This story was told to the best of my ability at the Moth in Philadelphia (meaning it came out very differently than planned).
After college, with an acute fear of cubicles and the hope of traveling the world, I took a job as a small ship cruise director. I knew that if I stuck with it I would see Alaska, Central America, the Caribbean and beyond. I didn’t realize that the journey would be with boat loads of senior citizens. Or that they would be what I found most interesting.
One of my favorites was Mr. Shepherd, an 85-year-old, old salt with Just-For-Men dyed jet-black hair, a puffed out chest and a Top Gun bravado to match. Mr. Shepherd boarded the ship in Baja California, Mexico, in January and on the third night of the cruise asked, “What would you think if I slept on deck tonight?”
I thought he must have had a fight with his wife. Passengers paid thousands for the cabins. You’d think he’d want to use it. And Baja in January gets cold at night. Sleeping outside is best left to the coyotes.
“I can bring a bunch of blankets,” he said, “and, well, I know the bathroom up there is out of service, so I can just pee over the side if I have to.”
I was still wondering why he wanted to sleep on deck when that second thing hit me.
“Wait, you’re going to what?”
“Pee over the side? If I have to, yes. No one will be awake and I really want to stay out there the whole time. It’s important.”
The mental image racked my mind as Mr. Shepherd gazed out at the sea, the very water he planned to contaminate.
I promised him that I’d call the engineer and that we’d work on the bathroom if he “just sit tight for a bit.” I left and, as the other pressures of the day mounted, soon forgot about Mr. Shepherd.
Later, I found him waiting for me at the bar, a glass of cranberry juice in his hand.
“Ok,” he said. “I’ll bring a bucket.”
“What do you need a bucket for?” I asked.
“To pee in, Marc! To pee in! The bathroom is still broken,” he said, “and I don’t want to spend a minute inside!”
Horrified, and believing this man would do anything to stay out all night, I called the engineer. An hour later the toilet flushed like new.
That night, wrapped in two fleece blankets and a wool knit cap, Mr. Shepherd slept in a lounge chair on deck, beneath the most beautiful star-filled sky you can imagine. Every star, every constellation on full display. Deckhands on duty said he was awake half the night with his hands behind his head, looking up.
The next morning I found him standing at the railing as the sun rose over the copper mountains in the distance. Maybe it was the orange glow of the sun, the ear to ear grin, or that jet black hair, but in that moment he looked about fifty years younger.
“What an incredible night!” he said. “I’d have paid twice as much for this trip if I knew I could have slept on deck. It was fantastic! Really, you don’t know how long I’ve wanted to do that.”
I’ll admit, I was happy that he was happy, but still thought he was strange. I wondered why; why was this so important to him?
Then he told me a story.
It was early in 1945; Mr. Shepherd was twenty four years old and in the Navy and he was looking at a star-filled sky from the deck of a US warship, one of 70 bound for the Philippines.
“Those ocean skies at night were like nothing I had ever seen,” he said. “Just filled with stars; loaded. But once we hit the beach, it all ended. You couldn’t look anywhere but right in front of you. We were cramped in fox holes, being shaken awake by mortars. There were wounded men, dead, it was hell. Now…now I just try to remember everything else around that time. I remember being on deck. And those stars. I swear, last night was no different. Thank you!”
A bit teary eyed, I thanked him for the story and walked him inside.
Mr. Shepherd left that weekend, and from then on I made a habit of going on deck at night. I’d look up at the stars. I’d think about him and the other passengers, ones I once thought so strange (and they might have been), only to revere them once I learned their full story. My mind wandered, to the home I left behind, to this bizarre life at sea, and whatever the future held. Then, when all felt still, when I felt the stress of the day fall off my shoulders, when my breathing matched the ebb and flow of the sea, I’d lay down. And I’d go to sleep.