Gus was lucky in life. He was uncommonly handsome. The clever, likeable sort of guy who always had friends to spare. And, though his parents were poor, they were kind.
Gus was the oldest of four siblings, a fact he liked to lord over his brothers and sister, all at least five years younger than him. On most days, when they weren’t working, his parents had their hands full with three young kids at home. And, while he loved his family, Gus enjoyed the freedom his oldest-child status provided. At thirteen, he explored the city with ease.
So, it was with no trepidation that he took the city bus to Belle Isle at the beginning of the summer following his 8th grade. The well-to-do people who ran the sailing club along the Detroit River had, in the name of charity, invited a few of the Polish Catholic boys from his parish to join their summer camp. Sister Irene, not known to be effusive, had been quick to recommend Gus for a spot. Though she thought him a good Christian boy at heart, she’d swatted his knuckles enough times to know that he had energy in search of a purpose.
Belle Isle, which sat in the Detroit River between the United States and Canada, was originally settled by the French, like everything in that area. In the 1700s, back when people were still allowed to keep animals there, it was called “Hog Island.” When the city bought it nearly 100 years later, they changed its name and turned into a park for its citizens, both rich and poor.
The wealthy visitors to Belle Isle generally kept to themselves. The yacht club was on the north end of the island. At the time, it was one of the largest and most prestigious clubs in the country. The yacht club denizens enjoyed summers dressed in dock attire, watching fireworks shot over the harbor. And at dinner, they ate pan fried lake trout, seasoned and served with silver forks on monogrammed china plates.
Though not as fancy as their north-end brethren, the working-class people of Detroit enjoyed the island just the same, hosting picnics, canoeing and fishing while their kids swam in the cold water. They played tennis in the summer and brought their ice skates to the frozen river in the winter.
It was just down the road from that picnic area that Gus found the boathouse that housed the summer camp. It was a gabled, two-story brick building that sat back from the shoreline just a bit. When he arrived, Gus could see there were already at least a dozen boys getting into the small red-and-white dinghies that floated near the water’s edge. They were the one- to two-man sailboats used to educate the future scions of the sailing elite.
The three counselors at the camp were older than Gus and wore white shirts, white shorts and boat shoes, making Gus immediately self-conscious of the sturdy work boots on this feet.
“I’m Gus,” he said to the nearest counselor, who was clearly in charge, “Gus Nowak.”
“Alright, Gus. Welcome,” he said, pointing to a small sailboat at the end of the row. “You’re with Worthington.”
Gus walked to the end of the row, eyeing the small boat and its passenger before climbing in.
“I’m Ding,” said the boy, standing up. The boat rocked a bit and he steadied himself.
“Gus,” he replied quickly.
Ding was slightly shorter than Gus, and skinny where Gus was brawny. His hair was combed and slightly darker than Gus’ light brown shag. Like the counselors, he wore all white. It was clear that Ding was not a Catholic charity case. Yet, as the two launched the boat into the river, Gus sensed a quiet confidence in the way Ding handled the lines. His ability to captain this ship was not in doubt.
“Have you ever don’t his before?” Ding asked Gus as the wind caught their sail.
“Never,” Gus replied, looking down at his dirty boots again. He knew Ding noticed them too. They sailed out into the river for a bit, catching the current before Ding spoke again.
“I’ll show you how to tack,” he said as he turned his head over his shoulder. “Watch your head.”
Ding grabbed the mainsheet and Gus barely ducked his head under the boom in time. Ding laughed and a few minutes later, he showed Gus how to do it again. And so it went all day, with Ding teaching Gus how to sail.
The two were paired again the next day, having proved to the counselors they were a good fit as a crew. And, as they floated along the river, waiting for the wind to catch their sail, they filled the boredom with the awkward, idle conversation typical of boys that age. Gus learned that Ding was actually Wilding Worthington, only child and heir to some kind of a fortune. He lived in a big house north of the city, on the shores of Lake St. Clair. Ding didn’t talk about his friends much and Gus wondered if he had many. He also wondered how Ding, given his status, felt about being paired with a charity case for the summer. Gus was hardly the most coveted partner.
Yet, Ding had a way of making Gus feel comfortable despite their difference in circumstance. Gus found himself telling Ding about his parents, who first arrived in Detroit from Poland by way of the port in Newark, New Jersey. They came looking for work on Ford’s assembly line and found it there. His dad was particularly handy, a trait Gus inherited. He told Ding about the time his dad painted his ’32 Ford with a bucket of black paint right in their backyard. His dad, he said, could do anything.
It was Ding’s good fortune then, that Gus was his partner when their boat ran into a problem on the last day of camp that summer.
To celebrate the end of camp, the counselors organized a race between the two-man crews, giving the boys a chance to show off what they’d learned. At stake was a grand trophy that went to the team that took first place.
“Darn it, the rudder is loose,” Ding said as he pushed their dinghy toward the river. He could see the other teams already entering the water.
“Don’t worry. I’ve got it,” Gus said, running to the boathouse to look for something to fix the boat. He ran back, smiling, with an old screwdriver in his hand. “Just give me a second.”
He hopped in the boat a moment later, rudder fixed, joining a Ding as they set their sail. Gus was a quick study and had paid attention to what Ding taught him that summer. Though he surely wasn’t the best sailor at the camp, Gus did well enough to prove himself a worthy competitor.
It was a day neither boy would soon forget, the sun on their faces, the boat ripping across the water as they passed one competitor then another. The afternoon had blessed them with strong winds that carried them first to the finish line. They whooped and hollered as they easily won the race.
After they pulled their dinghy onto shore for the last time, the white-shirted counselors presented the trophy to Ding, who was clearly the captain of the ship.
“You have it,” Ding winked, passing the trophy to Gus. “I’ve got tons of these at home.”
Whether it was true or not, Gus wasn’t sure. He suspected Ding knew how much the trophy meant to him, having few opportunities to earn such a prized possession. Gus carried the trophy away to show it off to the other boys.
It was a short time later when Ding walked up to him, handing him a small bundle of clothes.
“Here,” Ding said, nodding toward the boathouse. “Go put these on. I guessed on the sizes, so I hope they fit.” Gus looked down to see he was holding was a collared shirt, a pair of linen shorts and a pair of boat shoes.
“What are these for?” Gus asked.
“I’m taking you to dinner at the yacht club,” Ding said, smiling.
The evening was hot as they walked along the river to the end of the island. Gus’ new shoes, sharp though they were, were a bit too small for his wide feet and pinched his small toes. He couldn’t let it bother him; he was still full of good feelings from their success that day.
The clubhouse at the Detroit Yacht Club was a majestic, sprawling Mediterranean-inspired building that boasted wide verandas overlooking the Canadian shoreline. As Gus and Ding approached it, a gray-haired doorman, dressed in black formal wear, stepped out to hold the door for them.
“How did you do today Mr. Worthington?”
“We won!” Gus said, his enthusiasm surprising Gus. He thought this kind of thing was old hat for someone like Ding.
‘Oh, Bobby,” he continued, “This is my crewmate, Gus Nowak. He’s a real bang up sailor.”
“Nice to meet you, sir,” Bobby said, shaking Gus’ hand.
The pair walked up a large staircase to the club’s dining room. Gus tried to hide his astonishment as he took in the high ceilings and shiny, intricate carved moldings. Plush, oriental carpets cushioned his feet and large paintings in gold frames covered the walls.
Though he was grateful for Ding's generosity, Gus wished for the first time that they were back out on the familiar water in their little boat. There he understood his place and his friendship with Ding. There they were equals of a sort.
It spoke to the nature of their friendship that Gus' discomfort lasted only a moment.
As was his style Ding quickly put him at ease.
"Should we get spaghetti," Ding asked? Gus settled into the china plates and white linen napkins in front of them.
"Sounds good," he said.
As they ate, Gus wondered if he’d see Ding again after this. The thought made him sad in a way that was unexpected. Life would surely take them in different directions as it had thus far. Gus would be long forgotten as a novelty of the summer spent on Belle Isle.
It was lost in that thought Gus felt Ding’s sharp elbow in his rib. “When are we having dinner at your place?”