After being adopted at aged eight, I sprouted toward manhood loved by my parents on the Isle of Mull. My home was in the fishing town of Tobermoray, playing along its rainbow curve, sitting on the harbor walls, waiting for my father to return home. He owned his own trawler. As a child, my only real reference to America’s existence was listening to Mrs. Braebrook, a round faced, kindly teacher, hair bundled on the top of her head, with eyeglasses which she wore the end of her nose. She told a story how Columbus rediscovered the ‘New World’ after Norse sailors had first ventured there and long gone. Columbus, however, halted his adventure on the ‘New World’ shores, leaving it to Magellan to complete the circumnavigation of our planet. Well, that’s what Mrs. Braebrook said. She also said I shouldn’t stare out the window so much.
Across from the house, a Poplar tree was split down the middle by a single bolt of lightning. I saw it. I really did. A summer evening fifty-five years ago, the most awesome sight I ever saw. I wanted to have that same power at my fingertips so I could deal with the school bully. Billy Harrison was his name. It wasn’t solely his bullying I hated, but rather that he loved Susan Rafferty less than I yet got to carry her satchel home every evening. My father, being a fisherman, often away several days, was seldom at home on school days, and because enough money was never a certainty, my mother worked at a haberdashery store in Tobermoray till early evening. Grandpa, however, was always at home. I was always terrified of grandpa, though he was mostly amusing and very interesting, but he had this habit of telling me if I didn’t eat creamed asparagus or boiled codfish, a lightning bolt would come down and strike me to charcoal. I never did eat it, so I still wonder when the lightning comes and the thunder of my heart starts to beat if some blue-white flash will sneak up on me and cut me down for all the boiled codfish I never ate.
I was so mixed up as a kid it is no wonder Susan Rafferty never loved me back, even though I was the only boy in the entire school to play hopscotch with her. My pals laughed, of course they did; none of them had the same kind of courage. I remember being in trouble at school for going to the top diving board in the school swimming pool. Hell it was high. I screamed as I ran toward the edge and flung myself off. The teacher gave me the cane for showing off to the entire class. What a fool he was, I wasn’t fooling about, he just didn’t get that I was making sure Susan Rafferty saw me fly.
Adventure was everywhere on the island, but perhaps the greatest adventure was running to catch the school bus, taking the half-hour ride down the winding coastal road, alongside the Sound of Mull, to Craignure. It was there I would board the ferry sailing to Oban, on the mainland, in time for school.
So, you see, it was natural that the sea was part of my every day existence. While all the other kids sat in the warmth of the ferry’s canteen during those blustery winter morning journeys, with threatening rain clouds hanging low over the waters, I stood at the bow, letting the sharp wind crisp my ears until they felt like ice packs on the side of my head. Hurting so much I entered the classroom crying with pain, tears streaming down my face. Mrs. Braebrook would shake her head, grab my hand and pull me down the corridor to the school’s boiler room. ‘Read this…’ she’d say, thrusting a book into my hand, ‘…come back to class when you’ve thawed out.’ I was a ridiculous kid. She said that, too.
Weekends for me meant every minute of daylight was spent sitting on the harbor walls. I was going to be a fisherman, and I told my father so. I remember he smiled. ‘Your head’s too much in the clouds, son.’ He said. I didn’t properly understand what he meant, so at ten years of age I scraped barnacles off trawler hulls and made large mugs of tea to earn a few pennies. The men would ruffle my hair, poke fun at my tent-sized jumpers; those knitted for me by my mother, and threaten to hoist my baggy shorts aloft. Whenever the trawlers were in, I was there. Each of those men was my father. To a man, each one contributed to my education. It might have been me learning a certain kind of knot, perhaps how to sew a lobster pot, or how to sort crabs, fillet a fish, but also, to a man, not one of them taught me about love. Life on the island was about fishing, about beer, about bread and hard times.
Sure enough, however, those same men taught me how best to get through life. Not how to love in life. When I left the island, I was well equipped to deal with everything but loss. I had learned their language, it was a harsh language, loose and harsh, but it was a language built on nature’s anger, and not a little poverty. But each man was, I finally learned, wealthy in his heart. Fishermen will tell you there are only two ways of gaining riches: one is finding it in oneself over wealth, or increasing your possessions by decreasing someone else’s. I grew up among people who, and this is the truth, did not concern themselves with wealth, but with life’s riches. There is a difference. The richness of a life, involving hard work, fierce manual labor, cannot be compared to a man who might have sold well on the stock market. Wealth may divide their lifestyles, but the richness of life separates them as men. I was never a fisherman at heart. My father knew that. I had a softness that let me down, an ache for romance that each of my father figures scoffed at, yet I loved those men proudly and fiercely.
When I left the safety of my surroundings to find the other side of reality, I found the majority of mankind considered cash and the ownership of property conducive to their own well-being. I’m not a fool, I understand this need for wealth, it’s one way for a man to enhance the quality of his life; perhaps so that he, too, can have time to enjoy his family and the ocean. That said, let me go on to say that I doubt its pre-eminence. Time, health, a large human interest, sympathy and compassion, these things, surely, are just as beneficial to an individual’s life over the exchange rate for gold, or the value of his property, or land, or marvelous works of art. I have heard it said, perhaps by a fisherman, that man doesn’t have gold – the gold has him.
The richness of my own life has nothing to do with money. I can say this with utmost honesty. I live month-to-month on what I earn, doing what I love to do. Since leaving the brightly colored curve of Tobermoray, I have sailed the world. Not fishing of course, but observing the inequalities of wealth… extreme wealth and extreme poverty.
To this day, there are men who have never left the island, never seen the world, never talked about love to their children. Me, well I just went my way, called by the sea, learning that we cannot buy the things we love most. We can never own great art; we can only own its custody. So think about this, before your time runs out, forget I’m a yachtsman, raised by fishermen who never spoke about love, and remember that your life is only on loan to you. You do not own your next smile, it has been gifted to you, use it to appreciate it. It is a priceless thing.
There are men in the world I rate as hundred-point-men. Men I have admired and trusted; men I have never met but read about, and men, a few at least, who managed to catch me and clip my ear for my cheek. I learned to love one woman, and finally learned to understand she could never be mine, but was, of course, only on loan to me. I treasure no possessions. If my life has any value, it is only in the appreciation others have for me. If they love me, like me, wish me well, then my life is rich enough.
Counter to this, if I’m unhappy, I simply move to a place where I will be happy. If I’m abused, no individual can keep me in proximity. Ideals, I agree, are painful. But trust this old man, they cannot be a collection of pretty or casual preferences. I was never a better man for having money.
Writing? Well, it came late. Perhaps it came at the right time. Maybe it’s still too early.