My father was a real son of a bitch. He was opinionated, short tempered, and authoritarian. However, he was one of those types that, if you made the effort to cut through all the crap and know the man within, you might just find that you had made a friend for life. Very few people took on this challenge, and I don’t blame those who didn’t.
Consequently, as a child I noticed that although my dad knew a lot of people he rarely spent much time with casual acquaintances. But those close friends he did have were, well, epic. There was Jack, and Doug, and Gardner – Gardner Mitchell.
My father met Gardner in the Army, during the Korean War. Like his other close friends, Gardner was salt of the earth, industrious, and intelligent. He was devoted to my father, and by extension, to all of us in the family. We lived about two hours inland, and Gardner and his family lived along the Maine coast. In fact, he worked for the Coast Guard.
Once every summer the five of us - my parents, my two older brothers, and I - would cram into a car without air-conditioning and make the long drive to Southwest Harbor on Mount Desert Island to visit my namesake. We never went on the sort of trips that Kim and I have taken our kids on. We didn’t go to Disney World. We didn’t visit the Grand Canyon or even my aunt and cousins in California. Although we were avid Red Sox fans, we never made the four hour drive to Fenway Park. Instead, we went on hunting trips and fishing trips, and we went to Southwest Harbor. This degree of isolation was not unusual in our corner of the world. I didn’t feel particularly deprived.
There’s a distinct smell to the ocean. The odor is sharp and pungent, especially at low tide. Our entire carload of noses would involuntarily scrunch up as we approached the bridge from the mainland to Mount Desert Island. I can't say that I delighted in the ocean aroma like I would that of a lilac or a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie, but I loved what the smell signified. It meant that I was going to spend time with these wonderful people in this exotic setting. And it would be all about Mitchell’s, of one sort or another.
Escaping the drudgery of our rural mill town, these annual trips became the highlight of our summers. On Mount Desert Island we would go fishing, hiking, and sightseeing. The coast of Maine was, and is, spectacular. I particularly remember the mackerel fishing excursions that Gardner would take us on. My father’s style of freshwater, inland fishing would yield a few salmon or trout per day, on a good day. But when we were mackerel fishing we would often land a few fish per cast (multiple hooks per line), and a boatload of fish per day. We ate our catch for months. At the time, I didn’t realize what an oily, horrible tasting fish that mackerel was. I guess I had a less refined palate than I do now. A couple of years ago, succumbing to a feeling of nostalgia, I purchased some mackerel at the local supermarket and found it utterly inedible.
Gardner Mitchell was a good man. He was fun to be around, and he was part of my dad’s small inner circle. This made me feel proud to be named Mitchell. As the youngest of three boys, I rarely occupied the high ground in any situation. But when we travelled to Southwest Harbor, I imagined that my familial stature was at least temporarily elevated. My bigger, stronger, faster brothers were given common names. But my name came from someone we knew, and so I thought it was special. When my dad named me Mitchell he probably didn’t realize that he was conferring upon his youngest child an ever so slight advantage over his older siblings. Or maybe he did. After all, even though he was a real son of a bitch on the outside, the general consensus was that he possessed, despite painstaking efforts to conceal it, a soft inner core.
Gardner and me