My friend sat there sipping his bourbon, looked over at me, and said, “Oh, what stories we could tell!” But, of course, he was referring to some of the things that happened at or that we saw during our years of doing boat shows. Although to be honest, we don’t share the good stuff with potential customers, that would be tantamount to warning them to behave at the show. No fun for us!
Just look at couples. We see the entire range: the young couple shopping for their first little sloop, the older couple looking for something suitable for cruising with the kids, and the older ones looking to downsize and longingly looking at the little sloops that remind them of when they were young and frisky.
I don’t have enough words to describe the frisky ones. From the older couple away from the kids, staying at the hotel with that ” Oh, honey, wait till we get to the room” look in their eyes to the non-matched couples meeting up at the show – she’s into lobster yachts, he’s into traditionally rigged sloops or 22-foot catboats, but they are clearly into each other. Then, at last, there are the older gentlemen who hoped to revive their romantic fortunes with much younger trophy wives. But that deserves an entire post by itself.
Staffing a booth at a show is hard work; you answer questions all day ranging from the inane to the insane to the wise. You tell people where the bathroom is so often that you make up a sign with an arrow indicating the direction. And you pray that one of your friends will show up with lunch soon or relieve you – so you can go to the bathroom. It’s all in a day’s work.
My friend and I have retired from doing the shows, but we do like to go and browse. But mostly, we watch people. After years of observing, we know what to look for. It’s not dull.
Craftspeople accumulate tools and supplies, and some of us could use the help of the tool police to keep us in line with purchases of new bits and pieces. But the current project on my bench proves I eventually use all I accumulate.
The carving currently occupying my workbench is of the schooner Ada Bailey*. As depicted, she is on a starboard tack and is slightly heeled over to port. This means that the observer can view parts of the inside of her starboard ( right side) rail.
It’s straightforward to portray a hull flat on the water, and most times, that is the favored view. In this case, I have to show that rail which adds depth to the carving ( about an eighth of an inch) and makes it necessary for the groundwork behind the vessel to be cleared even deeper. Fussy, fussy, fussy! And a bit of a pain to carve. Out come all the little U-shaped veining tools that hardly ever get used and the tiny rifler files to clean up the odd whisker of wood.
Shaping the sails and hull? No problem. Getting this little bit of perspective correct? Well, it’s getting there.
*Little survives of Ada Bailey. Built in 1884 in the Sewall yard in Bath, Maine, for the A. Sewall Company she foundered ( probably ran aground) in 1894 – location unknown. I’m basing this carving on the 1888 portrait of the vessel by Antonio Jacobson. It seems to be the only rendering that’s survived.
The old truism goes that confession is good for the soul. I’m not sure if when I have the sort of internal dialog that could be considered confession, I talk to my soul, though. It does sometimes do me good. I talk to myself about my stupidity, failures, and the roads not taken. It’s those darn roads not taken that are the real irritant.
One time I was offered entrance to an expensive college by one of the deans. Despite being a high school dropout, he, and his wife, thought I had the potential to make something of myself. I was too taken with being a coffeehouse folk musician to see where any other future lay. Then there was the apprenticeship to a master carver and engraver that I turned down because it would mean showing up every day at eight AM and interfering with traveling. I won’t go into the romantic misfires, miscues, and mistakes.
So I often find myself, while driving on long trips, beating these recollections back into the background where they belong. After all, I eventually found my way to college, developed as a carver in my own right, and my wife and I have raised four fantastic young adults.
So why the periodic sojourns into paths that I never took? What am I looking to find?
The worst of this rumination comes on those long treks from distant places when I find myself driving through areas of the east that I vaguely remember from some stop in 1967. Or worse, I pass some town that I know I’ve never visited and wonder why in all my wandering, I avoided it.
It seems that the confessional exposes are linked with travel, and just as I travel along the road in distance, I also travel along the roads in time. The highways offer off-ramps, and I could drop into nearly familiar all-night dinners and meet with people that I almost recollect. But I don’t.
Sometimes I fear what would happen if the off-ramps allowed me to leave the highway and drop into those places and times I avoided.
I’m invested in who I am and what I have, and I’m not interested in the past that much. If the past were a tide washing toward me, I’d run as fast as possible away.
Birds! No! No challenge! Now a sassy frog, that’s a real treat. First, touch them with your paw and watch them leap into the pond. Then! Ohhh, the squeak of surprise when you jump in after them! It never fails!
I don’t understand why Mother objects to muddy paws. I’ll share the frog with her.
Car salespeople and members of Congress are tied for the number one spot on the least trusted profession listing. I was amazed because I had clergy and lawyers pegged for the bottom of the ethical barrel picks. But it’s not wrong to discover that my choices don’t align with the polls; after all, the standards for the most blatant chicanery keep evolving. Just think, a century ago, bunco’s and cons had to get out and extort money in person. Now they do it by email and TikTok.
I know an almost friend who proudly confesses to being a professional con artist. When I first met him in the 1960s, he had an insurance racket on Boston Beacon Hill. He had standards. He never defrauded old ladies, widows, or families with young children. Eventually, he moved into more lucrative pastimes, resort area real estate, high-risk investments, and hi-tech. Ultimately John succumbed to the lure of big money and went into politics, first as a Congressional aide and then serving two terms in Congress.
John retired to Florida and lived there peaceably for some years, but last Christmas, the card arrived with a note saying he was thinking of moving back to New England; sharing a state with two inept, incompetent con artists like Trump and Desantis was beginning to irritate him. Not only were they willing to defraud widows, old ladies, and families with children, but one of them was dumb enough to take on Mickey Mouse. After all, this luminary of the Con stated, “In Florida, you don’t fight Sugar, Tourism, or Disney.” “Standards,” he said, “it’s all about standards. It’s sad to see my old profession represented by such idiots. Caveat Emptor – let the buyer beware. And Lou, the next big area of growth for cons will be climate change. Bigger than solar, easier than natural food or supplements. Hey, I can get you in on the ground floor!”
At that point, I stopped reading. I am neither a widower, have small children, nor an old lady. And once a con artist, always a con artist.
Dad hurt my feelings today. He was reading his blogs this morning and noticed that an Australian blogger used the word “furphy.” when he looked it up, he said it meant an unreliable or false report. Later, when Mom said I was growing up and becoming a mature dog, Kitty, and Dad started laughing and saying that that was a real furphy.
Then my sister’s boyfriend said my nickname should be Captain Chaos, and everyone laughed.
After thinking about it, I like the sound of Captain Chaos as a nickname. Do I look like Captain Chaos to you? Of course, but superheroes need relevance. I could be a destroyer of evil gray fuzzy tails and a chaser of fanatic destructive chipmunks.
Kitty is rolling around in the catnip again, saying I’m a cumbersome nuisance.
A superhero gets no respect in his own home. Do I need a cape? A mask? How about a cat sidekick? Sshit! She’s coming for me. I’m outta here!
One could refer to parts of my life as hapless excursions into absurdity:
- I lived in an apartment on Boston’s Beacon Hill with a group of Boston College dropouts for whom weird and inexplicable comedy acts were standard;
- I wandered about as a road bum in the 1960s, gathering experiences and tales;
- I lived with a psychotic cat who liked chili, hot peppers, and filet mignon;
- Then there was my time sailing with a retired master mariner whose opinion of the Caine Mutiny, or the Mutiny on the Bounty, was that they destroyed the careers of honorable captains. Crew members should be docile, obedient, and prompt in obeying all commands.
Eventually, stories became the medium that I used to tell this history to friends, family, and anyone interested in listening. That was because several English professors persuaded me that stories were how we made sense of the otherwise unexplainable. It didn’t matter that it was a personal tragedy, an amusing anecdote, or the story of the gods. I realized I needed to make sense of much inexplicable and absurd in my life, and telling these things to others in the form of a story was how I could do it.
Being a sailor, the son of a sailor, and the descendant of long lines of sailors stretching into the vanishing horizon at sea, it was natural that I use the sea story medium.
What’s a sea story? Well, for the uninitiated, let’s explain it this way. You know how a fairy tale starts with “once upon a time?” And then ends with some folderol about living happily ever after? Right! Now a sea story advises you that ” this is no shit.” You then get led on a wild tale that stretches your credibility and belief in reality but is amusing and credible enough that it might have happened ( in another universe). The teller then assures you that he heard it from a buddy who either saw it himself or got it from someone who was there. The sea story avoids lying to you about how it all ends happily ever after. Sea stories acknowledge the perversity of the universe by hinting at things going on behind the scenes that we don’t understand and can’t control. But in a sea story, a canny sailor can and does take advantage of the twists of fate to come out ahead.
So that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. See you at the Blue Anchor later on.
Before I enrolled as a degree candidate at Boston University, I spent two years working full-time days and attending night school with a full load of courses. I couldn’t afford full-time days, and without a high school diploma, my path to a degree depended on regular placement on the dean’s list.
I’d had to give up well-paid work in operating rooms because I missed too many night classes due to being called in for emergency surgeries. So I found work with healthcare agencies that would place me at hospitals as an orderly or attendant to older people. It was the second type of work I found easiest on my schedule. I also had the opportunity to work with some fascinating people, a retired obstetrician, a boatbuilder, and a very elderly gentleman who had spent a life as a grain trader.
The retired grain trader at age ninety was interested in reading about his former industry and raging about the stupidity of the younger generation. These rages would culminate in rambling phone calls to his financial advisor. After this, he’d call a cab and whisk us off to one of his clubs.
The clubs were what you’d expect for exclusive Boston area WASP ( White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) enclaves: stodgy, pretentious, and full of people whose lives were one sinecure position after another. Typically, after entering, I was relegated to the rear of the dining room, where I would not be seen but could observe if I was called upon.
I noticed a couple of distinctive things right away. First, the employees are divided into the coopted and the non-coopted. And second, the food was awful; the club may have been elite, but it would never win stars or good reviews. The coopted employees acted as though they were junior members and, by the grace of their scraping and bowing, might one day come to the notice of the membership committee. The non-coopted employees were women ( these were men’s clubs), black, and Hispanic; they knew that no membership committee would ever glance their way. They knew there was a sort of infrangibility, an unbreakable wall separating them from us. In a supposedly democratic society, the members of these clubs believed not so much in class but in caste; and not so much in people’s ability to better themselves but in their ability to keep others down by the grace of their superiority.
The day came when my advisor at the university told me that I’d be permitted to become a degree candidate in the College of Liberal Arts, with the only proviso being that I had to have a high school diploma or GED to graduate. So the next day, I said goodbye to the agency that placed me as an attendant and gladly gave up being treated as a low caste servant and eating poor quality food at the finest of clubs.
In retrospect, I can’t say it was just an experience that I found interesting in the past tense. On the contrary, it had significant repercussions for my life. It showed me the dangers that an absolute sense of privilege has for a democratic society. And how rapidly class, ethnicity, and race can become frozen by the privileged into a sense of caste.
Dwight Eisenhower once said, “A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.”
The facade of our local department store had been “refreshed in either the late forties or early fifties. But, unfortunately, the materials employed in its construction hadn’t aged well. And parts were thick with old pigeon nests, accumulated dirt, and rust. Sporadic cleanings hadn’t kept up with the effects of age, pigeons, and downtown pollution.
Unlike many small city department stores, ours hadn’t seen a mass desertion of customers to mall stores. It managed to live on while its nearby mall counterparts recently closed. Perhaps feeling flush with its survival, management decided to redo the storefront.
Off came the old, and the older sandstone carvings of the 19th-century facade came into view. Not all had received kind treatment from workers slapping on the “modern” facade in the forties. The one illustrated here, part of the older, more formal front entrance, was severely damaged while slapping on the modern materials.
I will see if they restore the original or go “modern.”
A good day by the water involves at least a bit of time looking at ripple marks, jetsam, and flotsam. Jetsam is those things people have tossed overboard, and flotsam is the many things that can be found floating. After a storm, a fantastic array of goods can be on the shore.
Back when you could spice up a day at the waterside by telling the kids stories based on what was found. Now you fill a trash bag with plastic debris and deliver a talk on environmental responsibility. Unfortunately, that is not my definition of an exciting sea story.
One represents a creative venture where almost anything is possible through exploration. The other is a sad commentary on litter, a lack of environmental responsibility, and industrial cupidity. As we leave, we notice that we are not the only ones with a bag of collected trash. Others are also interested in leaving the shore a better place than they found it.
You must be logged in to post a comment.