The Lords of the Water
The Second Chapter
An ode of sorts to an area and the friends we have there.
As my time out here is almost complete, I feel like I need to say something memorable to mark it. Whether I have it in me or not is another matter. After all, when I came out here last June, it was an unexpected opportunity to return for the first time in a couple of years, and I was excited at the prospect of living here again, especially after thinking we might never get the chance to return.
It was time to re-experience some things and do others we had never had the chance to do before. And still, it was a chance to rekindle old friendships, unique relationships I’ve written about before that I’ve never really experienced in the other places we have lived over the years. I can discuss the truth out here with people who are utter strangers from anyone else in my life, and they listen and understand. They can relate. They have similar life histories and experiences. And once again, we will leave.
This late Friday before July 4th journal entry is for them; in some ways, my mentors and friends, in some ways, my peers.
Some of them grew up near these waters, moved away and found they were compelled to come home, while others arrived here with no intention of staying and found they couldn’t leave. But all — in similar ways — became masters of their minds, their thoughts, and their chosen professions, and then they each turned to their love for the local geography. In their own, unique and individual ways, they became lords of the water.
After I left the town of Oak Ridge¹, there were often times I would compare it to places I lived in future years. I can remember one military tour where we lived in a quaint little town on the Atlantic coast of North Carolina. When we got those orders in the last winter days of 2007, we found out we were going to North Carolina for the first time. And we were excited; it was something new, and we had never lived there before. This was one of those things that we enjoyed about being in the active-duty military: We got to go somewhere new every once in a while.
Since we were not one of those military families that liked living on base at that time, we literally got out a map of North Carolina and started looking up and down the coast and researching the local places and towns. We had visions of finding a town like something out of a Nicholas Sparks novel, a coastal village where we could relax and enjoy ourselves at a slower pace. We decided we would live in Morehead City, North Carolina, just across the bridge from Beaufort.
Although we would spend only three years there, in later years I would look back on our time on the Crystal Coast with much fondness. There were many differences between the people on the Crystal Coast and Oak Ridge. The folks on the coast didn’t have a scintilla of pretense in their souls. They were God-fearing, salt of the earth people; they often worked on the numerous military bases in the area — Camp Lejeune, Cherry Point, Bogue Sound auxiliary air field — and they had a lot of respect for those who wore the uniform. Many of them were veterans or military retirees themselves.
Elsewhere, including Oak Ridge, people would profess support for the troops with bumper stickers and flying the flag outside 365 days a year until it became weathered and rotten. But the “support” was never real or practical. It was all sentiment, and thus, totally empty of any real meaning.
These patriots on the cheap are everywhere. Their bumper stickers and rhetoric is vapid. It is all empty platitudes. And it always has been.
Every single time I lived or resided in Oak Ridge, it was the same. Over a span of thirty years, nothing ever really changed, and people always seemed to have an extremely insular and stunted view of the world outside, as if they had never ventured beyond the narrow confines of the area and their own limited perspectives. People in Oak Ridge put every person they knew into a box and gave them a label. And woe to any person who made any attempt to break out of that box created for him. This made it very simple for them; you put a person in a box you’ve made for them, and you never have to get to know them.
But on the Crystal Coast, for some undefinable reason, all these things were different. The towns that dotted the coast were even smaller than Oak Ridge, yet the people somehow understood. People embraced you. People knew what it meant, for instance, for someone to have just returned home from a deployment. Once word of this got around, perfect strangers would celebrate your coming home with you. This type of thing was alien in Oak Ridge, where people so rarely saw a real member of the military; it was difficult for them to wrap their minds around it. Sure, they made some efforts, but the reality was distant and nebulous to them.
It certainly helped that a lot of military veterans and retirees had settled along the Crystal Coast. An already quiet, languid existence was made even more enjoyable by being in the company of people with similar life experiences and priorities. It was all refreshing and new.
It was during that time I would become friends with the unlikeliest of people, three men, one of whom was ten years older than my own father, not quite old enough to be my grandfather, but with a well of wisdom deep enough to fit that role. The eldest gentleman and I were the sons of titanic fathers, we had been athletes, and we had served as Marines, and all of this somehow combined to give the two of us ample common ground to explore when our group got together on Friday evenings in Beaufort.
I would discuss my fish-out-of-water experiences in Oak Ridge with them at length, and how the more time I spent away from the place, the bigger the wall of separation seemed to grow.
“Well, the biggest problem you have now is people can’t identify with most of your experiences. They can’t relate. They can only relate to you based on that narrow, finite period of time they knew you, which is now many years ago. If you get beyond that subject matter, they’re outside their comfort zone. Pretty much everything with them is just surface-level. Unfortunately, that’s the majority of people, and it exists everywhere. But the very few people who go deep with you; they’re your real, true friends. Bonded for life.”
Indeed, I thought. His words dripped with wisdom.
Once I left Oak Ridge, people “went deep” with me almost everywhere I went. It was a small group, no doubt, but there were always a few; San Diego, the east coast, and now out on the Crystal Coast, where I was pleasantly surprised to have as our best friends three couples old enough to be our parents, who blessed us with their time, life experiences, stories about the struggles of parenting, and wisdom. And they dispensed it all without any judgment. They all went deep with me, especially Jim Allison².
But nobody ever “went deep” with me in Oak Ridge. Maybe I never gave anybody the chance. Some might make the argument that after everything that happened there over the years, I put up a wall. But that just isn’t accurate.
No. I spent the better part of a decade trying to learn their ways of life before I finally left. Maybe those people just didn’t have it in them, unable to exist anywhere or carry on a conversation about anything other than what Jim called the “surface-level.”
Either way, there it is.
“Make sure before you leave this time you let me know. We’re going to get everyone together, and this time we’re picking up the tab. It’s not going to be like last time,” Jim told me.
It wasn’t an invitation. It was more like a firm directive from the unofficial group leader.
When my wife and I left the area back in the summer of 2010, our group had a similar last meeting at our favorite spot, Aqua. It was supposed to be a going away party for us, but near the end of the evening and before they could do anything we had turned the tables on them and paid the tab ourselves. My wife explained, “It’s the most we could do to thank you for how wonderfully you’ve treated us while we lived here.” They all appeared touched by the gesture.
Looking back now, it was twelve years ago. How is that possible? Where has all the time gone? I sometimes feel like a lifetime has transpired during the intervening years, for many reasons and events, some of which will never be put down on paper.
Jim’s directive came well over a month ago now. I haven’t seen him since. Nor have I run into Mark Bonner³ or Dale Rider⁴ since that one night in the midst of the mild coastal winter when Dale all of a sudden appeared out of nowhere in the Atlantic Beach establishment where I was writing a story in which he — ironically — was the model for one of the characters.
“What’re you doing? Writing about us again?” he’d needled me before sitting down across the table from me. It was eerie. “Maybe,” I said in retort. “Pretty soon, you’re going to have to start paying me royalties,” he observed.
He sat down, and we caught up for a few minutes; he asked how the writing and the current military mobilization were going, talked a little bit about his family, and then he disappeared back into the dark, January coastal Carolina night from whence he came. He is like that. He is seldom seen, and when he appears, he doesn’t waste much time.
But he has this penchant for coming up every so often on the proverbial radar when he’ll send me a text out of the blue after reading one of my stories to offer some technical advice or when he thinks I missed an important fact in something. Or he will do something gratuitous like buy a dozen of my books and put them in the local bookstores around here.
He’s like that. All three of them are like that: Jim Allison, Mark Bonner , and Dale Rider, my “favorite uncles” on this coast, these lords of the water — in their own unique ways; “watermen” all, but not in the same way I see myself.
One of them left Yale to join the Marine Corps and fight in Vietnam, returned to Yale, graduated, ran multi-million dollar corporations, and ended up of all things, a successful boat builder. Another one carried out missions in the Navy to places he still can’t talk about. And the third, another Navy man, swam under water — open blue ocean water, green, sediment-filled, Southeastern Asian jungle rivers teeming with snakes and leeches, and brown, filthy, oily harbors where enemy vessels and ships were tethered, and survived to become, of all things, an inn proprietor and owner of the vintage wine and coffee bar where I have a free table to write when I’m here. To say he is an amalgam of contradictions would be an understatement.
And I learned none of these exploits from these three men. I picked it up in passing from their families and friends. I did my own research. They’ve never once talked about their exploits or accomplishments, unless I specifically asked. And even then, their response is usually something like, “Oh I don’t really remember; that was a very long time ago.” My father was like that. He didn’t speak much about his accomplishments.
Theirs is a different kind of generation, one I wish mine and subsequent generations were more like; accomplished and successful, personally and professionally, yet down to earth and humble.
Back in early June, I walked into the local store owned and run by Jim’s wife Carol⁵ and almost bumped straight into Jim. He ended that interaction with the aforementioned admonition to not leave the area without everyone getting together. So here I am, nearing the end of my time here.
And so once more, I make the trek over to Aqua like so many times before to meet up with these three older gentlemen who are my friends. We take a seat outside on the covered patio. We order our drinks. And we begin to catch up, again.
Bonner is a retired Navy submariner. He once commanded one of the sub boats that carried out some of the most daring missions in the final years of the Cold War, when our subs would dive under Arctic ice in Soviet waters and launch divers to put taps on Soviet underwater communications cables. Those missions were classified until many years later. He reportedly served as technical adviser on a number of books that were published on the subject after everything was declassified. He still spends his days as a consultant to the Navy on sub issues and plays a lot of golf. And he is a good golfer; he’s not a long driver of the golf ball, but he is wickedly accurate, and he is always “in the hole,” meaning every shot falls near the target, and he stays under the radar all day until you total up his 78 or so on the scorecard, and look at him with surprise. Like his old submariner days, the guy still stays out of view, even when he is in plain sight.
Rider is an old Navy “frogman,” having served in the days before people started calling them SEALs. He helped pioneer the organization which started off doing strictly underwater reconnaissance and demolition missions, but later evolved under others to become arguably the top special operations outfit in the world. Close to 80 now and about 6'4", and still looks like someone you wouldn’t want to trifle with. But he is easygoing and charismatic. He is also one of the original participants in the Iron Man Triathlon series, having completed the original race in Hawaii while still in the Navy. At 38, he was one of the oldest competitors. After running out of water during the marathon portion of the race, his “support crew” consisting of fellow Navy special-ops types resorted to giving him beer. To date, he has eschewed any retirement work dealing with has past military career, and he and his wife run one of the local bed and breakfasts. The old athlete and Navy diver is now the chef, and their establishment has some of the best food in town. He can put his paddleboard or kayak in the water and still keep up with men half his age.
And then there is the resident elder statesman of the group, like me, a Marine. Before he finally retired — this time for good — Jim Allison was the owner of a local boat building company and former CEO of several corporations. Now in his 80s, he spends his days overseeing the building of sail boats or popping in to his wife’s harbor-side business to check on things. He went to Yale in the early 60s and then enlisted in the Marine Corps during Vietnam. It was not a popular decision with his classmates. He was later commissioned an officer, rose to Captain, and when his service was done, he reentered Yale and got his degree with highest honors. He earned a Silver Star in Vietnam. But even after all this, he is the humblest person in the group. Take one look at him and he seems just like some extremely fit 80-something year-old who looks at least twenty years younger, dressed perpetually in Tommy Bahama clothing, boat shoes or flip flops, and a sailing cap. He wears not one hint of his past accomplishments. He is gregarious, gracious, charming to everyone, and an incredible raconteur.
They each carry and exude much-needed life-perspective and wisdom. All raised children and have different life experiences. All learned how difficult the transition is from being a parent of a child and teenager to being the parent of an adult. All are grandfathers now.
All know what’s important and what is not, have learned through trial and error, and actually talk about the experiences. And on occasion, I try to answer their “why” questions about their own grown kids; “Why doesn’t my son listen to me?” “Why don’t they come visit us more often?” “Why does he get angry at me when I offer my advice?” “He thinks I’m judgmental.” “What are they thinking?” And so on.
It has been a great two-way street of observations.
Into the twilight, we sit and take in the panorama along the waterfront, swapping stories and experiences between periods of silent reflection. I feel privileged to be in their company and to call them friends. And I often wonder why I have never experienced something like this anywhere else.
Maybe it’s the common background, military service, and life experience. Maybe it is just chance, though I take a dim view of the notions of “fate” and “coincidence.” Or, just maybe, it has actually happened for a reason. I don’t know.
I’ve wondered where these kinds of men are in the other places. Mentors, father or uncle figures perhaps, friends, even peers in a way. They don’t seem to exist in the other places I’ve lived. Maybe they do, I’ve just never met any of them. I wonder what these afternoons and evenings will be like when I leave again.
But wherever the other place is, no matter how nice the people are, they always seem somehow constrained, willing only to go so far. The topics for deep discussion are limited and more likely non-existent. There’s always something that seems created and packaged; a false front, an obvious facade. There is a point beyond which most people will never go. In many ways, it is a surface-level “relationship.” And that just doesn’t interest me very much. Sure, we will be “friends,” but in many ways, we will always remain strangers.
But the lords of the water — these masters and commanders of lives well-lived — will always be here, dispensing truth without judgment, guidance without direction, kindness and understanding without expectation, answers without intention, and giving their time without recompense. And I will carry their examples with me, wherever I go. Their words of wisdom will always stay with me.
When it comes time to leave, we make our goodbyes. There is no nostalgia, only the firm looks straight in the eye and the strong handshakes of confident and secure men. I hope in a decade or two I can return the favor of their friendship and mentoring to others. We go our separate ways.
I wonder if I will see them again. I hope so.
With the sun just starting to dip on the western horizon, I cross the street and take a seat alone at an outdoor table. I order my usual at the establishment. I think of writing an account of what has just transpired, in order to make a record of it. I open the laptop and start writing it down.
I’m going to just sit here on the patio for a while on this languid, mild, July 1st afternoon and watch the occasional car or truck slide by and a few people walk past; maybe I’ll try to identify that music in the distance and that faint but unmistakable seafood aroma occasionally floating over in my direction — the first, bluegrass, I think, and the second, a crab or lobster boil somewhere; perhaps I’ll go investigate both shortly, and then that silence that arrives in between everything else — no sound but the crepe myrtles and the wiry, twisted, live oaks swaying gently in the coastal breeze.
A seagull softly cries intermittently overhead, while the motor of a shrimp boat — low and distant — hums softly as it enters the harbor.
I’m now just sitting silently taking in the vistas and the sounds of this area that we’ve come to love and see as our second home; the one we keep coming back to for the calm, the quiet, the friends, and the anonymity it provides.
After all, it’s not a bad way to spend some time on a late Friday afternoon.
- are pseudonyms
Glen Hines is the author of five books, including the recently published Of Time and Rivers, and the highly-regarded Bring in the Gladiators, Observations From a Former College Football Player Who Was Never Able to Become a Fan, all available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. He is the writer and producer of the book and podcast Welcome to the Machine, available on most podcast platforms. His writing has also been featured in Sports Illustrated, Task & Purpose, and the Human Development Project.