No one seemed to know how Dirty Dale got his name, and Dale wasn’t telling.
Gladys, who came in off the rigs to put her cooking talents to work in the cafe she purchased after years in the oil patch, had plenty of opportunity to watch the locals in action and she watched Dale a lot. She insisted his nickname came from his good-natured willingness to pursue every female in sight. It was a reasonable assumption. No matter how oblivious, uninterested or irritated the woman might be, Dale’s confidence was absolute as he slid into the seat next to her or leaned against her car. “Hey, darlin’,” he’d say. “I’m here to improve your life.” Lord knows he tried.
Prissier live-aboards in his marina claimed he was “dirty” because he rarely indulged in a shower. That wasn’t true. Like every one else, Dale trotted down to the bathhouse with his towels and shaving kit on a daily basis. His roughly-trimmed, scruffy beard and fly-away hair did give him an unkempt appearance and it was easy to figure out his current projects by the kind of grease or oil smudged across his tees, but that was true of everyone. All things considered, it seemed unlikely a lack of personal hygiene was the reason for his name.
Acquaintances who passed muster and were invited aboard his boat for drinks and conversation contended ”Dirty Dale” had everything to do with living conditions down below. Living aboard is complicated at best. The old adage, ”a place for everything and everything in its place”, probably was born below decks. A particularly unpleasant sort of woe betides the sailor who gives up the struggle and lets his ship get out of shape.
It wasn’t that Dale had surrendered to the forces of “stuff”. He never engaged the battle. The interior of his boat was the history of his world – layered and crammed and gill-filled to within an inch of its fiberglass life. If there was an occasional gap in the wall of stuff, it was only that Dale, overcome by impulses toward organization, had heaved a pile of spare parts or second-hand books off the boat. He was compulsively casual, and his boat showed it.
He approached sailing with the same joie de casual. On the water he was off the cuff, improvisational and weirdly creative. His greatest claim to fame was winning an offshore race by anchoring in the Galveston Ship Channel, pouring a couple of fingers of good Scotch and watching a fast-running tide sweep his competition back to sea.
It was a validation of sorts, for everyone agreed that if God takes care of fools and drunkards, Dale was twice-blessed. It was a curious and maddening fact that despite his disregard for common sense and common sailing practices, he never suffered the unhappy fates befalling the prepared, the cautious and the law-abiding. And quite often, he got the ladies. At least, he got them once. Most of them never came back for that second trip
In the years I knew Dale, his most famous escapade involved a weekend trip with his newest love, a sail down the Texas coast to Freeport. She had time constraints, so they traveled via the Intracoastal Waterway, spent Saturday night in Freeport and were on their way back to Galveston when Dale ran out of gas. Convinced she was stuck on the marine equivalent of a country road with a guy who’d planned the whole thing, the lady-friend became suspicious. Her assumptions were reasonable, but this was Dale, and he was flat out of gas.
Later, he told us she pitched a fit that would have done his second ex-wife proud. Unlike so many of his companions, she had a job waiting for her come 9 a.m. Monday, and she intended to be there.
More confident of his old Atomic 4 engine than of his ability to endure the rantings of a furious woman, Dale concocted a gallon or two of home brew, combining acetone, nail polish remover, a little kerosene, a bottle or two of booze and who knows what else in a plastic bucket. He claimed and she swore that he mixed it up and poured it all into the fuel tank. When he fired up the engine, there was an explosive cough from the cylinders and a rattle or two unlike any he’d ever heard, but they were underway.
When he ran out of fuel again, they were nearly back to port and it was easy enough to find a local fisherman willing to throw over a line and tow them the rest of the way home.
Shortly after the infamous Freeport voyage, Dale found another woman. The new one found the boat charming and Dale amusing, and she moved aboard. Eventually they married, spent some time shrimping, moved to Florida, took up chicken farming, tried their hands at long-haul trucking for the fun of it and finally divorced.
Ever the survivor, Dale remarried and moved his boat to Florida. Then, after another divorce, Dale got sick. The gossip drifting back from Florida was contradictory but never good. It was an intestinal problem. He had stomach cancer. There were medical complications and financial problems.
Without email, cell phones and Facebook, it was hard to get solid news, but news still traveled, and eventually we learned the bitter truth. Another surgery hadn’t gone well. Dale was expected to survive, but then he didn’t. When word of his death arrived on the Texas coast, everyone paused and swallowed hard. If death could come to Dirty Dale, blithe spirit and survivor extraordinaire, it could come to any of us.
Months passed. At the marina where Dale once lived, new boats arrived, skippered by different sailors who told equally fantastic tales of life and the sea. Now and then, pulled together by the return of cruising friends, or a holiday, or the simple urge to party, old-timers gathered for long evenings of nostalgia and stories – some told with amusement, others tinged with regret and chagrin.
Sailors seem to have a knack for story-telling, and on one particularly languid summer night the stories flew. We recalled the fellow who fell off his own boat, leaving it in the hands of a girlfriend who panicked and called his wife for help. We remembered the salt-encrusted and slightly crazed live-aboard who varnished his decks with a mop, and laughed again at the hot-shot who was bragging about his electronics when he took out a channel marker because he wasn’t watching. As always, we retold Dale’s Odesssey and just a few of the epic tales associated with his name.
Deep into another retelling of the infamous Freeport cruise story, wine and maudlin sentimentality were wreaking havoc on emotions when the door to the clubhouse flew open and an unkempt, disheveled apparition stepped into the room.
“Whatthehell does a guy haveta do t’ get a drink around here?”
The apparition was Dale, obviously as surprised by our silence as we were stunned by his presence. “Whatsa matter with you guys?” he said. One of crowd blurted out what everyone was thinking. “Dale! We thought you were dead!” ”Dead? Me? Dead?” Looking around, he must have seen the shock and astonishment in our eyes. “Well, if I’ve been dead, I”m sure as hell glad to be back! Now, somebody pour me a drink.”
At that point the only thing clear was the score: Dale 1, Gossip 0.
Each year, as the season of rabbits, eggs, pastel dresses and unbelievable stories rolls around, I think about Dale. He’s well and truly gone now, having succumbed at last to the same disease that was rumored to have killed him in the first place. I miss his teasing, his larger-than-life persona, his ability to charm and hornswoggle anyone he met, but most of all I miss his generosity. Of all the gifts he gave his friends – his receptive spirit, his sense of humor, his willingness to explore the possibilities of a life lived outside the bounds of normal society – perhaps his greatest gift to a surprised few was an experience of true resurrection.
During this wonderful Easter season, as the southerlies begin to rise and sailors prepare to seek out new stories, whether you’re Christian or whether you’re not, whether you believe Jesus walked out of his tomb or whether you don’t, whether you dismiss the rabbits and eggs of the pagans or embrace them with the joy of a child, Easter – and Dirty Dale – have a message for you.
Keep your eyes open.
You don’t know what forces are abroad in the land.
You can’t predict what’s going to happen.
You never know when someone might roll away your stone,
and you never know who’ll be next
to come sashaying back from the dead.