The Booze Cruise
The only stories I tell involve stumbling upon other people’s pornography habits or embarrassing myself, and this one doesn’t fall into either category, so it must be pretty good.
The summer that I was 21, my friend Jake made a proposition. “Hey man,” he said. “This woman Pam from my work is having a party on a houseboat on the Potomac this weekend. She said I could bring some friends. What do you think? There’ll be an open bar.”
[Feel free to pause the tape at this point, freeze-framed on Jake’s cocked-head and suggestive, “good times” face, and write down your answers to the following questions:
1. What does the Venn diagram of people who work at photocopy shops and people who throw open-bar parties on houseboats look like? Are you puzzled or concerned by the type of person in the middle section?
2. Do you trust Jake’s interpretation of “business casual?” Why or why not?
3. Which makes you angrier: subterfuge or obliviousness?]
That Saturday morning, against my better judgment but out of friendly obligation and summer boredom, Jake, our good-times-loving friend Evan, and I pulled up to a dock in Southwest D.C. We arrived early, in fact, so when Pam spotted us across the parking lot, she hailed us over to help her set up. “Thank you all so much for coming. Can y’all grab a few of these and bring them over to the boat?” she said, gesturing to a car trunk-full of framed black-and-white photos. They all depicted the same man: first, as a boy, then as a sailor, then as a father, and then finally as a retiree, amateur trumpeter and boating enthusiast. We obliged, took glasses of red wine from the bar, and sat down in whatever the main room of an empty houseboat is called, while Pam propped up photos around us. When she was done, she silently handed us each a poem:
Crossing the Bar
By Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.
Context clues were accumulating, and Evan and I locked eyes in disbelief that this was actually fucking happening. Jake slapped his forehead. “Ohhhhh, I forgot to mention,” he said. “Pam’s dad passed away last week and we’re going to do a super quick thing for him, but then the booze cruise is starting.” Before we could give our condolences to Pam and express our regrets for needing to leave so soon, dozens of family and friends of the late Captain Wallin Dodd Holtgren started to file onto the boat. Distant relatives paused when they got to us, undoubtedly mistaking us for Wallin’s grandchildren, and we did nothing to disabuse them of the idea. “We’re so sorry for your loss,” they each said, pursing their lips and lowering their eyes. “Thank you,” we replied.
The service began with the eulogy. Pam and her brother Walt spoke eloquently and at length about their father, their childhoods with him, his lifelong love of the sea, and the loss of his wife and their mother only months earlier. My head began overflowing with visions of the Larry David-esque scene that would break out if anyone found out why we were there. Readings from Tennyson and the New Testament followed, and then Wallin’s trumpet teacher stood up. He damned Wallin’s musical talents with faint praise, but he said he admired Wallin’s perseverance and the eagerness with which Wallin took up the instrument so late in life. He played a hymn, and a pang of sadness rose from my stomach to my throat.
After the applause subsided, Pam invited several elderly men in naval uniform to the front of the room. “Roll call,” one of them announced and began to read names off a list. After each, a sailor responded “Present!” But, when he called, “Wallin Holtgren,” the room was silent. He called again, his voice unwavering, “Wallin Holtgren.” Finally, he called out a third time, “Wallin Holtgren,” and a seaman to his left held up an urn. “Present. But not responding.”
Pam took the floor again and announced that there would be a brief intermission before the boat left shore so that Wallin’s cremains could be spread on the water. Jake, Evan and I made a beeline for my car without second thought, and it would have been the last I ever saw of the bereaved if I hadn’t realized moments later that I’d forgotten my sweater on the boat. Unable to bear stepping over the dozens of grieving geriatrics again, I prepared to say a final goodbye to my pullover and leave it behind. But then, a thought crossed my mind: what would Captain Wallin Holtgren do? So, I turned, pursed my lips, lowered my eyes, and plunged back into the abyss.
In memory of Wallin Holtgren, whom I wish I had met sooner, and with sincere apologies to Jake, who is a wonderful person and who maintains that he never would have taken us to a random funeral if Pam had just been more upfront about the whole situation.
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