He contacted me — by e-mail — after he’d received my daughter’s wedding invitation. “Damn right I’ll be there,” Al said. “You want me to pick up some crabs and a bushel of oysters when I come through Maryland?”
That was the pattern. When he’d drive up from Pensacola, Florida, to see us in Vermont, Al would always detour through Oxford, near the mouth of the Choptank River where he’d spent the best years of his youth and, maybe, his entire life.
“Absolutely,” I replied. “How long can you stay?”
Turned out, he couldn’t stay a single night. Could not, in fact, make it at all. His next e-mail said, “I’m afraid I won’t be there for the wedding. They found this damned cancer and it looks like I’m going to be joining old Jones pretty soon.”
“Jones” would be Robert F. Jones, a novelist and magazine writer — most prominently with Sports Illustrated — and a neighbor and hunting companion of mine. On his many visits to Vermont, Al had gotten to know Jones and they’d become friends. Al admired Jones’s for his talent, his erudition, and his bluster. Jones’s was fascinated by Al’s story. He’d been a POW in Vietnam for five and a half years.
When Jones had died of pancreatic cancer six months earlier, Al sent me an e-mail. “Hard to believe old Jones has gone west,” he said. “And before I got a chance to talk to him about his last book.”
WHEN I TOLD MY DAUGHTER that Al wouldn’t be coming — and why — she cried. The tears were part bridal sentimentality, of course. But there was something else. She remembered going out with her sister on Al’s sailboat when they were not quite school age, back when we were spending time on the Gulf Coast. Al would call and say, “Why don’t you pick up a bucket of fried chicken somewhere and bring your girls over for a sunset cruise.”
We’d meet him at the Naval Air Station dock, on Bayou Texar off Pensacola Bay. Al had retired from the Navy by then but he still had privileges or, maybe it was just a courtesy. Either way, it was a prime spot and seemed like a reasonable perq.
His greeting was always efficient — almost brusque — and it had taken the girls a while to get used to it. We would hand over the chicken, the cooler, and whatever else we had brought with us and then come aboard. Al would immediately start working the lines and giving the girls jobs — holding this one, coiling that one — in a manner that made it clear these were important, even vital, tasks; that they weren’t passengers or guests on his vessel — they were crew. And, of course, they loved it.
“They like him because he doesn’t patronize them,” I told my wife once.
“Wrong,” she said, “Al patronizes everybody. They like him because he treats them like they’re adults.”
She said it with affection, though she could find Al exasperating. Like, I suppose, a lot of women. And it was true that Al had a way of explaining things so carefully and in such elementary language that you could believe he thought you were a little slow. It was as though he worried that if he didn’t make sure of every detail, there would be a misunderstanding and things would go suddenly, disastrously wrong.
But, then, you could forgive this as understandable since his plane had taken a direct hit from a surface-to-air missile that cooked off his entire bomb load, blowing him out of the sky in a dirty orange explosion that ignited the propellant in his ejector seat. He came to hanging in his parachute four or five thousand feet over North Vietnam. Al had a very sure sense of just how badly wrong things could go.
ONCE WE HAD CAST OFF, Al would handle the boat until we had cleared the channel and were in the deep water of Pensacola Bay. Then he would turn the helm over to one of the girls, give her a course to steer and explain how to read the telltales to make sure we were on the correct point-of-sail. Even though they had heard it before, they would listen intently.
“Let’s sail out to the pass,” Al might say, “and see what the Gulf looks like.”
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