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My Father Could Make a Boat Dance
By Jon Rieley-Goddard

  • My father could make a boat dance.
  • My father could make a boat dance and sing.
  • My father could make a boat.
  • My father.
  • 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 boat.


(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.

Be careful?

***

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, I live.

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.