My Father’s Greatest Challenges

My father is turning 94 in few weeks and I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting with him on the phone in the past few months. He has had a life well lived but there have been many challenges along the way. He wrote a book back in the 1991 called A Personal and Documented History of the Noice Family. This has been a treasure trove of information and has helped me fill in information that may not be as accessible to his aging gray matter. I can see now, as I read parts of the book, that he has created a thumbnail sketch of a pivot point in his current memory bank but the book contains most of the details. For one thing, the book says that he had 52 mailing addresses by the age of 30. That is pretty remarkable for someone who is not an army brat. Heck, that’s remarkable for anyone and creates an understanding of why my dad has always been open to meeting new people and having new experiences.

My father on the Adventure the summer following Hurricane Edna.

Over the last year, he has recounted the three most challenging events in his life. When he tells me a story twenty plus times in the matter of a few months, it seems to me it’s important to share it with others. This is much like his 30-year teaching career, where he repeated the same lecture seven times a day and in sharing, I can impart some of his wisdom and personal history.

Here were my father’s three greatest challenges:

Mobilgas Tanker Crash – In 1944, during WWII, my father was a Merchant Marine on the 1914 gas tanker, Mobilgas headed from Bayonne, NJ to the Pacific.  My father worked as the lone steward for the tanker and had to pump water by hand on the aging ship. As my father wrote, “We couldn’t leave the ship after Aruba because an undermanned crew were threatening to jump ship in Panama.” They set off for the widest part of the Pacific and paralleled the Equator for 9000 miles. After loading up various air craft carriers and Navy tankers with fuel, they left the Admiralty Islands and headed south to retrace their route back home. No running lights were allowed during wartime so there was no warning when they struck another tanker going north with oil for other ships in the fleet. There was a terrific crash and the men were thrown from their bunks. The result of the crash was that the Mobilgas had lost 50 feet of its bow but miraculously it was still afloat, and no sparks lit the fumes from the tanker.

All the dry docks in Australia, New Zealand and the US west coast were busy repairing Allied warships so they were ordered to head back, minus the bow, via the Pacific, Panama Canal, Caribbean and Atlantic to Norfolk, VA for repairs. Incredibly, the ocean remained placid, even off Cape Hatteras, and they arrived safely in Norfolk after a 38-day 12,000-mile journey. My father left the Merchant Marines with his duffel bag and $1,500 in savings after the harrowing journey. As I read the details of this often-told story, I can imagine this had a powerful impact on my father. He has never been one to value material items or been superficial. He has frequently said how lucky he is. I have to agree that surviving a 12,000-mile trip without a bow on an oil tanker is pretty darn lucky.

Hurricane Edna – In early fall of 1954, my father was invited to sail as a guest of the Adventure, which was 119-foot Gloucester Grand Banks Schooner, sailing out of Rockland on the Maine coast. At the time, my father was a boarding school teacher and had the summers off. The owner of the boat was co-teacher, Newt, and he let my father sail for free, if he helped. The boat was set up to take 50 passengers on week long excursions in Penobscot Bay. My father, with no sailing experience, was on the boat for one day when hurricane warnings came up. Newt took the passengers to shore and my dad volunteered to stay on the boat with two deck hands and the cook. They were planning to anchor the boat near a breakwater and several other ships anchored in the bay. As my father wrote, “Having no motor, we put three anchors out including a 1200 pounder. Slanting rain from the SE increased in strength and hurricane winds rose in pitch, screeching on our nerves for 24 hours till its full 100 mile an hour fury hit the next afternoon. When the eye went south of us, its winds shifted NE and then N, and our anchors began dragging.” In twenty-foot waves, they dragged past the harbor opening towards the rocky shore. They saw a large coast guard cutter shooting messenger lines towards them but due to the high waves, no one was able to grab the line. The cutter gave up and left.

In that moment, my father at age 29, assumed he would never see 30. As they crept closer to the rocks, the cook panicked, and Newt tied him down to his bunk so he wouldn’t unnerve the rest of the crew. The two Maine deckhands started planning to jump ship. Newt told my father to tie himself to the main mast if the ship started to hit the rocks. He wrote, “With an empty feeling turning to edgy, wondering if being scared would turn to panic, I suddenly saw a smaller coast guard boat nearby and begin to shoot monkey fists (this is a particular nautical knot) at us again. I almost caught one but missed. On the next shot, Newt risked his life high on the bow stay – catching the tag end of the line before it fell into the breakers a few yards away. I’ll never forget how we clawed in the heavier tow line and worked it aft so the cutter could pull us to safety.” Newt hired him for the following summer, which brought about a lifelong love of sailing. As I have often written, my father is one of the most unflappable, patient people I know. It is so rare for him to ever raise his voice. On the Adventure, he stared death in the face and kept his wits to survive.

Quebec Province – In 1966, my father was the waterfront director for Camp DeWitt on Lake Winnipesauke in New Hampshire. By then, he was married to my mother and the father of three children. The camp director, Don, asked my father and one of the counselors, Chip, to take a group of teenaged campers on a wilderness fishing trip to the Chibougamau Reservation in Canada some 280 miles north of Quebec City. They had a Crow Indian guide and set off into uncharted, unmapped streams and rivers of Quebec. As my father wrote, “Once, caught by a savage thunderstorm on a shallow creek surrounded by impenetrable brush, our canoes filled up and we stood in a foot of water. With lightening crashing all around us, and the youngest boy’s teeth chattering in my canoe, I wondered what would happen if lightning found our highly conductive aluminum canoes. We managed to cross a white-capped lake and tie down for the night before a roaring gale descended upon us for the rest of the night.” As he tells the story, he always reflects on being responsible for the boys. My dad has always been selfless and this story illustrates how his number one concern was for the kids.

As I read this, I realize that maybe my dad should have stayed away from boats! It seems ironic that being on the water is what he loves and that is where his most monumental challenges occurred. It shows me that while challenges are life-defining, my father was always able to take away a lesson and he learned more about himself and what he was made of. We all have pivot points and challenges in our life, but the most important thing is to share what you’ve learned with others. What have your challenges taught you?

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