The Butterfly Nebula — Scene from Bob Crane Chapter

October 30, 2013

Scene: Mobsters and Lobsters

In early 1972, with the United States still mired in an insane war in Southeast Asia and coping with an autocratic, paranoid president, Bob Crane invited me to accompany him as an assistant navigator aboard the sloop “My Little Brainchild” on a voyage to The Bahamas. We would pilot the sloop from Manasquan Inlet and follow the barrier islands down to the Chesapeake and the official beginning of the Intracoastal Waterway in Norfolk, Virginia, and then possibly keep with the Intracoastal Waterway to Florida and from there sail the Atlantic on to Nassau. Bob wanted to leave at the end of January and the Atlantic Ocean would be too rough and cold then, so instead we would cruise the Intracoastal Waterway long enough until the weather and seas were milder.

Bob was inviting me for a couple of reasons. Ostensibly he wanted to rely on my navy experience and my knowledge of astronomy to teach him celestial navigation. When I told Bob I knew little about celestial navigation, he assured me that during our voyage the two of us would master it together. And I’d recently achieved the milestone of a decade with Brainchild Scientific, and Bob wanted to show his thanks for all my hard work, my running of the business and all I had done to make Brainchild Scientific a success over the past 10 years. He praised our decade-long, near-perfect professional relationship. Bob was now 38 and I was 31, turning 32 in early May, and we were both much different people than we were in 1962, certainly we had drifted apart culturally and politically, but more on that later. My regular salary would be paid for the duration of our voyage; I could have Kate manage the store and leave Stuart in charge to run the factory and warehouse. Bob was bringing his latest girlfriend, a 19-year-old by the name of Wendy, and I could invite Gladys if she wanted to come—meaning, if Gladys cared to leave the house for more than a few hours without having a panic attack. Bob’s offer was too good to refuse.

But Gladys declined when I asked her to come along on the sailing voyage. The thought of being on open water terrified her, and I understood her fear from having been in the navy and exposed to that particular phobia (a hybrid of agoraphobia and hydrophobia), though I’d never experienced the phobia myself. Gladys also didn’t want me to go on the voyage.

“Do you want to drown and die along with that ridiculous playboy?” she said.

“Oh, come on. I was in the United States Navy, Seaman 1st Class. Why would a little trip on a sailing yacht cause me any trouble?”

“Will there be any young girls on board?”

“Oh, so that’s what this is all about, not about me drowning . . . why would he be asking you to join us then?”

“A formality,” Gladys said with smug self-assurance. “Both you and Bob Crane are betting that I will never join you on your hedonistic pleasure voyage.”

And she was right.

A week later, as the sloop gracefully launched from the marina in Point Pleasant, Bob Crane mentioned that we would be docking for a day in Miami to meet a friend of Wendy’s before sailing on to the Bahamas. The friend was going to be joining us for the final days of the trip, and without having met the “friend,” I was already thankful that Gladys would not be coming. When I inquired about the age of Wendy’s friend, Bob stared at me and said he didn’t know but assumed the friend would be at least as old as Wendy (for legal reasons, he said with a knowing wink) and possibly a little older.

Wendy was 19, tall and blond, a melange of a few playboy magazine models and the actress Ann Francis as she appeared in the movie “Forbidden Planet.” Wendy would remain forbidden fruit, and however fetching to look upon she wasn’t my type, I felt no stirring in the loins when near her. What was Bob Crane doing with this child who was years closer in age to his oldest son, a high school sophomore? According to Bob, Wendy was “very smart and mature beyond her years.” Wendy attended community college part time and worked as a go-go dancer, which explained how the two of them had met.

Late that afternoon Bob and I stood on deck in a biting sub-freezing wind, passing a bottle of Jack Daniels back and forth as we shivered in our Fiberfill parkas. Wendy was below deck. The sun was setting, a hazy smear of red-orange behind opaque winter clouds.

Bob said, “You want to know what the temperature is in Miami, Soren? 73 degrees. And how about Nassau? 76 degrees! Warm and sunny. That’s where we’re heading, to ‘warm’ and ‘sunny’. And we’ll be done with these Eskimo suits long before we get there.”

Contemplating the tropics, Bob Crane paused to light a cigarette. I took another pull on the bottle of bourbon.

“Are we going to try celestial navigation tonight,” he asked me.

I looked up and said, “If we have any stars. Sky is pretty overcast. It doesn’t look promising.”

Smoke eddied and curled back into Bob’s eyes, forcing a reflexive jerk of his head.

“Then I guess I’ll just have to get under the covers with Wendy all night.”

“That’s a shame,” I said. “I did bring my sextant.”

Bob Crane laughed at my science boy naivete’.

“Good! Very good! Let’s have a look at that sextant of yours after dinner!” and then he laughed a bit more, flicking his cigarette into the water.

The irony of course was that, at least for the early part of our trip, celestial navigation wouldn’t be needed. There were so many markers of civilization on the Intracoastal Waterway that we would likely be waiting until Florida and clear skies before making a legitimate attempt on the open seas. Bob and I could work on sighting the sun and moon as practice until then.

I should have recalled from my navy days how much activity occurred behind the barrier islands and on the Intracoastal Waterway, especially when we were closer to urban areas and saw a large number of marinas and even more stopping points that merely consisted of a dock and gas pump with maybe a few open slips. And sometimes at a stop, and always at a marina, you could moor a sloop as large as the Brainchild and get off to briefly rejoin terra firma, and there might a be a lobster house or an Italian restaurant, or a combination of those two cuisines, a red neon lobster beckoning or a flickering mound of spaghetti and meatballs. Near Atlantic City the parking lot held a couple of Cadillac Deville’s, and inside a Mafia capo and his mistress were dining near the window that overlooked the inlet. Mobsters and Lobsters . . . as we moved further south and away from the metropolitan areas of New York and Philadelphia and Atlantic City, the lights, traffic and stop off points became fewer and far between, and still one saw a great number of lights winking and pulsing along the inlets and bays, lights on channel markers, towers, drawbridges, marinas and docks. On the sloop we kept a red light on the port bow and a green light on the starboard at all times, and we saw other craft in the distance and knew them by those two lights. White and yellow dock lights punctured the oily skin of black water like long golden shimmering fangs.

And the stars did appear that night after we’d docked and Bob and Wendy had pleasured each other in their bunk and fallen asleep. I stood on deck near the helm and watched the spangles of winter stars mirrored in the water, an illusion of sky below, two heavens—one up, one down. I thought of a few lines from a famous poem.

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.

And I couldn’t recall the rest of the poem except the last few lines:

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Where were we heading, slipping unseen through the night, the faces of other travelers as hidden as our own? Blindly, you knew the Atlantic Ocean was just beyond these barrier islands, beyond this inlet, you felt its presence and its boundless reach, like the universe above, the ocean and all the oceans and seas and great lakes of the planet calling and beckoning in the darkness with their latitudes and currents, with their troughs and trenches. . . . Two thousand miles across that ocean was the coast of Portugal and then southward the coast of Spain and at its southern terminus, The Straits of Gibraltar which I had passed through on another Navy ship, “The Tamarind,” some dozen years ago. The headlands of two separate continents had enclosed us like a pair of great lazy giants, and I’d been transfixed by the mythic grandeur and history of The Pillars of Hercules where the colder Atlantic eased you into the warmer and saltier Mediterranean and on toward shores of ancient civilizations, as if you were living in some dream of the Argonauts or The Seven Wonders of the World.


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