Principles as Taut as a Full Sail

My father was very much a man of principle, though not all his principles made sense to my sister and me. Take food, for instance. He hated to cut into the second Sunday chicken. When one of us asked for more, he would invariably try to fill the order with scraps from the first bird.

"Good heavens, George, there's another whole chicken right there," my mother would say. "Probably Katharine wants some more, too."

If my sister nodded her head, my father would give in and even ask me what piece I wanted - unnecessarily, of course. Sometimes I would actually kick Katharine underneath the table to get her to pass up her plate, too. If we became too greedy, though, he was likely to come out with one of his favorite statements: "Do you eat to live, or live to eat?" There was no good answer to that.

My father, being a minister, had a lot of other principles, too, many of which came up for discussion at the dinner table. Most of them I went along with. We should continue to buy from the local grocery store and not patronize the big supermarkets, which were going to run everybody else out of business. OK by me. Chevrolets were better than Fords, Democrats than Republicans, freezing ocean water more fun to swim in than tepid lakes and pools.

There were other matters too abstruse for me to understand: If you found change in the little cup at the bottom of the telephone in a phone booth, you should call up the operator and return it.

There was one principle, though, for which I gave him my unabashed love. Wherever we were, for whatever reason, if it involved a mishap involving a sailboat, he would come get us - no questions asked. This did not include times when we got ourselves into trouble through our own stupidity and were merely inconvenienced, as when we left the island we had been picnicking on too late in the day so that the wind died before we got home and we had to row, usually against the tide, sometimes well on into the night.

No, I'm talking about occasions like the time we called from 40 miles away at about 11 p.m. and explained that the wind was so perfect we'd sailed off the chart and now we were stuck with no money and no way to get home and we really should leave the boat there for a few days until all this wind and rain subsided. "I'll be right there," was all he said. And he didn't even sound mad.

Years later, when my wife and small baby and I were shipwrecked 100 miles away, sailing from New Jersey to Maine in a leaky old catboat we had bought, much against his advice, he said the same thing. Boats were different. They were highly susceptible to weather and water, so the usual rules did not apply.

That's why I felt so bad several years later when we arranged ahead of time - something I knew we shouldn't have done - for him to pick us up at Jonesport, Maine, 50 miles away; and I realized we probably wouldn't be there on time.

"We've got to try," I said to Lucy that stormy morning in that same leaky catboat. We looked out at the swaying tops of the spruce trees from our cozy anchorage off Roque Island about seven miles away. We'd run out of gas, so we'd have to sail. In this wind, that meant a triple reef and it could take all day. But we had to try. That was the bargain.

THE wind was so strong it tore the sail off the mast hoops in minutes. All we could do was throw out the anchor and hope it would stick before we were on the rocks. It did. Just. And about 3 p.m. the Coast Guard arrived, and by 6 they had towed us to Jonesport where my father had been waiting since noon.

"You crazy kids," he said, looking both angry and relieved. "You should have stayed where you were. I would have known you were all right." Lucy gave me a sharp look.

"But ..." I was totally taken aback, confused.

"I almost didn't come myself when I saw how much wind there was," my father said.

"I thought ..."

"No, you didn't," he said. "But never mind. I'm glad to see you anyway." And then he embraced us. And drove us home.

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