Whatever effect the sea had on their psyches, without question it gave the two Tompkins children an odd perspective. Copernicus to the contrary, the Tompkins kids considered Wander Bird the center of the universe. After one summer spent sailing the coasts of Europe, Ann Tompkins asked, "Daddy, when does Stockholm tie up alongside us again?" Spying a building with three tall chimneys on an island, Tompkins Jr. described it as a "three-masted house."
By the time he was nine Warwick Tompkins Jr. had traveled more than 80,000 miles on the Atlantic and Pacific. Whereas there are many mature deck apes today who get fouled up in the functional simplicity of a modern sloop or yawl, at nine Tompkins could handle the whole mess of running gear on the gaff-headed, topmast schooner: more than 40 lines necessary to raise and lower seven sails and keep them flying properly on the wind.
Warwick Tompkins Sr. maintains that the sea fever he passed to his son on Wander Bird 30-odd years ago burned originally in his own father, an engineer named Ernest Tompkins, who wanted to go to sea and never did. Ernest Tompkins used up his adult life making and perfecting knitting machinery, but in the process managed to give his son a queer sort of exposure to sea living. When his business in Troy, N.Y. required him to go to New York City, Ernest Tompkins often took Warwick with him down the Hudson River aboard the old Albany night boat. Later, when he worked in Norristown, Pa., Ernest Tompkins would spend Saturdays with his son prowling around the Philadelphia navy yard.
The Albany night boat that once plied the Hudson River was a romantic old ship but scarcely the kind that would have captured the fancy of Conrad or Melville. In its heyday the old Albany night boat was a real swinger. A large part of its passenger list consisted of adults of both sexes traveling unaccompanied by their legal spouses. As for the Philadelphia navy yard, even 60 years ago when Warwick Tompkins Sr. was a tad, the odorous stretch of the Delaware River on which it was situated was in a state of decay. Nonetheless, Warwick Tompkins Sr. claims it was the sights and rich stench of the Philly navy yard, and the bright brass, the engine throb and the plash of the bow wave of the sinful old Albany night boat that first drew him to the sea.
As soon as he was of permissible age, near the end of World War I, Tompkins Sr. joined the Navy, serving aboard the battleship
, which one World War later would end up on the bottom of Pearl Harbor. Thereafter he made his way here and there in the world, working sometimes as a journalist, sometimes as a sailor and sometimes as both.
It was Tompkins' job for one stretch in the year 1925 to take goods up New Guinean rivers and entice natives to sail out of the bush with him to work on plantations and in industry for a minimum coolie wage. Tompkins' crewmen were fuzzy-headed Papuans, some with bones in their noses. A few of the native laborers he brought out of the bush were practicing cannibals, but his crewmen were all at least one generation removed from the habit.
The last vessel on which Warwick Tompkins Sr. served as master was his own beloved Wander Bird, which is still afloat at the age of 93 in San Francisco Bay. In the '30s and early '40s—until World War II put an end to her roaming—a large percent of the crewmen who served on Wander Bird were Harvard undergraduates whose parents paid so their sons could sail with Tompkins.
Recently, in a nostalgic moment, Warwick Tompkins Sr. regretted that as the world shrivels and its peoples lose their distinctive character, sailors such as his son have less and less to enjoy. Along the sea tracks he most often sails, it is true, Warwick Tompkins Jr. rarely has shipmates as uninhibited as the Papuans who sailed with his father. Indeed, while there are a number of gray-haired and fuzzy-headed and long-haired Harvard men now in sail, the old crew-cut, blue-blooded, solid Crimson variety is virtually extinct. Although he lives in cramped times, Tompkins Jr. manages a loose life-style. But when it comes to jumping out of ruts and rejecting meaningless rituals, the younger Tompkins is his father's peer.
Tompkins Jr. enjoys the peculiar advantage of having lived his early years backward. Most sailors grow up ashore. Before they are worth much at sea they must learn to shuck off the formalities that afflict the lives of land children. Tompkins Jr. started his sea life unencumbered. Because of the good correspondence schooling his mother gave him aboard Wander Bird, when Tompkins Jr. came ashore the academics were easy, but the whole spectrum of child life dazzled him—the candy stores, the movies and the inexhaustible soda fountains. In his first years on land the variety of ball games that children played were an embarrassment. Aboard Wander Bird he had rarely handled any kind of ball (on the rolling sea, one bad throw or bounce and it was goodby ball). In his first game of kickball in a schoolyard he was so inept he wept. After a couple of years of perseverance, he now recalls, "When I threw a baseball to second base, it usually went in that general direction."
He enjoyed many of the odd offerings of land, but never its rituals. He refused to take part in his grade school graduation. As he now remembers that tasteless affair, "There was some ridiculous performance on stage where the whole class represented seasons of the year or things that happened in the seasons. At one point in the drama we were all supposed to chant, 'Oh, Joy! and Oh, Joy! Wise young graduates are we.' At that point I balked. My teacher was offended for some reason—maybe she had written the skit. In any case I didn't care. It was a bad thing not to care, I suppose, but I didn't."