THE SUMMER I turned six years old my grandfather, Edward Jacques Monaghan, started my lessons in navigation.
Our crow's-nest was a screened porch on the second floor of the Sussex Apartments in Rehoboth Beach. Every year, on the last Saturday in June, my family closed the door on its Guilford Avenue rowhouse and opened a new one there facing the ocean. For the next month or so, our address was Olive Avenue and the Boardwalk,
Built in 1931, the Sussex commanded a 180-degree view of the Atlantic from Cape Henlopen to Dewey Beach. The building was swept out to sea during a violent storm in 1962, but in that summer of 1956 it seemed as solidly grounded as Pop's patient maritime tutoring.
On the watery horizon was Cape May, N.J., a place we never visited but observed at a distance of something like 18 miles. At night, if the weather cooperated, a dull electric glow appeared toward Jersey. We claimed it was the magical lights of Atlantic City, but it was probably Wildwood, N.J., or maybe just Cape May.
While most normal people heading for the ocean packed suntan lotion and beach chairs, we toted the German-made binoculars we usually reserved for watching horse racing, along with navigational charts of the mouth of Delaware Bay.
Lesson One began the night Pop directed my enlarging eyes to the yellowish flash from the Cape May Lighthouse. He explained that the beacon blinked every 17 seconds; I responded by admitting that I needed some help telling time.
On the spot, Pop extracted his Hamilton pocket watch. Its enamel dial had all the numbers from 1 to 60 listed. I was soon an expert at the second hand.
Never once did we visit the Cape May light -- it remained a small white speck in the daylight, a pinprick at night -- but Pop allowed me to hold his ticking watch until I mastered the timing of those repetitive nightly flashes. In the process, I overcame my time-telling ignorance.
When Pop traveled, he carried his second-best watch, a model he called his Lusitania. He said he bought it on Pratt Street May 7, 1915, the day the passenger liner of the same name was hit by a torpedo and sunk off Ireland.
That summer of 1956 Pop had me locating offshore buoys and shoals with the field glasses. I got daily geography lessons on the Delaware coast.
I learned about jetties, freighters, riptides, tankers, inlets and the mysterious submerged shipwrecks indicated on his navigational charts.
Pop was a superb maritime storyteller. He could spin a tale of the Lusitania, Titanic or Cyclops the way other people talked baseball. If you ever doubted him, he'd slip out and produce a book on the subject.
One of my daily duties that summer at the Sussex was to fetch the newspapers at a newsstand down the boardwalk. If telling time by the second hand was a trial for a six-year-old, buying the right morning and evening papers was another ordeal. The news agent was no help. All he wanted to do was sell papers.
One day I got so excited on my paper-buying errand that I ran home with the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, not a paper we normally read. Pop didn't mind. He told me to go out and buy more papers.
After all, that day we had a real shipwreck on our hands. The Andrea Doria and the Stockholm had collided off Nantucket July 25, 1956 -- 250 miles from Olive Avenue, but clearly within sight of a six-year-old's imagination.
Pub Date: 6/27/98