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"Sailing to Buffalo"


Harry Buschman

The houseboat "Neptune" has been tied up at the Flushing marina pier now for more than thirty years. Captain Jeremiah O'Rourke and his wife arrived there very same afternoon President Lyndon Johnson announced to the press that he would not run for reelection.

The two events are not related except in time. It's a place to put your finger on in the book of history. A lot of things have happened since then. Wars have come and gone. People have come and gone, so have marriages and scientific theories. As we consider the fickle nature of history, it is comforting to remember that the "Neptune" has remained firmly lashed by its starboard cleats to the pilings of the Flushing Marina.

The fact of it being there at all is a minor miracle. When Captain O'Rourke and Cookie, his wife, pulled in to the pier thirty years ago, the Neptune's bilge pump wasn't working and it's tiny inboard engine had cracked a cylinder. The two young mariners were the only people aboard. They had recently purchased the Neptune in Egg Harbor from an Armenian apartment house superintendent and this was their maiden voyage. Although it was only three short nautical miles from the Flushing Marina, the O'Rourkes were not sure they would stay afloat. In this dire emergency they pulled in to the Flushing Marina and Captain Jeremiah hailed a lonely figure standing on the dock.

"Would you offer accommodations mate?" Then, in a somewhat plaintive tone, he added, "I'm afraid we may be going down."

"Tie up at the end of the dock, nobody uses it. Watch yourself when you get off -- the walkway's rotted out." The lonely figure was Akimbo St. John, the boatyard handyman and a full blooded Ronkonkoma Indian. Akimbo, with a chronic drinking problem was in no condition to lend assistance.

Any port in a storm, so to speak. In spite of the setback, Jeremiah and Cookie had made great plans for themselves and the Neptune. It was their intention to make their home on board and eventually sail up the Hudson River to the Erie Canal and thence by circuitous waterways, wend their way westward to Buffalo. Jeremiah was forty three years old at the time and Cookie was forty. They had worked side by side for the Prudential Insurance Company for nearly ten years. Suddenly, and almost without knowing it, or having it explained to them, they fell in love and found themselves married and living in a three room flat in Egg Harbor. Disenchantment quickly set in, and finally, in a fit of exasperation, Jeremiah put his foot down.

"Cookie," he said. "I've had it up to here!"

"It's only been three months, Jerry?" she countered.

"No, I mean it's this damn apartment. I was sitting in the tub just now. I turned on the hot water and roaches came out. I don't like my job at Prudential and I don't like the way the world is going. You know what I'd like to do?"

"You mean, now?"

"Yes, now! I'd like to get on a boat and sail up the Hudson River all the way to Albany and then head west to Buffalo."

"Imagine that." Cookie shrugged and seemed somewhat detached.

It was an impetuous statement, made without prudent consideration, but it was overheard by their Armenian landlord, Caspar Nargoogian. Caspar did not usually have his ear to his tenant's front door, but it was his day for collecting rents ... he knocked gently.

"Landlord! Thirtieth day of the month folks -- rents are due." Jeremiah answered the door wrapped in a towel ....

"You know what I got in my bathtub, Nargoogian?"

"Don't tell me Mr. O'Rourke, I got them too, everybody's got them. Good morning Mrs. O'Rourke, I'll be up to fix that light switch this afternoon."

Jeremiah took the bill from Nargoogian and walked into the bedroom to get his checkbook ... "What light switch?"

"The one in the hall," Cookie said. "... and there's a cracked pane of glass in the kitchen window too, you haven't forgotten that have you Mr. Nargoogian?"

"Of course not, ma'am -- the notation is right here in my book of things to do." Caspar's eyes narrowed and he shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of despair. "But take it from me, it will ever be thus in rented quarters. Wouldn't you two like to have a place of your own? You are young, you should make plans! There's a lifetime of adventure before you! These are the best years of your lives."

That's how the seed was sown. Nargoogian told them about his houseboat anchored down in Egg Harbor.

"If you lived on the top floor, you could see it from there," he said. "If Mrs. Nargoogian was not allergic to salt air ..." he shrugged, "it would be a different story with me. My plans? I wanted to sail to Havana, Mr. O'Rourke." He shrugged his shoulders helplessly. "But my plans have been shelved forever." He tearfully admitted he would sell the houseboat to two deserving people for as little as ten thousand dollars.

Jeremiah put his shorts on and he and Cookie accompanied Caspar to the Egg Harbor dock and got their first look at the Neptune fidgeting awkwardly in the restless water. Neither of them had seen a houseboat before and to them it looked more like a freight car that had fallen off the dock. Their nautical gullibility was not lost on Caspar and he extolled the virtues of living at sea and rowed them out to the Neptune. He took them aboard and pointed out the compact kitchen and bath, the drop down double bed and the combined dining, living and observation deck at the rear. "And up topside," he went on. "A combination guest room and fo'c's'le!"

They quickly succumbed to the lure of nautical life. Cookie, after having seen the topside fo'c's'le, wondered how she had ever gotten along without one. "What a perfect place to put your mother, Jerry." Jeremiah always wanted to be in charge of something, anything! Being captain of a houseboat meant that he could make decisions, give orders, and best of all he would always have the last word.

It's difficult to get a bank to agree to mortgage a houseboat. They don't have foundations and they're not always where the bank thinks they are. Even worse, they can disappear in a blink in foul weather. But the O'Rourkes persevered,and with a little haggling Caspar Nargoogian brought the price down to fifty-five hundred. That was a sum the bank thought they could resell it for even if it was lying on the bottom of Egg Harbor.

Nargoogian let them stay in the apartment until they were ready to sail. Cookie turned in her resignation to Prudential, and they sold the pitifully few pieces of furniture they had accumulated, and on a breezy summer afternoon, Nargoogian rowed them out to the Neptune in his jolly boat. "This here's a "jolly" boat," he explained. "You should get yourself a "jolly" boat, Captain -- first thing, then you can row yourselves back and forth to shore from the Neptune."

"Captain" Jeremiah promised he'd look into it as soon as he and Cookie got their sea legs under them.

Staying in Egg Harbor meant they would have to continue living in the Bronx. The Bronx, (lovely as it was in those days) was a part of the "fed-upness" that had infected the young couple, so they agreed to sail away and take up residence in Queens. Some might say, "Isn't that a bit like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire?" Well it's relative, and for some people, jumping into the fire is preferable to living in the Bronx. Their maiden voyage was the three mile stretch of restless water that lay between the Egg Harbor dock and the Flushing Marina pier.

"She seems to have a mind of her own," Jeremiah remarked to Cookie as the Neptune stubbornly refused to hold a direct line in the brisk wind. "We've got a lot of broadside Cookie," -- Jeremiah was already talking like a seasoned sailor. "The wind seems to be having its way with her."

When you're in trouble at sea, three miles can be forever, and so it seemed for the O'Rourkes on their maiden voyage across Long Island Sound. For an agonizing moment it appeared that in addition to getting their sea legs, they might also get their feet wet. It was a miracle they reached the Flushing Marina pier at all. It was another miracle that Akimbo St. John happened to be retrieving a bottle of bourbon hidden in the bow of a yawl undergoing repair. He guided them in and helped them tie up and for the next thirty years he was their closest friend.

Akimbo already had his sea legs. He had been to sea on the fishing boat "O'Henry" out of the Captree spit in Long Island. The O'Henry was a fishing party excursion boat and it was Akimbo's prime duty to bait the hooks of the fishing parties on the way out, and to clean and gut their catch, (if any) on the way back. On the way back the passengers of the O'Henry were usually sick or drunk (sometimes both). It was hardly a worthy profession for a full-blooded Ronkonkoma Indian, and he was far happier scraping and caulking the hulls of the expensive nautical playthings of the week-end sailors in the Flushing Marina.

The foc's'le of the Neptune was not large, and even in a gentle swell it rocked a bit more than it did in the captain's quarters below, but Akimbo St. John was content. He developed a warm relationship with the O'Rourkes; and he eventually shared the O'Rourke's life-long dream of sailing to Buffalo.

Captain Jeremiah O'Rourke used the know-how he had gained at Prudential to open an independent nautical insurance agency on the site of the Flushing Marina and Akimbo maintained the Neptune as though she were his own. Cookie was overjoyed to be the first mate of the Neptune and the undisputed captain of the compact kitchen. As the years passed, the houseboat became the talk of the marina. From its primitive beginnings it became a high-tech wonder. It was now fully air-conditioned, and sported twin three hundred horsepower Chrysler marine engines, ship to shore radio, a depth sounder, a micro-wave oven and a thirty-five inch television set. The Neptune had been featured in the Magazine "Yachting" and even "House Beautiful" included it in a "Houses of the Year" editorial. School buses would arrive with wide-eyed children, each of whom would take turns sitting in Captain O'Rourke's pilot seat.

The dream of sailing to Buffalo by way of the Erie Canal was a goal that sustained the three aging mariners for thirty years. It became an obsession as the years rolled by. From their anchorage at the Flushing Marina, the first leg of the grand enterprise was always plainly visible. Casting off and heading west to the East River, turning north and again west into the Harlem River and across to the Hudson. The Hudson River! That magnificent ribbon of water that winds its majestic way north through Lake Champlain all the way to the St. Lawrence! That in itself would be a fascinating voyage. But the O'Rourkes' had even more heroic plans. They would turn west at Troy and enter that historic canal -- pass through 57 locks and rise 568 feet to eventually find themselves in Buffalo!

Every weekend the three dreamers would discuss their audacious passage late into the night The things they would need, supplies, food, fuel and fresh water. With maps spread about they would plan and replan every nautical mile of it -- plotting their stops with an eye to the wind and the weather. The dream of sailing to Buffalo motivated them and kept them together -- one for all and all for one. Without that dream they would have drifted apart and sulked in solitude, each of them isolated from the other. With it, they were bonded as brothers and sister in a common enterprise.

Cookie and Jeremiah were as devoted a couple as you can imagine. Though childless, they loved children and their natural desire for a child was satisfied by their mutual devotion to Akimbo St. John. By means of stern discipline and incessant nagging, Akimbo, curbed his drinking considerably. It is difficult to determine what impulses are harbored in the heart of the Ronkonkoma, but it is safe to say that Akimbo considered the Neptune to be his one and only true love. He kept the boat in readiness, and much like Noah, come hell or high water, he was ready to sail at a moment's notice.

Eventually the magic moment arrived. Thirty years after their first landfall they were ready to leave. The dream was about to be fulfilled. The O'Rourkes were now in their seventies and Akimbo himself was sixty. It was, as you might say, 'now or never.'

Even with their meticulous planning there were last minute things to do, last minute perishables to buy. Fruit, for instance. "Who knows?" Cookie insisted. "Suppose we need fruit?" Akimbo was dispatched to buy a barrel of apples. Captain Jeremiah had never forgotten that in days of old, sailing ships never left port without a barrel of apples. "Get some sea biscuits too!" he shouted after Akimbo.

"Where am I going to find sea biscuits?" he shouted back.

"If you can't find sea biscuits, Fig Newtons will do," Cookie assured him.

While he was gone, Jeremiah and Cookie went through the elaborate countdown, as detailed as that of a departing NASA shuttle. Nothing had been forgotten. The apples and the sea biscuits had not really been necessary, but they seemed to be a good idea. When Akimbo returned, there was nothing to do but go.

Jeremiah stood at the wheel as Akimbo untied the aft line and held it taut. Jeremiah gunned the powerful engines and they responded with a throaty growl.

"Let go aft, Akimbo," the captain shouted. Akimbo threw the aft line aboard the Neptune and hurried up forward. He untied the forward line and looked at Jeremiah expectantly. "Let go forward captain?" he ventured.

Jeremiah hesitated -- gunned the engines again, then turned them off. He looked at Cookie, then turned away with tears in his eyes. "Belay that, Akimbo. Tie her up again." He walked aft and picked up the line that Akimbo had thrown on board and threw it back on the dock again.

"What's wrong, Jerry?" Cookie asked. "Are you okay, dear?"

Jeremiah looked at her sadly and took off his cap. He shook his head and walked into the lounge. He turned to Cookie and said, "Tell Akimbo to come aboard -- we ain't going."

Akimbo finished tying up and jumped aboard again. He looked worriedly at Cookie. "What's the matter, something wrong with the Captain?"

"I don't know. I've never seen him like this. He shut everything down, then he walked into the lounge and sat there with his back to me." The two of them walked into the lounge and sat on the sofa across from Captain Jeremiah.

He seemed to be studying the gold braid on his cap. Finally he put the cap on the arm of the chair, ran his fingers through his gray hair and sighed deeply.

"Sorry, but it's all wrong you know, sailing to Buffalo, I mean."

"We've been planning all these years, Jerry."

"C'mon Cap'n, what's wrong -- we haven't forgot nothin' have we?"

Jeremiah looked at the two of them, these two old people he dearly loved, one as a wife and one almost as a son, and he wondered how he could possibly explain the dream. The dream! The dream that had nourished them all their lives! The dream that made each day worth living. He had shaken them both rudely awake and told them it would not come true.

"Cookie ... it's the wanting, don't you see? The wanting to go." He turned to Akimbo. "What can I say, old friend? It's not the going, it's the wanting to go. What would we do if we ever found ourselves in Buffalo? Who do we know in Buffalo? Let's just keep ... wanting to go."

Cookie stood up slowly, "Well, I'll get some supper started."

©Harry Buschman 1999

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