As a boy with empty pockets, the author took window shopping to new heights, scanning the displays of every sporting goods store in his town.
Normally, I would look away and get back to my business, which in that case was sanding the new starboard oak gunwale we installed on Jerry’s work skiff, but there was something about the man that captured my attention. The fashionably dressed gent did walk down to the second level, and that was when I broke the strict protocol of boys being seen and not heard. Something prompted me to blurt out a greeting.
“How are you doing? Can I help you?” He smiled, then walked quickly down to the entrance level. I was the only person outside, so he extended his right hand as I wiped the dust and primer off my own with a piece of clean toweling.
“Hello there, my name is Ernest and I’m looking for the membership secretary.” I had no idea who the membership secretary was, but I knew the caretaker ran the boating operation, so I asked him to follow me and walked him into the kitchen. Without turning from his preparation of a huge seafood stew, the caretaker made one of his lefthanded inquiries.
“You can’t possibly be hungry after the breakfast we ate—or did you run out of sandpaper?”
I made the introduction and turned to leave, but the caretaker said, “Let me know when you are ready to clamp down the rails and sock down those screws. This chowder will be ready in about an hour.”
After his conference with the caretaker, Ernest—not Ernie or Ern, but Ernest—walked around the shoreline on both sides of the building and then made a visit to Clarkson’s boat shed adjacent to the club grounds. Shortly thereafter, I heard the clanking of the brass bell that signaled lunch was ready. The caretaker was a reprobate who claimed he stole that bell from one of the nuns at my school in order to call me without having to yell his tonsils out.
I was surprised the caretaker invited Ernest to join us for lunch—even more so when he accepted. The old man reached into his pocket for his change purse but was beaten to the punch by our guest. He slipped a crisp new $10 bill from his wallet and asked me to buy the rolls the caretaker needed as well as drinks and dessert if there was a nearby bakery. I could read the grin on the caretaker’s face. It was obvious our soon-to-be new member was what he referred to as a “sport,” a man who more than paid his way.
I ran down the beach, up the hill, and to the North End Bakery, where I bought a dozen assorted pastries, then went around the corner to the variety store to purchase a six-pack of cold Coke. I returned via the stairs, and the surprised caretaker asked if I ran all the way. Actually, I was hungry and very curious about our guest. He took me aside and told me that Ernest was about to leave that morning without making an inquiry until I welcomed him. My fortuitous question led to what was to become an affectionate and mutually beneficial friendship.
We ate standing up against the linoleum counter, dipping into our bowls of steaming seafood bouillabaisse that tasted every bit as wonderful as it smelled. Ernest looked down at the floor and said he noticed I was staring at his shoes. I was embarrassed and explained that my father was a salesman for the Florsheim shoe store in our city and that brand of shoe was both distinctive and expensive.
“Very observant. I bought them from a man who speaks four languages and has a son he claims spends all of his free time on the shores of the Taunton River. Are you that boy?” I could not believe he had known my father. He told me he was from Taunton and had a Lyman-style custom inboard boat that he kept at the Taunton Yacht Club, which was a long distance upriver from the places he fished at Sakonnet, Cuttyhunk, Newport, and Jamestown. He added that a slip or mooring at our club would save him a great deal of time and travel from the upper reaches of that shallow and narrow rock-ribbed river, meaning much more time fishing than traveling. The caretaker told him I had been rowing and assisting a couple of old-time striper fishermen and guided a few who were unfamiliar with the river.
“That answers my next question. Would you be interested in showing me around, and not just on the water? I’d like to check out the local restaurants, particularly the bakery you bought this bread and pastry from. Perhaps we could work out an arrangement where you look after my boat while I’m away on business.”
We sealed the deal with a handshake, and the caretaker was delighted. Shortly thereafter, I assisted the caretaker in deploying a mooring for Ernest’s boat that was close enough to shore yet deep enough to protect the prop and rudder on his inboard. That Lyman Islander inboard was one of the best and most handsome boats of its day – an 18-footer with a 65hp Chris Craft inboard. It had two steering stations located to the starboard side with the wheel spokes pointing fore and aft as opposed to the typical port to starboard that was the standard of the day. It took a bit of getting used to, but after those flat-bottom skiffs, it was a joy to operate and fish from a real seagoing vessel.
That first year, we made a few trips to the ocean in Rhode Island Sound off Sakonnet and then up along Ocean Drive, and I came to appreciate the wonderfully dry ride and smooth entrance to waves in a head sea. Ernest was a widower without children or close family members nearby, and he always called me Charles rather than Charley. He was a kind and generous man, and I kept his boat in Bristol condition. I deployed the bimini top to keep rain off the instruments and frequently washed down the white cushions. When we knew he was coming, I brought the boat over to the dock and tied it along the heavily padded north side with three bumpers handing from her port rail. This poor errand boy was becoming an experienced angler and skipper while being introduced to the traditional maritime lifestyle that gave me great pleasure and satisfaction.
Forever etched in my mind is that one spectacular mid-morning when we drifted off Beavertail Point with me cutting fish on the heavy canvas spread over the deck. With a sharp Dexter, I struggled with a muscular and very slippery tautog to bleed it into a tall, galvanized bucket before sliding it into the metal cooler. With a wound from a sharp spine in my left palm and thick blood dripping from my hands, I looked around at a calm and expansive ocean and thanked my clever and compassionate instructor for initiating me into that very special avocation. I began to understand this was not just about one morning or one fish; it was about becoming part of a tradition that would become my life’s work and recreation.
One windy day, rather than beat our way and punish the boat out to the fishing grounds, Ernest asked for a tour of the village. We walked along as I pointed out the shops, taverns, and Republican Club pub, where we enjoyed chouricio sandwiches baked in wine and served in Portuguese torpedo rolls. We carried six of those delicious sandwiches and a dozen donuts back to the club with us. Ernest was worried that we didn’t have enough, but there was only the caretaker and four others in the locker room. One of them was Leo, a surly gent, unruly and crude, with a tendency to drink to excess and obviously jealous of anyone of means, particularly a well-mannered and generous fellow like Ernest. I was elated to see Captain Larson there; he had just returned from running a big ketch from Newport to Southport, Maine. I attempted to introduce Ernest to the Captain, who informed me they had met a few years earlier at the big marine hardware store on the waterfront near Ernest’s home. He winked, then told me about having an interesting story for me later. In the meantime, I walked over to Leo, sitting in the far corner, casting a resentful stare at the friendship and merriment. He reeked of stale tobacco and cheap whisky, and when I offered him a sandwich, he asked who it was from. When I told him, he snapped at me.
“Tell your rich friend I don’t need a stinking handout from the likes of him.”
Both Larson and Ernest were within earshot and looked my way. Leo felt the annoyed gazes of his fellow members and retorted, “Who the hell are you to think you can come in here and buy friends? I ought to toss you out on your butt.” The irate thug got up, but Larson stepped in front of Leo as he made his way toward an unwavering Ernest. “You better sober up before you start something you can’t finish. The man was only trying to say thanks and share his good fortune with his new friends.” He grabbed Leo by the arm, dragged him to the front door, and told him he was lucky to be saved him from a trashing. I got as close as I dared to listen to that dispute. An hour or so later, Larson sat next to me and related the tale he had alluded to. “
A few years ago, I was outfitting a boat at the Taunton Yacht Club and was walking to the marine supply when a man roared up in a pickup truck and parked in the entrance of the driveway. Ernest came down the steps, saw he was blocked, and politely asked the man to allow him to back out. The man ignored him and was walking up the stairs when Ernest stepped between him and the door. Ernest told him he had a crane operator and a mechanic waiting for his return, to which the man replied, ‘Tough luck.’ Ernest advised him there would he consequences, which caused the transgressor to drop his satchel and lunge forward with a punch. Ernest skillfully stepped aside, dropped one bag, and caught the bully on the chin with a crushing left hook. The man crumpled to his knees, got up slowly, then charged again. Ernest discarded a coil of cable and proceeded to tattoo the man’s face with sharp blows. A bystander stepped in, dragged the assailant away, and moved the truck. The antagonist sat crumpled on the sidewalk, his face covered in blood, while Ernest used his handkerchief to wipe blood from his knuckles and the sleeves of his sport jacket.”
Captain Larson tousled my hair and stated, “Your friend is not a fighter; he is a boxer and would have cut a grappler like Leo to pieces.” I wondered how many other toughs had taken stock of the gentleman dressed in a sport jacket and tie, and then realized they had made a grave miscalculation.
Money comes and money goes, but good friends last a lifetime. Ernest was kind and generous on my behalf and never arrived at the club to find oil or water in the bilge, or seagull droppings on his deck or windshield. I polished the brass so frequently that the caretaker warned I would rub the finish off the metal. We put oceans of water under the seaworthy little hull and enjoyed some extraordinary times together.
In what appears to be a normal progression of life, change is inevitable. I moved on to take two part-time jobs and began to get serious about plans for my education. That fall, between Ernest and the odd jobs with the caretaker, I managed to squirrel away enough folding green to put a shine on our family Christmas. I was able to buy Mom a two-pound box of Fanny Farmer chocolates, which my dad always gave her for Christmas and anniversaries, and some inexpensive toys from the five and dime for my little sister and brother. Mom was in the rocker and I was sitting on the floor at her side as she watched her children’s joyous response. She had tears in her eyes, but they were tears of joy. At that moment, I was beginning to live up to Dad’s request that I look after the family once he was gone.
Several years later during the Christmas season, I was window shopping at Cornels Outdoor Emporium. My eyes were riveted on the new stainless marlinspike knife with splicing fid when someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was Ernest. He gave me a hug, then we swapped details about our lives. He smiled and said there was now a wonderful woman in his life. I wished him well and shared my mother’s pronouncement on life.
“God did not create man to live alone.”
He stepped back, smiled, then squeezed a rolled up bill into my hand.
“Merry Christmas. This is for all those wonderful memories I relive every time I’m near or on the water. I am grateful you called out to me that first morning. I needed friends like you and the caretaker during that difficult period in my life after my wife passed.” We shook hands, extending a long, warm, and firm grasp. We parted with pleasant thoughts of times past. Two men, one striving for survival on the climb up, and the other having found a supportive partner, and looking forward to spending his remaining years in good company.
After he left, I opened my fist to find a $20 bill—more than I was able to save over the last two weeks. In life, we are presented with numerous opportunities. Welcoming Ernest that long ago morning was one I am blessed to have made.