Note: This is the first chapter of a book I’m working on called A Boat to See Me Home–the Boats in a Writer’s Life. A later chapter appeared in Garden & Gun magazine.
The spring-fed brook between my grandpa’s farm and his brother’s place—eighty acres divided evenly between them—was no wider across than a man is tall. Around six feet in most places.
Those knee-deep and slow-running waters ran clear and cold from what bubbled out of the damp mossy ground a mile up the hardwood hollow. Then it twisted its way across another half-mile of rich and black Alabama bottomland to the Luxapalila’s catfish holes and moccasin hideouts. The brook had a mess of crawdads for seining, and was sown with silver minnows but they couldn’t swallow a worm and hook, so no fishing. The ribbon of water didn’t even have a name.
It was the odd short piece of knobby stick, or some fallen red or yellow sweetgum leaf, floating past me, spinning downstream someplace only it knew where, and didn’t care to tell to me, that set in my six-year old head some dizzy notion that a boat would let me tag along. My boyhood dirt road imagination was baptized with a moonshine-strong sense of a boat’s magical power.
Just to see where the water went. I could do that in a boat.
Just to see what I might see when I got there, somewhere else, anyplace not here. I could do that in a boat.
Books adventured me off to ungetatable places, but a boat could take me there, body and soul.
But it was not in the creek-wading summer when the idea hatched into something that a boy could lay his hands on. It was on a cold gray Christmas day in Crossroads community. I sat beneath a tinseled lit-up cedar tree cut from the woods across the highway on a pine plank floor in my Grandpa Estes’s house. The same white frame farmhouse where my mother still lived with her new husband when she was seventeen. The same house where she bore down hard and squeezed me out onto a feather mattress in January of 1949.
Doctor Mize couldn’t get me to breathe, I was told.
Grandmother said, “That doctor was ready to put your little blue body in a bucket of rags.”
I doubt that. Probably would’ve rolled me up into a sheet, at least, and gently laid me by. After all it was 1949, and humankind had advanced sufficiently by then to at least keep me out of the trash can.
But Daddy, I’m told and told and told again, snatched me from the doctor’s hands and slapped me with desperate intent, hard enough so the pain on my little wrinkled butt stung sharply and could reach through the ether, or wherever I was drifting off to. It worked. And I found a breath and the name of Sonny on a birth certificate.
On that Christmas morning, with a hardwood fire warming the room, making it smell like it was bright cold outside, Daddy sipped hot coffee and leaned forward on the couch.
“Y’all boys go ahead and tear into your presents,” Daddy said.
My sister Sandra was a year-old baby, asleep on my mother’s lap. My brother Frankie who was a year younger than me and I were rolling around our yellow Tonka trucks, loading and dumping Lincoln Logs from their tilt beds, toys that were from the pile of gifts that Santa himself left for each of us, and what was wrapped and under the tree we knew was store-bought. Daddy got up and used the toe of this boot to spin a wrapped box to me and one to my brother. First- and second-graders, we could at least read our names on the presents and managed sorting the other presents ourselves.
“Get you an apple or an orange,” Mama said. “Right there out of them crates. You boys ain’t had a thing to eat this morning.”
Grandpa Estes always, every Christmas, had apples and oranges in wooden crates. He ordered them from Cole Brothers Grocery in Millport, up Highway 96 about seven miles. I can still remember the small square paper tissues around each apple and each orange, and the layers of molded paper trays for the fruit. In a wooden box. Such particular attention to apples and oranges is hard to find these days.
And my own certain attention toward the wooden apple crate was like unwrapping one more present as I wondered would it float. In my mind the crate could be turned into a boat. After all, I’d taken some rides downhill in a wooden box fitted with axles and wheels off a baby carriage. If a box could be made to roll, couldn’t it also be made to float? Seems if I put boards over the cracks between the boards, it might not leak. The orange crate beside the apple crate had boards. I could pry them loose and use them for my Noah project.
“Grandpa, can I have them two crates?”
Daddy asked, “Why in the name of God would you want a box when there’s all these toys scattered around on the floor?”
“I want to make a boat,” I said.
Daddy asked me could I not just be satisfied with what was right in front of me.
I had no answer for him. Only kept looking at Grandpa Estes, waiting for his answer. He slipped a bemused look at Daddy, who was shaking his head.
“When we’ve eat up all the apples and oranges, you can have them crates,” Grandpa said. But he didn’t make me wait that long. Before bedtime on Christmas day he got me to help him transfer the fruit to bowls we found in the kitchen. “I reckon you’ve got a plan for how you’ll make this boat?” he asked.
I told him I did.
It took forever, it seemed, for school to let out and the sun to burn close and hot enough there on our stretch of Highway 96 blacktop to melt gobs of tar county road repair crews had poured into cracks. And it was liquid tar that I needed to seal the seams between the orange crate slats I’d put over the cracks in the apple crate.
With a tablespoon and a butter knife from Mama’s kitchen, and an empty soup can with its top peeled back, I headed for the highway. No cars coming. Not many ever did. So I scraped-up tar with the big spoon and knifed it into my can.
My bare feet burned, but Alabama farm boys didn’t fuss about things like that. Nor briars ripping arms and legs, nor a knot on the forehead from a low branch, nor much of any assault on the body. Only stepping on a rusty nail that went in deep, and sometimes all the way through the foot, would bring a howl. It wasn’t as much the pain of the puncture as the threat of lockjaw.
When I once hobbled home with a nail hole in the bottom of my foot, my grandmother poured lamp oil on my foot. She said that might stop the infection. Then she dumped a handful of rock salt into a pan of scalding hot water and made me soak my foot in it. While waiting on somebody to come take me to the clinic in town, she made me bite down on a stick to hold open my jaw at least wide enough to get a spoon in my mouth, should the dread lockjaw set in before Dr. Mize stuck me with a tetanus shot.
We kept a lookout for a red line running from the nail hole in my foot up my shin. To hear big people tell it, if such a red line appeared and held its path, it would sneak under the skin when it got to my navel, dive down and head straight to my heart. That red line meant death.
To hear the big people tell it.
But they would lie about other stuff. So I’m not sure.
When I had the can almost full of sticky tar, I picked it up by the top and carried it to my crate boat. But the tar had cooled too stiff to knife out and spread on the seams. I headed for Grandmother’s gas stove. With pliers holding the can by its top, I held it over the stove eye’s blue flame until the tar was liquid, but not bubbling hot. I was ready to spoon, slather and spread.
I held the hot can in front of me with the pliers and carefully made it to the screen door before Grandmother appeared in her kitchen.
In the time that only a grandmother needs, she sized up what was going on, and assessed the damage to her cutlery.
“Go do your business,” then get your little butt back in here.
“Can I try my boat before I come back and be in trouble?”
“You go on,” she said, “but you better not try to make a getaway in the thing! You might float plum to Kingdom Come.” That was a distant land the preacher, Brother Frederick, mentioned on Sundays at church. Sounded like a pretty good place. The jaws of hell did not.
I tarred my boat, and sat down to watch it cool and harden for launching. My heart was going like a purring tomcat as I slid my boat into the water. Barefoot, I stepped in and shifted my weight only to feel the bottom boards instantly crack and the crate sink to the muddy bottom. I stared at the clear cold water swirling around my legs, only deep enough to just submerge the crate. I stepped out, and my busted boat floated to the surface and moved off down the brook.
I watched it, crushed, but also hypnotized. Something about the crate going away with the current, going out of sight around a bend, bobbing on its own, buoyed up by some strange magic, was a balm for my heart. The thing floated. It spirited away. Even if it was busted.
It was almost five years before I tried building another boat. A log raft this time. Three small green logs, about six feet long, from saplings I’d chopped down and nailed four feet apart with some barn boards. It buckled like a shot-gunned quail when I tried dragging it behind Grandpa Estes’s blue Ford tractor to the banks of the Luxapalila.
I was madder than a wad of guinea wasps on their nest, suffering the botherations of a boy’s can fishing pole. But like a sunburned back, I knew I’d get over it.
And I knew one day I’d try me another boat. I just never would’ve guessed it would be 900-some feet long.