My Father Could Make a Boat Dance
My father could make
a boat dance.
My father could make
a boat dance and sing.
My father could make
My father was shorter
than your father, and stronger, especially in his legs.
My father was more
silent than your father, and more kind and gentle.
My father had less
schooling than your father, and was more wise.
My father was selfless
and humble, and he taught me competitiveness.
My father drove noisy
diesel trucks and hated them as much as he loved them.
My father died, and
something in me was born, kicking and screaming, crying and
longing, hurting and very much alive. Like my father. Very
much alive. In me.
Enduring and more
lovely with each passing year.
Less in focus and
sharper in the mind.
Borne in a boat of
my own making.
I have sepia-aged pictures of
my father and his boats. Four pictures that I placed in a photo
album show his abilities as a dancing master. My father, 15 horses,
and a pile of sticks in the water, dancing (and singing to the
tune of those 15 throaty horses). When I fish out the photo album
and look at the four photos, I am first struck by the presence
of my mother, the one who can’t swim, the one who always
said, Be careful.
Riding like the wind in my father’s
(click last image to enlarge)
The fourth photo is the astounding
one, though. The tortured wake of the boat has drawn a comma in
the water, and there at the tail of that comma is my father’s
boat, my father, and my mother, reaching for the sky. The nose
of the boat is 10 feet in the air and the rump of the boat is
digging a hole to drown in.
Now I build boats, with great
care and love. One of the boats that I’ve built is a tubby
jonboat with an odd little birdwatcher cabin. It’s
from a design called the Harmonica,
by Jim Michalak. It’s been perfect for the Erie Canal, which
is a short haul away from our home in Buffalo, New York. My wife,
the Reverend, had suggested that we call the boat Flipper,
because she helped with the flipping of this boat after the hull
was finished and painted. I had kinda, sorta wanted to call the
boat Wallbanger in honor of my father, but Wallbanger
will be another boat’s name. This one is called Flipper.
my wife took this picture of me in the Harmonica,
on the Erie Canal
Why Wallbanger? Dad was
a trucker, which meant that he was a CB’er, too, because
the advent of the Citizen Band radio made truck driving safer,
more effective, and a lot like a party. If I had ever owned a
CB radio, my handle would have been Mr. Ed, because for
a long time I was a copy editor. My father’s handle was
Wallbanger because his name was Harvey, and because of
a sweetish alcoholic drink known as the Harvey Wallbanger.
Nicknames are best when there
is a current of cleverness atop an
undercurrent of malice, and Wallbanger has those two
currents in balance. To call my mild and gentle father Wallbanger
requires a dash of malice. Sometimes I call him Harvey Rabbit,
in my mind, because he was so cute and at the same time so strong
and silent as to be almost invisible. A dash of malice, and a
jigger of love and affection.
We were having breakfast in a
nondescript diner, my father and I, talking about nothing and
everything, in the way of fathers and sons. Somewhere in the flow
of this, my father tells me that sometimes, when he is working
alone in his workshop, he feels the presence of my Aunt Martha,
dead these many years. I forget what I said in reply, but I fancy
that I will always remember this day when my father taught me
that it’s OK to talk with the dead.
He taught me how to pull a bent
nail by placing a scrap of wood under the head of the hammer,
and when I pull a bent nail, I say, Thanks, Dad.
He taught me how to tap a nail
on its nose before driving that nail into a board so that the
nail won’t split the board, and when I tap a nail on its
nose and drive it into a board, I say, Thanks, Dad.
He taught me how to kerf a board
carefully with the saw before cutting with great vigor, because
one careful cut will guide the saw accurately the rest of the
way, and when I kerf a board, I say, Thanks, Dad.
I call my wife the Reverend, because
she is one, as am I. As such, I tend to make sense of my life
with some reference to biblical passages and theological concepts.
For example: Because I live, Jesus tells us, you
will live. It sounds so puffed up and pretensious, taken
out of context and stripped of its divinity. In that naked condition,
however, the phrase describes my enduring and continuing connection
with my father: Because I live, he lives, and because he lived,
Sometimes when I talk now with
my father, I realize how close the talking comes to prayer, and
how I want to separate this communication with my father from
my communication with THE Father. I don’t pray to my dad;
I simply talk to him, and I don’t ask him for things –
I thank him for his love and wisdom.
If you had known my father,
you would know me, Jesus tells us. That’s true for
the rest of us, too, I believe. One piano-playing blues performer
says it this way, about her mentor: She’s in my right hand,
she’s in my left hand ....
My father taught me how to build
boats, and he taught me how to heal with a touch and a gentle
word. He was extraordinary, and I miss him like fire. And as long
as I can build, or simply enjoy boats, our connection will continue
in the work of our hands, joined across spaces that cannot be
but are. It’s all in the hands.
My father could take a truck,
or an auto, or a blender or space heater, and make them well again.
I used to crawl under my rusty old cars and try to fix them, but
now I can afford to pay someone else to do that work. Where my
dad would grab a screw driver and a pair of pliers, which he swore
was all you really need to work on a good old pickup truck like
our ‘53 Ford F100, I grab a screw driver, a motherboard,
and some other digital junk and make a computer for pennies. Sometimes
I break ‘em just to have the fun of fixing ‘em. The
two of us, my father and I, see eye to eye across the years and
differing dimensions of reality, material and non-material, and
we still agree on the beauty of boats, the goodness of work in
solitude, and the respect and understanding of peers.
I sometimes wonder what Dad would
have done with computers. I know that my ability of make, break,
and fix them comes from his example of doing oneself the work
that needs to be done, because it’s cheaper that way, and
a lot more satisfying. And because neither one of us is or was
good at asking for help from strangers. Whether it’s computer
help lines or dishonest mechanics, we both would rather do the
work ourselves. The same goes for our boats.
I have a website, http://www.herknperk.net,
that chronicles my life with boats, with building logs and photos,
plus a lot of material on the places where the Reverend and I
go to enjoy our boats – the Harmonica, two Mouse
boats, a Piccup
Squared, and a Weekend Skiff. The website, and my
garage, are a crowded anchorage for my creativity. If you dig
deep enough into the site, there’s also a collection occasional
writings that I share with my congregation.
Dad would have been proud. Don’t
be a stranger.