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Then, while the girls sailed the boat, he would get busy with the rituals of stowing gear, coiling lines, and generally making things shipshape. It was partly his nature and the other part his love of the boat, a 32-foot sloop that he’d bought with some of the money that had accumulated while he was a POW. The rest of the money had been spent by a wife he’d divorced not long after he came home. That wife had been his second. The first marriage had been worse and had also included children. Al barely knew them.
These days, he had the boat.
Once or twice a year, he would singlehand it from Pensacola across the Gulf, and then around to the Bahamas where he would spend a couple of months anchoring in the shelter of little, uninhabited Cays, spearing fish and lobsters for food, then sailing on to some small harbor town when he needed ice or water or, even, a little human contact.
I wondered about those trips. Hadn’t he experienced enough solitude? The worst part of his entire captivity, he once told me, had been when he was locked in a little metal crib, alone, for 13 months.
“It isn’t the solitude so much,” he said, when I made the point. “It’s the sailing. Since I’ve come home, motion is my mantra.”
AT THE MOUTH OF Pensacola Bay, Al would luff the sails and we’d eat our fried chicken and drink our sodas while we watched a school of bottle-nosed dolphins and listened to the mournful sound they made through their blowholes. Toward dusk, we would sail back to the marina, generally upwind, with Al explaining to the girls about how you tacked. At the dock, he would tell them that they were a great crew and that he wanted them to come back so he could teach them about oiling teak and polishing brightwork.
But there were fewer and fewer of those sailing trips once my daughters started school. We were in Vermont most of the time so Al began coming up to visit. He treated the drive like a cross-country hop and the passenger seat of his little truck would be piled with charts on which he had marked his route — and his alternates — in yellow highlight ink. He’d designed routes to beat the tolls and take advantage of the best gasoline prices, to take him by the homes of a couple of his old POW buddies and, also, to visit Oxford and the Choptank where would pick up some seafood for us. The night of his arrival, we’d always have friends over to help us eat the oysters that Al and I would shuck.
On one of those evenings, he got into a conversation with someone who wanted to know about his time in captivity. The questions weren’t particularly hostile, inquisitory or, even, political. Merely detailed and intense, with a focus on the physical suffering.
Al did his best to deflect them — treating them like gnats — but he couldn’t make them go away. Finally, he said, “I’m really sorry. I’d like to help but, you see, I only remember the funny parts.”
MOST OF AL’S VISITS came in the Fall when he would bring an old shotgun he’d used to hunt ducks on the Eastern shore. That had been in the '50s and he hadn’t done any hunting since then. He wanted to get back into it so he would go out with me and my dog when we hunted birds — grouse and woodcock — in the aspen and gone-by apple orchards. He wasn’t much of a shot — maybe because his gun was too big and clunky for the kind of quick work we were doing — but he was enthusiastic and he wanted to know everything. He asked questions about the dog and how you trained one; the birds and how you knew where to look for them; the guns and what made one superior to another.
It took me a while to realize that his was not so much a personality quirk as learned behavior. Late in the war, when the heat was off and Al was not in solitary but sharing a cell with one or more of the other POWs, there was nothing to do but talk — tell stories and ask questions. A lot of what he knew, Al told me once, he’d learned from his fellow POWs. One of them had taught him how to take apart a V-8 engine and rebuild it and when he got home, Al bought the right model pickup so he could test himself.
“Only had to check the manual a couple of times. Everything else was right here.” He tapped his head with his finger. “Department of Auto Mechanics. Hanoi U.”
I suppose the POW experience could also explain Al’s fondness for long stories. He enjoyed listening to them and he especially liked telling them. He was good at it, too.
He and I were sitting at the table in my kitchen one evening, after an afternoon of hunting. A neighbor who had flown fighters with the Air Force had come by and stayed for a beer. While my wife and I listened, my neighbor and Al talked about their fighter pilot days.
“You must have flown out of Nellis,” Al said at one point.