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Sailing with legendary anchorman Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite takes the helm of The USS Constitution in this file photo.
Walter Cronkite takes the helm of The USS Constitution in this file photo.

One windy afternoon I was leaning into a shaky ladder, scraping blistered paint off a second-story window frame in Orleans, when the kitchen phone rang.

“He says it’s Walter Cronkite.”

This meant my friend Tom, who would say he was anyone — Jerry Garcia, Muhammad Ali, Mother Theresa. I backpedaled down.

“Wally, is this the way it is?” I asked, riffing off Cronkite’s famous sign-off, ‘And that’s the way it is…’

Then came the sonorous cadence Americans trusted more than any other. “I’m trying to reach Seth Rolbein. Have I done so?”

“Uhh, yes, Mr. Cronkite. I thought you were a friend playing a practical joke.”

He guffawed, explained he was calling from his Martha’s Vineyard home, he’d seen a magazine expose I had written and appreciated its execution.

“Huge compliment,” I stammered. “I think the fellow did think I was trying to execute him, actually.”

He guffawed again. “I am inquiring as to whether you might have the inclination to voyage over to the Vineyard on Saturday and spend the day sailing, should wind and weather allow.”

“Wind and weather be damned, I’ll be there,” I told him.

He opened the door to his handsome home, blue eyes twinkling under the bushiest of eyebrows, gray hair askew, jowls sagging in a comfortable way, the person who had kept American families company for decades, who told us JFK had been shot, who narrated as we set foot on the moon.

“We picked a good day for a sail,” he intoned. I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was reporting, not just making small talk, and would identify his meteorological sources next.

“I believe you,” I said.

Before long we were gunk-holing around the island aboard his 48-foot, custom sailboat “Wyntje” (named after a Dutch ancestor). I supplied brawn while reveling in the world’s best anchorman and narrator at the helm; Edgartown Harbor wide shot, slow pan to Walter, tight shot of eyes bluer than the water, slow pull back for the latest brief.

“Since I’ve stopped doing the news, it’s been quite interesting to pick and choose my projects,” he said. “There is one major remaining goal I have — go into outer space.”

“The final frontier!”

“I am not Captain Kirk,” he smiled.

There was a moment I much wanted to ask him about, so did. Early 1968, after a visit to Vietnam, as our military leaders and President Johnson were insisting that victory was just around the corner, he read this commentary to the nation:

“To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.”

“No self-respecting reporter could have come back with any other conclusion,” he said. “I certainly wasn’t the only one who saw what was happening.”

But he was the only one who could prompt President Johnson to turn to an aide and say, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election a few weeks later.

Our day ended well. On my way home I mused about how fitting it was for a sailor to be an “anchorman.” He wasn’t “talent”; that cynical word wouldn’t surface for years. He was a grapple in hard bottom, hooking us in place. He held the national line taut.

Attributing such importance to a guy on TV sounds ridiculous now. Then again, had Walter Cronkite still been at the national desk, it never would have become possible to accuse the press of being “enemies of the people,” or that journalists trying to seek out and explain facts are “fake.”

He didn’t live to offer perspective on this, passing in 2009, proof yet again that no one gets out of here alive, not even Walter Cronkite.

As for the Wyntje, Cronkite donated her to a nonprofit that teaches young people teamwork, discipline, and mutual respect, from the decks of a beautiful sailing ship.

And that’s the way it was.