Repairing a Pot Pie Skiff
It’s an old joke, but it still gets a laugh:
“What’s the difference between a boatyard and a bar?”
“In a bar, someone might actually do some work.”
It’s true anywhere, I suppose, but it’s a fact that boatyards do shelter a certain number of reprobates: scam artists, hustlers and hard-drinking, hard-living sorts who aren’t necessarily subscribers to the Protestant work ethic. Skilled but not always schooled, they drift through coastal towns like so much social flotsam and jetsam, rarely noticed or remarked by those who comb along life’s beaches.
On the waterfront, where skilled craftspeople and under-employed shrimpers, undocumented workers, refugees from corporate boardrooms and just plain boat junkies ebb and flow with the tides, there’s room for the hard-living and hard-drinking in the easy-going camaraderie that develops. When the idiosyncratic and quirky, the lazy, the obsessive, and the mysterious get thrown into the mix, the fun only increases.
A constant presence around the yards and docks, Varnish John was among the most mysterious of the workers. I never knew his full name. I knew only that he was about seventy; that he was from up the coast; and that he claimed to be the oldest varnisher in the area. Tall and slender, evidencing only the slightest traces of youthful dissipation, he favored jeans and faded cotton shirts since, as he put it, tees were too informal for “the office.”
He worked without gloves in the winter, walked barefooted on the docks in full summer, and the docks and the yards were the only places I ever saw him. He didn’t seem to frequent cafés or bars; I never found him sitting in a shed after work, drinking beer and telling tales with other workers.
His brightwork was as beautiful as any I’d seen, but he worked only for a few, select customers. During his occasional month-long absences, we always assumed he was in the islands, varnishing some elegant beauty of a boat in warm, Caribbean breezes.
Breaktime in the Boatyard ~ Laura Ragland
Even when he was around, John rarely had much to say. He’d nod or speak in passing, but idle chit-chat wasn’t his style. He seemed wrapped in silence: unsubstantial as a wraith. While not exactly intimidating, he didn’t seem especially approachable. He simply was: like the osprey and heron watching from the edges of our world.
One day, bending over a trawler’s rail with my brush in hand, I felt a sudden presence. Looking up, I was startled to see John standing a few feet away, watching me work. I assumed he’d have nothing to say, but he surprised me by commenting on the weather, and asking a question or two about my varnish and brush.
Unwilling to stop work, but not wanting to be impolite, I answered his questions while I worked my way down the rail. When I reached the end and straightened up, he said, “Good. You didn’t stop. Everyone wants to talk, so you have to learn to work and talk at the same time.” With that he turned, and walked off down the dock.
It was the first of many such encounters. John would materialize, watch, make his pronouncement, and leave. Sometimes he’d offer a technical tip so casually it hardly was noticeble: some people are using this solvent rather than that, a different caulk might not mildew so badly.
Both practical and cautious, he insisted a shower and shampoo were mandatory before final coats of varnish, even if you hadn’t been sanding. Over time, as he taught me to varnish on clean winds blowing from the water, to recognize the first tendrils of winter fog, and to guard freshly-applied varnish like a pit bull, the truth of our relationship slowly dawned. I had a mentor.
Eventually, John revealed his inviolable rule for varnishing: a rule I’ve come to cherish because it applies so well to every circumstance of life. Whether needing to varnish in uncoperative weather or facing the aftermath of a hurricane, his rule was the same: “Start where you can start, and do what you can do.”
For years, I used John’s Rule to help me cope with the vicissitudes of the varnishing life. Then. as tropical storm Allison blew through Houston — swamping neighborhoods, floating big rigs down freeways, and destroying neighborhoods with indiscriminate glee — I discovered the Rule’s value in more critical situations.
Like thousands of people, I returned to a house that appeared absolutely normal, apart from a barely visible water line four feet above the ground. Stepping through the door, it became obvious that “normal” was a thing of the past. It was as though a giant, malevolent hand had reached into the house, intent on destruction.
Water from a rising tributary of White Oak Bayou had swirled bedroom items into the living room, dining chairs into the bath, and canned goods into the office. Files, photos, magazines, and mail were soaked. Mud was everywhere, even in closed cabinets and drawers. Cleaning supplies, pots and pans, clothing, and tools were covered in mud. The soaked carpet squished, and only furniture that could be taken outdoors and hosed down was usable. The stench was overwhelming.
In the midst of the chaos, reclaiming the refrigerator that had been dumped, face-down, into the dining area, seemed an achievable goal. Gathering a few heavy-duty trashbags, a bucket, some rubber gloves and a mop, I gave a sigh and started. Two hours later, the mess was gone. The refrigerator had been righted, the spoiled food thrown out, and the floor washed down with water and bleach. Looking back, I recognize it as another example of John’s wisdom at work. You start where you can start, and you do what you can do. Then, you start again.
Once again, there’s flooding down in Texas; others are standing in the midst of their own muddy chaos and wondering, “What now?” Grief, anguish, and frustration are common and understandable. But there is no undoing what is. The waters have come and, as the waters recede, what will count is the response. As a friend said after Houston’s Memorial Day flood took her car and her home, “We’ll just have to start where we can start, and do what we can do.” Then she grinned, and added, “Wouldn’t John be proud of me?”
A first step: untangling boats after Hurricane Ike
Across the country, the story often is the same. After the terrible floods of 2010 in Nashville, a musician wrote a song for the city and offered it at no charge on his website. When oil from the Deepwater Horizon explosion began fouling the Gulf of Mexico coastline, Otis Goodson stirred some hay into a barrel of water and oil, and hope for remediation was born.
While larger organizations like Audubon help to coordinate and educate volunteers for tasks as varied as bird distribution counts and wetlands restoration after hurricanes, individual photographers record deeply personal responses of the people affected, as a way of fleshing out the story for the public at large.
Taken individually, each of these gestures might seem insignificant. Seen as a whole, they reveal something both touching and heroic about the human spirit. As William Faulkner expressed it in his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech:
I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.
As Varnish John might say, with less elegant language but equal sincerity: even when the task seems impossible, we’re willing to start where we can start, and do what we can do.