Friday, 19 June 2009

BINARY CODE-Chapter 5-The Old Woods

Return to Table of Contents A high pressure system is one of nature's marvels. When it first takes hold it has a cleansing effect, as a band of low pressure clouds scurry past fleeing from the advancing high and sweep away any humidity. The sky becomes bluer than blue. If it is winter, it is clear and crisp. In fall, the days stop their remorseless advance towards the cold and pause to pay their last respects to summer. In the early days of such a system, there is also a psychological effect, a high. Tell me any of you who have not felt the thrill of a perfect clear day, thinking for a split second that life will always be good, and hoping against hope that you really are immortal. Alas, as the pressure system begins to disintegrate, the molecules of water vapor start to send out their advance scouts which are clear warnings of a change. From a morning sky slightly hazier than before, tiny wisps, thin arcs of cirrus clouds at high altitude are the signal that the jig is up. The wind picks up a little, and if you are paying attention, you know that the good times are breaking camp and marching on. Then it is really time to enjoy yourself, to grasp onto the memory of perfection before life returns inevitably to roiling cumulus, sedimentary stratus, and the dead and immovable grey gloom of winter. The wind picked up Sunday morning though the sky was a hazy clear. With muscles a little sore from all the activity, we skipped the sports and spent the early morning preparing for the sail and the picnic at Haynes Point. The logistics were critical. We would take both the Whaler as a tender and the Hampton, an exciting if slightly unstable boat with too much sail for its size and keel. Fast, but skittish like a race horse. Our course would take us out into the Mobjack, where winds could have a long running start with nothing in their path to slow them down. We had to make sure that we had everything in case things went wrong. Two tanks of gasoline for the outboard, lifejackets, and two oars for the Whaler. We knew what to have as precautionary provisions from experience. On a previous expedition we had neglected to fill both tanks. We hadn't brought oars and had run out of gas, Valhalla's version of up the creek without a paddle. Luckily a crabber had towed us back in, but we wanted to avoid such embarrassment. We were lucky that the wind was blowing perpendicular to where we were heading. If it held we could sail both to and from the lighthouse on reaches, with little need to do anything but set the sail correctly and hold the tiller steady. Like refugees we gathered on the dock about 10:00 and loaded up the coolers. Since Stokely, Tess and Dewey were the best sailors, we split them up, planning a swapover halfway. I went in the Whaler along with Tess, Lydia and Dewey. The winds were light but steady and the Hampton made good time. We meandered along in the Whaler, close enough to have a leisurely conversation or to overhear one. As we made a pass by the Hampton in between sessions of wavejumping, I overheard Stokely explaining how Bernoulli's Principle allowed a boat to tack against the wind. Clare and Jonah looked bored. It was at that moment that I had my first ever conversation with Lydia. I still remember the words I said to her. I didn't really mean to disparage Jonah. In fact, I didn't even consider myself a rival for her affection, so nascent and half formed were my feelings for her at the time. Still, I began with a silly and ill-considered remark. We were both looking at him as we passed by the Hampton. "Jonah," I said. "Bringer of misfortune to ancient mariners." She looked at me strangely. "I mean, you know the story of Jonah and the Whale. He was going to Tarshish to flee the presence of the Lord, and God sank the ship he was on drowning everyone on board. Then he was swallowed by the whale..." I stopped, off to a bad start. "I can't remember the rest, except that he was spared and returned a hero." I tried to scramble back from the precipice. "That seems an odd thing to say about your roommate," she pointed out diplomatically. "Yeah, well, it's only a name. That's probably the first time Jonah's been on a sailboat. There aren't a lot of ports near Wichita." She smiled, acknowledging a fact and not an opinion. Without changing the subject, she turned the conversation back to me. "Do you do much sailing, Evan?" She punctuated her question with a laugh. That laugh and her eyes. Both drew people to her. Her laugh had a timbre to it, like her voice. Her eyes were always interested, a sign of intelligence. They digested what you said the moment you said it. I answered. "As a crew member...not a captain. Stokely and Tess taught me, didn't you Tess?" Preoccupied at the helm, Tess rolled her eyes. "He's not bad really," she salvaged a compliment. "We did a trip once in the Windwards on a charter, and once we sailed to Bimini, both times bareboat," I continued. "Bareboat?" she asked. "Without a professional captain. Stokely and Tess vied for that honour." I turned the question back to her, and cautiously began to probe--a reconnaissance mission. "How about you? Did you grow up near the water?" She replied with an ironic yes. Ironic because though her father had been in the Navy after medical school and they had lived various ports around the world, she hadn't done much sailing. Now she considered home as Athens, Georgia. Her father was a doctor, having left the Navy to become head of pediatrics at the University of Georgia. "Are you following in his footsteps in premed?" I asked. She nodded, quietly confident. Pre-med at Duke was no mean feat, akin to boot camp. She seemed to be weathering it quite nicely. Her goal was to do research on leukemia, especially in young children. Without asking for sympathy, she said her sister had died of it. This admission settled over us like spray from a wave. Suddenly her determination and her sense of humour were seen in a different light. I had no doubt she would succeed in her goal. We were approaching the halfway point where we would swap over. The wind had died down, almost to the point of being becalmed. "Remind you of something, Dewey?" He nodded. "The horse latitudes." "What are those?" asked Lydia. "That's an area in the Caribbean where high pressure systems get stuck and the seas are becalmed," I explained. "They're called the horse latitudes because when the early ships came over from Europe they carried horses in them. When the ships got stuck, they eventually had to throw the horses overboard, and the sea became littered with their floating corpses." "Lovely," shuddered Lydia. You can never control where conversations go. Like everything else in life, you can only give them an initial push and see what happens. I was never sure what Lydia thought of our first real contact. Certainly it showed different sides of me--callousness, fascination with gruesome stories, petty self-serving comments. Still, it must not have been a total disaster. We took advantage of the drop in the wind to swap places. Lydia stayed behind with Stokely, Jonah, and Clare. It was the closest we came all weekend to splitting off into couples. Dewey, Tess, and I made an odd threesome in the Hampton. We were all three loners in different ways. Normally on a sailboat conversation is at a minimum, especially in the Hampton where a quick gust would flatten you if it caught you unawares. There was no risk of that happening this time. The wind had reduced to a jealous whisper. We settled back for a long haul. At this rate, we wouldn't reach Haynes Point before two. The conversation rambled aimlessly. As the lighthouse finally came into sight, I asked Tess something I had always wondered about. "Haynes Point? Does the name have something to do with your family?" She nodded. "My father's family came from up the Choptank on the eastern shore of Maryland, but somewhere way-back-when one of them--an oysterman--gravitated south and had the lighthouse built. This must have been in the early 1800s, so the name hasn't been around all that long." She paused, staring at the red and white structure. "That lighthouse is important to our family for other reasons," she continued. "Why's that?" "It was where Helmut's body was brought from his yacht. He had a heart attack on his way to Valhalla aboard the Eric and Haynes Point was the nearest landfall. He died on the beach." Dewey and I filed away this piece of information. I had been to Haynes Point twice before, and wondered why Stokely had never related this story. The winds started to freshen up again luckily, and we resumed at a respectable clip. We reached the lighthouse at one-thirty. The old structure was no longer used, replaced by a derrick-like rig a quarter of a mile further from the shore. The paint was chipped and defaced with the graffitti of modern visitors--Sean loves Donna and the like. It stood on a small island, no more than a pile of rocks linked to the mainland by a sand bar at low tide. We moored the boats at a pier which was only barely serviceable. Stokely marshalled us over for another picture in front of the lighthouse before lunch. I was down at the pier unloading the coolers when I heard a shrill voice. "You never think of anyone but yourself. How can you be so selfish?" It was Clare's voice, and up by the entrance to the lighthouse we could see her haranguing him. He was wincing as though the words were actual darts pinning him against the wall. The two of them disappeared into the lighthouse, where their discordant voices rattled around like pebbles in a tin can. I came up and whispered to Lydia. "What is that all about?" "Nothing, really. At least nothing important," she replied in a hushed voice. "I don't know if you've noticed, but they haven't exactly been getting on ever since the Whaler. When we were on the boat, I asked Clare a question about her studies. She started to tell me she's a journalism major when Stokely broke in and began talking about a writing course they had been in together." She shrugged her shoulders. "It was really nothing. Stokely was just trying to say how they met. There must be something else." I understood. Stokely did not really want control, but he wanted involvement in everything going on around him, even conversations where he was on the periphery. It was a fact of his character which I had just learned to accept. The two of them emerged from the lighthouse. The tension had eased. Stokely looked contrite, and for him, very subdued. He remained quiet through the rest of the afternoon as we picnicked on the beach and sailed back in one long reach without changing crews. The wind had freshened once more. You can't keep a good man down though. We had a late dinner, and when the moon came up his enthusiasm returned for our trip to the Old Woods. The minor tempest seemed to have been forgotten, and we all piled into the Green Monster in high spirits. On the way over Dewey, Stokely, and I--the grizzled veterans of late night sorties--corroborated each other's exaggerated stories of lights and sounds we might have seen or heard. Tess lent some credibility when she chimed in with her own experience. As we turned down the dirt road and approached the bend where the woods would come into view, Lydia asked: "Now what should we look for exactly?" It could not have been choreographed any better. Just as Stokely replied, "A strange light barely discernible just above the woods," we rounded the curve. We all looked towards the woods to see a bright haze over the entire length of the dark strip of pine trees ahead of us. The Old Woods were on fire. The night sky was lit up with pirouetting flames, explosions of superheated resin, and the revolving lights of the fire trucks which were already on the scene. The road, which ran in a long straight line across the fields and through the woods to the beach, had the cars of the volunteer firemen parked on either side. The air was thick with the drones of the pump trucks and the voices of men shouting. Stokely drove up through the line of cars, where we were stopped by someone who said we could go no further. We were only a hundred yards or so from where the road entered the woods, and we could tell that nearest the road the fire had been brought under control. Perhaps it had begun there, the casualty of a careless cigarette. Stokely backed the car down the way we had come to the end of the line of cars and pulled over to park. He said: "Who's for checking it out?" I was the only volunteer. The two of us ran up to the front where we had been stopped. In the woods, the fire was no longer blazing on a strip fifty yards on either side of the road. "Pity we won't be able to go down to the beach," I said. Stokely's face was visible in the flickering light. He had that look in his eyes. "Why can't we?" I found myself saying a familiar refrain. "Are you crazy?" "Come on. You only live once." I looked again down to road leading into the woods. There were no flames visible, just a long charred tunnel leading into the mouth of hell. We turned to head back to the car, and walked past the line of men who had stopped us. None of them seemed to be police officers. What makes a perfectly rational man do irrational things like go bungee jumping or ski down impossibly steep mountains? The fact that someone else is willing to try. Someone who believes and more importantly, can make you believe, that anything is possible. "The others won't go for this," I offered helplessly. We returned to the car, and Stokely opened the trunk. He pulled out a flashlight with a red emergency light on it and an airhorn. We both got in the front seat with Tess in between us. She asked us. "So how does it look?" Stokely started up the Green Monster and began to back into the road. "They've got it under control," he said. It suddenly became clear to me that Stokely had no intention of asking the others what their opinion was of his idea. Parachutists and downhill skiers do not make decisions by committee. In one quick move he turned on the red emergency light, placed it on the dashboard, and gunned the engine, heading down toward the woods a hundred yards away. He then held the air horn out the window. It let out an ear splitting screech which drowned out the screams of everyone else in the car and distracted the line of men at the edge of the woods as we sped by them and roared into the midst of the fire. Once into the woods, he dropped the air horn and had both hands on the wheel, staring straight ahead with his foot mashed down on the pedal. Tess was screaming, hitting him and yelling "Stop! Stop! You crazy bastard!" It was only a quarter of a mile down to the beach. As he and I had observed earlier, there were no flames near the road. There was nothing left to burn. The trees were charred stumps. There was a heat, but the sandy road in the middle was like a cold blooded vein through the heart of the forest fire. We were through the woods and out onto the beach in almost no time. Between the woods and the dunes was a tidal marsh which of course had escaped the blaze. We were all either screaming or laughing hysterically. Clare was sobbing. Stokely was screaming too. The entire experience had lasted twenty seconds, maximum. In retrospect, I can say that he had not really put any of our lives at risk, but at that moment, with the adrenaline coursing through our veins and under the illusion that we had just escaped the fingers of the Devil himself, I never felt more alive. He may have been crazy, but it was the craziness of a courageous man. Return to Table of Contents

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