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a day for donzo

a day for donzo

Jay Greenfield submitted this piece (written by his dad) on Donzo Wilkinson’s passing and memorial service, held this past Saturday.

September 11th. A glimpse back to an earlier time in this dark decade. Like most September 11ths, it is clear, blue, and breezy… a day not unlike last Saturday, when we lost Donzo.

This is a day to recognize the large amounts of love and grieving, even introspection that has been flowing into Noank from all around the world. Because of this, I believe that September 11th can become an example of the power of a close community. In this case, it represents friends helping friends make sense of, and bring closure to unfathomable loss. Friends pitching in to say goodbye. It is also a perfect time to prepare for happier days, a good future for a wonderful family… to whom none of this should have happened.

This past week profoundly affected my son, Jay, and his fellow crew members, who were at Donzo’s side when he crossed over. This entire affair has been devastating for me, as well. Therefore, I’m dedicating this post in memory of a very cool guy. This is a prayer for smooth sailing and peaceful healing for his wife, Anne, and for Ben & Sarah, his kids.

Of course, this has little to do with farming, other than the farm-grown tomato salad we brought, and the fact that Donzo was a master cultivator of friends. I am stricken by the passion and caring of a sailing community, much in the same way farming communities look after and care for one another.

I begin to understand the magnetism of Donzo as Debbie and I arrive at the plain, white, Congregational church about an hour before the service. Practically every pew is full. It feels like a Parrothead convention. Nearly everyone is wearing a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops. Donzo was a big fan of Jimmy Buffet, and Anne has already spread the word that the best way to honor her husband is through informality.

"It’s how he dressed… This will be a real celebration," explains his friend, Lizzie Carlson. Soon the church cannot hold another soul, and the overflow is accommodated next door in the church library. A video feed has been established for this purpose, and rumor has it that a watering hole in Stonington is playing the service at the bar. Some say that it is being broadcast world-wide.

It seems that among the hundred or so middle-aged men in attendance that there must a fair share of reflection on personal mortality. I’m seeing friends I’ve not spoken with since college days. We’re a softer, grayer group, for sure. As our children are viewing their "Sail On Donzo" bed sheet bridge banner, we’re shaking hands. We console and we pat backs.

Sam and Jay and a few friends have strung a Banner (SAIL ON, DONZO) from the Mystic River highway bridge so that when it opens, the banner will appear to all waiting on the East Main Street side. This is small town stuff, but it takes imagination, guts, and a shallow-draft boat. The boys don’t seem to mind that the left top corner has failed and folded. Sam (who took the picture on the right) is upset, though that the bridge operator has removed the banner during the service. He learns this when he calls the bridge tender, on a VHF, and asks for an immediate opening. "The family is approaching the bridge." he tells the tender.

"I am so sorry," I believe he tells Sam. "We took it down." "Damn…" Sam sighs. He’d wanted the bridge to open just as Donzo’s family drove towards the bridge. "Sorry, but if I had known, I’d have kept the banner up and opened the bridge, just for your friend," The bridge tender allegedly tells Sam.On the way to the reception, I have to stop at Mystic Market West. Yesterday, I picked over twenty pounds of Brandywine, Beefsteak and
yellow tomatoes. I brought them all, along with some Basil to Chef Jimmy Blair, and Market co-owner Christine because they’d
agreed to add some ingredients and make the salad, free of charge. Jimmy hands me two large trays containing thirty pounds of delicious tomato salad. "I should help you carry these out," he offers.

Over the course of the afternoon, a massive crowd devours one cold cut and salad platter after another. There must be a direct tap line to Barbados to keep up with the demand for Mount Gay Rum. The tomato salad platters are inhaled within seconds, while a calypso band plays on a deck above the patio. The reception is held at tiny, beautiful Ram Island Yacht Club. All of my kids have learned to sail at Ram, along with children of most of the original Mystic River Mudhead members. In fact, Donzo, along with other Mudhead founders formed the Mudheads because they were not able, or did not originally want to become members of traditional yacht clubs. They wanted to Race in the Wednesday night series, and a paper club would work just fine.

The genesis of, and success of The Mystic River Mudhead Sailing Club has been well documented. The club was founded by a handful sailing friends, Including Donzo. Today, the club has over 300 members and about 40 boats compete, in different fleets in the Wednesday Night Series. Every summer, The Mudheads sponsor The Hospice Regatta which attracts over seventy boats and raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for the cause.

As the party winds down, I run into Carl Fast sitting on his boat, Looney Tunes with a friend. Carl was a close friend of Donzo’s, and there’s nothing I can say, other than to nod, and acknowledge the pain. As Deb and I decide to head home, I am stricken by a simple thought. Donzo would have enjoyed the day, would have loved seeing so many old friends. I am also struck by the fact that I was never a great sailor, and sometimes did not feel as welcome in sailing situations as a more seasoned waterman. With Donzo, though, we always found something to talk about and enjoy a laugh.

As I leave, I try to find Anne. I reason, one can never have too many hugs, too many friends. She’s nowhere to be found, so I leave with Deb, realizing that now the grieving begins.

Godspeed, Good Sailor!

Benjamin "Nick" Greenfield