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Shiny Happy Pirate
By Alex Moody

Like any eight-year-old living on a boat, when Halloween rolled around I wanted to be a pirate. I had visions of an elaborate Treasure Island-worthy costume; my parents were dismissive of my grandiose plans. We had downsized from a three-bedroom condominium in Alexandria, Virginia, to a thirty-five foot sailboat named Witch Woman, and we were at the beginning of a year-long voyage. There was little room for extra supplies, or dissent.

"We can make you a costume with what we have," they said, in unison, like parents do when faced with mutiny.

So this is what I was wearing as we left a downtown marina and approached a cozy residential neighborhood in Annapolis, Maryland, on Halloween night in 1983: blue jeans (my darkest pair), tennis shoes, a black Member's Only jacket (zipped all the way up), a red bandanna on my head, a dollar store plastic sword tucked into my belt, and, of course, an eye patch -- a circle cut from a piece of gauze and colored black with magic marker. I colored the patch half-heartedly, mumbling about injustice on the high seas, so it looked exactly as you'd expect a piece of gauze colored with marker to look. Almost as much white as black. Streaky. A sad, one-eyed boy's attempt at making his temporary patch slightly less mortifying to the general populace. Yar.

My mother and stepfather skipped the gauze and magic markers -- no costumes for them, aside from what they might later describe as their standard "hobo sailor" outfits: jeans dirty from engine work, sweatshirts washed once a month at best, and well-worn boat shoes. Still, we were a merry band that night, and one of us was hell-bent on pillaging and plundering.


My stepfather bought Witch Woman when he retired from the U. S. Department of Agriculture. We spent the summer of 1983 preparing for a year-long voyage from Washington, D. C., down the East Coast, over to the Bahamas, and back up to D. C. I named the dinghy, a rowboat that had its own mast and sail, Batteries Not Included.

Naming a dinghy might seem like a small consolation when faced with being removed from school and friends, and it was. At eight, I wasn't old enough to understand how adults viewed our adventure, but I knew that kids my age didn't pick up and leave very often, or if they did it was for a good reason. Tammy's mom got a divorce and moved back home to Tucson. Okay, understood, divorce happens. Kevin transferred to a school where kids beat on drums and wrote poems all day. No problem. Every neighborhood has that family. Alex's parents bought a boat, and they were going to live on it. Better yet, they were spending all summer varnishing canned goods. That's what they would subsist on, and sea water would eat into the containers of bacon, green beans, and corned beef without a layer of sealant. Corned beef and sealant? Those are the pairings that make people start to wonder.

When I saw my friends for the last time, they looked at me like I was an astronaut on launch day. Sure, they wished me well, as eight-year-olds do ("Can I have your G. I. Joes?"). But their furrowed brows indicated they expected to see my shipwrecked corpse splayed on the front page of a major newspaper within five or six weeks. In fact, embarking on a space mission would have made more sense because space and rocketships are always cool, never fall out of being cool, while boats go out to sea and never come back.

More likely, after a few days my friends forgot about the whole thing. I prefer to imagine that they spent more time than that wondering, that maybe they guessed or dreamed that I'd get so tired of canned corned beef hash and green beans that I wouldn't eat them for years afterward, or that Witch Woman almost sank on two occasions, or that a boating accident claimed the life of a girl named Crystal in Beaufort, who I met in South Carolina, and that she'd be a lost friend and remain in my memory only as a name, an energy, a light.


The mayor of Annapolis had an elaborate set-up at his home that Halloween. I remember fog, a path down the side of the house that featured assorted howling monsters, and a gathering area at the end of the path where parents and children could drink a cup of cider.

For some reason I didn't want to get involved. I don't know if I felt it was beneath me, as a pirate, to mingle with common happy folk, or if I was scared, or if I was more interested in moving from house to house as quickly as possible in a quest for Laffy Taffy. We saw that someone had answered the front door, so I decided to skip the festivities and head straight for the candy bowl nestled in the arms of the mayor's wife.

When I described my costume earlier, I neglected to mention that the clothes on my back were the clothes I wore almost every day. Everything I owned fit in a milk crate. On most days I didn't wear shoes. We had no shower, so when dirt caked in the cleft of my collarbone, and we happened to be docked at a marina, my stepfather and I would shower with vagrants in a public restroom.

I don't remember my collarbone cleft status that Halloween night, but I'm sure I looked a little rough around the edges. My parents may have, too, because I remember them lurking in the shadows around a streetlight as I walked up toward the mayor's front door, and I remember the mayor's wife scanning the front yard warily after she saw me pirating up her front steps.

"Why, uh, hello there!" she said. "And who might you be?"

"I'm a pirate!" I said.

"Well, of course," she said. "A pirate. And where do you live?"

I'm not sure what she expected my response to be. At the time it seemed like a stupid question.

"I live on a boat," I said, which was true no matter how you looked at the situation.

"No, no," she said. "Where do you live?" Her voice, more serious now, dropped an octave.

"I live on a boat," I said, again.

"Oh, you poor dear! You poor dear!" She looked horrified.

I don't remember saying anything. When you're a child you start to sense the presence of Concerned Adults, like grandparents, or neighbors, or maybe just plain mothers -- those folks who take it upon themselves to right wrongs, fix what's broken, and sweep young pirates away before loot can be looted. I'm not saying I had all this in my head in 1983. I just knew that it was probably time to back away, slowly.

"Do you want any bread?" she asked. "Milk? Would you like to come in? What do you have on your boat?" The mayor's wife was going into overdrive. At this point my parents whisked me away with embarrassed smiles. We may have been a ragtag bunch, slightly caked with dirt and tired of living off of canned food, but we didn't need handouts.


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