At Central Suffolk Hospital, Lew and Ronnie spent a few days in critical condition. The medical director, Timothy Groth confirmed that, “if they had gone another 15 minutes they could have died.” Both boys were in critical condition; Lew’s body temperature was only 80 degrees, close to fatal. His nickname Lucky Lew, proved true, thanks to John’s keen eyesight and the prompt rescue. Later on, Lew learned that in January two years before, Bob almost lost his own son, who was cod-fishing in the Atlantic Ocean, when his boat overturned. Sadly, another crewmen did not survive. My Uncle spoke these words of gratitude to the newspaper reporter “If it wasn’t for him being so quick getting his boat out there and getting them in the pick up, the boys wouldn’t be here. God bless there’s a couple of baymen still!”
This was Lew’s first brush with death, the first time he realized he wasn’t invincible. You would think I would have learned a lesson, but that is never the way we travel toward wisdom. The process is more complex, more like how Santiago in The Old Man in the Sea, traveled through shark infested waters with the marlin tied to his boat. Years later, right afer graduating high school, before I moved off the Island, I decided to swim out into the ocean after drinking a few beers, and got caught in the riptide. I struggled and fought instead of remaining calm and swimming with the current. I guess Long Island is not only surrounded by water, but also reminders of the fragility of life, one giant fish hooked at the lip by a bunch of man-made bridges.
“Hey Cuz, you there?” Lew startles me. We may have moved away, but we will always be Islanders. I think of Mary Van Deusen’s collection of paintings titled Baymen Series that celebrates men going about their everyday lives. I remember some of the pieces, in various stages of completion, on easels in Mary’s house in Flanders when I was a teenager. Seeing these men I passed everyday by the roadside, on the water in their boats, raking for clams in low tide, is indeed different immortalized on canvas.
“Yeah, I am here.” I have always been here or maybe there. I have always thought of Lew and my other cousins as big brothers. When Lew moved away, I felt the abysmal distance. Lew never let the incident on Flanders Bay keep him from the water. He moved to Sitka where he worked in canneries, hatcheries, and on boats while earning a degree. He came home in November of 1994 to work as a deckhand and first mate on the Endorphan, with Montauk Captain Chris Schumann, long lining for Tilefish until May 1995. Upon returning to Sitka, Lew worked on the Lucy O, seining for salmon in the summer and longlining for sable fish and halibut during the fall months. In 1999, he received his one-hundred ton master’s license to run larger vessels. Two years later, he purchased his boat, respectfully named after his wife, Cori Ann, that he trolls for higher grade Salmon.
“So, what do you think, will you be Thea’s Godmother?” Lew and I are now both parents. His family actually lives on a Float house near Sitka; they commute everyday into town in a twenty-one foot boat like we take cars. Their kids don’t walk out the door without donning life preservers. I remain silent, questioning my ability to be his little girl’s spiritual adviser. All my life, I have flailed like a fish on the subject of faith.
“Becky, you there?”
“Yes,” I think of the baymen, of my cousin, whose religion is that thin line between sky and water, just up ahead. I think of that aluminum skiff Lew and Ronnie clung to, an island in the middle of frigid water. I think of our childhood island, where religion was as fluid as the water encompassing us.
“So, will you do it?”
“Hell yeah!, I mean, heck yeah!” I shout visualizing baymen bailing traps at daybreak.
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