by Sam Ivey
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Stepping Over the Line
“Alone on the raging ocean, alone in my craft I ride,
Alone on the foaming billows, in all their crested pride,
No man before hath ventured, alone, so far to sail;
Nor mind hath ever yet conceived a ship so small, so frail.”
Sydney Punch - February 17, 1883, Sydney, Australia
“You’re insane Gilboy. You must be completely mad! You’d have to be to do what you’re planning.”
Bernard Gilboy smiled warmly as he took his eyes from the horizon and turned to look intently at his friend.
“No, no, Howard; not at all. I am as sane as you are. But I have this need in me, a need for adventure. It’s in my bones, Howard, in my very bones. And I... I have to deal with it. And please — don’t get me wrong. This is no spontaneous sort of thing; this is no running-away-from-home schoolboy fantasy. It’s just a need. That’s the only way I can describe it; a need that must be satisfied.”
His vision had refocused on the horizon as he added, “And I see this trip to Australia as the means of doing just that.”
“But good lord, Bernard. Australia is another world! It’s... well it’s a devil of a long way from here, man.”
“Oh, it is that, Howard,” Gilboy chuckled, “a very long way indeed. But be it ever so far, it’s still virtually at our feet. And it’s not, as you say, another world. This water — right here in front of us — this water is merely an extension of the same water that bathes the shores of Sydney or Melbourne or... or the Great Barrier Reef. This is the link, Howard Sutro. We are as physically bound to Australia as we are to the Sierra Madre Mountains, right back there over your shoulders.”
Sutro didn’t look back over his shoulder. Nor did he reply. Instead, he simply nodded thoughtfully as he studied the muted, red-orange disc of the sun, a sun that previously had set aflame the sky beyond the headlands of the Golden Gate — a sun that now, with reverent silence, was slipping below the rim of the world. He noted, too, the fog that was starting to form, the diaphanous streamers creeping across the choppy waters like a gathering of wraiths; swirling like immaterial serpents over San Francisco Bay’s nearly ubiquitous whitecaps.
Standing there with his hands in his jacket pockets, shoulders hunched against the developing chill of the late July evening, Gilboy’s cool, blue eyes drank in the sunset’s murky remains. Out there — out across the Pacific — lay his world, the world of the sea; a world that had beckoned to him irresistibly, ever since he had been a young boy growing up in Buffalo, New York.
During the few seconds of silence that transpired between him and Sutro, broken only by the sounds of the bay, his mind suddenly went racing back in time. He could still remember his father’s displeasure at his playing along the banks of the Niagara River, could still hear in his memory’s ears: “Bernard, how many times have I told you that I don’t want you playing down there by the River? It worries me, and it worries your mother. That current could carry you away, and we’d never find you.”
But in spite of the loving chastisement, Gilboy had found himself drawn, or propelled as it were by his limitless fascination, to the water. Nor was it in a spirit of rebellion that he acted. For even in those young years he had been obsessed by a latent, dominating desire for adventure. But from whence sprang this enamorment by the sea, would forever be a mystery. Nevertheless, it tugged at him as though he were the diametric pole of another magnet. From where the River came and to where it went, were the places he longed to be — wherever they were.
And just at that moment, standing there on that dock, he recalled the day when he had decided to join the Navy in his unflagging pursuit of that irresistible fascination. As clearly as though it were only hours ago, he remembered that occasion in 1869.
He had come walking home that day, strolling down Dewitt Street to the house on the corner of Forest Avenue. Approaching the house, he had found his twin sisters sitting in the porch swing and fanning themselves in the sweltering heat of that soggy August afternoon. He had sat on the steps and talked with them in an offhanded sort of way. But inwardly he had been reflecting on what he was about to do. He was only sixteen, and it would be necessary for him to enamel the truth when, a few days from now, he would talk with the recruiting officer. But he had it planned; he would tell them he was twenty-one.
Interrupting such thoughts had been the screen door, as it banged shut behind his mother. She had come from the kitchen, wiping her floured hands on her apron before using the back of her wrist to push an unruly lock of dark Irish hair from her perspiring forehead.
“Well, Bernard, so there you are,” she had said. “And sure’n what’re you thinkin’ about this afternoon?”
“Oh, nothing special,” he had said, and he looked away that the untruth might not be observed in his eyes.
“I see,” she had said. “Well then why don’t you three come on in and get yourselves ready for dinner. Your father will be home soon, and I’d like you girls to help me finish the vegetables. There are some peas that need to be shelled. And then, Hannah, I’d like you to set the table. And Belinda, I’d like you to mash the potatoes. I’m just about done in this heat.”
It was still so fresh in his mind, and the intervening fourteen years had not dimmed the memory of the warm harmony and affection that had been the overtly recognizable character of the family; a family that was well provided for by his father, William, a hard working man, and nurtured in the encompassing maternal love of his mother, Mary.
But the family’s cohesiveness notwithstanding, he had been drawn by some inexplicable force to the cold, incomprehensible and distant sea, a sea upon which he had never cast his eyes. And his leaving home, to travel to New York where he enlisted, was without warning. Then, for the next two and a half years he had sailed the Atlantic aboard several ships, and the die had been cast. He was a seaman. He was a seaman as though it had been his destiny by birth.
Now his mind returned to the present and he said, “Let’s get some coffee, Howard.”
With that suggestion, and tugging his jacket closer about him, he turned to amble back up the dock, the wood of which was becoming slick and damp, glistening with the dew-like mist that was condensing from the fog.
“I could go for a bit of bourbon myself,” Sutro suggested.
“Well then, suit yourself, my friend; every man to his own poison. Somehow I’ve never developed a taste for alcohol, regardless of how it may be disguised. But I’ve got no issue with anyone who has a care for it. At any rate, let’s get in where it’s a bit warmer.”
From the head of the dock and off to their left, they could see the amber light radiating from the windows of Whiskey Newton’s, a small bayside restaurant and bar. Upon entering, they found that a goodly number of those who frequented the waterfront were there. In pairs and in small groups, they sat at tables where sooty candles burned, stuffed into the tops of empty liquor bottles that had become frosted with layer after layer of wax. Having located a quiet table in a corner, they ordered coffee and a double bourbon.
Leaning back in his chair as the coffee and whiskey were brought to the table, Sutro said, “So tell me more about this hare-brained scheme of yours, Gilboy.” Then sipping the golden liquor in his glass and feeling the heat of it bathe his innards he added, “Who are the other candidates for Bedlam that you’ve talked into taking this trip with you?”
“Oh, there’s no one else, Howard. I’m doing this alone.”
Sutro choked, his next swallow having coincided with Gilboy’s surprising revelation. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his mouth. “I’m sorry, Bernard, but that just took me totally aback.” His voice became intensely low and he leaned forward, elbows on the table. “How in thunder are you going to handle a big boat out there on the ocean all by yourself?”
“Eighteen feet is not a big boat, Howard. I should have no trouble with that.”
Sutro buried his face in his hands, shaking his head slowly from side to side before looking back at his friend in disbelief. “You can’t be serious,” he said. “Why I’d hardly row across the bay out there in a boat that size. And nobody, I mean nobody, has ever done anything like this before.”
From the worn, white mug with its cracked handle, Gilboy took a deep draught of the dark, steaming brew. A little smile sneaked from under his walrus-like mustache as he nodded. “Well, I realize that, Howard, and you’re almost right; at least nobody’s done the Pacific. Captain Al Johnson’s crossed the Atlantic, of course. I don’t know if you remember him — most people probably don’t.”
Sutro sipped his drink, made a little grimace as whiskey drinkers sometimes do, and shook his head. “Uh huh. You’ll have to count me in the group. When was this?”
“Oh, about four or five years ago. No, I take that back. Make it six years ago. Yeah, eighteen seventy-six it was, a centennial year. I recall it now ‘cause he named his boat Centennial. From Massachusetts, he was — out Gloucester way. And that was a small boat too — a twenty-footer. But I guess that’s what makes us different — people like Johnson and me.” He wiped both sides of the mustache with a forefinger. “Besides, it’s not the size of the boat that matters, Howard. It’s how seaworthy she is.”
Then he pointed toward the bar at the front of the restaurant. “You see those bottles over there? A cork from any one of those bottles will float just as well as the Cutty Sark does — likely even better. By the way, did you know they launched that ship in November of the same year I joined the Navy?” He paused for another mouthful of coffee. “No, eighteen feet will do it, and the boat I’m having built will be as seaworthy as they come. It’ll hold all I need, and I can hardly wait to get started.”
The conversation rattled on, nearly an hour passing as Gilboy shared with his close friend some of the intimate and secret aspects of his pending adventure. Finally, Sutro downed the last of his bourbon and chunked the glass down on the table.
“I’ve got to hand it to you Bernard. You’ve got more guts than I have — or fewer brains, whichever is the case. But I wish you all the Irish luck that your parents could possibly have brought over from County Mayo. When do you plan to leave?”
As though his departure was imminent, Gilboy instinctively pulled his watch from his pocket as he responded. “I’d like to get away before the fifteenth of next month, but it all depends on how soon the boat can be readied for sea. It’s not even launched yet.”
“Well, keep me up to date. I’d like to be there to see you off.”
“I’d like that very much, Howard.”
“Then I’ll plan on it. What time have you got there?”
“Ah! Later than I thought.” He rose from his chair. “I’d better run along now. The wife’ll be expecting me. Good night, Bernard.”
“Good night, Howard.”
After Sutro left, Gilboy walked for almost an hour, his mind wrapped in reflective thought, his stocky, five-foot, eight-inch frame wrapped in his not-quite-warm-enough jacket. His hands were stuffed deep in its pockets, the collar turned up. How unusual, he thought, that he should even be here — here in San Francisco. What unpredictable turns of fortune there had been, as he had sought to orient himself in a world that was, to a degree, foreign to him.
And as he walked this evening, all manner of memories were turning about in his head. Some were significant, others almost meaningless; the latter being so much so as to cause him to wonder why they even came to mind.
For no apparent reason he remembered changing the spelling of his name. He smiled to himself and shrugged his shoulders, considering it a silly recollection. But then again, perhaps it occurred because he was now on the threshold of dramatically changing his entire life. He tried, unsuccessfully, to recall if he had made the change before or after he had been mustered out of the navy in ‘72. It didn’t really matter, but he distinctly remembered doing it because virtually everyone misspelled it anyway. The name “G-u-i-l-b-o-y” so often being spelled without the letter “U”. Thinking on it now, the change appeared to have actually been wrought by others.
A chill gust of raw wind suddenly whipped around him, bringing with it a shiver and yet another memory — that of having spent some time here in this city after leaving the navy, and of having met Howard Sutro.
The two had very little in common, actually. Sutro had come from an above-average family, and after graduating from the University of San Francisco — a private Jesuit institution where he had majored in business — he had become an investment broker with his father’s firm. Gilboy had met him quite accidentally, in the isles of a bookstore, where they both happened to be looking for stories of the sea.
It had been that taste in literature, and Sutro’s subsequent learning of Gilboy’s naval background, that had formed the basis for a lasting friendship. It was not uncommon for Sutro to scour Bernard’s brain for information about places he had yet to see. The fact that both were from a Roman Catholic background was an additional cause for camaraderie.
So the relationship had grown, Gilboy never ceasing to appreciate that Sutro’s wealth had not bred in him an all-too-common attitude of superiority. Indeed, the considerable difference in social status had been as nothing between them, and he had spent much of his free time with Sutro before returning to Buffalo about four years ago and going into the grocery business.
Copyright © 2006 by Sam Ivey