I am lucky. I’m lucky for many reasons. One, I met my wife, Carrie, at a young age and have been enjoying a lifetime of wonderful memories. Another reason I am lucky is because I won a Caribbean cruise on a Chicago radio station. On February 14 (St. Valentine’s Day), 1983 I picked up the phone at my work office and correctly answered the question on the other end of the line. It wasn’t my favorite radio station, but my wife had coached me. You see, she had entered my name in a contest where she worked, Carson, Pirie & Scott on State street in Chicago. Two weeks later, I won a set of luggage, a week after that a turkey. Go figure.
I had one year left of college at Purdue University. At graduation, I planned to marry my lovely fiancé. But with a free cruise and luggage in front of me, I decided to pop the question. I approached Carrie’s father and asked if we two could go on this cruise in the September together. “No daughter of mine is going on vacation like that without a ring on her finger!” Then it was settled, we both decided to push the date up and get married in the summer, August 27th in fact. “Well now, let’s not rush this. Weddings are expensive.” her father countered. “We can make it work” I interjected. And we did. Since I worked at my church I was able to book the church for free. And even better, we could have the gymnasium for the reception. Carrie got her mother and the ladies at her church to set up a group of buffet tables just outside the kitchen in the gymnasium. My sister got married in Texas that summer so the band my parents had procured for her had no gig and were available on our date, so we had live music. Like I said, we made it work, very affordable.
I will never forget the day of our wedding. Carrie was a vision of splendor and elegance. The church was packed, not a single seat open in any pew. We were blessed with 350 attendants from both families and friends all around. Our very good friend, Jim, sang “The Wedding Song” with his acoustic guitar from the upper level by the pipe organ. The moment was pure magic for us. Before I knew it we were whisked away for a photo shoot and then up to the gym where throngs of guests awaited us! We ate, drank, and danced the night away.
Two weeks later, our honeymoon date arrived. We boarded a bus with our luggage bound for O’Hare airport, Chicago. Three hours and 19 minutes later we touched down in sunny Miami. A quick taxi ride and we were standing in front of the ship. She was the biggest thing I had ever seen on water. Over the years we would cruise again and again, but this day it was all new and very exciting. Before I knew it, we were unpacked and on one of the decks waving goodbye to Miami as we pushed off into the deep blue, sunny destinations waiting for us.
People who cruise will tell you that the fun, drink, and food never stops. It’s true. I remember always getting ready to eat or just finishing up a meal. One afternoon early on in the trip Carrie and I were in a buffet line poolside, loading our plates with burgers and fries. As we turned to look for available seating, we found some open round tables clustered near the hot tubs. We selected one and took our seats. A moment later, a very tall gentleman approached and asked if he could join us. “Well, of course. Please have a seat.” I said, and he did. Relaxed conversation quickly revealed that he was part of one of the performing acts on the cruise with us. In fact, he was one of the founding members to The Fifth Dimension! What a fortunate stroke of serendipity for us. As I took a man-size bite out of my cheeseburger, I heard Carrie ask him in humbled honesty, “How many are there in your group?”. Wait, what? His jaw dropped as did mine, exposing my semi-chewed burger. “Uhhh, ma’am… There would be five of us in The Fifth Dimension” he stated and then cleared his throat. Oh brother, what was she thinking? Conversation continued on light and free until we were all satisfied with lunch. We stood, shook hands and departed to our cabin to change our clothes so we could eat again. Life on a cruise ship, you got to love it.
The next morning came early for me. I could not wait to get to our first port-of-call so I was restless and up before the sun. Our destination this morning was to the Nassau Cruise Port in The Bahamas. Oh how I remember being on deck and feeling the sensations of being in the tropics. The sun, the beautiful breeze, the smell of the Atlantic ocean, the hustle and bustle down below at the edge of the pier where men were securing our ship, tethered and tight. We spent the morning shopping and exploring Nassau. That afternoon we decided to go to the beach and take in the surf and the sand. A quick trip back to our cabin on the ship to change clothes and we were off. I found the beach sand to be soft, warm and inviting. The salt water was perfectly clear. I could see my feet as clearly as if I were still on the beach sand. The air was filled with the sounds of many people splashing and playing in a tropical paradise. We decided to rent snorkels, goggles, and flippers. “Let’s go further out and see what we can see by the reefs” I laughingly encouraged. So off we went. With the goggles, we could see even better, no salt sting from the water. Then it happened. We suddenly found ourselves in a school of jellyfish. No bigger then a grade school ruler and mostly transparent; there were hundreds of them circling us. I bumped into one and it stung me, the kind of sting you can get from a horsefly, so something I wasn’t venturing to repeat. Carrie did not take well to this new predicament we were in. I announced that it would be best if we bent our knees, submerged and swam under and out of the nest of jellyfish. She never heard me. She started to panic and rustle about. Holding her still only got me more jellyfish stings. Then she did something I have never seen before. Jesus may have walked on water, but that day my newly wed wife, somehow manage to run to shore. When all was said and done, we both inherited a couple dozen stings. Jellyfish suck.
On to the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas specifically. I found The Bahamas rather flat islands, but The Virgin Islands were very mountainous. Another day of amazing weather, sites and sounds! With a full belly of breakfast, we set out on an all-day excursion where we were going to snorkel among corral reefs and see exotic fish and flora. The brochure guaranteed a good time for all. So we took the bait and went for it. While on the short bus ride to our destination I was able to see how islanders live. It seemed so foreign to me, having grown up in the Midwest in the US. Maybe time really does move a little slower here. By the time we got to the site, I was ready to start. Our guide gave us the parameters to keep the excursion fun & safe. I paid close attention and became a bit alarmed to find out that some of the creatures down there are dangerous, particularly the dreaded sea urchin. Turns out, these spiny, globular echinoderms can really mess up your day (week) if you come in contact with them. I decided right there and then that I was going to stay far away from them as possible. Amen.
Upon arriving at our dive site, we received our gear and dressed for the water. Our guide brought a group of fifteen people, including us, into the shallow dive site. Like a scene straight out of “Finding Nemo“, we were amazed again and again about the beauty that surrounded us. I was beginning to think that the life ahead of me might include a lot of diving. But then something happened that started to bother me. As a large group of cruise-going, snorkeling-beginners moved along the reef, we began to tighten with fins and arms hitting me from all sides. I could feel the space shrinking and even worse, lowering. The water had suddenly become much smaller and shallower. And to my utter horror, the floor of the ocean below me was full of sea urchins. Three feet, two feet, one foot. We were running out of water. I could not contain my fear and others around me were pushing and shoving me. I was about to scream when suddenly the floor of the ocean fell off and once again, we shared a dozen feet between us and that spiking bottom. No, diving was not looking good in my future, for me or my new wife. I was ever so glad to get out of the water that day.
Our dinners on board the ship were always fun. We were seated with fellow radio winners from Chicago and we shared stories of how we won! One night near the end of our trip, we were all talking about the next day’s excursions. We were going to a private island owned by the cruise line and rumor had it that there was a nude beach. Nude beaches are always a good topic for interesting conversation and so it went on and on. The following morning we rose and packed for a full day off the ship. We chose to spend most of the day on the beach with a little sailboat ride at high noon. Cruise ships are quite large and often they find themselves in a bit of a predicament when they cannot get to all locations they desire. That’s why they come complete with little boats on the main deck and cranes to move them off and on. Our ship had two of these boats called “Tenders“. And trust me, they were not small. Each 100 foot long tender could move 300+ guests to and from the ship. We boarded one of the tenders with our beach gear bagged and set out for the island. I kept my eyes pealed for any nude beaches but found none. I noticed the tenders had their own traffic lane from the ship to the island marked off by brightly colored buoys. As we traveled to the island, we passed the other tender returning to the ship. Horns were fired giving friendly “hellos” to each other.
As we approached a landing pier, Carrie and I got up from our seats and stepped off the tender on to warm sand. We both kicked off our shoes and bagged them. Beach lovers we are. We wandered the whole length of the horseshoe bay taking in everything. I stopped and turned to Carrie and kissed her. “Happy honeymoon dear, my love, my wife!” She smiled and kissed me back. We are here. We are married after four years and we are on our honeymoon. Time froze for a moment I think, and I took it and packed it away in my memory for ever.
Halfway along the bay, we found a straw Palapa kiosk where many day excursions could be bought and paid for. From jet skis to surf boards and even more were available for a nominal rental fee. We had opted for the sailboat excursion and had paid for it already on the ship so all we needed was to present our receipt and learn where to meet. The young tanned lady at the kiosk informed us that the guide was coming out in one hour to gather all the boaters together for a quick lesson and off we would be. “Great! Let’s go check out more of the island” I suggested. We looked around and could see many more palapas housing touristy trinkets & gimcrack. Carrie proposed, “Okay, why don’t we walk over to the shopping area until our lesson?” Great idea, so we did. After sauntering through most of the shops, we came across a beverage stand offering enticing tropical drinks. Five minutes later and $20 spent on mammoth-size drinks sporting pineapple wedges, we took a seat to work on the drinks with light conversation. Slurrrp! They were good, very good and quite strong too! “Oh, look at the time!” Carrie blurted out. I quickly looked up and out to see a small group of people gathered around the rental palapa. “We’re late!” I exclaimed. So we grabbed our things and hustled across hot sand to the group.
A young tropical well-tanned, scantly clad island boy was teaching the basics of navigating the Sunfish two-person sailboat with his best English. A group of want-to-be sail boaters had formed a circle around him listening intently. As we arrived out of breath and feet burning, I realized that we had missed most of the lesson. “You will find FIVE BOUYS out there. Start with the one I am pointing at and move in a STAR SHAPE direction to the next one, and then that one, that one and that one.” He said as he pointed out each buoy drawing a shape of a star with five points in the air. “By the time you complete the star an hour will have passed and you can come back in. Any questions?” Maybe I could figure this out if I could watch a few people doing it first. No such luck. I could hardly believe it, but he looked at me ( I swear there was a smirk somewhere in that smile) and said “Okay, captain, you ready? You are first!” No way! I don’t know how to navigate this thing I thought, but kept it to myself because I didn’t want to scare Carrie.
So, we threw our bag into the boat and pushed it off the wet sand at the edge of the water. The ocean was calm and there was not much surf to fuss with. Carrie climbed in front and with the help of the smirking boy, I was able to get the boat afloat and hopped in the back before my knees got wet. Okay. My mind started to work this out. It’s all about wind, Mike. This sailboat has a sail and I can swing it left and right, although it is important to duck when swinging through. First lesson learned, I noticed that the breeze was decent and I was making good time. Hey, I got this. We made it to the first buoy in short time. I never took my eyes off it so I knew I was on track. As we turned for the second buoy, I felt a bit disoriented. There were so many buoys out here. Suddenly a strong breeze blew in and Carrie’s floppy sunhat went flying like a Frisbee. Now my newfound talents were going to be tested. Remembering how much it hurt hitting myself in the head with my sail, I ducked in time and swung the sail in a full arch to the opposite direction causing the little two-person sailboat to chart a small circular course which eventually brought me within arms reach of the floating sunhat. I snatched it out of the water, shook it and handed to Carrie. She gave me one of those looks that made me feel like a knight in shining armor.
Feeling pretty good about myself, I returned to my star shape mission only to realize I no longer had my sense of direction! I did not have the RIGHT STUFF! My glory was fleeing and a sense of confusion began to settle in. Which buoy was number two? This one, that one? I could not ascertain. “Is everything okay?” Carrie questioned me. “Uh, sure everything is fine. I’m just locating the next buoy. There it is. Number two, dead ahead.” Whether it was or not I wasn’t sure but I was going to make the best of it. So off we sailed, two young lovers in a tropical sea carrying youthful smiles and holding onto warm sunhats. Fun in the sun! What could go wrong?
By the time I reached buoy number two, the wind in the bay began to subside. I barely got to the buoy as the wind fully depleted. “This isn’t the second buoy” Carrie exclaimed. “This is a buoy for the tender channel!” And she was right. We were right smack in the middle of the channel that was moving passengers back and forth to the ship. No time to waste, we need to get this Sunfish out of here. And now, even worse, the tender that was island-side was completing its boarding and preparing to disembark for the ship. When the engines kicked in, Carrie and I shared a common sense of doom. As the tender started up, the front of the passenger carrier lifted its hull high into the air. The captain sat at the stern of his boat and could not see a small measly sailboat “toy”. I looked at Carrie. I looked at the Sail. No wind. No wind anywhere. I looked at the tender. It had left the dock. I looked back at Carrie. To my utter surprise, she was climbing forward. She was leaving…
The captain must go down with his ship is what is often said. The tender was coming in close and passengers were pointing at us. Carrie had made a split-second decision to save herself. I don’t blame her for that. But I will admit it was hard to see. Just then, the earth spun a bit, clouds were formed, a bird hovered, and yes, a breeze kicked up and filled my sail full, to the brim, the Sunfish moved. I cuddled that breeze in my sail as long as I could hold it. The tender rushed past us with a massive wake and clamoring passengers screaming for our good fortune. I found more wind and used the wake to pull us out of the channel onto buoy number three, wherever she may be.
Carrie looked at me with rising timid eyes. “I knew you could do it.” She murmured with embarrassed reassurance. I watched her release the beach bag with white knuckles and lower herself back into her seat. I could have been angry with her, I could have interrogated her, I could of felt hurt, but alas I could do none of this. All I could do is love her, like I do till this day. Today is our 40th anniversary. Forty years of amazing moments, strung in a long line, one after another. It’s true, two weeks does not make a marriage. A lifetime is way better!
Happy anniversary, my love!
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