|My Daddy, sitting on his fence.|
“Where did you go? he would usually begin.
“Just to Wade’s Shore and across to the beach,” I might respond.
“Did the engine run alright?” he would follow.
“Never missed a pop,” I would assure him.
“Did you have a good time?” he would ask as he headed back up the path and towards our house, satisfied that nothing had gone wrong with me or with the boat.
“Yea,” I would tell him, maybe adding something along the line of, “but the tide was so high that ...,” or, "there were so many yellow flies that ...”
A few minutes later we both were back at the house. I would be washing off under a water hose, and he would be back at work on his net or on something he was building in our small back yard.
Such were the conversations that followed an “unsupervised” day at the Banks in my father’s boat when I was a boy.
A half a century before I was born, and before hurricanes had left it largely uninhabitable for people, Shackleford Banks had been the home place of my ancestors for many generations. But for my generation of young boys it was a Summer wonderland. Less than three miles distant, it was always visible on the southern horizon. Bordered by both a gentle ocean and peaceful sound, it seemed to call to us to come and enjoy – a natural theme park that charged no admission.
Most Island families had a boat of some kind, and by the time we approached our teenage years, we were deemed responsible enough to use those boats without adult supervision. More often than not, our chosen destination was the Banks. And once we got there we could play and enjoy to our heart’s content. Swimming in the ocean, diving and skiing in the sound, chasing after herds of wild horses and sheep, blazing trails, or digging for clams, — time seemed to fly on wings as the days raced by. But each day eventually came to an end and we were obliged to return to our boats, and head back across the sound to home.
It was at the end of that return trip that a mystery began to unfold in my life. Each afternoon or early evening, as our boat approached my father’s dock, I came to expect that he would be there standing at the shore and awaiting my return. And as together we secured the boat he would ask about my day of fun, even as he inspected the boat to make sure all was in good order. All along I assumed that the latter was his primary concern.
As the youngest of seven boys, I had the good fortune of enjoying the freedom of the Banks even earlier than my brothers. And as the years passed and I grew older, and my brothers eventually had boats of their own, the time came that my father entrusted his boat to me alone. Now, with my friends and younger cousins, we would repeat the same routine that had become an irreplaceable part of summer life on our Island.
But even as I matured and the dynamic of using his boat became more routine, there was one thing about my father that did not change. No matter what the occasion, or how long or short the stay, he was still there walking the path from our home to the shore at the very moment our boat came into view.
It seemed to me as if he had access to some internal GPS or tracking device that allowed him to know the very instant that I headed for home. Try as I might by staying later than usual or heading home early, I could not elude him. Intuitively, or so it seemed, he could sense my direction and knew exactly when I would approach the shore.
Even after I grew up and had a boat and a family of my own, whenever we would go out for a day on the water, my father was always there to welcome us back to the dock. “How does he know?” I used to ask myself. “How can he tell exactly each time that I am headed for home so as to be there to meet me?”
The passing of time, and having sons of my own who asked for permission to spread their wings by boating alone, eventually revealed my father’s great secret. For by then I had a deeper understanding of the dangers of the water. The very first summer afternoon that my two sons headed out into the sound and ocean, I came face to face with the very sensitivity that used to draw my father to the shoreline. Because, from the moment that my sons’ departing boat slipped beyond my view, I would stare almost without respite towards the same horizon and wait for their return.
After a few hours, that invariably seemed much longer to me, as my sons made their way back to our mooring, I could see them in the distance long before they could ever take notice of me. Then, just as with my own father, I would be there at the shore to reassure myself that all was well, not so much with my boat as with my boys. Since then every time I catch the first sight of my children as they break the horizon for home, even in boats of their own, my mind is drawn to a specific verse in the Biblical parable of the “Prodigal Son.” “When he was yet a long way off, his father saw him ...”
My daddy died nine years ago, after a lifetime of looking in the direction of his children and grandchildren who had ventured into the Sound — be it every so tranquil and serene. A lifetime of experience had taught him that the waters of the sound, just like the ocean, can quickly change demeanor, and that even the most placid marine setting can hide unseen dangers.
As age and experience have made me more aware of those dangers, I have come to value much more the mental image I have of my father waiting on the shoreline. There was a time when my overriding impression was that his constant attention was because of how little he trusted me. The wisdom of the years has convinced me that it was, rather, because of how much he loved me!