The San Juan Islands have been an important part of my life, and have played a role in my memories, from way back at the start of the mental film strip. When I was four years old, my parents and the parents of my Much Admired Cousin Sheri (just enough older than me to be awe-inspiring, but still attainable as a friend and a life goal) shared an 18-foot bow-rider ski boat (much like the boat Ian and I currently enjoy; in fact, the inspiration, at least for me, for our boat). In keeping with the natural tones of all motorized gear in the late ‘70s, indoor appliances and outdoor recreational equipment alike, the Larsen was a lovely milk-chocolate brown with tan upholstery. My family would haul this ski boat up to Lopez Island every summer for a month’s rental of a beach shack on Shoal Bay. There was a private mooring buoy—no dock space—associated with the beach shack, and somewhere we would back our boat into Puget Sound and motor it around to that buoy.
A ski boat is small—much smaller than some dinghies for yachts I’ve seen docked in Roche Harbor. There is not a lot of space to put a dinghy on a ski boat, is that point I’m making here (and is an issue Ian and I deal with in our modern-day San Juan ski-boat adventures), and so we had any number of strange contrivances (well, boats) to convey us and all our day-trip needs and superfluities from shore to vessel. One was a red, white and blue inflatable (or rather, usually, deflatable) craft and plastic oars, which one adult or another would row as quickly as possible before we all (two or three adults and several children under five) sank into the 46 degree bay. One thing going for the inflatable was that it had multiple air “zones”, so maybe it would be part of the floor that was flaccid, which wasn’t such a big deal as when the sides sighed their filling out. Then there was the little, orange, double-hulled Sportyak that Dad brought home on top of the car, late one night before a trip, and ran it into the carport roof, damaging the roof and rendering the boat just as leaky as the inflatable (it was hastily patched with some thick, noxious gray glue, and made the trip). Or the next dinghy he did that with.
One afternoon, after successfully loading five children under age five and three adults on board, we took off for an adventure. We can’t have gotten very far before the water pump cooling the engine broke and left us drifting, but we had gotten too far for anyone to swim us back to shore. We flagged a passing boat, tied a line to our bow, and hitched a ride to the marina on Blakely (I think). I remember all the parents being quite adamant that none of us kids go up to the bow, in case that line snapped, whipped back, and took off our heads. In the event, we arrived safely, heads intact. As I remember it, Dad spent a couple hours working on a VW Beetle that a mechanic had been fixing, while the mechanic looked over our boat instead. We kids got popsicles at the store.
We eventually moved up from the ski boat/beach shack to a 26-foot cabin cruiser which was large enough to carry a dinghy along with it—we had a Livingston with a sail package, and so learned rudimentary sailing skills. Around late middle school or early high school, though, we got the Big Boat.
The Finnish Maiden (named for the previous owner’s wife and never changed, and for years people would stop on the dock and speak in Finnish to us) was 36 feet long, could sleep six, and came with an 11-foot Boston Whaler with a 35 horsepower engine that we could ski behind, as dinghy (technically, the Whaler was only supposed to have 10 hp). Now THAT, we kids thought, was FUN.
A couple years before we acquired the larger boat Dad started playing his French horn again, after a several-year hiatus. He and Mom, and then Deane, as he got older and more skilled, would bring their horns on the boat and practice or play duets and trios, sounding off against a cliffside in Princess Louisa Inlet, or singing the sun to rest off Matia.
There’s an arrogance implicated in such noisy shenanigans—a French horn is no guitar, for example—and there may have been people who hated any rupture of the watery quiet—no matter how dulcet—as much as Dad hated the yapping dogs they brought on board with them. But I don’t remember hearing any complaints, and Dad’s playing was sweet, and clear, and warm, and lovely—if loud.
This year, Saturday, 13 August marks the 19th anniversary of my father’s death. It also marks the day that the length of my life without him starts to extend beyond the length of my life with him. I am finding this to be, somewhat to my surprise, a momentous event. I feel a bit like he’s just now falling behind me, fading into the past. Like he’s been with me, step in step (but oh, so far away), until now, but he’s starting to let me go on without him, to really see who I’ll be on my own. What will the next 19 years be like?
I was talking about this with our friends D&K and K’s mom, G, on our most recent trip to the San Juans. We were camping for a couple days on Lopez Island, all of us, at Odlin County Park (D&K supplying the dinghy service), before Ian and I headed off alone to hope for dock space on outer islands. D mentioned the beauty of Reid Harbor on Stuart Island and I said yes, I knew it well, and Ian and I had made a pilgrimage there a couple years earlier. I spent a few minutes explaining why pilgrimage and telling of my father’s death (fouled propeller; yellow jacket), and the last couple experiences I had shared with him.
Walking with Dad along a dock in Friday Harbor on the 11th of that August, heading out for a bike ride, I had chuckled at a small fishing boat called the Irish Wake. “What is a wake, exactly?” Dad asked.
“It’s a party you have when someone dies,” I said, “to celebrate their life, instead of mourning their death.”
“I think I’d like to have a wake,” he mused. And he did, less than two weeks later, with over 300 friends attending to cheer him on.
And on the evening of the 12th of that August, in Reid Harbor, with everyone else on shore, Dad and I played a last game of double solitaire, and I won. For the first time. Ever. 100 to 90. He was impressed; none of us had ever beaten him (we could occasionally convince him not to play).
And the next morning he died.
“Wow, and you still come back!” said K, and “You’re very strong,” or something like that, said D, and I replied that I couldn’t stay away, and wouldn’t they choose such a place to die, if they could?
Later in the afternoon, Ian and I went off to the far eastern edge of the campground, to the main office, to buy some more firewood. As we turned to walk back to our site (which was down on the beach, midway through the grounds where the road starts to climb up a cliff into the woods), I heard a French horn, sweet, and clear, and warm, and lovely, playing a horn call that Dad played every single time he ever picked up his horn.
“That’s a French horn!” I said breathlessly to Ian, and hurried on toward our site, and toward the sound.
Wha? thought Ian. I can’t hear anything . . .
“Dad used to play that!” I went on. “It’s maybe Wagner? I don’t know for sure, but he would use it as a warm up!”
Suddenly the music switched to Mozart, one of the concertos, I couldn’t remember which but I’m thinking it was maybe number 3 3rd movement. “Ian! It’s now playing Mozart! I PLAYED THIS WITH MY DAD!”
“Okay!” said Ian, awed (and somewhat relieved). “I can hear it now!”
We hurried into camp and dropped our wood.
“There’s a French horn, and I have to find it,” I said, still breathless.
“What?” said everyone there. “We haven’t heard anything at all . . . but then, we’ve been playing music . . .” and they were, quietly, but just enough that they hadn’t noticed the horn.
“No, it’s definitely a French horn,” I said, “playing Mozart, just like Dad did.”
I rushed on up the hill, pulled by the past, Ian trailing along behind. At the top, off to the side in one of the sites perched on the cliff-edge, I walked right up to a young woman sitting on a picnic table, smiling at me, and a young man (mid-twenties?) standing near her, holding a French horn.
“Oh!” I said to him, “my father used to play the exact same things, 20 years ago, here in the San Juans, it’s so beautiful! You have such a lovely tone! Was that Wagner?”
“No,” he said, “Strauss. Every horn player knows it.” He smiled at us. They never seemed to have any fear that we had come to complain.
“Are you in an orchestra?” asked Ian.
“Not since high school, just a pick-up band.”
“How long are you staying?” asked the girl.
“We’re leaving tomorrow,” said Ian.
“Oh,” said the guy. “I’m playing at an open mic on Thursday evening here.”
“Well, I’m afraid we’ll miss that, but this, this was wonderful,” I said. “Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful playing with us.”
We said goodbye, and made our way back down the hill, serenaded by more Mozart, ringing joyfully through the trees and out over the bay, celebrating life.
Thank you, Dad.