Juan Negroni (opinion): The boat Paul Newman borrowed, Billy Joel tried to buy and a CT couple lives on

Judy and Sam Haigh live on their boat, The General, in Norwalk, Conn.

Judy and Sam Haigh live on their boat, The General, in Norwalk, Conn.

Contributed photo
Judy and Sam Haigh live on their boat, The General, in Norwalk, Conn.

Judy and Sam Haigh live on their boat, The General, in Norwalk, Conn.

Contributed photo

Let’s assume you live in an apartment or a house in Connecticut. And your spouse suddenly suggests the two of you move to the North Pole to live in an igloo. If you’re half sane your first thought of living in an igloo might prompt an outburst of crazed laughter followed by thinking “Who did I marry?”

Now, what if your spouse were to ask you to live on a boat? How would you react? Judy Haigh didn’t ask, “Who did I marry?” but veto the possibility emphatically when her husband Sam brought up the idea. Yet for the last 27 years they have lived on The General, a boat on the river in Norwalk.

Judy changed her mind about living on a boat when Sam told her, “Ten years from now  we're going look back and say why didn't we do it? This could be a fun adventure. We could look back and regret not doing it.” That did it for Judy. She bought in.

By chance I met Sam this past August after the wife of a mutual friend passed away. Soon afterward, my wife and I were having drinks with the Haighs in their 950 square foot boat.

Sam and Judy shared that in the late 1980s they had a house in Rowayton. Their son had moved out of the area. And Sam’s business partner lived on a boat with his family. Sam said, “Sometimes in the middle of the winter Judy and I would walk on the dock, climb onto my partner’s boat to have dinner. A coal stove kept us warm.”

The Haighs have four grandchildren. They have stayed with them on The General. I thought of the song, “Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat”and asked Judy about changing a baby’s diaper. She knew where I was going with my question, and said, “This boat is solid. It doesn’t rock. I didn’t have to strap down my grandkids. Never lost one of them.”

Sam’s search for the right boat took many trips. He eventually bought  a government boat that was in dry dock for almost 40 years. Inscribed on both sides was U.S. Army, T454. He  got it to Norwalk and renamed it The General. Sam thought the boat’s retrofitting would take six months. It took four years.

During the retrofitting Sam and Judy lived in a rented apartment. In the middle of the retrofit, musician Billy Joel showed up with an entourage at the repair yard. A boat enthusiast, he had heard of The General and wanted to buy it.

His offer through Charlie the yard owner was four times what Sam paid for it. Charlie didn’t know who Billy Joel was. He called Sam and said, “There’s a guy who wants to buy The General.” Sam turned down the offer.

Then there was the Paul Newman visit. The owner of the Haigh’s marina had a TV that wasn’t working. He asked Sam if a friend could watch a race on the Haigh’s TV. Sam and Judy were going to a bar mitzvah that Saturday and insisted on knowing who the friend was.

Reluctantly, the owner said it was Newman. But the marina owner insisted the name had to be kept a secret and he asked Sam to have Newman’s favorite beer, Budweiser, in the fridge. Which Sam paid for. He also paid the cost of the Pay TV.

The following morning Judy found a note thanking Sam. Judy was disappointed  that the note was from the marina owner and not from Paul. But anytime they had guests thereafter she would say, “Paul Newman sat in that sofa.”

The idea of living on a houseboat stayed with me for several days. One fact that intrigued me was that The General had a cannon that fired blanks on certain holidays at the country clubs in the area. The country clubs would fire back. Sam fired the cannon for me. It may have been blanks, and the echo may have been ear piercing … but together I found them welcoming.  

Over the years Sam and Judy would take The General to Block Island. And again, the cannon would go off on one day in July. All of this had an appeal to it. And it sounded adventurous. Moreover,  The General had all the amenities, in smaller versions, one might find in a regular home. The only drawback for me were the steep ladders for getting from level to level.

It did occur to me that my wife and I could sell our house and get a boat bigger than The General with ladders that were easier to climb. But what if she said no? How could I get her to agree to buy a boat?

I thought I could trick my wife into saying yes. I quickly ditched that idea after imagining what might  happen the morning after our first night on board. She’s an excellent swimmer, so I would surely get up and find that she had “jumped ship.”

Juan A. Negroni, a former international business executive and Weston resident is a consultant, bilingual speaker/facilitator, and writer. His column appears monthly in Hearst Connecticut Media. Email him at juannegroni12@gmail.com