As a young boy I enjoyed reading the exciting seagoing tales of Jack London, Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad. All three had been to sea as youngsters and I could tell they knew what they were writing about. I felt the sea was calling me too, but alas, I’d been stricken with sea sickness on two very short voyages. Actually, both took place on the same day.
I’d sailed on the 42nd Street ferry from Edgewater, across the Hudson River to Manhattan one morning and returned reluctantly in late afternoon, fully aware I would be nauseous again before we reached the Jersey ferry slip even though the Hudson was only a bit choppy that day. I found out back then what the old sea shanty “Heave ho, my lads, heave ho” really meant.
It was a painful thing, abandoning my dream, but I soon found a compromise, an opportunity to work with a small fleet of passenger craft on very calm waters. I heard about an opening at Palisades Amusement Park’s motorboats ride. I ran all the way from home to apply. I got the job, bought a yachting cap and began thinking about a semi-permanent anchor tattoo.
It was an exciting summer workplace for a boy, much better than packing groceries in a supermarket or mowing neighbors’ lawns. Our motorboats chugged around a serpentine channel course at about two knots. Besides boarding passengers, including pretty young girls, our crew occasionally revived dead inboard engines and acted as pilots, helping confused little kids to stay on course and reach home port.
These rescue missions involved athletic leaps across 15-foot channels, landing first on the bow of a passing boat in mid-crossing. This took practice. I plunged into the shallow channel more than once to the raucous delight of passengers and mates.
We boat sailors had occasional brief shore leaves when we’d run down the midway and beg rides on the Cyclone rollercoaster or see the big-name bands and daredevil acts at the free shows. We also had trade-offs with the refreshment stand girls – free boat rides for frozen custards, hot dogs and French fries. Life was good!
Now and then we’d have a taste of a Jack London type adventure. One busy Sunday, four young bucks sauntered up the gangplank entrance, full of beans and probably a little beer. We could spot trouble. They jumped into four boats and we knew they weren’t going to cruise around like gentlemen.
Eventually we spotted them on a far channel, deliberately ramming each other until their flotilla blocked other boats. I made the necessary cross-channel leaps and asked them to behave. They replied profanely, so I dipped my boat hook into the water and tried to cool them off with a small sprinkle. It had the opposite effect. They debarked angrily and I was tackled.
My crewmates rushed over and a real donnybrook took place, but nothing like a John Wayne movie brawl with flying fists and knockouts. It was more like an out of control tag team wrestling match with head locks, half-nelsons and shoving. Swearing was optional.
When the cops arrived four combatants were still grappling in waist deep water. It was quite exciting and the passengers in the blocked boats seemed to be enjoying the spectacle.
But Joe Rinaldi, the park manager, was quite upset. “Everyone will testify against these hooligans in court tomorrow,” he shouted. I quietly suggested that I shouldn’t appear. “Why not?” he demanded.
“Joe, they’ll probably lie and say I started the fight.” He agreed that I should recuse myself. I’m not sure if that’s what Jack, Herman or Joseph would have done, but I remembered what happend to Billy Budd.