Wade Tarzia

Dec 30, 2010 1 Comment by Sea Stories

The Small Atlantis

I have rowed over Atlantis, a small, local one, but Atlantis just the same.  I was 17 and teaching myself to row because I had been humiliated in front of cute girls.  Some sea societies declare women to be unlucky on a boat.  Few folklore scholars will admit the reason, fearing what men will say.  But the truth—a boat can make a fool out of a man so quickly and in so many ways, that we fear to have a woman present when the moment happens.  We just have to bear up now that women are flocking to the boating life.

My mother, bless her, was partly to blame for my humiliation as she was always trying to increase my survival odds.  Generally she began by insisting that a moldy, silly-looking (back in the day before stylish life vests) orange lifejacket be tied on, the kind that cry out “big orange mommy’s sissy boy off the starboard bow!” Later she simply made sure I was tied to the shore.  My family was once invited to visit Misery Island just off Cape Ann.  Invited by a friendly boat owner to row his pram around a friendly, enclosed cove, my mother insisted I be moored to shore on a 20 foot line.  I traversed the breaking ripples many times, in and out, as rhythmical as the reciprocating arm of a dumb machine.  A few years later, dad has a ChrisCraft 26, and we are rafted up with the same crowd at the Isles of Shoals, and I’m 15 years old and this time am allowed to take a pram out, but I do so clumsily—not a good time to train myself in manly tasks in front of the daughters of the group.  My friend Bobby, raised on boats, is elected to take my place, and on the whole it’s a miserable weekend.

But take heart!  A messy divorce looms on the horizon, which will be a man-making thing.  Within two years I will have to learn to care for the yard, do the laundry, and get a job to pay for my own clothes, school lunches, and motorcycle repairs.  My mother will move to an apartment on Arlington Lake and her boyfriend, eager to please, will loan me a 14-foot aluminum pram and a caulking gun to fix its leak.  There will be no question of emasculating lines to shore, or feminine witnesses.

Oh blessed time on the lake, plenty of time to practice rowing, helped along by new muscles courtesy of the Haverhill Judo Club.  I live amidst new social conditions, and new anger from whatever can make a 17-year-old boy angry.  I made that pram plane. I heaved for hours and hours on that lake, learning the alternating method, the crack-your-back method, the front-facing row, the feathered oar.  And I learned to glide in the twilight, pulling on the moon and stars, making Milky Ways in my wake.  The only trusty thing in this life is hard work (and that is only half-trusty, but never mind), and I was repaid with a vision of Atlantis.

I was beginning to learn that a shoreline pull is far more interesting than the dull “deep” water of mid-lake (here is ancient wisdom; the edges of things are always most interesting).  And of course, as the bird flies is 3 miles but as the shore goes is many more.  I learned about reasonable backyard peering.  If you have a yard fronting the water, then you must expect study from seaward.  Endless ripples are mesmerizing, but the ways people arrange lawn chairs are endlessly fascinating.  Here’s what it is—we know nothing without a baseline, a Greenwich Meridian, a comparison.  A 17-year-old is especially a thing of definitions and baselines—how do others design their lives?  What have they done within the boundaries life set for them?  What is good?  What is normal?

I know what you’re thinking, especially you (we) the “horizons are boundless!”  American—but let’s chuckle at that ideology.  You are thinking, “Some great sea adventurer such as Tim Severin wouldn’t look into backyards from an aluminum pram, and he wouldn’t feel constrained by imposed boundaries.”  I don’t know what he would think, but I saw lawn chairs in a circle, awaiting a King Arthur’s scene of egalitarian sociability, and barbecues smoking, and decorative whirligigs, a faux lighthouse, towels hanging to dry (in Three Bears arrangements), sailboats I envied, motorboats I did not, badminton, volleyball, sirens in bikinis, people who looked like my parents, my sister, my friends, corralled in fences, hedges, and even agreed upon invisible boundaries—lawn, patios, fine stonework or gray cement, waters lapping at glacier-rounded stones, wet and shining like newly laid dinosaur eggs.

What did I learn?  I can’t frame it in words—writing is only a half-model at best.  I guess it was all Atlantis, if you will—a pretty place, arrogant in its taken-for-granted acceptability (which is a kind of imperial power), ultimately doomed.  But another Atlantis awaited.

One day my prow glided over shallow water, and the sun bore down, and the windless day allowed that plate glass condition.  It was the kind of day when a child drapes over a gunwale, stares into the water to explore the undersea world.  I baked in the sun blessedly ignorant of the equation, “sun = radiation damage.”  The pram drifted…. right over sudden angularities, gliding soundlessly into my gaze.  I didn’t know then that weak math skills in a couple of years would kill my poorly laid college-plans to be an oceanographer—I would study archaeology, and this is one reason why:

What were these ruins?  Even then I had some foggy idea of 19th-century industry to be found under brown leaves, squirrel hoards, and secondary forests, or under the shallows of the dammed lake—such woods had been my playground, the naturally reclaimed land between urban centers and the old zones of arable land.  That didn’t stop me from flashes of imaginative “suspension of disbelief.”  What is Atlantis, anyway but a passed away dream of satisfying illogic?  I floated over an old millwork, perhaps a farmer’s outbuildings, or small textile mill, an icehouse, a cider press, smithy.  Anyway, someone had once stood there before the dam was built, may have spent 20 years of a life rolling, banging, tapping, pushing, pressing—dreaming to say the least, and now another dream moved on, as real as the circled lawn chairs, and a prophet to them.

What fancies from some slime coated foundation two feet under a lake!  I know, somehow, that floating over the real Atlantis would be a little more interesting—but an eye can frame only a little at a time.  These stones might well have been a piece of the fabled city—perhaps the high priest’s toilet, the study of the famous poet Ta-Ashlon, Lady Crykia’s potting shed, farmer Tritonn’s chicken coop, a jail where the odd Greek or Egyptian smuggler awaited sacrifice to Ava-Tar.

And then the glorious fall, all gone in a day and a night.  Our more mundane falls are usually dragged out for an agonizing period, full of survivable daily indignities, which is another good thing about Atlantis – it is a fine fantasy for just getting the bad news over with.  No slow disorder of the lawn chairs, invading post-divorce weeds, paint flaking from the little lighthouse granddad made, where once your greatest worry was keeping the kid from being sunburned, the kid now stealing your creaking family van to buy substances from a guy named Ice Pick in the brutally honest side of town.  No — Atlantis was all cataclysm, great cracks opening beneath the shining marble.  The mountain-tall tsunamis were not there to be pleaded with, but accepted, with just a moment to perhaps run if you must affirm reflexive life, or turn and face to compose a final haiku, or at least a time give one futile but inspiring obscene gesture (the ultimate affirmation of life-force).

But do I over-value Atlantis?  Was it ever any good?  If it was all vanity, did anything ever get better after Atlantis sank?  Yes—antibiotics and anesthesia, not too bad, though they can keep global warming, automatic firearms, and the H-bomb.  In fact, someone said all these things had to come together, that the invention of one thing would lead to unforeseen other things – the refrigerator would lead to social status, convenience, fewer cases of food poisoning, liquid oxygen, rocket motors, the ICBM and the rocket that delivered stuff to make your GPS and TV work.  So the painted idols of Atlantis and the carnival backyards of Arlington Lake had to come with all sorts of consequences.  So be it.

But I will hear no critiques against my own Atlantis of Arlington Lake.  Sure, a cyclopean fallen column or the palace steps where Mymondes fought 700 warriors to rescue Princess Sremeda (making this up as I go) would be pretty cool—but it wouldn’t be mine, wouldn’t be possible or reasonable.  My little Atlantis left behind ruins to be pondered, real foundations that birthed ghostly superstructures of imagined lives.  My boat passed over them just within reach, just out of reach.  Mystical lines of thought connected the living backyards with their smoke wafting from barbecues and their sunning girls and bloody-kneed toddlers, connected these to the quiet squares of brick and fieldstone where a fish hid in the shade.

Atlantis is the border, the far away thing that lets us measure time and difference and here and what-if and even-so.  And if that makes little sense, I can say at least what counts, that this Atlantis was mine, this little adventure is the one I had and it still delights me.  It lacks the million dollar submarine filming the depths in its spearing spotlights, but I can report that the tinny slap of the dented aluminum pram did not detract from my life in any way.


Wade is a teacher of literature and philosophy at Naugatuck Valley Community College in Connecticut.  He’s published variously in the fields of fiction, poetry, essay, and anthropology/folklore. Wade published his poem “Letter to my Daughter” in the first issue of Sea Stories.

Adrift, Hibernal 2011

About the Editors

Casey R. Schulke grew up along the Kuskokwim River in a rural Athabascan village in Alaska fishing for king salmon and mushing her sled dog team. She now resides on the shores of Resurrection Bay in Seward, Alaska. Casey's a poet, a naturalist, a dog-lover, has two birds, and is married to a wonderful man.

One Response to “Wade Tarzia”

  1. Kelly Goodridge says:

    Your essay has a great sense of voice. It’s also witty. Kudos to you! What’s more, your essay reminded me of the many boating adventures I’ve had with family and friends in canoes and sailboats as well as my dad’s short stint owning a motor boat and living on the water in Stratford. Great stuff! Thanks for sharing.

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