A late frost had left a thin carapace of ice on the deck, and the gathered crew trod carefully on the slippery steel in the chill of an April morning. We drank our teas and coffees in the half-light and some smoked cigarettes as we waited for the tugboat that would help our ship, a 250’ barquentine, from her winter to her summer berth. The ship had been languishing in a ‘for sale’ limbo for the better part of five years, her main engine hadn’t been turned over in three of those years, hence the tug. It was sad to see her slowly deteriorate on Toronto’s Harbour Front. She’d never been a looker, but I’d helped put some miles beneath her hull and some fine adventures had been had in various corners of the world. That morning I volunteered to be the guy ashore, casting off lines and then running to the other slip to receive them. This was not out of any largesse on my part, but because my back could no longer tolerate bending over at the fairleads and hauling those heavy hawsers taut. Not to say my task was going to be easy, as below zero meant that many of the ropes would be frozen to the bollards.
When the tug arrived, I made my way down the lengthy gangway, which that morning was lethal as a luge run, and I negotiated it on my backside controlling my descent with my feet. The sun’s first exploratory tendrils of light were just becoming visible at the eastern end of the harbour, revealing a world of gun-metal grey. Down on the dock was equally slippery and I carefully walked the waters edge, singling up, tossing the doubled lines off their bollards while the crew on deck hauled them up through the fair leads like errant strands of spaghetti. Some of the lines were in terrible shape. Chafe and sun-damage having taken their toll. The heavier hawsers were all frozen and I had to beat some give into them with the baseball bat we kept on deck to deter drunks staggering aboard in fairer weather. I became aware of an elderly man standing not too far away from me, watching my work intently. I could tell he was going to speak, which, in the heat of my exertions was not something I necessarily wanted to encourage, but once I got the line I was working on off, I had nothing to do but stand there.
‘Southpaw.’ He said, in an old man’s tremor-y voice. He was tall, though stooped and slightly shaky on his feet.
‘I’m sorry?’ I said.
‘Southpaw,’ and he nodded at the watch on my right wrist, and then at his own right wrist. ‘You’re a lefty too. I spot ‘em a mile away’ he said smiling.
‘You’re right.’ And I realized that this was the first time in all my life anyone had ever acknowledged the orientation of my watch, and I remembered then that Christmas decades before when I unwrapped a Timex digital watch, my first timepiece. God I was so proud to put it on.
‘Now you’re left-handed,’ my mother said, ‘so you must wear your watch on your right wrist.’ And so, I did, and I have done ever since.
‘I was in the army,’ the old man tells me. ‘I was the only left-hander there. Of course, in my generation some folks were forced to be right-handed,’ he says shaking his head.
I remembered all the classrooms I’d ever been in, and that initial survey I would do of everyone there, quickly eyeing those who held their pens in their left hand like me.
‘I like watching you young people work,’ he said and smiled again and he began to say something else but then he stopped and just nodded his head pleasantly. I wondered if he was the kind of old man who ate alone in restaurants and perhaps tried to coerce conversation from stroppy service staff who couldn’t care less.
The tug was ready, and I threw the last of the mooring lines off. The stern line was the heaviest and the last one to go and I had a real tousle with it before finally wrenching it free and I slipped on the ice and fell hard on my ass. I stood up and the old man was still there, a concerned look on his face. I motioned to him in the direction of the ship to indicate I had to run to the next slip and I waved to him with my dominant hand and he waved back with his, and then he held up his right wrist-watched wrist as though in solidarity, and I did the same with mine and I thought maybe it was his mother, or his father, some Christmas a lifetime ago, who had told him, to put the new watch on his right wrist. I hoped it was, and that he remembered them fondly then.
Amazing, what we pass on. It’s these things that are the meat and potatoes of it all, and what will remain long after we’re gone and our bones are smoke and dust.