Memories of Our Parents
(page 1 of 15)
Captain, My Captain
By Virginia Myers
We were still a conventional family the night my father changed our lives. Dad came home from work, Mom made dinner and four daughters sat down to say grace before the evening meal. It was 1970 in the dining room of our five-bedroom, suburban home on Long Island.
We had survived the turbulent ’60s, but my dad, Munn Myers, a conservative man who shared a private law practice, could feel the counterculture threatening. He saw it in the fringe-bottomed hip huggers my teenage sisters wore and in the boyfriends they brought home—all of whom, he decided, needed a haircut. At age 8, I was too young to know about drugs and political protests, but in hindsight I know they were lurking at the stoop of our insulated home life and realize that, to Dad, they were the enemy.
I often look for markers in my father’s early years that could have predicted my family’s future. He grew up one of five boys in Sea Cliff, N.Y., sailing ice boats and skating in the winter, sailing and swimming in Long Island Sound in the summer. His patriarch father required coats and ties at dinner. When Munn was 15, he sneaked out his bedroom window and climbed down the rose trellis to help deliver milk bottles in the wee hours of each morning, eventually using the money he earned to pay for a cross-country bus trip to the San Juan Islands in the northwest corner of the continental U.S. There, he learned to live off the land at his Uncle Lou’s homestead. That sense of self-sufficiency defined him ever after.
As an adult, my father was a member of the school board and served on the vestry at the Episcopal church. He was dependable and strong-willed. Though he started his law career as a drone in a large New York City firm and later joined the FBI as a special agent, he was no company man. And although Dad shunned the elite, we belonged to the yacht club. We all sailed together, and he occasionally raced sailboats solo.
I loved my father for his unshakable integrity. He believed right would always prevail, and that if he worked hard enough, he would be successful. It was the mantra of his generation.
But that night in 1970 produced his greatest statement against convention. His proposal: “How would you like to sail around the world?” The idea took off.
Our sailboat, a 40-foot ketch called Glad Tidings, took us away from what Dad called the “rat race.” His law partner, Charlie O’Donnell, had died of a heart attack at age 40, and it shook my 45-year-old father to the core.
We sold our house, had an enormous yard sale and sent the family dog to my cousins. My mother bought unbreakable dinnerware for the galley and fitted bed sheets for the bunks. Dad studied navigational maps and reviewed Chapman Piloting and Heavy Weather Sailing. My parents borrowed some fourth-grade textbooks for me, and bought a high school correspondence course for two of my sisters; the eldest had already enrolled at Cornell University and would take a break from college for what had come to be known as The Trip.
Finally, in the summer of 1970, we took off from Port Jefferson, N.Y. Sailing and motoring down the Intracoastal Waterway, Dad let me take the helm and taught me to sound three blasts of the horn, the signal for drawbridges to open. I learned to read water depth on a navigational chart, counted seconds between flashes as we identified channel markers at night, and handled the rubber bumpers that kept us from crashing into docks when we were in port.
Things didn’t always go exactly as planned.
Our layover in Mattox Creek, Va., to get the boat seaworthy took months instead of weeks. While we were there, Dad built top bunks with boards that would keep us from rolling out of our beds in a storm, and rope ladders for us to climb the mast as lookouts. Then my eldest sister (and Dad’s first mate), Jean, announced that she would be leaving to marry her college sweetheart. Using the harbormaster’s house up the hill from where we were docked, she sewed a satin wedding dress and four blue velvet dresses for the bridesmaids. After the wedding, held in nearby Fredericksburg, Va., she and her new husband moved to a converted hunting lodge in upstate New York.
Three days after the wedding, on Jan. 5, 1971, the rest of us sailed south. We stripped to bikinis in Fernandina Beach, Fla., our first taste of the tropics—at about 50 degrees. The Bahamas were warmer, and I remember water so shallow that we ran aground in our dinghy. I also remember people who ate fish heads, and barracuda that were poisonous, and tracing the tracks of conch some 15 feet down through crystal clear water from the surface. I remember sailing a dinghy to a sand spit where I found scallop shells on the beach, and I remember the smell of the straw market in Nassau, where I bought my sister Cyndy slippers for her 16th birthday.
In the Virgin Islands, we picked edible whelks from tidal pools on Virgin Gorda and enjoyed a snorkeling trail on St. John’s. There were also long, sweaty days in port beside cruise ships in dirty Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas, with the main cabin blocked because the floor boards were up, Dad’s head buried in the diesel engine beneath as he tried to fix one of the constant breakdowns we endured.
I remember the feel of his knees against mine when we rowed to shore in the dinghy for provisions, and the smell of his sweat through undershirts so thin they were like gauze stretched over skin. He liked to bathe with a bucket of seawater and Joy dishwashing detergent (because it foamed in saltwater), and he wore cut-off khakis, with his skivvies hanging out below the ragged bottoms. He expected us to brush our teeth with saltwater in order to save our limited fresh water supply.
We never made it around the world, but for a girl who celebrated her ninth birthday aboard the boat, the entire year was an adventure, with only a few moments of confusion when my father would simmer over some mysterious imperfection none of us could identify. Was he angry because the radio signal was too fuzzy for him to use for navigation? Or because one of us had used too much water? Was the broken auto pilot really that essential? Could we trim the sail better, or was it just impossible to go faster in this particular breeze?
His perfectionist and controlling nature were magnified in close quarters with two sometimes rebellious teens and a chatty little girl. For my mother, who was not much of a sailor to begin with, it was a challenging adventure. She worried that Dad was the only one who could sail the boat himself. If something had happened to him, in a storm, for instance, we would have been in serious trouble. And while I loved the long stints on the open sea, the monotony almost cost my mother her sanity.
Eventually, the emotional and physical demands became overwhelming and we turned around in Martinique. Two weeks later, we limped into Lake Worth, Fla., with a broken engine and flashlights illuminating the sails so we wouldn’t be hit by shipping traffic.
Our family settled into Vero Beach—then a small, oceanside community—sold Glad Tidings and returned to our old routines, except that when Dad went back to work, he was pinching the heads off shrimp on the back deck of a shrimper. He did it long enough to learn the business, and then bought his own boat.
Dad went on to operate six shrimp boats out of Key West, and gained a reputation for having the cleanest vessels in the local fleet. But the rising cost of gasoline and fines my father incurred for participating in the Mariel boatlift from Cuba in 1980 eventually scuttled the business.
No longer into shrimping, Dad played the stock market and bought 9 acres in South Carolina, where he planted a grove of fruit trees and experimented with grafting pears and apples. He built a new house in Florida, and my parents alternated between the two homes.
In his 70s, Dad contracted lymphoma, which likely stemmed from skin cancers he’d collected over years of exposure to the sun. Characteristically stoic, he told no one about the cancer, and my sisters and I didn’t know until we arrived in South Carolina to celebrate our parents’ 50th wedding anniversary and found him missing all his hair, a result of chemotherapy. Independent to the end, my father waited to take his last breath until we’d all broken our bedside vigil at the hospital to go home for the night.
My father’s legacy is my own life. I define myself as unconventional, embrace the independence he modeled and struggle to overcome the need to control, a need that tormented him and his family despite his well-meaning intention that our world be organized in the best possible way—his way.
We all struggle with our parents’ legacies. But I like to think we can also embrace the things that made our mothers and fathers the heroes we believed them to be, back when a question was simple: “How would you like to sail around the world?” And the answer was a gleeful “Yes!”
Writer Virginia Myers lives in Takoma Park.