by Joanie Butman
“I think that I shall never see an outfit like the B.F.C.*
A group that did in summer wear a nest of seaweed in their hair,
A place without a decent chair a thousand noises free from care
Yacht clubs should be like the M.B.C. but history was made at the B.F.C.”
Jack was 89 and in failing health when we met, but still a fascinating breakfast companion. He was one of the first people from whom I solicited a story for Choose Wisely! From our conversations it quickly became obvious his life-stories could fill an entire book, as he entertained me with memories of childhood, his extensive travels and his love of New York City. During our most recent breakfast he called me a “tusitala.” I didn’t know whether to be flattered or offended. I’ve been called many things in my life, but none of them left anything to the imagination. Seeing my confusion, Jack informed me that it meant “storyteller.” “So are you,” I responded, “so tell me a story.” He chose one of his favorites, the story of The Barefoot Yacht Club.
As he tells it, Jack’s childhood sounded similar to a “Huck Finn” experience and was dominated by the influence of the Barefoot Yacht Club, which he started with three other boys at the age of eight who called the banks of the Navesink River home. As an only child, the members of the BFYC became his siblings. The river was their playground and sailing was their common bond. In the BFYC there was no parental involvement or supervision, no commodore, no dues. There was just the river. “We were on it, in it, through it, under it, in all its forms through every season. The club consisted solely of the river and anything to do with it.” This four-boy club attracted boys from everywhere (at least in biking distance, though some of those distances were impressive) and membership peaked at twenty. They gained a certain local notoriety and were known as the “Barefooters.” Jack credits the sailing expertise he attained as a Barefooter for giving him the wherewithal to teach Humphrey Bogart how to sail…but that’s another story for another time.
I suppose it was destiny that brought three of the charter members back to that same river where they came of age together. Until recently, Jack, Henry and Brub lived in the same assisted living community on the banks of the river, just a stone’s throw from their childhood homes. The amazing thing is they all chose the Atrium independently without knowing their childhood friends would once again be their neighbors. I didn’t miss the fact that Jack was sharing his story at breakfast in the dining room overlooking the river about which the BFYC members knew every nook and cranny. Before Brub’s death last year, he would join the river cruises provided by the Atrium and relished being back on the water. I was told he was an excellent guide for those unfamiliar with his childhood playground. How sweet that these three BFYC boys were reunited to spend their golden years by the river they cherished. Though the more Jack talked, the more convinced I was that the years in the Barefoot Yacht Club were their true Golden Years.
Though his stories were fascinating and he is an excellent storyteller, he had yet to address my original question regarding a life-defining choice. When pressed, the choice he focused on was not one of his own making. His mother chose to send him to boarding school to finish his education at the age of 15. You can imagine his anguish at the thought of leaving his beloved Barefoot Yacht Club behind to start anew in the foreign culture of a New England boarding school, with no water in sight. Jack was faced with the choice of rebelling against his mom, which he says never entered his mind, or embracing the opportunity he was being given even though it would be decades before he would appreciate its value. Now, at 89, he considers his mother’s decision as the one that changed the trajectory of his life.
Rebelling might not be the right word, but the first thing he did at Choate was flunk French. He said it was a rude awakening as to how far behind his peers he was, and he didn’t like it a bit. Even though this was a totally new experience, as far from the comfort of the Barefoot Yacht Club as if he had been sent to Africa, Jack eventually acclimated to his new home and became one of what he referred to as the “Opinion Leaders.” Jack recalls, “I didn’t choose it. I just fell into a group and that’s what they did – they led.” His group is now considered the “Old Guard” at reunions which sadly he alone attends. The Opinion Leaders were the 8 – 10 students who excelled in what they did from sports to Latin, which was the coveted prize in New England schools at the time. He went on to Princeton, but according to him, what he learned at Choate was infinitely more valuable. It wasn’t academics as much as life lessons and life-long friends. Curious, I asked for an example. “They taught me how to pass the salt.” Intrigued, I urged him to elaborate. He said, “The things I learned there didn’t mean much in a way that can be measured but they became part of your persona. I learned how to be ‘above the salt.’ There was no rehab back then; you messed up – you were just out. So I learned personal responsibility.” In other words, Choate took Huck Finn and transformed him into a gentleman – something the BFYC could never have accomplished.
“Did you ever thank your mother?” I inquired. “No, not really. Mothers have to wait 40 years or so to see the fruits of their labors. Often, they don’t know if they made the right choice until many years later. My mom was the teaching parent and did all the ‘heavy lifting.’ My dad was the entertainment parent.” Then I asked, “Did she realize that she made the right choice?” “I can’t really say, but I believe the man I became was testimony to the wisdom of her choice.”
Jack died shortly after our last conversation but not before he was able to hear how his story was written. It made him so happy that someone was interested enough to listen. His family wove parts of it into his eulogy. I suppose in a way, it became part of his legacy. I’m grateful he chose to share it with me. As my friend pointed out, “Now he can tell his mom that she ‘chose wisely’ all those years ago...”
P.S. Merely as an interesting aside, the Barefooters were such an integral part of local culture, they spawned the birth of The Barefoot Bulletin, a newsletter based on their letters to the mother of one of the boys during WWII. The bulletin tracked the boys’ lives from September 1943 through February 1946 and became “an important source of documentary information on the participation of Americans in WWII.” The purpose of the bulletin was to keep the Barefooters abreast of the location and activity of every member. In the November 1943 issue the editors (the mothers of three club members) included this poem:
The river where you used to be,
is changed, yet full of memory,
I hardly dare to pass that way,
or stir the thoughts of yesterday.
The waving grasses, rippling lights,
the salty mist of summer nights,
And all the dear familiar sound
of croaking, chirping things around…
I close my eyes and try in vain
to think that you are back again,
The Pee-Wee still remembers me –
he loved it as it used to be…
In Loving Memory
John L. Montgomery
October 1, 1922 – September 4, 2011
*The B.F.C. was the Barefoot Club, which later became the Barefoot Yacht Club.
To learn more and read some of the issues visit: www.oralhistory.rutgers.edu.