By Mike Zusman
“Mikey, if you keep up that bullshit you’re gonna get keelhauled.”
I don’t remember what 8 year old me was doing that day in 1988, but I do remember that it pissed Henry off. Henry was my parents’ friend at their yacht club on City Island in the Bronx, NY. He was one of the few reasons I tolerated being dragged to that place every weekend and many weekdays in the summer.
“What’s a keelhaul, Henry?”
“It’s when we tie one line to your wrists, another to your ankles, and drag you side-to-side underneath the ship’s hull.”
“Under the water? Will I die?” I asked, eyes wide, giving him my full attention.
“Yes, under the water. The barnacles shred you to shit.”
I promptly stopped whatever annoying kid thing I was doing.
To eight year old me, Henry was the man. A few years older than my newspaper editor father, Henry worked as a first mate under his captain brother, and was gone for months at a time sailing freighters and tankers all over the world. When he was gone, I drove my parents crazy asking multiple times per week where Henry was and when he was coming back.
“The Persian Gulf.”
“We don’t know when he’ll be back. Probably in the summer, Mikey.”
As you’d expect of a burly bearded man of six-and-a-half feet who always wore cowboy boots, blue jeans, a leather jacket, and aviators, Henry rode a Harley, and served time for burglary somewhere in New England.
He was a strong man capable of violence and hard work, but was also a kind friend to a little kid. Henry regularly offered to let me sit on his motorcycle, fish with him from the docks, or to adjust my attitude when necessary.
A typical summer day at the club had me catching flounder until I ran out of sandworms, at which point I’d transition to throwing rocks into Eastchester Bay. When I was done throwing rocks, usually around happy hour, I’d head up to the bar to look for Henry.
When he was there, he’d be drinking whiskey, and I’d climb up on a bar stool next to him. He’d let me have a sip of his drink while ordering me a Shirley Temple. He’d then throw me some quarters, and we’d start a high-stakes gambling match of heads or tails.
As is common for hard drinking gamblers like Henry and me, our friendly banter would often devolve into some form of dispute and physical altercation. I would do my best to set Henry straight, but his 230-plus-pound muscular frame was a bit much for prepubescent me. I would often tire myself out swinging wildly for his body without connecting, while he kept me at arm’s length, one hand on my head, his other holding a drink.
Other times, I’d go for the single-leg, which also never worked out in my favor. Henry would simply rip me off of his leg, before hanging me upside down by my ankles in front of the entire bar, including my parents. Quarters would fall out of my pockets onto the floor as he shook me and I laughed uncontrollably.
Occasionally, I’d land a sucker punch to his groin, which was always a crowd pleaser on account of our weight class disparity.
I don’t know where Henry is today, or if he’s even alive. But I count my blessings that I had a friend like Henry instead of an iPad.