The Boy in the Boat (Tunisia)

The Boy in the Boat
by Jamie Kirkpatrick (Tunisia 1970-72)
July 5, 2022

This photograph haunts me. It came to me out of the blue, sent by an old pal I haven’t seen in over fifty years. The light is diffuse, almost ethereal; it looks more like a painting than a photograph. It must have been taken in that dreamtime before cell phones, when cameras were really cameras and you had to send a roll film off to be developed. The images would come back a week or two later, 3×5 or 4×6 snapshots, but by then, the moment was already a memory. Little did I know…

I have no specific memory of this moment, but I can tell that’s me—fifty years younger and sixty pounds lighter—sitting in that bleached rowboat, looking back at my now-self. My hair is thick and tousled; my Fu Manchu mustache is faintly visible. I’m not sure exactly where I was when the photograph was taken: Tunisia certainly (I was in the Peace Corps there), maybe relaxing in one of the benign little sea-side towns: Hammamet or Tabarka or Monastir, far away from my little village in the remnants of the Atlas Mountains, close to the Algerian border. There’s a shallow tidal pool, the edge of what appears to be an abandoned building, and, off in the distance, a boat rigged with a lateen sail. That would make sense: lateen sails were an Arab invention. They are triangular, mounted on the mast at an angle, running in a fore-and-aft direction. They were likely first developed by Arab traders in the eastern Mediterranean in the Second Century, and were crucial in the development of ships that were maneuverable and reliable under sail power alone because they allowed vessels to tack against the wind. Lateen sails changed the world.

The more I think about this photo, the more blurred it becomes. Most everything that has been important to me in this life was still to come: marriages, children and grandchildren, friendships, careers. Wins and losses, successes and blunders. I had no clue what lay ahead. If I could wade out to that little boat now and talk to that skinny kid, what would I say? Don’t fret; it will all be OK? I’m not sure I’d be telling him the truth.

I feel gut-punched. My faith has been shaken by recent events: the political chasms that continue to divide us, sorrowful Supreme Court rulings, this lingering pandemic, our ailing economy, the degradation of the environment, racial injustice, gender bias; the list goes on and on. I said to my wife yesterday that I feel weary in my bones. I meant it. I wish for simpler, happier times. I believe we all do. But that’s not the way of this world. Like the young buck sitting in that rowboat, those days are gone. There’s work to be done and time is running out. Let’s get on with it.

What happens next? I didn’t know then and I don’t know now. There was a time when I trusted the world to be good, but now I’m not so sure. Maybe this feeling will pass, pass like the years that have passed since that photo was taken. None of us can ever be that young again. It’s just good to know that once I was.

We know how to tack against the wind. There’s still time to change the world.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick (Tunisia 1970-72) is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.net.

5 Comments

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  • Nicely said.

    The sail and the young buck are real–yet kinda hazy and fuzzy yet speak to bigger things. As do the brief descriptions of current events. Many are deeply frustrated and angered at these events.

    I too feel gut-punched (at 79), but know we must get on with it.

    I find hope in the emergence of Native American wisdom and activism. I think Deb Haaland is some kind of miracle worker–the way she has moved Natives into important places and asks for a study of boarding schools and gets it back, how she will visit tribes and cemeteries now. How she countered Trump on Bears Ears, and has a Native at the head of ALL of the National Parks!

    A white guy not quite my age came into my library when I was doing an elevator talk on the Nez Perce. He said he was 1/16 Nez Perce and wanted to know how he might learn more. I am not Native, but knew to send him to the tribe, where they have records. The man had work clothes and an NRA hat on. That made me smile.

    thanks for the picture and the thoughts.

    • Dear Rich, I just followed the link to your Library. What a beautiful informative website. I recommend it to everyone. All one has to do is click on Rich’s name (above) and a whole world of Native American politics and art will open.
      Thanks!
      PS: Jamie, the evocative photo and your essay are wonderful. Thank you to you, too.

  • This is a grand review of a iife — his in the essentials mine also and I suspect others the way Jamie Kirkpatrick writes concluding:

    “What happens next? I didn’t know then and I don’t know now.

    There was a time when I trusted the world to be good, but now I’m not so sure.

    Maybe this feeling will pass, pass like the years that have passed since that photo was taken.

    None of us can ever be that young again.

    It’s just good to know that once I was.

    We know how to tack against the wind.

    There’s still time to change the world….”

    His tone is not bold, but brave because it’s a “just becase” conclusion, simple honest the way i feel too, and so may you.

    Edward Mycue.

  • This is sweet and soft to me and apt to respond to Jamie Kirkpatrick’s ‘this’:

    “….shouting, calling names,Walk softly.
    Your footprint on rain clouds is visible to naked eyes,
    Lamps barnacled to your feet refract the mirrored air
    Exotic scents of your hidden vision fly in the face of time
    Remember not to forget the dying colors of yesterday
    As you inhale tomorrow’s hot dream, blown from frozen lips

    Remember, you naked agent of every nothing.”

    —-.Bob Kaufman, late decades now, from San Francisco’s North Beach who didn’t speak the last decade of his life. But he wrote.

  • Thank you for sharing the photo and the reflection. Many of us joined the Peace Corps, full of ideals about what was possible for our fractured world. Now old, we know how hard it has been to counter the evil currents that cause ethnic cleansing and unsurpassed greed in destroying the environment. But we, in our humanness, must cling to hope that the pendulum swings in both directions, and although this time may seem sad, we will see a new Sun tomorrow with a promise that if we keep working at it, we can improve the lives of some who cross our path. #cancersurvivor

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