Neil Mathison

Horton Point

Northwest Review Vol. 42, No. 2 (2004), 116-127.

In Ontario, just north of Kincardine, a knee of land hooks into Lake Huron. The knee is called Horton Point, the name of my grandmother’s grandfather Thomas Horton who built a cottage there. Thomas came to Kincardine from the west, from what was then the Ontario frontier. He came to Kincardine because the village was on the lakeshore. He came because he was weary of wilderness. He came because Thomas Horton missed the sea.

Thomas arrived in 1854 or 1862 – the precise year he arrived is uncertain, as the year of Thomas’s birth is uncertain. Thomas was born in 1805, the year Horatio Nelson died at Trafalgar. Or in 1804, the year Robert Fulton invented the steam launch. In our century, when time dices to microseconds, such imprecision is incomprehensible – a past fogged beyond belief. But Thomas Horton was neither naval hero nor famous inventor. Waypoints of his life are lost. He was a ship’s captain, a frontier farmer, a barrel cooper. He was a boat builder. He was a son of a ship’s captain and a grandson of ship’s captains. His ancestors, for two North American centuries, from Long Island to Cape Cod, from Boston to Halifax, were ship’s captains and barrel coopers and boat builders.

Thomas told his grandchildren – my Grandmother Charlotte among them – that he’d seen “every open port in the world.”

When Grandmother visited Horton Point – was she still a girl? – only the cottage foundations remained, so close to the shore, Grandmother wrote, Thomas Horton might have tossed a pebble into Lake Huron.

What did Thomas recall surveying Lake Huron’s freshwater sea, so far from any true ocean? Did he recall wraith-white Grand Banks fogs? A becalmed Straits of Gibraltar? The steep-pitched waves of the South China Sea? Or perhaps a sunset on the Bay of Bengal; Maldives palms swaying in trade winds; the yellow, smoke-laden humidity of the Malacca Passage. Sea ghosts. Specters from a voyaging past.

I picture Thomas on his cottage porch, bundled in wolf-fir cap, wrapped in glistening oilskins, sea boots on his feet, leaning into a winter northwesterly. The wind lashes Lake Huron, ices the shore, sprays his cottage windows, frosts the cottage windowpanes. I imagine Thomas remembering, remembering how he hove-to, topsails double-reefed in a North Atlantic gale, or ran before a typhoon in the Yellow Sea, or wore the ship about when doubling Cape Horn, the helm hard up, the yards clattering, the wind roaring through the ship’s rigging.

Thomas Horton left the Ontario frontier to build boats on the shore of Lake Huron – not the long-sheered, raked-stern schooners that his father and grandfather built but rowboats and fishing boats, with sweet cedar strakes and with black pine ribs and with limber ash frames. Thomas Horton missed the sea.

Ontario is flat at this southern edge of the Canadian Shield, the continent’s ancient, glacier-ground bedrock. From the air or on a map, roads gird the countryside – surveyed, squared off, geometric. The land speaks of stability, safety and purpose, of husbandry and cultivation.

Unlike the sea.

I’ve never visited Horton Point. My forbearers inhabited North America for three centuries; they rarely passed a generation in one place. Loyalists fled Boston for Halifax, returning decades later to Detroit. Red-dirt slaveholders trekked from Natural Bridge, Virginia to High Hill, Missouri, until their children, after the Civil War, railroaded east to Syracuse. They paint no single point, unless the entire continent is their canvas, wandering to and fro, buffeted by history. Yet I see these migrations as purposeful – not serendipitous – like the rigging of great sailing ship where each line and pendant has a function and a meaning. I don’t know my ancestors by one hamlet or one lakeshore or one valley. Yet, across the gulf of years, one ancestor, Thomas Horton, of whom no photograph exists, calls out to me.

“He had the bluest eyes,” Grandmother wrote. “The gentlest man I was ever to meet.”

This is how I deliver Thomas to our time. Building his boats on a cottage porch. Keeping watch on Lake Huron. He planes ribs and strakes with callused carpenter’s hands. He frames his dories in honey-scented ash. He pins toe rails to gunwales. He laps cedar planks. Pine-fragrant shavings collect at his boots. Is Thomas reminded of his father’s shipyard, in distant Nova Scotia? Does Thomas’s wife – her name is Susan – bring him steeping Ceylonese tea? Does Susan set a blue china pot on the cottage-porch rail? Does Thomas pause? Does he glance at a yellow-haired granddaughter who wades in the lake, her dress gathered above her knees? Or at the masts of an ore ship steaming, hull-down, to Sault Ste. Marie?

A grandchild. Carpenter’s hands. Teapots.

By these things, Thomas becomes real, as the cedar planks he planed were real. But the man who built dories at Horton Point looked to a past more tangible than any I create. He lived what I only conjure, even if, a century after his death, I will follow him. I will follow Thomas Horton to the sea.

It is the last act of the Great Age of Sail. 1821. James Monroe is President of the United States. Maine and Missouri have joined the Union, one free, the other slave, a duality that will darken America’s history for three more decades. Simon Bolivar will, in 1821, defeat the Spanish and liberate Venezuela. The British Navy protects the opium trade but forbids the trade of African slaves. Thomas Horton, graduate of the Halifax School for Mariners, will set out on his first voyage aboard one of his father’s brigantines. The ship’s name is lost. She would have been about ninety feet in length, with a square rig forward and a fore and aft mizzen sail. Her beam is less than thirty feet. In the crews’ quarters, where Thomas hangs his hammock, a man can’t stand upright. Thomas is either fifteen or sixteen years old, apprenticed to the ship’s barrel cooper. The casks and hogsheads, which Thomas will learn to make, hold Madeira wine and molasses and rum and whale oil. The brigs and brigantines and barks and Grand Banks schooners depart from Halifax for France bearing salted cod; cross the Atlantic for New York with silk and silver cutlery; run west to London laden with pine; round Cape Horn for China with cotton goods and ironware; return to England with Ceylonese tea.

What else do the ships carry? Do they run muskets to Venezuelan rebels or smuggle slaves to New Orleans or transport opium to Macao? We don’t know. Neither do we know if Thomas went to sea willingly or at his father’s insistence or if, as a boy, muskets and slaves and opium figured in his life at all.

When I was a boy, three thousand miles from Halifax, two thousand from Kincardine, the Seattle waterfront haunted me. An elevated highway, the Viaduct, ran the length of the waterfront from Harbor Island to the Battery Street Tunnel. We looked down on tramp steamers, their steel sides dimpled and rust-streaked, on boxy Liberty Ships, and on flat-decked grain ships. Cargo booms swung webbed nets filled with crates to longshoreman who waited on the pier, ant-like from our Viaduct perspective.

If we were lucky, a Navy carrier, bristling with aircraft, was docked at Pier 91. America was at war in Korea. Transports embarked helmeted troops and clanking Sherman tanks and olive-green howitzers.

But the merchantmen fascinated me most. The ports-of-call, painted on each stern – Colon and Piraeus and Monrovia; Kowloon and Kaoshung and Kobe – sang a cantata of unheard languages, of un-tasted food, of un-smelled fragrances, of unseen and un-open cities; of unsavory crewmembers. When we walked along Skid Road, a block or two above the waterfront, we passed seamen’s taverns with cave-dark interiors smelling of tobacco and beer and urine. I half-expected an Ahab or a Long John Silver to stagger, peg-legged onto the sidewalk. I would clutch my mother’s hand, hurry by a little faster, but my eyes were drawn back, back to the darkness, back to the figures slumped over brass-railed bars. Who were these men? What mysteries had they seen? Would I ever see them?

I have always loved boats. My earliest school drawings were of boats. The sight of any boat – a tug, a fireboat, a yawl, an automobile ferry – was certain to distract me from books or Popsicles or baseball.

My parents trailered a stove-in dory to our backyard, an old oyster skiff still filled with white shell. My brother Charlie and I metamorphosed the skiff with penny nails and orange-crates and our imaginations until the dory became a Navy PT boat, an Amazon River launch, an ocean yacht.

My father and I often visited boathouses that tottered on the shores of the Seattle’s Lake Union. I remember the smell of wet wood and tannic water and oily bilges and the sour tang of outboard-motor gasoline. The boats dipped and heeled as we stepped aboard – skiffs and pocket-cruisers and runabouts. Even in boathouse slips, we crossed a lubberly boundary, entering a fluid and restless universe.

Is it this dancing of hulls that causes me to so love boats, a dance I still love? Or is it the voyage my mother, my Grandmother Charlotte, and I made from Recife to New Orleans when I was six months old, aboard the SS Del Monte, a voyage my mother often recounted, a voyage I can’t remember but that opened, it seems to me, the world and the world’s seas to my imagination?

Or is it yet something else? Something that flows in my blood, that is twined into the helix of my ancestry, that bears me irresistibly to boats and the sea?

What do we receive from the past? My maternal grandmother – the Missouri-Syracuse Grandmother Catherine – transcribed anecdotes she remembered, stories from her girlhood. There was a woman, an ancestor, who carried socks to the Continental Army in Valley Forge. There were Quaker forbearers who refused to fight in the Civil War. There was Catherine’s Grandmother Dryden who frightened a band of Indians from her Missouri farm by trumpeting a conch-shell blast. Grandmother’s notebook – I keep its fragile, onionskin pages in my desk drawer – is written in a graceful, sweeping hand from an age when penmanship mattered. Old-fashioned expressions slip through – as when her other grandmother, Kitty Sharp, followed a new husband, on horseback, from Kentucky into Missouri, becoming “overawed by the wildness,” losing her ability, as my Grandmother put it, of “getting up and saying so.” Such phrases carry me back, back to an age vanished long before my birth.

But it is Kitty Sharp’s wedding gift, a gift from her parents, which arrests me. The gift is a black woman, a slave named Ginny, who is Kitty’s own age. Guilt, like my great-great grandmother’s conch-shell blast, blares from a muted history.

Does pride in ancestral good deeds – the trumpet call of Valley Forge, the convictions of Quaker pacifism –obligate atonement for evil also done?

“And what a gift,” Grandmother wrote, “what a gift Ginny was!”

Slavery. A drumbeat somber from the family past.

In his fourteenth or fifteenth year, Thomas Horton went to sea. At thirteen, I was baptized into wind and sail on Angle Lake, a small, L-shaped lake not far from the Seattle-Tacoma Airport. The boat was called a “Flattie” and she belonged to my friend Skip Barnard. She was a slender, hard-chine sloop of twenty feet, painted a faded blue.

It was a gray, drizzle-soaked afternoon. A breeze darkened the lake. Three of us sat on the deck – the cockpit was only a small rectangle just large enough for our legs. Skip manned the tiller. I tended the main. When we cast off, the sloop surged from its slip, heeling, lifting us high above the water. The wind’s thrust, the Flattie’s power, the wake’s rush, our silent speed, lingers with me now, years after that afternoon. It will always linger with me. My heart lifted in airy, inexplicable joy, lightened by sails and water and wind.

Too soon we returned to the dock. Too many years passed before I sailed again. But on that afternoon, the magic of sail embraced me, drew me forever into its spell.

And is Thomas Horton similarly enchanted? We can’t know. Perhaps he hangs from the brig’s sprit while dolphins slew down the ship’s wake or flying fish skim the sea, their wings gilded in sunlight; or he watches gulf weed float silently by, orange, multi-fingered islands populated by crustacean flotillas. Perhaps he sees the Atlantic turn from gray to indigo to turquoise as the ship labors into the Gulf Stream; or he stands by the mate’s elbow, sounding by line and sinker the shoal-ridden Bahaman Banks – calling out, By the mark five – while coral parapets slide beneath the hull demarking sandy, submarine valleys and stingrays soaring over sunken savannas.

But we know this: in a South American port – was it Rio or Recife or Cartagena? – yellow fever sweeps the crew. The captain dies. The mate dies. Of the brig’s company, only Thomas knows the algebraic magic of Bowditch, the mantra of navigation tables, the astrology of sextant, of rule, of compass, and it is he, Thomas Horton, the fifteen-year-old scion of sea captains, who navigates the ship back to Halifax.

I picture this moment: under the walls of a lime-whitened Spanish fort, old even then. From the shore, dogs bark. Stevedores call in Calypso cadences. The fragrances of cooking oil, and wood smoke, and bougainvillea float out to the ship. The crew lays into the windlass. The hawse strains. Sails drop from the yards. Imperceptibly, the brig gathers way. Thomas stands by the helmsman, perhaps an unlettered sailor who knows the sea in ways Thomas has yet to learn, but who cannot, like Thomas, navigate. What rises in Thomas’s heart? Fear? Doubt? Anxiety? Certainly. But – and I am certain of this – joy rises too, the joy of youth, the joy of testing oneself, the joy of setting out onto the sea.

Unlike a lake or a river un-navigable, the ocean lacks boundaries. From the quietest salt-marsh cove, with enough time and a seaworthy vessel, the expanse of the earth beckons. Not far from where I live, rollers tumble against the Olympic Peninsula beaches, explode against haystack rocks in white-frothed tumult. The sand drums under your feet. Spume and mist overhang the roiling waves as far as you can see. Sometimes a trawler casts its nets beyond the break; the vessel rises on swells and sinks into invisibility. You wonder: how can a ship navigate such a riotous course? And it is riotous. I have sailed this coast. Even a large ship pitches and rolls, until the crew, fatigued and exhausted, longs for the respite of a harbor. But if the sea truly calls, you also wonder, what lies beyond the horizon? What borders the far shore? If the sea truly calls you, the boundlessness of the sea calls you as much as the sea itself calls you.

When I stood, a boy on those Pacific Ocean beaches, I knew my life and the sea were linked by uncertain mystery and unfathomable alchemy.

A steamy afternoon. Annapolis, Maryland. 1965. Twelve hundred young men stand on the hot cobbles of Tecumseh Court. They will swear an oath to become a midshipman in the United States Navy, a ritual unchanged for over one hundred years. I will raise my hand too, still wearing the gray civilian suit that was my high school graduation gift.

Our hair has been shorn to our scalps. We have spent the day standing in lines collecting white-works uniforms, blue-ringed “Dixie cup” hats, skivvy shirts, bathrobes; pajamas emblazoned with the Academy crest, “Boondocker boots,” sweat gear, swimming trunks, desk blotters, ink marking kits. We are issued twelve-hundred sets of gear and twelve-hundred ink marking kits, and we are ordered to mark each item: identical, blocky, uppercase letters; initials and last names in exactly the same place; our own personal “alpha codes.”

I still smell the ink. I will smell the ink forever.

Each morning during my Plebe-year fall, I resolve to resign. Each evening, I decide to wait – another day, another week, until the Army-Navy Game, until after Christmas Leave. One morning in late October, at the nadir of Plebe misery, I wake at 0530, pull on my sweat gear, slip into the hallway. I have “Window Closing Detail – windows that are sometimes booby-trapped by upper classmen with buckets of water or stacks of textbooks. The hallway – we call it a “passageway” – smells of wax and ammonia. In the dark, other plebes tiptoe on duties similar to mine. I face hazing today, having failed to memorize the Georgia Tech football lineup. I trudge to the upper-class rooms, certain that on this morning, I really will draft my “resig” letter or simply walk out of the Academy gates, down the cobbled State Street sidewalk, cross Maryland Avenue below the colonial-domed State Capitol building, round Church Circle where the spire of St. Anne’s Episcopal has risen for two centuries, pass Mike’s Sub Shop, until I enter the Greyhound bus terminal where I’ll purchase a ticket and return to Seattle and to my home and to my family on the other side of the continent.

At the end of the passageway, the windows face the Severn River. I pause. The sun hasn’t quite risen. The river mirrors the sky – pink and orange and red. In the center of the river, running before a breeze, sails unfurled, gliding like white swans, the Skipjack oyster fleet makes its way into the Chesapeake. The skipjacks are low in the water, beamy, graceful workboats with spritted bows and raked masts. My heart lifts. For a moment, for a few minutes, I wish to be no other place than in Bancroft Hall, awake early, watching the oyster fleet sail into the Chesapeake.

A long voyage is filled with empty hours, its beauties stark like a desert’s beauty is stark. Imagination imposes shape and form. Rain trails beneath a squall like jellyfish tendrils. Clouds, fired by a setting sun, transform into calliopes, or elephant herds, or battles between bellied men of war. Stars arrange themselves into lions, archers, dragons, bears. But even a veteran sailor, after a few weeks, longs for a brighter palette. There are few smells – only scullery sourness, deck wax, and boiler steam – and the sounds you hear are repetitive – waves against hull, the beat of the shaft, the whir of vent fans, the whistle of the bosun’s pipe.

There is no middle perspective at sea. You live within the confines of the ship or on the expanse of horizon. Returning from a voyage, the shore-bound stimuli overwhelm – car horns, children’s cries, birdsong; stoplights and neon lights; fragrances of cut grass, rain on hot sidewalks, the lilac in the garden. The land re-births sensuality. Giddy. Electric. The earth heels and pitches under your feet, lasting after the last ship’s mooring line has been sent ashore, lasting a day or two; but eventually you leave the sea behind, or at least the sea’s temporal presence behind. A middle perspective reasserts itself. Close things and distant things become less visible.

In 1849, shortly after the birth of his son, Thomas Horton resolved to do some “land traveling,” as Grandmother Charlotte put it. Thomas and his wife Susan journeyed from Boston to New York, from New York to Chicago. In Chicago the cousin to whom Thomas entrusted his ship sent word. The ship had run hard on the rocks. Susan, mindful of her men lost to the sea, persuaded Thomas to abandon the seagoing life. Thomas and Susan headed west, to the Ontario frontier, where Thomas would build a cabin. Wolves were plentiful. There was a bounty of five dollars, payable in land, for each right ear.

More than a century later, in the Indian Ocean, bound for Perth, on the naval cruiser USS Long Beach, I will submit my resignation from the Navy, abandoning my seafaring career as Thomas Horton abandoned his. But not, as Thomas did, abandoning the sea.

Selected Works

Fiction
When is it too late? A divorced spouse demands an annulment.
A navy sailor faces choices and challenges on a Vietnamese river during the war.
Essay/Memoir
Mathison explores how his seagoing ancestors may have drawn him to the sea.
Essay
This essay explores what it means to live in the shadow of an active volcano.

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