wagered it was the latter: Walter had been around too long, led and read men for far too many decades to have not seen McTierney's faults at the outset. Walter wanted to give Mac a chance.

"Commandeering the boat while I was away was bad. But the worst thing, Jim, was that he stole money from me. Messing up the numbers in the books. Spending money meant for my daughter, maybe for you guys' kids one day." He shot a comical glance at Jim.

Maureen sucked in her breath in surprise.

"I just had to get him out of that condo, couldn't see his face anymore. That sick man lived on the same property with my loving wife and my youngest daughter and son. I gave him some cash and told him to get out of my sight."

"What became of him?" Maureen said.

"He went back to live with his mother in Maine, at least for a bit. The day after he left, I sent his belongings to his brother, who owns four lobster boats up there. I called him—the man told me he'd give his little brother a job. He inquired as to how much Mac had stolen. And I told him. There was a long silence, and he apologized. I thanked him for giving Mac a job, told him his little brother was still a great fisherman and was excellent with boats, that Mac should be a good employee. I mean, he wouldn't thieve from his own brother, right? A few days ago, I received a little package via FedEx. Guess what was inside?"

Walter must have been much like the New England whaling captains of old with his great yarns, with their superb delivery. Jim clung to every word.

"Two things. A thick stack of hundred dollar bills, totaling a smidgen over… five thousand dollars."

"Wow. I wonder if his brother paid this, or if Mac did," Maureen said.

"Good point. I called the brother and all he would say was, 'Thank you for taking care of my brother. Thank you, Mr. Henretty, for always taking care of Billy.' When I asked who paid it out, all he'd say was it was a small gesture and he and Mac wanted to make amends."

"But Walter, what was the second item in the package?"

"I knew you'd like this part," Walter said, taking a white paper off the coffee table. He handed it to Jim.

The paper read, in a handsome cursive:

Oh Captain! My Captain!

I Won't Forget The Generosity and Great Tales. Sorry for everything.

Your Friend,


"See, the man was a bit literary himself," Walter said. "I guess he knew the great Whitman elegy. I know you know it, son.
O Captain! My Captain!
I tell you, that poem will send a shiver down a man's spine."

"About Lincoln, yes," Jim said. "That was a great tribute, gesture to the Commodore."

"Aye," the old man nodded, a little watering visible in the fierce blue gaze.

Walter tilted his head back and slammed the remnants of his coffee. He then stood and offered them more. They declined.

"So I figured I'd take you out on the boat today, Jim. Help you get those sea-legs back on you."

Jim smiled uneasily, looking down at the rug. Though lost in thought, he mumbled his assent. In his time onboard sailboats, both on the Cape and in New Hampshire, Jim had learned something about himself. He loved boats, but was terrified of the waters they moved in. He often shuddered upon seeing any dark water, even a large puddle in Back Bay. The irony nagged at him, that water was the symbol of life, health, and vitality in most ancient cultures. What if that fear paralyzed him one day out on the water with Walter and Maureen?

Jim lifted his head. Much of the fog had receded. He had been oblivious to all but the old man. The gulls soared and swerved and swooped in what was left of the rising gray vapors. The sun had broken through the hazy remnants. A few ketches, daysailers, and sloops threaded through waves out on the sound. The Vineyard was invisible from the bay window, but the scene grew more magnificent by the second.

"I figured we could go down to the boatyard and the condo, Jim. I'll show you around. You've been down there briefly, boarded
from there. But now I want to get you acquainted with the shop. Kathleen will be back in a jiffy with the groceries. She'll whip up quite a brunch for us all, with the help of our beloved Maureen."

Jim swiveled his face to meet his girlfriend's. Her lips were slightly parted; her eyes glared.

"We've just got some business talk, hon," Walter said. "Tedious for most people, anyway. Plus, Mom needs your help and what she's making… you are basically up there with Emeril himself at making chowder."

know," she said.

"I got you also a little gift, Jimmy boy, which I'll give to you later. Maureen, if you could remind me of that."

Then Walter slapped his hands on his kneecaps, inhaling deeply and perking up his chin. "So are we ready to tackle it, my boy? Whaddaya say, sailor?" he boomed, smiling.

"Aye, aye, cap'n!"

"You're gonna take this operation to the moon, I know it, son! I'm so pleased you took me up on the offer." The old man was on his feet.

Before Jim had risen fully to his feet, the gnarled but still powerful hand was outstretched for a handshake. "Let's do it! 'For God and the Navy!'"

Jim gave the hand a firm shake. "'For The Union, Indissolvable and Eternal!'"

Walter chortled. Jim kissed his girlfriend on the forehead and followed the old man's fervent pace out into the hall. His own gait was giddy with anticipation. He couldn't wait to see the old man's shop and his boats.

With a pang of guilt Jim wondered how Walter would react if Jim flourished in the shop but became paralyzed with terror while out on the open water. Would Walter then retain him in the job? Jim imagined his own father's words over the phone, that August night outside Snug Harbor, and quickened his pace down the hall behind the old man.



As Betty Sue rolled down the cobblestone driveway and the oyster shell road with her windows down, the Commodore sat within, puffing thick curls of smoke from his pipe. When the road forked, he directed Jim to turn left. The shell lane curved up over a few hills and around a great sugar maple.

Soon the massive warehouse came into view. Strikingly tall, it was set maybe a hundred feet from the dock, boat launch, and the lapping waters of the Nantucket Sound. Beside the warehouse stood a few piles of tires. The large diesel truck used to tow smaller craft sat parked near the warehouse at the edge of the tall seagrass.

Rusting stilts supported an old lobster boat McTierney had worked on from time to time. Mac had convinced the old man to buy it the year before at a Providence auction, but he had failed to restore the vessel in time for the onslaught of winter. Mac had ripped off all of the shrinkwrap several days ago just before he had been canned. A bird had built a nest in a little nook on the side of the cockpit.

Jim parked before one of the four great doors of the warehouse. The old man leapt out, stepped to the building, and punched a keycode on the pad adjacent to a door. After a beep, Walter started to open the door, but then paused. Jim walked toward him.

"Six four and then nineteen forty two," the old man whispered, mischievously grinning. "Now, whassat, son? What's that code for?"

"Hmm, six four nineteen forty two?"

"If you get this, I have a bottle of vintage 1962 Macallan for you in my study. Never opened. Brought back from a trip years ago to Edinburgh."

"June fourth, nineteen forty-two. It probably wouldn't be a land battle… it's the Battle of Midway! The turning point of the Pacific Theater in World War II."

"Keep it down, son!" the old man whispered as he slapped Jim's shoulder. His eyes flashed, like a wolf near the point of attack. "A man after my own heart," the old Commodore added.

He looked Jim hard in the eyes, raising a hand in emphasis, as if about to launch into some fascinating old sea yarn. "I wasn't there. But my oldest brother Mickey was. He was decorated for service in that battle, you know. Distinguished Flying Cross." He then looked down at his boat shoes. "Old Mick didn't survive that war. I was still at the Academy. He was shot down, lost at sea at Tarawa. Now
was truly a
battle. Namely the way we kicked it off." The old man yanked the door open. He gestured for Jim to enter first.

"I'm sorry, Walter," Jim said.

Inside the door, Jim stepped aside and panned the spacious interior. He gave a shrill whistle and raised his eyebrows at what was before him: a single craft, and a large one at that. Never had he glimpsed something so arresting at such a close distance.

"Her name's the
John Paul Jones
, son. Now I know you know who that was."

"Patriot, founder of the U.S. Navy."

"Yes, lad," Walter stomped his foot with pride. "Now tell us what you think of that beaut! Your first project."

Jim couldn't form the words. Spanning much of the length of the warehouse was what had to be the very same Hereschoff schooner he and Maureen had seen a week before in Boston Harbor.

"Not many people know about this one, Jim. The Hereschoffs didn't build many schooners. This might be their only one. This is actually their
largest craft, second only to the
. That vessel resides in their museum over in Bristol, Rhode Island. Captain Nat himself built this one in 1912. Superstructure originally done with mahogany and spruce pine, with a teak deck. Mac spotted this baby for me at a show in Portland. It was affordable, relatively speaking, because it was not in the best of shape. It needed some repairs along the deck and on the aft mast. She took on water once with the previous owner, a judge up in Casco Bay, Maine. Fella just wanted to jettison the old girl, get some decent money for her. Kathleen blew a gasket when she found out what I'd done. After the sale I was still on top of the world, but about a day later, mainly due to Kathleen's powers of rhetoric, what I'd done set in. I've really gotta tweak a few more things on this boat to turn a profit."

"I could
I saw this
off the North End, in Boston Harbor. Maureen and I were hanging out on my balcony just this last Sunday. I knew it was a schooner. The three masts, the fore and aft sails with the foresail being the smaller, the design of the hull… I was almost convinced it was a Hereschoff."

"Jimmy boy, that was this one, all right. I had her dry-docked in Maine for the winter until I sold a few boats here to make room. As scandalous as McTierney turned out to be, he did help me flip several good deals in the last few months. Anyway, the original owner had her taken from dry-dock, readied, and delivered this very week. Part of the deal went that he'd pay for the wintering and he would have her in his possession, but he'd ensure she would make the voyage down, that she'd be seaworthy. Or he'd be bound to return my money. A few of our guys joined me in working on her the last two days. And I've been spending more and more time working here, as Kathleen has really lit into my own hull for my little transgression. She cut out this ol' tar's grog ration, hid my Scotch for two weeks!"

Walter motioned for him to follow. "We'll check on ol'
John Paul Jones
later. First I'll show you your office." Walter gestured to the small sliding window near the top of the opposite wall.

They walked around the dry-dock in which the schooner was set, hugging the perimeter of the warehouse, past plastic cans of chemicals, mounds of dirty rags, a few random chairs, an old portable stereo, a few boom lights, and a rolling metal cabinet of tools. Walter plodded up the stairs, his six-feet two-inch frame shaking the wooden planks.

Jim followed behind. He spotted yet another keycode pad. What could the password be? The Battle of Agincourt?

"I did this one for you, mate," the Commodore said in a poor British accent. "One eight one eight fifteen. Okay, what is it?"

Jim pondered the question. The Napoleonic War had stopped in 1814, and had restarted in March 1815. Was it an election or an assassination? No, it must be something military, knowing Walter. A battle fought in the dead of winter?

"You almost got me, Commodore. The Battle of New Orleans. Old Hickory Andrew Jackson and the pirate Jean Lafitte teamed up. Jackson's horses and oxen brought cannon down from Tennessee, right past my hometown…. they went right through Covington and Mandeville. The ox lots are still there."

"My boy. You make me proud," Walter said. "But I can't afford any more trivia prizes." He punched the code and opened the door. Inside lurked the smell of old papers with a faint smell of spilt beer. "This here's the office. Mac spilled a Guinness on that table last week. No one can fault him for a lack of good taste."

BOOK: Water Lessons
7.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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