Apparently, diamonds in the rough are hard to identify. Over a hundred years ago, British scientist Thomas Brown offered the quote: “Rough diamonds may be mistaken for worthless pebbles.”
This is a statement and now a metaphor for the Marco Beach Boys. Working with the public and meeting new people every day can be fun, frustrating, embarrassing, and every emotion in between.
Not too many Labor Day weekends ago, we were working at the beach and getting ready for a sailing excursion heading out to Kice Island. As we were waiting for the charter folks to arrive, a family appeared walking by the water’s edge.
Mom was leading the way, and it looked like she was always leading the way for every holiday, every weekend, and every other day in between. She was non-stop and loudly nagging at dad who was bringing up the rear as he almost stumbled with his every step because he was carrying coolers, beach bags and towels, and an umbrella stuffed under his arm. Behind the high maintenance and harping mom, were two teenagers wandering with their heads down and trying to read their phones in the sunlight. The teenagers that were a boy and a girl were scowling as if they hated everything. Orbiting the pack was a screaming toddler that was running around in circles between mom, the overburdened dad, and the phone-hypnotized teenagers.
When the insufferable group carried on to God knows where, Captain Jesse—captain of our other catamaran—walked over to me as we watched the suffering father follow his destiny.
Jesse shook her head. “I’m sure glad they were not our charter,” she said. “If I was that guy with that wife and those kids, I would blow my brains out!”
I cracked up and then settled down because our charter did arrive. My passengers were an older couple from Tampa and a family of three from Colorado. After we were introduced and underway, the son from the family of three decided he wanted to sit beside me at the tiller. He promptly announced that his name was Erich and that he was 12 years old. After a few more minutes of cruising with mom and dad watching carefully, Erich reached over to the bottle of water I was drinking and picked it up and took a sip. I thought, Oh well, he doesn’t realize it was mine. I’ll get another later.
After a few more minutes, Kice Island was in view along with the Gulf of Mexico unfolding to the west. Erich took another sip from our water bottle and asked, “How far can we see? How far to the horizon?”
I was ready because this is a frequently asked question. “On a clear day, we can see 12 miles at deck level. The average deck level is 6 feet above the water. I learned that in captain’s school.”
Erich considered the response for a few seconds and then he asked. “How far can we see if we are 12 feet above the water?”
No one had ever asked that before, so I offered what I believed to be some simple logic. “I guess at 12 feet we could see 24 miles, double that of 6 feet above the water.”
Young Erich responded at once. “No,” he said. “That would not be proportional. To find the correct answer you would have to solve for X the radius of the curvature of the Earth.”
“Wow,” I offered. “That’s way over my head. I’m terrible at math.”
Without comment, Erich took another sip from our water bottle.
All the passengers were now focusing on Erich. The captain had failed the math exam from a 12-year-old and was no longer believable. The older passenger from Tampa leaned forward. “I’m a retired math teacher and I never knew that.” The math teacher then inquired, “How are your science skills, Erich?”
The young man from Colorado answered immediately, “Test me.”
The older man nodded and paused for a moment. “The bright star that we have been seeing in the morning before sunrise, what is it?”
Erich replied at once. “That’s not a star. That’s Mars. Haven’t you noticed the red tinge? Mars is closest to the earth right now. Whenever we launch a mission to Mars, it will be in August.”
The math teacher from Tampa nodded. “That’s right, Erich. Very good. Where do you go to school?”
At this point, Erich’s mom and dad looked at each other. Then, Mom replied, “We have really been blessed with Erich. He is in a gifted child program. This fall, Erich will be a junior at the Colorado School of Mines. This is a research university for advanced science and engineering.”
Erich was silent but he seemed somehow embarrassed by his mom’s revelation. He took another sip of water and looked out over the water. He then abandoned his position by my side and went up to the front of the boat away from everyone.
His mom continued quietly. “Erich is extremely gifted, but he has social problems. He did not realize that he was drinking your water. He also has issues with his fellow classmates that are in their twenties. It’s hard for him to make friends his own age. Erich’s gift is a blessing and a curse.”
“But what a future,” I said.
Even the math teacher from Tampa nodded and added, “Yes.”
Mom then explained that Erich’s dad was a research scientist and worked with NASA, Raytheon, and Bell Labs in the aerospace industry.
Yes, Erich’s dad was a rocket scientist and Erich was a true diamond in the rough. His awkward social skills were a veneer many might dismiss, but genius is not always easily recognized.
Erich and his mom and dad could not have been more different from the walking family disaster Jesse and I saw earlier at Marco Beach. I could not help but wonder what if the phone hypnotized teenagers from earlier could have met and spoken with Erich? What would they have thought of this shy and awkward behavior, but more importantly, what would he have thought of them and their myopic fascination with social media?
Tom Williams is a Marco Islander. He is the author of two books: “Lost and Found” and “Surrounded by Thunder – the Story of Darrell Loan and the Rocket Men.” Both books are available on Kindle and Nook.