Thoughts on a summer’s night…

bio-pic-newWe were sitting on the floating dock, listening to the gentle slap of water against pilings, sipping good red wine, and watching the sun set over one of those marvelous flood tides that fills the salt meadows to overflowing and reminds you how generous Mother Nature can be with her bounty when she’s in a peaceful mood. Now and then small boats cruised past, enjoying a twilight cruise on a perfect night in the water-world that is the South Jersey shore in August.

If you flew in a small plane over the coast on such an evening, and I have, your view would be magical. Vast areas of water from the endless ocean on the east to the flooded bays and marshes west of the barrier islands, which themselves sparkle with the lights of the boardwalks, their intensely green miniature golf courses shining like emeralds set among the white diamonds of street lights and moving traffic. Laying at our feet on the dock like a sleeping beagle dreaming of uncaught rabbits was a Sunfish sailboat, tiller and mast removed and ranged alongside, all waiting for the morning sun.

I was a Brigantine boy of fourteen when I saw my first Sunfish. It was lust at first sight — a 13 foot long fiberglass invitation to fun and adventure no growing island boy could resist. A buddy owned one and, being young and skinny enough, the two of us fit on it and rove all over the bay. It was his boat, so he got the tiller, but even being a passenger was sheer delight. Growing up on a barrier island along the Jersey coast is filled with such adventures. You start off as a toddler digging holes in the wet sand with your little bucket and shovel and first thing you know it’s inner tubes, water-skis, and the never-to-be forgotten moment when you misjudge your timing on the floating ski jump and take your first head-over-heels high-speed tumble.

Pretty soon you’re on a jetski tearing out of the cove at 70 miles an hour and maybe even a 16 foot “Sweet Sixteen” Donzi slamming out the inlet bound for the open ocean. We do love our summer toys – especially the ones where you get wet. Golf clubs and baseball gloves and Frisbees all have their place and are lots of fun, but for me the all-time best is the Sunfish, It was years before I had the time or money to get my own. It was cheap, only a few hundred bucks used, but almost indestructible.

Odd as it sounds, I had never learned how to sail but wasn’t about to admit it. So I shoved off, tried to tack, and went laughing into the water, tangled up in sail, hull and centerboard. The charm of the Sunfish is you can recover from such mishaps. Do it again and again until you learn to right the boat, clamber back aboard, and be none the worse for it. Eventually you learn to sail, which is one of the world’s oldest skills. That’s when the real fun starts. You go out alone, with your lunch and a soda packed in a waterproof bag tucked in the cockpit and instantly the whole world is yours to explore. You don’t need gas and precious little wind. What boy could ever resist such a rely-on-yourself challenge when the day lies before him? And what man hasn’t still got that boy inside him?

I’ve enjoyed great times afloat. Fishing with friends, a tall-ship cruise in a windjammer on the Maine coast, pontoon boating on the Mullica, rowing in our bays and on the Schuylkill in Philadelphia, a day cruise with hang-gliding down the Gulf of Aqaba/Eilat south of Israel, even a week-long October cruise with our mutual friend Manny Gottlieb as guests aboard Art Henry’s “Harem”, a 42 foot teak paneled cabin cruiser, down the inland waterway from Margate to Florida’s Daytona Beach, watching dolphins play in our bow-wave as we crossed the 80 miles of Pamlico Sound off the Carolina coast. Hardly a moment afloat that wasn’t pure joy, the occasional seasickness excepted and a price worth paying for all that fun.

Of all of it, the greatest joy that still brings a thrill of remembrance was sailing around the whole island of Brigantine all by myself in that Sunfish, heading out the ever-treacherous Brigantine Inlet, then down the island’s length and around the jetty into the Atlantic City inlet, under the bridge and threading the “Little Panama” canal that brings you into the back bay and home to the cove known as Baremore Quarters. Almost anything you can do on the water is great, but it’s hard to have more fun than you can get simply fooling around in a Sunfish.

© 2014 Joseph T. Wilkins

Joe’s Take: Watching history unfold…

bio-pic-newWe were living in Brigantine at the time, half a quiet block from beach and ocean with a cool night breeze coming through the open window as we watched the day’s news about Watergate. A world event was coming to a head that August evening in 1974. The drama was irresistible. For two years the world had watched the death spiral of the Nixon Presidency, mostly on television. But for me a chain of unexpected circumstances gave me a ringside seat at the resignation of a President.

Two years earlier, when Senator Thomas Eagleton, the Democratic nominee for Vice-President of the United States, was forced off the ticket by disclosure he had received psychiatric treatment, my old agency head Sargent Shriver had been picked to replace him as McGovern’s running mate. The switch gave me a very junior seat at the briefing table on the flagstone terrace of “Timberlawn”, Shriver’s beautiful estate in Maryland not too far from where the Potomac River thunders down through Great Falls. He had to be ready for the Sunday news shows that week and the thing had happened too quickly for more senior hands to assemble and brief him. Because I was representing a local rehabilitation program run by ex-addicts and had recently testified before a Senate committee on the subject, I was invited to join the briefing on domestic matters, which included drug abuse programs as my area.

In 1972 I had only recently left running Cape Atlantic Legal Services and opened my private law practice in Atlantic City. Eager to get involved in the presidential election campaign, I was spending my weekends in Washington, contributing ideas and the odd paragraph for Shriver’s speeches.

There was an eerie quality about those weekends. Washington in August is a ghost town. Congress quits to go to the beach; federal employees head for generous vacations, and only the quest of Woodward and Bernstein for the Watergate story was afoot. But aside from guys like me savoring every morsel of Nixon’s shenanigans, nobody else was following that story. Now we have the tapes and TV documentaries in abundance, but then it was hard to convince anybody outside the Beltway the man was a crook. Back home on the Jersey shore, people’s eyes got that vaguely puzzled look when you raised the subject. They literally had no idea what you were talking about.

From my weekend perch near the campaign’s Xerox machines, I sat at a typewriter and pounded out a speech I thought Shriver should give. I called Watergate “The Republican Bugging Conspiracy” and argued that what was coming to light was a criminal conspiracy directed by the Nixon White House. My draft went nowhere. The guys with stronger credentials shrugged it off as the exaggeration of a wanna-be speechwriter trying to make his bones.

A few blocks away, the Committee to Re-Elect the President, dubbed “CREEP” by Democratic cynics, was chugging away at the cover-up even as Woodward and Bernstein were getting closer to the truth. “All the President’s Men” with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman caught the atmosphere of the time perfectly. Files were being shredded, leakers were hiding under their desks, and still the folks on the beaches of Brigantine and Wildwood were clueless.
Fast forward two years to the early Spring of 1974. The Watergate story was now everywhere. The journalistic hunting pack was in full cry; subpoenaes were flying, and the House and Senate were hot for impeachment. Nixon at last was on the ropes.

One day earlier that year my secretary told me the White House was on the phone. Being an Atlantic City guy I thought she was talking about the White House Sub Shop, the famous local sandwich restaurant. In fact, it was the real thing. One of Nixon’s staffers had an elderly father livng on Social Security a few blocks from my office. He was in a fight with his landlord. His son was calling from Washington in search of a tenant’s lawyer and came up with my name. We hit it off.

Over the next few months he invited me to lunch at the White House several times. I was there each time another political hand grenade went off. Haldeman and Erlichman were fired, the FBI seized their files, the Watergate subpoena for the tapes was served, and I was there for lunch each time.

Came August 8th of 1974. My wife and I, and our friends Daryl Todd (a moderate Republican at last reluctantly convinced of Nixon’s wrong-doings, later a Superior Court judge) and his wife Mary, were having lunch in the super-exclusive Navy Mess, where the senior White House staff, including that day Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s son in law David Eisenhower and Nixon buddy Bebe Rebozo were sitting at nearby tables. Upstairs, Nixon was telling Vice President Ford he was quitting next day. At our table, my host took a call from the President asking him to set up national air time for his resignation speech that evening.

This time, the folks on the beaches from Brigantine to Cape May believed it.

© 2014 Joseph T. Wilkins