Helen Chappell - August 2008
The boat just washed up on our shore one day. It was an old wooden skiff, about twelve feet long, that had seen better days and done better things. The white paint was peeling, and it leaked a little, and today, it would probably be in a museum as an antique. But it was seaworthy enough, and built gracefully, with a fine chine and a sturdy look, as if it had done a lot of work in its time and still had a few good years left. I was about fourteen, an artistic, over imaginative kid, and I fell in love with it.
The Old Man advertised it as lost, but no one ever claimed it, so I adopted it, and it was mine.
I begged for a little outboard to run it, but somehow it never materialized. The idea, I think, was that I was too incompetent not to drown myself, and it’s true, I was a klutzy kid, but also a very good swimmer who’d grown up around boats. But such are the drawbacks of being the girl in the family. My brother, two and a half years older, got to do a lot of stuff I didn’t, like have a boat, and I hated the unfairness of it.
So I got myself a pair of oars and took to rowing up and down the river shore. We lived on the Tred Avon at that time, up Traveler’s Rest Neck, so I had plenty of space to row as far and as fast as I could. It was good exercise, too, although I didn’t think about that at the time. I just liked moving through the water, stroke, stroke, stroke to my own beat, cutting over the green-blue waters, so clear in those days you could see the bottom.
I’d pack a lunch and a soda and row around the shore, just out of sight of my parents, drop anchor, sprawl across the middle seat and read.
I’m embarrassed to say that I was going through a phase where I read movie magazines. I have no idea what attracted me to those pulpy scandal sheets that were so popular in those days. They were lurid, with studio photos and headlines that promised a lot more than they delivered, filled with gossip and innuendo about the film stars of the day.
So I knew more than I really wanted to about Elizabeth Taylor, Sandra Dee, Troy Donahue, Tab Hunter and so many other actors whose fifteen minutes have come and gone. Maybe I liked them because they were so downscale that they horrified my mother. I was at that rebellious age.
For hours, I’d bask, un-sunscreened, in the hot summer sun, rocking gently on the waves, reading and enjoying my time on the river.
Movie magazines weren’t all I read. Sometimes I actually read literature. The Count of Monte Cristo, To Kill a Mockingbird, Rouge et Noir and The Charterhouse of Parma, Chekhov, The Grass Harp, the short stories of Guy de Maupassant, Willa Cather, Katherine Anne Porter, War and Peace (never finished) and Mark Twain. I read a lot of Mark Twain.
For years, I wanted to be Huckleberry Finn and float down the Mississippi on a raft. It wasn’t until years later, when I did my thesis on Huckleberry Finn, that I understood all the social and moral implications of the book. At fourteen, I just wanted the kind of freedom he had from adult supervision, to live out in the open, never to grow up.
As long as I lay at anchor in my old wooden skiff, I didn’t have to grow up either. Adolescence and impending adulthood puzzled and frightened me. I was a naïve child, like Frankie in Carson McCuller’s Member of the Wedding, and felt as if I didn’t fit in anywhere, which is pretty typical for a kid in middle school, I’ve come to find out. No wonder I found Huck Finn and Peter Pan so interesting at that age.
Everything I knew about life came from books. Or pretty much everything.
In the real world, I was a misfit, floundering for a sense of who and what I wanted to be in a sea of conformity. In my world, I was learning stuff that would arm me for what I would become, if and when I ever grew up.
The world I was growing up in was changing, even though I was barely aware of it. Independent thought was mutiny. While I was daydreaming and learning how to educate myself in a rowboat, people were marching on Washington, demanding their civil rights. A guy named Bob Dylan was revolutionizing pop culture. Far away from my sheltered, protected world, the world was changing in ways I couldn’t even imagine.
“What are you rebelling against?” someone asks Marlon Brando in The Wild One.
“Whatya got?” he asks.
I’d find out what I was rebelling against soon enough. It’s a rite of passage everyone goes through as they stumble into adulthood.
But that summer, I floated and daydreamed, watched the clouds form and change shapes, listened to the lullabye of the gentle slosh of water against the hull of my private floating world. I read pulp and art, and allowed myself to be suspended between childhood and being an adult. Neither option appealed to me, and yet I had begun to yearn for something more. I couldn’t quite frame what that something would be, but I knew it would involve creativity somehow.
Which in itself was a rebellion against everything I’d been raised to do. In those days, small town doctors’ daughters kept their legs together, guarding their virtue like crown jewels. If one happened to slip and get pregnant, it was the end of the world for her.
Girls went into professions like nursing, secretarial work and teaching. They went to college to get their MRS degree. Having snagged a man, they quit work and raised kids. They walked two paces behind men and deferred to them on every decision.
Girls certainly did not go into the arts, where unwashed beatniks and Commie Bohemians lurked in every coffee house poetry reading and art gallery. That was for bad, ungrateful girls. Or that’s what they thought at the time.
But I was only vaguely aware of what would happen. Rowing on the river, I sensed the storms that would come that night, and knew I was safe for a little more time until I had to go back to dry land and face reality.
If someone asked me how I spent my summer vacation that year, I’d probably have to say I wasted every precious day, lolling around reading and daydreaming in a battered old skiff. But I used that time well. I learned, I dreamed, I made a plan. I found the courage to become myself, for better worse or whatever.
That autumn, when school started, I got a part-time dream job in a bookstore. And my future started for real.
I often wonder whatever happened to that skiff.