Video of the Slide Show from Sally's Memorial Service

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Hekla's Table

It’s a gorgeous, if somewhat oddly-shaped table. Made of solid teak wood, it stands about as high as any ordinary dining table. It measures about five feet by one and a half feet with its two leaves folded down. In this configuration, it doesn’t present itself as an obvious place for a meal. More like a large, three-dimensional puzzle really. With leaves extended, it’s a good deal wider at one end than at the other. Lower them again, and they not only come to rest perpendicular to the floor, they can be locked into place with sturdy hooks and eyelets at each end. Upon further examination, you’ll find holes on the bottom of each leg, on the feet, which extend slightly outward, making solid contact with the floor. Why? To accommodate bolts that can secure the table to the surface upon which it rests. Back up top, there are two compartments built into the dining surface. To house eating utensils. And at one end of the table is a hole roughly ten inches in diameter. Why again? To allow passage for the ship’s mast, which begins far above the yacht’s deck and runs fast and far into the hull.

This is the original dining table from the yacht Hekla . It served its purpose reasonably well aboard the boat for years, until Fred wanted something fancier. A gimbaled table. [Wikipedia: “a pivoted support that allows the rotation of an object about a single axis. A set of two gimbals, one mounted on the other with pivot axes orthogonal, may be used to allow an object mounted on the innermost gimbal to remain immobile (i.e., vertical in the animation) regardless of the motion of its support.”] So, Fred traded out the original for a gimbaled table that allowed the dining surface to remain at a perfect horizontal regardless of the heel of the boat. Plates of food and mugs of coffee were safe from fall no matter how hard the wind pushed against the sails and tilted the decks below. Fred and Sal gifted Hekla’s original table to my mother, where sometime in the early 70’s it took up residence in our family room.

. . . . .

Pictured left, my father and I aboard Hekla in the early 1970s.

Sally Richards was a formidable presence to any of us who met her as children. I met the Richards at a young age, when my parents rented a house next door to theirs on Nut Plains Road, while we awaited completion of the construction of our home in Leetes Island. Like Penny in her own post, I recall ice skating on the pond in the woods behind their house, and getting a few swimming lessons in a small pool created by the pond’s runoff, filled with catfish. And I can quite clearly picture Sally hauling leaves over to the jungle gym, in her lawn mower’s trailer, to create a pile large enough to break the fall of any child who cared to leap off the structure’s highest bars. Formidable yes – you knew well enough not to break the rules, even if you weren’t sure of what they were – but as a kid you could always count on something fun, too.

Not too long after renting the house on Nut Plains, construction was completed on the house in which I grew up. And not long after that, the Richards also moved, into a fabulous home they built nearby, overlooking Little Harbor, blending into the granite hillside upon which it sat. The house, I thought, mirrored Sally’s and Fred’s personalities: It included the necessary creature comforts, but without a lot off fuss and certainly none of the pretensions of many other nearby homes, the owners of which might just as well have posted their net worth, rather than street numbers, on their mailboxes. The house at 69 Andrews Road stood bold in its understatement. Like Sally.

While Sal was deeply involved in many aspects of life in and around Guilford, those of us kids who drew summer paychecks from her knew her also as the single biggest force propping up the local pre-teen and teenage economies. Sometimes yard work, sometimes research in her basement marine bio lab. Sometimes out in her great, diesel-powered trawler, Ammodytes (named after Ammodytes americanus, the sand eel she studied for years; selling the boat years later and seeing it leave Little Harbor behind was rough on her). Other odd jobs ... cutting grass, learning to use a chain saw, seine fishing, clearing poison ivy, installing a slate walkway, studying the best ways to cultivate Mytilus edulis (the blue mussel).

The wages were good. I eventually saved up enough money to commission the building of a fourteen-foot Brockway fishing boat. It was a handsome vessel, steady amongst the swells of Long Island Sound. And it leaked like a sieve. Worse, I never caught a single fish. But a few months later, Sally (taking pity on me I’m quite certain) said how much she admired the lines of my boat and asked if I wouldn’t consider selling it to her. Just so happens, for the exact amount I paid for it. I happily pocketed her check, and she slapped a couple coats of fiberglass onto the boat’s hull and named it Tern.

. . . . .

By this time, the table we’d taken off Hekla had been transformed from a lightly-used sofa table into a stylish desk with a great future ahead of it. With one leaf open, and with a wooden captain’s chair and tall brass lamp, my mother began her studies in Old English, working towards her PhD, specializing in the epic poem Beowulf. Seated at the table, she looked out into our home’s den: floor-to-ceiling French windows ahead, fireplace and sliding glass door onto the porch on the left. Behind her, a wall of built-in bookcases, resembling a dark cresting wave. Always an over-worked ash tray on the table, and several eight-and-a-half by eleven-inch note pads, which held her ideas on the way to the typewriter.

. . . . .

I don’t think I’ve ever had a true near-death experience. But had I done so, it would have occurred at 69 Andrews Road.

One summer, I was charged with mowing the lawn while the Richards were away on a sailing trip. I was cautioned about the likely outcome of charting a fool’s course with the riding mower along a steep hillside, behind the swing set. “I flipped it there once,” Sally said. Well, so, I flipped it there, too. The mower survived just fine, so I drove the beast up a set of wooden planks into the back of Sally’s pick-up truck and dropped it off at the repair shop. I was shaken less by the potential bodily harm I’d been spared than I was of telling “Mrs. Richards” that I’d done exactly what she’d told me not to do. But when she returned, she simply thanked me for taking the mower in to be fixed.

The following winter, again while they were away, I was put in charge of using Sally’s new truck to plow her and the neighbors’ driveways. I was given only a brief demonstration of how to raise, lower and angle the plow, and how to place the truck into four-wheel drive. Days later, of course, it snowed plenty, and then it snowed some more. I was decent enough at handling the plow, but not the truck to which it was attached, which slid off the pavement and into a stone pillar. I was mortified. But upon her return, Sally remarked that she was surprised I’d done so little damage to her truck.

Of all the things Sally asked me to do, however, the most exciting endeavor (and the one my mother objected to the most) was helping her and Fred rescue Little Harbor’s boats, whose moorings sometimes would slip during hurricanes, gales, or nor’easters. I remember on one occasion trying to maneuver Sal’s thirteen-foot Boston Whaler in large swells towards the stern of a twenty-foot sailboat whose skipper had failed to make fast the anchor line. My performance at this task was rated barely acceptable (I was not, in my own defense, an experienced trans-Atlantic sailor as was the woman shouting course corrections at me). Eventually, one member of our small crew boarded the sailboat, tied a strong bowline knot around the cleat that held the anchor line, and he then jumped overboard.

The commander of the Boston Whaler had decided that our shipmate was more likely to reach shore alive by hurling himself into the surf and being plucked from the water, than by relying on my skills as a helmsman to provide him safe passage back to shore.

One of my favorite jobs and most capital-intensive undertakings, however, was helping with construction of a floating tire breakwater, the purpose of which was to take some of the punch out of storm waves that hit Little Harbor and threatened its boats. The whole thing comprised old tires, foam logs, sprayable foam, conveyor belt and heavy nylon bolts dyed black. (The Army Corps of Engineers required that the bolts be dyed a dark color so as to make for as little an eyesore as possible for those gazing at the whole thing from the shore. For this reason, white wall tires also were prohibited.)The breakwater did, in fact float as planned, but not always where Sally wanted it to. At least once, a gaggle of kids was employed to tow it off the rocky shoreline and haul it back into position.

At some point during this long experiment, we donned scuba gear and inspected the concrete moorings and heavy chains anchoring the flotilla of tires to the shoreline’s muddy floor. In this part of Long Island Sound, there was so much silt and detritus in the water that you could barely see your hands held out in front of you, so care had to be taken to avoid sudden impact between head and mooring. I remember climbing back aboard the boat that awaited us and being offered a variety of soft drinks and eight-ounce cans of horrendously bad beer. Fred said I was old enough to have a beer (I think I was 16), so I did. I told the tale at dinner, and my father was very unhappy with Fred’s ruling. But it was too late to appeal the decision.

. . . . .

After completing her PhD, my mother moved from Guilford, CT, to Carbondale, IL (with a two-year layover in Washington, DC). Hekla’s table was relocated to the Midwest, where my mother took up teaching at Southern Illinois University. I can’t recall where the table sat in my mother’s new home. But a few years later, as my mother’s gathering of new furniture and a few antiques grew to a crescendo, I loaded the ship’s table into the back of my minivan and hauled it to my home in Springfield, VA. It sat for years beneath the family room window, providing both decoration and a good work station on days when I telecommuted from home.

And it travelled with me again, just a mile’s journey this time, when I moved into my apartment one year ago. Having decades ago served Sally, Fred, George and countless friends aboard Hekla, it now sits in my kitchen, both leaves extended, where I share meals with my two sons.

. . . .
I would no sooner part with this table than I would the history, memories, opportunities and encouragement Sally provided me during all those summers, over those many years. She was one of the most important and influential people in my life. I last saw her several years ago, when my boys and I drove up to Guilford to visit my mother, who rented a house there for a couple months each summer. “Well, what do we have here,” Sally said, watching my boys wrestling with croquet mallets. “Just look at them.” We then moved inside the house and each had a midday “drinky poo.”

People can be taken from us. The gifts they’ve left us cannot. Thanks, Sally, for everything.

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