Peter Shelton

Speak, Memory, Part Two

Posted in Personal History, Watch columns by pshelton on March 1, 2012

Jon Webb emerged from the little two-berth fo’c’sle in Ogress’s bow with a prescription pill bottle in his hand. “Know what this is?” he asked, twisting the cap and producing a slim, hand-rolled cigarette.

“I can guess.”

This was the 60s, February 1967, to be exact, in California. But marijuana had been slow to reach our high school. I didn’t know anybody who smoked it. I had never seen a joint in person before.

One kid had been made an example of earlier in our senior year. He had always been a bit of a non-conformist, a doodler, not a jock, a talented cartoonist as it happened. The administration called an all-school assembly to discuss this person’s transgression. I didn’t even know what they were talking about at first. Pot was never mentioned by name. But gradually, as they laid on the shame – a deterrent, they sincerely hoped to this dangerous, insidious behavior – I, we all, figured it out.

There had been other clues. A couple of classmates had made a trip up north over Christmas break. The San Francisco Bay Area was far more advanced than we were in the ways of psychedelia. These classmates had been to concerts, “freak-outs,” with Jefferson Airplane and The Doors. A previously dowdy girl – not unadventurous, but gangly and innocent – came back claiming she had “broken on through to the other side” with Jim Morrison. She arrived back to school with a peace sign slapped on her notebook and a mysterious look in her eyes, as if she’d been abducted and returned changed.

So when Jon offered, I was intrigued but more than a little nervous. We had just crossed the Catalina Channel in my dad’s boat, on my watch. It was my first crossing alone. (Jon barely counted; he was a lubber, a new friend.) But we had anchored successfully in the lee of Hen Rock, and the rain had stopped, giving way to a warm winter sun. The water was clear to 30 feet, and the button-backs and calico bass were already waving their fins in pale green suspension below us.

Afterwards, we swam ashore. Fast. The water was cold, and we wanted only to scoop warm sand up under our chins. In the summer, on trips with the family to Catalina’s sheltered inland side, the water was always warm enough to snorkel. Once I got used to the funny sound of my breath whooshing through the tube alongside my ear, the sensation was heavenly: floating lazily face down, propelled by kicking fins, peering through a round glass mask at a wonderland of sand and reef and giant kelp waving in gold-dust shafts of light.

For a few years I was a big spear hunter who nevertheless managed never to connect with any fish flesh. Day-Glo orange garibaldi were protected, and they knew it. They’d nose right up to you, utterly unconcerned. I did come upon a huge red and black sheepshead one time and chased it around a rock corner, but I secretly hoped I’d not get close enough to loose my hand spear. And I didn’t.

The underwater ocean was beautiful, alien, glimpsed up close only in one-breath bursts. Moray eels waved their jowly heads and saw-sharp teeth from their hidey-holes. Stingrays materialized with a shudder out of the sand. The surprise, when it happened in shallow water, was enough to make me walk on water.

But there was always the safety of Mr. Robert’s rocking gently at anchor nearby. Mom or Dad in the galley preparing sandwiches for lunch. Bright beach towels drying on the rails.

I told Jon I didn’t feel anything from the marijuana. We lay, now on our stomachs, now on our backs, in the sand. The departing clouds formed and reformed into animals real and imagined. But this had always been true, if, as a child one gave the moment its chance.

Maybe time had slipped its bounds a little. Maybe the morning had traveled into afternoon without my noticing it. We danced gingerly back into the cold water and swam, fast, out to Ogress, where we hoisted ourselves onto her warm deck. I don’t remember what we ate for lunch. I just remember that it tasted like ambrosia – whatever it was  (peanut butter and jelly?) burst on the tongue like nothing I’d experienced before – and that I was ravenously hungry, hungrier than I’d ever been.

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