Leeway–a chapter from Ded Reckoning: Navigating with my Father’s Compass

 

Author’s Note:  The wonderful photograph above was taken by Kelsi Johnson. It’s of the house I was raised in, and where generations of surfers, including my own sons, stashed their surfboards. In this town, the house is something of an icon. Throughout the town–and especially in the immediate neighborhood– locals are shocked and saddened by what is happening to the house. Just recently I’ve had to deal with the deliberate destruction, from the interior out, of the home described below.  The pictures I have of that are currently too heartrending for me to work into my manuscript.

My mother passed away in March, leaving the house to one of my siblings. Her choice, which I didn’t agree with, but, her choice. I don’t think she–in fact I don’t think anyone involved, including her heirs of which I am one–could have imagined the current situation. I am certain my father, who although he lived there less time than she did, having died in 2001, couldn’t when he left it to her. He, after all, paid for the house. It was in our family fifty-one years.  

I know it is “just a house.” I share this excerpt from my forthcoming memoir to give a glimpse of what it means to me. Two family members, including myself, made offers on it and were turned down. Mine was a desperate attempt–using my generous husband’s recent offer of his inheritance–to save the house from destruction.  The best he and I can do, in the current situation, is to try to continue what we have been doing for the past 22 years: like my parents did for me, give our own children some roots. And, learn from the present. We have a renewed commitment to keeping our own humble digs in the family for future generations.

The chapter about this current situation is yet to be written, as a memoir by definition is reflective. It’s too soon. I process by writing. The vast majority of what I write is never read or heard by another, and most of that I don’t even revisit. This memoir is deliberate. I am grateful to my father, who taught me to navigate the world. That’s what I am doing, here.  

Several chapters from the memoir, due out in 2018, have appeared, or will, in peer-reviewed journals. I’m proud of that.

Leeway

 

 

Ded reckoning has nothing to do with mortality—the ded comes from deduced, what you think you know based on history: the history of the boat you’re sailing in…where she was when you last knew for sure. How fast she has been moving since, and in what direction. You draw a line along your projected path: five hours, say, at 6 knots equals 30 nautical miles of distance along that course line from your last known position. You don’t know yet what the tidal set and the currents have done to her. Or leeway—her tendency to slide a little sideways as she moves forward. As we all do.

 

—–Philip Gerard

 

When I was a small girl I’d lay wide awake, worrying the day over in my mind, and sometimes my father would hear me stirring and remind me to settle my mind. He’d tuck me in and sit at my feet, softly singing hymns that were my lullabies, replacing chaotic visions with the poetry of God’s sweet promises. It is these songs I will murmur to him as he lies dying, dumb and acutely aware; it is his combination of stubbornness and blind faith which will save lives on the morning of his funeral.

It is unusual to find time alone with my father. This had to be carefully and assertively planned. The house is generally filled with people; my brothers and their families or those needing help, as my parents comprise the benevolence committee of our church. For five nights Mother has agreed to answer the phone and to keep everyone away. It is hard for me to believe, and I’m ashamed—but since moving to New Smyrna Beach from Huntsville, Alabama, where I was born, I’ve never sat down with Dad alone to concentrate on his stories. And I should’ve. I’m thirty-five: old enough to have taken the time. But, when I was growing up things were hectic. He was madly in love with his work, very busy at NASA, and our house was chaotic.

We Davis children basically inhabited three households; Mother’s unpredictable domain; the happy mess when my father was home; and the secure child’s world we created for each other, in an almost surreally beautiful landscape between ocean and river. The rhythms of our lives moved as naturally as the sea, by turns stormy and calm, unpredictable but constant. In those days of roaming over the cracked pavement and sandy shore on calloused bare feet, a bond formed between my self and this island that would make it impossible for me to ever feel fully at home inland, anywhere far from the sea.

We moved from Huntsville in June, 1966.When we pulled up one sweltering evening in our Chevy station wagon, I climbed out the back window and ran up the street, past the weedy vacant lot next door, to a big square iron storm drain set in the sand. My feet were still bare and sore from sandspurs everyone plucked out after I crossed the grassy strip in front of the boat basin in town. The sandy dirt was rough with broken shells, but the black pavement hot and smooth and it felt good on my bruised feet. I stood on the grate, the warm iron and rising air soothing, leaned over to put my palms on the grating, and looked down into a pool of black water four feet below. I could see my short white hair and bangs next to my round face and tilted green eyes, crosshatched with bars of light and shadow, and  picked up a piece of shell and dropped it in to watch the ripples roll through my reflection. Then I looked back between my chubby legs and that is the first view I remember of our new house and of Robinson Road, upside down.

Past the narrow overgrown lot the roof on the house was not shingled like roofs in Alabama, but covered with uneven pebbles the colors of clouds. And it was nearly flat, with just a slight pitch in the middle. The yard started almost at the door, with a narrow porch of poured concrete not even a full step up, shallow block boxes filled with geraniums along the front. It merged indistinctly with sandy dirt which crept up on the road, over it in places. The road tilted away from me, a slight rise all the way to tall dunes covered in sea oats bent in the breeze and wagging their seedy tops hello. I couldn’t see but could hear the ocean, a rising and receding stretch of continuous sound, like low voices in another room murmuring into the night, indistinct yet melding into something new.

New Smyrna Beach became our home because Mother spent summers there as a child. All she said was, “We took vacations, here.” We knew better than to ask for more, so we speculated, trying to imagine her as a small girl, privileged with summers at the shore. Remnants of that childhood filtered in strange ways into ours—her elegance, and her acerbic, aristocratic turn of phrase; I tried smart and I tried nice and I found nice was better, consider the source; her insistence that we wear linen which she sent out to be starched and ironed. In Alabama, we had a maid to do the ironing. By process of elimination we knew those vacation would have taken place before 1942. When Mother turned ten, her three-year-old sister was diagnosed with bone cancer.  My grandparents sold the verandahed house in Decatur, Georgia to pay for Billie’s radiation treatments at Emory. Mother and her other sisters were sent to live with various relatives. There were families with vacation houses on our street who’d known Mother in Atlanta, people who greeted her in the same sweet drawl she used.

I’m sure Mother’s love of the town factored into my father’s decision to rent the house at 219 Robinson Road. When Dad saw the white concrete block house trimmed in black, five houses from the ocean and six from the Indian River, he rented it for $127.00 a month. It was a month-to-month rental, and he moved us in with the intention of letting Mother choose a house to buy.

The house itself was surprisingly large for its plain exterior, the front door opening into a huge living room running the width of the house from jalousie windows on the right, western wall, to more windows into what must’ve been a garage but had been enclosed to make a long Florida room on the eastern side of the house. This is where all five of us children would sleep sometimes, to catch breezes off the ocean.

The kitchen served as a pass through to the Florida room and the hallway from it to the boys’ bedroom in the back corner of the house. Along that hall was the beach bathroom. It has a terrific big poured concrete shower stall in one corner. And holding back the dark wooden door with black enameled steel handle was the biggest conch shell I’ve ever seen. Enormous, white with a black organic fuzz mottling it, unpolished and dirty, ribbed with curving ridges as delicate and lovely as the wrinkles and veins of my grandmothers hands. Inside, the eternal sound of the sea. Every time I hefted that shell in order to close the bathroom door I imagined it filled with a great mollusk, creeping slowly over the ocean floor, stirring up a fog of sandy dust.

Whenever we returned from the beach, we were required by Mother to rinse our feet with the hose, then walk around to the east side of the house, enter through the Florida room and go directly to this bathroom to shower, coming out fully dressed. No one was allowed to walk around in the house wet, sandy, or in a bathing suit. Wet terrazzo floors are slick and dangerous, hard as poured concrete but smoother.

Directly across the living room and dining room from the front door was a short hallway which ended at another door. This was the linen closet, between mine and my parents’ room, with three wide solid wooden shelves I would climb onto and hide in. I loved to pile blankets over myself, curl up and sleep on those shelves.

The house echoed with sounds of the ocean and rain during storms and always with the voices of children. After a year of renting, my parents bought it for $16,000. Largely unchanged, it could easily bring twenty times that today, perhaps the only wise monetary investment they ever made. Mother lives there still.

That first summer my father took a good deal of time off work, and we spent long afternoons and evenings at the beach. I loved swimming at sunset best, the water bathwater warm, and walking along the wide beach at low tide, wading through tide pools. The pools on the windward side of the inlet were especially deep at low tide, often as big as full sized swimming pools. Sometimes sharks or sea turtles got trapped in them, the sharks swimming around frantically as the pool shrunk, sea turtles gliding peacefully to the surface occasionally, seemingly philosophical, checking to see if the tide had come back up to set them free.

John, fourteen months older and my closest companion, used to tell me how important sandbars are, how they protect beaches, make waves, and even become islands. I’d listen and try to imagine what he told me as true: our own beautiful and delicate island was once a sandbar, appearing and disappearing beneath the sea, sometimes nothing more than a tonal shift in color of green of the water, a flattening beyond the beach.

When one is small, one is closer to the water, to the land, not just in physical orientation but through all of the senses. Moving through tide pools I charted them with my body, and their characteristics became as familiar as the changing textures of my own flesh beneath my palms. Just as my shoulders reddened and grew tender by afternoon beneath a gentler sun than we know now, the margins of evening tide pools warmed and softened to host colonies of magical creatures. Silver minnows; blind tunneling crabs we called sandfleas; harmless clear round jellyfish, heavy and cool in the hand; sizzling invisible skates. In the shallow flats at the inlet, warrens of stingrays, easily dealt with by sliding the soles of the feet along, toes up in a flicking motion at the end of each step, sending them into fluid flight.

One of our favorite things to do as our parents strolled hand in hand on the dark sand rippled with ghost-prints of receded waves, absorbed in each other, was to approach a long string of pools strung like imperfect pearls above the shore break, at a run. Feel the heavy pull of water against our ankles twinned with the buoyancy of salt water and move as quickly as we could, laughing, until a dip in the bottom threw us face forward into the water. Then we’d pull ourselves along on our hands, exploring with all of our senses at the same time as only children do, allowing ourselves to be taken by the water, by the sand under our trusting fingers and things that bumped against us; tasting, smelling, to the point of sucking and choking that primordial fluid up from our throats and out our noses, letting our ears fill and testing the differences between sounds traveling through air and through water, always unafraid, always ready for what that magnificent sea had to offer.

When I was small the beach was fairly steep and at the mercy of the sometimes violent tides, but the Army Corp of Engineers constructed jetties on both the Daytona and our side of the inlet to build up and protect the beaches when I was eight years old, building them up and evening out the topography of the ocean floor so rip tides were less frequent, waves smaller close to shore, and the big tide pools which trapped the larger sea creatures disappeared.

New Smyrna is a long narrow barrier island with white sand beaches, and there was not a single building taller than two stories when we moved there. The north end of the beach—it was two miles from the house to Ponce Inlet, famous for treacherous currents and shifting sandbars, the dangerous inlet of Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat—was sparsely covered with low houses and tracts of vacant land covered with sea oats, palmetto scrub and laurel oak. We lived at the narrowest part of the island, what I think of as the waist because it curves in gracefully like the waist of a woman, but it widened and lengthened to the south, twelve miles to its terminus where ocean meets swamp above Cape Canaveral. This is the wildest part of Mosquito Lagoon, a dangerous maze of mangrove islands and sandbars, full of trout, mangrove snapper, redfish; diamondbacks and cottonmouths and copperheads; sharks and alligators and a rich array of seabirds— snowy cranes, majestic great blue herons, sharp-eyed osprey, gulls and terns and pelicans.

The Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon landed at Turtle Mound, a refuse heap of oyster shells left by Timicuan and Calusa Indians, six miles from the southern tip, the highest point on the island. The conquistadors couldn’t handle the swarming mosquitoes, went back to their boats and settled at St. Augustine, ninety miles north, the oldest city in North America. The Indians used to cover themselves with mud to thwart the stinging insects, a method we kids often used. It was an informal right of passage for girls and boys alike to take machetes and hack their way up Turtle Mound to stand on the small bald top and imagine Indians there, watching breakers roll in timelessly below, and birds dive for fish in the river on the other side. I climbed it for the first time at seven years old with John.

Toting a machete into play was a badge of honor, the older and nastier the implement the better, but a necessary tool for hacking at the thick brush covering Turtle Mound. We learned young to make lots of noise tramping through overgrowth—our doctor used to tell us that the only thing keeping the rat population under control on the island was snakes, and snakes slide off at the noise of something large crashing through. We moved in a kind of shuffling, bent over gait, watching both the ground at our feet and the spaces between branches overhead. It was slow going—banana spiders made huge, magnificent webs between the scrub oaks, hand-sized black and yellow striped spiders with vicious bites. When we made our way to the top, sixty feet above sea level, filthy and sweating in our t-shirts, we felt we’d earned that view. And it wasn’t hard to imagine the prehistoric people who’d been here before us, earning a moment’s breeze up here, sipping from animal bladders just as we drank tepid water from our dented scout canteens.

That part of the island seemed so remote then, so wild—there was one short main street ten blocks from our house on the civilized end of the island. A1A, called Atlantic Avenue in New Smyrna, was the eastern boundary for our travels, running perpendicular to our street at the dune line and ending as an overgrown dirt track past Turtle Mound—the beach was steeper, there, the waves big and scary, and the nearest building visible was the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at Cape Canaveral, twenty miles distant.

Our western boundary was Peninsula Drive, which we were not allowed to cross to go down to the river.  John and I looked exactly alike, and could not have been more different. He was born cautious. I am reckless. He is sly and quiet and witty, and I am a master of the obvious and plunge in, think later. This was hardest for him when we were small. Mother tells how she lost me the first time when I was two. She used to put John in the front yard with a circle of rocks around him, and he’d sit there and play. The first time she left me there I was off, and she found me in the next block, naked. I couldn’t stand clothes when I was small and used to meet my brothers at the school bus naked as a jaybird. I adored John, and tried to do what he wanted me to. The first time we went to the beach, he grabbed my hand when I ran for the water, walked solemnly down to the edge of the sea, and stepped in front of me. Only after the waves crashed over his own feet did he let go and allow me to plunge in. I’m not sure I’d have survived my childhood without him. That isn’t to say he didn’t get mad at me—he did. That summer Mother got into the habit of taking us to the beach in the mornings, unfolding a lawn chair close to the lifeguard tower, and pulling out a novel. We usually dug in the sand, but sometimes she rented a yellow and blue rubber and canvas raft from the concession stand two blocks down the beach in front of the Crawford Road approach.

One morning I must’ve annoyed Johnny, because, as Mother dozed in her chair, he towed me through a slough, over the sandbar, and gave me a shove. How peaceful he looked, sitting on the beach building a drizzle castle next to the tall red wooden lifeguard tower. I couldn’t swim yet so I just held onto the ropes that surrounded the raft, bobbing backward over swells until the lifeguard swam out and pulled me in.

My father was an excellent swimmer, and in the evenings taught us to body surf in the shore break. That fall my oldest brother Rusty bought a surfboard, and every morning before school went down to the ocean and taught himself to surf. Rusty, too, was shy and quiet, thirteen when we moved to New Smyrna, and he wouldn’t let anyone watch him surf until he mastered it. But sometimes John and I snuck down to the dune line to watch, lying on our bellies on sand damp with dew, peeking through the sea oats at Rusty. He was tall and thin and took naturally to the sport, and we loved to watch him paddle out and over the breakers, disappearing only to catch the next big wave, popping up, arms out for balance and knees carefully bent. He looked like he was flying.

In October the big waves rolled in, and by then Rick and Bill were surfing too, and Rusty was confident. There was a small shell parking lot south of the end of the street with a tall seawall and ten concrete steps down to the beach. During big swells, Dad would stand there for hours while John and I played along the wall, watching his boys out on the water. We all knew he’d come here for us, and we him for loved it.

Visions of my brothers on the autumn swells still visit my dreams. They each rode differently, their characters expressed in movement as if some master painted them on a broad blue canvas. October waves are my favorite—each season, each day, really, held different types of waves—voluptuous swells, rich with gleaming treasure. From our vantage on the seawall, thick salty mist coating our faces then gusty northwesterly wind rubbing it away, we could see down into waves. The quick silvery mullet and flashing bottom feeders; flowing almost-human, but so much more beautiful, play of dolphin; dark sinuous shadows that were sharks.

Rusty, the oldest, was the most graceful, the most natural of the three. He was a wonderful dancer, and this translated well to movement on water. The boards were long and heavy, ten feet at least, and controlled by a rider’s ability to work with, not against, the natural movement of a wave—not just forward, but up and curling through air, growing in the inevitable rush to shore.

In fall the boys still wore only baggies in the water, thick canvas shorts that rode low on their hips and tied closed with a shoestring, and sometimes a t-shirt stretched out and tied into a tight knot like a tail in back. They walked down the beach slowly then stood assessing the water, boards balanced end-up next to them: tall, skinny Rusty, broader Bill, pre-adolescent Rick, also tall but with a hint of breadth to his shoulders. All of them bleached blond, Bill and Rusty tanned, Rick perpetually sun burnt. They studied the ocean then, with just a glance exchanged between them, tucked the boards under their arms and race into the water. Thigh-deep, they threw the boards into swirling foamy water and hopped on, Rick and Bill on their bellies with their feet in the air; Rusty crouched on his knees, and paddled out. This was tricky, especially in big surf, when it was a matter of pride to “make it to the outside”, past the long roll of breakers crashing in deep water before the sandbar. They paddled strong and steady in the trough then up the face of a wave as if about to launch into the air and disappeared over. Sometimes, if a wave was going to break while a surfer was still near the base, he’d wrap his arms around the surfboard and flip over in a “turtle roll”, hugging it tightly to him and hopefully pulling the board through the wave with him, sometimes losing it and having to swim in, the wave pushing and rolling it toward shore. As we grew older John and I would stand in the shore break to stop careening boards for grateful surfers.

I’ve seen it take a persistent surfer an hour to get to the outer break. Once there, they sat with their feet dangling in the water, the noses of the boards tilting up under their weight. Rusty often just sat back on his feet, or lay on the board with his chin propped in his hands, and watched for the great rolling sets. There was usually a span of minutes between them, sometimes half an hour. From our perch on the wall we could see them on the horizon and gauge the size of the waves from the color of the water. Smaller waves retained the color of flat sea, which changed from blue-gray to bottle green to deep cerulean depending on the sky, the depth of the water, and the position of the sun; large waves acted as prisms on the horizon, sparkling and winking spectrums of blues and greens.

Bill was almost always the first one up on a wave. If he saw another surfer paddling he gave the wave up, the cardinal rule of surfing, but he was the strongest and most eager of the three. Muscular, quick and stubborn, Bill also has a natural affinity for water which helped him read waves and get the longest rides. Watching him was watching economy, efficiency in motion.

Rick surfed with his heart, every emotion readable from his movements and actions. He caught the most waves and didn’t seem to discriminate between them—he rode with boyish eagerness and energy. If Rick wiped out, he surfaced quickly and jumped back on his board. If he missed a wave, he’d pound the water next to him in frustration.

It was Rusty we loved to watch. Out on the water he seemed separate—

from us, from the world. It was as if he became a part of the ocean itself. He often just sat on his surfboard, watching the sea around him, noodling around on the water with lazy hands. He was gangly and skinny, and he’d slump forward a little with his head tilted back, completely relaxed. He never seemed to hurry after that initial run into the shore break, but moved with a slow steady grace similar to the rhythm of the sea itself. And he waited. He waited on a wave with the right shape, the right feel, the right weight to carry him. I’d find myself watching a huge swell rolling in, murmuring, “Take it, Rusty…take it…”, but he’d just lie down, slowly dip his arms in and rise up and over, never taking his eyes from the horizon. Sometimes it seemed like we waited for hours for him to choose a wave. Oh, but when he did…

The big breaker building, building, closer, fifty yards, thirty, twenty and the nose of his board would swing slowly around, “He’s taking it! He’s taking it!” I don’t think I ever saw him miss a wave. He waited in perfect position, lined up not toward the beach but at the precise angle of the building wave, canted just so, paddling slow or quick depending on its speed, angling impossibly down the face, sliding now, the board falling forward for a moment as he placed his palms flat and sprang into a crouch, big gangly feet just over the sweet spot, perfectly balanced, feeling it, reading what the wave wants to do, swiveling his hips just enough to feed a turn down to his feet, carving deeper into the curl, and on those great big ones disappearing completely inside, the white curtain of foam like a great sheet of something alive curving over him, frothing up below the tail of the board, the skeg carving its own sinuous little whitewater trail, then gone completely until just his hand is visible at the front of the tube, making a motion like a small boy mimicking flight, complete with the sound of the ocean moving which is that same whirr of childhood imagination…shhhhhhhh…and his hand riding currents of air inside rushing water, arm and body following in perfect cadence like a flock of seabirds riding thermals. He moves, moves with the water, the board a vehicle for flight, a facilitator, an obedient thing working doggedly at his feet. And sometimes, if the wave told him to, he’d walk right out onto the nose and slouch there, easy as that, toes holding prehensile to the rails at the nose of the surfboard, arms and hands hanging down, loose, head just cocked a little with this goofy satisfied grin, Oh yeah…

Mother didn’t swim—she said that she could but we never saw her in the water, it scared her—and she was insistent that we learn very young. When she was a teenager growing up in Atlanta she saw a boy she knew drown in the public pool. She was sitting on the bleachers, watching the people in the pool, when she saw this pair of hands clawing at the lip of the pool, the person struggling to pull himself up from under the water, fingers scratching, bloody, on the concrete—and she said it felt for the longest moment that she was the only one to see, although that wasn’t, couldn’t be, true—and the boy just drowned. And that was why Mother said she wouldn’t go in the water. It was a scary story, told in part I think to keep us careful in the water. Every so often someone would drown in the ocean or, somehow worse, get sucked out the inlet from the river and die, and she would just shake her head sadly as if to say, see? I told you so.

mom talking

Anne Davis, living room of 219 Robinson Road, NSB, date unknown

in mom's room

The author with her son, Jacob, 219 Robinson Road, NSB   1998

dadathome
James Davis with his daughters at 219 Robinson Road, NSB  November, 1970

 

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