Legendary designer and Power and Motoryacht columnist Tom Fexas left an indelible impression that influences our writing style today. Capt. Bill Pike and Dan remember Fexas and revisit one of his most endearing columns.
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Passing The Boating Torch.
By Tom Fexas
My dad, who will soon be 97, is still sharp and always thinking. He periodically issues a missive to me concerning ideas for “Spectator.” (After nearly 14 years of monthly columns, believe me, I can use all the help I can get.) A recent letter from him began rather cryptically:
This boy was lucky. His father owned a boat. As a youngster, he learned to swim and row a dinghy. As a teenager he helped his father do some of the tasks connected with boating. His dad taught him skills like carpentry, painting, and mechanics. The boy welcomed the challenge to fix things that needed repair. That developed a sound character and discipline in the boy and a close relationship between father and son that was to last for life. He also learned navigation and it was a thrilling adventure when they cruised into different ports and harbors. Finally the growing boy took over all the tasks and responsibility from the father and assumed the full burden for running the boat.
Everything For The Boat
That boy, thankfully, was me. If my dad had been into golf or horses, I probably would be spending my spare time flailing little white balls or developing saddle sores and bowed legs. I certainly would not be in the boat business. I might make my living elbow-deep in someone’s mouth or springing guilty murderers and rapists on technicalities. Yes, I am lucky my dad owned a boat—as did his dad.
I spent time with my parents on six boats starting at five months old. My dad and I were constantly conspiring concerning the family boat. It was always “everything for the boat” and normal life be damned, to the great consternation of my mother. Dinners were missed on spring nights spent painting a hull under the glare of our car’s headlights. School functions were unattended, and spring and summer weddings, funerals, and parties were ditched so we could put in more boat time. The extent of this father-son conspiracy can be demonstrated by the Caper of ‘61.
A Diabolical Summer
I was a second classman (junior) at a maritime military college. Every summer from June through August, we took a cruise to Europe on the school’s training ship. While the European jaunts were fun, I had already missed two boating summers. In l961 our trusty Wheeler needed a new engine. Since I really wanted to install that engine and take the summer off to play with boats (and various bimbette girlfriends and my ‘55 Thunderbird), Dad and I conceived a diabolical plan.
Playing volleyball and wrestling in high school, I hod developed a shoulder that periodically dislocated. It didn’t happen often, and when it did, I simply rotated it back into place. Through a doctor friend of his, Dad obtained the documentation needed to get me a medical leave of absence and a summer of freedom—one of the greatest summers of my life. I planned on having my shoulder operation shortly after the engine installation. The school’s ship sailed without me in June, as l horsed the big Palmer straight six into our boat. Indeed, I did spend the rest of that idyllic summer messing with boats (and bimbette girlfriends and my car).
Sadly, all great things must come to an end, and by late August, I had to start thinking about getting back to school. Of course, that summer I had been too busy to have anything done about my shoulder. So it was now my task to convince doctors at the imposing Federal Hospital complex on Staten Island that my shoulder was fine and I was “fit for duty” to attend my last year of college and get my degree. The doctor, however, was not convinced: “How can we classify you fit for duty when you were unfit for duty just three months ago and did nothing about it?” I did some fast talking, telling him that I had, indeed, rehabilitated myself over the summer doing “exercises” (involving Palmer engines, bimbette girlfriends, and my Thunderbird). The stern-faced doctor told me to wait outside.
I sat on a hard, wooden bench in a long, dreary hall with sunlight streaming in one end. I was sweating profusely and chomping on a bologna sandwich bought from a vendor outside. This was one of life’s crossroads. If I did not get a “fit for duty” slip, my young life and future plans would be trashed. My mom would be devastated. “Everything for the boat” rang a bit hollow now. After a couple of hours, the doctor summoned me bock into his office. I entered in a daze with a dried-up, half-eaten bologna sandwich in my hand and sat down to face my fate.
On the desk was a rubber ball, which the doctor asked me to repeatedly throw against the wall as hard as I could. After I had demonstrated that, indeed, my shoulder was “rehabilitated,” he thought for a while, scribbled something on a piece of paper, folded it, and handed it to me. On my way out of the office, I opened the paper and saw “fit for duty.” I had gotten my life back.
Today my dad and mother accompany my wife and me aboard our boat. Part of the reason for their longevity was revealed in a phone call I overheard a couple of years ago when my dad was about 95. He was talking to his brother, and, when asked how he felt, he answered, “I am feeling fine, but I am starting to age!”
In “My Cousin Vinny’s Cousin” in the July 1999 issue of this magazine, I described how a buddy and I did a job for some slimeball 20 years ago and got paid with women’s wigs in lieu of cash. I used the experience as fodder for an article and belatedly sent my friend his money. My dad ended his letter referring to that piece as follows: “If this proposed article is printed and you get more than $200 for it, I expect a cut, and I will not accept women’s wigs as payment.”
Well, Dad, I would be happy to send you all the money I’ve received writing these articles over the past 14 years, but that would not even begin to cover my debt. I owe you a whole lot more. Everything for the boat!