“I’m home schooled,” I often tell people. Then I start spinning them a typical Fatty sea yarn with, “…you see, I grew up aboard an old 52 foot Alden schooner…”
The last part is true. The first part is false.
I wasn’t home schooled. Nor did I attend much ‘regular’ school either… just a year here and there as we cruised aboard our family schooner Elizabeth. The bottom line: I only went to school ashore for five or six years—and I slept through much of that.
Which isn’t to say I learned nothing in the halls of academia: I did… how to cheat, for example.
I always think of cheating when I hear the term “useful education.”
And this is where I first got involved with journalism. I was a cub reporter as a freshmen at Gage Park High… and took that last part quite seriously.
Since I was a reporter I had access to the newspaper’s darkroom. When I printed pictures and turned the dark-light on, a light outside the door said “PRINTING, DO NOT ENTER!” In fact— in order to prevent people from ruining our pictures and exposing our expensive photographic paper—we locked the door.
And, because it would get hot in there and there were dangerous chemical fumes… there was a huge ventilator fan which sucked out the air… yippee!
There was even a convenient sink to throw up into, if you were so inclined.
It was the only place in the school where a student could lock a door… AND not have to open it immediately at a teacher’s request.
Ah, it was heaven in there at times… many times… why, I instructed a NUMBER of developing girls… er, a number of female photographic apprentices in the art of developing photographs!
…and all I had to do was pen a few stupid stories now and then! (The only article I remember was featured on Page Two of our April 1 issue… and filled the entire page… with the headline “Everything I know about Sex” and my byline of Gary Goodlander… and the rest of the page blank).
…where was I? How do I get off on these sick tangents?
Ah, yes, I was explaining how I ended up an uneducated oft. Example: if I’d have attended school more often I’d have entitled this article “My Guitar and I” which certainly sounds a little more nose-up-in-the-air.
But I didn’t.
I flunked journalism. I flunked English. Hell, I flunked gym!
One teacher told me, while reading one of my assignments, that I had a dangling participle… and I checked to see if my fly was opened.
And so I figured that I couldn’t be a writer because writers had to be intelligent and know stuff.
See how foolish I was back then?
So I decided to become a songwriter instead. I mean, if Dylan and Jagger were making it… sheesh, why not me?
So I dashed out, bought a guitar, learned three cords… and waited for the money to start rolling in.
I’m still waiting.
…but while patiently waiting I discovered that writing songs and playing music filled a giant creative void in me… and that girls liked it!
Yes, a guitar-plucking, pimply-faced, long-haired, morose-looking teenage boy is almost as popular as a football jock—and much easier to be for a guy like me… who finds it difficult to carry yet a third ball down the field.
I don’t know why girls find guitar players attractive—but I’m more interested in the effect than the cause.
…and being a songwriter… why, I could ‘whisper sweet nothings’ in their ears until… until… we were both so tired we had to lie down.
So for five or six years as a young man I played guitar… and had duets… with great passion.
However, once I started writing for a living, the driving ‘need’ to play ceased… and music gradually faded from my life… for about 25 years. (“The happiest years of my life,” sighs my wife Carolyn).
Then I bumped into Joe Colpitt in the Virgin Islands. He’s a boat-builder, designer and offshore sailor. We hit it off immediately, mostly because Joe was very quiet back then… and I didn’t want some idiot attempting to get a word in edge-wise while I was around… nothing worst than having a couple of solid hours into a building monologue… and some jerk ruins it with an inane comment like, “…aren’t your vocal cords tired yet?”
Anyway, one day Joe Colpitt said, “I think I’ll buy a guitar and become a singer.”
Now, I hate to admit how sick and sadistic I can be—but I blurt, “…sounds like good idea, Joe!”
Strangely, however, Joe soon learned to play well… and to croon too!
I was shocked. All the stuff that Joe seemed incapable of expressing in words were pouring out of him… to rave reviews!
…he really was earning “…money for nutt’n and the chicks for free!”
Now, fortuitously, just a few months before this my wife had started saving up for a mammogram. Needless to say, this seemed a tad one-sided to me and rather gender-biased to boot… and I felt that perhaps that money might be better used for… something we both could participate in…
…something that I could play and she could stare up adoringly at.
…anyway I, too, soon bought a guitar, relearned my three cords, and started writing songs again.
…and I, too, was really amazed at how passionately people felt about my music… why the West Indians in the audience practically rioted when I played ‘Dark Meat’ for the first time at Latitude 18 in Red Hook, St. Thomas! (Of course I’d have rather earned their applause but, hey, I figure I’ll have to work up to that).
But the real pay-off was personal: playing the guitar soothed me. Instead of coming home and kicking the cat across the boat… I’d just boot it a couple of yards or so.
And it can be a real ice-breaker for a cruising sailor. For example: within minutes of starting to play music in primitive Vanuatu, I saw Chief Tommy’s jaw drop and heard him utter under his putrid, fermented-breadfruit breath, “Fatty long-long!” (In pidgin, ‘long-long’ means crazy).
Yes, there’s no faster way I can convince someone I’m off-my-rocker than to play ‘Big-butted Mama’ and ‘Handy, Handymon!’ back-to-back.
Of course I have some strong ideas about music and song-writing… like, ‘don’t learn more than three cords’ because if John Prine can earn a million bucks with ‘em… so can I!
And my musical skills really come in handy if we’re having a party aboard and our guests won’t leave… just a couple of off-key, super-draggy stanzas of ‘Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ have them pole-vaulting into their dinghies!
Right now we’re in Brunei, hanging out with the sullens… er, I mean…. Sultans!
Every time I go ashore, I bring my axe. It is really interesting, culturally, to play with/for Muslims. I mean, they sorta always thought rock & roll was the devil’s music… here’s living proof!
I’ve been hinting around with the princes (the YC is full of ‘em, each with his own jumbo jet) that I’d like to be invited to the Palace for a sleep over with the Sultan’s harem… but no luck so far.
…I even added, “I’ll bring my guitar,” as a sweetener… but still no luck.
I try to accept this gracefully, but it ain’t easy… since I know the Palace has 1,700+ rooms… why, the dining room alone sits 4,000! (They’re small in stature, the Brunies. The dining room would probably only seat 3,500 porky Westerners).
…anyway, we play a lot of music ashore. I’m learning quite a bit. Some things truly amaze me… like when I play Jagger’s Symphony for the Devil… how fast the startled women in head-scarves can run while holding their ears!
Editor’s note: Fatty and Carolyn are currently sailing toward Singapore, recording bizarre traveling spots for NPR along the way.