Sailing under the Bay Bridge
It was the summer of 1973. Watergate, the scandal of Republican President Nixon’s involvement in a break-in into the headquarters of the Democrat Party was nearly over and Jean and I were enjoying American hospitality.
We had escorted a plane-load of university students from a number of European countries to California. They were staying with some very generous American families and were attending English classes which I ran with an American colleague. We were based in San Francisco for a month and had already explored parts of the city, including the once infamous island prison of Alcatraz. On a day free of teaching friends of our hostess had invited us to lunch on a friend’s yacht.
We circled the bay, steadily enough to pass round drinks and sandwiches. Soon I was offered the helm and steered the boat under the Golden Gate, that well-known bridge that guards the harbour. Then it was not long before we found ourselves sailing close to the island of Alcatraz and, even from a distance, we could see something of its abandoned, wind-swept awfulness, the open cells and the piles of guano left by sea birds. To me it was obvious:
“Of course, if President Nixon’s convicted they could re-open the prison there – he could have the place to himself.”
There was a silence, not a moment when someone coughs, or when a steel cable rattles against a mast. It was as if everyone had stopped moving, stopped breathing and we were sailing on a ghost ship. It was a silence contained within the boat, that ran parallel with the only sound that we could hear, the continuous sound of the bow wave and the boat cutting its way still through the water as if nothing had been said. For a moment I thought my words had been left behind, blown away over the stern and snatched under our wake. But they had not; our host’s husband turned to me.
“We’d have you know, we’re staunch Republicans.” He looked straight at me, with a tray in one hand, and continued. “We’re right behind the President.”
Another silence ensued, as if his words too might have been swept away, but they stayed with us and everyone knew and looked on for a short moment. And then there were more sandwiches and movement about the deck and yet again our glasses were re-filled. Conversation flowed again over and around the company, and our hosts were making sure that they pointed out the landmarks and other features of the city that we needed to see.
Nixon was about to resign, under the threat of impeachment and, in the street, everyone was expecting him to resign. Wherever we had gone in and around the city strangers were stopping one another on the street, much as we might do here in England when there is a big cricket or football match taking place, seeking the latest news. Until that moment, everyone to whom we spoke seemed to long for a resignation, to be rid of a troublesome president.
This was a generosity of spirit, true hospitality that allows a guest from overseas to affront a head of state, points out quickly what has happened, allows the guest to appreciate what at he or she has done, and then enables them to recover their dignity. It was a special sort of kindness that I will never forget.
If you would like to read another example of friendly American directness find:
Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, 1942: Reproduced from the Original Typescript, War Department, Washington, DC. It’s available from Amazon.
What is the mistake that the writer makes with his words about President Nixon and the prison on Alcatraz?
What does the writer learn about American hospitality?