Peter Shelton

Warm Coastal Waters (1)

Posted in Confessions of a Grandpa, Personal History by pshelton on November 5, 2017

It was fun teaching the little kids port and starboard. Dad would have enjoyed the lesson. He would have enjoyed giving it himself, but he’d been dead for seven months. So, if he was there, somehow, listening, he heard me pass the nautical knowledge on to his great grandchildren.

The youngest, Boden, who is six and lives in Colorado, told me later that he had a way of remembering: “Airport! Starburst! I left the airport… Starburst candies!” Starburst being the other side, the right side looking forward, the side that’s not airport.

We were motoring out of Avalon harbor in twin six-passenger runabouts: red and yellow painted hulls, with bench seats, high gunnels, and powered by appropriately unpeppy, but steady (like Dad near the end), 15-horsepower outboard motors. The skippers, Tom in one boat, me driving the other, steered with a starboard-side wheel.

We were twelve: my brother, Tom, his long-time girlfriend, Diana Burbano, and their son, Lionel, who is almost 11; my sister Wendy, with her daughter, Eliza; my two daughters, Cloe and Cecily, with their kiddoes, Alex and Lily (who live in high-desert Oregon), and Boden. Plus Ellen and me, the senior crewmembers, made twelve. I had done the pre-trip research from afar. Ellen and I live in Oregon, too, after nearly 40 years in Colorado. I’d talked on the phone with Jay Guion of Joe’s Rent a Boat, on the Pleasure Pier in Avalon. Ellen had carefully rationed Dad’s ashes into a dozen small, screw-top tins, one for each of us.

I liked Jay immediately, even though now, in person, he was telling me I couldn’t reserve the boats. This made me nervous. They didn’t do reservations, he said from behind the open-air counter on the pier. Come back when your whole group is here ready to go, and we’ll have two boats for you. He managed to be reassuring without budging on procedure. Sandals. Broad straw hat. Sparkly blue eyes. Gray handlebar mustache. He’s been working the pier on this island off the southern California coast his whole life, 80-some years. His dad, the original Joe, started the business 90 years ago. “We’ll have your boats,” he said again, island mellow.

He must have sensed my eagerness for this day to go right, my fear that some piece of the puzzle might not fall into place, might mess the whole thing up. There’d already been snafus that morning with my siblings and ferry travel over from the mainland. I could have blurted out to Jay that we really, really needed for him to not run out of boats, even as we waited on pins and needles for my tardy sibs, and Avalon’s morning beaches and shopping streets writhed with tourists. There was a cruise ship anchored off shore, its layer-cake decks having disgorged an untold number of revelers to the shore boats. Some of them were lined up to rent Jay’s boats.

Dad had said he wanted his ashes spread on the “warm, coastal waters off Catalina.” That’s a direct quote. He wrote to each of his children quite a few times over the last several years with thoughts on his mental and physical slowdown, his death, whenever it might come, which he said he didn’t fear – he was curious, actually – and how he’d like to see things go.

“The warm coastal waters off Catalina Island.” That was classic our father. He embraced a certain old-fashioned – you might say romantic – specificity in language, spoken and written. He could be formal without coming off as condescending, sentimental without seeming weak. People responded to his enthusiastic precision. He once signed off a note to the vice-principal, to get me out of school for a week of skiing, with the words, “Intense excitement!” She was a notorious sourpuss. But I got my excused absence. And we all use the phrase to this day. You’re coming for a visit? Intense Excitement! Cowboy Junkies are playing for free in the park? Intense Excitement!

We had half of Dad’s ashes. His widow (his second wife) had the other half and planned to take hers to the desert Southwest, to Indian country around the Four Corners, where the two of them had had some of their happiest times.

Among other things, I had worried about the weather. June in Newport Beach, where my crew of seven boarded the Catalina Flyer, can often mean “June gloom.” I remember the pattern as pretty common during our youth there: school’s out but the sun isn’t. Inland southern California is getting hot but the Pacific Ocean is still winter cool, and the resulting temperature clash laps ashore as fog, a marine layer, as the weathermen say. Some days the fog retreats off shore, and the beaching is fine. Other days, the layer stays put, pulsing inland, up the canyons of the coastal hills.

That marine layer can bring a serious chill. And what if it’s windy? Or there’s a big swell? Is it smart for us to cast off in two small, open boats, out of Avalon’s harbor with its calm-water bustle, and out along the island’s uninhabited coastline to a place that was quieter but more exposed, wilder, a place to get quiet ourselves and do honor to our dad’s expressed wish? So far, on this day, the sea shone like glass. But what if the wind kicked up before my sibs and their kids arrived?

I could have told Jay about my worries, told him about our mission, and he might have taken pity on me – I had the tins right there in my backpack – but I wasn’t sure if there weren’t some rule, some environmental regulation or local ordinance that prohibited scattering remains in the sea within drifting distance of civilization. Better to keep it a secret.

And so we waited. With no guarantee of boats for us. We waited for Tom and Diana and Lionel, and for Wendy and Eliza, who had taken different ferries from other embarkation points (Long Beach, San Pedro) thanks to the aforementioned snafus. Eliza’s flight from San Francisco had been delayed. Lionel wasn’t feeling well, and a sitter couldn’t come until later; then he decided to come after all. My plan, to have us all rendezvous at the Newport boat, to make the crossing together, had blown up. There was still a chance they’d all make it, and with enough time to get out in the little boats. (Our return, my crew’s return, via the Flyer, boarded at 1630 hours, sharp.) But who knew? It was hot. We had to drink lemonades and hog a bench that clung to a bit of palm shade at the foot of the turquoise-painted Pleasure Pier.

That was one good thing: the bright Avalon sun meant the marine layer of the past few days had disappeared. First thing that morning Alex, Lily, and Boden had stood clinging to the Flyer’s portside rail, sun on their cheeks, too excited to sit, as we rounded Newport’s jetties and headed west across the channel. The kids were sure we would see sharks, or whales, or dolphins. Or all three!

It was one of the smoothest crossings I’d ever experienced. There was barely a breath of wind on the sea surface for the 27-miles, just a blue-on-blue texture, like a fabric design, or faint rippling on snow. And there was only a light, short-period swell from off the starboard bow, a swell that rocked us side-to-side, more like a baby’s cradle than the headlong pounding one can sometimes get. We did see two sunfish, and a bazillion dolphins. And Alex, by dint of his desire, conjured a shark fin that nobody else saw, surface lolling in the distance.

Between the ages of eight and 18, before I felt the pull of the mountains, I made 56 round-trip Catalina crossings with my dad. (Like all good skippers, he kept a log.) Twenty of them were on board our first boat, the Mister Robert’s, a 27-foot, double-ended Navy “whaleboat,” and the rest were aboard her successor, the Good Grief, another surplus Navy hull, at 36 feet and beamier, able to accommodate the whole family. Both boats had maximum speeds of around seven knots. The Flyer, a 100-foot twin-prop catamaran, flew along at 20 knots plus. That’s where the wind came from that whipped back Lily’s seven-year-old curls, and Boden’s six-year-old buzz cut, and Alex’s 8-year-old shag. Their faces shone. They’d never seen or done anything like this.

The kids called him Geegeepa, great grandpa. And he remained hale enough into his 90s for them to really get to know him. Boden spent time with him in his garage woodshop in Corona del Mar learning to cut dowels with a coping saw, the easiest saw for little hands to work. And Dad visited all three at their homes in Colorado and Oregon. He was creaky and getting creakier. But his mind was still sharp, and he reveled in the very fact of having lived long enough to have “greats.”

Then last autumn, shortly after his 93rd birthday, things rather rapidly fell apart. He got up from the couch, and, even with his walker, couldn’t remain standing. He crumbled to the floor, too weak to move. At first he thought he was having a heart attack. He had dealt with hypertension for decades; he was on blood thinners; he had a pacemaker; he’d had at least one stent inserted into an artery. (A couple of years ago, he’d fired his cardiologist when he overheard her telling a colleague, “It’s amazing he’s still alive.”) He’d done about all the maintenance a man could do. In addition to the heart work, he’d had both hips replaced, and one knee. He drove an electric cart down the street to his beloved senior center so he could take balance classes and chat up strangers at the hot-lunch tables. “Four dollars!” he’d marvel. “For a hot lunch!”

But all the maintenance an accountable man might muster couldn’t delay forever the last fall.


To be continued…

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