Yo ho ho! And the Wind Blows Free

My father was the keeper of Barnegat Light,

Bob was the family’s patriarch and it’s original beach bum. He would often sing an old sea shanty while sitting on the beach with his family, the generations spreading outward from his beach chair like dotted lines on the road. His voice and cadence working it’s way into the memories of those around him as he sung.

Slept with a mermaid one fine night.

Sometimes he whistled the tune, Bob whistled a lot. Being a work song, he probably could have whistled any of a thousand sea shanty’s or work songs and it would still sound like “Eddystone Light”. Between whistled renditions of The 1812 Overture and pop songs, this tune would always be recognized by his family as “The Keeper of Barnegat Light”, never thinking that it could possibly be about another lighthouse.

Out of this union there came three,

Yes, Bob is short for Robert; but one of the only people to ever call him Robert, was his wife, Ethel. And even then, she only called him Robert when she was making a point. She used “Robert” the way parents use one’s full name; “Robert, what are you doing?”, “Robert, why are you encouraging them?”, and the ever popular in their family, “Robert, what are you wearing?” Most everyone in the family was asked this at least once, as Ethel was fastidious about fashion.

A porpoise, a porgy, and the other was me.

As a kid, at a time when one is shocked to learn that “Mom” and “Dad” aren’t your parent’s actual names, Bob’s grandchildren knew his name was Bob. Bob took the time to learn the names of the people he saw everyday, the postman, the clerks, the waitresses… For that reason, he was often greeted or addressed by name, “Morning, Bob!”, “Hey Bob, is this your granddaughter/grandson?”, “How are ya, Bob?”, and “Good to see you again, Bob!”. The young children quickly learned that “Bob” meant Poppop.

Yo Ho Ho! And the wind blows free.

One grand daughter sent him a letter from camp simply addressed to “Poppop in Philadelphia”. She included his zip code, and the return address was simply Camp Onas. That was it, nothing else on the envelope. And it got to him. Miraculously, it arrived in a timely manner too.

Oh for the life on the rolling sea!

When Bob asked the mailman how he knew it was for him, the mailman replied, “Well Bob, you’re the only one on my route that looks like a Poppop.” I’m sure the postman also deduced it was for him based on the number of correspondences between him and his grand children, but that doesn’t make the correct delivery of the letter to the right person any less remarkable.

One night while I was a-trimmin’ of the the glim,

Bob had 6 grandchildren. He also lived at the beach for most of the summer. It was a central location for his work. He would occasionally babysit his older grandchildren, when there were only 2 or 3 in the family, by taking them with him to the beach for a few days when they were young.

Just singin’ a verse from the evening hymn,

During one of these visits, when his oldest granddaughter was with him, the island flooded. Being only 3 or 4, all the granddaughter remembers of the flood is being passed through the kitchen window of a beach house into the arms of someone in a rowboat and then Bob climbing in after her. The boat, the house, and everything she could see was surrounded by water.

A voice from the starboard shouted, ‘Ahoy!’

The memory is a bit fuzzy, lots of white in the kitchen, and the rowboat having lots of red, and lots of water. But it’s there, all tangled up – beach, water, and Bob. So many of his family’s memories are a tangled jumble of beach, water, and Bob.

And there was my mother sittin’ on a buoy.

Bob worked outdoors. Between the outdoor work and the beach time, his skin was as dark as his genetic ancestry would allow – a deep mahogany that can’t be replicated on a tanning bed. His grand children would marvel at his tan and place their tiny arms next to his for comparisons.

Yo Ho Ho! And the wind blows free.

Only one grand daughter ever got close to his color after a summer in the sun. The rest of them looked like the sun burnt children in old suntan lotion ads – pink and rosy red with odd white patches where they missed applying lotion or their suit was cut differently than the one they previously wore, white zinc on the noses and lips of those more prone to freckles and burns, and wearing old t-shirts as beach cover-ups.

Oh for the life on the rolling sea!

Bob was also trim, due to the physical labor involved in his work as a sign painter. He never did anything one would call exercise, except for his skiing in winter and a brief spell when he took up jogging. He’s proof that physical activity doesn’t have to be labeled exercise to be good for you. His work kept him physically strong, and well built.

‘Oh, what has become of my children three?’

He would stand perfectly still on the jetty rocks in his navy swim trunks, hands clasped behind his back. He made a square silhouette, barefoot and wearing a tattered and faded mesh and denim baseball hat and a sterling silver shark tooth pendent around his thick neck. He could stand there for hours, as the tide came in, just watching the sea, the beachcombers, or his family playing in the sand nearby.

My mother then she asked of me.

His grand kids would giggle as older women approached Bob when he stood watch over his brood. Their skirted bathing suits revealing tan lines from a different suit and their rubber bathing caps brightly colored, yet somehow coordinating with their swim suits. Bob would beam, and his eyes would twinkle, as he’d turn to point to group of children building an architectural masterpiece of sand, water, seaweed, and washed up flotsam.

‘One was shown as a talking fish,’

Bob’s family would spend many hours scouring the surf’s edge for the perfect shells. They had to be just right; clean smooth and well shaped. Texture was important too, they had to be smooth enough to paint or draw on. Once dry, Bob would often use a combination of watercolors, acrylics, and permanent markers to decorate the shells. Instead of the usual knickknack trinkets one could find in a souvenir shop, friends would often take home personalized shells Bob had elaborately decorated.

‘And the other was served in a chaffing dish.’

Bob would help bury his grand kids in the sand. He could turn the mounds of sand where their legs were into elaborate mermaid or lobster tails. He would build motes and castles, mixing the sand and water in ratios the way a potter would make slip to bind handles onto vessels. He would help them catch jelly fish and sand crabs, always ready with a bucket.

Yo Ho Ho! And the wind blows free.

Bob was a prankster too. Not in the way some people go about it in a mean or angry sort of way, no, Bob’s pranks and jokes were often silly. He played the kind of jokes kids enjoyed, knowing they were being tricked or teased, but that there wasn’t any maliciousness behind it. They were giggly, long running jokes. The kind that turn into inside jokes or phrases that mean something to only a select few people.

Oh for the life on the rolling sea!

Bob would instigate races into the surf by calling out “Last one in is an Abercromie and Fitch!” The grand kids, being unfamiliar with the with the funny words, would hear the words running together as if he were calling them an exotic jungle bird – the allusive Abacrombian Finch. When they asked Bob what an Abacrombian Finch was, the grand kids not yet familiar with the retailer, were jokingly told that it was a small, rare, sea bug.

Then the phosphorus flashed in her seaweed hair,

When his grand children would ask him the time, from his beach chair throne, Bob would answer them by holding two fingers over his opposite wrist and casting shadows on his arm. After gazing at the shadows, as if reading tea leaves or divining the future, he would then tell them the time. Amazed at this skill, it wasn’t until they were older that the grand children realized his watch always hung on the arm of his beach chair, taken off so as to not leave a tan line. Hanging from the chair’s arm, yet hidden near the hinges, he could always see and read it’s face.

I looked again and my mother wasn’t there.

Bob also always knew when it was lunch time – high noon. Standing up from his beach chair, he’d dust the sand off his hands and legs and declare it time to go back to the house for lunch. Again, amazed at his innate ability to tell time his grand kids would marvel at his skill and they would wonder if they’d ever be able to know when it was noon just by looking at the sky. Distracted by the water or the sand castle they were building, they simply didn’t realize that the fire siren wailed each day at noon.

A voice came echoing out through the night,

Being a sign painter, Bob would personalize his family’s beach chairs using his selection of permanent markers and a steady hand. It was a way to help distinguish their chairs from the multitude of similar chairs dotting the sand. Early on, the personalizations were simple monograms. Over the years, however, they became more elaborate, as did his shell decorating and sand sculptures.

‘To Hell with the keeper of Barnaget Light!’

Bob’s beach chair was his throne. There was always a revolving number of family members needing beach chairs, and the stack of them besides the outdoor shower was sometimes large. But everyone always knew knew which one was Bob’s chair. Over the years, as the metal fatigued or the salt air rusted the chairs beyond use, the chairs in the stack would change, but somehow, there was always one that was only to be used by Bob.

Yo Ho Ho! And the wind blows free.

As Bob became less and less able to sit on the beach, his chair would get left in the stack at the house, just in case he decided to join them. Eventually, when it became more difficult for him to walk in the sand or to get up out of a beach chair, it became less and less important to identify his chair as his chair. Yet he continued monogramming and decorating the family’s chairs – sometimes including sunsets and beach scenes on them.

Oh for the life on the rolling sea!

Bob would have been 100 this year. He died in November of 2017, at the age of 97, so somehow the idea of this being his 100th birthday year doesn’t seem so very far fetched an idea. Bob was my grandfather. And for some reason, on this cold and snowy winter day I’ve got a sea shanty running through my head – an ear worm reminding me of sunny days and silly times.

Yo ho ho! And the wind blows free.

Oh for the life on the rolling sea.


*Original song is titled “The Keeper of Eddystone Light” It’s an old folk song and has been covered by many artists, it’s origin is unknown. Poppop changed the lyrics to “Barnegat Light” because that is the lighthouse our family was familiar with.