Tuesday, May 08, 2007

An Ocean of Memories

[Cross-posted over at Woody's Woundup]

I have mentioned before that my late Grandpa was one of my boyhood heroes. Grandpa had a boat — the Seagull III — and we would go out on that wonderful boat several times a year when I was younger. I loved going up on the fly deck (Grandpa hated calling it a "fly deck," and insisted that we call it the "bridge") to help Grandpa pilot the boat through the treacherous waters of San Pedro Harbor.

Those trips to San Pedro were among the happiest of my young life. For one thing, it was one of the few venues where even Dad was awe-struck enough that we kids never got yelled at. I think he actually preferred to defer to Grandpa's absolute authority as captain of the vessel, meaning his rotten kids were someone else's problem for a few hours. (Dad loved us, but I'm certain we gave him ulcers.)

The slip where the Seagull III was tied up was accessible by a cantilevered bridge. This allowed for larger traffic to pass underneath on its way out to sea, and also served as entertainment for us kids if we timed things just right. On the days when we were allowed to watch the bridge open and rise up before us, Dad would swear softly under his breath while we kids would cheer.

Then there was the dock and slips where the boat was tied up. I spent countless hours fishing from the slip where we caught smallish perch that would hardly qualify as bait. Grandpa taught us to toss those back. Or we'd try to extricate mussels that were growing just under the waterline, or play with the anemones that were anchored on the wooden supports in the water. We'd go crab-watching on the big boulders that bordered the dock.

Grandma would always take us out in the dinghy (of course they had a dinghy!) and teach us to row. By the time I was 10 or 11 I was old enough to row the dinghy around the slips, always making at least one pass underneath the one catamaran (or, come to think of it, it may have been a trimaran) that Grandma showed us how to navigate through.

The Seagull III itself was a constant source of entertainment. Grandma and Grandpa had friends from all over the world. Whenever these friends would come to Los Angeles for a visit, the boat was a must. These friends often presented my grandparents with gifts which inevitably ended up in the smallish cabin of the boat for future use by the grandkids. Grandma would try to teach us to play "My Dog Has Fleas" on her ukelele, or teach us to play Canasta with the omnipresent decks of cards (with neat nautical designs on the back!). They also had a book on fishes commonly found in local waters so that I could be an insufferable brainiac and parrot all the stuff I'd just read as though I were some sort of internationally famous marine biologist.

I mention these things because these were some (only some!) of the memories that came flooding back to me this afternoon when we took our student body on a field trip to the Port of Long Beach. A family in our on-again off-again homeschool group helped arrange for the tour, which was free. An hour and a half of one very wet joy ride around the second busiest port in the western United States. The pier from which the boat departed lies directly north of the Queen Mary, so we got to see her in all her glory as we headed out into the breakwater beyond.

The trip was extremely reminiscent of all those trips that we'd taken in Grandpa's boat those many years ago. We were there when the Queen Mary was sitting in her brand new berth, and painted a uniform coat of chocolate brown as she was being outfitted for her new life as a tourist attraction. (We have home movie footage of Grandpa piloting near the breakwater when the QM was sailing into Long Beach on her last-ever voyage, along with what appears to be about three million other small craft.) Every time I see the Queen Mary, I remember every one of those voyages with Grandpa.

What's missing, of course, is the Navy. Long Beach used to be home to part of the Pacific Fleet, and I remember as a boy having each battleship, cruiser, and PT boat pointed out to me (one of my uncles had served in the Navy) until I could name them by sight. Seeing them on a movie screen, or even being on deck doesn't give you the same perspective of massive naval might that you get from a twenty-seven foot cabin cruiser passing very close by at water level. But the fleet parted company with Long Beach back in 1994, and no trace remains of those ships.

To help make up for that loss, though, is the presence of the Sea Launch operation. We happened to take a tour on a day when both the launch platform and the Sea Launch Commander were in port. Since my company is one of the partners in Sea Launch, I of course snapped a few photos.

At one point in our tour we slipped nearly underneath one of the giant cargo ships that move over 8,000 piggy-back containers across the ocean in a single load. It was an impressive sight to see commerce in action. We were told by the hosts, who also happen to be members of the Port Authority, that two American companies have recently signed long-term "green" leases with the Port, meaning that they agree to adhere to new stricter environmental standards if they want to continue to do business in Long Beach. Matson was one of those companies, and we watched one of their ships preparing to move much-needed cargo to Hawaii. As each lease comes up for renewal, the tenants will have to agree to these new regulations or move out of the port.

The girls had a wonderful time, although I suspect they were less enchanted with the port and its beehive of activity and were instead enjoying an afternoon with their friends from the homeschool group. This was fine with us. They were, I think, suitably impressed with the huge cargo ships. They also got to see a couple of harbor tugs, one of which was actually tied up to a ship and beginning to pull it out into the breakwater. I pointed out a fireboat to the Doodle Woodyette, who was amazed to see it painted red just like a firetruck. We also got to see a pair of sea lions lazing on a buoy in the middle of the harbor, which was probably the most exciting thing they'd seen all day.

I'm sorry to say that our girls will probably never be able to invoke the same kinds of memories I can whenever we get close to the ocean. They've never been on a boat owned by anyone who wasn't eager to make money off of us. They've never been able to fish for smelt or stick their fingers in a convenient anemone. They've never gone crab hunting on the rocks.

With any luck, though, trips like this one will spring to mind and become part of that catalog of memories that will spring up when they take a boat ride years from now. It's only fair. And I hope, for them, those memories are just as sweet as the ones I had today.

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