any eight-year-old living on a boat, when Halloween rolled around
I wanted to be a pirate. I had visions of an elaborate Treasure
Island-worthy costume; my parents were dismissive of my grandiose
plans. We had downsized from a three-bedroom condominium in Alexandria,
Virginia, to a thirty-five foot sailboat named Witch Woman, and
we were at the beginning of a year-long voyage. There was little
room for extra supplies, or dissent.
"We can make you a costume with what we have," they said,
in unison, like parents do when faced with mutiny.
So this is what I was wearing as we left a downtown marina and approached
a cozy residential neighborhood in Annapolis, Maryland, on Halloween
night in 1983: blue jeans (my darkest pair), tennis shoes, a black
Member's Only jacket (zipped all the way up), a red bandanna on
my head, a dollar store plastic sword tucked into my belt, and,
of course, an eye patch -- a circle cut from a piece of gauze and
colored black with magic marker. I colored the patch half-heartedly,
mumbling about injustice on the high seas, so it looked exactly
as you'd expect a piece of gauze colored with marker to look. Almost
as much white as black. Streaky. A sad, one-eyed boy's attempt at
making his temporary patch slightly less mortifying to the general
My mother and stepfather skipped the gauze and magic markers --
no costumes for them, aside from what they might later describe
as their standard "hobo sailor" outfits: jeans dirty from
engine work, sweatshirts washed once a month at best, and well-worn
boat shoes. Still, we were a merry band that night, and one of us
was hell-bent on pillaging and plundering.
stepfather bought Witch Woman when he retired from the U. S. Department
of Agriculture. We spent the summer of 1983 preparing for a year-long
voyage from Washington, D. C., down the East Coast, over to the
Bahamas, and back up to D. C. I named the dinghy, a rowboat that
had its own mast and sail, Batteries Not Included.
a dinghy might seem like a small consolation when faced with being
removed from school and friends, and it was. At eight, I wasn't
old enough to understand how adults viewed our adventure, but I
knew that kids my age didn't pick up and leave very often, or if
they did it was for a good reason. Tammy's mom got a divorce and
moved back home to Tucson. Okay, understood, divorce happens. Kevin
transferred to a school where kids beat on drums and wrote poems
all day. No problem. Every neighborhood has that family. Alex's
parents bought a boat, and they were going to live on it. Better
yet, they were spending all summer varnishing canned goods. That's
what they would subsist on, and sea water would eat into the containers
of bacon, green beans, and corned beef without a layer of sealant.
Corned beef and sealant? Those are the pairings that make people
start to wonder.
I saw my friends for the last time, they looked at me like I was
an astronaut on launch day. Sure, they wished me well, as eight-year-olds
do ("Can I have your G. I. Joes?"). But their furrowed
brows indicated they expected to see my shipwrecked corpse splayed
on the front page of a major newspaper within five or six weeks.
In fact, embarking on a space mission would have made more sense
because space and rocketships are always cool, never fall out of
being cool, while boats go out to sea and never come back.
likely, after a few days my friends forgot about the whole thing.
I prefer to imagine that they spent more time than that wondering,
that maybe they guessed or dreamed that I'd get so tired of canned
corned beef hash and green beans that I wouldn't eat them for years
afterward, or that Witch Woman almost sank on two occasions, or
that a boating accident claimed the life of a girl named Crystal
in Beaufort, who I met in South Carolina, and that she'd be a lost
friend and remain in my memory only as a name, an energy, a light.
mayor of Annapolis had an elaborate set-up at his home that Halloween.
I remember fog, a path down the side of the house that featured
assorted howling monsters, and a gathering area at the end of the
path where parents and children could drink a cup of cider.
some reason I didn't want to get involved. I don't know if I felt
it was beneath me, as a pirate, to mingle with common happy folk,
or if I was scared, or if I was more interested in moving from house
to house as quickly as possible in a quest for Laffy Taffy. We saw
that someone had answered the front door, so I decided to skip the
festivities and head straight for the candy bowl nestled in the
arms of the mayor's wife.
I described my costume earlier, I neglected to mention that the
clothes on my back were the clothes I wore almost every day. Everything
I owned fit in a milk crate. On most days I didn't wear shoes. We
had no shower, so when dirt caked in the cleft of my collarbone,
and we happened to be docked at a marina, my stepfather and I would
shower with vagrants in a public restroom.
don't remember my collarbone cleft status that Halloween night,
but I'm sure I looked a little rough around the edges. My parents
may have, too, because I remember them lurking in the shadows around
a streetlight as I walked up toward the mayor's front door, and
I remember the mayor's wife scanning the front yard warily after
she saw me pirating up her front steps.
uh, hello there!" she said. "And who might you be?"
a pirate!" I said.
of course," she said. "A pirate. And where do you live?"
not sure what she expected my response to be. At the time it seemed
like a stupid question.
live on a boat," I said, which was true no matter how you looked
at the situation.
no," she said. "Where do you live?" Her voice, more
serious now, dropped an octave.
live on a boat," I said, again.
you poor dear! You poor dear!" She looked horrified.
don't remember saying anything. When you're a child you start to
sense the presence of Concerned Adults, like grandparents, or neighbors,
or maybe just plain mothers -- those folks who take it upon themselves
to right wrongs, fix what's broken, and sweep young pirates away
before loot can be looted. I'm not saying I had all this in my head
in 1983. I just knew that it was probably time to back away, slowly.
you want any bread?" she asked. "Milk? Would you like
to come in? What do you have on your boat?" The mayor's wife
was going into overdrive. At this point my parents whisked me away
with embarrassed smiles. We may have been a ragtag bunch, slightly
caked with dirt and tired of living off of canned food, but we didn't
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