Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Books Week #4: "Get on the goddamn ship, Dad!"

     "Don't Give Up the Ship" (Ballantine, 2002) was my biggest bomb. Nobody reviewed it, to my memory, or if they did, it was with a shrug. It wasn't excerpted anywhere. My parents despised it. Which seemed fitting after the difficult voyage with my father on his old ship, where he had been a radio operator in the 1950s. Writing it, I figured: "I'm 40 years old. At some point I get to just say what happened." Still, with the passage of time, I'm proud of the book, and glad I went on the trip. Or as I tell myself whenever I am tempted to bemoan the whole thing: "How bad could an experience really be where someone pays you $50,000 and you end up in Venice?" 

     The pier was hectic with a festive, summer camp sort of commotion, busy with families, girlfriends, boyfriends, and cadets—trim teens in bright white shirts and dark navy pants, their "salt-and-pepper" uniforms. They towered over their parents. Mothers held bunches of balloons. Fathers lugged big portable coolers, cases of soda, cases of juice. I worried that we were unprepared—we had no juice—and puzzled over the balloons. At least a dozen families had brought bunches of them. They seemed an odd, child's birthday party touch.

     My father stopped short and I ran thud into him, like a vaudeville act. Disentangling ourselves and our rolling luggage, I wondered, Is this how it's going to be? Frick and Frack? I looked around to see if anybody had noticed.
  Turning onto Dock 19, where the ship was tied up, I saw that the pier was named for A.F. Olivet, the no-nonsense captain during my father's cruises. I paused to make note of that, and of the dinghies moored under a protective wooden roof leading to the ship. They had bold, forward-straining names:  Courageous, Freedom, America, Magic.
     Looking up, I saw that my father, the good New Yorker, had kept walking. I called to him—"Dad! Wait!"—and he turned, "I'll go slow," he shouted back. But he didn't go slow. He strode toward the ship. I hurried after him, the luggage wheels humming against the concrete.
     I got alongside the ship, almost to the gangway, just in time to see him go up without me, lugging his suitcase, a wide smile spread across his face. He said something pleasant to the officer at the top of the gangway, and disappeared inside the Empire State. I stood on the pier a moment, shocked, then raced after him, hefting my suitcase in both hands and clattering up the awkward low metal steps. After months of arranging—the conversation, the phone calls, the formal letters, the visits—I had figured that our boarding the ship would be an obvious moment of high drama: an exchange of loving glances, a pat on the back, a shy filial smile, a fatherly ruffled of the hair, a deep breath and up we go together, arms linked. Ta-daaaaaah!
     Not in this life.
     "What's your hurry, sailor? I hissed, out of breath, catching up to him at the cabin, C1, marked by a note card reading MR. STIENBURG SR. and MR. STIENBURG JR.
     He offered this explanation: he wanted to get his suitcase aboard before the tide came in, raising the angle of the gangway, making it more difficult to walk up. He actually said this. Stunned, I turned away, puzzling whether his excuse was a mountainous lie or, worse, a sincere delusion.
Bold adventurers
     I stood in the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror: how was I going to do this? Six weeks with my father. A month at sea, then ten days in Italy. We'd kill each other. Or I'd kill him. Or myself. Or he'd kill me. One way or another, somebody was going to be killed.
    Then the anger, a hot fluid at the back of my brain, drained away, and I almost laughed—the tide, so ridiculous—and I remembered that, up to this moment, I had been genuinely worried my father wouldn't get on the ship at all. That despite his promise, when the moment finally came, he would freeze up in the gangway. Many times I had imagined, not entirely without pleasure, him grasping the handrails, white knuckled, rigid, me behind him, ramming the heel of my hand into the small of his back, forcing him forward, "get on the goddamn ship, Dad!"
     That had been the preconception. The reality was 180 degrees opposite. Instead of hanging back, fearful, needing a shove, he had raced ahead, excited, forgetting all about me. Realizing this shocked away the anger. It struck me that, all all these years, I didn't know my father at all. Not a bit.


  1. I read the book and loved it. Thought it was an heartfelt and largely sympathetic portrayal of a complicated father son relationship. Why exactly did your parents (dad in particular) despise it?

    1. He was embarrassed to see his life in print. He thought he looked petty. There was a scene where he asked me to pay for his cab ride to the airport in Denver -- I paid for the whole trip, but had overlooked that -- that rankled him.

    2. What about the depiction of his youth? It was certainly sympathetic at least; made him look heroic at times, I thought.


    3. He sounds cheap and crabby.

      Wonder if your spouse or offspring ever read or post on here clandestinely.

    4. My wife reads it -- openly, not clandestinely. The boys occasionally. None of them post here.

    5. Tate: That was my thinking. But it only takes a little spit to spoil the soup.

  2. From what I can read here, it 's a heartwarming story, well told. I remember reading this somewhere, perhaps one of your blogs. Many of us have been in that awkward exchange with our dads. I don't know why the book didn't do better. Perhaps it wasn't well publicized or the publisher didn't do enough. Anyway, you don't look like your dad at all. Must take after mom.

    1. It may have run in the excerpt in the paper a dozen years ago -- I wish I had thought of that. Would have saved me retyping it.

    2. I remember reading this at the time. In fact I remembered the excerpt as soon as you said earlier in the week that you were going to be having book excerpts this week. I'm not sure what it says when your fans keep better track of these thing than you! Great writing as usual. I can't say I blame your dad though. Who wants their foibles put out to the world. I know that you put out your own but maybe it's different when someone else is doing it.

  3. I remember reading, and enjoying, it. One wonders if you still have daddy issues, or if your parents have come around to the fact that many professional authors end up at odds with family and friends. As William Faulkner put it: "If a writer has to rob his mother he will not hesitate: The 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' is worth any number of old ladies."

    You are right to be proud of the book -- or of getting any book published if one is not a celebrated politician or entertainer. Still, some disappointment at lack of public acclaim -- and compensation -- is understandable. Hilaire Belloc no doubt spoke for all authors when he wrote this little couplet:

    "When I'm dead, I hope it might be said.
    His sins were scarlet, but his books were read."

    Tom Evans

  4. Beautiful fall photograph up there.


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