The Boy in the Boat

From The Chestertown Spy, July 5, 2022:

This photograph haunts me. It came to me out of the blue, sent by an old pal I haven’t seen in over fifty years. The light is diffuse, almost ethereal; it looks more like a painting than a photograph. It must have been taken in that dreamtime before cell phones, when cameras were really cameras and you had to send off a roll of film to be developed. The images would come back a week or two later, 3×5 or 4×6 snapshots, but by then, the moment was already a memory. Little did I know…

I have no specific memory of this moment, but I can tell that’s me—fifty years younger and sixty pounds lighter—sitting in that bleached rowboat, looking back at my now-self. My hair is thick and tousled; my Fu Manchu mustache is faintly visible. I’m not sure exactly where I was when the photograph was taken: Tunisia certainly (I was in the Peace Corps there), maybe relaxing in one of the benign little sea-side towns: Hammamet or Tabarka or Monastir, far away from my little village in the remnants of the Atlas Mountains, close to the Algerian border. There’s a shallow tidal pool, the edge of what appears to be an abandoned building, and, off in the distance, a boat rigged with a lateen sail. That would make sense: lateen sails were an Arab invention. They are triangular, mounted on the mast at an angle, running in a fore-and-aft direction. They were likely first developed by Arab traders in the eastern Mediterranean in the Second Century, and were crucial in the development of ships that were maneuverable and reliable under sail power alone because they allowed vessels to tack against the wind. Lateen sails changed the world.

The more I think about this photo, the more blurred it becomes. Most everything that has been important to me in this life was still to come: marriages, children and grandchildren, friendships, careers. Wins and losses, successes and blunders. I had no clue what lay ahead. If I could wade out to that little boat now and talk to that skinny kid, what would I say? Don’t fret; it will all be OK? I’m not sure I’d be telling him the truth. 

I feel gut-punched. My faith has been shaken by recent events: the political chasms that continue to divide us, sorrowful Supreme Court rulings, this lingering pandemic, our ailing economy, the degradation of the environment, racial injustice, gender bias; the list goes on and on. I said to my wife yesterday that I feel weary in my bones. I meant it. I wish for simpler, happier times. I believe we all do. But that’s not the way of this world. Like the young buck sitting in that rowboat, those days are gone. There’s work to be done and time is running out. Let’s get on with it.

What happens next? I didn’t know then and I don’t know now. There was a time when I trusted the world to be good, but now I’m not so sure. Maybe this feeling will pass, pass like the years that have passed since that photo was taken. None of us can ever be that young again. It’s just good to know that once I was.

We know how to tack against the wind. There’s still time to change the world.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine.

Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.net.

4 comments

  1. Wow! You hit home on so many fronts with this piece. I, too, am a RPCV from Tunisia (1983-86), and I have many fond memories of weekends in Tabarka. I worked as a dairy extension agent in Beja, so that tiny town was only about a 60 minute trip by bus.

    And I am also confused and troubled by many of the same things you mention. I wonder if those days of traveling the Medjerda valley on my mobylette were really more simple, or maybe I was just less aware of all the turmoil around the globe. Regardless, your musings are quite nice to read, and I plan on ordering your collections on Amazon soon. Sallam Allikum!

  2. I was in the Peace Corps in Tunis 1964-66. Those were truly different times. Your story brings tears to my eyes as does thinking about that time.
    I’m returning to Tunisia for a few days the first week of this November staying in Sidi bou Said. It’s hard to imagine how different it will be there as well as how different those days were long ago 😎

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