Memories swim up from the distant past at
the most unexpected moments. Recently we had cause to remember one of
the signature events of public education in grade schools around America
– the school assembly.
Most of these assemblies were educational boilerplate;
district mandated citizenship training, patriotic pep rallies, ritual
readings of the riot act, feeble presentations by in-house choirs, bands,
cheerleaders or drama clubs or pathetic debates prior to student council
elections. Mainly, they were seen by the students as a chance to
get out of the classroom, sit next to hot girls or amusing troublemakers,
play footsie, mock the teachers, the performers and the entire educational
paradigm, and maybe sneak away from the pack in the mass confusion of
several hundred wild kids in the days before attention-deficit drugs.
But there was one assembly every year back there for a
while which we realize now, 40-some years later, probably had as much
influence as anything else in the eventual arc of our career and peripatetic
life up to this point. Once a year, back when the Dowbrigade was at his
most innocent and impressionable, our school was visited by a local couple
quite unlike anyone we had known.
Electra "Exy" Johnson and her husband Irving were inveterate
sailors who abandoned life and careers ashore and dedicated themselves
to taking students and paying customers on 18-month trips around the
world. They would leave from Gloucester, MA, their home port on Cape
Ann, sail down the eastern seaboard, through the Panama Canal, and down
the Pacific Coast of South America. It was not a race; they would
stop and explore, trade for supplies, investigate ruins, and photograph
From South America they would set off across the Pacific,
stopping in Galapagos to visit the tortoises, fart around Tahiti and
the South Sea Islands for a few months, then down
the coast of Asia, south along the coast of Africa, around the Cape of
Good Hope, up the other coast of Africa to Morocco and Spain, and finally
back across the Atlantic to Gloucester.
They did this amazing route SEVEN times over the years,
taking 18 months each time. Between circumnavigations they would take
18 months "off", cruising up and down the East Coast and giving lecture/slide
shows at schools along the way. Hence our assemblies.
From Exy Johnson we learned to the existence of places
which would later figure prominently in our own saga, spots like the
Galapagos Islands and Cuzco, the Imperial Capital of the Inca Empire.
retain tales, locked deep in forgotten closets of our mind, of places
we have never been, but would still jump at a chance to see, without
really remembering why -places like Fiji, Tonga and Fez.
But what amazed us the most, and opened our mind to the
breadth and possibilities of the wider world, was the mere fact that
a person from Rochester, New York could go to places like that and see
things like that, and come back to tell the tale.
We had forgotten completely about the existence of the
Johnson’s and their effect on an eight-year-old Dowbrigade when we read
the following in this morning’s Boston
HADLEY, Mass. — Electa "Exy" Johnson, who took young people
on seven around-the-world voyages on tall ships, died Friday at a
nursing home in Holyoke. She was 95.
A native of Rochester, N.Y., Johnson attended Smith College and the
University of California at Berkeley. While returning from a summer
in France aboard
the schooner Wanderbird, she met Irving Johnson, a crew member. They
were married in 1933 and she began her adventurous life at sea.
Thanks for the tips, Exy. You showed us a way. Clear