In between Aspen and the rest of America I found a road that led to a farm that led to horses and hills and snow and trees. The road curved often, weaving through the wild landscape. The hills turned to mountains. I drove slowly, the radio turned off, observing the scenery in silence. My body rocked with the weaving of the road and soon the thoughts of where I had come from and what I had come to find had left me. All I knew was that I was driving down a lonely farm road, that I hadn't yet reached the end, and that was fine with me.
The follow is an excerpt from my memoir, Will My Cane Float? (Adventures and Lessons At Sea With Retired America).
...From the bow of the Yorktown Clipper, I looked out on Juneau and watched as bald eagles soared high above the Sitka spruce and hemlocks. The late afternoon skies were still steely gray. Clouds clung to the mountain tops. Fishing boats loaded down with the day’s catch chugged by, crewed by swarthy men in flannel shirts and hip waiters who paced the decks and plucked ribbons of kelp from tidied nets. I happily took it all in with deep, exaggerated breaths. This is just so Alaska, I thought. Until I caught my reflection in the ship’s windows; a navy pinstripe suit that my mom bought for me in a Men’s Warehouse 2-for-1 sale. The shirt had a sailboat embroidered at the bottom seam, which we took as a sign.
“Are you excited?” Jennifer asked. “Buses are coming any minute.”
I turned towards the good-looking, blonde cruise director as a jaw-stretching yawn came on.
“Yeah. Just trying to wrap my head around all of this.”
She laughed. “Good luck with that!”
Jennifer had been a cruise director for three years on this ship and the company’s smaller ship on the east coast. She stood something like five-foot-four, which, at six-foot-two, made me feel like a giant next to her. Her short-cropped hair fell just below her ears and her smile came with the vision of cheerleaders entertaining a crowd of thousands.
“Look.” Jennifer placed her hand on my arm. “I flew here from New Hampshire and didn’t know what to expect. But I love being in front of people and seeing them happy and I’m sure that’s why you’re here, too. So, just go with it, and remember: without these passengers, you’d be in some office and tomorrow…well, tomorrow we’re going to see a glacier!”
The thoughtful sentiment took me by surprise.
“Are they always so…old?”
Jennifer checked a paper on her clip board and spoke without looking up. “We have the best passengers in the world. That’s all you need to know.”
I felt ashamed that I’d asked. “I get it. I just wasn’t expecting—”
She looked up from the clip board and smiled. “Let’s get you to the hospitality desk!”
Jennifer lead me a glorified office desk in the hallway next to the lounge and told me to wait there until the passengers came, when I’d collect passports and trip tickets. She left me to sit in silence, become lost in thought, as a deckhand pulled wet pant signs from the freshly painted doorway that led to the gangway.
Like a director yelling, “Action!”, someone said, "Busses incoming!" over the radios and the once-quiet ship sprang to life. Stewards in crisp white button-down shirts, black bowties and black skirts (pants for the guys) shot out of the doorway to the crew deck and sprinted towards the lounge. The last ones were still tucking in their shirts as the first group of passengers walked up the gangway. The passengers, a grey-haired group like the one that had disembarked in the morning--regaled me with tales of lost luggage, flight delays, and hopes for adventure. I shook hands, collected trip tickets and passports and tried to be hospitable, as advertised. But my responses rarely went beyond, “I’m sorry, this is my first day. Let me ask Jennifer about that.” Stewards showed the passengers to their cabins with polished grace. The ship's officers appeared in their formal uniforms. I looked down the hallway to see Jennifer mingling with the poise of a politician hot on the campaign trail.
The more I spoke to the passengers the less I knew what to make of them. At first glance, they were my grandparents. Name tags read “Ruth”, “Esther”, “Seymour”, and “Milton.” But Seymour was a retired NASA physicist who worked on the Apollo missions. Esther said she had been to Antarctica twice.
“What made you go twice?” I asked.
“You’ll know when you go once.”
A college alumni group celebrating its 50th anniversary asked me to take pictures of them on the bow as they sang their school’s alma mater. “You’re young,” a man said. “What are you, twelve?”
Ah, twelve. By the time I was twelve, I carried the sting of my one and only stage performance, Casey at the Bat, when I stuttered out “Then he, he, he…he torethecoverofftheball!” as if I’d suffered a tiny stroke. At twelve, I remember crying in my dad’s truck after a loss in Little League. He shared a story he told often, about a young Spartan boy who stole a fox and hid it in his cloak. The boy remained silent, stoic, despite being bitten by the fox as people asked if he’d seen it. By twelve, I was determined to become a Spartan in pinstripes.
Nearly eleven years later, I looked out over a cruise ship lounge as passengers noshed on smoked salmon, assorted cheese cubes and crudité. A young couple (late 60’s) clinked glasses as they looked through broad windows at the flickering lights of Juneau. Others jostled at the bar for their orders. Jennifer motioned me to the front of the room where I stood next to the captain, a gray-haired Bostonian; polished, confident, a charmer hiding his imperious oversight behind a casual smile. He had to sense my fear. No competent person would sweat so much in such a cold environment.
Jennifer tapped the top of the microphone and smiled at me before facing the group.
“Welcome ladies and gentlemen! We are so excited to have you here! Are you excited to be in Alaska?” They cheered as Jennifer paced the floor, a tiny Tony Robbins in heels.
“We have an incredible week planned for you. We’re going to search for humpback whales and orcas, see spectacular fjords and go on beautiful hikes through old growth forest! If you noticed the inflatable boats on the top deck, we’re going to take those out to explore more. And our chefs and hospitality staff are going to spoil you rotten, believe me! We’re here to serve you, so if there’s anything you need, please let us know!”
The crowd hung on her every word, laughing, smiling, eager, even when she lost her train of thought. “I’m just so excited you’re here!” she’d say. The group would smile back and she’d return to the trip details and all of the fun we’d be having.
Meanwhile, I didn’t know what to do with my hands. I noticed that they were folded in front of my crotch and wondered, is this weird? Are they drawing attention to my crotch? I moved them behind my back like a Marine being addressed by his commanding officer. Too formal. I put them in my pockets, then clasped together in front of my stomach, then let them hang by my side—Ken Doll, cruise edition. Jennifer waxed poetic about wilderness and walking in the footsteps of John Muir. I could do no more than fight with my own appendages.
“And now…” Jennifer paused for dramatic effect, “a few words from our new assistant cruise director, Marc!”
The seconds clicked away on the clock in the back of the room. Cocktail forks rattled on appetizer plates. I looked down at the microphone, heavy in my hand, and thumbed at the On/Off button. I searched for the words as Jennifer smiled with hopeful eyes. The captain cast a blank stare. Out of nothing but sheer mimicry, I drew the mic to my lips, took a deep breath and feigned a confident smile.
“Hello…I’m Marc Cappelletti…I’m from Philadelphia…Pennsylvania. And, yeah, I, uh, I know what you’re thinking. I’m not twelve years old. I just graduated from George Washington University and I’m legally allowed to be your assistant cruise director. Thank you. Jennifer?”
A woman to the side laughed out loud as I handed the microphone to Jennifer. The rest just stared. Legally allowed to be here? What does that even mean? It had to be the dumbest thing anyone had ever said on that ship. Or any ship. Anywhere at sea. The captain raised his eyebrows but remained otherwise stone-faced. Jennifer’s body stiffened. In her cardboard smile, I heard, “What are you doing?” But it was too late. I was exposed, a fraud. And I wanted nothing more than to be home and testing the limits of human hibernation.
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