Vignette from Richard Hartwell

 

When hate is in the seeds, you can only harvest weeds. Ernst Jünger, The Glass Bees

In joined hands there is hope; in a clenched fist, none. Victor Hugo, Toilers of the Sea

An eye for an eye only ends up making the world blind. Mohandas Gandhi, The Mahatma

 

The Balboa Bay Yacht Club

 

Slip-Streams of Consciousness

I sit here listening to wind chimes softly melodizing in a light breeze backed by the ever-present sound of falling water from a waterfall and fountain in the pond. The Tibetan prayer flags are sending their plaintives up and out of the yard on the same soft breeze that animates the chimes.

Parts of the garden are slowly dying back, or going dormant as the nights approach freezing, although the days seem to still hover in the eighties. Unseasonable days are driving the plants and flowers crazy. I suspect the animals, reptiles and insects are more than moderately confused as well. 

Inside, I watch the news about the ten- to fourteen-foot swells hitting west- and northwest-facing beaches and I am reminded of the extreme tides occasionally surrounding Balboa Island when I was young. In some places the slight seawall would be compromised and the sidewalks and gutters would be awash with nowhere for the overflow to go. We felt as Atlantians sinking into the sea, at least for the scant hours until the tide turned and the local fire department could start pumping out the hardest-hit streets.

I sit here as an aging man with memories rummaging through my mind. Not all are good or fanciful, some are downright bizarre and macabre, but all are obviously part of me or they would not arise, bidden or unbidden.

I recall walking around the Island, and I do mean around the Island, on the sidewalk making a complete revolution. Some great exercise and, often as not, boats to stare at and oogle, far more worthy of wolf-whistles and adoration than even the skimpiest-clad beauty sunbathing on the beach. Even the sleek-lined hulls bouncing in their nudity of sails, bobbing at anchor in the channel, were more captivating of me from nine to fourteen years of age.

When Greg and I walked the Island, we would stop at the far northwest at the address we called merely the Shell House. On patio and deck, banister and railings, were displayed the shells and shellfish and the anemones, octopi, squids, and starfishes collected over years and miles and displayed in preservation jars for all to see. Back then none were ever stolen or molested and we all seemed to take a proprietary pride in what was only a proximity of residence.

The Shell House faced Newport Harbor’s great Turning Basin and one had only to turn about to behold an array of shapes and sizes of ships of all descriptions from the 101- and 102-foot Pioneer or Goodwill to the eight foot Sabots or Balboa Dinghies. There were powerboats, to be sure, some of great size and grand substance like the Ebb Tide and John Wayne’s Grey Goose, but it was the creatures of sail that always caught my attention. There was something about capturing the wind and placing it under bondage that captivated me. The scene was awesome, particularly on weekends or summer Wednesday evenings during the Beer Can Regattas. 

On those evenings, especially on those when the wind died to a mere whisper, one was easily captivated by the almost silent, slow-motion tacking duals of fifty-, sixty- and seventy-foot sloops, yawls, ketches, and schooners working their way up the north Lido channel. Each tack followed by silence and the serene-tenseness of slow footing to windward. 

The northernmost mark would be rounded and then an almost dead-run down the entire length of Newport Harbor would be fought to the finish line. By prior agreement, no spinnakers would be used, being far too unwieldy in the confined channels, but the sight of three or four of these large ocean racers slipping wing-and-wing downward, abreast of one another and almost filling the channel with thousands of square feet of contained wind energy, was not one to be forgotten.

As I became older I was no longer restricted to being an observer to such a fantastic image, but became an actual participant in the production of these sights. It would be impossible almost for me to exaggerate the ego posturing I assumed during the rare moments when my measly muscles were not being tasked to their limits. And I did pose and was definitely quite full of myself for my position as part of the crew on a fifty-one-foot eight-metre sloop Angelita. From her owner-skipper, Walter Podalak, I learned the basic skills of blue water racing. 

Ocean racing is an adrenaline thrill, a rush of speed and power, controlled fury as opposed to silent stealth. However, the contained might of those boats when raced occasionally with the confines of Newport Harbor, was not to be underestimated. My dreams and recollections are to be envied and I would not relinquish them even for a ‘round-the-world passage in a sumptuous stateroom aboard the QE2. 

A recollection of the day Greg and I, perhaps age thirteen, helped a woman caught in the riptide off Balboa Pier. We kept treading water with her and ducking under each massive wave as set after set came in. We were trying to get her to swim across the riptide, out past the surf-line, and then to swim in on the next large set, but without fighting the riptide. But she would have none of it. Finally, a lifeguard swam out with a rescue buoy and helped the woman swim in. To us? Nothing! No thanks, not comments, no help, not even a nod of the head from the lifeguard. Such is the life of heroes at sea.

I never knew how he was beached nor why nor where, although he ended in Newport Harbor by the 1950s working as a handyman for the Balboa Yacht Club. His name was Bill, Wilhelm, Old Bill to us kids running loose around the yacht club. Most of the kids were the spawn of money with fathers at the bar and mothers on the front lawn as uncovered as possible. I was an outsider, like Old Bill and Earl, who piloted the yacht tender for those boats moored in the main channel.

I belonged to the Balboa Island Yacht Club. One dollar, summer only, and you could race your boat against the rich kids just as if you were new money and welcomed. Me? I was old poverty, son of a divorcé, and definitely not welcomed by the yacht club’s brass, just by Bill and Earl. I was taught to pilot the Club launch, to place the turn flags and start/finish line for the ocean racers, and all manner of things nautical. I learned a hell of a lot more from them about seamanship anyway!

What’s the point of all of this? Nothing but to stir my salty loins, to pay homage to my mentors, to re-collect the me I am, and to place, at least, the value of memory on my earlier education of things that matter.

Rick Hartwell is a retired middle school (remember the hormonally-challenged?) English teacher living in Moreno Valley, California. He believes in the succinct, that the small becomes large; and, like the Transcendentalists and William Blake, that the instant contains eternity. Given his “druthers,” if he’s not writing, Rick would rather be still tailing plywood in a mill in Oregon. He can be reached at rdhartwell@gmail.com.