There’s a picture of me as a little boy that has survived all of the to-ing and fro-ing of my family’s life, all of the packing, all of the moving, all of the shifting, all of the plenty and need-for-newness and disposability of mid-20th Century America.
In the picture I am about four. I wear a sailor’s cap, white with my name embroidered on it in gold script. I am standing in our small backyard in front of a small wooden rowboat that my father had bought for $10 from a place on the Long Island Sound that had had that rowboat in its rental fleet.
The paint on the boat was flaking, coming off in large chips and white. Its trim was likewise flaking and red. They were paint chips that would today have the EPA after you. But I suppose in its day, the little rowboat, powered by a 1½- or 3-horsepower engine or two heavy wooden oars, looked jaunty and rentable. Something the Italians who lived near the Sound could take out by the hour, the half-day or a day and catch mossbunkers, sea bass, mackerels and blues. Fish they would cook for their families.
Now, of course, the boat was a thing of the past. Damaged by time and tide. With the bottom rotted out. Unseaworthy.
My father’s intent was to fill the boat up with sand. It would be our sandbox, my brother and mine. But until my father went to the hardware store to buy six or seven 50-lb. bags, the boat was presented to us as a place of adventure and swashbuckling. My father would sit on the gunwales as my brother and I scurried over the hull like hermit crabs.
Without the white sand from some distant and faraway shore, he saw the structure as a place where pirates fought and died, where whales were harpooned. A place where we could sight U-Boats and sink same. A place where we were the skipper or captain, where we took no prisoners and better men than we were keel-hauled or made to walk our plywood plank.
The front of the boat—I guess calling it the bow or prow would be most accurate, came to a sharp point. There was a small storage area there, closed off by a door. To me and my brother, this was a cabin, and the boat our cabin cruiser, riding the waves with bright white smiles, coca-cola and laughter. The front area had enough space for a few life-preserves, coils of rope or an anchor. In a pinch, if we were playing hide and seek or just goofing around, one of us—not both, could squeeze in and shut the door behind us most of the way. This became our secret place. A place where we could scarcely be found if we needed to be lost.
My brother and I spent a million daylight hours in our boat, knocking nails in it when we felt like hammering, painting it with our tiny water-color kits when we felt like painting, sanding it when as we dreamed of making it spiffy and sea-worthy. On occasion, in the evening, when my father made it home from the City when it was still light out, he would come out to the boat and drink his drink while he watched us play.
One such evening my brother was chasing me or I was chasing my brother over and around our boat, our bare feet scampering over the wooden planking. My brother stopped short trying to make a turn and fell to the bottom of the boat screaming. Blood was pouring from the bottom of his foot. A two or three inch splinter had broken off the old boat and had wedged inside his foot. My father lifted him off the ground and ran along with me to his Studebaker. He drove to the Cross County Hospital, a blue-brick low-rise in one of America’s first shopping malls. It was the hospital I was born in and next to a restaurant called Adventurer’s Grille that served hamburgers. There, the emergency room doctor removed the serrated splinter and cleaned and bandaged the wound. He made my brother, in the words of my father, “good as new.”
In my father’s car driving back home, my six or seven-year old brother hurt my father worse even than the splinter had wounded him. “Why can’t we have a sandbox that’s just a sandbox?” he asked.
My father silently guided his Studebaker home. He parked the car and sent us into the dark, little house. He went right to the backyard and set to work.
He rocked the boat back and forth against the turf it had settled into to wedge it out of its resting place. He then pivoted the boat around and first dragged, then pushed the boat to the curb, it's keel abrading a shallow trench in the sod. The next morning the garbage men wrestled it into the back of their truck and hydrauliced the boat to smithereens.
We never did get another sandbox. Or another boat.