Norman Mineta: Shipping Out

(Photos By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Laura Blumenfeld
Thursday, June 29, 2006

On Saturday morning, Norman Mineta ambled past his wife's vegetable garden, through the grass and the duck droppings, out to the pier on Maryland's Rhode River, and onto his boat.

"Come on, honey," Norm, 74, said to Deni, 61. Deni was on the dock, poking at the crab trap. "I envy the crabs, because she cooks them in beer," Norm said. "That's the way to go."

Norm started the motor and backed out of the slip. He smiled into the sun: "I let my mind hang out in the water."

For the secretary of transportation, whose office windows do not open, a few hours of river winds revive him. Next week he will step down as the longest-serving transportation secretary in U.S. history, the official charged with the safety of all trucks, buses, trains and planes. When he pilots the Rhode Runner, a 29-foot 1986 Chris-Craft cuddy, he can take off his shirt, clip on his Leatherman knife, and cruise, drop anchor or drift.

And one more thing.

"I imagine I'm a pirate," Norm said. "Of the Caribbean."

The motor roared over his words. Deni, in the stern, couldn't hear what he was saying. Norm stood at the helm, his expression elder statesman, his black hair dignified by a streak of white. "Get one of the orange life vests out for me," Norm called to Deni. The big ships coming up the bay were daunting; he doesn't know how to swim.

"Honey, look at that Formula!" Deni said, pointing her suntanned arm at a speedboat. "Those are so fast!"

Their own boat was slogging at eight knots. Norm pressed the trim tabs, trying to keep the boat even, but the bow wouldn't level out. He looked through the windshield, scanning the water through a splat of osprey muck, at the wave runners, the sloops and the powerboats zipping by.

"Those are the treasure ships," he said, with a straight face. Those were the boats that Norm would plunder. He'd been a respected Democratic congressman for 20 years, secretary of commerce under President Bill Clinton, and immortalized by the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport. But on his own little boat, inside his imagination, Norm wore an eye patch, a black pirate hat and a hook hand.

"As the captain of the ship, I'd be directing my crew," Norm said quietly. "I'd have cannons, depending on how large the target I'm after. I always like to think my boat is more powerful, at least 160 feet -- a multi-masted 200-footer."

And also, he'd be missing a tooth or two.

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