Consequential decisions can be triggered by inconsequential causes. She leaned over, picked up the phone—and I knew then that I'd be filing for divorce. But later, introspective curiosity sets in. And the search for self-justification. So we poke around dormant gray matter trying to bring out a plausible teleological narrative. All this has been happening to me since I decided to sell my boat.
The American Idea: A Proposition (November 2007)
"Ours are loyalties to an ideal, not to a revelation, and this must have been the reason, even if he was not conscious of it, why Lincoln referred to the American 'proposition.'"
Bush for President (October 1988)
Employment is up; inflation is down; and success as a social ideal now commands prestige. Why repudiate the politics that have brought us to this felicity?
The Attack on Yale (November 1951)
"God and Man at Yale, written by William F. Buckley, Jr., is a savage attack on that institution as a hotbed of 'atheism' and 'collectivism.' I find the book is dishonest in its use of facts, false in its theory, and a discredit to its author." By McGeorge Bundy
Selling a boat one has spent happy decades on is, in a way, a fateful decision. It can be likened to a decision to stop skiing or playing the piano, if one has skied a lot or played the piano a lot. The sequence here is critical to the effort to explain a self-inflicted privation.
What brought it on? It wasn't that I decided to do away with my boat after narrowly surviving the storm I took it through. I wasn't making a gesture of despair and remorse after losing a companion overboard.
Dramatic forerunners engender sequels that are self-explanatory, most of the time. There was none such here to account for my decision. If there had been a catalytic event, you would be looking for something quite simple, on the order of resolving to file for divorce after finding your wife in bed with another man—a banality. It was the inconsequential factor that I searched for.
What did happen is that Michael, a first mate I had retained—as I regularly did—to crew for me one day every summer week and ten days in August, had had to pull away. A mortal cancer had seized his mother, quickly killing her. Of course he would leave me for a period, to be back in Canada with his father; I expected his return after two or three weeks, but then he reported that he had contracted an episodic malady of sorts that would keep him away for the balance of the sailing season. He would be returning directly to Yale to get on with his graduate work in molecular biology. My summer schedule was put awry.
A few weeks later, my plans reconstituted, I was sailing on Patito with three very old friends off Cape Cod. I blurted it out to them at dinner, on the fourth night, that I had decided to sell my boat—on which, as on its predecessors, they had all sailed with me over many years, and to distant places. Their stupefaction was gratifying, in that it confirmed the felt gravity of my decision. I had acted on impulse—but not, I tried to explain to them, impulsively.
In September of 1938 two of my sisters and I received distressing news, relayed to us by our governess. It was that two weeks hence we were to embark for England, where for one academic year we would attend English boarding schools. This disruption of happy lives, home-schooled in northwestern Connecticut, we found unbearable. My father, who had thus struck us down, was at the time visiting Europe with my mother and other siblings. He had given no reason for this arbitrary move, beyond saying that the experience of foreign schooling would be educational for us; never mind that we had all already been to British schools five years earlier, when we were living in Europe. Age twelve, I wrote to him resignedly (there was no alternative to complying with my father's decisions) about the impending extraterritorialization, and took sly and arrant advantage of his predictable defensiveness—he owed us one, and he had a very tender heart. I told him with a letter that I pined to have a sailboat when we got back from the English ordeal.
And so, nine months later, in June of 1939, I beheld my own sailboat on the neighboring lake.
It was a torrid affair from the moment I sighted her. I thought it a filial gesture to name my boat Sweet Isolation, reflecting my father's political leanings in the pre-war years. My little (seventeen-foot) conventionally rigged Barracuda (sailing class extinct) took me around the triangular course on Lakeville Lake twice every Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday, mid-June to Labor Day. I contended in the no-handicap marathon against six other boats of different designs, all of them captained by aged men and women in their twenties and thirties. We all struggled hugely to acquire the trophy. You needed to win it three times before taking permanent ownership. An exact replica of it could be found at the local hardware store, on sale for $21.
I would rise early on racing days to gauge the wind's preliminary dispositions, and to contemplate a strategy for that afternoon. I would be driven the five miles to the lake, arriving an hour before race time so that I could practice my starts and coach my crew (usually one of my siblings). We had three summers of this before the Wononscopomuc Yacht Club races became a casualty of Pearl Harbor; they did not revive after the war. The spring-fed lake, one mile square, is still there, and from it, when the winds are still and the sun is low, you can discern the brick profile of the Hotchkiss School. On the opposite rise, in the low Berkshires, Wanda Landowska could view the lake from her house where, for RCA, she recorded her historic harpsichord renditions of The Well-Tempered Clavichord. On the afternoon of the recording session, after beginning to play, she stopped. She advised the state police, by telephone, that they must close the entire road east of the lake to traffic, so that she could have the total stillness she needed. No one had ever before made such a request; no one else ever will; but the police, dumbfounded by the high Teutonic voice of the lady whose face had graced Time magazine, complied.
There was no sailing for me during the war, but I was discharged from the Army in May of 1946 and had Sweet Isolation back in the water a week later. In July, I contrived a cradle on a four-wheel trolley. Attached to the station wagon, it took my boat to Edgartown. We sailed, my sisters and the childhood friend I'd be sharing a room with at Yale a month later, in those glamorous waters. One afternoon, off Chappaquiddick, the mast was disabled in a strong wind and my sister Tish was swept into Nantucket Sound. For harrowing minutes, as we struggled desperately to bring the boat about, we knew she was at risk of drowning. A Coast Guard vessel spotted her flailing arms and picked her up; then it fetched us and my crippled boat, and towed the bedraggled lot back to a marina.