Being the son of James S. Rockefeller Sr. the successful Wall Street banker, young James’ childhood was “very privileged. There were no material wants. The food was plain but wholesome. Wealth, as I grew to be aware of it, was not be flaunted, but I didn’t know back then that my family had it.” As you read through the pages of Wayfarer, his memoirs, you definitely get the sense that none of the four children in the house in Connecticut received any special treatment, nor did they believe they were entitled to any. Money was just not an issue like it is for many of us.
James Jr. (Or “Pebble” as he was nicknamed) was schooled, expected to graduate and eventually take his place in the business world. But it was not to be, despite his father’s best efforts. At an early point, he introduces young James to the inner workings of a textile mill in Rhode Island:
“The manager of the mill was due for retirement shortly after my scheduled release from higher education. No other family member had stepped forward to take his place. My father’s eyes rose expectantly to mine. I failed him by slipping away the following year, selling my interest in the Casey cutter [a boat he and he brother Andrew has peurchased] to buy an old forty-foot Friendship sloop of dubious virtue in Annapolis, which I also christened Mandalay. The plan was as directional as the North Star—namely, to sail around the world. Napping machines and print rollers, preparing cloth for pyjamas and shirts, could not compete with the incense of the Tropics.”
And so the adventure begins. Along the way, he takes us down the east coast to Cumberland Island, a barrier island off the coast of Georgia that generations of Carnegies (his maternal relatives) owned. There, he meets a visitor that becomes the first love of his life, children’s author Margaret Wise Brown. “Like her books, Margaret is eternal and forever loved” Mr. Rockefeller states.
Lest you think Mr. James S. Rockefeller Jr. is sailing the oceans in a crewed yacht while sitting back sipping single malt Scotch, reading Wayfarer will quickly rid you of that notion. The Mandalay was no rich man’s yacht, and James, along with a friend or two were the entire crew. Certainly, the money at his disposal helped to pave over some of the rougher spots, but he was still out on the ocean in a tired, leaky old boat with few, if any luxuries. The amazing part of his memoirs, whether he is in the Tropics, America or Norway is the fascinating people he meets, the relationships formed and, sadly, loves lost.
One wonders if a person could do the same type of trip today: would those isolated islands now be inhabited, with modern technology available? The relative ease that James has in sailing from one port to another, meeting people, getting supplies and spending time as a guest of a resident or two is endlessly engrossing. His writing style is eloquent, yet down-to-earth, with a talent for making words state a certain feeling or event in his life.
“Keeping a diary or writing letters is alien in this age of email and the cell phone. It was somewhat alien even back when I was young. J don’t know why, but from an early age I wrote letters and jotted down thoughts. There were several close friends to whom I could pour out my heart in writing, saying things I would not say to family and those surrounding me. Letter writing and diary keeping seemed to arrange events and people in better perspective. When we are young, emotion rises easily to the surface, while with age, observations are often wiser but not so vibrantly colored. We grow more guarded, building up barriers against the abrasions of daily living.
Looking back over my letters and diary of the voyage, I see that the incidents, people, and places were like eyelets in a boot. Laced together they became a structure supporting my footsteps along the path to adulthood, from heartbreak to some measure of healing.”
Living vicariously through books like Wayfarer is what makes reading so fun. While it is a personal memoir, it is also a time capsule from an era when the world held great mysteries, and one had to see them for themselves; there was no Google Earth to rely on. Just maps, charts and the stars. I highly recommend Wayfarer to those with an interest in sailing, travel and experiencing exceptional adventures populated with captivating personalities every step of the way. Gripping, honest and impassioned, this is a memoir writing at its best.
You can read an excerpt from Wayfarer at the Islandport website. It is Chapter Six in the print edition. https://www.islandportpress.com/press/writer-of-songs-and-nonsense.html
Wayfarer: A memoir by James S. Rockefeller Jr.
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