It is funny how a stranger’s aging face will never reveal the face of its youth. However…
A little less than a month ago, I went to a beautiful warm sun-drenched October wedding on the edge of a calm harbor in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
On the lawn, an hour or so before the wedding began, a small group of old men slowly gathered and greeted each other. Some had not seen each other for almost 50 years.
We had become friends long ago during high school, as a diaspora loosely formed by outcasts of various different New England schools. We had all been transferred or expelled from someplace, in several cases more than once, because of undiagnosed learning issues and/or an intransigent attitude, and thus had been prematurely released upon the world to get our education on our own terms with far less supervision.
No harm done. Most of us survived and had lived interesting lives of our own making and all of us had stories of our adventures along the way as we talked out on the lawn during that evening, or later on the phone. Nonetheless, we had bonded quite profoundly from our common experiences back then, and these stories and adventures defined who we believed we were.
As we told the stories about each other, the mask of old age dropped from our faces.
There was one friend who was not present as we rekindled old friendships and plowed through our memories.
The bride’s father had included in the program an “In Memorium” section that included those who had been lost along the way. One of our lost friends, let’s call him Brad, had been the bride’s godfather before his death.
Brad had been lost at sea years ago.
I didn’t know him as well as some of the others but I remembered, early one spring day, going down to the boatyard he used on Cape Cod, and watching him paint the waterline high on his boat to cover the approximately 2 1/2 tons of contraband that he expected to be bringing back from Jamaica a little later that year.
It was his custom to avoid returning by the Windward passage where he might be apprehended and instead sail far out into the Atlantic, then head north for an extended run, and then hug the shore as he traveled south back along the coastline in order to appear to be a tourist sailing down to the Cape from Maine.
He was a brilliant unflappable sailor.
One of his friends remembered how he had sailed back with him from Morocco, along with contraband, when Brad’s 37-foot deep keeled boat suffered debilitating electrical equipment failure. Brad then navigated without the aid of instruments, solely with a sextant, and expertly traveled down to the edge of the equator. As the sun came up one morning along the expansive horizon, he had watched “a thousand little squalls, each with rainbows beneath them in the sunrise” as Brad had navigated cross the Atlantic and hit his target, Antigua, perfectly.
Once freed from formal education, Brad was largely self schooled, but was well read in history, loved the Sherlock Holmes stories, and Shakespeare.
He was a wonderful and engaging companion. However, his freedom had not made him a saint. He indulged his ”weaknesses,” as he put it, sometimes at the expense of others as he enjoyed his world.
Early on, one of this group, who had become a lawyer, had been called upon to bail him out of a Jamaican jail where he had been held for some time.
He joked that he had been instructed to bring a little extra money to ensure his extradition, a fresh dry-cleaned white shirt folded on a cardboard back the way he liked it, and pressed pants, because within a half hour of his release they would both be drinking Remi Martin at a Jamaican bar.
We all knew Brad would not always be so lucky. He spent almost three years in Fox Hill prison in Nassau, and a year and a half imprisoned in Morocco, but it was the independence in him that we chose to remember.
No one knows for sure how he died.
He always had enemies in the trade, but he had also made good money doing commercial fishing off the New England coast. He disappeared offshore in the Atlantic during a squall off Cape Cod.
Nothing was ever found of him or his boat.
All the sailors in the conversation agreed that to leave no flotsam or jetsam behind was highly unusual.
The conversation turned from a general discussion of the squall to jokes about how improbable it was that the squall was really his cause of death.
Someone chimed in about how Brad had one time taken his boat to ride out a hurricane off Florida because being tide up at a dock would be more risky. However, when he had returned afterward, there were footprints on the ceiling of the cabin because his boat had rolled completely over during the storm.
Another friend suggested it was more likely that Brad had been hit by a freighter on the commercial trade routes that never saw him. Others who knew him well believed it was a settlement of old scores by others, and he had died with an anchor around his neck and his boat had been dragged back, repainted, and was now repurposed somewhere on the inland waterways, probably down south.
“No,” one of them chimed in. “He’s alive in Hawaii free of his enemies and debts.” One friend laughed as he peeled off toward the bar. “If he was alive, he would be here. He is the bride’s godfather. Remember how he had come to her high school graduation in a white suit? He took this stuff seriously!”
It is funny how old bonds of real friendship never break and how, when you see an old friend’s face, the young face can be reconstructed from a familiar smile or a remembered look. It is both a resurrection from the past and rebirth into the future.
Brad is still forever young for us even now, 50 years later, as we are for each other.