Friday, April 7, 2017

La Cruz: Remembering Howard Vincent Weingart, 1960-2017

Howie Weingart, an old friend of mine died on Tuesday.  My memories of him belong in this sailing blog because he was my first sailing partner, many years ago on the Great South Bay on the south shore of Long Island, New York.

I first met Howie when I was 11 years old. He stopped his bike at the driveway to my house on Pine Neck Avenue in East Patchogue. I think he was on his newspaper delivery route. We talked for a few minutes and then he punched me in my solar plexus. I don't remember why, but I do remember doubling over, pretending to laugh as I tried to catch my breath. I remember Howie laughing too, but more importantly, I remember the look in his eye that told me he regretted punching me. We became best friends after that punch.

Howie was a little older than me, stockier and stronger and just seemed more socially at ease in our adolescent world than I was. I think his having two older sisters gave him that advantage compared to me, the oldest child in my family. He had an idea of where our lives where heading as we became teenagers and I really hadn't a clue, a child of British parents trying to figure out life in America. Parents who would soon separate, leaving me feeling confused, alone and very much in need of a good friend.

The bond between Howie and I really solidified when my Dad bought me a ten foot aluminum flat-bottomed "John Boat" from Sears. At first, all we had were oars to propel this little boat. We usually rowed from we kept the boat at Dad's friend Sinha's beachfront house on DeWitt Avenue along the shore to and then up the Swan River and back, a good six miles round trip, I figure. A few times when we felt more adventurous, we rowed as far as we could out into the bay towards Fire island. The waves would get a bit big for our little boat in the middle of the bay. I remember one time a clammer standing in his boat looking at us, two eleven year old kids rowing a ten foot boat two miles from shore and yelling, "What are the hell are you kids doing out here?" That made us feel very proud of ourselves.  

What was truly amazing, though, was how we rowed together. We would sit side-by-side on the middle thwart, each manning an oar. We would decide where we were going and then row. We never spoke about who should pull on their oar more or less to keep the boat heading on course. It just came naturally, we just did it, somehow both sensing the heading of the boat and each making small adjustments to our stroke while we talked about school, parents, life, girls and enjoyed our independence out on the water.

Later, a friend of Dad's donated to us an ancient British Seagull three horsepower outboard.  It claimed to be three horsepower but I figure it never put out much more than half that.  It was a cantankerous little beast of an engine, with a starting cord you had to wind onto the flyweel rather than a recoiling starting cord like every other outboard engine. To keep the number of pulls and winding of cord to a sane limit, Howie and I worked out an engine starting checklist, just like pilots use on planes.

"Fuel tank cap vent open."
"Fuel shutoff valve open."
"Carb primer pressed three times."
"Choke closed."
"Throttle open."
"Wind cord."
"Wind cord."
"Wind Cord."
"Shut up."
"Shut the Fuck up."
"Piece of shit!"
"Wind cord…"

After each taking turns for several dozen pulls of the cord and much swearing, the engine would finally start and we would putter off, lucky to make five knots speed but it sure beat rowing and eleven year old boys love noisy engines. We would motor up Swan Creek, stopping for a short while at a pretty little cove where the water was clear enough to see the bottom and then go as far up the creek as the Sweezey Street bridge, where freshwater flowed into the creek from Swan Lake and brown trout swam in the shallow water. Howie's favorite activity when piloting the John Boat was to chase swans. They could paddle almost as fast as our motorized boat, proudly trying to stay ahead of us and then angrily take to flight as we slowly gained on them. Howie would put on a crazy expression, pretending that the British Seagull was zooming us along towards the swans at great speed and we would both laugh at how ridiculous we were, but mostly laughing because we were having so much fun, even if we were only doing five knots. On a good day.

Not long after Dad bought me the John Boat, he acquired an O'day Javelin sailboat. Dad and I learned to sail that boat together, Dad mostly employing the "school of hard knocks" method and me the "this is what I was born to do" method. Dad had moved to a house on Dewitt just behind Sing's and one morning Dad, Howie and I went out sailing, reaching back and forth along shore, but not venturing too far from my Dad's place as he had invited friends over for the afternoon. As the time of their arrival drew near, Dad suggested that we drop him off so he could get ready for his guests while Howie and I continued sailing. We duly dropped Dad off in the shallow water in front of Sinha's and got the Javelin sailing again. Dad expected us to continue sailing back and forth nearby along the shore. Howie and I looked at each other, smiled, turned the boat south and headed all the way across the bay to Davis Park on Fire Island. My Dad remembers looking at two boys and the Javelin getting smaller and smaller as we sailed away and thinking, "Oh well, what can I do?" Howie and I appreciated his parenting style.

This marked the first of many voyages to Fire Island by Howie and I over the years. Our roles and duties on the Javelin worked themselves out naturally, just like our rowing together on the John Boat. Howie would hoist sails, trim the jib, handle the centerboard. I would steer and trim the mainsail. It often took nearly two hours to cross the bay to Fire Island, tacking against the prevailing southwesterly winds that blew directly from our destination (the continuing sad story of my sailing life). To amuse ourselves, we would look for the bleach bottle buoys clammers used to mark their clamming spots and when one of us saw one, would yell out "Bogie! Bogie! Bogie!" and then it's bearing, "Bogie at two o'clock!". We would alter course, trim the sails and pass so close to the buoy that Howie could grab it, and haul it up to see what the clammer used to anchor it, never anything very exciting, but bogie chasing helped pass the time and honed our sailing skills.   Howie and I sailed all our summers together until we graduated from high school. We sailed naturally and seamlessly, enjoyed ourselves tremendously and did a lot of growing up on the water together. It was a real life Ratty and Mole friendship and, for a while, there was truly simply nothing better in life than messing around in boats.

Howie liked my Dad a lot, referring to him (out of Dad's presence) as "that crazy Englishman".  I'm not sure why Howie thought my Dad was crazy, but I never challenged him on his opinion. An opinion which I believe was formed one Saturday when Dad picked up his mail from the East Patchogue post office. The three of us were in Dad's green Triumph TR4A sports car, Dad driving, me in the passenger seat and Howie stuffed on a back ledge that , with imagination, could be considered as some sort of backseat. The traffic on Montauk Highway was very heavy that morning and we sat for a long time waiting for a gap to allow us to pull out of the post office driveway. In those days, Dad wasn't the most patient man in the world and I could tell he was getting frustrated and building up a head of steam from waiting so long to pull out on the highway. All of a sudden, Dad blew up, exclaimed loudly in his British accent, "Fuck this Shit!", popped the clutch and burned rubber onto the highway, slipping the Triumph not-so-crisply into a small space between two cars. Howie found that incident very amusing and for years when things weren't going well for us would often exclaim, with a big grin, in his best British accent, every consonant and vowel precisely articulated, "Fuck this Shit!" He liked it so much, I imagine Howie employing this expression throughout his life on the appropriate occasions.

Howie and I had romantic interests in two sisters, Jennifer and Joann, respectively. My romance with Joann was very short-lived (the days easily counted on two hands) but disproportionally impactful for my sensitive 12 year old heart. Howie's relationship with Jennifer was longer and more serious and it was Jennifer was who informed me of Howie's death. She and I share fond memories of him and our early teenage years in our little East Patchogue neighborhood of quiet narrow rural streets, modest little houses, woods, creeks, and swamps.

Our early teen friendship was enjoyed on land as well as on the water. On weekend nights, in all four seasons, Howie and I would walk a fair distance to visit friends in West Patchogue, on the other side of town. After usually paying a visit to Jennifer and Joann, we would walk up Chapel Avenue to the Long Island Railroad tracks and turn left, walking along the railroad and across its trestle over Swan Creek where we would drop down a bank and into the parking lot of Friendy's Ice Cream. We would go into Friendly's and order a ridiculous amount of food. Cheeseburgers, french fries, milkshakes called "Fribbles" and these huge sundaes called "Jim Dandies". I figure we consumed four to five thousand calories each in one intense hour's gorging. Our teenage appetites temporarily satiated, we would resume walking on the railroad tracks until we got close to the center of town, where we would head over to walk the rest of the way along Main Street, walking past mostly closed shops on a dark, quiet sidewalk. When we got to West Patchogue, we would typcially call in on Pete Link and his gang. We felt a bit like foreigners, visiting another country where we were treated politely enough, but also a bit standoffish, reminded that we were from East, not West, Patchogue.   We would keep a close eye on the time and head back home at a double-quick pace, as we both had eleven o'clock curfews, Howie's strictly enforced, mine not so much, but generally respected. Howie and I froze, sweat, got bitten by mosquitos, soaked by rain, snowed on, nearly run over by trains and chased by villains on these walks. Howie would carry a transistor They were great.

Howie had an interesting trait. He was a pretty beefy kid and pretty strong physically. And he liked opportunities to show off his strength. At several points in our early teen years, only one of us had a bicycle. Howie would get great enjoyment from pedaling me all around town as I sat on the handlebars of the bike. I didn't complain. This trait would come in handy for me a few years later, which I will explain shortly.

As Howie and I advanced through high school, our lives started to diverge. Howie wrestled with the emotional impacts of the ugly disintegration of his parent's marriage and struggled to graduate so that he could join the military. I started identifying and socializing with the college-bound, keeping my grades and class rank up, preparing for the SATs and participating in extracurricular activities. Not clean cut or a total sell out, by any means, but clearly on a different track than Howie.

The biggest factor in our divergence however was when I fell in love for the first time. I truly loved this beautiful girl, who was everything to me.  And then, one terrible night when I got too angry over nothing, it was all over. I was devasted, broken-hearted, ashamed of myself. I didn't know what to do, so I went to over Howie's house, the best friend who I had mostly ignored for the better part of the past year. But Howie was there for me, tried to put things in perspective, tried to tell me that there would be others, that things would be okay. It still hurt, but Howie helped. He was that sort of friend.

After my painful breakup, I hung out more often with Howie again. By this time, I was old enough to drive and, through another of Dad's benevolent friends, had acquired my very first car. It was a British import, sold in America as the Plymouth Cricket. It was clearly designed and assembled by relatives and descendants of those who had created the British Seagull outboard. To put it nicely, it was not a very reliable vehicle. It had an electrical system that would decide on its own whether the car would start, run or stop. Perhaps it was a very early version of the self-driving cars now under serious development by Google and other companies? On more than one occasion, Howie and I would be heading off in the evening to a party and the Cricket would simply stop running and not start again. I resigned myself to leaving the evil little car on the side of the road and walking the rest of the way to the party. Not Howie. He looked at me, grinned, and in his exaggerated and not very good British accent said, "Fuck this Shit" and got out of the car. He walked to the back of the Cricket, put his hands on the trunk, leaned forward and started pushing us along the shoulder of the road. I felt a little strange, sitting in a car, listening to the radio while being pushed at a steady two knots by my friend for miles. But I didn't complain. And when we arrived at the party, Howie was delighted to talk all night about his show of strength and endurance. He would proudly exclaim, his trademark grin lighting up his face, "I pushed Cox and his piece of shit English car all the way from here from Bay Avenue." It was then that I realized that this trait of Howie's was one that the Marine Corps could exploit and I became a bit worried for him.

Howie and I graduated from high school. He headed off to join the Marine Corps. I headed off to the University of Pennsylvania. Our lives were really diverging now.

One day, sometime in the middle of my first semester at Penn, the phone rang and it was Howie at the other end. He had just finished basic training and had a couple weeks of leave before heading off to his first assignment. Howie asked if he could come visit me for a little while. I told him that would be great, genuinely looking forward to seeing him. I realized later that, with his family life in pieces, he didn't really have anywhere else he could go or wanted to. Howie arrived shortly after the phone call and camped out in my dorm room for almost two weeks. He seemed traumatized by his experience in basic training and didn't want to go out with me or any of my friends. He was just content to hang out in my room, listening to music and eating the food I smuggled to him from the dining hall. I tried to put things in perspective for him, reminded him he had only enlisted for three years, that things would be okay. I like to think I helped Howie. I wanted to be that sort of friend.

Howie and I didn't have much contact through the rest of my college and his stint in the Marine Corps. After I graduated, I visited him a couple of times at his home in Twentynine Palms, California. I enjoyed those visits, but his life there seemed unsettled and a bit sketchy. A few years later, when I was living in Phoenix, Arizona, I figured it would be fun to ride my motorcycle across the Mojave Desert to visit my old friend. But Howie had disappeared. This was way before the days of the internet, Facebook and search engines and it wasn't as easy to find people as it is now. I decided to make the trip any way. As I rode up to his house, I could see that something bad had happened. The front door had been sloppily repaired after being broken down, some windows were broken and there was a VA foreclosure notice posted on the front of the house. I spent a day looking around Twentynine Palms and Palm Desert looking for Howie, but didn't find him and I never saw him again.

As the years went by I would occasionally make attempts to find Howie, my job getting easier as the internet and its resources developed. About 20 years ago, I managed to get in contact with Howie's father. His father didn't know where Howie was, believed he had gotten into some trouble. His father was clearly concerned and wanted to know where his son was, asking me to get back to him if I found Howie.

About 12 years ago, I finally got in touch with Howie over the phone. He was living in a small town in the California desert. He seemed to be doing okay, he owned his own bucket lift truck and was working as a contractor for the telephone company.  We chatted for a little while, each of us realizing in the course of the conversation how differently we had lived our lives and where we had landed so far. I said I would like to visit him and Howie said it would be great to see me. But I believe that time and circumstances told us that our friendship was best preserved in the beautiful memories from our youth. And that was the last time I spoke to my dear friend Howie.

I hope that Howie's adult life turned out okay. I don't know the circumstances of his death, I can only hope that he didn't suffer for long or painfully.  I hope that he was aware of the people who loved him when he died. I'm sure Howie's life was significant in many ways, positive and negative, big and small, to many people. He mattered and made a difference to me. He lives on in my memories, as a loyal best friend when I most needed one, of our youthful adventures, jokes and laughter, and as a unique and natural sailing partner. I'll never forget him.