Walter Cronkite, The life of a man of Integrity

Long ago there were news men. They were special, They were exemplified by men like Cronkite and Reasoner. They stated facts, facts that had been back-checked, facts that one could rely on. Always, they were professional, always they were reliable, always they were unbiased.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The aptly named Harry Reasoner

I remember Cronkite telling the world of the death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He stated the facts, then in uncommon emotion, he removed his glasses for a moment, to allow the tears to fall, replaced his glasses, and did his job.

He had known John Kennedy. They met when Cronkite interviewed him. I know much of them both and I am certain that they found commonality in their shared passion for sailing.

I, too, met Cronkite. I was in Wilmington, North Carolina. He was then recently retired. As part of his payment for his commentary of the America’s Cup race, he received a yacht. She was a Sunward 48.

Like me, Walter was a sailor. The yacht had been made for him. He had a special chair that rolled to level on a set of captive casters behind the wheel. It kept his seat level on any angle of heel. It had been on his old boat, and he requested it be installed on his new one. She was a beautiful boat, brand new and perfect. Everything that a sailor could wish for had been carefully incorporated.

Cronkite with his gimballed helm chair (by Getty Images)

It was a crisp morning. A close friend called me to the marina where my sailboat was docked. “Come down, right away!  Walter Cronkite is launching his new boat today”, he said. I was there in a flash. It stood on jack stands, off of the water in the gravel parking lot. It was brand new, beautiful, big, and grand, and we stood, mouths open in wonder. Before long, Walter and his family came and climbed aboard. By now, a small crowd of ne’er-do-wells collected to gawk, as ne’er-do-wells are apt to do.

The family, and the great Cronkite, had left their shoes on the ground and had climbed into the beautiful cabin to see, for the first time, their new yacht. In a few minutes, Walter emerged. “Come on board” he yelled to the crowd. I dared not. It was their moment. Though I wanted so to see the boat, to meet the man, it was a family time, so I stood and gazed into those great eyes, spellbound.

The others scurried up the ladder, black soled shoes with gravel dust grinding into the perfect deck. I cringed. He said nothing. “You, too” he shouted, looking at me and my friend. We dropped our shoes and climbed into the cockpit, and Walter showed us the cabin and the arrangement of the little ship. That is the quality of man that he was.

At that wonderful moment, when fate and hard work shone so graciously on him, he reached down to a couple of ragged sailors and made us a part of it. He was great by every measure.

 

Scott Cahill

Dancing with the Devil on the Midnight Watch

I am a writer. I have always been and, God willing, I shall always be. I write about engineering, construction, physics, and politics, but my truest self is a poet. It has always been thus. My first poem was published when I was eleven. This writing is a fantasy. A poetic account of the sea, alone in the dead of night:

Some think that it is the mind’s reaction to the lack of stimulus, some think it is the result of pent up fear, or lack of sleep. I have seen the ghosts and heard the voices of the angels or the devils that live out on the ocean on a moonless night.

Since men first harnessed the wind, there have always been the stories of the strange happenings on the midnight watch. It is the late watch, the Devil’s watch. It begins at the stroke of midnight and continues to 0400. There is no waning of daylight. There is no promise of a coming day. As the great sun hides on the other side of the earth, the tiny boats sail on the endless sea devoid of light and all of the noise of life and community. There, on that indigo ink sea are the few watchmen and sailors steering to a dimly lit compass or a distant star where most men will never be – could never understand.

On the lonely sea tonight, on the far side of the world a lonely sailor speaks softly to the night and he is answered. Some think it is a breach of the universe. Perhaps without stimulus of other kinds our minds find a place where they cannot go in the light of day – perhaps a lost sense is rekindled in the depth of night. Many of us who choose to sail the open ocean alone in the night have seen it, or felt it, imagined, perhaps these things.

I am no fool, but I, have smelled the breath of the dragon and heard the far off song of the sirens, or the voice from the bridge of a ghost ship in the dead of night.

We share a pact, those who have shared the ghosts of the midnight watch, but with the day, the memories fade behind that curtain where dreams go to melt from our memories. It bonds us with the sailors who have passed this way so long ago. Perhaps it is their soul that we hear laughing on the ink-dark waters of the night.

Now and then, though, fueled by rum and nicotine, the stories surface. They are filled with creatures with and without form, of voices of the dead, of visions, or “feelings” – strange feelings that make your hair stand up and send an electrical rush up your neck and those few of us who have shared the wonders and horrors that fill the night listen and understand. Some support the teller, some sit silently – unable to address such happenings – uncertain of the validity, the reality of what they, themselves, have seen.

The tales tumble forth through wind – cracked mouths of old sailors framed in grey beards stained by tobacco. Late at night in old bars in harbor towns to those few who care to stay to hear – perhaps to none. The tales flow into the night air traced in smoke. They are heard by a few who want to hear, or who know the secrets of the sea. To the sailors of the daylight he is, perhaps a fool. To those who have taken the helm at the stroke of midnight he is a comrade, an affirmation of their own secrets, hidden deeply between reality and imagination. In the day he will not talk – oh, he will talk of varnish, pitch and caulk, wooden boats and storms, but if you try to lead him to the quiet nights alone on watch he will become uncomfortable, his old worn fingers wound around his hand like a fish in an octopus’s grip. He will light his pipe and redirect the conversation.

Across the quiet bar old men nod, eyes of sailors tear. Some get up and leave, some stare as they are transported out there onto the sea – as their minds take them to their own tale, one never to be told. These stories do not mix well with the light of day. Like a cheap plastic tarp, daylight breaks them down, and they fall into pieces. They were wrought of the night and in the night they live. There are other stories to fill the day.

I share these things with you with some difficulty. They don’t hold up to the scrutiny of intelligent men. They are written in the logs of our grandfather’s ships. Sailors whisper them late at night. These stories are not worthy of scientific scrutiny nor the time, or reason of serious men. They are told, though, on the decks and in the berths of freighters, and naval ships, and in sailor’s haunts around the world. Perhaps it is an old man’s mind playing tricks on him. I don’t profess to know. I only know that the sounds and the sights are real enough in the dark of a moonless night, and why they come only then escapes me as well but for sure – they are there. They live out there on the ocean in the belly of the night.

It is not the stories that really matter, if any of it really matters, but I will tell you some of mine and some of the others I have heard. In the night, when the moon and sun are hiding behind the earth and when the sea is kind and flat those of us who choose to “dance with the devil” on the midnight watch see things. Its then, that we hear dead relatives speak from the nether land. We see the monsters that haunted the sailors of long ago. We hear the deep breathing of a giant who follows our tiny boat across the deep sea – watching as we pass. Most of these things are frightening only in their realism. They occur, but are rarely relayed to the morning watch. It is our secret. It is our waking dream, or failure, or manifestation of hidden fear and it is easily dismissed in the light of day. But alone on my little boat I have this strange intercourse with the night and the things of the night.

Once, at the tiller, my leg hanging over it as I sighted a star with my one eye open. Sleep took me and my sails fell limp. I awoke to a star-filled night and stumbled to the stern to relieve myself. In an instant I lost all of my bearings and I hugged the aft stay with both arms as my tiny boat sailed without wind in her sails across the open night sky. I looked down over the stern and the world was gone far away into an endless black of space, yet I breathed and I stood there on the stern of my little sloop looking down on the galaxy. I carefully walked back to the cockpit and held the tiller once more and with a quick pull I felt the resistance of the sea and I was back. It was too odd to be real, too vivid for a dream. I was caught in that place that exists sometimes in the midst of night in the deep of the sea. I don’t question. I was there.

I once heard a distant conversation waft across a lifeless sea outside of Diamond Shoals on a moonless night. The voices were happy and were of men and women. They talked and laughed yet the night would not give up their secrets to me. I became obsessed, starting the engine and running fast toward their voices and shutting down to listen again. They were always just too far away I could hear them – but I could not make out their words. I yelled across the lifeless sea “AHOY” – to no response but silence I started the little diesel and ran again toward them full speed. It was then that the quiet night was shattered by the depth alarm. It had been set long before in the intercostal – 10 feet. I was on Diamond Shoals. I drove the little sloop off of the shoals as the swells began to pick her belly up and got clear to the east again. I shut down the engine. They were there, still, laughing and talking just a bit too far out to quell my loneliness. I don’t believe in much. I don’t believe in ghosts or parallel universes that mesh with our own, or the tales of the Bermuda triangle – but they were there and I could hear them and they drew me toward death that night.

I could not stop my mind from thinking of all of those who had died there out far off the dark coast on those hideous shoals, imagining the horror of their final moments as the breakers shattered their wooden ships and sent them to its watery grave. Were they lonely that night too?

One late night I was off of the coast of the outer banks of North Carolina. I had sailed down along the barrier islands all day. The moon was retiring, a silver pathway shimmered on the water connecting my tiny boat to the shore and then closed into a failing halo over the coast. I kept my little sloop off of the shore, marking my way with the lights of the beach homes and restaurants and fishing piers. My attention waned or was drawn away toward some task. The sails were lightly full.  I looked back at the shore and the lights had gone.

There are areas on the outer banks with nearly no lights on this part of the coast but there is always the occasional car or fire, fisherman, or camper to assure me of my navigation. All had gone. A power outage, I thought. It was all that could explain the absence of lights. I reviewed my passage – Duck, N.C. – Kill Devil Hills N.C. – I could not yet be down to the Hatteras light. I must be nearly off the dunes – Nags Head.

There, long ago, men known as wreckers would lure ships to their death on the sandy beach. They led a nag with a lantern rigged around her neck up onto the dunes. It’s irregular swinging high up above the land looked like a ship gently rocking in a kind anchorage. Too many captains saw the lights and with the tricks of night and the want of anchorage were drawn to their deaths on the beach below the dunes. The people who lived in this, then desolate spit of sand made their livings partially off the spoils from these wrecks. The early architecture of the islands was adorned with parts of the lost ships and their cargo. Skeletons of those ships emerge from the sand to this day after a heavy storm.

My mind filled with worry. I listened for the breaking surf of the shore. I adjusted my course 15 degrees to the east and thought of Diamond Shoals. I should clear it if I keep this safe course, but I was lost, uncertain of my location. How many fools’ bones litter the bottom of this part of the Atlantic?

It was then that I saw it. Up high, a single light swinging and bouncing. Perhaps it is a friendly anchorage, a little indentation in the coast to allow me rest and sanctuary on a lonely night. I turned toward shore and the wind sharpened. My mind wondered where this little hollow might be. A sickening feeling overcame me. Something wasn’t right. I reached into the combing and found my light. I shot it’s beam toward shore – surf. I pushed the tiller over hard and the compass turned to east. I stashed the light and established my course.

Looking back over my shoulder the shore was full of life. A hundred lights dotted the beach. A string of cars moved up and down A1A. The fishing pier flooded it’s blue light into the sea. The neon of the shops painted the night. The shore was a glowing crescent of life and light.

On another occasion I was alone off of Cape Fear. The sea had been hard all day and my boat and her captain were drained. In the calm of the night I curled up, my head on a pillow on the combing, and I closed my eyes. The night was as dark as coal. I awoke to the deep sounds of breathing – not human, perhaps a whale, taking long deep breaths that shuttered my soul. I fell about the cockpit and finally found my spotlight. I pulled the trigger and the night was filled with the beam. There was nothing there, not even a disturbance of the surface. I have heard the voices, too. They answer questions posed aloud or within my mind but they speak clearly and distinctly. I have answered them before swinging my gaze up to the sound to find nothing

I met a young couple in Florida. They work on Yachts, the big white boats that float around the islands from expensive dock to expensive dock flooded in lights and shooting supercharged diesel breath into the night. After I got to know them well, late one night he told me his stories. I had not “shared” – I never dreamed that your senses would allow such things with the lights, stereo, and LED monitors filling the night, but he saw them, too. To him they were ghosts. They haunted certain yachts and appeared and reappeared they spoke and moved things in their cabin. His wife nodded as if to affirm the unaffirmable. I said nothing in response. I didn’t laugh at them, but I didn’t tell them my stories, either. It seemed too private.

What is real and what is fantasy, a sailor never could know. I can only feel and hear and respond in wonder to the beauty and strength of the sea. I am but a tiny dot on a sea that spans the globe and she does not care for me nor does she harbor me. I sail upon her and she tolerates me or perhaps, doesn’t even know that my tiny ship is there.

So you see, I have seen the dragons. I have heard the songs in the distance, the conversations from another place or time that float across the ocean at night. I am not the one to excuse these things – are they real or are they imaginary? They are as real as life and death. They are as imaginary as life and death. They are out there. They await you if you dare to “dance with the devil” on the midnight watch.

Scott Cahill

 

Sailing, and the art of working on boats

I have always been a sailor. As if I was a sailor in a previous life, my heart always yearned for the open ocean.

Through the years I have owned many boats. The first was the S.S. Randolph. (not the big one, but the eight foot plywood one that sank in the neighbor’s pond) The second was an old rotten plywood scow. My father procured it for me. He was a very wise man. He, I believe, understood that working on such a thing was as important as sailing it. I spent a winter in dad’s shop getting it ready for the water. The next summer was spent sailing, fixing, and towing back to shore this most valuable treasure.

Later there was a fine O’Day Mariner, which sailed the reservoirs, the great lakes, and the Chesapeake Bay. (I proposed to my wife while swimming 2 1/2 miles to cling to the Great Wicomico Light structure for rescue.) There was a 27′ North American, a 25′ Hunter, a 40′ Irwin Citation, and finally, my current vessel, a 52′ Irwin center cockpit ketch. Each of them were old and in poor repair, each of them required much work. Each of them were loved.

I have seen new boats. They exist at boat shows, their tables set perfectly, with a rose in a leaded crystal vase. White upholstery, fine leather, varnished teak that you could shave in. I wonder what they must look like after a rough passage, crossing the gulf stream in the middle of night with a north wind. Do the vases shatter and scatter their shards across the finely appointed salon? Do the polished floors lie covered with wet foulies and the vomit of the motion sick? Does she have such poise that such things never materialize, and she slips into port, her crisply flaked sails bound with matching sail ties, embroidered with her name, the rose still upright, the vase unfazed by mother nature, having some contract to forestall such indignant calamity?

My boats are different. I know each galled bolt and failed fitting, each questionable seacock. I have laid in every corner of the bilge, under her floorboards, reaching for the dropped fitting, or screwdriver. I have snugged every fastener and I have uttered curses, head-down in her most intimate recesses.

I know her. She knows me, too. I speak with her in the night. She is a living thing. I hear her breath, I feel her warmth on a cold night, she moves, slicing through the water at a whim, carrying me carefully across the sea, surely she cares for me, as I care for her. She rocks me so gently to sleep after I find her a safe harbor.

I love her, only a sailor could understand, it is a contract, like every love. I will care for you if you will care for me – is that not the contract of love?

I know that this is a strange thing to say, but boats are not inanimate objects. They live. They move about the seas, tossed by storms, and congregating in protected shallows. They communicate with those who love them. In the deep of night, alone on the ocean, I understand her, and she me. We share our thoughts and our time. It is a deep and loving relationship. I doubt that the owners of the shiny white yachts feel it, but every sailing bum on every old boat, who has scraped her belly clean, and shined her hull, and fixed her leaks understands. You give love, and you get love in return – that is a fine relationship.

I polish, and coat, and sand, and repair, and when there is nothing pressing, I make her shine – and I take her places – and I show her off. I am not even embarrassed by such actions. Others love their boats, too. Some even love the ugly and the unreliable. How a man could be so attracted to a power boat, or a catamaran! It is shocking!

I miss her sometimes, when business, or life pull me from the sea. I know that she waits. I know, too, that she knows that I am thinking of her now, tonight, in front of my computer, as she stands alone, tied to her slip, watching the dock for my arrival.

Scott Cahill

The Open Sea

After days at sea, you can smell the land. At night on the water, you can see every star. Out there, and there alone, you get in touch with yourself. Every day that I am away, I yearn for the sea. It changes me – resetting deep switches within my psyche, erasing the numbness of life, the dull drone of television and petty human intercourse.

Some find a similar place in meditation, at mountaintops, deep in the woods. It is similar. I have seen the deep wood. I have climbed into the thin air, my head pounding, my breath panting.

No other place compares to a moonlit night on the deep sea. I know the things that the men of the sea in wooden ships long ago understood. It is a secret that we keep.

My soul cries out for her, a quiet anchorage, or a raging storm, calamity or serenity, to cast my lot upon her will. To dance upon her blue, blue ocean and watch the stars reflect upon the sea – to catch a glimpse, perhaps, of myself.

Scott Cahill