Cowbells and Condos– and how I miss living aboard

Phone ringing late at night jolts me out of a dream.

“Yeah?”

“Kip, are you awake?” Bob asks.

“Uhm, I guess so. What’s up?” I groggedly ask.

“Did I wake you?”

“Oh, that’s OK. Had to get up anyway. The phone was ringing.” I make a weak attempt at humor.

“Kip, you’ve got to sell that boat and buy a condo with me.”

“Right now?”

“Yeah, right now,” Bob affirms. “The market is red-hot. We have to buy something right now. Sell the boat and you can live in the condo. We’ll make a bundle.”

Bob’s late night phone call intrigued me for several reasons. I was 26 years old and had been living aboard sailboats for several years. I loved the sailing life but, true to form, ‘A sailboat is a hole in the water, into which one throws money.’ Indeed, boats are a lot of fun but can turn out to be real money pits. Besides, my 38 foot motor sailer had the most annoying habit of dripping water on my pillow as I lay in my bunk. I was getting fed up with wet pillows.

It was the mid-70s and real estate in Orange County, California was hot, hot, hot. My friend Bob was a real estate agent, his father a real estate broker, and I knew Bob knew what he was talking about.

But was I really willing to give up all this to live on shore? Did I want to exchange my bohemian persona for life in a condo? I mean, what would Jimmy Buffett think? Well, I’m pretty sure what he would think. But I was at one of those critical junctions in life. I could go this way or I could go that way and— well you can probably guess which way I went.

Memories of living aboard my motor sailer.

Memories of living aboard my motor sailer.

Today, almost 40 years after Bob’s late night phone call, I sit in my ‘Archie Bunker’ chair and inhale deeply the aroma from the leather sheath of my old Swiss Army knife and can still faintly smell the bilge from my boat. It smells of fish and wet wood and salt water, and it brings back so many memories. The nights aboard were best because then I could hear the screech of the gulls, the occasional bark of sea lions, the slap of a jumping fish hitting the water, the deep resonant call of the fog horn, the rumbling diesel engine of the harbor patrol boat slowly cruising the bay and the way my boat slowly rocked in its wake.

Back then Bob and I decided to become partners, business men, entrepreneurs– and I was going to get off that leaky boat. I sold the boat fairly quickly to a lady from Long Beach who always wanted to live aboard. I wished her well and hoped she could keep her pillows dry. She sailed off into the sunset and I became a landlubber for the rest of my life.

Bob had his sights set on a condo under construction in a ‘condo village’ near us. But we had to fight to get it.

The cow bell rang and I awoke from my uneasy slumber and trudged toward this lady I had begun to detest. For three days now, I had been waiting in line to buy this stinking condo that hadn’t even been built yet. I literally had to camp out in front of the sales office on the building site along with dozens of other potential buyers, or ‘flippers.’ I believe I was the only person there who had any intention of actually living in the condo. The other buyers were simply interested in getting in and getting out; buying low and selling high–flippers, and one of the motivating forces behind this exuberant appreciation of real estate we enjoyed.

These condos were so hot, there were no shortage of buyers. And this rude, imperious sales agent played the upper hand to the max. Periodically she would ring that damn cow bell and we bovinist buyers had to respond to a roll call at her whim. Failure to respond during this random summons meant losing our place in line and missing out on the opportunity to purchase a condo for $50,000 and, six months later, selling it for $70,000– easy money.

Bob and I got that condo and I moved in. It had a tiny man-made lake in back of a tiny patio facing other tiny patios. There weren’t any seagulls around or barking sea lions or jumping fish or horns blowing to the fog, but we did make a pile of money.

A friend waits to come aboard.

A friend waits to come aboard.

You God-damn Muther-Fuckin’ Tree Hugger!

An old book, but a good one.

An old book, but a good one.

So, y’all must be wonderin’ why I turned into one a dem God-damn, hippy-freak, tree-huggers.  Well ha-yell, if ya don’t know why, jes maybe dats why you’re readin’ dis here blog.  So I’ll tell ya.  Jes kick back, put shor shoes up, and let’s toast to the Boy Scouts of America wit sompin cold.  Cauz it probly’ all started way back when.    (‘Huzzahh!’  murmered the WordPress computer.  ‘Thanks for flying with . . . ‘    Ahhh, shuddup!

Larry and Gary Grant’s dad, our scout master, hefted my aluminum Sears and Roebuck backpack frame supporting a rather bloated pack  and muttered, “Damn, Kip.  What do you have in there, bar bells?”

Which was kind of funny, I guess, because I was just a skinny 14-year-old with little or no experience with bar bells.  But thanks to our scout master and all the other parents who donated their time and energy to support Troop 465 (including my dad– thanks dad), we young men had gone on numerous trips into the wilds above Los Angeles and were just itching to ‘strut our stuff’ and show off all our skills at this Boy Scout Jamboree of 1963.

“No sir, Mr. Grant.  Just some food,” I replied, as sweat rolled down my freckled face.  (We naturally included a ‘sir’ or ‘ma-am’ with people we respected back then.)

“Well, you must be pretty hungry, Kip.”  He smiled.

“It’s not just for me, Mr. Grant.  It’s for them too,”  I said, pointing over my shoulder to the four other scouts standing in line behind me.

Scouts in line.

Scouts in line.

“Well, why are you carrying all their food?”  he whispered, looking around, nervously.

“Uhmm, some of them got here a little late and we didn’t have time to divvy up,”  I replied, wiping sweat from my face.

Mr. Grant gave the other members of my scout pack a stern glare, then looked around  to see if any other authority figures had observed our exchange.  Lifting my pack again, he whispered, “Well, gee whiz, Kip.  Just try to stay on your feet during the parade, OK?”

“Yes, sir,”  I dutifully replied.

“And try to look like you’re having fun.”

Glancing around at the dozens of other scout troops in uniform wearing backpacks, some quite large, others rather skimpy, I grinned and said,  “Oh, I am having fun.  This is really cool.”

He smiled, patted me on the head, squashing down my scout hat I had arranged just so, and sauntered over to inspect his other scouts.

merit badges earned from mastery of survival knowledge

merit badges earned from mastery of survival knowledge

Troop 465 did pretty well during that Scout Jamboree, earning all kinds of awards.  But I think this public display of scouting skills merely served to hammer home the laws we youngsters had been taught:

— Obey the Boy Scout Code

–Pack it in-pack it out

–Leave camp cleaner that you find it

–Lights out at 10:00 pm   (this one needed a little work)

–Trees are living creatures and deserve our respect

At this point in my life 50 years later, I have a little trouble remembering the Boy Scout Code  (I should probably Google it), but I developed a life-long respect for trees, thanks to my scouting experiences.

And that, my friends, is why I turned into one a’ dem Goddamn, muther-fuckin tree huggers.      (Sorry for the language, Mr. Grant.)

Proud scout from the 60s

Proud scout from the 60s

Godot– and a bit of the absurdidy of it all

Vladimir and Estragon discuss how to best use Lucky

Vladamir and Estragon discuss how to best use Lucky in Waiting for Godot

So, whazzup with this Godot person?

Godot is someone or something that has coursed throughout my life like a Pachelbel leit motif— a refrain that revisits, at times expectedly, at times surprisingly, all times essentially.

While in high school in the 60s, an exceptional drama teacher, Kay Baird, introduced a group of adolescents to a new type of theater, depicting a sometimes surreal world inhabited by plays that broke molds and traditional rules of play-craft, a genre of drama that became known as the Theater of the Absurd.  I was hooked.

One of the foremost dramatist raising eyebrows and unanswerable questions among critics and audiences and meager students like us was Samuel Beckett. Born in Ireland, Beckett felt obligated to write his plays in French so his English-speaking parents wouldn’t be exposed to this absurd world he was creating, an intensely personal and autobiographical world often unkind to his parents. This work, thought-provoking, existential, frequently misunderstood is Waiting For Godot.

Vladamir contemplates the moon in Waiting For Godot

Vladamir contemplates the moon in Waiting For Godot

This is a play about waiting. We all wait for something most of the time, don’t we? We find ourselves waiting for that important phone call or text, for lunch time, for the bell to ring (teachers and boxers do a lot of this), for the weekend, for a kiss or a hug or a little recognition, for when we can finally retire– you get my point. We spend our lives waiting for stuff. One irony of Waiting For Godot is, despite spending a lifetime waiting for that something, perhaps we wouldn’t even recognize Godot if he/she/it were standing outside our door at this moment, waiting to visit. Or perhaps Godot has already come and we just don’t remember and therefore we continue to wait. A wonderful play. I’ve been very lucky in my relationship with Godot; I studied it, I taught it, I directed it, I sailed it, and now I live in it.

Teaching Waiting For Godot was a privilege I enjoyed at the University of Southern California as part of a teaching fellowship in the late 70s. Freshmen, sophomores and juniors at this university were introduced to the ‘theater of the absurd’ by enrolling in the elective course, Contemporary Theater. I tried to generate the same sense of awe and wonder that had gripped me 15 years earlier when I was in high school. However, I believe I failed. Teaching is a craft, honed by years of experience, and those poor guys were exposed to Godot at the beginning of my teaching profession– my abject apologies, hereby tendered.

Godot next sauntered into my life almost 15 years later when I directed the play at a junior high school in Cucamonga, California. Frankly, I believe the only reason I got the green light to do this play is that my boss didn’t fully grasp the merits or demerits of this relic of the Theater of the Absurd. Due to its complexity, this play is rarely performed in high school, much less in middle schools. But we did it! A number of very talented and dedicated students gave life to this production, making it one of my proudest lifetime achievements. And then, years later, I sailed Godot.

Godot with friends on the way to Catalina Island.

Godot with friends on the way to Catalina Island.

Steve Markley, my friend and sailing companion, accompanied me to get my new sailboat, a Cascade 29, in Oxnard, California. We then sailed it down to its new home at Larson’s Marina in L.A. Harbor. During this day and a half motor-sail, we spent hours kicking around suggestions for a name for my new boat. Steve, having known me for years, wisely suggested the name “Godot”. So perfect.

Our 16' Snipe flies through the harbor.

Our 16′ Snipe flies through the harbor.

Sailing had been a big part of my life since I helped my father rebuild a 16 foot Snipe in our garage in 1962. After 8 laborious, sometimes gruelling months of sawing, fiberglassing, sanding and cursing, we finally had a boat. We didn’t know a thing about sailing it, but we finally had a boat. That Saturday we went to Newport Beach to learn how to sail. My father, my 10-year-old sister Teri and I gingerly boarded a Lido 14 accompanied by our sailing instructor, a grizzled veteran of 70 years or so, her prominent jaw thrust into the wind, eyes gleaming, faint mustache twitching. I remember her shouting, in her commanding tone, “Don’t sit there, sit over there!” (Which we promptly did as instructed.) And then the big moment came when we had to turn the boat and she shrilled, “It’s all so very easy. To come about, push the tiller into the sail that billows out.” And that, sailors world-wide must surely agree, sums up the essential elements of sail-craft: when changing direction, turn through the wind. It’s all so very easy, you see?  Well yeah,  if you have a tiller instead of a wheel, but then that’s a different story.

My sailing experience drifts from that little Snipe to a 24 foot Drake sloop I lived aboard for two years. Later on, I moved aboard a 38 foot motor sailer attached to mooring balls in the middle of Newport Harbor. Imagine getting to row out to your home in the middle of the bay,  late at night,  in a 10′ dew-saturated dinghy,  fish jumping, seagulls and pelicans screeching–  marvelous!  Finally I made my eventual return to the sea with Godot. A great boat– I miss you and hope you are doing well. Then, in the final stages of my life, I moved into Godot– how appropriate.

“Thank you so much for coming. Nobody ever comes to visit me. (Pause. Smile.) What’s your name?”, this 83-year-old lady that so resembled my mother asked while seated on a concrete bench near the cage of birds in the San Dimas Retirement Village.

“Mom, it’s me. Kip, your son,” I repeated.

“Oh, of course. And how are the girls doing? I never see them,” confusing me with Ron, my brother-in-law. (Heavy sigh.)

“Mom, the girls were here yesterday to visit.” (Mom smiles, trying to recall their visit.) “Mom, look. I have a present for you. It’s an orchid. Where I live in Costa Rica there are lots of orchids. I have a big collection of them.”

“That’s nice. (Pause.) “Now, who are you?” (Smile.)

“I’m Kip, you son. I retired from teaching and moved to Costa Rica four years ago.”

“Costa Rica. How nice. Where’s that?”

I draw a map of Central America depicting Costa Rica’s position between Panama and Nicaragua. I show her the map. She nods, smiles and says, “That’s nice.” (Pause. quizzical smile.) “So nice of you to visit. Nobody ever comes to visit.” (She smiles.)

I still see that smile. Love you, mom. Miss you.

Nagg and Nell, dad and mom, have no legs and live in trash cans

Nagg and Nell, dad and mom, have no legs and live in trash cans–from the play Endgame

Turning through the wind in my effort to ‘come about’ to a new heading in life, I retired to Costa Rica, questing for a richer coastline hinting of a more fulfilling lifestyle. I found it and named it Endgame, another play by Samuel Beckett, a play considered to be act three of the two act play Waiting For Godot.Endgame is even more intense, absurd and existential than Waiting For Godot in its search for a meaning to life. An endgame is the final series of moves in a game of chess. It is the most exciting part of the game, the part that leads to check mate, moves that are most critically examined once the king is finally taken; a denouement that lingers.

Hamm and Clove ponder their moves in Endgame.

Hamm and Clove ponder their moves in Endgame.

I remodeled my house in Costa Rica around absurdist themes found in Waiting For Godot and Endgame. My patio and garden walkway resemble a chessboard, my greenhouse looks like a theater, concrete steps melt into one another in a surreal depiction of lava flowing from one of the many volcanoes ringing my house.

The characters in Endgame still wait, perhaps outside my door– or maybe outside yours. But Hamm and Clove seem more optimistic, more active in their search for Godot. They have lives with purpose and direction. They manage to chuckle at the absurdity of it all.

And so do I.