Reader alert: this post is a serious one.

This week in trying to locate a file hidden somewhere in my computer, this popped up. It was an essay I wrote at least a decade ago about our first child. I decided to share it again.

It was mid-October 1969. We were enjoying a quiet meal in Chapel Hill at the house of two our closest friends, a classmate at the School of City and Regional Planning, and his wife. Actually “enjoying” is probably not the right word. Embry and I were wiped out, having been on pins and needles all day as we nervously sat in the waiting room of University of North Carolina Hospital. Our daughter Katherine–ten and a half months old– was undergoing a heart operation to correct a birth defect.

By early evening we were finally able to relax. Late that afternoon the heart surgeon had appeared briefly with a smile on his face, and our cardiologist emerged to let us know the operation had gone well and that hopes for a recovery were very good. Having dinner with friends was a welcomed relief—almost a victory dinner.

After I graduated from Union Seminary in New York in 1968, we had moved to Chapel Hill where I enrolled in planning school at the University of North Carolina, and Embry had a job working for one of the planning professors as a computer programmer. We lived in rundown house in nearby Carrboro, in an African American neighborhood, close enough to bike to classes and to work.  We loved everything about Chapel Hill— the house and neighborhood, fellow planning students, a good job for Embry, a beautiful campus, a progressive university, and a relaxed, laidback atmosphere.

But most of all we loved Katherine.

Katherine was born Thanksgiving weekend in 1968. Allard Lowenstein, the famous social activist, and his wife,  Jenny,  were staying with us and sleeping on our couch in the living room when Embry went into labor. Around midnight we said a quick goodbye and charged off to Watts Hospital in Durham. Early the next morning Embry gave birth to a six-and-a-half-pound baby girl using hypnosis as a natural childbirth technique.

We were alerted that Katherine had a heart murmur shortly after her birth, but that this did not necessarily mean anything serious since often these symptoms disappear. We agreed we should not worry about it but would let the doctors know if we noticed anything unusual.  To us Katherine seemed perfectly normal. She was a pure delight, and I had never seen Embry happier. Not long after we first met, Embry mentioned casually that she loved children and would like to have at least four—maybe six. And Embry was a loving, joyful mother, beaming most of the time. We were lucky to find a kind woman with infant care experience who provided day care for the newborn children of planning school students. It was certainly one of the happiest times of our lives.

It was when Katherine was about three months old that we first noticed that when she got excited or particularly active, she seemed to turn slightly blue and lose her breath. After a couple of episodes we took her to the cardiologist at the UNC hospital for a series of tests, which revealed that there was in fact  a problem with a heart valve after all, but it did not appear to be imminently  life threatening and was fixable. The cardiologist recommended that if her condition continued to worsen, Katherine should undergo an operation to address the problem temporarily until she got to be somewhat older and could have it fixed permanently through open heart surgery. The operation was called a “Blaylock shunt” and involved rerouting vessels around the heart—a proven procedure with a very high success rate. And the hospital had a good pediatric heart surgeon. Of course, we were apprehensive, but given the diagnosis, generally hopeful and positive—just another one of those hurdles to overcome. It took several months of monitoring the situation and consulting with the cardiologist before the operation finally happened.

That is why when the phone rang at our friend’s house around ten pm just as we were ready to return home, I did not think much about it. “It is for you,” my friend said, turning to me, “and it is the hospital.”

I suddenly felt a cold chill come over me as I took the receiver. The person calling was the cardiologist, who said there had been some complications, and we should immediately come to the hospital. We quickly said our good byes and rushed to the hospital. Neither of us said a word.  We were met at the door by the doctor. He had been such a help to us during the entire experience—a kind and gentle person, who gave you the facts but let you know he was in your corner all the way. By the ashen expression on his face, we knew the news was not good.

The facts were that she had been doing fine– in fact doing so well she had been taken off the ventilator–but that suddenly at some point her heart had stopped. They had tried to revive her, and she was still alive, but things did not look good. There could be irreparable brain damage from lack of oxygen. We sat there in frozen disbelief. He then excused himself. The cardiac surgeon suddenly whisked past us with a frown on his face, did not say a word, and did not look us in the eye.  A few minutes later the cardiologist returned. He had tears in his eyes . Katherine had not made it.

I do not recall much that happened immediately after that. I do not think either of us got much sleep. The next day calls were to be made to family, relatives, and friends. Embry’s parents were on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean.  My parents said they would jump on the first plane.

Embry was despondent. There is something sacred about the bond between an infant and her mother that we men cannot fully understand. When that bond is broken, life for the mother will never be the same.

 I was doing the best I could to try to hold things together, without a great deal of success.

Before he left, the doctor had told me that we had been assigned a chaplain, who wanted to meet with us first thing the next day. Having had my fill of seminary and religion at that point, we had not even entered a church building in Chapel Hill and had no religious connections there.  My fears were confirmed when it turned out that the guy was an evangelical Southern Baptist. I could envision his first comment would be something like this was God’s will and we needed to accept it. Not taking any chances, I blurted out something to the effect that I was a seminary graduate, knew about God and religion, and had actually served as a hospital chaplain myself, and I did not want to hear one word about how this was God’s will. If he even suggested such a thing, I threatened that I would throw him out of the room.

He seemed to understand, blushed, and nodded. He turned out to be kind and supportive and honored my request regarding no religious “explanation.” I later felt guilty about giving him such a hard time at the outset.

When tragedies like this happen, people rally. The very next day food started appearing almost by the hour. Friends stopped by for tearful hugs and embraces.  The phone was constantly ringing. Our living room was full of people almost all the time.  Having family and friends present in situations like this makes all the difference. Nobody has to say a word. Just being there is what counts. The wife of the head of the planning school organized most of the food delivery effort, which resulted in enough food to feed us and our visitors for well over a week.

My parents arrived the next day. It was the first time I believe I ever saw my stalwart father wiping tears from his eyes. It took a couple of more days for Embry’s parents to get from their cruise ship to a plane to  the US and then to Chapel Hill.  I can’t remember all the people since so much remains a blur, but it seemed at the time that most of the people we loved and cared about were either there or with us by phone.  Several of our African American neighbors, whom we really did not know very well, stopped by. Without all the love and support we received, I do not know how we could have pulled through it.

The funeral was held in Davidson, and the idea was to have a small, family, graveside service at the cemetery where Katherine’s ashes would be buried in Embry’s family’s plot. When we arrived in Davidson and went to Embry’s parent’s house, we were astounded to see the living room–and virtually the entire house– packed with my planning school classmates. Practically the entire class was there, occupying every chair with most sitting on the floor. The school must have had to cancel classes.

I remember very little about the service itself except that it was short, and there was no mention that this was the will of God.

Of all the help we received, the most comforting probably came from the cardiologist. He was a real pro who had been through situations like this many times, yet for us there was no hint that he had lost his empathy and compassion. He said one thing that particularly stood out. It is the kind of thing that if said by someone else might be taken as a cheap shot.  But in his case it was profound. “Think about it, “he said in his soft, gentle voice, “Your daughter lived a wonderful though short life. She had loving parents and was until the very end, happy and cared for. In the fullness of time, all life is short. Eleven months?  A hundred years? Of course, on one level there is an enormous difference. But on another level—a more profound human level—the fact that she lived is what is important. For this you can be thankful.”


As I reread this account in my 80th year, I think back about how fortunate we were to have had this child, even if for a short time. Next week Katherine would be celebrating her fifty-third birthday were she alive today. I can’t help wondering what her life would have been like. I wonder where she would have gone to college, whom her friends would have been, what kind of career she might have pursued, whom she might have married, and the children that she might have had. I know deep down that she would have been a kind, loving, and caring person, and that in the end is all that really counts.

I also know that tragedies happen all the time to a lot of people. It is part of the life that we humans must endure. Life on the planet Earth is not easy. It has never been easy; and as we now stare at the face of climate change, racial injustice and emerging authoritarianism, we slog through as best as we can, realizing that we are leaving our children and grandchildren a world with challenges far greater than the ones that we inherited.

But that is just one side of the coin. The other side is the joy we humans experience by simply being alive. We were blessed by our short time with Katherine and have been blessed by so many other things– by the two wonderful children that came after Katherine and their spouses and the four extraordinary grandchildren they have produced, now all teenagers or close to it. We have been blessed by the friends that we have, the careers we have pursued, good health, financial security, and the various pursuits that have enriched our lives—travel, singing, and hands-on volunteer work (Embry)–photography, writing and sailing (me). For all this and simply being alive on the planet Earth for almost 80 years, I am thankful beyond words.


Build-Back-Better Barrier

Note to readers: Given the length of my recent stories, I realize they are too long for a blog post and am working on gathering them all into a book. So back to Faux News and Fauxtoons.


Senator Manchin, I know that in opposing Build-Back-Better you feel you must represent the people of West Virginia where so many of us are poor and struggling. You say you must vote the way we would. But why do you think we would all be against universal pre-K, more affordable health care, paid parental leave, affordable childcare, more affordable housing, and higher wages?  And surely aren’t there  many in our state who, like me, believe that climate change is real and needs to be addressed?

Gullible’s Travels: Episode Three—My Close Encounter With a Homeless Family

This story was written shortly after it occurred in the early 1980s and remains one of my favorites. It is all true.

My close encounter with a homeless family occurred in the 1980s in our neighborhood in Washington when a homeless family appeared one cold Saint Patrick’s Day, shivering, in front of our local drugstore.  Embry saw them first; and when I got home, she handed me a stack of blankets and directed me to see what I could do to help.  It was around nine o’clock in the evening, and the wind chill had to have been in the twenties.

I walked over to the drugstore, which was only a few minutes’ walk from our house, where in the dark shadows I saw a young couple and three small children huddled next to the entrance to the drug store. People were walking past them, not making eye contact. It is true that you never know what to do in situations like this. Should you give money to a beggar or not? What good does it really do? But they were not even begging, just sitting on the sidewalk, freezing. Well, I had these blankets, and I had to admit that the family was a pretty pitiful sight. So what do you say? What do you do?

I handed them the blankets and asked where they were planning to spend the night. The husband, probably around thirty, answered with a thick Spanish accent, “Church, señor.” Thank God, I thought. The idea of them freezing was bad enough, but the thought of them ending up in our house was out of the question. We all have limits. The very idea of a homeless family actually moving into our house sent chills down my spine—especially since my parents were planning to visit us and would arrive in about a week.

While I suspected he was not telling the truth, I was conflicted. I just couldn’t abandon them to the elements, but I surely could not invite them to spend the cold night in our house. So I came up with a brilliant compromise. They would have to be on their own for this night, but gong forward I could help. What they needed was money. I could give them money, but that would be condescending and not long lasting. What they needed even more was employment. I thought for a moment.  Our house always needed work. Maybe the guy could do a little painting. When I asked if he could paint, he nodded enthusiastically, yes, and we agreed to a plan. He would come by the next day, a Saturday, return the blankets, and I would pay him to do a little painting. I suggested he come by around mid morning and gave him our address. I smiled as I returned home and reported the successful outcome to Embry.

At six am the next day, we were awakened by a loud banging on the front door. I had no idea who could be knocking on our door so early on a Saturday, stumbled out of bed, and inched my way down the stairs trying to see who it might be. It was the homeless family. In the dawn I was able to get a better look at them. The guy was short and stocky and had a big mustache; and his wife had dark hair and rather pretty. She had the features of a native American and was quite pregnant. The three little ones in tow looked to me like they were about four, two and a few months old.

 “Here to paint, señor!”

“Well, yes, but it is a bit early…”

I was right. They really did not have a place to stay that night and ended up spending the night on the street. The guy’s name was José, and his wife was named Rosa. Rosa said that her husband was from El Salvador and she was part Sioux and part Seminole and grew up in New Mexico. They were very appreciative for the blankets, which she said probably saved their lives. She went on to say that they had found a place they could rent for $250 a month, which required a deposit. But they were flat broke. It was hard to understand José with his thick accent, but Rosa usually translated in understandable English. Oddly, she would repeat to José what I said in English, not Spanish.

Okay, I thought, we at least have a baseline number to work from. If I could give José a painting job for $250, that would solve the housing problem. They could put down the deposit for the apartment. There was still an issue regarding food, but at least they would have a roof over their heads, and it would be a start. So, I proposed to José that he paint our master bedroom for $250 and that I would even advance him the money so that he could secure the apartment that day.  And I also agreed to buy all the painting supplies. I had recent estimates for painting a room, and the $250 I negotiated was about the right number. Pretty fair deal—we would get a room painted, and José and his family would get shelter and a start on the road to employment.

Day One started off well. Andrew, our seventeen year old son, and his thirteen year old sister, Jessica, were a bit puzzled to find a rag tag family in our living room when they came down for breakfast but seemed to understand what was going on and why we were doing this. I took José to the hardware store where we got all the supplies; and he enthusiastically started to paint the bedroom while his wife watched the children, who by now were running, crawling or toddling around the house terrifying our dog and cat. Shortly after lunch everyone disappeared, presumably to put down the $250 on the apartment.

By six o’clock they had not returned, and I naturally assumed they were warmly tucked away in their new apartment. In fact, I was feeling so good about the situation, I offered to treat everyone to pizza at one of our neighborhood restaurants. As the four of us munched away, I used the occasion as a teaching moment. I had always tried to be a role model for our children, to set an example. I pointed out how I was empowering this poor, homeless family and not just giving them a handout, how actions like this could change the world, and how proud they should be to have a father who really got it, who understood how to make a positive impact in the world.

I noticed some skeptical, puzzled looks but got generally approving nods.

On the way back home, as I turned into our driveway, I almost ran into the back of a car with the motor running, parked in our driveway. On the back window was a sticker which read “Dartmouth College.” I figured the car belonged to a friend of the teenage children of our neighbors, who were always blocking the shared driveway. After muttering a few curse words, I got out of my car and walked over to the car with the Dartmouth College sticker.  As I got closer, I could see that two people were in the front seat and several smaller bodies were squirming around in the back. It was José. What was he doing with this car? Why was he in our driveway?

“Oh, just parking, señor,” he cheerfully replied. His children were crying and whimpering  in the back seat.

“But where did you get the car?”

His wife translated his broken English, “He says he bought it today. Good value. $250 down.”

Well, so much for the nice, cozy apartment. But where were they going to sleep tonight? His wife said that they were going to sleep in the car but added that it was bitter cold and that she was afraid the children would get sick.

Okay, back to square one. In the course of history many decisions have been made that upon historical reflection and hindsight were strategic errors. They were decisions that set a course of action which no one had predicted but that would ultimately result in tragic failure. Napoleon’s foray into Russia, resulting in Waterloo, comes to mind. The start of World War I. The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. There are many. The decision I was about to make falls into this category.

I took a deep breath and asked timidly, “Well, why don’t you just stay here for the night?” My family had remained in our car and were observing the action with great interest.

José protested unconvincingly that sleeping in the car was fine. His wife pleaded for him to let them come in; and before I could walk back to my car to fill everyone in on what was happening, the entire family was on our front porch, shivering and anxious to get in. “God bless, God bless,” said Rosa several times. The dye was cast.

This happened on the evening of Day One. There are two things you need to know. First, Embry was leaving on Sunday, the very next day, for a business trip to California and taking Jessica with her and would not return for several days. Second, my parents were arriving the day after Embry and Jessica returned to spend the week before Easter with us as was their custom. They had nonrefundable plane tickets. My parents were wonderful, tolerant people, but they were also of the older generation. To cohabitate with a homeless family would have sent them to an early grave. But on that cold Saturday evening, all that seemed in the distant future.

So, on Day Two, on Sunday afternoon, I took Embry and Jessica to the airport. We talked about the situation at length in the car. That morning Rosa had confided to Jessica that she was terrified of her husband, that he beat her constantly and that she had to escape. Jessica considered giving her all her savings from odd jobs. Both Embry and Jessica were very supportive and understanding. But they both were headed to sunny California. Their last words of encouragement were that they hoped I would be able to work it all out. I grimly headed back to the house.

I had offered the homeless family the use of our bedroom in the basement, which we used as a guest room and where my parents usually stayed. That is where the homeless family slept, but when I got home it was obvious that they had the run of the house. The living room was a wreck, and the house had the smell of a zoo with soiled pampers rolled up in virtually every available wastebasket.  Andrew had disappeared as had our dog and cat. I concluded that my best hope for survival was to avoid the house as much as possible. I went directly to the bedroom, shut the door and collapsed in bed. I could not help noticing that only a very small portion of one wall had been painted and that no progress had been made since around ten o’clock when he started. José was not even at the house when I returned.

The next day, Day Three, I got up as early as possible, left a note that I hoped José would finish the work that day. If the house was a wreck on Day Two, on the morning of Day Three it was in shambles. Having a bowl of cereal—the only food I could find in the house–I bumped into Andrew, who was getting ready to leave for school.

“Dad,” he said cheerfully. “I think what you are doing is really good, and I support it. When you get it all worked out and the family is gone, let me know. Until then I am moving in with Bronson.” Bronson was Andrew’s best friend.

Okay, I could understand that. So now it was just me, José and his family. Day Three was not getting off to a good start. I tore up the note and rewrote it saying that the job had to get done now or else. I returned home at the end of Day Three around nine in the evening, anxious to see what work had been done in the master bedroom.  The homeless family did not seem to be around, and there was a note scribbled on a typewriter sheet taped to the bedroom door. “Dad, I don’t think you want to go in here. See you when it’s over. Love, Andrew.” He must have had to come back to pick up something.

With a trembling hand I slowly opened the door. The room looked like it had been hit by a tornado. José had taken all my clothes out of the closet and thrown them on the bed; and in painting the room, he had splattered paint everywhere—on the bed, on the rug, on the floor, and most unfortunate, on all my clothes. He had poured the paint into a pan in order to use a roller, and the animals had walked across the pan leaving paw prints everywhere. This was actually a positive sign that the pets were still alive since I had no idea where they were hiding. Well, I had to admit: José had gotten the message, he was finally painting the room. I guessed he was about half finished. I slept in Andrew’s room in the attic where to my relief I found both the dog and the cat cowering in the corner.

So, on the morning of Day Four I admitted that I had a problem. I remember hearing somewhere that the first step in any 12-step recovery program is to fess up, to realize your shortcomings, then to act. I also was aware that on or about Day Eight, my parents would arrive. Should the homeless family still be ensconced in the Howell house at that time, it would be a nuclear event, as in nuclear bomb. The clock was ticketing.

I conferred with several of my colleagues at work. After all, I was a consultant in developing affordable housing. We should know how to handle homeless issues, right? Everyone suggested that I should get them into a homeless shelter. The problem was that at that time there were few options in D.C. for homeless families, only for homeless single people. With some calls I determined that there was one shelter for homeless families called “The Pitts.” Since it was in a decent neighborhood not too far from our house, I decided to drive over and give it a look. The name was derived from its former use, “The Pitts Hotel,” and someone I talked to in my search described it as something of a stop gap measure, “not in the best of shape.” That was putting it mildly. Its name said it all. The building was rundown and decrepit with paint coming off the sides, a couple of broken windows, trash everywhere, and graffiti on the walls.

I paused and looked at it again: “Hey,” I said to myself, “looks like a pretty good option to me.”

So, when I got home, I was pleased to find José, though he did not appear to be doing any painting and the room remained as I had left it–half painted except my clothes, now quite colorful with blue and green splotches, had been moved to the floor.

“José,” I replied, “Have you ever considered living in a homeless shelter? I understand that many are quite nice. In fact there is one very near here, the Pitts.”

“No Pitts, man, no shelter. Shelter no good.”

I encouraged him to be open minded and told him I was making a call to the Pitts to see if they have any openings.  A pleasant enough person answered the phone and replied that they did have room for homeless families. I explained that I had a very nice family temporarily living with me and would like to bring them over to look at the place.

“Well, don’t waste your time,” she exclaimed, “We are not taking the Chavez family. They are disruptive and we have already evicted them twice. They are banned from the premises forever.”

I was stunned. She had not even given me a chance to provide additional information about the family. “Wait a minute,” I argued, “I didn’t say who they were. I don’t even know what their last name is.”

The woman replied in a weary and borderline sarcastic tone, “The guy, is he a Mexican with a mustache and short?”

He was from El Salvador, but he was short and had a mustache.

“Wife, some kind of American Indian, pregnant?”

“Well, yes.”

“Three tiny kids?”

“Now hold on one minute.” I turned to José. “José, what is your last name?”


I sadly reported to her that it did seem to be the Chavez family after all. She told me not to feel too bad since I was the fifth family who had tried to bring them in over the past year. “Where do you live anyway, Georgetown?”  I told her Cleveland Park.

 “That figures, “she said, “But Georgetown is their favorite.”

When I asked her how I could get them out of my house, she said except for the Pitts, there were no shelters for homeless families with vacancies in D.C.; and if there were, they would not take the Chavez family. They were blacklisted. Maybe I should try one of the surrounding counties where the family was not known.

I thanked her for her time and immediately called Fairfax County, explaining that I had a very nice, temporarily homeless family staying with me and wondered if they had space available. “Absolutely,” she replied proudly, “Fairfax County has a brand-new facility, state of the art, and there is plenty of room. Bring them in.”

I felt an enormous weight lifted from my shoulders. Thank God, I thought, at last a break. I told her I would bring them by in about an hour. All she needed was a little information starting with my address. When I told her I lived on Macomb Street, she paused for a moment and said that it did not seem like a Fairfax County address. I told her it was in D.C.

“Sorry, we only take homeless Fairfax County families. You must take them to a shelter in D.C. You will find that policy applies everywhere.”

 I explained my desperate situation, to which she volunteered, “Well, you can bring them across the bridge and then dump them. Then call 911 and high tail it back to D.C. They will probably end up here that way.”

And that is how Day Four ended. Work on the room continued to be at a standstill.

The next day, Day Five, when I briefed my colleagues at the office on the latest events, someone gave me the name of a good landlord/tenant lawyer, whom I called immediately. I explained the situation and asked him what my options were. The key issue, he said, is whether I actually invited them into my house. Well, yes, I told him that it was very cold, and I did actually invite them in.

“Bottom line, sir, they own your house. We have the strongest tenant-favored laws in the nation in Washington; and if you invite them in, they stay until they are ready to leave. Even if the law were in your favor, it would take six months to get to a judge to rule, and he would probably rule against you. They are now yours, baby.”

I am not sure whether I had ever experienced a panic attack before, but what I was feeling then was something between a heart attack and a nervous breakdown. I considered calling 911.

That was pretty much the end of Day Five. I returned home around nine, avoided the Chavez family, fed the pets in the upstairs attic, walked the dog, avoided opening the door to the master bedroom, and collapsed in Andrew’s bed, hoping I would wake up the next day to find that all this was just a bizarre nightmare.

On Day Six, I awoke somewhat refreshed but with the somber realization that I had only two days to get them out of the house by whatever means necessary. I took off from work. My sole objective was to make this happen, recognizing that I had virtually nothing left in my arsenal. I had no option but to throw myself at José’s feet and beg for mercy.

Around ten am José wandered upstairs with a paint brush in hand. This was a good sign. When I asked him if he thought he would be able to finish he muttered something about stopping work. Rosa, who accompanied him up the stairs, replied that because he had not been paid, he was stopping work.

“Not been paid? I gave José $250 and have nothing to show for it except ruined clothes!”

José mumbled something else, then translated by Rosa.

“True,” she agreed, “but my husband says he has worked more hours and needs more money to finish.”

 Enraged, I regained my self control and told Rosa to tell him I would pay him $12 an hour to finish up.

Hearing that, José screamed at me, “$12 an hour? You no good sheet! You are a no good sheet! $18 an hour they pay in California!”

Rosa translated, “He says you are a no-good shit.”

“Okay, forget the hourly rate. Let’s discuss how much money total it will take for you to finish up the room and clean up everything.”

 José calmed down and did some calculations in his head and said something in Spanish. His wife translated that it would be $1,500.

This time it was my turn to lose it. I exploded. “This is a complete outrage! I got an estimate a month ago to paint the room from a professional painter, and it was $250. I have already paid you $250, and what do I have? The room is only half painted. Paint is everywhere—on the rugs, the floor, my clothes are ruined. You have eaten me out of house and home. Soiled pampers are in every corner of the house. The house is a complete wreck. My dog and cat are hiding in terror. My wife has left me. My daughter has left me. My son has left me. And even if I had $1,500 in the bank to give you, which I do not have, I wouldn’t give it to you. You have destroyed my life….” I was trembling before I finished.

I am not sure how much he could understand. But he turned his back and charged down the stairs. Rosa followed him then returned to inform me that I had hurt his feelings. I sat at the top of the stairs, alone, feeling a little better that I had gotten it off my chest, though as a practical matter I was still in deep trouble. The nuclear event was now on a three-day countdown mode.

A few minutes later, he trudged up the stairs with Rosa. “Okay, señor, $1,000, I finish paint.”

“Do you swear, do you swear on a Bible and on your mother’s grave…” I really had no idea what this meant, but it sounded like it might mean something to a Salvadorian. “Do you swear on your mother’s grave that you will finish and clean up everything and be out of this house by Sunday at the latest? Do you swear?”

The “mother’s grave” part must have worked. He nodded, yes.

I breathed a deep sigh. At last, we seemed to be getting somewhere.

He wanted the cash in advance, so I raced to the ATM a block from our house and took out all the money allowed, $400. I was panting as I charged up the stairs to the bedroom, then handed the money to José. Jose shouted something in Spanish, which Rosa translated as “He wants payment in full or he won’t work. He does not trust you.”

“He does not trust me?” I shouted back. “Tell him that is all the money the bank will let me take out and they are not open on Sundays. Tell him I am going to call the police, tell him I am going crazy, tell him I am at the end of my rope, tell him….” I was almost weeping before I had finished.

Rosa looked at me with an expression of shock and compassion. She was beginning to get the gist of how serious this had become. She patted me on my wrist and took the hand of José, who was still fuming, and led him to the other bedroom where they huddled for a few minutes, whispering. When they returned, she smiled and said, “Okay. He will do it.” Frowning, José put the $400 in his pocket and then tromped down the stairs.

Rosa assured me it was fine, that Jose had gone to get a friend to help.

I returned to the half-painted bedroom, sat down on the paint-splattered bead and waited with my head in my hands.

About an hour later José returned, this time smiling, with a friend, who miraculously actually knew how to paint. Four hours later the job was finished, and the room mostly cleaned up.

The only problem was that José wanted the $600 balance, which I explained to Rosa that I would get to him as soon as the banks opened on Monday. That set him off again as he went into his “you no good sheet” routine, but Rosa managed to calm him down and drag him off to their car parked in my driveway. I had no idea where they would be staying, but they packed up their clothes and with the kids in tow hopped in the car and drove off.

For the first time in almost a week I could feel a smile come over my face and tossing a used pamper in the waste basket collapsed on the couch in the living room.

The next morning, Day Seven, José banged on the door at six and I stumbled down the stairs and told him to wait until the bank opened. He sat down in the swing on our front porch until nine when we went to the bank to get the balance I owed him, which he stuffed in his pocket and then stomped off not saying a word, which I considered a victory of sorts since he did not call me a “no good sheet.”

That afternoon Embry and Jessica returned from California, Andrew returned from his friend’s house, and our pets ventured downstairs for the first time in a week. Working together we managed to straighten and clean up the ransacked house hours before my parents arrived the next afternoon for their Easter visit. I do not recall that we said a word to them about the Chavez family or how unknowingly they had dodged a bullet.

Life returned to normal on Macomb Street.  However, this was the last time I invited a homeless family to stay in our home.

But I am sad to report that life was not so good for the Chavez family, whom I saw upon occasion pan handling on various street corners downtown. When spotting them I either turned around and walked in the opposite direction or jaywalked to the other side of the street. They finally even made the news when a story appeared in the Style Section of the Washington Post, “Whatever Happened to the Chavez Family?” which was not complimentary and essentially accused the parents of child abuse. Shortly after that they disappeared from the downtown sidewalks. I have no idea what happened but fear the ending for them was not a happy one.







“Gullible’s Travels”Stories: In Search of Respect and Recognition”

Here is installment two. I wrote this in 1981 following the incident which you are about to read. Some 40 years later I remember every detail like it happened yesterday.


Okay, I admit it: I have yearned for respect most of my adult life and have watched others being honored hoping one day I too might have such an opportunity.

Of course, being honored does not happen often to anyone, but the opportunity happened to me in the hot summer of 1981.

It all started with a phone call from an acquaintance from my former job where I worked as a developer of affordable housing. I hardly knew the guy, but he got right to the point. “Joe,  I  just wanted to call and tell you how much I respect you and how important you were to me when we worked together.”

I couldn’t believe it. Me? Important to a guy I really didn’t know? It just goes to show, you never know when you are having a positive influence on someone. 

He went on to say that he respected and liked me so much, he was having a party in my honor and was going to invite a lot of his housing friends and people at HUD. It was going to be fun—but it was not just for me, it was also for my wife–and there would not be a party unless we both could attend. He had never met Embry and I do not believe even knew her name.

“The party is going to be on Wednesday, July 18. Can you and your wife make it?”

 I checked with Embry. I could make it. She couldn’t. I was disappointed. Here was a guy having a party in my honor, and I couldn’t make it. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity lost. I expressed my regrets, thinking how wonderful it would have been to be the center of attention.

“Oh, that’s ok, we can move it to the next Wednesday,”   he cheerfully replied.

The guy wouldn’t give up. I must have had quite an influence on him. The conversation went on like this with several other dates proposed until we found one that worked. Wednesday, August 9. Oddly, all the dates suggested were Wednesdays. His last words were that it was really going to be fun, that I would meet a lot of affordable housing people, and that it was very, very important that we get there on time and that my wife accompany me.  He gave me the address of his apartment, conveniently located only a couple of miles from our house in northwest Washington.

Since the party was almost a month away, I did not give it a great deal of thought, though when I did, I could not conceal my pride and sense of satisfaction. Being honored like this does not happen to many people. It was not that I did not deserve this kind of recognition. It is just that  it had never happened.

About a week before the event, my excitement was starting to build. I got a call from my friend reminding me of the party in my honor and verifying that both I and my wife would be present and on time. He stressed that we should be there at seven at the latest.

There are two other things that you should know. First, I had just started up my own consulting practice (in affordable and seniors housing) and was desperate for clients; and second, August 9, 1981, the day of the party, could well have been the hottest and most unpleasant day in the history of Washington, with sweltering humidity and temperatures near 100 degrees.

The reason the first fact is important is that on that day I was in New York City consulting with one of my few clients. I had planned to catch the two o’clock shuttle flight allowing me to get home in plenty of time for the party. My client asked if I could stay another day to finish the  work on the assignment. Rule number one in consulting: you never turn down a client’s request, especially if he is your only client. I turned him down. I could not miss the party in my honor, after all the planning that must have gone into it. I just could not do this to my friend or, for that matter, to myself. I caught the two pm shuttle, which was delayed, but did get into National Airport around five-thirty, allowing time to get home, take a shower, get dressed and still make it by seven. But I had to hurry. I did not have a minute to waste

I told the cab driver to step on it, arrived home around six, and stumbled out of the air-conditioned cab. The heat almost knocked me out. I raced up our front stairs, announcing that I was home and that we had only minutes to get ready. There was no answer. Embry was nowhere to be found. Puzzling, I thought. Before I had left for my business trip, I had reminded her how important the event was and how we had to be on time. Oh well, I thought, she will surely be here soon. The babysitter showed up minutes later.

At six-thirty I was showered, dressed, and ready to go. It would take about fifteen minutes to get to his apartment, plenty of time. No Embry. At six forty-five, still no Embry. By this time I was pacing the floor of our front porch scanning the sidewalk, sweating, and furious. How could she do this to me? At exactly five minutes to seven, I saw her. She was smiling, with our six-year-old daughter in tow and had on her swimming suit. They had been for a refreshing swim at the neighborhood pool.  She was casually walking toward the house.

“Do you  know what time it is and where we have to be?” I must have sounded desperate. Several passersby on the sidewalk gave me a puzzled look. Embry’s smile changed to a puzzled frown.

“What’s the big deal? It is unbearably hot. We went to the pool.” she said, “I’ll be ready in a couple of minutes….”

A couple of minutes? I was ruined. It was already seven, and we would be at least a half hour late. I can’t remember exactly what I said to her next, but she replied, “Are you crazy? You don’t even know this guy!”

Around seven-thirty she reappeared. By this time I had calmed down a bit, realizing that the damage had been done, and there was nothing I could do about it. Maybe my friend would be a little upset, but it was not the end of the world.  I jumped in the car and motioned to Embry  to get in. How could she be so slow? I stepped on the gas as we raced up Connecticut Avenue, thankful that there were no cops around to nail us for speeding. We did not say one word to each other on the way to the party.

Now that we were finally moving, I was finally able to relax a bit. I envisioned what it would be like when we did arrive. We would be warmly greeted. My friend would introduce us to everyone. There would be a presentation where he would say a lot of nice things about me. There would be great food, beer and wine, and probably some good music in the background. I would feign humility and bask in the limelight, maybe even say a few words myself. All would be good. I managed to smile at Embry, who despite her look of bewilderment, managed to smile back.

I had his address on a sheet of paper—an apartment building on Connecticut Avenue, apartment 603. We pulled into a side street, found a parking space; and I leaped out of the car, pulling Embry along. Panting, we arrived at the front door of the apartment building, which thankfully was unlocked.  It was now almost eight, and the elevator took forever to get down to the first floor. As the elevator door opened on floor six, I bounded toward apartment 603 and found it only a few doors away. Oddly, there was no sound coming from inside the apartment—no noise or laughter or music. I must have written down the address wrong. I paused for a long moment. Embry suggested I should just knock and see what would happen.

I knocked. The door opened immediately, and we gazed into a room packed with probably thirty or forty people, all stone silent and sitting on the floor. The room was suffocating. Air conditioners are not equipped to cool an apartment packed with people when it is over 100 degrees outside. All eyes turned to us. There was a man standing in front of the group, probably around 40, and wearing a dark suit and tie. He had a dead serious look on his face. My friend was nowhere to be seen.

“The Howells I presume?” he said in a sarcastic tone, “We have your place reserved on the front row. You are one hour late.”

My friend suddenly appeared and escorted us to a spot in the front as we tried to avoid stepping on anyone. We sat down on the floor as people shuffled around trying to make room for us.

 I had no idea what was happening or where we were. I immediately thought of Franz Kafka. Was this some kind of purgatory? Was this a bad joke? Was it some kind of torture? Was it a precursor to an execution? Or was it just a nightmare, which would fade into memory when I woke up?

 Confused, I could not focus on what the guy was saying.

After a couple of minutes, I did begin to get my wits about me and was able to see what he was doing. He had an easel and was drawing a pyramid with dollar signs all over it.

Wait a minute! I had seen this picture before. An out-of-town, old friend from high school had showed up at our house a few years before, supposedly for dinner, but had immediately brought in an easel on which he drew a pyramid with dollar signs and insisted on talking about some hair-brained, get rich scheme selling toothpaste and laundry detergent. I had told him I had no interest in selling toothpaste or laundry detergent. He said, I didn’t have to sell anything, just enlist six friends, and I would be guaranteed riches.  He was representing a company I had never heard of called Amway. When I told him we were not interested in riches and that we should just have dinner and talk about old times, he left in a huff, not even staying for dinner. Embry thought the guy was nuts. I never saw or heard from him again.

What I was watching seemed all too familiar.

I quietly turned to the woman next to me, who seemed to be spellbound by whatever the presenter in the dark suit was saying, and asked in a whisper, “Amway?”

She nodded yes, smiling.

I glanced briefly at Embry. Initially she had a horrified look on her face, quickly changing to a devilish grin.

Then in a stage whisper heard by everyone in the room, she exclaimed with the voice of authority: “Joe Howell, I have been married to you for a long time and I have put up with a lot of shit, but I am not putting up with this shit for one instant.” She stood up and headed for the door.

There was a hushed silence. Then everyone stared at me. The presenter looked as if he did not know what to do.

Without a moment’s hesitation, I stood up , waved my hand, and with an embarrassed smile managed to say, “Bye bye,” then bolted for the door, trying not to step on anyone.

Someone opened the door but not before I was able to notice the look of horror on the face of my friend. The door slammed shut, and Embry and I stood alone in the dim hallway. We looked at each other for a moment and burst out laughing.

So much for being respected and honored, I thought. But life could be a lot worse. I could be selling toothpaste and laundry detergent.

From “Gullible’s Travels”: Five-O-Five

This is the first of my “Gullible’s Travels” stories. If you know me, then you know I love telling stories. In fact, you may have heard me tell this one since it is one of my favorites. These stories are not fiction. They are true life experiences, though I do confess to an occasional embellishment from time to time. This one just resurfaced a few weeks ago when I received an email attachment from my good friend, Naomi Pena, who, unsolicited, had painstakingly typed up the original version, which was typed using a conventional typewriter in the 1970s before people used computers. Naomi is in the story, a hero, and a dear friend. Other stories will follow, some of which were posted on an earlier blog about 10 years ago.


The story of my first experience in owning a sailboat began in Washington, D.C., in 1972. At the time, I was employed by a real estate consulting firm and was clearly ready for something –anything—that would spice up my life. A sailboat might be the very thing I needed for renewal. When I overheard a conversation between two friends at the office, I jumped at the opportunity to buy what my friend described as  a fabulous sailboat, which he was ready to sell for $1,200.

My other friend was also interested though he had no sailing experience, and we agreed to buy it together.

The boat was called a “five-o-five,” a 16-foot sailing dinghy. That evening after work I raced over to the local library and checked out as many books on sailing as I could find. Several books had photos and descriptions of the five-o-five. Each book described the boat as “high performance” — possibly, said one book, “the fastest sailboat of its type ever designed.” The boat had been considered one year for an Olympic racer and had barely lost out to the Flying Dutchman, another world-famous sailboat. The photos showed the five-o-five skimming across the water with skipper and crew hiking out over the boat’s gunwale, foam and spray flying in their face. Because the crew used a trapeze, the photos showed a guy stretched out parallel to the water—literally, his entire body, almost dangling in midair with his feet planted on the side of the boat.

When I returned home, I was ecstatic. I showed the photos to my wife, Embry. She appeared mildly interested; but since she was about five months pregnant, I could see how it would be hard for her to think about herself hiked out on the trapeze. “You don’t expect me to do that do you?” she said timidly. Not now, I assured her. My friend, McDonald, would be doing that now. She could do that next year after the baby came.

My heart was pounding with excitement as we drove through the quaint section of Old Town Alexandria, on our way to the Old Dominion Yacht Basin. Suddenly we made a left turn into the marina. It was not exactly what we had expected.

As we entered, to our left, a large, wooden motorboat about thirty feet long was lying on its side on the ground. Most of the paint had come off the hull, which also contained a large gaping hole in its bottom. Next to that were several smaller sailboats lying on the ground, neglected, with paint flaking, rusty winches and rotten wood. To our right was a huge pile of debris, which consisted of several broken masts, pieces of hulls and cabins, Styrofoam, boat trailers, and various other items, unidentifiable because of the layers of rust. The pile had obviously been around from some time because clumps of grass and even a tiny tree had grown up through the holes in the mess.

“Is this a yacht club?” asked McDonald in a puzzled tone. “Are you sure this is the right place?”

I looked around for our new boat—a low, sleek design, white (or brownish gray) hull, with a trapeze. I thought I spotted it just on the other side of an abandoned trailer and a pile of paint cans.

I am sure that my first startled impression of the five-o-five was influenced by the unsightly surroundings. Also, it was an overcast, drizzly day. I paused for a minute to recapture in my mind the exhilarating image of the photographs in the book. The boat I had spotted sort of looked like what I had seen in the pictures, though a beat-up version of the famous boat. The hull was  stained with dirt and grime. The ropes were a little frayed and very tangled. The rudder and tiller were peeling, but this looked enough like the photographs that I concluded that this must be our new boat. And compared to the other beat-up boats surrounding  it, the boat seemed in decent shape. Nothing was wrong with it that a little love and sweat couldn’t cure.

“Yep,” I said, smiling and patting the boat side, “This is it–a racing machine, a real racing machine.”

MacDonald stared at the boat with a blank expression, not saying a word.

The deal was done. Upon receiving our $1,200 in cash, our coworker agreed to give us an introductory sail the following weekend. All week long at work, McDonald and I darted in and out of each other’s office to share our anticipation of the first big sail.

On our way out for our daily run around the Ellipse near the White House, I took the opportunity to give McDonald basic lessons in the art of sailing. I carefully explained what most of the parts of the boat were, that “port” was left and “starboard” right and so on. He confessed that he had checked several sailing books out of the library himself and that he already knew all of that. He was really interested simply in learning how to sail.

Saturday was the big day. It was a chilly Saturday but clear and not much of a breeze. Our friend who had sold us the boat met us at the yacht basin with a large, bright blue sail bag. He described the various parts of the boat to us as if we did not already know them, and then pulled the sail out of the bag.

As we hoisted the sail up the mast, we noticed the insignia “505” had come loose and was fluttering from the head of the sail, attached to the sail by only a tiny thread.

“That looks tacky,” McDonald whispered to me.

As we hauled the boat on its trailer down to the ramp, we passed by an old shack, which in many respects resembled the prototypical sea shanty. Piles of junk were stacked beside the front door between an ice dispenser and a Coke machine. The word “office” was over the door, but the weathered sign had come loose and was hanging down so that you had to duck to avoid getting a nail in the head.

Following our friend, we ducked and entered the house, where we found ourselves in a tiny, dark room with three other people huddled around a kerosene stove. One was an old woman, who was hard to make out in the dim light, but who appeared rather scraggly. One was an old man with a beard, smoking a pipe and wearing a Greek fisherman’s cap. The third appeared much younger than the other two—a plain looking man in his thirties. The three of them were passing around a bottle.

“Miss Evans,” said our friend said to the old woman, “I want you to meet the new owners of my boat, Mr. McDonald and Mr. Howell.”

Miss Evans burst into a smile, and with a twinkle in her eye exclaimed, “Well goddamn, you finally sold it, did you!” The other two men offered us a swig of rum and invited us to share the warmth of the kerosene stove.

We explained that we couldn’t stay to chat, to which the old lady replied, “Well, we don’t have no rules here. Just pay up in cash by the fifth of the month and don’t complain. This place ain’t no goddamn country club, but it’s the best deal in town!”

At last we were ready to put the boat in the water. There was a narrow ramp into the Potomac River, bordered on each side by a steep wall of black, gooey wooden pilings.

In retrospect, I must admit that the first sail could have been much worse. There was no wind. Not a breath. Normally this would not be something to be thankful for, but in our case, it was clearly a blessing. A capsize on a chilly spring day in the Potomac River could have meant the end.

Since the seller admitted that he had not actually sailed the boat himself much, he could not help us out as to which lines went where. There was a tangle of ropes, all of which he explained had always been tangled and apparently had no effect on sailing the boat. He presumed they were for the spinnaker, which he had never used.

As we sat in the calm Potomac River drifting gently with the tide, the only minor problem that we observed was that the boat was gradually filling up with water.

“Good God!” said McDonald. “We’re sinking.”

“We’re not sinking,” our friend replied calmly.

“The hell you say!” McDonald exclaimed. “There is an inch of water in this boat, and it’s getting deeper all the time!”

 I looked around for the problem. It did not take long to find it. At the stern of the boat there were two small openings with flaps, each about the size of a dollar bill. The flaps were supposed to be sealed shut and secured by an elastic cord connected to the boat’s centerboard. Obviously, something wasn’t working because you could see water oozing in through the tiny cracks around the flaps.

“Oh,” commented our friend, “Don’t worry about that. That’s the self-bailer. It’s there to let the water out fast when you capsize and want to get on the go again.  It lets the water flow right out the stern. Neat idea, huh?”

“Neat idea, my ass,” said McDonald. “That water’s not going out; it’s coming in; and what’s more, if it keeps up, we’re gonna sink.” Before he finished the last sentence, I observed that the water was already up to my ankles.

When we got back to shore our friend quickly departed, leaving us the sails. His departing words were, “Now she’s all yours. Good luck!”

McDonald and I looked at each other with the what-do-we-do-next look when we noticed a young man in his early twenties observing us. He had long hair and a ruddy, healthy look. “So, he finally sold the piece of junk, did he?” he said, walking over to us.

Neither McDonald nor I said anything. “You guys into boat racing? Well, if you’re gonna be competitive, I mean competitive, you’ve got some work to do. Come over here.”

We shrugged our shoulders and followed him, stepping around two beat-up boats and over a pile of broken trailer parts and a dead rat.  “You guys want to see something beautiful? I mean really beautiful, take a look at this.” He stopped beside a boat which had a canvas cover on it, paused briefly to enhance the suspense, and then with one dramatic sweep yanked the cover off, revealing a boat the approximate size and shape of ours. At that point any similarity ended. His boat had a mahogany deck that glistened with layers of varnish. “Now this is a five-o-five,” he said. “I love her. She is gorgeous, beautiful, and man, one hell of a  racer.” I noticed the boat’s name inscribed on the transom of the sleek, black hull, “Hot Dog.”

“What the hell is all that stuff?” asked McDonald pointing to blocks, shackles, lines, gadgets and so on.  The ropes were painted different colors, and the stainless steel fittings sparkled. Everything in the boat was neat and orderly.

“It looks like the inside of a goddamn space rocket. “McDonald added.

The sailor replied, “This is what sailing is all about! Sailing is racing and racing is winning. And winning is gear. Hardware. Let me tell you, my boat is nothing compared to most of the other five-o-fives. If you think Hot Dog is hot stuff, wait till you see some of the other boats I race against.”

  He then returned with two enormous toolboxes. “If you’ll excuse me,” he said, “I’ve got some work to do.” I peered into the toolbox, which must have contained several hundred parts—screws, shackles, bolts and other assorted items.

 “Is all that just for your boat?” I asked.

 “Are you kidding? This is only half the stuff I need. The other box is for the boat, too, and I’ve got more stuff at home. These  five-o five’s are beautiful, but to keep ‘em tuned you’ve got to do a lot of work. Besides, on these boats you never know what will happen.”

I could see the concerned look on McDonald’s face. “Oh yeah?” he said. “All that just for a boat this size? Oh yeah?”

I was beginning to wonder just what we had gotten ourselves into. I was soon to find out.


 On our first sail together, it was just McDonald and me. Since there was a moderate breeze, the transom leak was not a problem, and besides I had spent a good bit of time gluing the flaps shut. The only thing worth repeating about that sail was that by some miracle we returned safely with no serious difficulties. The boat did run aground twice, the second time with its center board lodging in the mud. But McDonald hopped out into the water and pushed us off. Though we could feel how tipsy the boat was, fortunately the wind was not too strong, and we did not come close to capsizing. Of course, having recalled the seller’s decisive assertion that the boat could easily be righted, I was less concerned about a capsize.

We were beginning to build our confidence. I returned home to report the event to Embry with great enthusiasm. She seemed delighted to see me in such a good mood and agreed with some temerity to crew for me next time.

“Well, you know, next Sunday is Father’s Day, and I was kind of hoping…”

Embry agreed that as my Father’s Day gift we would go sailing. We even decided to make a big deal of it and invite  friends to go with us with their four-year-old girl. We could share babysitting with some people picnicking while the others sailed. Because the marina was so uninviting, we decided to trailer the boat to Pohick Bay, down the Potomac River about 30 miles, where there was supposed to be a nice regional park and a boat launching area.

When we woke up that morning and saw that the day was gray and drizzly, I suppose we should have cancelled; but when you go to a lot of trouble to make a picnic and invite people, that  is hard to do. Besides the weather could always improve.

We all packed in our beat-up, old station wagon—four adults and two four-year-olds—and headed for the marina.

As we attached the trailer to the car, Embry asked me if I wasn’t supposed to hook up the trailer lights. I shrugged since the wires on the trailer lights were frayed and were not long enough to reach my car. Even if they had been long enough, I had no idea what to hook them onto.

The ride out highway Route One was gloomy. I noticed that most of the other cars had their headlights turned on. I dared not turn on ours since it would be obvious to any policeman that I had no trailer lights. I also tried to use my handbrake instead of my regular brake, another ingenious scheme designed to disguise the trailer light problem. It must have worked since we passed two policemen unnoticed.

As last we were at Pohick Bay. The park was spacious and clean and, like most national parks, had that Smokey-the-Bear feel about it.

There was a small platoon of rangers at the shore assisting people putting their boats in the water, and several state police as well, checking boat registrations. Of course, it did not occur to me that that was what they were doing until we had all piled out of the car and were ready to put the boat in the water.

A burly, state highway patrolman angled over to me chewing a cigar out of the side of his mouth. He was weighted down with so much paraphernalia that it seemed any smaller man would have been unable to walk.

“Thanks,” I said smiling, “but I think we are doing fine. We don’t need any help.”

“All right,” he sighed in an I-hate-to-do-this-to-you tone. “Boat trailer inspection sticker.”

“Boat trailer what?”

“Boat trailer inspection sticker.”

I instinctively pulled out my wallet.

“It’s not in your wallet. If you’ve got one, it is supposed to be on your trailer. In Virginia every year you’ve got to have your boat trailer inspected.”

I began feverishly examining the trailer for a sticker. On the other side of the boat trailer, I heard Embry shout,“Hey, I found it, but I’m not sure it’s current.”

“Wonderful,” said the cop, who walked over to  Embry and inspected the sticker, frowning. “The trailer hasn’t been inspected for over 10 years.”

“Okay,” he continued, pulling out a pad. “Let’s see your trailer registration, your certificate of ownership, and your boat registration.”

“My what?”

“Good God,” said the cop shaking his head in disbelief. “You don’t have these either?” He put his pad back in his pocket and slowly began walking around the boat, scrutinizing every detail. When he got to the rear of the car, he reached down and picked up the  wires which were dangling from the taillight. I could see myself getting 20 years for this.

He ran his fingers across the frayed wires, then stood up and slowly walked over to me.

There was a long pause during which time the big man stared at me, then at Embry. Our small children looked quite pathetic, huddled under a tree with the other couple, trying to keep out of the rain. My old, beat-up car pulling an old beat-up trailer. All of us shivering in the drizzle. We must have been a sad sight. Steinbeck’s Oakies came to mind.

The cop let out a long sigh, then scratched his head. “Let me see your driver’s license,” he finally said.

“Oh, yes sir, yes sir,” I said enthusiastically. “I’ve got one.”

He looked at the license, then shook his head.

“Okay,” he said, “go on,”

“Go on?”

“Yeah,” he said, sighing. “Go on sailing. You know, I’ve been inspecting boats here for over 10 years, and I have never seen anything like this. Never mind, I don’t want to go into it. It’s Father’s Day. You’ve got a picnic. Hell, it’s raining. I don’t even want to go into what I could do to you. It’s Father’s Day, just get that so called ‘boat’ in the water as fast as you can and park your trailer way out of the way somewhere where nobody can see it.”

He paused, then lowered his tone to convey the gravity of the situation. “And for God’s sake, don’t ever, I mean ever, come here again.”

“Thank God for Father’s Day!” I exclaimed. “Now let’s go sailing!”

We got the boat rigged and in the water in record time and dragged the trailer way off in the woods. We decided that Embry and I would sail first.

The sail started off well. Just as we got the boat in the water a gentle breeze picked up, and as we glided across the water, and the rain began to let up.

“Hey, this isn’t so bad,” said Embry. 

“Once you got to sail it, I knew you’d like it,” I said.

I held the tiller for about the first 30 minutes, tacking back and forth in the pleasant bay. The rain had completely stopped, and the clouds were lifting. It was actually turning out to be a rather nice day.

“Do you think I could take the tiller?” Embry asked.

“Sure,” I said, smiling, “You take it.” Changing positions in this small boat was always a delicate operation, but we managed to do it. I felt very proud that I had a pregnant wife so adventuresome.

The wind was still gentle, though I did notice that its direction suddenly shifted at about the time we switched positions. I thought nothing about it and closed my eyes feeling the wind blow across my face and hearing the gentle lapping of waves against the hull.

“Now this is living!” I exclaimed.

When I opened my eyes, I noticed that the wind was beginning to pick up. I could feel the surge of power as the boat responded instantly.

“Hey,” I said, “How about that! We are starting to plane.”

“I am getting a little nervous,”said Embry. The boat is awfully tipsy.”

 I realized that the wind was really beginning to pick up and with each gust felt the boat tip perilously close to a capsize.  I leaned out as far over the side as I could to try to balance the boat. Now would be the time to use the trapeze and hang out over the water like I had seen in the photo, but I had left the harness back on shore.

“Joe,” she said with a hint of panic in her voice, “I think you should take the tiller.”

Another problem with a five-o-five is that if there is very much wind, it is very difficult to change positions without capsizing. Taking  the tiller would risk  capsizing.

The wind was still building. White caps were becoming frequent, and I heard myself shouting orders. “Do this, do that, lean over,” and so on.

“I’m doing the best I can, Joe. Please quit telling me to watch out. That doesn’t help at all.”

I knew that she was doing something wrong because the boat was not steering right. Now white caps were everywhere. I could see other small sailboats heeled over and heading for shore. The only reason that we were still afloat was because the wind was pretty much behind us. But the boat still was weaving and lurching.

Suddenly, I felt a lurch as the boat veered around directly into the wind. We came within a hair of capsizing as I instinctively threw myself to the center of the boat.

Embry was already lying on the bottom of the boat herself, holding the tiller  in her hand. It had broken off from the rudder at its base, and she was waving it in the air like a baseball bat, trying to regain her balance.

I noticed that the wind was now directly behind us. I realized that we were still afloat and by sheer luck–Providence? — the boat launch area was directly downwind about a half mile. I  suddenly felt relieved.

I climbed over Embry who was trying to pull herself up, released all the ropes and grabbed a canoe paddle we had brought along in case the wind died. The wind was blowing us exactly where we wanted to go. The canoe paddle, which I held over the stern like a rudder, helped steer us, and within 15 minutes we landed at the launch area.

However, the damage had been done. Not so much to the boat. The tiller could be repaired, though sailing was over for that day. To Embry. We said few words as we drove home.


The next day at the office I sulked. I mainly just sat at my desk staring at the sailing calendar on the wall, wondering what I should do next. McDonald was out consulting somewhere, so I couldn’t talk to him. The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized that this minor accident could have happened to anyone on any boat. My spirits slowly began to rise. The next day when McDonald got back and I told him of the incident, my optimism was confirmed. In his typical good-natured way, McDonald said simply, “No problem. Just fix the tiller.”

So I fixed the tiller—thanks to super glue and an ingenious supporting brace which I rigged up. Two weeks later the boat was ready to sail again.

During this period I had deliberately avoided any mention of sailing to Embry. About the time the tiller was fixed, McDonald went away for summer vacation, so the five-o-five was just sitting at the marina, collecting dust, restless, and eager to be sailed.

Two more weeks passed. I was burning with desire to try another sail. I had vivid memories of the euphoria I experienced just before the wind picked up and the tiller broke. If only the tiller had held up, Embry would have loved sailing, and I would not be going through such agony.

Finally, the opportunity came. It was the Fourth of July, and the day was sparkling. As soon as I woke up, I immediately called the weather lady—a neurotic daily, pre internet habit I had developed soon after purchasing the boat. The recording was  music to my ears: “Sunny, highs in the mid to upper seventies, low humidity, with southerly breezes at 10-15 mph.” It was  too good to be true.

I got up my nerve at the breakfast table, “I am very, very sorry, as you know, about what happened on the Father’s Day sail. I realize it was not your fault. Do you think…”

“Well,” she smiled, “it is a pretty day.”

I gave her a hug and a kiss and raced down the basement stairs to get the sails. Today would be different. I could feel it. The smell in the air, the gentle breeze, the warm sun, and birds singing. Everything was perfect.

Quickly the plans were set. We would make another big day of it. We asked our friend, Naomi, an old friend from graduate school, if she wanted to go with us. Having heard about how fast the boat was and being a sailor herself, she enthusiastically accepted.  We also made complicated arrangements with two other couples, who would join us around five o’clock at another marina up the river toward Washington where we would enjoy a picnic and watch the fireworks across the river at the Washington Monument. The idea was that the three of us would sail from the yacht basin, then sail back and put the boat back up on land and drive the few miles to the park next to another marina where we would rendezvous with the others. By noon all the details had been worked out, the picnic fixed, and by one o’clock we were at the Old Dominion Yacht Basin ready to put the boat in the water.

The Fourth of July is always a big day on the Potomac River. This Fourth of July—because of the perfect sailing conditions—was more active than usual. Today everybody was outside. There was a long line of people waiting at the ramp to put their small sailboats in the water. People staying in the marina were sitting in the cockpits of their boats drinking beer, listening to music, laughing and chatting with friends. It was a  festive atmosphere—with music from hundreds of portable radios blending in one great symphony, with colorful pennants and white sails everywhere.

Out on the Potomac River two major regattas were in progress, with clusters of white sails sparring for a place at the starting line and other boats racing downwind behind colorful spinnakers. Motorboats of all sizes and shapes picked their way through the racers.

Shortly after two o’clock our boat was in the water, and we were on our way. The wind held steady at 10-12 knots, just enough for the five-o-five to plane nicely on a reach and not too much to make us nervous. To be on the safe side, this time I was at the helm the whole time. Besides, Embry was somewhat awkward, being a few months pregnant. Even Naomi was impressed—the proud co-owner of what she described as an Olympic keelboat racer, which she had sailed when living in Chicago. We all had the distinct feeling we were the fastest boat on the river.

We sailed for almost three hours. On the way into the marina I casually commented, “Well, at long last, a perfect day and a perfect sail.”

“Okay, crew,” I said. “Getting in is a little tricky. It is very important that you pull the sail down just as we come into the wind. When I give the command, down with the mainsail.”

I was really beginning to get the feel of sailing the boat and was particularly pleased with my sense of timing as we came into the marina—a rather delicate maneuver. This time we did everything right. We were in the perfect position to drift right into the ramp area once our sail was down. Naomi had volunteered to lower the sail.

“Down with the main!” I commanded.

Nothing happened.

“Naomi, quick. I said, ‘Down with the main.’ Pull it down!”

Still nothing happened.

“Down with the main, please!” The wind was beginning to push us back. Our boat direction changed, and suddenly, the wind was in the sail again. We were skimming through the water—away from the marina.

“Naomi, what t is going on?” 

“I don’t know,” Naomi said. “It just won’t come down.”

“Let me try it,” I said as cheerfully as I could as Naomi and I switched positions.

Naomi brought the bow into the wind as I released the main halyard and gave a strong tug on the mainsail. The sail budged about six inches. We repeated this maneuver several times and succeeded in getting the mainsail about a fourth of the way down.  I suddenly noticed that during all these maneuvers to try to lower the main, we had lost considerable ground on the marina. We were now downwind some 50 yards and in order to make a landing would have to sail upwind. To sail upwind we would have to raise the mainsail again.

I informed everyone of my plan and then gave a strong tug on the halyard to pull up the main. Nothing happened. The sail was stuck. With every second that passed we were being blown further downwind—upriver in the direction of Washington and away from where we wanted to go.

“Okay,” I hollered to Naomi, “Let’s try to get to shore the best way we can.” Naomi angled us over to shore with the wind off our beam as we limped along, like a wounded bird, toward the closest dock we could get to. In a matter of only two or three minutes the boat lurched up against a large, gooey piling. I tossed the line around the piling and held on tight.

“Okay,” I said with confidence, “No problem, no problem at all. No need to worry.” We were close to where we wanted to go—no more than 100 yards away. The problem was we were downwind. We were almost close enough for someone to throw us a rope and drag us to the pullout area.

I examined quickly the various alternatives. Since the sail wouldn’t budge, we couldn’t sail the boat the  100 yards we needed to get to the boat ramp. It was too windy and too strong a current to paddle. Because of the configuration of the pilings, we couldn’t walk the boat back. The only  solution would be to get someone in a motorboat to pull us the 100 yards upwind to the marina. With all the boats in the water today, this should not be a problem.

We first tried to flag down a boat; but when this proved futile after 15 minutes, Naomi volunteered to scale up the piling and walk around to the marina and persuade someone to tow us. Though scaling the piling was a challenge, Naomi managed the feat easily.

We were beginning to get a little worried after waiting about thirty minutes since we were due to meet our friends at the other marina—about two miles away—in less than an hour.

“Here she comes!” exclaimed Embry. Emerging out of the marina was a huge houseboat-type craft—about 40 feet long, with a flat hull and a two-story cabin. “It’s a house-trailer on a barge!” I commented. We could see Naomi standing near the bow. At least a dozen people were on deck, drinking and laughing. Disco music blared out from the cabin. The skipper, standing beside Naomi, wore sunglasses, a flowery Hawaiian sports shirt with the top  unbuttoned to show his thick hairy chest.  He was bald and fat and had a drink in his hand.

As the boat approached, more people poured out of the cabin. Most of the people were in their late 40’s or 50’s. The men wore Bermuda shorts, shirts like the captain’s, and they all seemed to have skinny legs and large bellies. Most of the women were wearing bikinis and funny hats. Everyone had drinks; and as they came out of the cabin, they began to point at us.

Acknowledging that I had already become something of a sailing snob, I could not help thinking that these people represented the antithesis of everything that sailing had come to mean to me. I gritted my teeth and sucked in my pride. Couldn’t Naomi have gotten someone else, anyone else? I caught myself. After all, these people did come to help us. I should be thankful. No one else had volunteered.

The huge boat pulled up closer.  The boat’s motor made such a thundering noise, and the music was so loud from inside the cabin, that I could barely hear the skipper shouting at us.

“I’m gonna throw you a line,” he shouted. “Don’t worry, we’ll pull you in.”

“Thanks,” I shouted back, but I doubted that  he could hear me. As the gigantic craft swung around, I could see the name on the transom, “Big Tub.”

He pitched us a line. “I’ve got plenty of power,” he shouted. “You’ve got nothing to worry about.”

“Easy,” I shouted back. “Real easy. This boat’s tipsy, and my wife is pregnant.”

I secured the line to the bow. Embry sat in the stern and held the tiller. I draped myself partially in the cockpit, partially on the deck to be sure the tow line was properly secured. As the skipper of Big Tub maneuvered the craft, another man walked back to the stern. He had a short haircut and was wearing a Schlitz beer shirt, which said “Go for it.”

“Are you ready?” he shouted.

I could remember the times I used to water ski in high school when I would sit in the water behind a speedboat with my skis on and my friend who drove the boat would ask “are you ready” in the same tone. There was always that instant of anxiety between when I would nod my head, yes, and when I would feel the ropes jerk me out of the water. I felt that anxiety as I held tightly to the rope and looked up at the towering behemoth in front of us churning the water. All the people were now at the stern staring at us.

“Are you ready?” he called again.

“I nodded and swallowed hard. “Easy! Easy does it.” I called back as loud as I could.

“They’re ready, Ralph, pull ’em up!” he shouted to the skipper.

I had never been to Cape Kennedy, but I had seen space rockets liftoff on my TV and had heard the long thundering roar that occurs at zero countdown. The roar that came from Big Tub equaled in my mind the thunder of a space rocket liftoff.

It was over before we knew what had happened. For a moment we were yanked out of the water, just as I had been pulled up as a young water skier.  The next moment we were both in the water. The five-o-five was on its side, and the remains of our picnic lunch were floating beside us—beer cans, sandwich wrappers, Styrofoam cooer, life cushions, paddle and all other loose contents of the boat.

I looked around to be sure that Embry was okay. She said she was. Luckily, we had on our life jackets. Then I realized we were sinking. So much for the life jackets, I thought.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” I could hear myself saying to myself, treading water. “The boat will come right up. It’s designed to be easily righted.”

By this time Big Tub had circled around and was coming back toward us. I could see the expressions of surprise on the faces of the people. This time no one was laughing.

The skipper shouted, “Was that too fast?”

I nodded, “Yes, but It’s okay. The boat is self-righting. She’ll come right up, and we can try again.”

Naomi was pointing at Embry. All the women suddenly seemed particularly concerned. After conferring with Naomi and another woman, who I presumed was the skipper’s wife, the skipper hollered back, “Your wife, your wife! Hey, is she pregnant? Oh my goodness! Get her on board quick!” Someone tossed us a lifeline, and in a few moments, Embry was pulled up aboard Big Tub. All the women gathered around her to inspect her to be sure she was okay.

“I’m fine. I’m fine,” she called back to me. Someone was offering her a drink.


The capsize occurred around four o’clock in the afternoon. At nine o’clock I was still in the water, having drifted more than three miles from the scene of the capsize.

 I immediately found myself floating in mud and slime. Even the feel of the water was different. Images of the various pollution signs posted along the Potomac River came to mind warning people not to swim, and I had the distinct impression I was swimming in an open cesspool. God only knows what this would do to an unborn fetus, but at least Embry was now safely aboard Big Tub.

The skipper of Big Tub did the best he could. He and the dozen or so other people in this party watched as I tried desperately to right the boat. All you have to do is stand on the center board, my friend had told me. I did this immediately and finally succeeded in getting the boat upright. The problem was when the boat finally did get upright, it was almost submerged.

The next solution was to drag the boat into the marina. After all, we were only yards from where we wanted to go. We made several attempts, each time very slowly. However, with each tug the five-o-five simply rolled over with its mast going directly downward. On the third try, the mast lodged in the mud.

Big Tub gave up. The skipper called that he was taking Embry into shore and that he had radioed the Coast Guard for help. They should be here shortly.

That left me and the five-o-five, belly up, lodged in the Potomac River mud. It was about then that boaters started heading up the river toward Washington to jockey for the best viewing position for the grand fireworks display. I sat on the overturned hull and watched as boat after boat passed by. It reminded me of the New Jersey Turnpike.

Several boats circled around me pointing.  One or two offered to help, and several assured me they were calling the Coast Guard.

Professional help finally came about a half hour later. All at once. From three different directions, three power boats converged. One boat was the Coast Guard and the other two were police boats—one a D.C. police boat, the other a Virginia police boat.

The Virginia police got to me first. Their boat was a Boston whaler, an outboard about 20 feet long. Two uniformed policemen were on board. One threw me a line as the other officer waved the other two bots away. “We’ve got it fellas, no sweat. We’ve got it under control.”

The other two police boats kept their distance but did not depart. The Virginia police boat stayed with me for about thirty minutes. After about three tugs, I heard a thump and a cracking sound and felt the mast come free from the mud. I could hear shouts and cheers from the other two boats, though by this time the Virginia police were thoroughly worn out and scowling. For some mysterious reason, just as they had freed the mast from the mud, they asked me to throw them back the line, gunned up their motor and roared off. “Got a more urgent emergency,” said the officer at the wheel,” We’ll be back.”

I could hear a shout from the Coast Guard vessel, which was considerably larger than the other two boats—a cruiser-type boat about 30 feet long with a small cabin and an inboard motor. “Okay, we’ve got it, D.C., You guys can leave. We’ve got it.” The Coast Guard pulled up beside me and tossed me a line. It was about this time that I realized I had drifted across the river to a point less than a couple of hundred yards from the giant Blue Plains sewer pipe that empties into the Potomac River.

“Those Virginia guys don’t know what they are doing,” called out the captain. “We’ll pull you out. Just get your boat upright, okay.” This I did with a great deal of effort. The Coast Guard boat then pulled up alongside me. The assistant asked me to hold my boat close to their boat as they handed me a very large suction tube. “Okay, hold this thing in your boat, and we’ll bail her out.” The assistant cranked up a machine, which sounded like a very loud lawn mower. I heard the tube slurp and watched as water gushed out the other end of the machine through another tube and into the Potomac.

I was not sure what they were planning to accomplish since by this time the sailboat was inches below the surface. They were taking water out of the Potomac on one side of their boat and putting it back in on the other. Since the machine was so loud, there was no way any of us could communicate during this futile exercise, which must have gone on for fifteen or twenty minutes. However, their effort was not totally futile because the gunwales of boat were now slightly above water.

Suddenly the noise stopped. The captain came over to the side of the boat. “Look,” he said, we’ve got an emergency call down the river. We’ve got to respond quick. We’ll be back.” They yanked in the tube, gunned up their motor and roared off.

The D.C. police then moved in only to depart after  a few minutes to go to another emergency. For more than an hour I was on my own, floating alone in the Potomac River as boats of all types sailed or roared by, pointing at me, but not stopping. A strong wind from the south and a strong current caused by a rising tide were pushing me closer to the Blue Plains Sewerage Treatment Plant, notorious for being in desperate need of repair.


Just as I was wondering if anyone would return, I saw a boat motoring fast, headed directly toward me. The DC Police had returned in their Boston Whaler.

“You still here?” asked one of the two men, a small, short man about 30 with slicked down hair.  His partner was a  little older, and somewhat larger, with a bushy mustache. Both were dressed in blue uniforms. I gathered the older guy with the mustache was the superior of the two since he immediately took charge.

“Okay, owner,” he said with authority, “Owner, on board, right now.”  As they yanked me on board their boat, he pulled out a new life preserver, having observed that the preserver I had was useless. “Now, owner,” he said, “Let’s see your driver’s license and boat registration.”

 I told him that I had lost both in the capsize though I had no idea about needing any boat registration.

“Okay, owner, I can understand that,” he replied, with a strong Southern accent, which I guessed was from West Virginia. “Now, we’re gonna pull you into shore. What I want you to do is to right the boat, then get back in with us. The problem is that your weight makes the boat flip over and capsize. Dumb ass Virginia police and Coast Guard don’t know what the hell they are doing.”

I jumped back into the river as directed.

“Watch the splash,” said the smaller one, scowling. “I don’t want to get my clothes wet. Do you have any idea how polluted this water is?”

After I managed to right the five-o-five with great difficulty, he shouted, “Owner, okay, now get back in our boat!” Since they did not have a ladder, the two men had to yank me up over the side again. As they did this, I gasped and flopped over the side of the deck onto the bottom, brushing against the foot of  the smaller officer.

“For Chrissake,” he shouted. “Owner don’t get that filthy water on me! Watch the hell what you are doing.” He quickly dried the water marks off his pants and his shoes.

“Sorry,” I said.

The guy with the mustache went to the controls and put the boat in forward. Immediately the five-o-five rolled over and capsized again.

“Damn!” he said. “Owner, back in the water!”

I cannot remember now many times we went through this ritual. With great effort I would right  the five-o-five. The two cops would yank me out of the water and into their boat. Some water would get on them, and the little guy would warn me not to let this happen again. As the boat would invariably turtle, I would hear the familiar command.

“I know,” I would say, “’Owner, in the water…’”

I seemed that this went on for hours. I completely lost track of time. I was so tired I could not think straight. I felt every muscle in my arms ache and finally had no energy at all as the cops yanked me for the umpteenth time, limp, out of the water.

In the middle of the ordeal the short cop put the boat in reverse instead of forward and backed over the mainsail, which immediately caught in the prop.

“Owner! In the water. Get that goddam sail off our prop!” I could feel the rips  as I untangled the sail, which was wound around the boat’s prop. Two other times I had to untangle the tow rope from the prop when they ran over it.

As I observed the two men fumbling around trying to operate the boat, it became obvious that they seemed not to know what they were doing. I began to wonder if this was the first time they had seen sea duty.

The afternoon wore on. It was about this time that I became aware of how far we had drifted. Miraculously, we had drifted miles upriver, well past the sewer treatment plant, and were now only a few hundred yards from the marina where I presumed Embry and friends were—picnicking, waiting for the fireworks to begin. I felt as if I had been in the water for days.

The officers must be getting as exhausted as I was. They had been on the scene since about seven o’clock and with me for over an hour. And they were still at it. I could see the determination in their faces. Getting me to shore now represented the ultimate challenge. I recalled Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus as the boat  righted only to capsize again.

 “Owner, we’re sick of this shit,” the guy with the mustache said. “We’re going back. You get in the water and get rid of whatever you have to get rid of, so that this goddam piece of crap doesn’t turtle, you understand? Otherwise, we’re leaving the boat here.”

I got the picture. I made my last plunge, took a deep breath and underwater unscrewed every shackle I could find, surfacing only to breathe. I had had it myself. The hell with the sails, the mast, the boom and everything else. After a great deal of fumbling, yanking pins and unscrewing shackles, I could feel the mast and boom slip off. When I reported back to the cops that  the mast was no longer attached to the hull, they jerked me up on board, one final time. Completely exhausted, I sat on the deck of the boat, dejected and unable to move.

“Owner,” said the short one with a smirk on this face, “You drink?”

I nodded, wondering why he was asking me.

“Thank God,” he said with a sigh of relief, as he opened the hatch and pulled out three beers. From the large number of discarded plastic six pack holders, I could tell that we were drinking the final six pack out of what at some point  had started off as a  case of beer. Suddenly their cumbersome and inept behavior became more understandable.

The cop with the mustache gave a sheepish grin. “Well, after all, it is the Fourth of July.”

Instantly, as I took a swig of beer I felt better, and the two officers perked up too, especially when they realized I did not disapprove of their drinking.

The tall one started up the motor and put the boat in forward. The five-o-five didn’t turtle. We all let out a cheer and motored toward shore, dragging a partially submerged hull. As we approached the sailing marina, the short officer said, “Finish up your beer. We’ve got to deep six the cans before we get there.” He pulled out an ice pick, poked holes in the empty cans and heaved them overboard.


Now the Washington Sailing Marina is not necessarily the best place to watch the Fourth of July fireworks display on the Washington Monument grounds, but it is certainly one of the best, especially if you’re going to combine sailing, picnicking and fireworks watching. Accordingly, every year hundreds—perhaps thousands—of sailors and boaters and their families gather there after a day of racing or cruising. Most people stop sailing around six, picnic until eight and are ready for the fireworks to start at nine. Except the fireworks don’t start until about nine-thirty. So from nine to nine-thirty there is usually a lull in the action. Kids are getting restless, and grown-ups are telling them “In a minute, in a minute.” In short, just about everybody is looking for something to do.

It was precisely at that time that we came cruising into the sailing marina—a police boat pulling a partially submerged hull. We immediately were the center of attention.

As we came closer to shore, I could see a large crowd of several hundred people gathering and pointing at us. The closer we got, the larger the crowd grew. Quickly, I devised a scheme to avoid further humiliation. As the boat pulled up to shore, I would jump out on the dock and join the crowd as just another spectator. No one would know the difference or who I was. Besides, the cops deserved all the glory anyway. They didn’t need me.

As we pulled up to the dock, I immediately jumped ashore, headed to the back of the pack, squeezing through the crowd, which was now about 20 people deep. “What happened?” people were saying. “Is everyone all right? What kind of boat is that? How did it happen?”

I inched my way to the back of the mob, next to a tall fellow wearing a baseball cap, who commented to his friend next to him, “That boat is a piece of junk. They should have let it sink. What kind of idiot would try to sail a boat like that?”

I commented that I agreed and no idea.

Just then I heard the familiar bellowing voice of the officer with the mustache. “Owner! Owner!”

I tried to ignore it as people began looking around. Somehow they figured out it was me, pointing at me. I slowly made my way forward, head bowed. The crowd parted to let me through. I heard several people say, “Look, there he is! There he is!”

 I stood silently at the water’s edge.

“Owner! In the water. You’ve got to connect the bridle under the boat so that the hoist can pull it out of the water.”

I looked around. People continued staring at me, whispering. 

A woman shouted, “He’s not going to jump in there!

I looked around at the crowd, took a deep breath and did a swan dive into the water. When I came to the surface, people were applauding.

I did what I was ordered to do. I secured the bridle around the hull, then climbed back on shore and once again nudged my way to the back of the crowd. The older  officer connected the hoist chain to the bridle and pushed the up button. As the boat slowly came out of the water, a hundred tiny streams of water came trickling out of the tiny holes and cracks in the hull. Someone not too far from me commented, “Looks like a goddam shower head.”

“Where are the mast and the sails?” someone else asked.

There was only a hull—no mast, no boom, no sail. A hull, full of holes. I presumed the mast and sail were resting peacefully at the bottom of the river. Good riddance, as far as I was concerned.

Just behind me, I heard another voice comment, “My God, it can’t be! That boat looks like a five-o-five!”

“Impossible,” said his friend.

Just then I heard someone shout, “Look! Look! There they are.” I made my way to the front of the crowd again in time to see the mainsail come out of the water. It—along with the mast, the boom and the jib—was still connected to the hull by one tiny wire which I had failed to disconnect. The mainsail was shredded into several pieces, but it was there.

Another burst of applause and cheers from the crowd.

Later in the evening after the boat was on land, I found Embry and my friends. They had finished supper but had saved some Kentucky Fried Chicken for me. After hearing the story, they were quite sympathetic. Embry gave me a reassuring smile. “Why don’t you just try to forget about the whole thing,” she said. I remained silent for the rest of the evening and have no recollection of seeing the fireworks.

The next day I described the event to McDonald, who had just returned from vacation.  He had sailed in the boat exactly twice. I reassured him I would replace everything at my expense and would order a new mainsail and jib.


The following day I got sick. Really sick. Worse than the flue, certainly not a cold. High temperature. Chills. Diarrhea. Vomiting. I thought It was all over. At my young age of 33, a victim of Blue Plains Sewerage Treatment Plant. After two days of hearing me complain, Embry insisted I call the doctor.

“Doctor,” I explained in my weak voice, “I think I’m going to die.” I went into great detail about what had happened, my severe symptoms and the fact that I had spent over two hours swimming in the effluent of the Blue Plains Sewerage Treatment Plant. Before I could finish, he interrupted me.

“What kind of boat do you have?” he asked.

“What difference does that make?” I replied.”

“ Just answer me. The boat, what kind of boat?”

“A five-o-five.”

“No kidding. So you’re a five-o-five sailor are you? Is your boat competitive?”

“Competitive? For goodness sake, I spent two hours drinking the filthy Potomac River water. I feel like I am near death, and you’re asking me if my boat is competitive? I want to know what is wrong with me?”          

He continued. “Do you sail much? Where do you keep your boat? Has this happened before? Are you experienced?”

There was a brief silence. Then his tone became more serious. “Jesus,” he said, “I’m a Flying Scott sailor myself and I sail on the Potomac regularly. I’ve always been afraid something like this might happen to me. I think I’ll move my boat to the Bay.”

Before he hung up, he managed to say in closing that what I had was probably one of the “bugs” going around. I could have picked it up anywhere. It could also be hepatitis, but probably wasn’t, and in any event, there wasn’t much you could do for hepatitis. His advice was to rest in bed.


Resting in bed gives you a chance to think, especially when you start to feel better. As I started to think, the more depressed I became. I did not know what to do. Some of the sailing moments had been spectacular, most a disaster. Owning a sailboat was like life itself, I thought, only more so: lots of ups and downs. Surprises and disappointments. Joys and sorrows. I did not want to part with what the boat promised: liberation from the bondage of day-to-day boredom, even transcendence. Yet the boat was in such bad shape, I did not see how it could ever be sailed again. In any event, Embry politely informed me that she was not happy about going out in that boat again.  I could see her point.

My mind was made up for me when I took the boat to a sailboat repair shop which specialized in  small sailboats. I had talked on the phone to the store’s owner, who had enthusiastically suggested that I trailer the boat to his shop. He said he was familiar with five-o-fives and would be honored to work on one. He was sure he could put the boat back in racing shape. “If I can’t do it, nobody can,” he told me with great pride.

After I brought the boat in and he had a chance to look at it, he scratched his head, then went into his back room and returned with an ice pick and a dollar bill. “Here,” he said, handing me the pick. “Use this ice pick here. Tape this dollar bill to the hull and then poke some holes in the hull and let this piece of shit sink to the bottom where she belongs.”

 “Is that all you have to say?”

“That’s all!”


The next day McDonald and I decided to sell the boat. Strange as it may seem, the decision to sell the boat still was not an easy one. I had never gotten a chance to use the trapeze and hang out over the boat’s side, fully extended. I had never really tasted the transcendence I longed for. McDonald had never gotten a chance to even touch the tiller. We both still had the feeling that if we could just get the boat back in shape, maybe….

After work the next day we went out to the sailing marina where the remains of the craft lay in a pile beside a tree. One look and our decision was made. The boat had to go.

We  agreed we  would offer the boat for sale for $1,000 or “best offer,” and I would petition our friend who sold us the boat for a $200 refund. I confronted him head-on that afternoon asserting that his selling us the boat was a well-contrived plan, carefully designed to unload a piece of junk.

While he said he thought we were underpricing the boat, he apologetically agreed to give us a refund up to $200 if we could demonstrate that there was no market for the boat at $1,000.

The next weekend I posted the following ad, which appeared in The Washington Post, running for three days:

For Sale:  505.  Hot-shot, 16-foot racing boat. Trapeze. Your ticket to freedom. $1,000 or best offer. Call 202-244-5942.

For two days the phone hardly stopped ringing. I had two distinct types of callers. The first type was what I had come refer to as the five-o-five groupies. The typical questions went something like this: “Who made the boat? What year? How many first places has it won?” And so on. Usually, they asked me about mysterious items I could not even pronounce, and always, always would ask, “Is the boat competitive?”

To each question—except the one about being competitive, which I refused to answer– I would respond simply, “I don’t know.”

The second type of caller was the novice: The father who wanted to buy a sailboat for his teenage son in hopes of keeping him from smoking dope or drag racing his car. The college student who thought he might like sailing and liked the sound of the ad. The young family thinking this might be a great bonding activity. Sadly, most of these callers were like McDonald and me—people who knew little if anything about sailing. They were simply looking for a small sailboat, any sailboat, and liked the price. On them I took great pity.

I gave interested callers directions to the boat’s location and advised them that the boat needed a little work.

Sunday late afternoon I started getting return calls from people who had seen the boat that morning. Without exception they were furious, claiming the ad was misleading. Most were angry that they had invested the time to see the boat. Two people threatened to report me to the police for false advertising. Though I did get one firm offer of $50, the price was an insult; and later in the day I called the newspaper to cancel the ad. However, I refused—as one caller demanded—to publish a public apology.


For two weeks nothing happened. Neither McDonald nor I said anything to each other about the boat. I think we were hoping the ordeal would just go away. The boat was still resting on the ground illegally at a marina where it did not belong anyway. (A cardboard poster on the boat read, “fire hazard.”) For all I cared, the boat could stay there.

Then one evening a couple of weeks later I got another call—this time from a graduate student, who said he was looking through old newspapers and wondered if I had sold the five-o-five yet.

“Look,” I warned, “the boat’s not competitive. It’s a piece of junk. Nobody wants it. I almost drowned in it. The tiller came off once. It’s got holes in its hull. The sails are shredded. It looks like shit. The hull is supposed to be white, but it’s all brown and gray and mangled. The boat’s been raced to death. All the ropes are tangled up, and I don’t know where they belong. The boat repair store told me I ought to sink it. You’ll just call me back, chew me out, and threaten to report me to the police for false advertising.”

There was a pause at the other end of the line. Then he said, “It sounds like exactly what I’m looking for!”

The tone of his voice was not sarcastic.

“You see, I build surf boards from scratch. I’m an expert in fiber glass. I’m looking for a challenge.”

Within an hour the caller had arrived—a tall, clean-cut young man, the sporty type. His girlfriend—a tall, shy blond—was with him. He followed me in his car as I drove out to show him the boat. I held my breath. When we got to the marina, he looked it over, chuckled, then said, “Well, she’s in worse shape than I thought she’d be in. But she’ll do. How does $300 sound?”

“Sold!” I almost embraced him on the spot.

He gave a sheepish grin, realizing, I think, that he had just performed a mission of mercy. I gave him the shredded sails, the worthless life jackets, the trapeze, harness and all items that were associated with the boat. I wanted nothing in my house to remind me of the five-o-five. He piled everything into his car, wrote me out a $300 check and departed. I never saw the five-o-five again.


Almost four years later, Embry and I were shopping for ice skates for our son, who was then seven years old and our daughter, who was almost four. A tall young man fitted the skates carefully and kept looking at me in a funny way. He looked vaguely familiar.

As I was standing at the cash register signing my credit card slip, he paused, and his face lit up. He stared me directly in the eye and said very slowly “five-o-five”.

“What?” I replied, startled.

“Five-o-five,” he said again. His eyes twinkled and he grinned broadly.

“Five-o-five? What do you mean?” I did not have the slightest idea what he was talking about.

“Five-o-five. About three years ago, you sold me a five-o-five!”

 “Oh, that five-o-five.” I must have turned a deep red.

“Well, I warned you ahead of time. I told you it was hopeless. I apologize. If you want your money back, …. I am really sorry….”        

“Sorry? Hey, I worked on her all summer and fall. Completely rebuilt the hull and sold her the next spring for $1,200! Understand now she’s real competitive.”




How I Was Fired From Teaching at the University of Maryland and Banned From Setting Foot on its Campus

There is much in the news today about sexism and racism, and some complain of a country that has gone too far in “wokeness,” or “cancellation culture.” This is not a new phenomenon. Here is my story:

Toward the end of the 1990s about the time I sold my consulting company, Howell Associates, I became a part-time lecturer at the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs where I lectured on developing seniors housing and on affordable housing finance. I loved the job and enjoyed the opportunity to share knowledge with students, most of whom were adults who were pursuing their continuing education.

Then about 10 years into the job I received a strange voicemail message from the director of the program I was teaching in. “Mr. Howell,” a woman’s voice stated sternly, “There in no place for racists or sexists at the University of Maryland. You are hereby dismissed from your teaching responsibilities and no longer welcomed on our campus.” Then the message ended.

I thought there must be some mistake. I immediately returned the call where I left a return voice message, saying, “I received your message. Could you please explain?”

The next day I received another voice mail message, which stated in an angry tone that I was a racist and a sexist because of the racist and sexist story I told in the class the day before.

For the life of me, I could not figure what she could be talking about, so I called back and got her answering device yet  again and asked for more clarity.  Back came a message that it was because of the terrible racist story I told about the Chinese and that I should call the students I had offended and apologize. She gave me the name and number of the student who was most offended.

Here is the story I told in class, which was true,  when I was trying to explain one of the difficult and maddening issues associated with HUD financing:

I know that this may seem hard to understand and actually it does not make a whole lot of sense, but you do not have to be a rocket scientist to get the picture. This reminds me of an experience I had last week when I was with  one of my clients—the Chinese American Retirement Communities Inc. I was at one of their board meetings and talking to the board about a similar issue in HUD financing. They were bunch of sharp 30 and 40 somethings and very attentive.  Just after I made that comment  about rocket scientists, they all looked briefly at each other and then at me. With a twinkle in her eye and a sheepish grin, a young woman replied, “Mr. Howell, actually we are rocket scientists. All of us. We  work at NASA.”

That was it, the story that got me kicked out of teaching at the University of Maryland and issued a lifetime ban from ever returning to  their campus.

Still curious, I decided to call  the person, a woman, who was the  most offended by my racists remarks, whose surname was American not Chinese. I apologized saying I was not intending to offend anyone, to which she replied she would not accept an apology. When I asked her why she thought the story was racist, she replied that it was  discriminatory and prejudiced to suggest  that all Chinese are smart enough to be rocket scientists.  Okay, I responded, “I get it that I am racist, but why am I sexist?”

She snarled, “Because you said a young woman asked the question. You should have said a young person.”

Then she hung up.

For several months after that incident, I would break out into a cold sweat every time I got within a mile or two of the University of Maryland campus thinking I could be arrested and put in jail. A year passed and then another couple of years. Then I got a call from someone at the University of Maryland who said he was calling on behalf of the director, who had come to the conclusion that by now I must be rehabilitated enough to come back. He confessed they were desperate and could not find anyone to cover the subjects I was teaching. I gladly returned and taught another ten years happily before retiring. 

Happy ending?

Yes, for me. But not for others. The cancellation culture can easily get out of hand.



Taking Stock, Autumn 2021

As I return to blog posting after an extended, unexcused absence, I am struck by the times we find ourselves in. The present moment is existential. More is on the table and up for grabs than I can remember.

The vote to raise the debt limit has been postponed to early December. The delay is described as a sort of victory for the Dems. Victory? Today McConnell declared unconditionally that the Republicans will filibuster the bill, an action which will result in the first default in U.S. history. Who knows what this will mean? Will Social Security, Medicare,  Medicaid, unemployment benefits and just about everything else stop paying? Certainly  investors holding treasury bills will not get their money since the federal government will not be able to borrow more money. Will this  mean the government will come to a virtual halt? Experts warn that this will cause a spark that will cause a financial meltdown, massive job losses, skyrocketing interest rates and another Great Depression. Others say that the likely outcome is so severe that the powers that be won’t let it happen. I recall from my history lessons that that is what people said before World War I when the armies were so large, any potential conflict was thought to be so catastrophic that the powers that be would never let it happen.

Then there is the Biden agenda. With no Republican votes, we need every Democrat in the Senate and all but a small handful of Democratic representatives in the House to agree on these two bills that will move America forward. There is actually rare bi-partisan agreement on the infrastructure bill. However, two Democrats in the Senate right now continue to hold out on the “Build Back Better,” social infrastructure bill, saying the price tag is too high. Progressives in the House seem to be willing to budge somewhat on the price tag but insist on tying the two bills together—pass both or nothing. If the result is nothing, the Democrats can pretty much throw in the towel in the 2022 elections as even loyal Democrats like me throw up our hands in despair.

If that is not enough to get your attention, democracy itself is in peril in the United States. The new state voter restriction laws in many red states will make it harder to vote for people who typically do not vote Republican. The new  laws in red states politicizing  vote counting and the vote verification process are serious threats to  trust in the democratic process.  The Trump diehards continue to claim falsely that the 2020 election was stolen and that he should be our president. The insurrection on January 6 is being downplayed by Pence and most Republicans as a minor incident at the same time that domestic terrorism is now listed by the CIA as a greater threat than foreign terrorism.

The U.S. Supreme Court is now politicized with  justices appointed by a Democratic president deciding  typically one way and the judges appointed by a Republican deciding the other way. With six judges appointed by a Republican president this does not look good for a woman’s right to choose or blocking the new voting restrictions.

And all this is happening in covid-time in a country still battling the pandemic and  that has never been so divided since the Civil War. And it is happening in a world where the climate crisis is accelerating as sea levels rise, horrific storms increase, and the Greenland ice cap is starting to melt. When the Greenland ice cap goes, so goes the planet Earth as we know it.

What will happen? How will we see our way through this? How can we come together to reach consensus on reasonable solutions to address the problems of inequality, lingering racism, class divisions, trust in government, and saving the planet? What about our children and our grandchildren and their children? What kind of world are we leaving them?  These are the questions that I find myself asking as I try to take stock of where we are in the autumn of 2021.

I am not giving up. There are signs of hope. Maybe the Republicans will back down on opposing raising the debt limit—especially since a financial meltdown will hurt the Republican fat cats and major donors. If not, maybe the Democrats will modify the filibuster rule. Maybe the two Biden agenda bills will pass. A paired down version will be better than nothing. Maybe the Supreme Court will overrule the most onerous voter restriction laws, and maybe it will not overturn Roe v Wade. Maybe we will begin to make inroads on tackling inequality and class and race divisions—and, of course, fighting climate change. Maybe we will get past covid, and no new deadly variant will appear. Maybe, maybe…

My hope is that we will figure out some way to pull through. We have the technology to tackle a lot of the issues, especially those associated with climate change. But do we have the will? The time we find ourselves in is a nail biter. It is indeed an existential moment.



GOP Response to the January 6 Hearings

Hey, Mitch, you watching any of those stupid trumped-up hearings about the peaceful gathering of tourists at the Capitol on January 6?

Hell, no Kevin! Do you think I would waste my time watching a bunch of wimpy cops complain about a bad day at work? I’m waiting for the hearings to start on how Pelosi is responsible for all of it.

GOP Covid Plan Yields Results

Hey, great news! Our plan to convince people not to get  vaccinated is working perfectly. Covid infections are skyrocketing. People are dying right and left. Biden is getting blamed for it, and his popularity is plummeting. We Republicans are geniuses. We will cruise to victory….

Yeah, you are right, boss. The plan is working beyond our highest hopes. There is only one problem: The people who are getting infected and dying vote for us.  If it keeps up like this indefinitely, there won’t be any Republicans left to vote.