If you happened to read Mark Vittert’s column in the St. Louis Business Journal on Friday, you are already familiar with the misadventures of three old men on a recent road trip.
One of the three is referred to as the General. That’s me.
By way of background, Vittert and I have spent the better part of three decades trying to complete the Great Loop. Or maybe it’s the Great Inner Circle. It involves taking a boat from St. Louis to New York City and from there to Mobile and then back to St. Louis.
Most people who do it, do it in a single cruise, and most of them do it on a large boat and have plenty of time in which to do it. Vittert and I have been pecking away at this for about three decades on his 21-foot ski boat. We used to devote about a week every other year. There was no hurry.
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We’ve gone up the Illinois River to Chicago and then down Lake Michigan — we’re too small to go across — then up the eastern side and to and across the Straits of Mackinac and down the western shore of Lake Huron to Saginaw Bay and across to the eastern shore and up to the St. Claire River and into Detroit then into Lake Erie and up to Buffalo. From there we caught the Erie Canal (which is mostly a series of rivers) to the Hudson, where we took a right-hand turn to New York City.
The path from here to Mobile Bay is confusing. There are many rivers. We sometimes got lost. How can you get lost lost on a river? It’s easy. There are no signs. Only instructions that seem simple. “Go down the Mississippi and take a left at the Ohio.” Well, yeah, but there are lots of rivers pouring into the Mississippi and if you’re gabbing with a friend, it is easy to cruise past the Ohio. Trust me.
Don’t even get me started on the problems from New York City to Mobile. We got lost on Chesapeake Bay. We could not find the Potomac, which is extremely wide at its mouth and does not look like a river. There is just an expanse of water all around and even an experienced navigator like the General can mistake the James River for the Potomac. And then how do you know you’re cruising up the wrong river? Shouldn’t we be seeing Mount Vernon?
While Vittert and I were in the boat, Tom Spitzer followed on land with the boat trailer. We’d get together at night. In Vittert’s column, Tom was called the Commander.
None of us expected this quest to be a Last Adventure. In fact, we used to ask ourselves, What comes next? But something unforeseen happened. We got old. It happened the way Hemingway described a man going bankrupt. Gradually then suddenly.
There were health problems. Then COVID. When life resumed, there was a new normal, and it did not involve me leaping from the bow of a pitching boat onto a dock. Maybe crawling onto the dock, rolling onto the dock. Maybe with some assistance.
In this spirit, tinged with a little desperation, we planned to make a final assault and complete our last stretch of the Great Circle. Jacksonville to Washington, D.C., is all we had left.
Days before we were ready to depart, the boat developed mechanical problems. We conferred. Maybe we can do the boat trip in the spring, we decided, but for now, let’s have a road trip and do the journey on land. So we met in Florida Monday morning, rented a car and began meandering toward D.C.
Monday night we pulled into Charleston. We had reservations at a Hampton Inn but couldn’t find it. None of us are proficient with navigation by cell phone. We’re old-school. We drove aimlessly around Charleston, occasionally asking for directions from strangers. Finally, we found the hotel. The parking was at a nearby public garage, but we happened upon a space right to he hotel. A sign said, “No parking from 7 a.m to 9 a.m.” We’ll get up early, we decided.
Before we headed up to our rooms, Vittert mentioned that the deadline for his weekly column was the next morning. I have no ideas, he said. You’ll think of something, I replied with the insouciance of a guy who still had a couple of days before his own deadline.
We did not oversleep by much, but Charleston, it turns out, is a very literal town. Seven means seven. When we checked on the car at 7:15, it was gone. The hotel clerk said we weren’t the first guests to lose a car and she gave us the number of Mr. Sam, who helps people whose cars have been towed. Mr. Sam sent us a driver to take us to the impound lot. There was our rental car resting between a couple of wrecks. One of Vittert’s grandfathers, Frank Mack, was an immigrant from Ukraine who ran a junkyard in Edwardsville. That heritage seemed to give Vittert an easy rapport with the folks at the impound lot. The woman who ran the place used to be a waitress. This is better, she said.
It was only a small delay and not terribly expensive and it lifted Vittert’s spirits. “It’s a column,” he said to me.
We spent that night in Williamsburg, Virginia, and then headed for the airport in Washington. Its location seems to be a state secret. What happened to the days when you could follow signs to an airport? We drove around looking for airplanes. There’s one! There’s another! We found the airport with not much time to spare. Vittert dropped Spitzer and me off at the terminal. He was staying in Washington for a couple of days.
We went to check in and get boarding passes. “Oh no,” said Spitzer. “I left my wallet in the car.”
He tried to call Vittert. “The person you are trying to reach has not established a voice mail system,” said the message. Well, we knew that. I am technologically advanced enough to text a message. “Tommy left his wallet in the car, Please call him.”
I did not want leave a good friend alone in an airport with no wallet, no credit card, nothing. But generals sometimes have to do difficult things. Do you think it was easy for Gen. Douglas MacArthur to leave his troops on Corregidor while he snuck away on a fast boat to Australia?
“Tommy, you’ll be fine,” I said. “If I could, I’d wait with you. If I had any cash, I’d give you some.”
“Do what you think is right, General,” he said.
“I’ve got a column to write tomorrow. I can’t miss this flight.”
I got my boarding pass — C-60. I gave Spitzer a thumbs-up sign. “I’ll see you in town,” I said and headed to the security line.
Shortly before we began boarding, Spitzer showed up. Vittert had come by with his wallet. What’s more, when Spitzer put his information into the machine for a boarding pass, it gave him A-34.
Does that seem fair to you? I got my boarding pass first and I got a C. The A-Crowd gets the aisle seats. The B’s gets the window seats. The C’s are stuck with the middle seats.
Totally unfair. I tried not to resent Spitzer’s good fortune. Oh well, I said to myself. It’s a column.