None of the roustabouts, deck hands, or dock workers along the middle and upper Texas coast seemed to know how Dirty Dale got his nickname, and Dale wasn’t telling.
Gracie, who’d given up life on an oil rig to put her cooking talents to work in a land-locked café, served him breakfast every morning. She insisted his name came from his good-natured willingness to pursue every female in sight. Certainly, no matter how oblivious, uninterested, or irritated the object of his attentions, Dale’s confidence was absolute. Sliding into a seat next to an unaccompanied woman, he’d murmur, “Hey, darlin’. I’m here to improve your life.” Most didn’t feel the need for improvement, but he remained willing to try.
A prissy live-aboard in his marina claimed to have named him Dirty Dale because he rarely indulged in a shower, but that wasn’t true. Like his dock-mates, Dale trotted down to the bathhouse with towels and a change of clothing every day. A scruffy beard and fly-away hair did leave him looking unkempt, and you could see traces of his current projects in the grease or oil smudged across his shirt, but none of that added up to a lack of personal hygiene.
Those invited to board his boat for drinks and conversation often assumed his nickname reflected conditions below deck. Living aboard a boat is complicated at best, and the old adage “a place for everything and everything in its place” may have been born on a boat. A particularly unpleasant set of woes betides the sailor who gives up the struggle to stay organized, and Dale certainly had allowed his ship to get out of shape.
It wasn’t precisely that he’d surrendered to the forces of stuff; he never engaged the battle. The interior of his boat held the history of his world: layered, crammed, and filled to the proverbial gills. Occasional gaps in the walls of stuff were the only evidence that piles of spare parts or second-hand books might have been heaved off the boat during the odd impulse toward organization.
On the water, he approached sailing much as he did housekeeping, with a style both improvisational and weirdly creative. Years after the fact, astounded sailors still recounted the day he won an offshore race by anchoring in the Galveston Ship Channel, pouring a couple of fingers of good Scotch, and sitting back to watch the fast-running tide sweep his less savvy competition back to sea.
Everyone agreed that it was a validation of sorts. If you assume God truly does care for fools and drunkards, there’s no question Dale was twice-blessed. Despite his disregard for common sense and common sailing practice, he never met the unhappy fates that sometimes befell his more prepared, cautious, and law-abiding friends. From time to time, he even got the ladies. At least, he got them once.
During the years I knew him, Dale’s most famous escapade involved a weekend voyage down the Texas coast with his newest love. Because of time constraints, they cruised the Intracoastal Waterway to Freeport, where they spent the better part of the weekend. Then, as they were traveling back toward Galveston on Sunday afternoon, the boat sputtered to a stop. The little Atomic 4 engine had run out of gas.
Suspecting she was stuck on the marine equivalent of a country road with a guy who’d planned the whole thing, the lady-friend grew irritated. But this was unprepared Dale, not predatory Dale, and he truly was out of gas.
Later, he told us she pitched a fit that would have done his second ex-wife proud. More confident of his old Atomic 4 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 gave it a swirl and poured it into the fuel tank. The engine fired with an explosive cough from the cylinders and a rattle or two unlike any he’d ever heard, but they were underway.
By the time he ran out of fuel a second time, they nearly were back to port. Thanks to a local shrimper, they reached home under tow and safely docked just before the woman disappeared into the night and out of Dale’s life forever.
Shortly after the infamous Freeport voyage, Dale found yet another woman. Thinking the boat charming and Dale amusing, she moved aboard. Eventually they married; spent some time shrimping; moved to Florida; took up chicken farming; tried their hands at long-haul trucking, and then divorced.
Ever the survivor, Dale remarried for the fourth or fifth time, and took the boat to Florida. No one was surprised by another divorce, but new gossip drifting back from the Keys became worrying. Not merely lovesick, Dale had become physically ill, and it was serious. Details were sketchy. Some said it was an intestinal problem. Others claimed it was cancer. There were reports of medical complications, and financial difficulties.
In those days before email and cell phones, it was hard to get solid news, but reports still traveled, and we learned the bitter truth. Another surgery hadn’t gone well. Dale was expected to survive, but didn’t. With word of his death arriving 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 had lived, new boats arrived, skippered by sailors telling their own fantastic tales of life on the sea. Occasionally, pulled together by the return of cruising friends or the simple urge to party, old-timers gathered for long evenings of nostalgic story-telling.
One particularly languid summer night, stories flew as we laughed again at the man who fell off his own boat, then witnessed his panic-stricken girlfriend calling his wife for help. We remembered the salt-encrusted, slightly crazed live-aboard who varnished his decks with a mop, and the braggadocious tech savant who was showing off his new electronics at the very moment he took out a channel marker. Eventually, stories about Dale began to surface and those, too, were retold with relish.
During a beautifully embellished version of the infamous Freeport cruise story, maudlin sentimentality was flowing as freely as the wine when the door to the clubhouse flew open and an unkempt, disheveled apparition stepped into the room.
“Whatnhell’s a guy haveta do t’ get a drink around here?”
As surprised by our silence as we were stunned by his presence, Dale tried again. “Whatsa matter wi’ you guys? You drink it all up already?”
At last, someone blurted it out. “Dale! We thought you were dead!” Looking around, Dale must have seen the shock and astonishment in our eyes. “Dead? Me? Well, if I’ve been dead, I’m sure as hell glad to be back. Now, somebody pour me a drink.”
Clearly, the gossip had been wrong.
Each year, as the season dedicated to another remarkable story rolls around, I think about Dale.
He’s well and truly gone now, having succumbed at last to the same disease 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 offered so willingly — his receptive spirit, his humor, his determination to explore the possibilities of life outside the bounds of normal society — perhaps his greatest gift to a surprised few was an experience akin to resurrection. Whatever happened on that first Easter, no disciple could have been more astonished than those of us who thought — if only for a brief, irrational moment — that Dale T truly had risen from the dead.
During this Easter season, whether you’re Christian or whether you aren’t; 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, Dale T has a message for you.
Keep your eyes open. Be attentive. Listen.
You don’t know what forces are abroad in the land, and you can’t predict what’s going to happen next. 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.
Comments always are welcome.