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Sunday, September 3, 2023

Sailing In Circles - The Sad Story Of A Clueless Man

Howard Lessing was a sailor, at least he had a sea bag full of stories about boats; but what one remembered was his sailing in circles – a windy, circumnavigation of a watery empty quarter which he could never resist telling about.

He learned to sail on one of a thousand lakes, sunfish and sailfish, then on boats with more canvas.  As a young man he was taken by the tales of Joshua Slocum, Francis Chichester and the handful of other solo sailors who had written about frozen rigging, making westing in the Southern Ocean and beating the gales of Cape Horn; and he left Midwest for the seven seas.

Sailing became his life, and after a time his whole life.  The rest was a desultory pause, necessary webbing, an imaginary crow’s nest from which he could see the world from atop the highest mast on an schooner to the South Seas, a Fletcher Christian in his dreams of breadfruit, beautiful women, and the coral reefs around Pitcairn Island.  He could only think of the water, the wind, and the light chop of the waves.  

He never became a world-famous solo navigator, nor did he manage much more than rough weather out of Newport to Aruba, but he told the story enough times that it eventually became a yarn, a salty tale of seafaring and adventure.  He added and subtracted bits and pieces, and the cobbled story came and went with only the cadence and a few verses altered in the telling.

The less he sailed, the more he read and his life on the sea was replaced by others’ adventures – the crew that headed for Europe and got blown to Cape Verde, surviving on flying fish and pemmican; the ship that foundered off the Comoros but the crew, following the scent of clove, cinnamon, and ylang-ylang left their ship and lived happily with the children of ancient Malays, Arab traders and former slaves from Zanzibar; the stories of Scott and Amundsen, Shackleton, and captains of the great Nantucket whalers.

As much as sailing – or the dreams of it – illuminated his life, they were of little or no interest to anyone who listened to them.  Dinner with the Lessings was sailing in circles, a litany of hawsers, lines, mizzenmasts, and gunwales, verses out of an old missal, a tangle of lore and invention that seemingly would never stop.

Attempts to change the subject were futile.  It all came back to sailboats in an ingenious netting of others’ flotsam and jetsam, clearing the way for stories of making headway in a stiff breeze, coming about before the lee of the point, and wonder at the glory of the antipodal sky.

He was a bore who missed the point; yet there was a fascination in hearing him drone on, weaving his stories without end, without meaning, and without sense to anyone but himself.  It was impossible to turn away once one had been mesmerized by the drone, the solemnity, and the sheer insignificance of what he was saying.  Where did this man come from? Was there no cap to the spring of his tales? Was incessancy inbred or inborn?

And so he rumbled on from one rigging to the next, one regatta to another, invoking dimension, speed, lift, and direction. 

Not once was there metaphor, simile, or allusion.  It was all one stream of passage, a voyage going nowhere, turning back on itself then forward again.  It was all self-contained, but there was no luffing or idling, no drifting or eddying.  On and on he went catching some unfelt breeze, canting and straightening with no port in sight, not even an imagined idyll; just sailing in circles, happy as could be in a never-ending unwinding and rewinding of the stories that coalesced, formed, and came out in a thuddingly boring prolixity.

One had to wonder if he kept this up while alone; if the sailing ships made and remade themselves plank by plank, from the bottom up, hull to topmast; or whether the tiller was lifted, the sails furled, and anchor dropped when no one was listening.  Could it be that this intolerable bore had an end?

Did he talk ships and the high seas with his children?  Had there been any Mother Goose rhymes or tales from a Child’s Garden of Verses that he read to them?  Or were his bedtime stories more of the same with no attempts at entering a child’s world, just sailing on around them?

Howard Lessing faded away, talking to himself on his dock on Barnard Lake, imaging the martini barges as sailing ships and the slap of sunfish the breeching of a whale.  Few people came to visit anymore.  Word had long since gotten around about the man. He was remembered fondly in the obituaries in the Iowa papers and in his college notes, but other than that he was forgotten.  A sad story to some; but he went out as he came in, clueless as the day he was born.

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