Is coming of age the same today as it was two or three generations ago?
The Last Hurrah
The year my family moved to Key West, my brother had just graduated from high school and was waiting to join the navy. I was not yet twelve that summer, and he was just seventeen, too young to enlist on his own. But lately a tension had risen between him and my father that helped my parents agree to sign the enlistment papers . I knew at the time, as I know now, that my brother was opening a door that soon we would all drift through, floating off untethered into the world.
The summer of 1962 still seems to me to be an innocent time, compared to even a few years later. Part of that was my age - eleven or twelve is the golden time of boyhood, at least it was then. My friends and I were out all day on our bikes or playing ball. Girls were of mild but not consuming interest; and a few dimes for soda, a DC comic and a Saturday matinee downtown was all the money we needed.
I may have been unusually sheltered, but it was not just me, the whole country seemed innocent as well. On the radio, the songs we heard that summer included the teenage bluster of “Duke of Earl” and Little Eva doing a brand new dance called “The Loco-Motion.” We sat in front of a flickering black and white television, like a tribe gathered in a single living room across a vast country, and watched Wagon Train, Bonanza, and Gunsmoke, learning the same moral lessons from Matt and Doc, Hoss and Little Joe each week. There were no black faces on the screen to disturb our moral assurance, only an occasional Asian like Hop Sing on Bonanza, who spoke a pidgin English and was treated like a family pet. Although the Civil Rights movement was underway, we had yet to discover the depth of our prejudices or the limits of our self assurance.
The summer before he left, my brother and I went sailing. My father had built a 14-foot sailing dinghy like the ones he had sailed as a boy on the Miami River. It was a neat little boat, painted white, with a covered bow you could stand on, an iron keel, and a simple triangular sail. We practiced in the wide canal that led out into the ocean, getting the hang of the boom and the tiller. Then we set off, sailing west into the Gulf.
It was another in a string of nearly cloudless south Florida days and we just kept sailing with the wind. My brother would pick out a distant mangrove island and sail toward it, until the town was out of sight behind us. By afternoon we were far away from anywhere, anchored in a channel that ran through the middle of one of the islands.
In the shade of the island, the mangroves were black and thick, their roots sloshing in the waves. There were sharks in the water here; we could see their fins around the boat. My brother baited a large hook and tried to catch one, just for the sport of it, I suppose. We didn't need a shark, even a small one, in the boat with us. He threw the line in the water a few dozen times standing on the bow, but they never took the bait.
I think by that time we had already run aground and broken off our rudder. We couldn't steer, and we couldn't sail against the wind. As the sun began to sink behind us, we left the shelter of the island and set out to to tack against the wind that blew us constantly westward, away from home. I held the paddle in the water to act as a rudder while my brother worked the sail. After an hour we were still a stone's throw from the island.
We would have been there all night, but a fisherman on his way back to Key West found us and towed the sailboat back into dock around sunset. It was our last hurrah before the end of childhood. Within a couple of years my brother would be sailing on a bigger boat, an aircraft carrier off the coast of a country few Americans had ever heard of called Vietnam.
(The above column originally appeared in the Centre Daily Times and is copyright © 2009 by Walter Mills. All rights reserved worldwide. http://americanimpressionist.wordpress.com/ )