What do you do when asked to make a dream come true for a young veteran of the Iraq war, who is battling leukemia that was likely caused by the spent uranium spread by US munitions in the region?
First, you say, “Yes!” and then you start figuring out how to give the soldier the best possible experience. You decide he deserves the biggest and most beautiful boat you know, so you contact the skipper of that vessel, while also asking every other skipper you know–and some you don’t know–if they will help this young man live his dream of learning how to sail.
You talk about this venture with everyone you encounter, who might be able to offer the vet an opportunity to sail, to race, to learn–and you find willing and generous people at every turn.
Then, one evening after work, you drive to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in Bethesda, Maryland, where the soldier is in the hospital for another chemo treatment. You tolerate the car search, the purse inspection, and walk through the metal detector. You show your driver’s license to the security guard at the desk in order to obtain a pass and an ID badge. After that, you drive past unmarked buildings, looking for the hospital, making a phone call to the soldier so he can give the final guidance.
You meet the young vet, who grins when he sees you and he gives you a big hug. You have the pleasure of talking to him in his hospital room for about an hour before he begins his next chemo treatment. You give him copies of SAIL magazine, a pirate’s bandanna, and print-outs providing information on points of sail, parts of the boats, and knots–as well as a length of “small stuff” (thin rope) with which he can practice his knots.
Too soon, the nurse comes in to give the young man the first medications for the long and horrible chemo treatment, which will knock him down for several days afterward. You take a couple of pictures and say good-bye, and that you look forward to taking him sailing when he is ready, when he has a “wellness window” open.
While you wait for that call, you keep talking to people, lining up opportunities that he can enjoy when he feels better. You send the vet encouraging emails with pictures of sailing and sailboats to inspire him. You check with him now and then, and with your contact at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where the vet lives when he is not in treatment at NIH.
Finally, after weeks of anticipation, you get the notice. The soldier is feeling well enough to sail. Now.
As fast as you can, you put out the call for boats and skippers to let you know when they could be available to take the young vet for his first sailing lesson. To your relief, the skipper of the biggest and most beautiful boat is available on a weekday at short notice. You confirm that the young soldier can make it, as can your contact at Walter Reed, who will drive the soldier from Bethesda to the marina.
Then, you talk to your boss about it, and she says you can take the day off for this, so long as you can reschedule the insurance audit that is on the calendar that day, and you do not care that your paycheck would be a day short that week. Your heart races as you call the auditor, hoping and praying that, even with just a few days’ notice, she can still come on another day. You leave a voice mail asking her to call you. She does not call. You call again, leaving a more urgent voice mail, one that explains the situation. She calls back a short while later and says, yes, she can reschedule.
You call and email the owners of the boat, who, like you, want to make this the best possible experience for the young vet. They want to know what does he like or not like to eat or drink. You find out that he is “a big fan of ham sandwiches,” and let them know.
And then, after only about a week to shake it all out, the sun, moon, stars, and planets line up to make it a go, and even the rain stops, and the dead wind rises to a perfect speed for a young vet’s first lesson.
Finally, there you are, on the big beautiful boat, helping as you are needed, and taking the helm for a while as you are accustomed, but mostly, you are watching, and taking pictures. The soldier/sailor is smiling and laughing and eating a ham and cheese sandwich and learning fast and performing very well at the helm. The six people aboard the boat–including yourself–are spellbound by the magic, and you say, “Yes!” You say, “YES! YES! YES!”