There’s a kid’s story I remember called Scuffy the Tugboat, about a toy tugboat who is sick of sitting on the shelf in the toy store, because he thinks “he was meant for bigger things.” The owner of the store, the man with the polka dot tie, takes Scuffy home to his son to let him sail in the bath tub.
But Scuffy is still unhappy–he was meant for bigger things. So the man and the boy take Scuffy to a small brook, and Scuffy sails away, making an escape down the river. “This is the life for me!” he thinks. His adventures include an increasingly boisterous river, a night of being scared by an owl, a flood, and finally Scuffy is at the river’s mouth. There’s a big, noisy city there with huge ships and nobody notices him. Then he sees the ocean.
“There is no beginning and no end to sea. I wish I could find the man with the polka dot tie and his little boy!”
Just as Scuffy is headed out to sea, passing the last dock, the man with the polka dot tie scoops him up and takes him back to the bath tub. Scuffy’s last line as he goes back and forth in the tub: “This is the life for me.”
That story got under my skin as a kid, and haunts me now. Of all the possible implications, the one I come away with is this: Who are you to think you were meant for bigger things?
Oof. What a gut punch. Sit down, shut up, get over your grand idea of yourself. Get back in the tub.
Who am I to think I was meant for anything but the bath tub? What hubris! The infinite possibilities of the open water are scary. It’s safe in the bath tub.
When I was about 23, I did a multi-day interior painting job for a friend of my mom’s. She and and her husband were older, well-to-do North Shore Chicago suburbanites. He was a retired executive of some kind, and she was an empty nest housewife, active in the Ladies Club. It was late fall and cold, and the husband sat on the front porch every day, smoking cigars he wasn’t allowed to have in the house, boots untied and a Holden Caulfield-style plaid hunting cap on his head, tapping ashes into a black and yellow Chock Full O’ Nuts can. He never said a word to me, and I never heard him say anything to his busy-fussy wife either, she of the perfectly coiffed blue-gray hair and neat little house sneakers I think they used to call ‘crickets.’ That house was thoroughly hers, a perfect shrine of cleanliness: the ultimate realization of her well spent, successful career as a housewife.
I was there for about a week, and left with the distinct impression that the old man was just sitting there in those untied boots and that Holdenplaid hat, smoking cigars, marking time, waiting to die.
He’d had a lifetime in the tub.
I’m floating somewhere it seems. Maybe it’s the river, and I’m hiding in the lee of a fallen tree, spinning aimlessly in a safe little backwater, maintaining my position for fear of being smashed on the rocks or tumbled endlessly in a hydraulic nightmare. Maybe it’s the sea, and the motion I feel is that deceptively complex rolling action of waves on open water, the surface lifting and falling, and I’m going nowhere after all, just up and down with the energy of the passing wave.
Or maybe what I’m noticing is the water rushing out of the tub.
I’m not ready for that Holdenplaid hat just yet.