I sat on a sawhorse to rest my aching back and feet, looking down the side of the boat and to the bright sun beyond.

Curly-ques of ribbon-thin cypress shavings rolled flirtatiously with each other in the breeze on the carport floor. My hand planes were on the boat, a short Stanley No. 3½ and a big No. 5. The metal frame is darkened with time and the wood handles are even darker, stained with oil from my father’s hands and mine. His trademark is etched into each one, NIX. It was the way his father marked his tools, too, a convenient way to spell “Nick’s” tool, with just a good file to cut it into the metal of whatever tool so needed it.

The sound, feel and scent of a sharp, well-tuned plane slicing through cypress are heavenly. I had just shaped the chine log, that is the long strip of wood that stretches from bow to stem where the sides and bottom meet. There in the cool air of a windy Sunday morning, I carefully clutched my father’s Stanley plane, pushed it across the chines and watched the ribbons of shavings emerge and curl up from the plane throat. Heavenly.

You know, I could have done this with a nice electric hand planer I own. I might even have done it with a belt sander. But the satisfaction of using my daddy’s tools on my own boat…well, that may be far more time consuming, but it’s also far more rewarding. Heck, come to that, I could have just gone to get a used aluminum bateau out of the classifieds.

But then I would not have got to use my father’s Stanley planes, and felt in my fingertips all the boats he built with them. I would not have been able to breathe in the sharp smell of resin from cypress and the Spanish cedar that will trim the boat out. In either case, I would have floated and gone fishing, to be sure, but I wish to immerse myself in the entirety of his life and mine. I wish to baptize myself in the experience of my father’s planes, my old cypress jealously hoarded for years to build this boat.

Man, I am such a dinosaur. A relic. I am not so noble as to profess to be “preserving a dying art” in my boat building any more than I seek elitism in my fly fishing. I am merely doing what satisfies me, makes me whole. The little boat before me, roughly half finished, is replete with flaws. Most are completely invisible to the casual viewer through the judicious use of sleight-of-hand by which I hid them. I know, though, I know where every little miscut is, each bit of tear-out where I made the plane or chisel bite too hard. On my first boat, I moaned about such things for years. Now I know that the perfection is the sole proprietorship of divinity, and I am not perfect. So I just choose to love it more, not in spite of but because of its mistakes and imperfections.

There are places where people don’t think of boats much. Landlocked and dry, boats are as useless to such folks as a snowplough would be to me. Here, though, there are boats at every turn, and boats are as ingrained in the Cajun culture as roux and okra. My Chitimacha ancestors felled great cypress trees to make dugout canoes.

Sitting there next to my little plywood skiff project, I reassured myself once again that all would be right with it. It would float, and it would probably travel well under power. Such things are important. But the boat coming to birth under my sharp blades, coarse sand paper and clumsy hands will have much more asked of it. Perhaps more than it can give. It will be asked to transport me in and out of time and space, from boyhood to old age. If it can bring me to a quiet, dark spot back of Susan’s Bayou where the canopy of trees is so thick and the reeds and irises so dense that maybe today hasn’t yet caught up…perhaps I’ll find something I lost somewhere, as my old man and I haunted these backwater sloughs and wonderlands.

No plastic or metal boat can carry me to where it is I want to go. Only wood can do that.

“Houses are but badly built boats,” Arthur Ransome wrote. “So firmly aground that you can not think of moving them. They are definitely inferior things, belonging to the vegetable not animal world, rooted and stationary, incapable of transition. The desire to build a house is the tired wish of a man content henceforward with a single anchorage. The desire to build a boat is the desire of youth, unwilling yet to accept the idea of a final resting place.

“It is for that reason, perhaps, that, when it comes, the desire to build a boat is one of those that cannot be resisted. It begins as a little cloud on a serene horizon. It ends by covering the whole sky, so that you can think of nothing else. You must build to regain your freedom. And always you comfort yourself with the thought that yours will be the perfect boat, the boat that you may search the harbors of the world for and not find.”

When the little boat is done, we’ll leave harbor and we probably never will find everything out there that will give me peace, but I know where some of it still lurks on green-black water, where trees grow to serve as perches for yellow finches with black masks, along the back ends of dark canals and in the bright orange sun over a shallow lake.

4 comments to Legacy

  • Mike


    Very well written,

    Almost worthy of a pull-it-zer prize!

  • Gordon Bryson

    Roger, I’d begun to think I was the only person who felt communion with my ancestors when I used tools that had been handed down to me. I have some that go back to my great-grandfather who died before I was born. Using them makes a connection that I’ve not been able to explain to others. But reading this piece affirms there is an aura about them, albeit maybe only for those who really respect and love such items, that transcends time.
    Thanks for letting me experience yours through your writing.

    Best regards, gordon

  • pete cooper, jr.

    Hey Scoop –
    Is it’s maiden voyage going to have two aboard?
    Give ’em hell tomorrow!

  • Hey, wonderful story. I just now found your blog and am already a fan. 😀

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