Meet the Humans of the Keys

Meet the Humans of the Keys

Monday, July 6, 2015

Nathan Patrick Dell, Largo

The Bahamas 1974...
In strictly technical terms I was an unwanted bastard child. My father had two children in a previous marriage and when he met my mother was not planning on having anymore. He did not speak a single word to my mother during her pregnancy. During infancy I slept in a large Styrofoam cooler, the poor mans version of a crib.
I carry a scar over my left eye. The details are sketchy but somehow I fell out of that ice chest and smashed my temple on the corner of a coffee table. I often wonder if my father had something to do with that. Considering the levels of cruelty that I was eventually to experience it would not surprise me. My father never held me. My father never told me he loved me.
I carry a scar over my heart. These scars intermingle with the ideal and the face that still lives in my mind. It was tan, reminiscent of a Kennedy set against the turquoise waters and bright white fiberglass of sailboats and yachts. My early years were spent on the decks of the La Renard and many other boats and marinas.
The sea was my home. My father was always looking for the next destination. I, on the other hand was always searching for my fathers approval. These adventures became the only fringe benefit, my hazardous duty pay. Somehow I had confused the hedonistic pursuits of my parents with love. I thought the adventures were for me.

In order for me to survive I have made them my own.
They are preserved, the salt smell of the sea, the sound of sailboat rigging, the wind chimes of the deep ringing from every sailboat mast that ever sailed the sea, waves forever slapping the hull, the gentle, soft hand of the wind on my face.
I remember, I remember that which has been forgotten, that which has been left behind. I remember Bimini in the Bahamas, night crossings in the Florida Straights, waves as tall as the mast, shallow water reefs, navigational hazards, shipwrecks.
I remember the crisp brilliance of the water, a gin clear fantasy that took your breath away and left one in utter humility faced with the genius of nature. I remember the white sand beaches and the palm trees, the marinas, the yacht clubs. I remember the pirates, the captains and the adventures, all on the journey.

It is the journey that remains, the memories have stolen my soul, and they have ripped out my heart and left me here alone on this earth. I can only look to the horizon in order to see. It all still waits for me there.

If I lived to be one hundred these things are enough, these things sustain me. They also hurt me very deeply. It could have been such a beautiful life. It makes me angry. I can still hear my father’s voice, it echoes from the decks of that sailboat from long ago.
“We sure are going fast.” I said.
“Yes we are.” His face was wind browned and cut with wrinkles of concentration. He looked at me.
“Come stand up here.”
“Ok dad.”
I gripped the rail. Slowly I began to inch forward along the cushion. It was to prove my bravery. To stand next to him at the helm. Side by Side. The sailboat healed over at an impossible angle. Seawater rushed over the gunwales and into the cockpit. I made my way forward.
“Are we gonna sink?”
“Yea, but look at all the water coming in.”
“It just goes over the side.”
“Oh.” I turned to look forward. It was becoming a blur.
“Take the helm.” My father placed my hands on the helm.
“Keep the needle on that line.” He pointed to the compass.
The Endeavor cut across the open Atlantic bound for West End in the Grand Bahamas. We made port later that afternoon, my father and his three brothers, each resplendent aboard their own yachts, tanked up on booze and ready to raise hell.
They were West Point Graduates, every last one. My father was the youngest, a true bohemian who shunned his life of wealth and privilege for a life of freedom. His brothers would always come to sample what my father had found. They would always drink, they would always fight. They were downright reckless. These guys would run their yachts hard aground arguing over the nuances of navigation.
These trips were not exclusive to the brothers; others had joined our grand adventures. My father had a few friends from the Keys join the party and now there were six yachts waiting to clear customs. After three days a group of armed Customs Agents stopped by the Endeavor and cleared everyone for passage through the islands.
The next morning we set sail for the Abaco islands. The two main islands of Great Abaco and Little Abaco are bordered on the windward shore by a series of smaller cays that form a barrier of protection from the North Atlantic Ocean. This layout creates a large sound making for excellent protected sailing.
The locals call it Abaco Sound. We took this passage, stopping off at Treasure Cay, Green Turtle Cay, and Marsh Harbor. Green Turtle Cay is one of the out islands of Great Abaco, part of a chain that stretches nearly 130 miles from Walkers Cay to a place called Hole in the Wall.
I awoke to the sounds of the giant Danforth anchor being dragged around on deck, so I hurried up to the cockpit to check out all the commotion. All the sailboats were lined up side by side, everyone was running around securing lines and setting anchors as the Captains maneuvered the boats into position.
Soon after breakfast we loaded into the dinghies for one of our many trips ashore. The air was full of laughter and excitement as we motored the small boats towards the sandy beach. I felt like Robinson Crusoe or Captain James Cook.
Not many young men or women have the privilege of these memories. They have become a blur, a way to escape the awful realities that represented something called love. As a boy I was an unwelcome little guest that was always in the way. We explored each island then simply moved on to the next.
We sailed for Bimini and Cat Cay. This was an eighty mile open water passage to a place that can only be described as magical. The island is nearly seven miles long yet only seven hundred feet across at its widest point.
The winds were favorable. We did the whole passage on a broad reach, one of the most enjoyable ways of sailing. Of course when you’re in the middle of the ocean nothing is as simple as it appears. The waves picked up. We became separated from our companions as the sea became an angry nemesis in search of destruction.
My father went topside to trim the sails when it happened. Mom was at the helm. He scrambled to find purchase as the Endeavor crested a huge wave that was riding on top of a rogue ocean swell. The thirty eight foot trimaran climbed the face of the wave and then floated in mid air.
His feet struggled to find purchase. He missed. The Endeavor came crashing down as my father was thrown down the companionway to the deck below. My mother told me to hold the wheel and scrambled down to help him. His ribs were broken.
I looked forward. My hands gripped the stainless steel helm. My father yelled out. The needle, I had to keep the needle on the line. The sailboat crested again. The ocean had become furious. The bow rose high. The sailboat floated in mid-air and then came down all at once. I kept the needle on the line. My father lay below while my mother taped up his broken ribs and then she showed me how to sail the mighty Endeavor.
We made port by midnight. My mother was tired to the bone and her entire left side was crusty from salt spray. We stayed over a few days in Cat Cay while my father healed up yet I wasted no time making friends with the owners of the largest, classiest yacht in the basin. I did it everywhere we went. I would just walk up and say, “Hi, my name is Nathan. May I have your permission to come aboard?” I delighted in telling everyone in Cat Cay how I had helped my mother sail that long passage all alone.
Bimini glistened the next morning like some jewel that had been carelessly left out on a mirror. There were white sand beaches up and down both sides of the island. The deep blue of the Atlantic gradually became turquoise until finally it was gin clear reflecting everything in sight. It was surrounded by shallow water only twenty to thirty feet deep to the north, south and east. To the west was the mighty Gulf Stream current flowing north through the deep water of the Atlantic.
This placement brings hundreds of different marine animals to the shores of these islands. It was an absolute dream to see giant sea turtles swimming in the shallows of the reef or dolphins frolicking just off the bow of the Endeavor.
We set sail for home the next day. The weather was fair and the sailing was smooth. My father is dead now. He died all alone in a trailer park. He was broke. He was alone. The only thing left was a bottle of vodka. I looked for him. I could not find him. One year after my release from prison I found his death certificate.
The old man left me here, left me here to pay the price. I would never know what he was thinking. I would never know how he felt. I wanted to tell him it was alright, go in peace, thanks for the ride, thanks for making me the way I am. Thanks for showing me something else, something different.
The well is deep, it is a vortex. He is still there, in my mind. I miss that son of a bitch. I would let him hit me one more time for just one more glimpse, one more day, a day to remember, a life worth living.
The old Man...The old Man...
HOK -Thank you to Mr. Dell for sending and sharing his story. It is an experpt from his book in progress; "Garden of the Mind."

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