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Messing About in Boats

“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” -Kenneth Grahame, “The Wind in the Willows”

Norfolk, Virginia is a town of flat greyish buildings and flat brackish water, host to PETA and NATO and the world’s largest naval station, and my father and stepmother’s home for the past twelve years. It’s never been my hometown — they moved there the year I began college — and, although I’ve never told them this, it’s always depressed me. To me it’s all strip malls and concrete and neighborhoods that still ooze segregation. On the other hand, they do live on the water: their property has a little dock on an inlet off a branch of the Elizabeth River, which lets into the Chesapeake Bay. Even better, my father shares a boat with a friend, Frank, who’s spent his life fishing these waters. It’s a 21-foot center console Parker with a new 200HP engine. It’s called the Diablo.

Over Christmas, I spent a few days in Norfolk with family. After a day or two of playing with my stepmother’s cat Gus, drinking beer, and reading, I’m not at all surprised when my father calls me downstairs one morning. “Frank wants to know if you want to go fishing,” he says. “We’re meeting him at the boat in half an hour.” We drop our other plans and scramble into warm layers.

On the Diablo, Frank asks my permission before lighting a cigarette. He’s medium height, amiable, dressed in Carhartt hoodie and stiff jeans. His face settles into creases marked deeply from a lifetime of squinting into the sun and wind just like this, and he guns the motor. I anchor myself with a firm grip on a railing and lean into the wind. The cold begins to clutch at my neck and ears as we pick up speed.

Here’s a secret that my lefty environmentalist self is ashamed to admit: nothing will ever be as fun as a fast ride in a motorboat. I’m most expert in a sea kayak or canoe, but the quiet magic of a slow paddle is nothing like this rush. The deck under my feet begins to gallop as we get farther out into the Elizabeth River. Ahead of us is the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, a thin blue-black line of water meeting sky. The bow hits a wave crosswise and a spray of icy water spatters my face and jacket, and I laugh silently. The water pours beneath us as though we’re falling off the horizon. Part of me is absolutely sure that if I let go of the railing, I could take a leap and the boat would toss me casually off its neck, straight up into the clouds.

We’re passing the Naval Station now. Aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers — dozens of ships sleep quietly, lined up like horses in stalls. I don’t know their names or categories or purpose. To me their massive lines and precise intricacies speak of an enormous, brutal, casually exercised power. Some days my father will take us past them slowly, staring and speculating, pointing out the submarine cockpits rising quietly from the dark water. I don’t have it in me to marvel at them the way he does. I keep them uneasily in the corner of my eye and look out past them, toward the open bay.

The spot Frank has in mind is just past one of the bridge tunnels that connect Norfolk to the rest of the Hampton Roads area. Where the bridge turns into a tunnel and dives underground, the current and the abrupt drop-off create a swirl of deep, cold moving water, just the sort of place striped bass like to linger. It’s probably too late in the year for them — they’ll be off south along the coast — but it’s been so mild, Frank says, you never know. And anyway, it’s a great day for a boat ride. Frank pulls a wad of frozen, slightly stinking bait fish out of the cooler and slices them into chunks. Then we cast out a couple of lines and let them drift. My hands are clumsy with the big reels: most of my fishing has been on camping trips in Ontario, going after three-pound smallmouth bass. A decent striper is ten times that size, easy. After that, we wait.

The trick to fishing is to enjoy the waiting. I fall in and out of the conversation between my father and Frank. Mostly I sit in the chilly sunlight and look around me. The faint noise of traffic rises behind us, where cars rush toward us like dusty beetles and then fall abruptly out of sight under the waves. Above us is the intent buzz of an oddly-shaped military aircraft. Occasionally we can hear the conversation of other fishing boats, other hopeful souls like us, out enjoying the sunshine and slowly freezing their toes. Gulls wheel and screech; a trio of merganser ducks whips past. I think about the mink I saw on the dock this morning, a brown ferret-like creature hopping blithely in and out of the granite rocks that protect the shoreline from erosion. It had the absorbed intensity of a child playing alone, poking its head into crevices — searching for food, I’d assumed, although really I don’t know anything about the lives of wild Mustelidae. I think about the thirty feet of water beneath me, and imagine schools of striped bass flashing through the shadows on their own mysterious journeys.

Gradually everything I don’t know looms large until it drowns out everything familiar. I don’t know anything about the wild lives around me, existing cheek by jowl with human commerce. I know a bit about the Chesapeake Bay, enough at least to follow along when my brother and sister (both of whom work in outdoor education-related fields) get into the intricacies of she-crab moulting or oyster lifespans. But not even they know all the secrets of the fish under the water, or what games the mink plays. Likewise, though I have a few friends with Navy backgrounds, I don’t really know anything about the world of the military: this Defense that looks so much like offense, this massive machinery of power parked in my parents’ backyard. I don’t know anything about the shipping world. How would I follow the life of the container ship that circles the globe, Norfolk to Hong Kong, and back again? Even the dreary line of traffic contains multitudes, each mind, each life so far from mine that we can never really touch.

Norfolk is an uncomfortable city. For one thing, so much money gets poured through it, and yet it’s still so ugly. The cranes and the bridges and the battleships probably have their own elegance to an expert, but it’s not a beauty I can discern. The only beautiful things are the animals and the horizon line, and the only people who get to see them are the ones like us, with enough money and leisure time to spend our mornings messing about in boats. There are other kinds of ugliness, too: block by block, you can tell whether a neighborhood is black or white by its property values, by whether the backyards are green, by how closely spaced the houses are. I can’t avoid the structures of racism by having their effects concealed from me; and unlike my parents, I don’t stay in Norfolk long enough to figure out how to work against them. I simply take their spoils and move on, and try not to consider what kind of a person that makes me.

In most places I’ve known there have been more buffers between water and land, civilian and military, wild and human. It’s been easier to avoid the cognitive dissonance of so many worlds jostling together in so unremarkable a place. I haven’t had to worry about the extent to which my commitment to peace is made possible by the apparatus of warfare. I’ve been able to type “global economy” into my Chinese-manufactured iPhone without picturing what that actually looks like: the massive lumbering cargo ships, the railroads spidering out from the city in all directions. I’ve been able to relish the beauty of the world around me without reflecting on how much my access to that beauty depends on wealth and whiteness. Norfolk takes something as simple as a boat ride, a beautiful day, the wind in my hair, and complicates it. Perhaps that’s why I’m uneasy there: any moment, I think, some new strange thing might be hauled dripping from beneath the surface and cast gasping before me.

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