Gaby Dunn reflects on when her dad’s self-impressed identity complex nearly killed him—and her.
I remember it as the time we all got “shipwrecked.”
It’s the dramatic wording of an eight-year-old. We weren’t really shipwrecked, but we did get lost at sea. My dad’s bravado almost got us killed.
It was 1996 in Punta Gorda, a fishing community on the west coast of Florida. My father was still drinking at the time, and he rented a boat he could not pilot because he was a cowboy in his own mind. He’d been raised in Indiana with dreams of Shane, A Fistful of Dollars, and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, wearing dark blue jeans held up by a metallic “screaming eagle” belt buckle and big, clanking cowboy boots. Stetsons lined each rung of our house’s hat rack. Hiring a guide was an option—but not in my dad’s world. If this man was going to rent a boat, he damn well wasn’t going to have someone else telling him how to drive it.
Adventure, like drinking, was a vice my dad had not yet given up.
The trip was an annual one for our family. It was inexpensive for my parents to pack me and my toddler sister into the car and drive a couple hours to a rented second-floor loft for a summer vacation. Below the loft, there were shops and restaurants. My sister and I loved the kooky gift shop that sold Beanie Babies. My parents liked sitting outside, listening to the nightly jazz band.
Early one morning, we all set out on a 15-foot outboard boat. The weather was brilliant. All around, there was bright blue sky and so much blue-green water. There was a smattering of look-alike islands and then, nothing. The boat skipped across waves. Sometimes it got stuck in sand bars.
When that happened, my father would get out and push the boat past, revving the engine over the hump. It was an annoying blip on an otherwise perfect ride, but it gave my dad the chance to play “hero” every other minute.
Mid-day, we stopped at a deserted island, and my dad parked the boat near the shore. He, my sister, and I got out to explore. My mom stayed behind to sunbathe, but I remember suspecting it was also out of fear. My dad took me on roller coasters, went camping in the dark woods, and drove too fast. He was the adventurer, not her.
My mom pretty much always stayed behind, most often with my sister glued to her side. My sister screamed at baseball games when the crowds got too loud and was scared of the animatronic animals at Chuck E. Cheese. She was a sensitive and cautious child, and my mom used that to keep her near.
I tried to be more like my dad, but, in truth, the Space Mountain coaster he’d talked me into riding had almost made me puke. Unlike my sister, who used terror to get out of scary situations, I constantly hid my fear to impress my dad; my number one goal as a kid was to never disappoint him.
Whenever I didn’t want to climb higher on the tree branch, or wanted to stop playing basketball, or felt afraid of monsters in my bedroom, he was there with a well-timed “Suck it up.” He wasn’t being mean, he just wanted me to be brave, to be able to handle things myself, to be independent.
That day, my sister and I were both intoxicated by his sense of adventure. We ate lunch on the sand and climbed around the mangrove trees. We got little sunburns and swam in the shallow water by the island’s shore.
Afternoon hit, and the sky got darker. We got back on the boat and started heading the way we’d come. But all the islands looked the same, and none of the landmarks were in the right place.
Lightning cracked the air, and the clouds turned black. The water that had once bounced our small boat like a baby on a knee tossed and turned us violently.
Rain trickled down. The boat kept getting stuck on sand bars, leaving us stranded in the middle of the swell. Now, when my father got out to push, I wondered if he’d get swept away by the strong water.
My mom took my sobbing baby sister and huddled in the corner. I stayed at the front with my dad. He silently steered for over two hours, his eyes tight slits peering out at nothing looking for some end to all this water. I tried to will a harbor into existence with my mind.
We were all going to die, here, together, I thought. All of us at once. Something about that made me feel both relieved and sad. I remember, at eight years old, picturing the newspaper headline the next morning.
“Local Father Too Proud To Hire Guide, Family Dies When Boat Capsizes,” or “Father Accidentally Drowns Himself, Family Off Coast of Florida.” Something like that. I wondered what the reporter would write about me, specifically: “A local girl, 8, was lost at sea after the boat her father stupidly thought he could pilot capsized during a storm. She loved Nancy Drew books, the movie Harriet the Spy, and unicorns. If she hadn’t died, she would have been the most famous author/astronaut to ever live. ‘I always like-liked her,’ the boy she had a crush on said as he sobbed, swearing he’d never love again.”
I had a big imagination.
Behind us, my mother and sister started praying in Hebrew: Shema yisrael, adonai elohenu, adonai echad. It’s the Jewish every prayer; it’s the prayer for when you don’t know what else to do.
I was scared, but, as per usual, I saw my dad out of the corner of my eye. He was stoic, hands on the steering wheel. I straightened my back and shot my mom and sister a disgusted look. My dad also seemed annoyed by their muttering. They were overreacting terribly, I thought. Being wusses, big babies. My dad wasn’t afraid and so I wasn’t afraid. We were the cool ones.
Finally, my dad spotted Gasparilla Harbor. He pulled the boat in and docked. My mother and sister got out, shaking like frightened hamsters.
My father, with me tagging along like a miniature version of him, went inside a small general store to call the owner of the boat and tell him what happened. It took an hour for the owner and his wife to drive to us. My dad ushered me, my mom, and my sister into the black SUV. I was desperate to climb back out and stay with him. I didn’t belong with these wailing women, I thought. My dad turned to the boat’s owner.
“You and I need to bring the boat back,” the owner told him.
“In this weather?” my dad asked. The owner nodded. It was the manly thing to do, my dad told us. He couldn’t say “no.”
“You know how to swim?” the owner asked my dad as the car doors closed.
The car pulled away and my dad and the owner got back into the tiny outboard. I watched, twisted around in the backseat, torn between barreling toward safety and wishing I could stay with him.
Back at the loft, my mom put me and my sister in the bath tub to warm us up. I pretended I wasn’t cold, even though my fingers were blue. Clean and in our pajamas, we waited in the living room for my dad to come back.
Two more hours went by.
He’s never coming back, I thought. The idea was foreign; my dad was a cowboy, not a pirate. And he certainly wasn’t a coward. But then I got angry. How could he, big and brave, egotistical and impulsive, have agreed to drive the boat back in what amounted to a hurricane? As time passed, it seemed less impressive, and more plain stupid. I also felt guilty, like somehow my tiny spaghetti arms could have saved his life if only I’d been allowed to stay with him.
Then, there was a loud knock on the door, and my dad was in the apartment, his clothing soaked, his curls clinging to his forehead. I remember him turning the shower on, and lying in the tub fully clothed, the steam rising around his limp body.
“I need a drink,” he told my mother, ignoring my and my sister’s cries of joy.
I remember my mom handing him a bottle of Jack Daniels, which he took long pulls from as he soaked in the scalding water, willing the feeling back into his extremities. He tells me later that in truth it was a small tumbler of scotch, and my mother handed it to him before he got in the bath. My mother thinks he did actually drink it in the shower.
Seven years later, my dad got sober after wrapping his car around a light pole outside our synagogue and, once again, surviving. He didn’t want to risk that third strike.
A month ago, I asked both my parents about the “shipwreck.”
“Do we have to talk about this?” my mother said, exasperated. It’s a horrible memory for her, of a time when she held a bawling four-year-old in her arms and thought her whole family was going to drown because her husband was a drunk show-off.
My dad tells me he thought my mom and sister were overreacting, though now he knows he was being delusional about the danger. He could have easily gotten his wife and two young daughters killed. It was more important then to seem cold and masculine than to acknowledge the reality of the situation he’d gotten us into.
In some ways, that’s hard for me to hear. I feel like I’m still that little girl sitting on the white boat deck, holding in my fear so my dad will think of me as his equal. But, I realize that’s like trying to impress a ghost, a person who’s no longer here.
The cowboy I remember my dad being is long gone, replaced by a man who’d rather eat his own spurs than put his family in danger.
Out of earshot of my mom, I told my dad that I think I stayed calm throughout the ordeal, but I wonder if that’s just wishful remembering. My dad said I did.
“You had this naïveté,” he said, “like it was all just a big adventure to you.”
I felt the same way about him. For almost a decade, I thought I’d been taking my cues from my father, but maybe, we were really just mirrors, facing each other and reflecting back.