Everyone’s big job that spring was a pretty small schooner undergoing restoration in the yard. It now looked fantastic and, it had kept the yard hands paid through the winter. The money made on the restoration had almost been enough to calm Spinney’s anxiety over stolen power, swiped boat stands, and missing ladders.
Spinney’s yard was home to a few other old project boats. A pretty sorry batch altogether. The only one with any promise was the Old Gem. With a 1910 build date, it had the look of a Morse built Friendship sloop. All the original detail and shape were there but buried under at least a dozen layers of paint. The last owner may have been a Navy bosun who believed that paint not only hid a multitude of sins but that if liberally applied kept one busy enough that there would be no time to sin. As a result, the sloop looked encrusted in the paint.
Despite the neglect, Old Gem retained her hull lines and was more worthy of restoration than the “most workboats turned yachts.” The owner, cap’n Preston, was doing all the work himself. To Spinney, a boat owner doing all the work himself was equivalent to theft of livelihood.
The way he said “cap’n” while referring to the Preston also let you know a lot about the situation. I may miss some of the emphasis that can be placed on this single term being from “Away.” But, not when it’s so broadly put about. Cap’n can be a term of great respect, humor, or ridicule. When you referred to my father in law as cap’n, it was with real respect: he was an authentic master mariner and a handy sailor.
So the way cap’n was said to Preston let me know that he was a cap’n by courtesy alone.
The next day I was down to measure a boat for a transom banner. I saw Preston and his wife stripping the tarps off Old Gem and unloading a springtime supply of sandpaper, paint, varnish, and all tools and goodies, which say – boating season. Spinney could be seen in his second-floor office, peering out on the doings. Old Gem’s new owner was well known at Spinney’s Yard. Leave a hose around, and it would wind up at Preston’s boat. Lose some sandpaper? Check Preston’s out first. With his kleptomaniac tendencies, it wouldn’t seem unusual that Spinney might keep an exceptionally sharp eye on Preston. It had been this way for all the years Preston stored and repaired his various boats at Spinneys. In all those years, Spinney had complained loudly. But, never told Preston he wouldn’t rent him space.
Now let me say this on behalf of Spinney. His reputation for fairness, generosity, and general Christian sensibilities are almost legendary. His character only knows one flaw: give Spinney the least suspicion that you’re cheating him, whether you are or not, and he’ll go to extreme ends seeking the proof of it. You would become the focus of all his attention. His confrontations with owners, who’ve borrowed yard ladders, or supplies without permission, are widely recollected. On occasion, the law has been called in to calm things down when large pieces of lumber, hammers, or planes have been wielded as weapons.
Given Spinney’s temperament, it was a matter of wonder that Preston was never, ever, confronted by Spinney. Spinney grumbled a lot louder about Preston than about some others. But even if Preston was an out and out petty thief, Spinney never did more than grumble. Preston did pretty much as he pleased.
Most yards have an assortment of riff-raff cats that keep rodents under control. Not so at Spinney’s; every cat was plump, healthy, and well-tended. All under the gaze of Spinney’s number one cat. Boo, as she was commonly called, was really Bubastis – cat goddess of all she surveyed, and that was everything in Spinney’s yard. Even the boatyard dog, a shepherd collie named Curly, checked in every morning: “Good morning, mam, you’d like what done today?”
Boo’s perch was the windowsill directly in front of Spinney’s desk. From this vantage, she could oversee the comings and goings all felines and humans in the yard, or sweep Spinney’s desk free of paperwork. Boo’s many litters had squatters’ rights in the yard. The cat seemed to pride herself on finding ever more inaccessible locations to have her kittens, and every time she disappeared, Spinney became a ball of anxieties promising to come unraveled.
Boo had been behaving oddly for a week and then gone missing a day or two ago. “Have you guys seen Boo?” “Naw Cap can’t say that I have. She’s been lookin’ a bit plump though…” This was enough to make Spinney recall the last time he had chased off that damn black tom from the lobster co-op. Smuts had gotten his Bubastis in the family way. Now the word was passed: “Figaro, Tom, Wes, Bubba keep your eyes open for Boo’s new hiding place.”
We didn’t find it. Marion Preston did.
Mrs. Preston is a woman who loves the world. But, such character may be a failing in a woman who puts up with cap’n Preston’s string of dry rotted boats, and poor pilotage. Marion Preston was part of the reason the yard cats were so plump. Despite her dedication to the family pug, Mrs. Preston was well regarded by every cat in Spinney’s yard. Maybe that’s what got all the trouble going because the next morning, the whole waterfront came awake with the shouts coming from around Old Gem.
Cap’n Preston and Spinney were circling each other on the restricted deck of the Old Gem. Preston, no coward, had grabbed a boat hook to counter the jack handle wielded by Spinney.
All work in the yard came to a dead stop. We all turned to look in the direction of Old Gem. There was a holler followed by a frantic Marion Preston leaping between the men. The box clutched to her bosom was full of kittens. A loud yowl rose as Boo declared herself an injured party in the dispute.
“You leave that cat and kittens alone you Bog Irish bastard !” yelled Spinney,
“You get your cat and her filthy litter off my boat, you mackerel snapper.”
No one present had ever heard Spinney use profanity, much less an ethnic slur. But Spinney was madder than anyone ever recalled. So red in the face, I was afraid he was going to keel over with a stroke then and there. Bubba said that Spinney hadn’t even been this mad when Figaro had sanded most of the gel coat finish off of Nickerson’s boat two years ago.
Weaving between the two were Marion Preston and Bubastis. The box clutched by Marion obviously held the kittens.
“Won’t both of you just quiet down.” “Mwoor!”
“You cat thief!”
“Watch who you call a thief.” At this point, Preston bent over and neatly dumped Bubastis, cat goddess of all she surveyed, over the side. Landing neatly on all fours, without having lost either dignity or anger, Bubastis leaped to the attack. Togo, Preston’s pug, was the object of this attack. Boo neatly cuffed Togo on the nose, causing the dog to spin away from the cat. As the dog’s rump hove into range, Boo gave that a swipe too. Togo commenced spinning. His spin was being helped out by occasional swats from Boo. All this accented by Togo’s ongoing yips.
Marion Preston had also reached the ground, but in a more dignified manner than Boo. She put the kittens aside safely and began trying to separate the angry cat from a perplexed dog.
Sensing unfolding drama, relief from boredom, and a break in work, a sizable portion of the manpower on the waterfront drifted in the direction of the noise. Realizing that she had won the fray, Boo retreated far under the hull of Old Gem, leaving Togo to seek comfort in Marion Preston’s arms. The arrival of the local police ended the excitement, but it was the favored topic over lunch and dinner across town.
Things stayed quiet in the yard for a while after that. I wasn’t at Spinney’s too much anyway, I had a full-time job at the Spouting Dolphin Art Gallery on Main street. The owner, Micah Payson, had plenty for me to do before the beginning of the summer season.
It was two weeks later that I went down to Spinney’s yard with a freshly varnished mahogany transom banner, all ready for installation on someone’s project boat. The restoration was about finished, the new carving I had made was installed, the varnishing all finished, rigging done, and final payment due. Old Gem seemed to be in precisely the same state of disrepair as two weeks before.
When I saw Spinney, I knew better than to mention the current yard eyesore, but he saw me looking in that direction anyway. Handing me my fee for the banner, he said: “I told Preston to move her or float her by July first, and not to come back.” Moved, perhaps more by the comfortable feeling of commission money in my pocket, than by common sense, I asked Spinney why he and old Preston got on so poorly. Rather than biting my head off Spinney, looked at me and said, “Wes, did you ever wish you could just sit down with an old friend you hadn’t been able to talk to with for ages, but couldn’t because of bad blood? Well, that’s how it is with Preston and I. He was my best friend in school.” With that, Spinney left the office hollering at Figaro to be careful where he piled the blocks they used with the jacks.
Now I was even more curious about what was going on between Spinney and Preston. Micah Payson gave me a Cheshire cat grin when I mentioned Spinney and Preston to him. “It’s so old a story around here that most people forgot it. After coming back from the war, Preston tried his hand as a broker. One of his first customers was Spinney. Right then, he was just starting up a shoestring operation. Spinney, based on friendship, bought an old boat from Preston without having a surveyor look it over first. He figured that Preston wouldn’t sell him something too awful. He intended to fix it up and resell it at a profit. But that boat had been in storage all during the war, and years before. It was dried out something fierce and sank at the dock when she was put back in because she was so dried out. The planks were so dry you’d see daylight through the seams! Nothing much to that normally; just pump until the dry wood “takes up” the moisture needed to close the seams. But this boat never seemed to take up. They hauled her out and did a proper survey. They declared it a total loss. Spinney looked like a fool, and Preston looked like the conniving dealer he’s been known as ever since. Maybe it was made worse that Spinney served in the Pacific for the whole war, while Preston wrote press releases down to the Fargo building in Boston. Spinney wound up a petty officer, and Preston wound up a Lieutenant Commander.” I could tell there was more than Payson wasn’t saying, but Micah was through speaking. But if Micah’s tale was accurate, why had Spinney put up with Preston all those years?
The answer came during the Second Battle of Old Gem two days later. A whole lot of staging, ladders and extension cords had found their way to Old Gem during the past Sunday. Sunday is the only day Spinney isn’t in the yard. Monday everyone was looking for, what had been leaning on their current project on Friday or Saturday. Preston had been working on his hull and fully enveloped it in all the staging and ladders he could gather. A long snake of joined extensions cords wound it’s way to the boat. A lone electric sander whined in the morning air, not the chorus of sanders, drills, and saws usually heard.
A delegation of owners and yard workers converged on the office, and soon Spinney was seen getting up steam and setting a course towards the Old Gem. Within minutes the two men were circling with milling arms, and the first punches in a new fight were being thrown. Then a clear soprano called out: “You Maynard, and you, Carl! A pair of foul, noisy old men. Old dried up sticks! You’ve been at each other for years over an old rotted hulk, and never the sense to either have it out or forgive.” “That boat’s sunk almost forty years and you two children haven’t forgotten. Maynard, your check for that damn boat bounced, and you Carl sold your best friend the worst hulk in the county.” She seemed to run down after this. But more quietly added, “…and I don’t know what I ever saw in either of you when we were courting.” Some of us idlers standing around gave choruses of silent Ahahs! Some of us, with a smile on our faces, turned away from the scene. Hell, most of us hadn’t even known that Spinney and Preston had first names, much less that Marion had dated them both. Marion Preston just confirmed what irritation had lain between the two all these years. No pearls had come from them, only two sour old clams.
The old men glared at each other. Like old tom cats no longer sure of their ground, they pointedly looked away from each other, spat on the ground, hitched their baggy pants up around their skinny hips, and stalked away.
A week later, I was back, between jobs, and just nosing around. Old Gem still sat in her cradle, looking no closer to launch than she had on the day of the fight. I was hoping to find out what had happened since but didn’t quite dare ask. Gladly, I didn’t have to. Marion Preston walked over from Old Gem, and asked Maynard if he would please give Carl the benefit of his superior knowledge…said just like that. Not saying anything, Spinney strolled over. The two warily exchanged mumbled greetings. “Got a problem, cap’n?” Spinney asked. “Just scraping away at this paint on the transom, and found this patch. What do you think it is?”
Spinney turned without a word went into his office. In a moment, he returned with a long ice pick sheathed in leather. Perhaps because he had been so thoroughly burnt in his virgin outing Spinney had become a skillful marine surveyor: valued by potential buyers, and feared by sellers. His tool of choice for judging the soundness of a hull was this ice pick. Up the ladder went Spinney. He thwacked the transom soundly, then pulled his pick and handily shoved it in. He dug into the offending spot with relish. Cap’n Preston winced. Out came chunks of rot. Spinney commenced humming a bit tunelessly. I, not too smartly, mentioned that this appeared to be something missed on the survey. Preston looked at me with a sick look on his face and said that he hadn’t had a proper survey done; he knew he was going to buy the sloop regardless.
Spinney excitedly called down from his perch “I love digging out the rot, it’s like being a dentist.” The excavated pocket soon was almost enough to swallow Spinney’s large hand. Grinning, he cheerfully pointed out that this was an old problem never adequately dealt with, as was evidenced by a short piece of plank let in on the port side of the transom. “Look here! See that flat spot? That’s where they let in a new piece of wood in an earlier repair…never really fixed the underlying problem.” Years of water, salt, and fresh had seeped in beneath an inadequately designed and bedded rail. Hearing this report, I now looked at those separations between the transom and the planking with new suspicion. Spinney was pointing out a hollowing in the transom near the short plank and below the rot pocket, and saying “…you always need to watch for this sort of thing.” He hopped down from his perch and dusted off his hands. A white-faced Preston thought about the size of the problem that had just opened up. “Well,” he said, “you know I want a quick fix. I just want to sail her. Can I just put a patch on and cover it over with fiberglass?” “Well,” said Spinney, a broad grin fixed in place as he strolled away,” sure… it’s your boat.”