Original photo: Library of Congress
Original photo: Library of Congress
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Shipping Out

The things that happen when you stare at the sea

by
Jay Neugeboren
January 21, 2022
Original photo: Library of Congress
Original photo: Library of Congress

Born and raised in Brooklyn, I’d never, in the first 21 years of my life, been on any ship other than the Staten Island ferry, or traveled west of New Jersey. Nor had I ever flown in an airplane, or been to Europe. But on June 15, 1959, two weeks after my 21st birthday, I found myself boarding a training ship with 400 merchant marine cadets, a ship on which I would be yeoman to the ship’s executive officer, and a ship that would, in the next 11 weeks, take me to England, Norway, Spain, France, and the Madeira islands.

Here’s how it happened: Three days after my 21st birthday, I graduated from Columbia, and a few days after that I stopped by the student placement office to thank the director for having gotten me the part-time jobs that had enabled me to pay my way through four years of college. I’d be heading to graduate school in the fall, and I had some job possibilities that would get me through the summer, but I asked him to keep me in mind if anything interesting came along.

The next day I left Brooklyn for a two-week vacation on Cape Cod with my girlfriend, Emily, and her mother, but less than a week later, on Friday afternoon, my mother called to tell me that the director of the placement office had called and asked me to call him. It sounded urgent, she said.

I called the director. “How well do you type?” he asked.

“Very well,” I said.

“Good,” he said, and he told me to call Cmdr. James M. Maley at the State University of New York Maritime College, and to do it quickly, before someone else did. He gave me Cmdr. Maley’s phone number, and I called.

“How well do you type?” Cmdr. Maley asked.

“Very well,” I said.

“Good,” he said, and he asked if I could be aboard the college’s ship—it was anchored in the Bronx, at Fort Schuyler—on Monday morning. I said I could, after which, my job interview apparently over, he told me that the college went on a training cruise every summer, and he gave me this year’s itinerary: Plymouth, England; Oslo, Norway; Santander, Spain; Marseilles, France; and Funchal, Madeira. In order for the cadets to get hands-on experience in running a ship, most of our time would be spent at sea, but we’d anchor in each country for several days, and he hoped to give us most of my time off in port so that I’d be free to travel—perhaps, he suggested, to London, Madrid, and/or Paris.

Cmdr. Maley was the executive officer of the ship, the Empire State III, second in command to the ship’s captain. As yeoman, he explained, my job would be to run the ship’s main office—to post the plan of the day each morning (uniform of the day, times for sick call, muster and turn-to, watch and relieve-the-watch, knock-off, etc.), and attend to clerical matters—correspondence, courses, disciplinary proceedings, and our interactions with European harbor officials and United States Customs authorities. He apologized for giving me such short notice, and explained that the man who’d been his yeoman in previous summers had become ill and, for reasons he did not explain, and I didn’t inquire about, only a civilian employee was permitted to run the ship’s office. I would eat my meals with the ship’s crew, share a stateroom (a stateroom?!) with another crew member, and then, apologizing again, he said that the salary for the position, set by the state, was only $50 a week. If that was acceptable, and he hoped it would be, I should purchase two sets of khakis, arrive at the ship early on Monday morning, and ask to be directed to his office.

England! France! Norway! Spain! Madeira!—and they were going to pay me? I was in a near-delirious state of shock but managed to say that the salary was acceptable ($50 a week in 1959 was the equivalent of $440 today), and that I looked forward to meeting him on Monday. I didn’t, however, own a passport. Was that a problem? Not at all, he said. Once I was on board, he’d provide me with a document that would be the equivalent of a passport, which turned out to be a pale green 2-by-3-inch card. Authorized by The State University of New York Maritime College, and signed by “James M. Maley, Commandant of Cadets,” the card had my name printed on it, and stated: “This entitles the bearer to leave on liberty if entitled to liberty. Use of this card for other than authorized liberty, or by other than the person named, is an offense.”

Two years before, during my sophomore year at Columbia, I’d been diagnosed with giant follicular lymphoma, had had several cancerous lymph nodes surgically removed, and had received a thousand roentgens of radiation to each side of my neck. Although the diagnosis was kept from me, the surgery and the radiation, along with the secrecy concerning the diagnosis, convinced me that I probably had less than a year to live, and so I’d decided it was time to do what I’d been longing to do: Each night after my parents and brother were asleep, I went into our kitchen, put my typewriter on towels to muffle its sounds, and worked on what would become my first (unpublished) novel. Two years later, a few weeks before my graduation, and in remission from the cancer—as I am, lucky me, seven decades later—I completed a second (unpublished) novel. The prospect of shipping out the way many of my favorite writers had—Herman Melville, Herman Wouk, Joseph Conrad, and Mark Twain among them—and perhaps, like them, using the experience for other novels of my own, was more than mildly exhilarating.

I also felt secretly relieved that the vacation with Emily and her mother had been cut short. Not only were Emily and I required by her mother to sleep in separate bedrooms, but in the time we did spend together, we were constantly arguing. Upset that I’d be moving to Bloomington, Indiana, in the fall for graduate school, Emily wanted us to get engaged, and to begin planning for a wedding and a family, while I kept saying I wasn’t ready for marriage, that I feared I’d never have the time to write the novels I hoped to write if, at 21, I had to support a wife and children, and that I thought it best—“to make sure of our commitment” was one patently disingenuous reason I gave—if we began dating other people.

We spent our first two weeks at sea practicing maneuvers in the North Atlantic, where we regularly held abandon ship drills during which hundreds of us would climb down rope ladders, get into lifeboats, and row away from the ship. When the all clear signal sounded on our first abandon ship drill and we began rowing back to the ship, the ship began sailing away from us, and as we chased after it, the cadets laughed and told me that the captain did this every summer on the first abandon ship drill.

Once a week I accompanied Cmdr. Maley and his pet dog, a sweet-tempered cocker spaniel that spent his days curled up next to the commander’s desk, on a “material inspection” tour. Without advance notice to the cadets, we’d visit various parts of the ship, from the wheelhouse and communications center on the bridge, to the engine rooms, food lockers, and bilges in the ship’s lowest levels. When we entered a facility, the cadets would stand to attention, and Cmdr. Maley would inspect the unit, inquire about problems, and have me take notes. In this way, and also by hanging out with cadets, who were divided between two departments, deck and engine—with the deck cadets responsible for managing the ship’s navigation and cargo operation and the engine cadets responsible for the operation and maintenance of the ship’s engine, as well as its electrical, ventilation, refrigeration, and heating systems—I came, by the end of our cruise, to have visited pretty much every part of the ship, and to have begun, but only begun, to understand how the cadets, officers, and crew coordinated its multiplicity of functions.

Although Cmdr. Maley was always clear and firm with the cadets—I was present when he warned several of them that if they did not “straighten out,” they risked expulsion—he was one of the kindest men I’ve ever known, and for 11 weeks I had, in him, the father I’d never had: a gentle, sympathetic man who was happy and successful in his work. “The luckiest thing that ever happened to me,” he told me in one of our early conversations, “was to discover that I loved being at sea. To have had a career as a merchant marine officer, and the opportunity to train generations of young men who would become merchant marine officers—well, what could be better?”

My father, like Cmdr. Maley, was a slightly paunchy, gray-haired man in his mid-50s, but unlike Cmdr. Maley he’d been a failure at every job and business he’d tried, and had had to rely on my mother, a registered nurse who often worked double shifts and took on extra nursing and secretarial jobs, to support our family. Withdrawn, depressed, and subject to temper tantrums, my father and I had rarely been able to talk easily with one another, and so it was an especial joy to be able to talk with Cmdr. Maley about my life, my plans, and my hopes. While my father, when he got up at 1 or 2 in the morning to go to the bathroom and found me writing in the kitchen, would scoff at me in Yiddish (“From this you’re going to earn a living?” he’d say), when Cmdr. Maley discovered I’d completed two novels, and hoped to spend my life writing, he expressed admiration for my ambition, and added that he could tell from my “diligence and passion—his words—that no matter the setbacks I might experience, he was certain I would succeed. Although he was a devoted father and husband, to have been able to spend a large part of his life away from what he called “the distractions and responsibilities” of family life, he said, had been a gift that allowed him the time to indulge his passion for reading novels by 19th-century writers such as Hardy, Stevenson, Twain, and Dickens.

I quickly discovered that I, too, loved life at sea. I loved being far from home in a self-contained and self-sufficient world where I was accountable to no one except Cmdr. Maley. And I loved being between here and there—set adrift between worlds in an unfamiliar setting, yet surrounded by hundreds of guys my age who, like me, were eager for adventure and, since there were no women on the ship (the college admitted its first female cadet in 1977), especially eager to meet the dozens of gorgeous young women they said would be waiting for us in every port. While we were between ports, there were movies most nights on the ship’s fantail, and when an actress did something suggestive—sucking soda through a straw, or doing the frog kick while swimming underwater—several hundred cadets would go wild: hooting, hollering, and shouting out raunchy invitations.

On July 6, we dropped anchor in Plymouth, England, and on the afternoon of our third day in port—Brooklyn boy that I was, I kept a ship’s log not of what I did on the ship, but of what I did in the cities I visited—Cmdr. Maley set me free, told me to be back on board by noon on the afternoon before we set sail for Oslo, and wished me well.

With three cadets, I took a midnight train to Paddington Station in London. We arrived at dawn, had a huge English breakfast in a restaurant near the train station, and made our way to Cecil Court, the famed “Bookseller’s Row,” where we found a hotel and spent the day visiting the city’s major sites. The next day we took a train to Oxford, where we visited the city’s colleges and, as we had in London, and in Plymouth, introduced ourselves to young women we met in cafés, in parks, and on the street—something I’d never dared to do in New York City. Many of the young women seemed happy to spend time with us. I remained incredulous, as I would for the rest of the summer, not only that I was actually in cities like London and Paris, but that when I went up to a young woman, smiled and said, “Hello,” the young woman would smile and say “Hello” back to me.

One wall of my office was a large concession stand window I kept open while I worked, and cadets would come by for information, to pick up or hand in forms, and to pass the time of day telling me tales of what they’d done on previous cruises, and to make plans for what we might do together in the next country on our itinerary. Because I ran the ship’s office, I also had ongoing interactions with officers and crew members. I became friendly with the college’s chief business officer, Harry Gandelman (he made reservations for us to travel from Santander to Madrid on a once-a-week train that had only two cars, one of which was an elegantly appointed dining car); with the yeoman to the captain, John Kells (he clued me in on which officers could make life difficult for me); and with a crew member, Felipe Reyes, who worked in the kitchen as a “messman.” Felipe had won medals in Golden Gloves tournaments and had boxed professionally, though in order to maintain his amateur status and, the hope that he would represent Puerto Rico in the Olympics, he’d done so under an alias. He asked me to spar with him so he could stay in shape, and we spent several afternoons going at it in my stateroom, during which afternoons I earned a chipped front tooth and his friendship.

And one afternoon when I was visiting with my friend Bob Bohlman on the bridge, he asked if I’d like to take the helm. On that day, and on several others, and once at night—and with the approval of the deck officer on duty—I took the helm and, my hands on the wheel and my eyes on the ship’s compass and the open sea ahead, I steered the Empire State III across the Atlantic Ocean.

Although I spent many evenings with cadets—watching movies, playing poker, hanging out with them at their assigned stations or in their sleeping quarters, and drinking with them from stashes of beer and liquor they concealed in pill bottles and ingeniously constructed compartments in overhead cable conduits—more often than not I’d find a quiet spot in one of the cadet lounges where I’d read, and make notes for a new novel.

I’d brought two recently published novels with me—Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road and Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King—and I responded to them the way I’ve often responded to novels I fell in love with: I was, by turns, depressed and inspired—depressed by feelings of inadequacy (How would I ever be able to write anything that came close to what they’d achieved); and inspired by intimations of triumph (Oh yes! I would one day write a novel that would create in others the joy and wonder these novels created in me!).

And on many evenings, I went on deck and I stared out at the sea. I stared and I stared and I stared. I stared at the horizon where I rarely saw the lights of another ship, but where, early on two evenings, I spotted pods of migrating whales; I stared at the surface of the water—sometimes smooth as glass, sometimes pocked and rippled with swells, and sometimes exploding with waves that crashed against the ship’s hull; and I stared at dolphins who came at us from the direction in which we were heading, and passed to either side of the ship’s prow in synchronous, leaping pairs. I stared and I stared until my mind floated free—until I was able to let it float free—of all thoughts, memories, and feelings, and I could exist in a timeless space between what was and what was to come.

Raised in a Brooklyn version of Jewish-Calvinism where I had, endlessly, to prove my right to exist by tangible accomplishments, to spend hours simply (simply?!) staring at the sea and the sky without feeling the need to justify what I was doing, offered a kind of freedom I’d never known. It was a freedom that came from not having to produce or accomplish something. In the highly competitive world of upwardly mobile first-generation urban Jewish Americans I’d come from, it was not that “idle hands” were the “devil’s workshop,” but that while you were idle others would not be idle and would be getting ahead of you in the unremitting struggle for survival and success.

During my first three years at Columbia I lived at home and commuted to school, an hour each way, by subway. In my senior year, I rented an apartment near Columbia with a friend, and while I continued to work part-time jobs and attend to my studies, I was also able—at last!—to do two things I’d been longing to do: to play for a college team (the lightweight football team, which was the same as varsity football except that on the afternoon before a game you had to weigh in at less than 155 pounds), and to have a girlfriend with whom, away from her home and mine, I could spend private, intimate time.

Emily Brewster Bradford was descended, on both sides of her family, from Pilgrims who had come to America on the Mayflower. Her father, Nathaniel Bates Bradford, was the president of a corporation that was owned by Jews, and that manufactured paper used in upscale personal and business stationery—letterheads, corporate reports, invitations, etc.—and was, according to Emily, “the WASP front” to the corporation’s clientele. When she told him she’d like to have me come to dinner in their Chappaqua home, his only comment was: “Is he another one of your Jewboy friends?” I came to dinner, and after Emily introduced me to him, other than offering me a drink, he did not speak to me all evening. But no matter to me. Descended on both sides of my family from Eastern European Jews who had come to America in steerage, the fact of Emily’s ancestry undoubtedly served as an aphrodisiac. By becoming intimate with a descendant of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite, I was showing the world (and myself?) not only that I had “made it” as an American, but that I had, in some elemental way, conquered America.

I met Emily in the same week I began practicing with the football team, and we laughed when I told her that my mother had telephoned Columbia’s dean of students and insisted that because I was still recovering from cancer, he must forbid me from playing on the team. And when I told my mother I had a girlfriend who wasn’t Jewish, she threatened to call our synagogue’s rabbi so that he would take away one of the jobs that helped me pay for my apartment: being “junior rabbi” in charge of our synagogue’s Saturday morning services for boys and girls who were not yet of bar and bat mitzvah age.

My mother refused to meet Emily, and I countered by refusing to come home. When seven or eight weeks went by and I stayed true to my word, my mother relented. “If I don’t want to lose you, I suppose I have to meet her,” she said. I brought Emily home for dinner on the evening after our final football game (we won the game, with my brother Robert and Emily there to cheer me on), and when, midway through the meal, Emily left the table, my mother pointed a knife at me. “Here,” she said. “Why don’t you just cut my heart out with this, and be done with it!” She handed me the knife. When I didn’t take it, she set it down in front of Robert, who was sitting between us. He looked at me, and he looked at our mother. He picked up the knife and handed it to me.

Emily was a math major at Columbia’s School of General Studies, a division of the university where one did not have to be a degree-earning or full-time student. She had started out at Smith College, and on our first evening together she surprised me when, without my asking, she explained why she had dropped out of Smith two years before: “I had a breakdown,” she said.

We saw each other the next night and every day and night after that for the rest of the academic year. In her unembarrassed affection for me (when we were alone and when we were with friends), her generosity (I became the recipient of daily love notes and gifts), her refusal to be bitter or vengeful toward those who had hurt her (she expressed gratitude toward an ex-boyfriend for having relieved her of her virginity), and, always, her directness, which was as gracious as it was blunt, she was unlike anyone I’d ever known. Although she tutored me at length in matters of etiquette (rules concerning thank-you notes and table manners), in her playfulness, wit, and rambunctiousness (in rough-and-tumble touch-football games), she was more like one of the guys than a demure young socialite. In her combination of upper-class manners and down-to-earth vitality, she was also unlike any woman my friends had known, and they kept telling me what I believed: that I was a very lucky guy. Even my father, who hardly ever opposed my mother, took me aside one evening for a rare private conversation. “Don’t tell mother, but I like Emily,” he said, and he added what was, in Yiddish, high praise: “From her you won’t get poisoned.”

Emily’s all-women dormitory at Columbia did not allow men to visit women in their rooms, and no matter my repeated appeals, Emily would never breach the dormitory’s rules and stay overnight with me in my apartment. She was the first woman I was fully intimate with, and I’d hoped our lovemaking would bring with it transcendent sensual pleasures that would in themselves bring us ever closer to one another. We were both, at 20 years old, awkward and inexperienced about sex, and though we gradually became comfortable with each other sexually, always—for me—in a measured, dutiful way, so that I came to think of us not as lovers or soul mates but as friends who got along amicably the way many brothers and sisters did. As the months passed, we made love less and less frequently.

At the end of my final semester at Columbia, I received a fellowship to graduate school in Indiana. Emily was happy for me and proud of me, though candid about the difficulties she thought we’d experience in being apart, and equally candid about what she thought we should do: We should become engaged before I left for Indiana, and we should plan for a late spring or early summer wedding. To formalize our intentions, she had us open a joint savings account that we would contribute to regularly, and would use toward setting up our first home.

And that home, she proposed, would be on the campus of a boarding school of the kind she had gone to, a school where I would teach English, she would teach math (before and after we had children), and where we would live in student housing and, as house parents, be provided with free room and board. She talked lovingly of her school years at the Dana Hall Academy, an all-girls boarding school in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and extolled the virtues of what she foresaw as an idyllic existence in which I would become an esteemed teacher, and we would become beloved mentors and surrogate parents to generations of bright, gifted young men and women.

Although, like my parents and friends, I often saw the world of privileged upper-class WASPS as one in which the American dream had been realized, and although I’d taken unabashed pride in the fact that I had a girlfriend who came from this world, I was less than enthusiastic about the life Emily imagined for us. I worried about how such immersion in the communal life of a prep school would affect the time I’d have for writing. And in addition to the confusion of envy and resentment I felt about a world that, until this point in my life, had excluded me from its ranks and rewards, I was frightened by the prospect of living in a world vastly different from the one I’d come from: a world where, I protested (silently), your money and your ancestry granted you a life in which wealth, taste, style, and power were joined with and enabled by a multitude of social and economic advantages and, more fundamental, a sense of entitlement that someone born and raised without such advantages could never acquire, no matter one’s efforts and achievements: a life in which, as tutor to the children of the wealthy, I would be just another member of the large servant class that waited on them. Although I didn’t voice such feelings aloud, I became increasingly disturbed that, by presenting the idea of us living and teaching at an elite prep school as a practical and ideal plan for our life together, Emily did not sense that this was so.

Three-and-a-half weeks after the ship left New York, we arrived in Oslo. “First Day,” I wrote in my travel log. “Work until after dinner. Week-end free. Into Oslo & walk around all nite with crew members. Emily not home.” Emily was spending the summer in the Netherlands, living with a family on an international student exchange program. Letters from Emily were waiting for me when we arrived, however, and in these letters she wrote about what a great summer she was having and, at length, about what good friends she’d become with a young man in the Dutch family.

“Into town to call Emily,” I wrote on our second day in Oslo. “Speak to her. Disappointing. Something is gone.” After we talked, and while hanging out with cadets at Promenadecafeen, a large outdoor café in the center of Oslo, I met Liv, a young, bright, attractive Norwegian woman who lived in Høvik, on the outskirts of the city, and with whom I spent the next three days and nights. We visited museums, ate in restaurants, watched a baseball game between NATO teams, and visited Frogner Park, where we laughed at, and climbed onto, the erotic Vigeland sculptures. Liv made dinner and breakfast for us, and we made love frequently, slowly, and luxuriously. Before we parted, she gave me two gifts—a wool scarf she’d seen me admire in a Norwegian arts and crafts store, and a photo of herself that she inscribed. (Forty-five years later, I was in Oslo to give several talks, and I engaged in a free-wheeling conversation with a Norwegian jazz pianist, Reidar Larsen, about the blues—musical and psychological. After our presentation I had drinks with Larsen and several Norwegians and told them the story of the three heavenly days I’d spent with Liv. They immediately got out their smartphones and began trying, without success, to locate her, after which I showed them the photo, asked them if they’d translate the inscription—romantic, I assumed—on the back. They turned the photo over, looked at the inscription, and began laughing. What Liv had written was “Please return my photo.”)

After the ship left Oslo, we spent most of the next two weeks at sea, and during these two weeks, after many phone calls, letters, and telegrams, and after Cmdr. Maley assured me of time off in Marseilles so I could go to Paris, Emily agreed to meet me there, but said she would stay at Reid Hall, a Columbia residence for women located in the city’s Montparnasse section. I took an overnight train from Marseilles to Paris, and arrived, sleepless, at 9 in the morning. “Scared!” I wrote in my daily log. Midafternoon, I met Emily and, the first time in Paris for both of us, we wandered around the city for the rest of the day and into the night, the two of us surprised at how thrilled we were to be together again. “Walk. Walk. Walk,” I wrote at the end of the day. “Then to sleep—tired & so happy.”

We spent the next two days visiting museums, and walking the city while stopping frequently to kiss, and to kiss again. Emily did not mention the young man in her Dutch family; I did not allude to my adventure in Oslo; and unmoored from New York and our families, neither of us talked about the future.

When I returned to Marseilles, the ship’s shore patrol was out in force, to break up fights the cadets were getting into in bars, and to disperse several dozen cadets who, on a street where many of the city’s prostitutes lived and worked, kept clapping their hands in a slow rhythm in order to taunt a woman they believed had given several of their fellow cadets “the clap.” And that evening, our last in port, cadets informed me that while I was in Paris, the ship’s chaplain, a Catholic priest—our “sky pilot”—had, while visiting a brothel, suffered a heart attack and died. His body, they said, would be stored in one of the ship’s freezers until our return to the States. On stops in our voyage back to New York, Emily and I spoke by phone several times, and with greater candor than before, we renewed our arguments about the future.

And a week after the ship docked, on Labor Day weekend, Emily and I met on the Columbia campus. We reminisced about Paris, talked about the year ahead, and said we would stay in touch and see each other when I returned to New York for the holidays. We closed out our joint checking account. Less than two months later I received a formal wedding invitation to attend Emily’s marriage to Lindsey Mark Lenox, and recalled that in the spring Emily told me that, at her mother’s insistence, she’d had lunch several times with a Columbia law student named Lindsey, who her mother had befriended at their Christian Science church.

In May of 2020, when I was isolated in New York City, I received a letter from Emily. “Thank you for the good you’ve brought into my life over the past 60 years,” the letter began, and it enumerated, paragraph by paragraph, what she was grateful for: her writing skills (“You taught me to write, not brilliantly, but well enough that I got A’s rather than C’s on college essays); her passion for art (“a love that I have to this day and that I passed on to two grandsons.”); her wariness toward her father (“You warned me about dad. After Christmas in Chappaqua, my last and your only, you alerted me to the way he looked at me.”); and her feelings about us (“Most important—you taught me what it feels like to be loved.”)

In late August, I received another letter. “During these challenging times, gratitude is not the first thing that comes to mind,” Emily wrote, “but I continue to be grateful for all the good that has come into my life as the result of our friendship so many years ago. Thank you. Be well, Emily.”

I’d been receiving letters like this for 60 years. In the late ’80s, when one of Emily’s daughters was attending Smith College, and I was living a block from the Smith College campus, Emily and I met for dinner several times. A few years later, after her youngest child graduated from college—Emily had been a single parent to her four children, as I’d been a single parent to my three children—she was free, she wrote, “to realize her dream.” When she was in her mid-50s, she became a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine, and following her tour there, she kept returning, mostly to Kolomiya, which became, she wrote, “her second home.” In 2006, she published a book about her years in Ukraine, when she organized art exhibits, taught English, and raised money for at-risk children who lived in orphanages she helped transform into admirable educational facilities.

On most days when I’m at work on a novel, story, or essay, I think not that I’m working on the novel, story, or essay itself, but rather that I’m working on a transition—on words, paragraphs, and/or pages that will get me from what I wrote the day before to what I hope to write—what I might write—on the next day. I’m rarely able to recall the actual act of writing, and when I reread a passage of mine that’s been published I’m often pleasantly surprised, as in: Did I really write that? And if so, when?

When the writing goes well, ordinary time ceases to exist in the way it ceased to exist on those evenings when, on the deck of the Empire State III, I stared at sea and sky—at wide horizons and endless vistas—and felt unbound from the past and open to the unknown. And I wonder too: Were the 61 years that have passed since that summer at sea also a transition—a mere, brief moment—between who I was at 21 and who I am now?

Jay Neugeboren is an essayist, short story writer, and the author of 22 books.

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