When they got married, Rose told Henry McGowan she wanted him to stop sailing. She didn’t like sailing and was afraid for him. Being in love, he did so at once. He had The Rose pulled from the water and dry-docked with her mast down and laying lengthwise under the tarp. He stored the sails in his garage. His wife’s namesake remained in place drying out for 15 years. Henry had bought her new when he was younger, when he had the freedom to sail her, before his business became the most successful appliance and home furnishings store in Milford. He remembered her fondly and steadfastly refused to part with her.
Mark Scully came to town to be our substitute Manual Training teacher. He was the emergency replacement for Niven Campbell who had been seriously injured in a collision with a telephone pole on his way home from the Lighthouse. Campbell had been a captain of the Miss Teddy, my father’s charter boat. He was on his way from a fishing party when he was injured.
Mark was young, athletic and an accomplished Woodshop teacher. Very easy going in class he often told us stories about things he had made, places he had been and things he had done. He had a lot of stories. He had a curious accent, sort of Southern Olde Englische, hard to place, definitely not local. When asked where he was from he said he had taught in Boston before coming here. He was also a sailor, he said, and we especially loved hearing those stories. It turned out that Steve McGowan, Henry’s son, was in our class. He told Mark about The Rose and asked if Mark would be interested in seeing her. Mark said sure and he and Steve went to the boatyard. Mark got an idea, but kept it to himself for a while. Then he put his thought to the class.
“If we could get a boat, would you be interested in getting together a Sea Scout troop? We could fix up a small boat as a class project and I could teach you how to sail her. ”
Most of us said sure, but there were limiting factors. In our town, half or more of the boys were farmer’s sons and that took all their time when they weren’t in school. There were also the slackards who didn’t do much work in class and were unlikely to do much of it afterward. There was the question of don’t you have to be a Boy Scout first before becoming a Sea Scout. I had been kicked out of Boy Scouts after a meeting or two for an “attitude problem”. None of us were currently scouts. There got to be quite a discussion about that. Wouldn’t we need uniforms and manuals and special equipment, and didn’t you have to attend regular meetings and all that stuff? All those things cost money which we didn’t have. Although some parents could come up with it that left others out. If we were going to fix up a damn boat why not just get on with that and skip the trimmings. We could buy one Manual and pass it around. We didn’t need uniforms to fix up a sailboat.
“Why don’t we just call ourselves Sea Scouts? Would that get us in any trouble?”
“We could be the Sailors and Bailers,” Mark said. He sounded like he knew what he was talking about. “Actually, a copy of the Sea Scout Manual would be helpful. There’s a lot of useful information in it. I could teach from it and we could pass it around.”
“Were you a Sea Scout?”
“No, my father taught me to sail.”
“On the ocean?”
“Yeah. And on the bay.” Nobody ever thought to ask him which bay. Or remembered . . .
“Well, we don’t have a boat to fix up, so great idea anyway.” Some were saying who the hell wants to go sailing anyway when you can go out fishing in a motorboat.
“That’s not what sailing’s about. It’s about getting out on the water. Being free. There are sailors and there are fishermen. They’re two different breeds.”
“I’m a fisherman,” I said. “but I’d like to help.
“Let me see what I can do about getting us a boat first”.
Steve McGowan took Mark to meet his father. The get-together went well. Henry McGowan agreed to donate The Rose to the Sailors and Bailers with the understanding that Steve would be a participant and taught to sail. Rose McGowan was neither consulted nor involved. Steve was to zip his lip at home, but this was no longer a fresh issue. Marriage can dull down both keen passions and anti-passions.We had a boat.
It was then late April already into the fishing season, with nearly two months of school left. The weather was generally comfortable with not too much wind or rain. There were about fifteen in our class, of which eight were unavailable or declined. On the first Saturday after we had a boat we went to see it.There were seven of us and Mark. Milford is small enough that you can walk across it at its widest in under an hour so we were all on foot or bicycles. Mark didn’t have a car. We had a warm day ahead of us.
This small community boatyard was owned by the town, but not formally run by anyone, although it was wise to share your intentions with a couple of men who frequented the place. It was behind the power plant on the Mispillion River about halfway between the Silver Lake dam and the Vineyard Shipyards. It was also behind one of our first two “supermarkets”, the Acme, on Front Street. We all called the river a crick because it wasn’t much more than a street wide here, although in the past I am told some large sailing vessels made it this far upriver, about seven miles from the bay. This was as far upstream as you could sail in any craft because of the bridge at the power plant. And the Shipyard, operated by the Vineyard family for over a hundred years, had built some large craft, including some PT boats during the war.
The Rose was sixteen feet long with a beam of maybe seven feet. Mark said she was a typical mono hull sloop with a centerboard, a light raisable keel. Being all wood, if she capsized she probably wouldn’t sink, he told us, although there is no way she could be righted by her own crew. She could, however, be bailed out enough to sail again if she hadn’t capsized. We were perhaps well named. She carried two sails: a mainsail and headsail, which Mr. McGowan said he would hold until we were ready for them. She also had a small cabin forward, deep enough to stretch out if you weren’t taller than six feet. The cabin was cozy, having a door that closed securely and five portholes, one in the front, one on each side, and one facing astern on each side of the door. Random vandalism was rare, if not nonexistent, in those days, so all the glass was intact. None of her brass fittings had been stolen. She had no anchor aboard; if Mr. MCGowan didn’t have it Mark said we could easily make one.
We pulled the tarp off and folded it. We balanced the mast on an adjacent pallet next and climbed all over her. Mark paired us up and handed out ice-picks and chalk. He told us to go over her, every board, with the ice picks to see if there was any rotten wood on her. If we found anything questionable or soft, mark it with chalk for him to look at. Boats generally look small until you’re poring over them from two or three feet away actually doing something to them. Then they grow vast. With Mark monitoring us closely, we did our job intently and thoroughly. Just this assessment of her took the day. Mark had been taking notes, sketching and sharing his opinions with us. Someone asked if we would be graded on this. Just kidding.
“Sure,: Mark said, “why not. It’s your shared class project.”
“Well, that’s almost as good as being paid, I guess,” someone said.
She was in generally good condition. The hull was excellent, with no rotten wood. The old caulking would have to be completely stripped from it; the planking had completely dried out and shrunk. The caulk was brittle from dehydration. Then it would have to be completely sanded and scraped before being re-caulked and painted two coats. The roof of the cabin had deteriorated; it was of boards with canvas stuck down with mastic then top coated with lacquer or spar varnish. That would all have to be stripped off and replaced, canvas and all.
The outside topside decking in two long slatted sections fitted around the centerboard well was good, as was the third floor in the cabin; below this was the bilge where water from leakage and rain would slosh around. This would also require a lot of hand sanding; we didn’t have power tools at our disposal. Same for the gunnels and topside wood work. Everything would need painting after sanding, two coats. There was a hand bilge pump that seemed to be in good shape, but its leather gasket would need replacing. We could make that ourselves, Mark said. And we could take the mast in to school and refinish it there as an in-class project.
He asked if we wanted to work Sundays, too, but we said we’d have to ask our parents. Most of us had chores at home, and school homework. I had another agenda for Sundays, wanting to be out fishing on the Miss Teddy, fishing and making a little money. Mark said it would be just as well to skip Sundays at least for the present. We would need some money he said; he would compile a list of the materials we would need to buy. Then he would try to get support for the project, raise money and donations. He would be busy at school the rest of the week so Sundays would be the best time for him to do that. He said it would be good if we would get our parents involved and generally talk up the project. Maybe our mothers could heat up their ovens so we could have some bake sales. I don’t recall that we had car washes back then; everybody washed their own cars or made their kids do it.
Mr. McGowan had driven the mast to the high school and we had started on that. He said he hadn’t found the anchor yet. The following Saturday six of us and Mark showed up at the boat. We had gained one member, Dickie Williams, a big bully, small in size, in-your-face intimidating. He was my nemesis, the strutting little prick. He would of course want to be boss, but Mark doled out the jobs fairly. First thing we tackled was pulling out all the old oakum caulking. This was loose fiber usually obtained by unraveling old rope and
impregnating it with tar or asphalt. All of it had to come out or it would interfere with our sanding. Come time to repack the open seams, Mark said we could make our own oakum, but that was a very messy job. He had made us some tools to pull out the caulk by heating and bending some old screwdrivers, so they would act like hooks or claws. We tried another approach, too. After lifting out the deck boards some of us pushed some of it out from the inside with putty knives. Both methods worked, especially in tandem. The guys on the bottom were catching a lot of dirt in the face so Mark rotated us. The call of the Wild West, Saturday matinees at the New Milford and the Shore theaters, grew too strong for two of our number around two p.m. and we were down to five including Mark. Anybody who’s never done this has absolutely no idea how large the underside of a boat really is, compared to the deck, for instance.
By dinnertime we were done and went home to die. Our mothers had packed our lunches. We were so dirty, and itchy from the fiber and our skins stung from the tar. It would be a challenge for our mothers to get these clothes clean again. The rest of the boys had never done anything like this before and were actually pretty proud of themselves. I had helped my father get the Miss Teddy ready for the water when he got her and had been through all this before, and more. I knew what was coming up next.
My father and one of the others had donated sandpaper and Mark had showed us how to make sanding blocks. Getting the paper into them was easy, but getting it out to change it was a bitch; it was shimmed in with cedar roofing shingles, cut off. Next Saturday six of us sanded the hull. This was the hardest and the dirtiest job. You’re working over your head, face actually, you’re looking up. First you scrape the largest, loosest flakes of old paint off and then you sand, then you scrape some more and sand some more. Mark let three of us work for fifteen minutes, then rest for fifteen minutes, more or less, in alternating crews. Mark, being one of the six, worked harder than any of the rest of us. He had more experience and strength; you could tell he had done a lot of this this before. The two guys we were short were, to be sure, in the movies eating popcorn and candy, sipping on Cokes. Did that bother us? Hell, yes. We talked it over and agreed that those who didn’t do their full, fair share of the work would not share evenly in the equity. We might give them boat rides occasionally if they begged hard enough; otherwise, no mercy.
Speaking of mercy, if either of them dropped by after the movies to pitch in, we might bend that rule a little, even relent. Our backs and necks were killing us, our arms were giving out and tears were flowing from our eyes from all the paint chips and sawdust falling down in them. There was no way we could finish this job in one day. We agreed to let the cinephiles know how much fun they had missed and that we had saved some of the child’s play for them.
Mark brought in probably more than enough oakum to do the boat the next Saturday morning. It came in a tight coil packed like rope. It was black, smelled like strong tar and was about the thickness of a thumb, though it could be drawn thinner out by twisting and pulling out. It was a donation from the Vineyard Shipyard. They also gave us enough anchor rope. Mark said he’d show us how to make our anchor, but not today. We got back to the work we had come to know and hate, sanding. In charge of quality control, Mark kept us at it all day, until he said we were finished. We dropped to our knees and admired our handiwork. This was May, 1949. This was lead paint. We knew not what we did.
The next Saturday, working in pairs, we caulked after Mark and I first did a demonstration. You had to be very careful as it had to be pressed or punched in evenly. Too little material and/or too much pressure and the caulk could work its way toward the inside. Too much material, too tight could damage the wood now, or cause buckling later when the water swelled the wood. The idea is that you caulked from the keel to the gunnel or boat’s edge in such a way that the boat will take in only a minimal amount of water when you launch her. You can’t depend on the paint to keep the water out. When the planking opened up from dryness some of the cracks between the boards had been wide enough to pass a wooden pencil through. And the cracking isn’t even; discretion and at least some experience or training is necessary. Once the boat is launched, over the first few days the boards swell and form a semi waterproof seal. Semi . . . A wooden boat will always take some water in through the side seams, sea splash and rain. That’s what the bilge pump is for, that and a bail, a scoop for taking water from the bottom, or bilge, and throwing it back into the sea. We used strength and tools like heavy putty knives that Mark had borrowed to press the oakum into the seams. In heavier boats and ships with thicker hulls caulking irons were used, driven by hammers. That wasn’t necessary with our little craft. All of this work now went into a desire to not drown later, or shiver until we were rescued. As I said there wasn’t much chance of this boat actually going under unless she was laden with pig iron or gold. Or clams actually, come to think of it.
Joey asked if he could get off early so he could catch a movie. Mark said sure, thank you for asking.
“Tell you all what,” Mark said,” when we finish the caulking we can all take in a matinee, my treat. How’s that?”
“I’ll stick, Joey said and the rest of us agreed.
The caulking was also a two day job for the six of us, so it was the Saturday after next that we went to the movies. Mark bought the popcorn and sodas, too. I don’t remember what was playing. What with The Rose every Saturday and going out fishing on the Miss Teddy I had gotten out of my matinee habit. Strangely, I realized I didn’t miss it that much.
Although I wasn’t in love with the work we had yet to do, I was getting satisfaction out of the work we had done. The mast was done; Mark had requisitioned sandpaper and spar varnish from the school to refinish it, justifying it as a legitimate Woodshop project. All told, it looked like we were going to need about four gallons of paint, just an estimate. The bottom, to just above the waterline, would need two coats of anti-fouling paint. This is usually a copper based paint on the expensive side. Underwater, boats tend to grow something like an algae beard, green slime that slows them down. In motorboats it makes them burn more gas to maintain the same speed. This paint keeps them sleek and clean longer, but all boats have to be pulled, scraped and repainted periodically, though not be put through as drastic a make-over as The Rose was getting. We were doing her to last, and proud of our work.
Again, Mark came through. There were two paint stores in town. He put the same request to both of them. “If the other store will come up with the same thing, will you match it?” Yes and yes, the answers were. He also came up with a gallon of brush cleaner and two gallons of turpentine. He told us to ask our parents if we could borrow their paint brushes, new and used. He said to tell then they’d be returned as clean as or cleaner than we got them. We were to clean them before and after we used them. Also we’d need rags and paper towels.
“And wear really bad old clothes, your raunchiest.” We weren’t sure we had any left.
The brushes we cadged weren’t the best, but we had enough to get started. The others we put to soak in cans with brush cleaner. Mark had to guess as to the waterline. Actually, average waterline is the more accurate description; this varies according to how much weight the boat carries. It was almost impossible to read from its ghost. He had brought a ruler, string line, a hammer and some small nails, and a carpenter’s pencil. He made an educated guess forward and duplicated it by measurement aft, then stretched a taut line between them. At the midpoint he drove another nail slightly in and pulled the string above that. At the midpoints on each side of that he drove in two more nails and pulled the string below those. He repeated this exact procedure on the other side. I had helped him with this. Now he drew, first on one side then on the other, hard, straight pencil lines as we watched.
A couple of us had been stubbornly trying to reclaim the brushes and making scant headway with most of them; they really needed to soak overnight or longer. What is it with people and paintbrushes? They’re expensive. Two of us had the top off a can of bottom paint and were trying to stir it into submission. It’s very thick, gummy on the bottom and keeps settling if you don’t stir it constantly, which we were doing.
Mark told us to keep quiet about what he was going to show us. He had borrowed some small trim brushes from the Art Department, he said, with Miss Darnell’s permission. He would take the responsibility to clean and return them when we were done, which would be in a couple of weeks. He stirred the paint awhile himself, then said, ”Just sit back and watch me for a while.”
He gingerly scooped out a small amount of the copper paint into a Dixie cup, then wiped it off with a paper towel. Then he meticulously began to paint from under to just up to the string line; he made an even swath about an inch across. It took him about fifteen minutes for each side. He was good, leaving no runs or drips. A perfect line as far as we could tell. “Now it’s your turn. Let’s see what we have in the brush department.” What we had would do. Once again we worked in teams of two with Mark and me overseeing from the sidelines and pitching in as needed. The paint went on smoothly enough, but had to be constantly stirred throughout. Both buckets were open, one to a side. The transformation was gratifying.
We were drawing attention from some of the townspeople, a few of whom drifted by to watch us work. There were some offers to help, which we declined. We did put out a plea for better paintbrushes, but that was a wait and see proposition. Some of the mothers had nagged their sons about why weren’t they involved; this was very educational. Daughters were peremptorily excluded although there were several whose company I would prefer to that of Dickie Williams. Actually we were begrudgedly getting along, the work itself demanding most of our attention and Mark safeguarding against trouble between us.
We agreed that we would accept no volunteers from outside our class, and no more from within it except by unanimous vote. There were a couple of votes, each drawing all nays. With our work we were developing a strong bond and proprietary investment; why should we allow our reward to be diluted? The more we worked on her, the more we owned her. One beauty of our stabilized number- five- was that we could all sail aboard The Rose at once. Less would be OK, but more would be too many
The first coat on her lower hull had taken somewhat more than half the paint, but this wasn’t alarming. We were painting raw, dry wood and it was soaking up more than the second coat would.
Having also scraped and sanded the centerboard, we first coated one side of it and laid it on a pallet. We would let this dry for a week, then deal with the topside. Meanwhile, we would clean ourselves up and work on the brushes. I said I would take them home and continue to work at them. A couple of men dropped by better brushes saying not to bother giving them back.
We had earlier removed the canvas from atop the cabin, but not all of the mastic. That might be something we could do now, but decided we didn’t want to spoil our paint job with falling dust and detritus. Some could stick to the wet paint. It was early afternoon yet.
“How about we sand the deck boards? “Joey asked.
“Or we can work inside the cabin.” This was Dickie.
The deck boards were assembled slats that ran parallel to the length of the boat, one to a side of the centerboard case. There was a third tapering one inside the cabin. These could be removed from the boat entirely and worked on at a safe distance. We voted to do that, but did not finish the sanding before quitting time, which is either that hour at which we are expected home for dinner, or when we are physically, mentally, emotionally incapable of any more work. Did I mention spiritually?
We had two more weeks of school. Mark asked if he could meet my father. “Do you think,” he asked, “that he might hire me on as captain of his boat for the summer?” My father’s arrangement with his skippers was based on shares, an equal division of net income. There was never a shortage of parties. This had worked well since he got the boat three years before. Niven Campbell’s injury had left a temporary vacancy, easily filled because it was on the weekends when my father was sometimes available and it was easy to get others. The problem was that most of the others worked full time and were unavailable during the week. The weekday slots were difficult to fill, which is why teachers were ideal for the summer. Coming up was a good time to approach my father.
“I’ll be happy to introduce you.” I told him my father already knew how highly I thought of him. They made an appointment to meet and Mark was hired. There were no formalities about Captain’s certification for small craft back in those days. I’m sure Mark could have passed easily enough, but my father didn’t ask for credentials. Things were very informal. This summer’s work which was to have been Campbell’s was now Mark’s. He was eager to work six days a week, seven if it weren’t for us and The Rose.
But there was a snag. My father had to work Saturdays. It would be best if my father could operate Miss Teddy on Sundays which would mean that Mark would be needed aboard on Saturdays. There were two practical ways to solve this. Either Mark could move our days on The Rose to Sundays or my father would have to get a third party to fill in on Saturdays. Mark explained the situation to us. Could we switch our days from Saturdays to Sundays? I had no problem with that, but the others said they’d have to ask their parents. Some kids have to go to church or dinner in the middle of the day. Mark was well liked by everyone who met him, and by reputation. He had a vote of confidence with the parents. They felt, among other things that what we were doing was educational, and it was. Mark was constantly teaching something or other. For instance, he asked us why the second coat on the bottom would be the last thing we painted, and he said he would show, rather than tell us the answer, when the time came.
One of the boys, Joey, went to Catholic Church and Steve had midday Sunday dinner with his family. Three of us were either clear or the path was paved by understanding parents. If Mark was stuck with us on Saturdays, it wasn’t to his best advantage, although he said he was willing. A compromise was in order. Leaving Steve and Joey behind wasn’t it. They talked to their parents. Turned out Joey could come after early Mass. Steve’s mother already knew he was working on the boat because she did his laundry. His father prevailed, saying that what the boy was getting out of this was worth more than coming to dinner on time. After all, he said, what’s an oven for? So everybody got what they wanted, or close to it.
The following Saturday was our last, then school was out until the fall. That day was spent doing the last of the sanding and putting new canvas on the cabin roof; Vineyard Shipyard had come through for us again. We were eager to get on with the painting, but one thing that what we were doing was teaching us was that patience and hard work was the only way to get things done right. There is an irrevocable sequence to the procedure; break that particular order and you pay for it later. We brushed and cleaned away the sawdust as best we could. Although there had, of course, been rain since we started, we hadn’t yet been rained out on a working day. Each day when we were done, we covered her with the tarp. We had managed to keep her dry.
I was out on Miss Teddy with Mark on his first Saturday as Captain. I had also been aboard with him on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. We’d been rained out one day; it was too rough. We took out parties from Wilmington, Philadelphia, Dover and Milford. We did very well, caught a lot of fish. My father was pleased. This partnership was working out well from its beginning.
Sunday we were back to work on The Rose. Joey was late, but nobody minded. Today we had enough clean brushes of the right kind. We started painting everything that hadn’t been done, from the top down, from the inside out. We didn’t paint the bilge, the inside below the water line. The risk with everybody painting at once was that of our painting each other. It took Mark’s attention to coordinate a sensible sequence. Joey was assigned the inside of the cabin; that he was small didn’t hurt. Bill Ryder first painted the cabin roof, then the sides. That he was tall didn’t hurt. Mark said the hell with spar varnish over the canvas; paint it the same color as everything else, a blue-gray marine paint. Steve painted the inside of the cockpit and the trim, but not the gunnels; they would have to be painted from outside the boat. Dickie was painting the deck boards off the boat
Mark had his trim brushes out again. He precisely outlined the THE ROSE letters in blue-gray on the transom. When the second coat was dry he would fill in the name in red paint. Then he painted blue-gray edge above the waterline where the bottom paint line. This was more difficult. The paint was runnier, gravity contrary. Then we all painted the gunnels, the transom, the rudder, the top of the centerboard and the freeboard, the space on the hull between the waterline and the gunnels. Obviously we couldn’t cover her with the tarp until the paint dried. Since it was oil paint, best leave her uncovered to dry out well before the final coat.And that was our tenth day.
The following Sunday we ran out of blue-gray paint after finishing the hull and the outside of the cabin. Mark sprinkled a little fine sand on the wet paint on the canvas, a non-skid surface for traction. He would do the same over the deck boards.
Then he called for a powwow. He had a list of things we needed to finish and those cost money. The paint, of course; we might have enough bottom paint to finish, too close to call. With the sails Henry McGowan would deliver would be all the rigging we would need, we hoped. He still hadn’t found the anchor, and we would need one. Forget making one; that would probably cost as much as a used one and it would take time. Forget substituting a not-anchor like a radiator section; that could prove to be unsafe or unwieldy. It could also scratch the hell out of the boat.
“You’re going to have to have life preservers, each of you, Mark said,”Think you could save up for that from your allowances?”
“I have to earn mine doing chores.”
“So do we all, “Mark said, “so do we all.”
“We could earn some, cutting grass and other odd jobs, not just for our parents.”
“How long do you think you can hide behind being a kid? I’ve seen what you can do. Now show the world.”
“Why do we need life vests?”
” They’re your personal flotation.”
“I can swim.”
“Do you all know how to swim?”
We all said we did. Growing up around a lot of water- Silver and Haven Lakes in town and the bay beaches, as well as Rehoboth Beach on the Atlantic- lent plenty of opportunity that was hard to turn avoid. The water was even clean then.
“You’d be surprised how many watermen don’t know how to swim.”
“And . . . ?”
“And how long do you think you could stay afloat, left alone swim, in cold water? Or even warm water? You’re not going out on this boat without one, not even to cross the river.”
“I want each of you to make that your personal responsibility.”
“It’s going to cost us to launch her. The Shipyard has a loader to pick her up and carry her to the ramp.” She was resting on a platform like a long pallet, propped just above it by posts evenly angled on both sides to keep her securely balanced in place. Mark had been especially watchful to see than nothing shifted as we worked. Though she might look small from a distance she was heavy enough to squash any of us like a bug if she tipped. “I’ll find out what the rental will be.” Vineyard’s was about four blocks away.
“I’ll check with the hardware stores to see if they know anybody’s got a used anchor for sale cheap.” Most everybody in these parts spends or has spent some time on the water, which means they either have or had a boat or knows somebody who has or had a boat. Most boats have or had anchors. That means there are a lot of anchors out there, probably more anchors than boats. Mark put the word out. As ye soweth, so might ye reap.
“So far nobody’s said anything about dockage fees here; maybe there won’t be any. But there will be lots of small things we’ll need. Nickels and dimes weigh up. You know the best description of a boat?”
“A hole in the water you pour money into.”
“Not yet.” How prophetic.
The following Sunday Mark showed up with a gallon of blue-gray. There’d been a few sprinkles, but Miss Teddy had gone out every day with Mark and I both aboard. My father bought him a cheap old car for transportation. He’d had a full week. He gave not even a hint, but I knew he had paid for the paint out of pocket. It was later that I discovered that this was more of a sacrifice than it seemed.
We finished the painting surprisingly quickly. It took a little more than two quarts. Mark explained that he couldn’t estimate it accurately and that three quarts cost about as much as a gallon, so why not get the gallon? We’d have some for touch up later; she was bound to get banged up a little during the launch and over the weeks ahead.
I had my own life preserver. The other boys made their progress reports. Mark said when they got close enough with the money he would see if he couldn’t get them a discount for buying four at once. He’d get it. He could probably have gotten them free, but he wanted them to be valued.
He had a price for the launching. It was more than we could afford, which was nothing at that time.
We talked to our mothers about having a bake sale and they were agreeable. They talked to their friends who were also agreeable. Even though Mark and I wouldn’t be there, the bake sale would be the following Saturday on the sidewalk in front of Nanny’s, between the bank and the post office on Walnut Street. The other boys were now freed up for their matinees.
My father was in no way loose with his money unless he was drinking, but he kicked in $35, he was that pleased with Mark both on Miss Teddy and because he had gotten so much work out of me. I suspected that my father secretly visited The Rose from time to time when I wasn’t there, to check on the progress. She was really looking good.
Mark said he had gotten credit for the loader and operator. Vineyard’s was going to lend us the equipment, but the operator had to charge, especially because the launch was scheduled for a Sunday. We were ready to launch- almost. Getting her overboard wasn’t going to be exactly wham, bam, thank-you-ma’am. The bottom paint had to be wet when the boat went into the water; this helped preserve its best anti-fouling properties. So, today we were going to work out our plan to paint her before the loader got there. It would be good not to keep him waiting. Best we do a dry run-through.
The bake sale went extremely well- almost a sellout. Not quite enough to pay the operator, but if our mothers could be coaxed, cajoled, begged into repeating it the following week we’d likely have enough and to spare.
The loader arrived before we got there, and we arrived early. We’d have to really hurry.
Mark and I repainted at the waterline on opposite sides. As soon as we were done, all of us painted the main area of the bottom. When the loader picked her up we followed after Mark to the upper end of the ramp. There the loader lowered her platform across three long rollers, like round railroad ties. The forward one was chocked so that it wouldn’t roll. Very carefully, Mark knocked out one prop at a time, replacing it after he had painted the spot where it had rested against the hull, blocking previous painting. He said he didn’t want me or anyone else near him while he did that.
That done, we placed more rollers across the ramp between the platform and the water’s edge. The loader sat there idling, waiting to be needed. If this was done right he wouldn’t be. Mark knocked out the chock from under the roller, then scurried behind the platform and nudged against it. He motioned for the others to join him. We did. It was at first so slow that seemed to be not happening. Then, movement, just a little. Then a little more. Then noticeable momentum. We kept pushing. Then it seemed to stall, but the slow process began again. This time it continued. The Rose picked up speed, if it could be called that, and kept rolling, unevenly, but faster. She plunged into the water pushing a surge of water ahead of her and kept going. There had been hardly a splash.
Both she and the platform were tied to ropes we held. The platform floated up free of her. The props bobbed up and we grabbed what we could. Joey jumped in and swam for the other two. Mark yelled at him, but was too elated to yell too harshly. Joey brought them in.
Dickie went over to the loader operator. He had a box in his hand. He held it up to the man and said, “This is for you.” It was a cake his mother had baked.
Mark gave him an envelope containing the proceeds from the bake sale. It was $27.35. He said he’d get the balance to him soon, but the man said he’d settle for that. Mark thanked him and they chatted briefly. The man drove off.
“That was our cake.”
“I felt like giving it to him.”
We tied The Rose up next to the wharf with lines running taut for the moment to posts fore and aft. Mark pulled up the far deck board to assess how much water we were taking in. It didn’t seem like much; it was slow, but steady, more like weeping than leaking. Like it was sweating. There didn’t seem to be any trickles or spurts.
“You did a good job, boys.”
“It’s not leaking?”
“It’s got to leak a little, but a little is all it’s leaking. But I can see where I’m spending the night.”
He got five volunteers real fast.
“No, that’s my job”
A good thing. My parents might let me stay aboard; I was a problem child. But, to be sure, none of the other parents would permit their kid to stay aboard overnight. Mark had brought bailing buckets and scoops. And some blankets. He would have to be out of there early next morning to pick me up for our ride to the Lighthouse.
“It’ll take a few days for her to swell up all the way. This’ll be the only night I’ll keep watch, then you can take turns bailing her daily.” Facing reality as being what it is, there were no strong protests. They boys worked out their schedule.
“I want you to keep an eye on her. I’ll check with you every afternoon. Now, let’s get the mast up.”
While we were doing that, Mr. McGowan delivered the sails. And the anchor. It had been under the sails. We stowed it all in the cabin.
“Now, you’ve got your mattress, Mark.”
While we rigged the mast, we had a variable audience of familiar and new faces all afternoon. Some of them gave us small contributions: quarters, dollars, even one five. And more iced tea and lemonade than we could keep up with. More than a few asked when we would give them a ride. This was a day of excitement, rewards and the glow of basking in friendly attention.
The following Saturday the second bake sale brought in $23.70. With the other contributions Sailors and Bailers now had $71.95 in its bank account.
The following Sunday we met for our maiden voyage, as we had to call it to be modestly accurate. It was neither a shakedown cruise nor a sea trial, because we were going toward, not on the sea. The boys wore their new life preservers. The leaking was healthily almost nonexistent. There was a little water sloshing around.
“Should we bail her out?”
“No, we want some water in the bilge to keep the planks swelled up.”
On a map the Mispillion River looks much like a squiggly horseshoe made out of spaghetti, with the loop at the top. If you put a tractor at each end pulling against each other it would straighten out to over fifteen miles. The Cedar Beach Road below it meanders too; it’s about six miles to the Lighthouse by car. We had one barrier ahead of us- Route 14, the Rehoboth Boulevard . There was a drawbridge there. We didn’t have a fog horn, but we could yell, and yell we did as we approached it. Mark was doing all the sailing; this was no time for a hands-on lesson. The Rose had a mainsail and a headsail. He dropped both as we waited for the bridge to open ponderously.
There were cheers from parked locals above as we sailed slowly through. An outboard motor was too extravagant to even be on our wish list. We did, however, have canoe paddles and a pole. Starting out, the wind was favored us, light and steady from the northwest. We had turned down several offers of a tow, and it was certain we would receive more should we have problems reaching our destination. Milford was watching out for us. It was hot. Being a weekend the river was traveled, but not really a busy thoroughfare. The motor boaters on the river were mostly headed sea ward. There weren’t many sailors in this neck of the marsh. Whenever another boat was in sight in either direction, Mark took the tiller and charge of the sails. Rules of the road call for all other boaters to give us the right of way. This meant wide avoidance and zero wake. Mark would gradually teach us more about what to do and how to do it as it was required. He explained what he did as he did it.
It was difficult to stay off the muddy banks after the creek twisted northward a mile or so past the bridge. We did a lot of poling and paddling as we inched our way up the next stretch of three or four miles, trying to stay off the east bank. The centerboard was out of the water as much as in it. It wasn’t stubbornness behind our independence as much as the same determinedness that compelled us to sand the bottom as smooth as a baby’s ass. We had a job to do and we were doing it. We would furl the sails, raise the keel, push off from the bank and paddle to the west shore. There we’d lower the centerboard, raise the sails and tack as far as the wind and the creek’s width would allow. Then we’d do it all over again.
Southern Delaware is flat. Its rivers don’t noticeably flow unless there is heavy rain. The drop in elevation from Milford to the Bay is only three feet so we had no real current to help up drift along our way. The lower reaches are tidal, so the current alternately flows in opposite directions. There are numerous small tributaries feeding into the Mispillion, plus runoff from fields and marshes. It’s estimated that there are nearly seventy miles of waterways plus several lakes and ponds in this watershed. We would see farmhouses in the distance and fields running toward, but not making it to the water. The banks were mostly marshy. The water is usually muddy, as is the bottom.
Oh well, we had all day to go fifteen miles as the eel swims.
As Mark realized how well we could all swim he would let us go over the side and become our own outboard motor, five of us kicking ten feet to propel the boat across the creek as Mark manned the tiller. I think we could have gotten her all the way to the Lighthouse this way if we had to. Happily, we didn’t, although it was good to get away from the mosquitoes from time to time. We finally reached a bend where the river turned generally eastward once more and up went the sails for the most part. From here on the route, although serpentine, allowed better progress. We’d make our destination well before dark. Mark was to call Henry when we docked at the Lighthouse and he’d drive down and pick us up in his truck.
As it turned out we arrived early and voted to go out on the Bay for a little while. There’s a double jetty there, like a very straight river with rock piles and wooden pilings on each side. It’s also called a breakwater or sea wall, its purpose being to protect docked boats from the direct effects of a stormy sea and to buffer boats against rough water going out and coming in. We sailed out onto the bay in a breeze, pun intended, and got a kick out of seeing Cedar Beach and Slaughter Beach from the water. Maybe we should have left well enough alone. Returning into the wind, however light, in such a narrow channel was a problem, with all the tacking we had to do. At this time the fishing fleet was streaming in and we were tying up the channel with our zigzagedness. We accepted the first tow that was offered because we’re courteous. And it was getting late.
After tying up at the dock, we had sodas and snacks while Mark called Henry and negotiated with the Dockmaster. Mark said we had been assigned a spot at the wharf up the side slough. It would cost five dollars a week and he would like to pay a month in advance. We agreed and he did so. He said a yearly lease would make it cheaper, but maybe that’s planning too far ahead. We should think it over.
Henry was delighted that all had gone so well, not just today, but in general. “You guys have really been on a roll.” He was afraid to say it had been going along a little too smoothly to be true . We’d been riding the crest of a fine wave of good luck.
“We’ve worked thirteen days without being rained out, “Mark said. “What are the odds?” We weren’t in a drought; we’d just dodged weekend rain.
“That’s what I’m saying,” Henry said.
“And the bake sales. That’s good money.”
“And your father’s donation,” Steve said.
”And yours. You can’t fix up a boat you don’t have.”
“We’ve got a bank account. Did you know that?” Everything the boys had earned over and above the cost of their life preservers, they deposited in that account. Not including their god given allowances, of course.
Henry said, “Well, will you look who’s here.” Doug Williams and Leonard Ryder came in. Dickie and Bill’s fathers. The adults shook hands all around, then with us.
“Congratulations to the Sailors and Bailers.”
“The whole town’s talking about you.”
“How do they know we made it?”
“Word gets around.”
“Nobody doubted you would after seeing what you did with that boat.”
“So what are your plans for the rest of the summer, Mark?”
“I’m going to teach these boys how to sail.”
“All at once or singly? How?”
“They should get jobs,” Mr. Williams said
“They’re free to. I have a job.”
“Yeah, that’s right. You’re captain of John’s boat.”
“This is only one day a week. We’ll vote on it. You have a say in this, too.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, Dickie told me he was going to do it whether I liked it or not. I didn’t at first, but his mother talked me into it.”
“How do you feel now?”
“I’m good with it.”
Just then my father walked into the room. Miss Teddy had docked after we came in. “Your captain’s quite a guy, John.”
“I think so.”
“Your son, too.”
“You made it, huh?” He had been drinking, but not so much that it was obvious. “It’s not the Mississippi, but congratulations.” I think my father was jealous of Mark.
“Try it in a sailboat.” Several voices said at once.
“No thanks. I’ll stick with a motor.”
The adults ordered beer. Then some ordered more beer.
“Don’t you think Milford, or at least the high school, should give Mark some kind of medal?”
I could tell that Joey wished his father were here, too.”
Actually, it wasn’t all peaches and cream, this subject. There were other factions. Some of the other boys in the Manual Training class felt excluded, and their parents were sensitive to that. After all this was a public school funded by their taxes. It didn’t go down well that Mark seemed to be practicing favoritism. Some thought that now that he had a boat the money of the town had helped finance, he should offer a class in sailing, boatmanship to any high school student. Even if the schedule for such a class should fall outside of school hours, even outside of the school year. It hadn’t come up as a voice yet, but there were murmurs. This was a small town.
We discussed plans. It was agreed that the boys would be free to learn to sail one day a week: Sunday. The rest of the week they belonged to their parents.
This banter went on until there wasn’t much more to say.
The weather turned on us, not completely, but there were a couple of days we couldn’t go out, or shouldn’t. On the down days we missed it. We would go down to the Light house in the rain and sit in the restaurant hoping for clearing weather.
Early one sunny Tuesday morning, following several days of rain and over cast, we didn’t have a charter. My father said that if Mark was willing, he could take the boys out for a day’s fishing on Miss Teddy. Mark was willing so I called around. All four could make arrangements to clear their day and got permission from their parents if they promised to bring home some fish. That is proverbially the kiss of death. Mark made the rounds to pick us up and off we went. Dickie and Joey had never been fishing on the Bay before. We had a glorious day, a ten, both weather-wise and fishing-wise.
We started sailing later on Sundays now to give Joey’s father time to drive him to the Lighthouse after Mass. Mark didn’t want to test the boys in rough weather so we laid low whenever the weather was chancy and never went too far offshore in any weather with us aboard. But we had our days. We were all picking up on basic sailing at a good rate. We almost never saw another sailboat on the Delaware side, but when the weather was clear they were often visible on the Jersey side, out of Cape May.
In maneuvering, especially in rough water, she would have sailed better if she had a fixed keel instead of a dagger board. There would have been more weight on the bottom and more lateral underwater surface. In the extremity of a sudden squall she could be sailed directly up onto a beach without being stranded with little, if any, damage done. Come next high tide she could be pushed back into the water even if we needed extra help. Other than serving as a keel the centerboard could be used as a recovery platform providing leverage to right her in the event that she overturned via a capsize or “turtle”. It would be helpful, Mark said if another boat were alongside so that someone else could lift on the mast while others were lifting while standing on the centerboard.
Often, after bringing Miss Teddy to dock he would take me out with him in the evening. If I had something to do and could get another ride and, he would go out alone. She didn’t have running lights yet so he always carried a flashlight or lantern.
By the end of the summer, Mark said, any one of would be competent to sail alone in good weather. It was then the middle of August.
One day as Miss Teddy was coming in the jetty, in the distance, I saw my father on the wharf with Niven Campbell. When we got it they were gone.
Over that summer, Mark and I got to be close friends, closer than me and my father, closer than me and any of the other boys. We had worked together every Saturday on The Rose for two months, and then seven days a week between her and Miss Teddy. I didn’t usually get along with people very well, so this was some kind of record for me.
He had a wife on Cape Hatteras. He had taken this job with plans made for her to join him when he became established, settled in. He loved it back home, but was looking for an easier life than could be found there. Being a waterman is more than hard; it’s brutalizing and impoverishing. Despite working so hard nearly everybody’s poor except for the tourists and those who cater to them. It might look like fun, but it’s not if you have to be out on the water six, even seven days a week, year round. It’s dangerous; the sea claims lives each year. There’s good reason it’s called the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
If you’re not on the water you are yet of the water. His father was a boat builder who taught him that trade. Determined to elevate his son in the world, he sent him to a vocational school inland where he learned cabinet making and carpentry. About then the war happened and he enlisted in the Navy. Because of his experience and knowledge of the Outer Banks, he was reassigned to a Coast Guard station out of Hatteras Inlet. He had been on many lifesaving missions especially during the U-boat barricade in 1942.
After the war he fell in love with a local girl and they married, equally determined to seek a better life elsewhere. They had put off having children until they both had secure jobs and could own a house. He told me not to misunderstand him; I was so young and hadn’t been out there in the world yet. He said I couldn’t imagine how dehumanizing life was down there, how harsh and unforgiving the weather could be: freezing in the winters, scorching in the summers, with hurricanes flooding the place and blowing everything away. Nearly everybody’s an alcoholic.
“That’s why it’s so perfect for me here. I’m a very lucky man. By fall I’ll have enough money together to bring Beth up to live with me.”
And yet you could tell how much he loved his home by the stories he told of it and the animation that came over him in the telling. His war adventures were thrilling. His fishing tales were magical; as I’ve said the water is for me a mystical environ.
I felt inadequate in his shadow, though not through any fault of his. I confided my crush on the girl across the street, told him about how difficult it was to get along with my father, how he was always expecting the impossible of me and putting me down, as if we were in some kind of weird competition. I told him about how some of the guys wondered if he, Mark, had any romantic interests going. There were a couple of good-looking teachers who couldn’t keep their eyes off of him, town girls as well. Nobody ever suggested that he was queer. We had a queer teacher at the high school, hiding in plain sight- our Guidance Counselor. I told Mark he made me very uncomfortable with his innuendos. In fact, he had outright propositioned me once. And there was no one I could talk to about it. I was glad I told Mark about it; I felt better. Mark said he would see what he could do about that come fall. That made me feel even better.
I also confessed that I wasn’t sure I cared that much about sailing, but I was willing to give it a try. Fishing was my passion. And crabbing and clamming and oystering. Just messing around on and in the water. I was a good swimmer, but I hated swimming. I needed something to focus on, an objective. Just moving around on the water all day was boring. Mark said I didn’t have to like sailing, just because he did. He knew how much I enjoyed being out on the Miss Teddy. And he knew how much I loved catching fish. Just give it a try, he said.
Both parts of the bad news hit Mark the same week. Niven Campbell was fully recovered and was returning to take over the Manual Training class in September when school began. He was under contract and had been granted a leave of absence due to his injuries and recuperation. Mark was a temporary replacement, in line for the job only if Campbell should not return. Mark had no voice in the matter.
Although Campbell was not under contract to my father, this was his third year with Miss Teddy. He had seniority and an age bond with my father. It went further than that: there was also a drinking bond. I didn’t learn until five years later that he claimed to have been drinking a fifth of scotch a day at that time. He had discovered that his wife was a lesbian. He was a Scotsman, a retired Chief Engineer on an Atlantic Refinery Company tanker, very proper and conventional and his mind could not accept his wife’s infidelity, far less the form it took.
My father told Mark he was going to have to let him go.
The lesson for me: heights are what you fall from.
Niven Campbell was also my friend. Though I was torn, it was natural for me to side with Mark, for all the good it did him. I argued with my father, outraged that Mark was being betrayed. Grossly so by both axes falling at the same time. My emotions were in conflict, challenged to the limit. It made me cry. It made me hate my father. And the stupid school. And Milford. And the world.
One evening after Miss Teddy was in Mark asked if I’d like to help him clear out his locker at the school. I said sure. I tried to tell him how sorry I was and how helpless. We hadn’t spoken about it during the day while our party was aboard. He said hush. He said it gently, but I could feel the anger in him. It wasn’t against a person or persons. It was the kind of anger you imagine in a person clenching an upward held fist and cursing god. He kept it in; he was a gentle man. A private man.
Everything he had there fit in a canvas valise.
“I’d like you to come to the boat with me.” The mood was somber on our way there.
Mark had taken to sleeping on Miss Teddy over the summer. It meant a round trip for him each morning and evening, but he was paying for his own gas so no one objected. When I got out I started toward Miss Teddy.
“Not there,” he said. “This way.”
He led me to the sailboat. She was no longer The Rose. That had been painted over. On the transom, neatly painted in gold block letters was, “BETH”. The rest of his personal belongings were aboard her.
“The money’s all in the bank account,” he said. “Their life preservers are in Miss Teddy’s cabin.” What was happening was dawning on me.
“You said you don’t much like sailing.”
“I don’t.” I started to cry. Mark let me and waited until I was done.
“What I’m doing is very wrong and I can’t defend it.”
“I’d call it some kind of justice.”
“No, it’s just wrong.”
“I don’t want you to go, but if you do, I want you to get away.”
“I’m going to try.”
“Do you want me to drive the car back?”
“Can you drive?”
“Since I was eleven.”
“No, I don’t want you involved.”
“I am involved.”
“I couldn’t leave without saying goodbye to you.”
“You’re at risk just being here.”
“I don’t care.”
“Everybody’s going to want your hide.”
“It’s the boys I feel bad about. Maybe, years from now you’ll tell them just how bad.”
“I won’t be here years from now. You might like Milford. I don’t.”
“You love it right here.”
“Yeah, but I have to go home. And to school.”
“And now I have to go home.” It was getting dark when he drove me back.
“Are you leaving in the morning?”
“Can you sail out after dark?”
“I could sail her out backward.”
“I bet you could.”
“Tell them whatever you think is right. I just need a head start.”
“Did you call your wife?”
“On a party line?” He chuckled. “No.”
Expecting to be woken up in the morning by the police, I couldn’t sleep. No one came next day. That evening my father asked me if I had seen Mark. “No, he didn’t come by.”
“He stood up a party today. I had to take off from work to take them out. And your boat is gone.”
“Yes. You know anything about it?”
“Well, you’d better call the other boys and get their parents to meet me at the Lighthouse.”
Everyone was very upset and I pretended to be.
“We’d better call the Coast Guard. Looks like that son of a bitch stole our sailboat.” That was Leonard Ryder, but Doug Williams was saying the same thing. Henry McGowan didn’t say much. Neither did my father, but he was fuming. Joey’s father wasn’t there.
All the boys were there, mumbling in a general state of disbelief. “There’s got to be a good explanation for this,” was their consensus. They weren’t believing that Mark was capable of what he was being accused of. I think they would have voted to let him have the boat if it came to that. The boys were hurt. It was their fathers who were angry.
They called the Coast Guard and were told they’d be there in the morning.My father and I met them. The other fathers were working, and we thought there would be less confusion if the other boys didn’t come. Niven Campbell had taken Miss Teddy out.
“How long has the boat been missing?”
“I saw it was gone yesterday morning,” my father said.
“And this Mark Scully. How about him?”
“The same, or longer. He could have left the afternoon before.”
“Did anyone see him leave?”
“No. I asked around.”
“Was he under motor or sail?”
“Sail only. He didn’t have an outboard.”
“Describe the boat.” I did and gave a brief history of her.
“Do you have any idea which way he’s headed?”
I didn’t know what was right, but I had to decide what I thought was right.
“Out of the Bay?”
“I don’t know.”
“If so, which direction? Up the coast, north? South?”
Just the my father spoke up. “He wasn’t from anywhere around here. He had a very strong accent. New England somewhere, maybe. Like Maine. We’ve been there on vacation.”
I added, “He taught Woodshop in Boston before coming here. He’s married. He might be going home. I think he said he was from Cape . . “I hesitated and shrugged with my hands. “Cod.”
I think the town would know if he were ever caught or the boat recovered. The incident was much discussed by, I would say, everyone in town and probably elsewhere. At first it was with pure anger, outrage, except for the boys whom I think will always look back on that summer with more a sense of pride and accomplishment than one of having been betrayed. They left that to the adults. They trusted that he didn’t act to hurt anyone. He acted because he was hurt. Fate had victimized him from success. He felt betrayed. This compounded into betrayal on betrayal on betrayal. Otherwise he would have had to leave the boat and the boys behind. The boys knew he cared for them. You can’t fake that kind of camaraderie.
The donors to Sailors and Bailers felt cheated and wanted his blood- and the boat back. They intended to press charges for theft when and if he was caught, which would likely amount to multiple charges of petty theft. The boys’ parents wanted recovery and punishment. If the punishment were to fit the crime, what exactly was the crime? They would kick him out of town, but he had already flown the coop. He had forfeited both references, the school’s and that for his community service to the town.
Who owned the boat actually? We did, us boys, the five of us- and Mark. A bunch of thirteen and fourteen year olds, minors. And various people, contributors. Stockholders? He had as much right to it as any other individual. Complicated. What would have happened to the boat if he had simply left without it? There hadn’t been time for him to make sailors out of any of us. There weren’t any other sailors around to teach us. Would Mr. Miller reclaim it for himself? For Steve? It certainly wasn’t the same boat he gave us. There was no registration, unless Henry had it.
It was highly unlikely that anyone would ever ask Mark to show registration, even if he tried to sell it. Not back then. He could just say he built the boat. He was versatile and the boat gave him mobility. He could easily fudge his resume to teach elsewhere, claiming interim work at a boatyard or cabinet shop. He could do almost anything to make a living. With this boat he could make a living on the water until he could work his way away from it again.
Things have a way of transforming into other things. It could have gone either way. Mark could have gone down as the most hated man in Milford history or worse- been forgotten. But gradually the communal anger simmered until the fire went out of it. People talked about it long afterward: farmers, shopkeepers, teachers, grocers, salesmen, librarians- ordinary people living ordinary lives, but their story trading took on a warmer momentum as the years passed. The story of Mark and us and The Rose never went out of circulation.
Mark became a legend and we were part of it. That’s how I remember him, along with four other old men.
®Copyright 2014 Jack Scott. All rights reserved.