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Friends do more than just help with the bandage

Adam Cahill | Tuesday, January 20, 2004

The boat gently rocks against the calm wavy seas of the South Pacific, the storm having passed by some time ago. Looking at the craft that is keeping me afloat, I’m amazed that I still enjoy the ability to be above the water and not somewhere four miles below the water’s surface. The boat is in shambles and so am I. I’ve most certainly broken a number of bones, crushed by splintered lumber during the storm. But the boat is just as beaten up. Jimmied, shimmied and make-shifted together like a pair of old sneakers that refuse to die despite the number of holes in them, the boat can look no worse. Duct tape is everywhere and there is enough rope holding the deck together to give Tarzan some excitement. It creaks and whines with the tide but it’s still floating. I wonder quietly to myself: how can the hells that I’ve gone through in the past week do me any good? What purpose does it hold for me? Certainly, nothing good could come of it in the immediate future.

There’s no time to think of that; all that can be done is the task at hand – keep my ship from sinking long enough to get back to port so I can repair. So that’s exactly what I do. I ration my goods, reinforce any loose joint that may snap from stress against the sea and keep my body from infection. And when I lean back against the delicate starboard rail, enjoying the first bit of sunshine in days, I know that there is a greater purpose in my survival. One can only wonder what it will be though.

Several years have passed since that day and I still keep to my ship. It took a few weeks for me to recover, the boat a bit longer. But it’s fully recovered now except for a few cosmetic differences which I believe only add character. I keep sailing, too. My reasoning is that you don’t stop doing what you love just because of a few mishaps along the way – why should you stop living when you haven’t died? My friends and I joke about what I went through, always over good times and wine. I retell the story like a grandfather reciting stories around a campfire. Even the hard questions I answer. Why wouldn’t I? They are my friends. The questions don’t bother me, though. It’s just something that happened to me.

I walk down the small dock and throw in my gear, bracing for another adventure. It’s going to be a short trip, a long weekend. Straight toward the horizon I go, as always, nothing in front of me but the deep blue of the Pacific. It’s a calm trip as far as weather goes, and I throw a silent prayer toward the sky in thankfulness as I try and beat the sun to the horizon.

But on the return journey, an unexpected event befalls me. Through the calm waters, I find bits of driftwood and marine gear, looking like a car that has dragged its tail, a muffler here, a hubcap there. Bits of rope, wood, plastic and sail litter the sea and I make haste in following the trail. But as the day progresses, the weather gets increasingly worse. But instead of being a budding storm, I was heading into the tail end of one. It’s a relief as far as I am concerned; there is no then a familiar scene appears on the horizon. It’s a boat, but an injured one – no mast, no sail. As I struggle to come to its aid with my own boat, I see that it’s one of my friends. And as I pull up alongside him, I came to realize that which was equally true: the nightmare I spent on the seas years ago has saved his life he would later say. He had taken my story and learned from it. The boat looked remarkably like my own, the one I had kept together back then.

No story is the same. And his turn of bad luck was no simpler than mine. He had lost radio contact early, whereas I had lost my mast first. But the specifics didn’t matter. A lot of things had gone wrong to be sure. He had been injured as well but like the rest of his situation, the injuries were different.

So when I hopped aboard his boat the only thing he said to me was thank you. No, no, he said. Thank you. I could see it in his eyes and I understood.

It wasn’t the actual act of helping him that mattered. What mattered to him was that I shared my experience and in the end, it was what saved him.

Adam Cahill is a senior history and American studies major. His column appears every other Tuesday. He can be contacted at acahill@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.