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Mr Bill’s Neighborhood

It’s one of the few places left to harbor a true sense of community.

Illustration by Kent Barton

When I was a kid, I lived in a little town in the Adirondacks that qualified as a community in most senses of the word. Everybody knew everybody else. And if you needed something, like advice, a tool, a disinterested party to listen to you, a small loan, or maybe just supper, you could bet there’d be somebody who’d step up to the plate.

These days things are different. People are often standoffish, tending to keep to themselves. You might live next to a guy for a decade and never know his last name. Or even his first. Or you might work alongside somebody for years and never know his kids’ names. Or even if he has kids.

Unfortunately, this state of affairs holds sway almost everywhere today, although there’s at least one group that abjures—the boating crowd. Think about it. Joe Blow maybe doesn’t give you the time of day, may scowl at you while you water your lawn, and may cut you off in traffic without compunction. But let him become the proud owner of a little express cruiser in a dry-stack storage facility somewhere, or an old trawler at a backwater marina, and he’ll morph before your very eyes. He’ll turn into a truly great friend, energized by the same deep need to be helpful that animated, or at least often seems to have animated, the settlers of the great American frontier.

I have a couple of theories about why all this transpires. But I’ll spare you and instead trot out something else—a concrete example of the true, blue, communal boating spirit. And I’ll do this by zeroing in on what happened one morning at the North Florida marina the Betty Jane II calls home.

I kicked off that particular morning in a state of deep demoralization. “Why me?” I asked myself. Why did my trusty diesel have to cash in its chips at this pivotal time? With a guest soon to arrive from a far-distant shore, a tight time schedule, and the guy’s expectations of filling the next few days with a cheery, flawless cruise. Heck, when I turned the ignition key absolutely nothing happened. Nada. It had to be an electrical snafu. And electrical ain’t my strong suit.

“I’ll take a look,” said Chip, pulling up on the large tricycle that expedites his travels around the premises.

Despite a busy morning, Chip had managed to prioritize Betty’s propulsion issue. My marina is an old, tight-knit one. And many of the guys who work there have done so for years. Chip’s one of them. By all reports, he’s got at least five continuous decades under his belt which, incidentally, he tends to augment with a giant belt buckle and an ever-changing selection of chuck keys, sheath knives, and multi-tool holsters.

Within minutes, Chip was laying on top of my recalcitrant diesel, poking an obscure section of electrical harness with the leads of an electrical tester. He simultaneously talked to me, saying he’d discovered a break in a very fine but critical wire. He would bypass the break with a temporary “jumper,” although eventually I’d have to buy a new harness. But the jumper, he concluded, would let me hit the trail with gusto.

A few days later, with the cruise now successfully behind me, I was surprised by the absence of a charge for Chip’s efforts on my monthly marina bill. I mentioned this to my friend Jerry while I returned the nice little handheld VHF he’d taken it upon himself to loan me for the cruise.

“Doesn’t surprise me,” said Jerry. “Chip’ll do anything for you. Loan you tools. Give you free advice. The man can fix anything. Funny, but it doesn’t surprise me one bit.”

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