There is a torpor that comes with driving in Southern California, particularly near rush hour. Once settled into a lane on the freeway, the experience becomes the tedium of creep-stop-creep. It’s totally mindless, and most drivers use the time to chat on their cellphones, file their nails, listen to a foreign language tape or simply stare into smog.
I was in this situation recently when a sport utility vehicle slid into my lane in front of me. It had a personalized license plate that was a series of numbers: 797.1.
For some reason, the series rang a faint bell. For several miles, I puzzled over what the numbers could mean. When issued, the plate had said 7971, but the driver had added a neat little decimal point that probably wouldn’t be enough to irritate a cop, but that was obviously necessary to the message.
Usually if you look at a plate long enough, you can figure out even the esoteric ones, but this was all numerals. Being in California, I tried numerology to see if they added up to anything unusual, but zip. I tried converting them to the alphabet’s seventh letter, ninth letter and so on. Still a blank.
And then it hit me so hard I laughed out loud: It was the Dewey Decimal System, the numbering system that libraries still use to file books.
For those who don’t immediately know what books are located at 797.1, well, you obviously didn’t waste your time in high school dreaming about boats when you were supposed to be working on algebra problems. Officially, 797 is aquatic and air sports, but adding the .1 makes it boating—power, sail, big, small, cruising, racing. The 700 aisle in the library was a world to which I escaped whenever I had the chance, which was unfortunately quite often, as my grades clearly attest.
I met some wonderful people in 797.1 and they became a part of my life, never to be forgotten. Or at least put on hold until a chance meeting on a Los Angeles freeway brought them all back with a rush.
Our school library had long tables for work to be done (for those who were working, of course), but I found myself far from those bun-numbing chairs. I was in other hemispheres, seeing the blue-green translucence of a towering sea for the first time, feeling the heat of a tropical sun, hearing the creak of cotton and manila and varnished wood.
One of my friends in 797.1 was H.A. Calahan, a remarkably prolific writer who seemed determined to teach me all about boats. His books were unsullied by dust jackets, and the blue linen hardcover bore only simple titles: Learning to Sail and Learning to Cruise.
While reading Learning to Cruise, I memorized the 17 ways to get into trouble when I should have been committing American presidents to memory. Luckily, Calahan also offered 17 ways to get out of trouble, knowing that I’d probably need this information more than knowing who served after Warren G. Harding.
Old H.A. was a hands-on kind of guy, and one of his books was Gadgets & Wrinkles. Aside from the wrinkle plasters my mother used, I knew nothing about wrinkles, but I could picture myself as the proud skipper of a snappy little cruiser, using a perfect toolbox to install a few wrinkles the builder had overlooked but that Calahan remembered.
Calahan devoted a great deal of time to explaining the black art of varnishing. A few years later, I saw an ad for Calahan’s Chiltered Varnish. I bought some in the hope that it was from my pal H.A., but I never found out. I did discover that, in spite of the advertising promises, going to the effort of keeping the varnish can chilled in an ice chest didn’t in the least slow the formation of sags and runs.
Ham deFontaine, a longtime Yachting magazine editor, had a similar book in the school library called Gadgets & Gilhickies. Again, I knew naught about gilhickies (hickies were something entirely different but equally intriguing), though it seemed apparent that a lot of skippers spent as much time adding things to their boats as they did cruising. A good lesson learned at an early age, although there was no mention of having a cold beer handy to lubricate the work.
But 797.1 wasn’t all about work. It was about the joyous freedom of empty horizons and blue water. It was an Englishman named Francis Charles Chichester in Alone Across the Atlantic, and Dwight Long’s Seven Seas on a Shoestring. There was Carleton Mitchell’s Islands to Windward: Cruising the Caribbees, and I invested more time with the library atlases trying to find the Caribbees than I had in a semester of geography.
Because Chapman Piloting & Seamanship was used by the United States Power Squadrons as its official reference book, our library had two copies. In that book, I was mightily disappointed to learn that “the ability to steer well is a quality that cannot be learned from a book or a classroom.” I did carry forward one solid piece of advice, however: “Experienced skippers prepare themselves for dealing with emergencies as a matter of routine.” To this day, those words are filed in the back of my mind under the heading Plan B.
And then there was the legendary Irving Johnson, who had graced the pages of National Geographic with his equally famous Yankee. I longed to hear Johnson shout from the wheel, “Caswell, get aloft and baffle up the finklesnork or we’ll be goners!” (I would save the crew with my quick and able seamanship.)
Actually, when it came to the seaman’s arts, I was at a loss. Hervey Garrett Smith had written a book called The Arts of the Sailor, and I was determined to master it. In particular, I wanted to be able to splice a grommet. I smuggled short lengths of line into the library, but in the process of following the clear diagrams in Smith’s book, I always ended up with a pile of unraveled rope. I don’t even know how you’d use a spliced grommet, but don’t count on me if you need one.
When it came to deciphering finklesnorks, though, I was often saved by the International Maritime Dictionary by René de Kerchove. There, I committed to memory the definition of a bifurcation buoy: “a buoy placed at the outer end of a middle ground.” I don’t know what a middle ground is, but if it has a bifurcation buoy, I’m ready.
On that California highway, I became been so immersed in mentally perusing the shelves of my high school library that I didn’t see the SUV depart from my lane. In fact, I almost missed my own exit.
Whoever you are out there with license plates 7971, thanks. Maybe you aren’t a skipper and your plate means something entirely different. No matter. This time, it was fun to spend an hour in study hall.