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The Anchorman at Sea

Remembering a gentleman named Walter Cronkite

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CBS newsman Walter Cronkite (above) speaks at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, celebrating the 35th anniversary of Apollo 11 in 2004. Photo courtesy of NASA/Bill Ingalls. Cronkite (below) on campus in 1963. Photo courtesy of BU Photos

On a shaky ladder, scraping paint off the trim of a weather-beaten Cape Cod home, I could hear Kathy calling. Someone was on the phone.

“Who?” I yelled.

“He says it’s Walter Cronkite,” she called back.

This meant it was my friend Chris, who would always call and announce that he was somebody famous — Jerry Garcia, Jimmy Carter, Muhammad Ali, whoever. I flipped the scraper to the sand, grateful for a break, and clambered down.

“Uncle Wally, is this the way it is?” I asked, riffing off the real Cronkite’s famous newscast sign-off, “And that’s the way it is…”

There was dead air, and then came that voice, with the sonorous cadence that a generation of Americans trusted more than any other. “I’m trying to reach Seth Rolbein. Have I done so?”

“Oh, uhh, yes, Mr. Cronkite,” I stammered.  “To be honest, I thought you were a friend playing a joke on me.”

He guffawed, probably used to such moments, and then explained that he heard I was researching a magazine piece about an underwater treasure hunter who intrigued him. He was wondering if I might swing over to the Vineyard on Saturday to spend the day, do a little sailing.

Hang out with Walter Cronkite?

“I’ll be there,” I told him, and of course I was. We gunk-holed around the island aboard his 48-foot, custom built sailboat named Wyntje (after a Dutch ancestor born in the 1600s). It was like having the world’s best narrator all to yourself, your very own anchorman; Edgartown Harbor wide shot, slow pan to Walter Cronkite with eyes bluer than the water and eyebrows bushier than on the tube, talking about his big wish to get to outer space, how proud he was of Abe Ribicoff, the Connecticut Senator who denounced the crackdown on demonstrators during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, and the wonder of seeing an image of his own trachea projected from a tiny camera onto a screen above a surgeon’s table — guy talk.

He also was a gracious listener, quick to laugh and empathize. This was even more evident on our next, far more ambitious sail, overnight from Marblehead, Mass., to Bar Harbor, Maine.

Understand that I sail, but I’m no sailor. I was aboard the Wyntje as a third man, to provide muscle power and company, take the tiller for short spells, to ready about and hard-a-lee as necessary, nothing more. Walter was navigator and captain. Despite small craft warnings, he plotted a course that would take us far from land into an inky night, expressing no concern about our voyage; hell, if the most trusted man in America was good to go, so was I. We ate a hearty spaghetti dinner at the dock and shoved off, hoping to reach Bar Harbor by morning light.

All was well for the first hour or so as we got our bearings, heading east and then north, Polaris visible, winds picking up. And then dinner and the swells betrayed me: seasickness.

I tried my best to hang in there, but it didn’t take long for him to appreciate my situation.

“Seth,” he announced, taking the tiller from my hand, “perhaps it may console you to know that you are in good company. The magnificent admiral of our United States Navy, Chester Nimitz, was known to become violently seasick at the commencement of every one of his many voyages. He would turn his vessel over to his trusted second-in-command until such time as he recovered his sea legs. And then he would resume his rightful place at the helm. Unfortunately, I’m afraid we will reach our destination before you have time to make a similar recovery.”

I remember thinking that this was wonderfully sympathetic, though I was unable to let Walter know how much I appreciated his gentlemanly narrative, or how much I regretted punctuating it with the sounds of my retching over the stern. And his prediction was right; when we landed in Bar Harbor, and I crawled ashore to kiss the dirt in gratitude, I felt like I was still tossing on the Atlantic, in every sense of the word.

And so, I felt I had let down Walter Cronkite. This is not an easy thing to live with, somewhat akin to letting down God. Walter did his best to console me (which only made matters worse), although, in another display of fine judgment, he never asked me to sail long distance with him again.

Now he’s gone, dying last week at 92, and the meaning of his passing is hard to explain to those young enough to have missed his nightly appearance in the national living room. We still believed in people then, at least some people, and Walter Cronkite was one. He wasn’t “talent.” He was our anchorman, a fitting term for a sailor, our grounding, our point of reference, our tenacious tether and hook to what was real. He was our antidote to vertigo and spin; he held the line taut when the world’s events buffeted us and made us sick.

Attributing such authority to a guy on TV sounds naïve these days. It won’t happen again, and I won’t have a chance for a redeeming sail, though others have: in 1997, Walter Cronkite donated the Wyntje to a nonprofit group that teaches young people teamwork, discipline, and mutual respect, all learned by sharing work onboard a beautiful sailing ship.

Seth Rolbein can be reached at srolbein@bu.edu.

3 Comments

3 Comments on The Anchorman at Sea

  • Anonymous on 07.22.2009 at 10:57 am

    A beautiful tribute

    Thank you for taking us along on your journey together. Such elegant writing is hard to come by these days. Please keep it up!

  • Anonymous on 07.22.2009 at 11:52 am

    It would have been cool to tie in Cronkite and the moon landing anniversary… oh wait, i’m 19, i’m not supposed to know who he was ; )

  • Anonymous on 07.24.2009 at 11:42 pm

    Found your account quite by accident, but I’m glad I did! It’s a great story.

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