Between classes at about ten fifteen on the morning of December 12, 1978, Bert Thoms collapsed of a heart attack. He died soon after in the hospital. His colleague and friend, the Reverend F. Winfree Smith, conducted the funeral service in a crowded Great Hall on the morning of December 16, a soft, bright, almost balmy day. He is buried in St. Anne’s Cemetery within sight of the College in Annapolis. I have asked several friends, colleagues, and students to write on him. —L.R.
Some of the masters whose influence left a trace upon my character to this very day combined a fierceness of conception with a certitude of execution upon the basis of just appreciation of means and ends which is the highest quality of the man of action. —Joseph Conrad, The Mirror of the Sea
Bert Thoms, whom I shall miss over and over as the seasons roll round, was my friend. Our friendship flourished largely in one element. We saw each other on land only occasionally—just to exchange a word of agreement on some plan or situation—and during the annual spring scraping, when the boat’s bottom was cleaned and painted in his yard. This nautical working bee had a ritual tinge, and it was topped off by a hearty and hilarious lunch, hospitably provided by his wife, Josephine.
But twice or thrice a year we were thrown into the closest proximity, for a day or two or even for a fortnight. That was when he invited me to sail as part of his crew for a Sunday sail on the Chesapeake or for the school-end northward cruise to Buzzards Bay, where he always brought the boat for the summer. I think he was pleased with my pleasure in sailing and regarded me as permanently signed on. For the rest, he was an inveterate recruiter of crews, usually St. John’s students. Now and then he even made a press gang of me, for it is not easy to find an able-bodied—and sound minded—complement of four, free at the same time; and to be on board of that boat with a passable crew was, I think, the great recreation of Bert’s life. I am already regretting the times I backed out, unable to get away and sometimes, truth to tell, unwilling to subject myself to the heat and the head and the green stuff in the drinking water—for the small tortures of each trip were transfigured by marvelous moments.
Bert’s last and best-loved boat was called the Cygnet. There are many fancy and funny names to be seen on sterns in Annapolis harbor, but the Cygnet was unwhimsically named after its class, and a stumpy little swan of a boat it was. Bert himself was a no-nonsense sailor; he wore old slacks and a visored cap and some ratty but warm gloves preserved from his days as a pilot in the Second World War, when he ferried planes across the Atlantic. He was totally without nautical affectation, but to his crew he was the Skipper, and that, quite untinged by facetiousness, is the image I have of him.
For he knew what he was doing, at every moment and in every situation. Of course, pleasure boating in a sloop of little more than twenty-foot length may not seem a major enterprise, but nasty, even dangerous, situations can arise: you can run hard aground or be becalmed in a shipping lane or caught in a squall. Bert could work us off, get the outboard going (we had a standing bet of a quarter on its starting by the third pull), take in sail. And so, in the comfort of his competence, we enjoyed our scrapes.
He was infallible—almost—but when something did go wrong it was wonderful. One night, on the dreary waters of the Delaware Bay, I had gone below early to sleep off a headache. The next morning my bunk partner, Janet Christhilf (later O’Flynn) woke me up with the unforgettable words: “Have a look, we’re sitting in a meadow.” I made a rude reply and raised myself to the porthole. We were sitting in a meadow. The Cygnet, which had two flat keels for just this contingency, had somehow—Bert never vouchsafed an explanation—come to rest on a water meadow in the delta of the Maurice River, only a few miles of knee-deep black muck away from the town of Bivalve. Our consolation was apparently to be that we were not in the Cohanssey(?), a river famed for flies, and indeed turned in Bert’s telling into a kind of fluminal Lord of Flies. It was typical of sailing with him that a river, so obscure that on no map in Walla Walla is its name printed, should have become a byword to me. Oddly enough that day turned into a cozily memorable one. When the wind failed, the mosquitoes came in black clouds, but we closed the hatch, sipped Southern Comfort, the boat’s universal elixir, read novels and gave ourselves over to a swamp existence. Noon tide came in and went out without us. Night tide would, Bert had said, be higher. A wind sprang up; clouds were chasing across the moon. A fishing skiff with two drunk anglers turned up and offered to tow us off in return for being pointed toward home port, Bivalve. No success for either side. Finally, Bert with Donnel O’Flynn edged us off, having packed the other half of the crew into the dinghy to lighten the boat, which, suddenly swimming free, flew off into the night. All these events are told in the Cygnet’s log.
But usually the mistakes were committed by the crew, silently noted and silently rectified by Bert. They rarely perturbed him, though once, during a night watch off Point Judith, shared by Meredith Anthony and me we managed it thoroughly. Bert had given us a course and told us to hold it; then he and Michael Anthony had gone below and stuffed themselves into their quarter bunks. Soon the wind stiffened, but we, intoxicated by the blowy black night air and secure in the roguish pretense of sticking to orders, sailed on as we were, heeling hard and the deck awash. Presently he shouted up, and on bending down I saw him hugging the ship’s store of liquor to his bosom and angrily accusing us of causing “internal shipwreck.” In my kitchen there still hangs—and always will—a carefully engrossed Greek quotation from Sophocles, which he later presented to me, advising that “he who will not slacken sail betimes, shall sail home sitting on the keel”—a very Bertian present, savoring at once of round about rebuke and affable reminiscence, not to speak of learned wit.
Said quarter bunk, a coffin-like container extending under the cockpit seat, was my joy: To be lapped in the leeward bunk, with the boat going fast and the water soughing against the side, made for the most delicious naps available this side of Lethe. There were a number of other specific delights so acute that they overbalanced hours of mild torture—which Bert, however, never seemed to regard as an avoidable evil but as a source of stoic relish. For example, he would rarely let us land to eat or shower, partly because it was a source of pride to sail frugally and self-sufficiently, but ultimately, I concluded, because he liked discomfort on board better than luxury on land. But those delights were worth it: ghosting on a zephyr up an Eastern Shore creek on a frosty fall morning with the sky covered by honking wedges of wild geese and white flights of wild swans, floating through the meadows of the inland waterway watched by a heron on the banks, sailing into a lovely New England town harbor for a rare bowl of clam chowder, warming up at anchor after nightfall with a cup of cocoa-cum-Southern Comfort accompanied by lots of clowning.
The boat was often resonant with Bert’s intoning of hymns and ballads, of which he had a cyclically boundless repertoire, including my favorites, “The Christian Cowboy” and “Ballad of the Dismal Swamp.” Bert had an often-foiled longing to sail down to the real source of this latter mournful song, the North Carolinian Dismal Swamp, and that had been the very destination for this coming spring cruise—but now that trip will never be. Once, in Long Island Sound, I discovered that he knew by heart more stanzas of the “Internationale” than I knew it even had. But then he had more curious knowledge—which he retailed with sly unobtrusiveness on the proper occasion—than anyone else I know, knowledge stored away in the course of his varied occupations: he had been music major, labor organizer, lumberjack, pilot, hunter, mechanic, professor, and, of course, St. John’s tutor.
Hence, he knew about the aeronautical significance of the flight patterns of wild geese and how to catch and clean fish—under his tutelage I used a mackerel tree to haul in my first and last catch: five mackerel and two pollock at once. He could judge a distance, spot a buoy in a fog, show up a cheating car mechanic, fell a tree so that it would fall between two others. He knew materials: what glue would stick what to what at what temperature and under what tension. He knew what doohickey would turn what trick and what tool was exactly right for what job—although he could always devise a jury rig, in a pinch. He could fix anything, under the most unlikely conditions, going to work with inexorable, slow, sure doggedness, pitting his patient know-how against the recalcitrance of the thing.
He sailed with seasoned correctness, like someone who could write the manual as soon as read it. Like any good captain, he was a tyrant, but a tacit tyrant, who would spot an incorrectly tied knot right away but let it go until he was at leisure to amble over and retie it with pedagogically ostentatious wordlessness. He persisted in hinting for lunch at 1300 hrs., when the landlubberly cook was willing at one o’clock. I understood his insistence as stemming from that uncompromising sense of appropriate procedure which sometimes suddenly becomes crucial on a boat. He had that nautical “fierceness of conception” combined with “certitude of execution” of which Joseph Conrad speaks. I wanted to learn, but I was a little unnerved by his ways. So eventually I quietly resigned my position as anxious navigator and became a contented galley slave, handing up always welcome cups of black coffee laced with spiritual substance and unobtrusively giving the captain the lion’s share of the noodles; he needed it.
For on board, he was indefatigable. The crew might goof off, curl up in the sun with a book or retreat below out of the cold rain. He sat in the stern, apparently impenetrable to cold and wet. At home, he had a reputation for deep and well timed sleep—that is, when he had put everyone to work. But on board, he always had one eye open—incidentally, a blessing to a crew to whom his ship-shaking snoring was a legend.
He was, though not young, and lumbering rather than athletic, agile enough in an emergency, and tireless and tough. Once, off the coast of New Jersey, we ran into a squall, one accurately predicted by him, I should add. He sent us below, closed the hatch tightly and battled the elements. Stupefied by excessive carbon dioxide and the mad heaving and a heady sense of safety-in-danger, we were startled scared just twice: when the storm jib blew with a loud report, and again when Bert urgently beat on the hatch door: His cigarette lighter wanted refilling.
On board, we seldom talked about teaching, but I did learn a lot about certain sides of the college, especially about those students who had made outsiders of themselves by their wild and weird behavior and who had found in Bert someone to calm and tame them. He was, as I said, a tacit though not a taciturn man, especially where he felt deeply. I think there were long-standing silent resentments; he thought that his projects had been too often slighted and his opinions neglected. Perhaps I ought to have learned more of all this on our long watches together, but he was a proud man and I was not sure that it was my place to ask.
This pride showed itself in an odd and characteristic mannerism. A mood would seize him for sesquipedalian utterance. For example, homeward-bound he would hand me the binoculars with instructions to find the black nun buoy a point off the port bow—only he would say to sight “a navigational marker of the female ecclesiastical class,” an order which strained more than the eye. I took it for a signal that his practical know-how was not to eclipse his verbal versatility.
For he had a passionate relation to the logos, and it was that which drew him back to the college after an enforced absence. And this passion came in rare conjunction with a capacity for action in Conrad’s sense: not political activity or technical efficiency, but a kind of masterful intimacy with man’s tackle and nature’s tricks. We needed such a man in the St. John’s community, and we shall miss him very much.
This essay originally appeared in the St. John’s Review (Volume 31, Number 1, 1980) and is republished here with gracious permission of the author.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image is “Red Boat with Blue Sail” (1907) by Odilon Redon (1840–1916) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.