Sunday, May 24, 2009

Copenhagen, the summer of 1971 Part one

In 1970 you attended New York University, principally for the student exemption that kept you from being drafted to fight in the War in Vietnam. Like so many government policies then and now, this was an example of the extraordinarily unfair advantages most well-to-do whites enjoy(ed) at the expense of minorities and the poor, many of whom, in 1970, could not afford to send their children to college.

(Above is your American Youth Hostel card circa 1971. Click on any of the photos to see additional fun details.)

Finally, just when the war was winding down, and the need for troops was dwindling, the government decided it was time to introduce a “fair” draft based on a lottery system. And why not? At that point it was unlikely that the children of the rich and powerful would be sent to Vietnam anyway. The lottery was held and you were not chosen to be drafted. You finished the semester and dropped out of college.

After spending the spring of 1971 at the Twin Oaks Commune in Louisa, Virginia, you decided to head for Europe. You bought a backpack, a sleeping bag, and a plane ticket.

For the next two months you hitchhiked around the continent, had lots of wonderful adventures, and eventually wound up in a sort of tent-city for vagabonds outside Copenhagen. One early June afternoon you visited a park in Copenhagen and started to chat with a young American college student. She was visiting her boyfriend, who lived on a ship in the port, and she invited you to come for dinner. You did, and stayed for more than eight months.

The Fyrskib XIV was a wooden lightship built in the 1890s. A lightship serves the same purpose as a light house. It is anchored at sea to function as a beacon for sailing ships. Large, bulky oil-burning generators once occupied her amidships, and her thick stubby masts were designed to hold huge lamps, not sails.

Shortly before the second world war the Fyrskib XIV was towed into the harbor (you assume the Danish were not inclined to help the Germans navigate). There scavengers stripped her of her brass and copper fittings. Eventually she sank and spent a considerable amount of time underwater before being brought to the surface and purchased by a young American named Arno (see Remarkable coincidence below) for $3,000 in 1970 dollars. Arno’s dream was to clean her out, fit her with new masts and an engine, and sail her around the world.

Since you had nowhere to live in Copenhagen, Arno invited you to stay on the ship if you would help refurbish her. Tired of traveling, you eagerly agreed. Arno and his friends (close to a dozen adults and children lived on board) were somewhat older than you, all talented musicians, and extremely smart and interesting people. By day you hammered rope-like okum between the thick oak planks of the deck, then poured hot marine glue over the oakum. In the evenings there was wine, talk, and music. They taught you the rudiments of guitar.

(This was the left side of the galley. For 8 months you slept in one of the curtained bunks in the background. The light is coming down from above through hatches replaced with heavy clear plastic. )

As the summer wound down, a decision had to be made. You’d all done a lot of work on the ship, but it mostly consisted of cleaning and waterproofing. The next step – making the Fyrskib XIV truly seaworthy -- would require professionals. One day Arno arrived with an older white-haired gentlemen who walked with a limp and smoked a carved wooden pipe. No one had to tell you he was a former sea captain.

The old captain limped around the boat and appraised her. He said she’d need a diesel engine, a drive shaft drilled through eight feet of solid wood keel, new masts and fittings, electronics, and thousands of square feet of sail. But ultimately, he reported, it wasn’t practical. She was “a heavy lady to dance with,” the captain said, a vessel that had been designed to sit at anchor, not to sail.

Within weeks, the number of residents aboard the ship dropped from a dozen to three. And, quite unexpectedly, you were left in charge. For the next six months – fall, winter, and early spring -- it was your job to keep the Fyrskib XIV safe, and afloat.

Remarkable coincidence: While you were living with Arno on the Fyrskib XIV in Copenhagen, back in the United States your parents were moving to a new home, one house away from Arno’s parent’s home. You would imagine that the odds of that happening would be one in billions.

No comments:

Post a Comment