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Ships, ahoy

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Slow Friday around the newsroom at the Fortress of Employment last week, so The Observer decided to take an afternoon stroll down to the Arkansas riverfront and check out the Nina and the Pinta, exact replicas of two of the three ships that brought that Patron Saint of all Men Who Refuse to Stop and Ask for Directions 'cross the ocean blue in 1492 (they'll be gone from Little Rock by the time you read this, but will be docked in Fort Smith from Nov. 11-20 if you're in the area and want to shell out $8 for a tour).

Reading about Columbus in elementary school, we imagined the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria in the same way we imagined the Mayflower: wooden versions of the Battleship Missouri; vast, broad, strung with miles of hemp-rope and bedecked with the proud standards of distant lands, big enough to bear the weight of history.

At least we got the rope part right.

Laying at anchor just behind the Old State House on that gray Friday were two black ships, neither of which would probably qualify as a good-sized tugboat these days — the larger Pinta nearest the shore, the smaller Nina snuggled up against her starboard side like a calf against its mother. Something we read online said they were built using only hand tools in Brazil, and are the most accurate knockoffs of Columbus' ships ever built. They're currently touring the waterways of America, far inland of where Ol' Chris ever ventured. When we walked up, their decks were awash in elementary school kids in their fall jackets, milling about, looking over the rail into the muddy water, staring at the thousand yards of line that made the sails go up and down and not fly away like birds in a gale.

The Observer, meanwhile, kept a reverent distance. We don't even like water with our whiskey, so we admired the two ladies from afar. We stood there in the chilly, gray air and thought about the kind of stones it must have taken for men to set out across the uncharted ocean in tubs such as these, with a captain who couldn't ever find India with both hands: fragile boats against the enormous sky and sea, the sheltering ships ready at any moment to be consumed by storm, or wave, or fire, or just bad luck.

Men were, of course, men in those days, back when you could die of an ear infection or bad case of the flu or appendicitis, lickety-split. That's the thing about history that has always struck The Observer odd: that those who had so much less living to lose than we do in the modern world were always willing to risk what they did get at the drop of a hat. It doesn't seem to make a heck of a lot of sense, but we're glad folks were willing to take those risks back in those days. The foundations of civilizations are not stone and mortar, not really. They're built on flintier stuff: the shoulders of those who dared to risk everything. As we were standing there contemplating the great sprawl of human mortality and human history, a mother with a boy in arms walked past. The boy's eyes lit up as he saw the boats in the river. "A pirate ship!" he exclaimed.

We couldn't help but grin. Nobody wants to be an adventurer anymore, The Observer thought. Everybody wants to be a pirate.

Speaking of pirates, Junior is almost 12 now, and routinely hits us up for money. We know we should put him on an allowance at his age, maybe make him do some organized chores for his greenbacks as a way to help him know the value of a dollar, but we just haven't. He's our only cub, and dagnabbit if he doesn't know how to push his Old Man's buttons. The other day, we were texting back and forth, him on his mother's phone. He was, as often happens, pressuring Dear Ol' Dad up for cash for one thing or another. Trying to be strong, trying to resist, we told him no dice, not now, no way, no how.

"Please Dad," he texted, "just help me help you help me to help us all."

We're beginning to believe that boy may have a future in politics.

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