We tied fishing rigs for the morning, sure to hit the bluefish that feed voraciously in the Cheasepeake Bay. Point Lookout, Maryland had been used as a prison camp for the Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Hard to imagine now. It was just a narrow spit of land that jutted into the dark bay water. No signs of tortured troops and squalid conditions from the old days. A lot of men died here from neglect and exposure to the elements. Nowadays there is no evidence that anything unpleasant ever occurred on these shores.
“That’s Virginia on the other side,” said Cork with as much authority as he could muster. The fishing trip was his idea. It was his boat, his truck, his tent, and so forth. I had never been out on the water, so I accepted the invitation and everything else at face value. Foolishly, as I would later discover. But on that warm Friday night in August, the upcoming fishing trip seemed like a sharp memory in the making. We had worked together painting houses and barns all summer. This was a reward and a chance to build another area of friendship. Cork and his son Biff had been here many times before, and they enjoyed putting into practice the rules and tips of their recently completed boating safety course. So I thought.
Around 10 p.m. we decided it would be exciting to go for a short ride on the bay. There was no moon. The bay was calm and smooth. We shoved off under the orange glow of the mercury vapor light at the end of our dock. It felt a bit eerie to me, casting off into the black sky on the black water, sort of what I imagined crossing the River Styx might be like in Greek myths. Quiet, to be sure, but not safe. I felt as if there were fish beneath us that could be as large as our little 18 foot Bayliner. Maybe a sea monster or two. The fact that we had no lights on the little boat did not seem to be an issue as we put out into deep water. Captain Cork was in command.
We cruised the bay for an hour or two. It was fabulous. I lay down on my back to watch the stars glide overhead. Every once in a while we checked our poles, but not a single bite. I lost track of the time and our location. I never doubted the seaworthy skipper who, by the way, had grown up next to a cornfield in a landlocked county in Pennsylvania. Not a problem when you are as smart as our skipper. The intellect is a fine thing when it is not caught in a net of pride and self deceit. It must have been midnight or near 1:00 a.m. when we decided to head back to our familiar dock with the orange mercury vapor light. No problem. “We’ll just head back in now, fellas,” said Cork matter-of-factly.
That’s when the fabulous dream turned into a harrowing nightmare. It started slowly and innocently enough. “Is this Virginia…” asked Captain Cork hesitantly, and then pointing across the miles of dark bay waters, “or is that?”
“Which direction are we headed in?” I asked. “If we’re going south, then Virginia will be on our left, the other side of the bay.”
“Hell, if I knew which direction we were headed in, I wouldn’t have to ask you!” declared Cork with a bit of tension and disgust rising in his voice.
“Don’t you have a map or compass?” I asked.
“Yeah, but they’re back in the truck. I forgot to put them in the boat.”
Biff calmly pointed to the orange glow emanating from what I was coming to believe was north. “Isn’t that the dock light up there on the left? I remember we pulled out from there and circled the bay a few times, but that’s it.”
“Can’t be. This is Virginia we’re looking at.” Then he spied a faint dot of orange on the other shoreline, miles away. “I’m afraid that is our dock light over there.”
I asked, “Well, what are we going to do? Can we call the Coast Guard on the radio? Maybe they’ll be in the area and set us straight.”
“No. I’ll get written up for no lights and no maps,” responded Cork. “Son of a bitch!”
Now Cork’s anger had kicked in. It was quite familiar to Biff and me. On land it was manageable; you could walk away and generally not have to deal with it. It was different here. Here in the dark Cork was at the helm, in control of the boat though not of his own emotions. A stream of angry epithets preceded him gunning the throttle as we roared toward what he believed was Maryland in the distance.
I was terrified. We were literally racing in the dark. I took our camp flashlight and moved to the front of the boat. I could see pelicans coming at us like spooks from Hell. Somewhere I knew there were old target practice ships that the Navy airplanes shot at. And I recalled seeing the occasional netting strung around telephone poles as some kind of breeding area or hatchery. Any one of these things could destroy our little boat that was speeding along under the angry blindness of Captain Ahab.
As we raced across the bay, the little orange dot became fainter instead of stronger. Soon it was gone from sight. “Damn it!” And various other expletives were hurled at no one in particular, the gods, I supposed. Cork was often adamant in his agnosticism. Others’ sins kept him out of church the past twenty five years. “Goddamn hypocrites!”
I was becoming a believer, a scared believer as we raced back to the previous shoreline. Maybe we could figure out where we were by a boat registration or a sign on a dock. Maybe we could even meet someone on the shore and ask for directions. Maybe one of us could get off the boat and knock on someone’s door at 2:00 a.m. “Excuse me, is this Maryland or Virginia? You see we’re lost and really stupid.”
After perhaps an hour and a half of frustration and terror, Cork finally quit. He angrily surrendered the helm to Biff. “If you think you’re so goddamn smart, go ahead!” Biff quietly motored the boat toward the original marker. Sure enough it was our dock. The same dock Biff had identified two hours earlier, before the mad scramble in the darkness had begun. I was relieved that reason had prevailed over anger. I had already resigned myself to staying out on the water till daybreak. At least we would not get hurt this way.
I guess this is just one more example of anger limiting one’s intelligence. When we get angry we get stupid, stubborn and stuck. I have had several clients who seem to be driving an unworthy craft through the dark of night, directionless, angry and very, very lost. Instead of seeking the light and the right direction, they seem to angrily toy with the unforgiving dark.