Scott brought in the mail one Saturday in April just as I was about to leave on a trip to Utah. The usual – bills and junk but also a small, social-sized envelope addressed to me from the commanding officer of the USS Constitution.
We had visited Old Ironsides last year on a late summer trip to Boston. Looking at the envelope, I realized I must have left my name and address somewhere on the premises and now was targeted for a donation to help maintain the old girl. But no, it was an invitation for a guest and me to accompany the CO on this year’s July 4th turnaround cruise. I had truly won the lottery, albeit one I had forgotten I ever entered.
"Whahhh!" I screamed. "I won the lottery!"
Scott thinking Powerball millions instantly snapped to attention.
"I signed up on-line last summer when we were checking visitor info," I explained. "I never expected to win."
Each July 4th the Navy has the USS Constitution towed out of Boston Harbor to shoot one of its cannons and then return to the Charlestown Navy Yard where it will rest on its opposite side for another year. This allows the ship, which was built in 1797 and is the oldest commissioned naval vessel in the world, to wear evenly over time.
As I read down through the invitation, my winner’s rush deflated. A guest and me. No additions, no substitutions. Oh no, I thought, whom do I choose? What a rotten little Sophie’s choice this was. Scott, our sons Colin and Martin, or any of a wide range of other men in my life who love both ships and history would jump at the chance to take a ride on this ship. But the card said that no reply was required until June 15 and I needed to get to the airport, so I tucked it into my desk, kissed the family goodbye, and forgot about it.
When I returned to Maine the following week my friend Rachel told me that I should take my husband. I love Rachel’s certainty about things like this. I often ask her what to do because the sound of conviction in her voice is so reassuring. I don’t always do what she tells me to do, but I love knowing she has a well-reasoned opinion.
"I don’t know," I said. "I don’t know."
"You’re right. You’re probably right."
In the end, we decided to put my father-in-law’s name on the reply card. His name is also Scott. If he decided not to go, then my husband could go in his stead and the U.S. Navy, with their no substitution rule, would be appeased. This made everyone happy.
My Scott decided to go to Boston with us to film from the dock. I knew it would do no good to call or write the naval bureaucracy to ask if he could go too, but I thought perhaps he could get on a no-show replacement list once we got there.
As we entered the Charlestown Navy Yard, a polite man handed us a blue flyer and asked us to read it. It could have been a restaurant menu. The flyer explained that the tugboats towing the Constitution were unsafe because there were to be crewed by non-union workers. A labor dispute, but a polite one, with only two guys standing at the entrance.
At the quayside, with the modest Boston skyline looming across the harbor, my father-in-law and I stood in line with the other early birds. Slowly we approached two well-built young sailors dressed in old-fashioned uniforms: white trousers with an oddly buttoned crotch and a black boater hat with long, ribbons down the back. A cross between Anne of Green Gables and Rambo.
When we were two or three parties away from having our names checked off, Scott leaned over the rope separating us and said he was going over to the museum for awhile.
"What a sec," I said, holding up a finger.
"I already asked about replacing a no-show and they said no way."
"Wait a sec," I repeated. It was our turn and I gave our names to the sailor with the list. As he checked them off, I added a few private words. When Annebo realized what I was asking, he looked at his mate and they exchanged a couple of shrugs.
"Sure, why not," they said in unison. They realized suddenly that this was a call they could actually make on their own. I motioned Scott over the rope.
"You go with your Dad. Take my place." I knew that if I’d suggested it before he would have pooh-poohed, but now there was no time. People were waiting behind us. He was over the rope in a flash and paused to look at me with a look I’ve seen only three other times in our 25 years together:
1. When the first of our twins sons came howling into the world. I don’t know what he was expecting, but he looked incredibly surprised and delighted to see that it was a baby.
2. When I said to him, out of the blue, in the kitchen one day, "What the hell! Let’s buy a boat!" (Actually I said something other than “hell” - for added emphasis.)
3. When he passed by my seat just before the start of a six-hour Air Jamaica flight after I had gotten the flight attendant to maneuver him out of a seat next to an arguing couple and their screaming baby.
After the look, he kissed me and then he and his dad were whisked into the security tent for frisking.
As the time for the Constitution to pull off the dock approached, I moved to a spot before the bow where a small group of people had gathered near the two big tugs, the Maverick and the Jason Reinauer. It was then I first noticed the guy with the blowhorn 50 or so yards across the channel from the Constitution.
"Hey, you scabs," he roared. "Twenty men should be running those tugs, not you management scum." He added, "Twenty families are out of work. Don’t you care about them?" The man had the kind of verbal skills I’ve only known people from Boston or New York to have, a certain brand of scathing wit and flair that is both cutting and funny and serious all at the same time.
Every 30 seconds or so, he’d add a new line. "Hey, Scabs R Us, you have no business touching that boat." At some point I became aware of two fellows standing next to me on the dock. One was nattily dressed in navy Bermuda shorts, tassle loafers, a golf shirt a tad too tight, with his cell phone at the ready. I realized he was talking to the blowhorn guy across the water on Constitution Wharf. His buddy wore a Teamsters shirt. I was standing next to the union mucky-mucks, and I moved in for some serious eavesdropping.
"Keep it up. You’re really pissing them off," Mr. Bermuda shorts said and snapped his phone shut. A second later a shrill whistle sounded off across the channel and the blowhorn guy was at it again and my union boys wandered off.
I struck up a conversation with a handsome man in his mid-thirties standing on my other side. In the course of our conversation I discovered he had recently returned from Uzbekistan.
"Relief work?" I asked, liberal goody-goody that I am.
"Air Force," he replied. I leaned back and took him in more fully: clean-cut, lean, a certain bearing.
The whistle and the litany kept up from across the water. Now a man named Dave Clark, obviously a manager who was running one of the tugs, came under fire. "Why are you rolling your window up, Dave?" called the man with the blowhorn,. "Ashamed to show your face?"
I stood there with a half-hour to go before they cast off the Constitution. I felt sorry for Mr. Blowhorn because it is a terrible thing to be out of work. I felt sorry for Dave Clark who was trying to do his job. I felt sorry for all the people waiting on the Constitution…the 12 people who were to be sworn in as U.S. citizens once underway and the many people, including my loved ones, who were excited to be embarking on the USS Constitution…whose experienced was being dampened by a labor dispute and perhaps the suspicion that the men crewing the tugs didn’t know what they were doing after years behind a desk.
"I suppose in Uzbekistan you don’t disrupt a quasi-military event with a blowhorn and get away with it," I asked my neighbor. He shook his head.
"No, you don’t."
"Well, that’s a cool thing about America."
As the Constitution finally pulled away, a band on board struck up the national anthem and a man began to sing. An enormous American flag billowed from the stern as she moved along the wharf past those of us gathered. Baremasted, she glided through the harbor – her bearing so straight, so amazingly tall, so starkly beautiful in relief against the blue of the sky. As she passed the guy with the blowhorn, who under other circumstances would have been on the tugboat nudging her out to sea, stopped talking. I couldn’t see him for the ship, but I wondered if he was watching her too.
As I watched the ship shrink in the distance, I thought about him and about his nemesis Dave Clark. I thought about all the people on the wharf, all the people on the Constitution, all the people who ever served aboard the Constitution over the course of her long history, and I wondered at all the stories there are to tell about every person’s life and what brings them to a moment like this. If only we had the time and space in our hearts to know them all, to understand the fullness of other people’s lives. So seldom do we see anything but the baremastedness of those around us, so few are the moments when any of us shake out all of our sails and let the wind take them.
I thought of my two beribboned young sailors who broke the Navy’s rule to let Scott take my berth and about the wonder of the tiny surprising moment in line when everyone around us paused to watch us kiss.
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