Two years before I was born, my father built a boat.
He built many boats in his day. In fact, people came from all over Louisiana and adjacent states to have my father build and repair boats for them. He did it for the extra money, for school clothes and Christmas gifts.
"He had an eye for boat building," our family minister told me once. "He just knew by instinct what was right and what wasnít, what would work and what would not." No small feat for a born landlubber, raised on the streets of Depression-era Ft. Worth, Texas. But he was Sheti imasha, people of the lake, thus water and the things of and within it were part of his spirit.
He was, in 1962, working for the local granite and marble works, carving tombstones. When I was born, he found better work, though marginally, at a carbon black plant. But that year, he built a little twelve-foot bateau out of cypress, oak and plywood, mostly scraps. With quarter-inch fir plywood all the way around and a little three-horse engine, he could lift it easily into the back of his pickup by hand. He couldnít afford a trailer.
Later, after I was born and old enough to sit upright there in my bulky, bright orange life vest, when I could hold a rod in my hands, I was his constant sidekick. He was not a sports fan. Though Iím sure at some point he threw a ball to me, I donít remember it. Any spare moment he had from working three jobs, we were in that little wooden bateau on Lake Fausse Point.
My grandfather was with us one day. I donít remember this, but Dad told the story so many times I know it by heart. Somehow it came up in conversation that the boat was constructed with quarter-inch plywood.
Pa Biz, my grandfather was known by, was furious.
"You brought that baby out here in a boat with a quarter-inch bottom?" he raged. "Dammit, boy, this lake eats boats!"
Properly chagrined, my father laminated another half-inch piece of plywood over the bottom, fiberglassed the entire bottom and four inches of the sides, and robbed the piggy bank to buy a trailer since it was then too heavy to lift into the bed of his pickup.
Certainly my grandfather was right, because my father himself preached it to me many, many times when he finally set me free with my own boat to poke and prod with my fishing rod around Lake Fausse Point. And many times, indeed, did I see that lake get up on its hind legs, or like a coiled serpent, ready to strike, raging, tossing itself about in the bowl of its lair.
I was in my twenties before he let me take his boat to the lake. It was his pride. He built many boats, but this one was the best, he always said. Everything about it was right. It possessed, he implied, that magical conjunction of chine and sheer, that elusive intersection of form and function, that made it stand apart from any other. Trusting me with it was a mark of manhood, in essence. A right of passage.
He left it in my care eight years ago when he departed this earth to sing at the feet of his grandfathers. I have tended it as he taught me: Never put it up wet. Never let dirt or leaves collect in the bilge. Take care of it, and itíll always get you home. It always has. The well-regarded lie is that wooden boats are fragile ó they are finite and do not last, and worst of all, expendable.
It had begun to experience minor issues. A leak, high on the sheer line, at the transom, that I couldnít locate. He built the sides low, to reach down for all those thrashing fish without a guníl in the armpit, so he installed a wide spray rail and subdeck aft to prevent swamping. Also, when I kneeled on the foredeck I felt it give more than it used to.
Two or three years ago, my fiancée and I were heading across Lake Fausse Pointe, turning westward near Eagle Point, when we struck something. Something solid and huge. At three-quarter throttle on my fifteen horsepower engine, the impact catapulted the boat airborne, and cracked the upper tumblehome of the transom. We idled it home, which took hours, and I repaired the transom with thickened marine epoxy and long lag bolts. But with the issues that materialized later, I feared the impact had weakened the structure.
So with a mustering of resolve and courage I cannot even begin to describe, I decided I simply had to remove the deck of the boat and see what was amiss.
I cannot find the words for the monumental force of will it took to set a pry bar to the layer of plywood and begin to work it free. This was his boat, by thunder. His pride and joy. Iíve always said, only half-joking, that if some ruffian had ever accosted us on the lake with a gun and said, "Either the boat goes or the boy does," Iíd have surely drowned. Just a year or so before Dad left us, my cousin and I were struggling to get the old Mercury on the transom started, without success. Tired and in terrible health, Dad came outside to show us what to do to make the old Merc fire and hum contentedly at idle. It was his Mercury, after all, his boat, and that it would for any reason at all not run, not do what it had always done so well, was unthinkable.
And here I was, about to take a prybar and mallet to Nick Stouffís boat, two years older than I, truly my cradle in life, my schoolhouse, my sanctuary. Yet I managed to make the first blow with the mallet against the bar, and another, and when I finally peeled back the layer of plywood laid more than four decades ago, I was sure he had given me the strength to begin.
Dad used Weldwood glue to put it together. All the frames and the chines seem to be solid and do not give when stressed. But the topside of the old girl gets the full heat of the Louisiana sun on her planking, and over the years, that old Weldwood glue crystallized and turned to powder. The deck beams were in place but no longer steadfast, and the old copper nails were pulling out as the hull flexed. There was, at the transom, a very slight bit of rot in the sheer strake, and the joints connecting that aft subdeck with the guníls had broken loose, the glue again turned into powdery, brown uselessness.
Credit must be given, though: That old Weldwood glue held firm for forty years. I spent a week loosening all the topside joints that seemed even slightly questionable and have refastened them with marine epoxy adhesive and screws. I have added extra bracing in some areas just to reinforce the transom, deck and rails. New plywood replaces the old and the old girl is nearly whole again.
Perhaps sheíll last another forty-four years. Perhaps my own son will one day poke and prod the shallow, black waters of Lake Fausse Pointe with a fly rod and a boatload full of legacies. My life has been defined by that little boat, in a way. The lessons learned in it. The moments gathered and held close because of it. Take care of her, and sheíll always get you home.