Birthdays on Board
February 23, 2006
We occasionally come across some fairly obscure news items when we listen to public radio broadcasts on the ship's high frequency transceiver. Just the other day we heard the president of Jack Benny’s fan club being interviewed. Apparently there’s a campaign underway to convince American legislators that the US postal service should issue a stamp commemorating the late comedian. The timing is not accidental: perpetually 39 years old, Jack Benny’s age now matches the current price of a regular postage stamp. David and Jack Benny have something in common. They both abhor any reminder that they are aging. If Benny were still alive, this year he’d be celebrating the 73rd anniversary of his 39th birthday.
David’s preference is not to celebrate his birthday at all, reasoning that if he ignores it, maybe it will go away and not be counted. Unfortunately, there are people and organizations out there that insist on birthdays being observed, like the folks who issue drivers’ licenses. Every five years on his birthday the motor vehicle branch of the province of Ontario delights in reminding David that he’s half a decade older by requiring him to renew his license and charging him a few bucks for the privilege. The ominous manila envelope arrived with our last batch of forwarded mail. David opened it up with some trepidation. Out dropped his brand new plastic laminated license, good for another five years and bearing a photo that would do a serial killer justice.
"There was nothing wrong with my last license," David complained. "And if I ever have to show this card at a border crossing with that photo on it, they'll arrest me as a terrorist suspect for sure."
Eileen wasn't very sympathetic, suggesting he was childishly denying his own mortality. David responded by quoting another American comedian, Woody Allen: "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work .... I want to achieve it through not dying."
Even if David had wanted to celebrate his birthday in a big way, he would have run into difficulties. In the middle of the winter cruising season, we're seldom near a major population centre where Eileen can go buy him extravagant birthday presents. On the dreaded day, she handed him a lump of grey canvas. "I made it myself," she said.
David unfolded the canvas material. It was a tool roll, almost identical to his old tool roll, which Eileen had sewn him several birthdays ago. The old roll was as worn and frayed as David was feeling. He carefully put his assorted wrenches and screwdrivers in the new roll and perked up a bit. "Just what I needed," he admitted.
We went ashore to shop for a special birthday dinner entree. There wasn't a lot of choice in the small Bahamian grocery store we entered. In fact, there wasn't much at all in terms of recognizable meat products. David glumly poked around in the freezer. His eyes suddenly lit up. "Look," he said. "They have frozen calves' liver, my favourite!"
Eileen groaned. "Maybe you're right, we shouldn't celebrate your birthday after all."
That night, David had a plate heaped with liver, bacon, and onions. Eileen had a peanut butter sandwich. We were both glad the big day was over.
In contrast to David, Eileen looks forward to her birthday and wants to share its celebration with as many people as possible. David claims this is because she's younger than him and doesn't know any better. The problem remains, however, that we're usually in a relatively remote location when her birthday rolls around. On two of her birthdays in the recent past we were in Cuba, where it was pretty difficult to buy anything and there were very few acquaintances around to join in any festivities.
We were in Cayo Largo in the Canarreos archipelago off the south coast of Cuba around the time of Eileen's 40th birthday. She really wanted to have a big party to mark that important milestone. Days before the event, she talked it up with the only two other cruising couples we had encountered in the past month. Our three boats were anchored together near a large tourist resort. David suggested we leave for a quiet little anchorage where we could be by ourselves. "What if the others get delayed or can't find us?" Eileen asked. "Don't worry," David said. We weighed anchor.
Sure enough, the night before the party, one of our cruising friends fell ill and his partner thought he might have to be evacuated to receive emergency medical care. Our friends on the other boat decided to stay with them to assist if necessary. Fortunately, the crisis passed and our stricken friend was feeling much better the next day. Unfortunately, at the time of his recovery they were twenty miles from where we and the party were located. David had baked a big chocolate cake. At the appointed hour he brought it up to Eileen in the cockpit. She stared balefully at him. The only other guests were a pelican and a flock of sea gulls. David bravely launched into a rousing solo rendition of "happy birthday". Eileen began systematically demolishing the cake. "You're lucky chocolate has consoling properties," she said between mouthfuls.
Like Eileen, our friend Toni on the sailboat Seeker believes in throwing a big party to recognize important anniversaries. Unlike David, her partner Dave (same name, different person) readily complies when it's his birthday that's being celebrated. It turns out that Dave (Seeker) is almost the same age as David (Little Gidding) and their birthdays are within a few days of each other. While David was happy with liver and onions on his birthday, Toni had much bigger plans for Dave's birthday feast.
Dave likes Greek food (he's British and has the good sense not to be enamoured by his own national cuisine). Toni is a former professional belly dancer. For those who know these facts, it was no surprise that Dave's birthday would have a Mediterranean/Middle Eastern theme. Toni invited cruisers from five other boats, including ourselves, to join them on the beach at Treasure Cay in the northern Bahamas. She had made her dance costume from materials at hand which involved, among other things, drilling and sewing dozens of Bahamian coins to her dress. Just before sundown, she brought out a boom box and performed a dazzling series of dances. She then got all of us to join her in the Greek version of line dancing, which involves a lot of leg kicks, deep knee bends, and prancing back and forth while holding hands.
Mercifully, Toni turned the boom box off before any of us completely collapsed. Then the food was uncovered: moussaka, stuffed grape leaves, delicate phyllo pastries, plates of feta cheese and olives, and more -- all of it delicious. Our friend Mike on Imagine provided a rum punch that wasn't particularly Greek but was near lethal in its alcohol content. No one complained. Mike's partner Jan brought out the birthday cake. It was chocolate (Eileen furtively grabbed two pieces). We were all stuffed by the time we headed back to our dinghies to return home.
"That was a great party," David said after we boarded Little Gidding.
"I thought you didn't like birthdays," Eileen countered.
David stifled a burp. "There's nothing wrong with celebrating OTHER people's birthdays," he said.