The Life Preserver
Dale Heinold – 2004
Edited for Lambchow – 2016
The Mary Ann is a sailboat with a white bottom with blue trim. She is large enough to live in and has a kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom. The interior of her cabin is paneled in teak and walnut, and although she is over seven years old, her owner has made only minor changes to the cabin decor. When she is not on Big River, she is moored at the Monroe Yacht Club or MYC. The MYC is like a country club for yacht owners and is situated on the west side of Big River.
MYC’s main building is a brick, Victorian affair with a gigantic chandelier in the lobby. Due to an impending flood, the Mary Ann’s skipper had to move her down to the public dock on the east side of Big River. There she would be more protected from the trees and other assorted things the flood had swallowed and was pushing down stream. Her skipper was a vice president for one of those big businesses out in the industrial park. Mr. Robert J. Kendall, VP of Sales, Darcy Brothers Inc read his ivory colored business cards. Robert J. Kendall was 36, around six feet tall with dark hair and dimples. When Robert was not performing his VP duties, he was on the Mary Ann. That’s where he lived, took his meals, and slept. It’s really all he had left after his divorce three and half years ago. There are no kids to worry about after eight years of marriage, so he spent his time anyway he wanted. He hadn’t turned to alcohol or any of the other vices that men usually fall into after a divorce probably because he already had enough vices with a 80-90 hour work week plus travel and the rest devoted to the Mary Ann. But he was successful; at least that is what Thomas P. Darcy, owner and CEO of Darcy Brother’s Inc., kept reminding him of. Thomas was in the same boat, not literally of course, going on 12 years since his divorce. His second idol, other than Darcy Brothers, Inc., was golf. The joke between them was that if they could play golf from the deck of a sailboat they’d both be happy.
It was very late when Robert pulled into the Monroe Yacht Club. All the skippers planning to move their boats had already done so earlier in the day. The club was emptier than normal for a weeknight. Robert could have paid someone to sail the boat over to the public marina, but he wanted to do this himself. He was hoping to run across someone who could meet him over there and drive him back to the club, but the few people around were already engaged in other activities. “Guess I’ll just have to hire a taxi on the other side,” he thought. He changed in the clubhouse, walked out to slip #114, and boarded the Mary Ann. He did the pre-launch checks: started the outboard and freed up the lines. Jumping back on the boat, he backed the Mary Ann out of her slip.
The crest of the flood wasn’t expected for another few days, but there was already enough junk in the river to make the trip interesting. As he crossed the river, he constantly searched ahead with a small but powerful spotlight. Except for a close call with a huge branch he made it across safely. The Club had rented slips for those that wanted to move their boats; he pulled into his assigned spot, number 236, and tied up. After everything was shut down, he took a look around the marina, what a wild collection of boats. Over at the Monroe Yacht Club almost everything was a sailboat. Here there were bass boats, cruisers, party barges, and few houseboats mixed in with the sailboats. As Robert looked over the menagerie, he noticed that all the boats were dark, not surprising given the time of day and the weather. He reached down to grab his cell phone and cussed himself when he realized that it was back in the car. He climbed the stairs that led to the Marina office and the parking lot. He didn’t find anyone in the office or around the lot. He checked his pockets for change; they were empty. “I guess that rules out using the pay phone,” Robert said to himself. He went back down the stairs to search the Mary Ann for coins to use in the pay phone. He was about half way down when a light caught the corner of his eye. A dim light glowed from one of the boats over in the far south corner of the marina. He decided to ask the owner for a ride over to the club. As he approached the light, he had a hard time making out exactly what kind of boat it was. It wasn’t until he was closer that he saw what must be one of the most unusual vessels in the marina. It was about 30 feet in length; in the center was a smokestack. The hull was of white clapboard, but the cabins appeared to have been added later and to have been acquired from three other vessels There was brown shake siding on the cabin area in front of the stack, white clapboard in the center, and white fiberglass walls in the aft. The light that Robert saw was coming from the aft cabin and he also noticed wisps of smoke rising from the smokestack.
“Ahoy, anyone aboard?” Robert called loudly. “Ahoy,” he called a few seconds later.
“Hold your horses, I’m coming.” A figure poked his head out the aft door. The figure was darkly clothed, but in the dim light Robert could make out the features of an older man with a crown of white hair. “Good evening laddie, what can I do for you?”
“I brought my sailboat over from the Yacht Club for safe keeping and was wondering if I could pay you to give me a ride back over to the club.”
“Do you have that 26 footer that just came in? Beautiful ship she is. People around here call me Pops. What’s your name laddie?”
“Thank you, my name is Robert J. Kendall. Could you take me around?” Robert was getting tense, and the small talk was getting to him. However, the worst thing was being called laddie.
“Bobby it is then, glad to meet you. It’s always nice to get to know another sailor.” Robert tensed a little more. “Can’t take you around though. Don’t have a car, but me and the Sahara Queen would be glad to take you across the river,” he said patting the door frame as he said the boat’s name.
Robert pondered this for a few seconds, the prospects of finding any coins in his boat seemed thin. He took a long look to make sure that there were no other possibilities around, no one else was in sight. He thought about hitching a ride up on the highway, but that thought also ended quickly. It seemed better to take his chances with Pops. “Ok, how much and how soon?” he replied.
“My, you must be in an awful hurry. No charge for the ride; I might need your help some day. We can get underway as soon as the steam is up.”
“She’s steam!” Robert exclaimed. “How long will that take?” he asked.
“Yep Bobby, she’s steam powered,” Pops answered proudly. “Won’t take long, but I’ll need your help to fill the wood box.”
“Anything, I just want to get going,” Robert pleaded.
Pops pointed out his wood pile on shore and where the wood box was. He then went in the boat and began to putter around, humming quietly to himself. It took Robert four trips to fill the wood box. A little exhausted and dirty. “Now how long?” he asked Pops.
“The fire’s going pretty good, about ten minutes I think. Want some coffee, or how about a sandwich? I was just finishing my supper when you came a calling.”
“Nothing now,” Robert replied impatiently. He got up and wandered around the inside of the boat. It was just as confusing inside as out. There were knick-knacks and mementoes scattered everywhere with no particular rhyme or reason.
“Bobby, can you run out and free the line?” Pops asked. Robert ran out, freed the lines, and hopped back aboard.
Ssswwwisshh woop, ssswwwiiisshh woop, sswwisshh woop, sswwissh woop, sswissh woop, ssswwwissssshhh woop. Pops kicked at a valve. Swish woop, swish woop, swish woop… The Sahara Queen slowly rounded the corner and made her way towards the marina exit.
Robert stared at the engine, not believing that it was able to propel the boat at all, but watching the valves and rods move and swish somehow calmed him a little. “How old is this boat anyway?” he asked Pops.
“Eh? Can’t always hear when she running.”
“How old,” Robert asked a little louder.
“Me? I’m about 84. How about you?”
Funny he looked older. Chuckling, “36, but I meant the boat,” Robert replied.
“Oh, sorry,” Pops said chuckling a little. “She’s close to a hundred. Do you recall a Bogart movie called The African Queen’? This is her sister.”
“Nope, not much of the original left though, just the keel, the engine, and a few other odds and ends.”
Robert was still a little dubious, but on the other hand, it did explain many of the oddities about the boat.
“Why don’t you get something newer, more modern?”
“Don’t see the need; the Queen gets me where I need to go.”
“But you could get there quicker,” Robert argued.
“When you’re my age, getting there is more important than how fast you get there. Beside, I’ve already spent too much time hurrying to get somewhere and then have to sit and wait once I get there.”
“But surely a newer boat would be more comfortable; I live on mine too, and I know how important that can be,” Robert argued. But as he looked around he couldn’t think of how he’d improve on the ship’s comfort. It was very much like being in someone’s home. They cleared the marina exit and went out into the river.
“How come you live on your boat? Surely you could live anywhere on shore that you wanted?” asked Pops.
“I did have a house for a while, but I moved onto the boat when my wife and I divorced. I never really considered moving back to land. Besides, I travel a lot so I’m only on the boat about three nights out of ten,” Robert answered.
“See that picture? No the one over the clock. That’s Esther. She was my wife for 55 years. She died three years ago and that’s when I moved out here. That other picture, that’s our kids and grandkids,” Pops said pointing out a picture that had at least 20 faces in it.
“That’s some family, you’re a very lucky man,” Robert said.
“Luck!” Pops spit the word out like it had a bad taste, “luck didn’t have anything to do with it. I don’t believe in luck.”
“Then you must trust to hard work, I can follow that. I put in about 80 to 90 hours a wee.,.”
“It’s not that either,” Pops interrupted. “If I would have put in those kinds of hours, neither one of those pictures would look the same as they do today.”
Robert was getting a little perturbed again, “If it’s not luck or hard work, than what?”
Pops took a little more time putting his thoughts together. “I won’t deny that sometimes there are things that happen in our lives, both good and bad, that seem to occur for no apparent reason. Right now we could hit something in the river; would you call that bad luck? Maybe it is, or maybe it isn’t. Some would call it lucky because then the insurance would pay off and I could buy one of those newer boats you were just talking about, or maybe it’s bad luck because this old jewel of the river would be lost. No, I don’t believe in luck.”
“Then what about some sort of karma instead of luck?”
“You mean the theory that we get what we deserve? If we do enough good things then good things are returned? Of course, then the reverse must be true; do evil things and get evil in return, is that what you mean?”
“Sure,” Robert replied, “What’s wrong with that?”
“Then I suggest that you go and visit the fourth floor of that hospital over there” Pops said as he pointed to the outline of St Luke Memorial. “That’s where the neonatal unit is. Those babies haven’t done anything to deserve the pain they are going through. Talk to their parents and comfort them with your theory.”
“Sorry, didn’t mean to get you upset. But the question remains, why?” replied Robert.
Pops took a deep breath, “Call it providence or divine guidance if you will.”
“So what’s the difference between karma and what you call providence” argued Robert.
“A lot, with karma there is no purpose, only cause and effect. With divine providence there is purpose. There was providence and purpose in your needing my help tonight.”
“So what’s the divine purpose of what is going on in the neonatal unit?” Robert asked has he pointed at St. Luke’s.
“There are many purposes; some are evident, but many of them may not be understood for years. Take this one couple I know. They had a baby; Patrick was his name, he was born with a messed up heart. I never understood all the medical details. He only lived for 21 months, but during that time, his grandmother was able to tell many people about the love of Jesus, all because of Patrick. Or take his parents, after dealing with the grief of losing a child, they realized that there were many young parents that needed help to deal with the grief of losing a wee little one. They started a support group for just that purpose.”
“I don’t buy it; since you mentioned Jesus, I supposed that’s who your ‘divine providence’ is. But if he is all-loving and all-powerful like Christians say He is, then St. Luke’s wouldn’t need a neonatal unit. People wouldn’t need to suffer that kind of loss. I decided a long time ago that I can only trust in myself and hard work to see me through,” Robert replied.
Pops sensed the need to dig deeper but went with the flow. “Hard work will buy you many things and cost you much more.”
“Now that’s a cryptic statement,” Robert replied.
“Nothing wrong with work; we were made for work. But the design was to work with a purpose.”
“I’ve got a purpose,” interjected Robert, “earn three million and then retire before I’m forty-five. I suppose you’re going to say something now about money being the root of all evil.’’
“No,” Pops paused and adjusted a valve. “Money is not the root of all evil. The love of money is the root of all evil.”
“What’s the difference,” retorted Robert.
“The difference is huge. There are many people who are poor and love money even more than you do. And that love, that greed, that feeling that ‘whatever I have is never enough,’ eats at their souls like a cancer. Instead of conquering, they become the conquered, slaves to their own desires. It’s not how much you have but what your attitude is. Tell me something, if you were to lose everything, your job, your money, and your boat, would you have peace?”
Robert sat there and thought. It was so easy arguing religion with what he called ‘Jesus Freaks.’ There were a couple at the yacht club and three or four at work; but they weren’t any different than he was, or so he thought. But Pops was different; his words came off as being real, with more depth, more experience, and more relevance. Having peace was the farthest thing from his mind; he lived for the conflict, the struggle, the competition, and the win that proved he was successful. His mind tossed six sarcastic responses around, but he decided on the truth.
“I’ve never, well, I’m not quite sure what that would mean, having peace that is. I’m not at war with anyone except maybe my competitors, but that’s business. So, ah….”
“But you are at war with someone; you’re at war with Jesus. And if you ‘win’ that war, you lose. Jesus is the Prince of Peace, and without making peace with Him, you can never know real peace. Robert, my lad, the peace of Jesus is like this old life preserver,” he said as he reached around and grabbed an old life preserver ring. “Jesus never said that if we make peace with him that he’d remove all of our troubles, but he did say that he would give us His peace. If we cling to this life preserver, no matter how high the waves get, it will keep us afloat. Without it, we drown. Same with Jesus, if we cling to him we can ride out the storms and troubles of this life.”
“I’ve seen some storms in my life; you weren’t far off the mark when you pointed out the neonatal unit on the 4th floor. Leah, my ex-wife, and I lost a baby there. Her name was Mary Ann. She lived for 6 days. She looked so pretty and perfect when she was born, but they rushed her out of the delivery room. We never got to hold her. We could only touch her through the rubber gloves in the sides of the isolation unit. The doctors said she had multiple internal defects. I didn’t care. I just wanted my daughter. “
“I’m sorry about your loss laddie. I truly am. I need to tell you one thing, though; Patrick was my grandson. I know the loss and pain you are going through. Laddie, close that valve and tie us up, we’re there,” Pops said.
“So how do we finish this? How do I get that life preserver?” asked Robert.
“We pray,” replied Pops
And they prayed. It was another 45 minutes before Robert left the Sahara Queen and walked to his car. He carried with him an old life preserver. He also carried a smile and a lighter step. He opened the car door, put the life preserver in the front seat, found the cell phone, and dialed a number.
“Leah? Yeah this is Robert. Can I come over? Need to talk with you about something. What, ok fifteen minutes. Nothing important, just about this old ring I’ve found. Good, see ya.”