Benicia is a small community east of San Francisco that sits on The Carquinez Strait. It is actually closer to Oakland but that doesn’t sound near as romantic. I grew up near the water watching the boats head through the straights towards the ocean. Even though we were on the water, fishing wasn’t an industry like other places closer to the ocean, but boating was, and I spent as much time by the marina as daylight, and my mother allowed. Daydreaming had become a full-time occupation-plotting my escape to find my father. He left us years ago and never came back. My mother would never share the reason he left or where he went. For a long time, I thought it was because she really didn’t know, but then I found the letter. It was hidden away in her drawer. I’m not sure what I was looking for that day; just bored or curious I guess and decided to dig around. It was alone, up against the back of the drawer behind her jewelry box. The postmark was from San Diego three-years ago. The salutation was Dear Marion… followed by apologies for a variety of things. I soon realized the author was my father and the more I read, the more I could I could feel his pain between the lines. He was apologizing for things my mother had done to him, but he took responsibility, hoping to put our family back together. In closing he said he was working in San Diego on various barges and trawlers around the marina and if she wanted to get ahold of him, just send a letter to the address on the envelope. After this much time it was safe to assume, she never sent the letter.
I started studying every boat to determine which would have the best hiding places and the fewest number of crew. Did I want a commercial vessel or a private one? I could tell be the way it was loaded whether it was for a short trip or one planned for a long journey. A short trip would be good if I got scared and wanted to come home; a long haul would be no turning back.
Every day I headed for the docks to examine the boats and listen to any stories floating over the water. Some were short fishing trips with friends that seemed more like drinking parties than adventure, while others were trips purely for difficult work like salvage and repair. Each had its merit; the drinking ones would be less observant and their senses duller, so staying hidden would be easier. The working vessel would be more focused on the task at hand with less time rummaging around. On the negative side, either one would be unpleasant if I was discovered. Strong, weather-beaten men or drunk businessmen; neither would be thrilled finding a stow-away. Day after day I listened until one day, I heard a much different conversation. It came from a large private vessel, 75 feet in length and no visible accommodation for equipment other than fishing poles. Every day for a week I got as close to it as I could to observe every detail and not be seen, at least as a spy I thought. I brought a fishing pole and sat at the end of the dock closest to the boat. It was annoying when I actually caught something! I was only there to observe, not catch dinner. I needed to watch how they navigated their boat as it roiled in its space never losing their footing or their balance. One day they had friends visit and they brought a basket with bread and cheese and wine. As they approached, one of them asked for permission to come aboard their yacht. Yacht; ok, this is it.
I needed to know when they were leaving and where they were going. After several days, one of the crew noticed me and asked why I spent so much time fishing. “I just like to fish” was my answer. He followed with “But you never catch anything.” I thought about all the times I had reeled in a fish and let it go so as not to interrupt my observation of their yacht. I shrugged my shoulders. But I did see a chance to answer my questions. “Hey, where are you guys going?” “Mexico” was the answer. “When?” “Friday” was the final answer. That gave me two days to put my plan in action. I decided that tonight I would sneak on board and find my spot. After dinner I went to my room early, saying I didn’t feel well. When I was certain my mother was asleep, I snuck out and headed for the marina. As I approached the boat, I could see they had visitors and were well into party mode. The laughter drifted across the water, stopping only for refills and bathroom breaks. I crept up towards the front of the boat, trying to distance myself from the party in the back and on the bridge. I had been able to determine the crew totaled three people, while tonight there were at least fifteen on board. If I was going to do this, I needed to do it now, if for no other reason than to prove I was capable. My best option appeared to be an open hatch on the bow. No one was on that deck, so I studied how to access it. After several minutes I could see my best shot was starboard along the dock where several large crates were stacked for loading; probably tomorrow I thought. I watched the crowd and could see the buildup of a story which would give me a chance. Everyone was mesmerized by the storyteller and focused on him and his arms as they moved about; pointing at this and punctuating that. The laughter and applause were my signal to move. I climbed to the top crate and grabbed ahold of the railing springing from a crouched position over the rail and onto the deck. There was still enough distraction, so no one saw me as I slid through the hatch. I felt energized as I scanned the space; fearing I might get caught quickened my observational skill. I could see one berth was being used as a staging area for various boxes and items, so this is my place.
As I hid behind a stack of liquor boxes, I thought about getting off again and then doing it all over again tomorrow night. Will there be another party that will cover this? How will I get on board if it’s quiet and they are all below deck? I started sweating thinking about it and understood I may not be getting off; this may be my escape-tonight. The laughter and chatter became softer and less frequent until it was perfectly silent. I listened from my hiding place as the crew came downstairs one by one heading for bed. In the silence I could hear my heartbeat. Do I stay or do I leave and try it again? The starting of the engine startled me. I hadn’t realized I dosed off at some point and now the boat was starting to move. Had they already loaded the crates from last night? They were up late, how can they be up so early? It didn’t matter, we were on our way to Mexico.
I was still sitting but noticed a window behind me. It had been dark when I found my hiding place and hadn’t seen it. I straightened up and looked out to see the shore fading in the distance. I am committed for sure. How would I find my dad? Is he still in San Diego? What about my mom, what will she do? For the first time I felt a tinge of fear. I had thought about this for a long time and now it’s here. There was something else; the growling of my stomach reminded me I hadn’t eaten since yesterday. In the dark last night, I could only see boxes to hide behind, now I could see what they were. Food mostly, with some alcohol and hygiene products. Quietly, I opened boxes to see what was available. As I peered inside the opened boxes, I heard voices and realized they were headed my direction. I crouched down and covered myself with a tarp hoping they wouldn’t hear my heart beating out of my chest. Most of what they needed seemed to already be in the galley because they never even opened the door to my hiding place. Hunger won out over fear as I continued my search for food. Cans and bottles, boxes and pouches. Where are the candy bars? Where is the jerky and string cheese? About the time I was ready to sample pancake mix I spotted a large package of trail mix. As I sat there shoving handfuls of it in my mouth I wondered if my mom knew I was missing yet. With a full stomach, I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep. I hadn’t seen my father in almost four years and pondered if he was still in San Diego and what he was doing. Did he miss me? Did he have another family? What was so bad he had to leave?
A shudder followed by the engine revving woke me up. I could hear talking but couldn’t understand the words. The boat had stopped now and was rocking with the waves. As long as we were moving it hadn’t seemed that choppy; but with no forward motion I felt like a cork bouncing up and down. I could hear one of them looking for something. A tool or piece of equipment I thought since we were stopped. As I continued munching on trail mix thinking about Mexico, the door flung open and boxes started flying. “I know it’s here somewhere” the voice shouted. I hunkered down under the tarp hoping he wouldn’t see the wrappers strewn all over the floor, but it was too late. “Hey, I think we have mice!” My mess had distracted him from his original task and now he was looking for the mice guilty of eating the trail mix.
As the tarp flew off my head there was a large exclamation “What the hell! Who are you?” I just stared. I could hear multiple boots running down the steps to see what was going on. “Who the hell are you?” said another voice, followed by “I remember you at the dock, fishing!” They seemed to be more curious than mad, at least that is what I hoped. “Well? What’s the story?” I didn’t know what to say so I pulled the envelope out of my pocket and handed it to the one I thought was the boss. “What does it say John?” “Give me a second” John answered. As he pulled the letter out, he looked at me and then back to the letter. It was quiet while he read. “Is this from your father?” “Yes” I answered. “How long ago?” said John. “Three years” I said. John handed the letter to his mates and they read, one wiping his eyes. “How old are you son?” John asked. “10. I figured out you were going to Mexico so I thought I would hitch a ride. I didn’t mean to be a bother.” “Someone is worried about you. Mother?” John said. “Yes” I answered. “So, you read this and decided to find your father because…” said John. I answered “It says in the letter. He is apologizing and my mother won’t write back. It’s her fault he’s gone.” “Son, I’m sorry about all of this but you’ve got it all wrong.” John looked at his shipmates as he spoke. They all nodded in agreement. “What he is apologizing for is not being your father in every sense. He let your mom down a lot it appears. It also seems like your mom gave him every chance to make amends, but he couldn’t do it, so she finally said goodbye. She didn’t want to raise you with that kind of influence. “I’m guessing the two of you never spoke of it” John asked. “I would try bringing it up, but she would never talk about it. I just wanted to know, so when I found that letter I thought if I could find my father maybe he would tell me what happened.” “We are going to call the Coast Guard and sort this out. Make no mistake, you are in serious trouble…but everything will be ok.” John seemed to have a slight smile as he spoke.
My mother was relieved I was ok and thanked John for his kindness. Somehow, he convinced my mother to let me sail with them to San Diego where she could pick me up. John and my mother talked a lot about what had happened. He lobbied my mom for a lenient punishment which I appreciated. The three of us spent several days looking for my father to get his side of the story with no success.
It has been fifty years since this happened. I never did hear from my father. I would send inquiries out occasionally looking for him, but it is if he disappeared. John and my mother stayed in touch after our adventure and became friends, actually attending each other’s marriage years later. I learned to ask more questions if I didn’t understand something and if I ever stowed away again, I would pack a lunch.