When Old Rules Meet New Situations

It seems the receptionist stepped out for a moment

It’s an old joke, but in certain circles it still gets a laugh:

“What’s the difference between a boatyard and a bar?”
“In a bar, someone might be working.”

To a degree, the joke’s rooted in reality. Boatyards have their share of hard workers, but they also shelter a variety 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 flotsam and jetsam, rarely noticed or remarked by those who comb along life’s beaches.

On the waterfront, skilled craftspeople, under-employed shrimpers, undocumented workers, refugees from corporate boardrooms, and dedicated boat junkies ebb and flow with the tides. In the easy-going camaraderie that develops, there’s more than enough room for the idiosyncratic and quirky, the lazy, the listless, and the flatly mysterious drifters who show up from time to time.

By the time I began working in local yards, Varnish John had been around for years. Although not precisely a drifter, an aura of mystery surrounded him. He didn’t seem to frequent the local cafés or bars, and I never found him sitting in the sheds after work, drinking beer and swapping stories with other workers.

Despite his constant presence,  no one seemed to know his full name. When asked, he’d say only that he was from ‘up the coast.’ Tall and slender, showing only slight traces of youthful dissipation, he favored jeans and faded cotton shirts; he considered tee-shirts too informal for work at ‘the office.’

Despite his age — generally assumed to be around seventy or seventy-five — he seemed impervious to difficult weather conditions, working gloveless in winter and sometimes barefoot in summer.  Still, his brightwork was as beautiful as any I’d seen. He worked for only a few select customers, and during his occasional months-long absences, we always assumed he was in the islands, varnishing some elegant beauty of a boat in warm, Caribbean breezes.

Break time in the Boatyard

When in the yards, John rarely had much to say. He’d nod in passing, but avoided the easy banter typical of such places. In his own way unsubstantial as a wraith, he seemed wrapped in silence.  Always polite, he never invited approach. He simply ‘was’ — like the ospreys or herons 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 discovered John standing a few feet away, watching. I assumed he’d have nothing to say, until he surprised me by commenting on the weather and asking a few questions about my varnish and my brush.

Unwilling to stop working but not wanting to be thought impolite, I answered his questions as I moved down the rail. As I reached the rail’s 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.” Then he turned, and walked off down the dock.

It was the first of many such encounters. John would materialize, watch, offer a pronouncement, and leave. Sometimes he offered technical tips so casually they hardly were noticeable. Some people were using this solvent rather than that; a different caulk might not mildew so badly.

Both practical and cautious, he insisted a shower, clean clothes, and a new brush were mandatory before final coats of varnish. 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 with a vengeance, the truth of our relationship slowly dawned. I had a mentor.

One afternoon, in the course of a conversation about rebuilding businesses and communities after Hurricane Ike, John revealed one of his inviolable rules for life:After the big ‘un, you start where you can start, and do what you can do.”

At the time, his words seemed ordinary, and perhaps even trite. But over the years they’ve continued to resonate, particularly since they’ve applied so well to every circumstance of life: from the  realities of recovery from actual hurricanes to the wholly unexpected and utterly frustrating set of circumstances one of my vendors calls ‘the supply chain storm.’

Not every storm is as predictable as a hurricane, and I didn’t see the most recent one coming. Just after Memorial Day, when my car’s air conditioner began blowing warm air, I assumed a service call had to be added to my to-to list. Then, the AC began working again: until it didn’t. In fifteen minutes, it went from cold to warm and back again several times. When the ‘check engine’ light came on, I did the only reasonable thing and drove directly to my dealership. While I sighed over the need to leave my car while they ran their diagnostics, I accepted the offer of a complimentary Uber ride home, and prepared to wait it out.

The next day, the storm made landfall in the form of a casual phone call from my service representative. “It’s not the AC,” she said. “It’s the coolant bypass pipe. It has to be replaced.” “Great,” I said. “When will the car be ready?” After an extended pause, she said, “We don’t have the part in stock. We’ll have to order it, and it’s on backorder.” Suddenly nervous, I asked the obvious question. “How long is this going to take?” “Oh,” she said, “it should be here in three weeks.”

Yes, it’s a real sign. Danbury, Texas understands life.

As I outlined the list of difficulties presented by three weeks without a car, the service rep was sympathetic, but the options were limited. No loaner car was available, and the daily cost of a rental was exorbitant. I was going to be on my own.

When a friend working in the same marina offered to pick me up each morning and bring me home from work, that solved my most serious problem, and other friends took me to the grocery store. Still, I hadn’t been that grounded since I was in high school, and I wasn’t pleased.

When I called the dealership for updates, I learned that a shutdown of Toyota plants in Japan might be involved. Then again, the part might have been shipped; it might still be lingering in a container off a west coast port. When I pressed, a new date sort-of-certain was offered for completion of my repairs: June 25th, or perhaps the end of the month.

That’s when I remembered Varnish John, and his admonition to “Start where you can start, and do what you can do.” I started by getting the number of the required part — 162680T090 – Pipe Water By Pass — then did what I should have done much earlier. I went online, and began searching.

The next morning, I talked with a very helpful man at a Toyota parts dealership in Olathe, Kansas. They didn’t have the part in stock, but could get it. If I wanted to expedite things, the part could be sent air freight, and I could have it the next day. Of course I agreed. Never mind work; expeditions to places like Walden West demanded expeditious shipment.

For once, everything went smoothly. The Olathe dealership received the part in only hours, then forwarded it via FedEx Air Freight. When it arrived at my house the next morning, a friend took me to the dealership, where I handed 162680T090 to the Parts Manager. The service tech retrieved my car from the dealership’s back forty, and by that evening Princess and I were on our way home.

I still smile when I remember walking into the parts department with the water bypass pipe clutched in my hand, and the amazement expressed by the parts manager “How did you do it?” she asked. “We couldn’t find that part anywhere, and yet here you are. How’d you manage it?”

“Easy,” I said. “I started where I could start, and did what I could do.”


Comments always are welcome.

138 thoughts on “When Old Rules Meet New Situations

  1. A fun story Linda, with a good ending, and of course, a moral. All too often, we take the experts at their word without a question— whether it is a doctor working on our body or a mechanic working on our car.
    I smiled when you mentioned ‘I never found him sitting in the sheds after work, drinking beer and swapping stories with other workers.’ Now I know where you spend you time. Grin.

    1. And there are more than a few self-appointed experts in the world who depend on our deference to maintain their positions. Beyond that, a little creative problem solving can ease even the most difficult situations. Too often, we insist on pounding that square peg into that round hole, when ten minutes with a chisel and some sandpaper would do the trick.

      It’s going to be October before anyone sits around after work: at least, in the sheds. Now, everyone scatters to the air conditioning — or they’re coming back to work at 6 o’clock to work until dark, taking advantage of the relatively cooler conditions.

  2. Oh what a marvelous story and life-affirming quotation. A testament to your can-do philosophy of life, to an enterprising Olathe employee, to persistence and drive. Amazing. I will remember this one for a long time.

    1. There’s one other detail that didn’t belong in the story, but that you’ll enjoy. As you know, my roots are in the midwest, so I’m inclined to favor midwesterners when making choices about such things as which online business to contact. When I told this story to one of my cousins, he laughed heartily. It turns out the Olathe parts dealership is five minutes from his house, and has an extraordinarily good reputation. It is a smaller world than we sometimes realize.

    1. You’re welcome. One of my favorite bloggers, now gone, used to say, “Everything is storyable.” It’s a riff on lines that Joan Didion wrote, but it’s still true.

  3. Great story, Linda. It also points out how little those in service capabilities do to help resolve customer issues. I just terminated my TV service provider because no one had the ability to re-apply one of those goofy 12-month promotions. I am now with YouTube paying 1/3 of what I was.

    1. I have no criticism at all of the parts manager; she was at the mercy of supply chain issues, too, and couldn’t tell me anything until those higher up the ladder gave her some information.

      As for the fellow in Olathe, dealing with him and his company was pure delight. He was polite, pleasant, and knowledgeable, and a terrific communicator. From the time I placed the order until it arrived, I had no fewer than four emails updating me on the process, and a follow up call once the part had arrived — to be sure I was satisfied. It was proof that use of technology doesn’t have to be a chore, or lead to anguish and frustration.

    1. Let’s use ‘internet search’ rather than Google search. Google has become increasingly less useful, and to a degree more biased. It irritates me when I have to go to the second or third page of results before I’m past the ads and irrelevancies. That said, your larger point’s valid, and learning how to search is important. It certainly worked in this instance!

        1. The results can differ considerably. DuckDuckGo sometimes offers fewer results when I’m searching for uncommon subjects, but it’s still a good option, and I often compare results from both.

    1. Whether he knew he was a mentor always has been an open question, but that’s exactly what he was. Between his advice and that offered up by my first sailing instructor (“Never say ‘I can’t.’ Ask, ‘How can I?'”) I’ve coped fairly well with the vicissitudes of life.

    1. Be that as it may, it’s been there for some years now, and I have several photos of it. It’s as amusing as the signs in Lake Jackson for “This Way” and “That Way.” I cross both of those on my way to San Bernard. The story I’ve heard is that, since Lake Jackson was a planned community, all the streets had to be named at once, and when creativity failed the planners, This Way and That Way came to be.

      1. I’d searched on a map app because I wanted to see if other streets in the neighborhood have similarly unusual names. The next time you’re in Danbury, maybe you can see if the streets named on the signpost have different, i.e. “normal,” names on other blocks.

        1. I could do that, easily, since this sign is close to a bakery with really good kolaches, and I can’t help stopping every time I go through there. The bakery’s name? Two Czech Chicks.

  4. Enjoyed your post so much – with your usual rich descriptions and giving us setting and social details so well

    Cheers to this awesome quote
    After the big ‘un, you start where you can start, and do what you can do.

    That applies to more than physics storms


    1. John’s words certainly are relevant to far more than storms. In fact, they’ve even crossed my mind when I’ve neglected housecleaning chores a little longer than I should have, or let the paperwork pile up. I’m not sure there’s any life situation where they couldn’t apply, and I’m glad I’ve had them to depend on.

  5. The best advice is always straightforward and uncomplicated. Glad the Princess is back in business. Being wheel-less is a bummer.

    1. I was so glad to get Princess back I took her to the car wash the very next morning, and paid a few extra bucks for some detailing. The poor thing was looking a little sad after three weeks on a car lot.
      But she’s running better than ever, thanks to that new part. The irony is that when the engine was replaced two years ago, the wrong part was installed, and that’s what failed. Now that she has the right part, all is well. Even my gas mileage has improved a bit.

    1. The quiet ones often get pushed to the back of the crowd, or linger there by preference. That doesn’t mean they don’t have something to contribute. Sometimes, their silence means they’re thinking, and thinking before speaking has a lot to commend it.

  6. I really LOVED reading this story Linda and also.. that’s a wonderful signpost! I’ve shared a link on twitter and was delighted the signpost image formed the lead pic for the tweet. Thanks for such a great Sunday (for me) read.

    1. I almost didn’t add that sign you like, but I’ve been looking for a place to use it for quite a while, and it seemed to fit here. The pair of sayings isn’t as popular as it used to be, but someone had a great sense of humor when they made those signs. Like John’s advice, they suit a variety of life situations.

  7. Varnish John was clearly a born mentor. No Death by PowerPoint for him. And using a little initiative can go a long way. So many lessons to take away here. Beautifully told tale.

    1. And to extend your entirely apropos comment about Death by PowerPoint just a bit, no zoom meeting or online class ever will match face-to-face interaction between a student and a teacher. We did our children no favors when we isolated them during the recent unpleasantness.

      As for taking initiative, it doesn’t always guarantee success, but nothing in life is guaranteed. In this instance, things worked out far better than I could have imagined.

  8. Great story, Linda.
    Your photo looks just like my dear old Dad – check shirt and jeans, cap forever on his head.

    1. What a great memory. Some things resonate across time and cultures, and those caps, plaid shirts, and jeans are part of my memories of my dad, too. Here, the caps often are referred to as ‘gimme caps — as in, “Gimme one a’ them caps.” They’re given out as free advertising, with logos or names on them. One of my dad’s favorites bore the John Deere logo.

    1. How kind of you! Given the subject of this piece, I had to smile at the similarities between getting both varnish and words to flow smoothly. I couldn’t help thinking of the saying often attributed to Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Easy reading means damned hard writing.” The saying itself has quite a history, which the esteemed Quote Investigator explored here.

  9. Thanks for sharing this story. And, I hope your AC is now working! My husband is still tinkering with trying to fix the AC on my Civic. It’s going to the shop next week if he can’t figure it out! Stay cool if you can!

    1. The good news was that nothing at all was wrong with the AC. It only was shutting down to preserve the engine after the little pipe failed. It’s amazing how valuable a $40 part can be, that’s for sure. It’s far too complicated a story to repeat here, but a primary reason the pipe failed is that it was the wrong part. Now that I have the right part installed, I’m good to go. I hope you soon are, too. It’s too hot to be without AC in the car. When I moved to Houston in 1980, I was driving a Toyota that had no AC, and it wasn’t pleasant.

      1. Oh dang! Yes, you did say that in your blog about the part! I guess I’m just fixated on my AC. Being out! LOL That truly is amazing and great that you were able to get it replaced! Like we’ve talked about before, it just seems like Toyotas and Hondas just keep on going! That’s why I’m ok in investing the money to get the AC fixed in my 2009 Civic. I think it will be a good investment. Hopefully, it isn’t a big deal. Did you get a little relief from some rain these past few days? We’ve had a little rain and cloud cover so it’s kept temps down to 92-95….a little chilly out! Ha!

    1. That made me laugh. The parts manager did mention that they should put me on staff, but there’s a certain irony in that suggestion. My dealership is part of the consortium known as Gulf States Toyota: one of the world’s largest independent distributors of Toyota vehicles and parts. It’s made up of more than 150 Toyota dealerships in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas. You’ll notice that Kansas isn’t included.

      When my dealership searched for my part, they could do so only within the confines of Gulf States Toyota, while I could search anywhere in the country. Sometimes, freelancing is the way to go — as you so well know!

    1. All of the photos are here — there are only the three. I suspect you might have clicked onto another post mentioning Varnish John. To save money, I gave up my old posting site and am in the process of moving all those photos to WordPress. It’s a huge project, and one that is going to take a few days, but clearly I need to dedicate myself to it, lest others have that same experience of finding blank, white squares.

  10. A terrific story with a reminder to us to pay attention when people talk to us. You could teach Aesop a thing or two.

    1. GP, I grew up with Aesop’s fables, and loved them, so that’s quite a compliment. When I grew older, I came across a bit of more direct advice from Emily Dickinson; I always smile when I remember her poetic admonition to “tell all the truth, but tell it slant — success in circuit lies.” She was absolutely right.

    1. How good it is to see you; I’m glad you made your presence known! And thanks for the comment. It is a lovely story, just as it was a lovely experience to have John as part of my life for a time.

      It’s interesting to me that of the teachers and mentors who have shaped my life, one was a junior high teacher, one was a graduate school professor, but the rest I met in non-academic environments. Now and then, memories of people like John bring to mind a wonderful quote from a Flannery O’Connor story: “She had observed that the more education they got, the less they could do. Their father had gone to a one-room schoolhouse through the eighth grade and he could do anything.”

      1. I know how to load a muzzle loader… friend didn’t believe me. I described. He says, how do you know that? I say “Little House Books”. He says have you loaded one? Me: “Nope.”

        1. Ah, the Little House books! Those evoke memories of fourth grade, when Mrs. DeCamp read to us from those books between 1:30 and 2:00 in the afternoon — every day.

      2. Course, a friend with a PhD in Economics is also an expert bicycle repairman and woodworker. People can do amazing things.

        1. I left medical social work, academia, and ministry to teach myself the trade of varnishing boats. One of my best friends moved from the aerospace industry to diesel mechanics, and I once met a Renaissance literature guy who showed up as a yacht club maintenance worker. You just never know!

          1. I had a friend here who was an organ whisperer. Churches would hire him to find the loose board or item in the church that made the organ buzz.

  11. I had a friend who went to Alaska in hope of a job on the fishing boats. Needless to say, he had a lot of competition. Being a quiet guy, he hung out around the bars, cafes and docks without saying much or being a pest. After a few weeks, a captain approached him with a job offer.

    “You know why I want you?”

    My friend shook his head no.

    “Cause you don’t say much. On the boats, guys get talked out and some want to chat rather than work. It gets on everyone’s nerves.”

    I lost track off him years ago, I suppose that happens when you don’t hear from people.

    1. I understand that captain. I’ve worked around a few of the chatty sort, and it can become wearisome. On the other hand, I’m sure the captain also realized that a quiet, observant guy might be quicker to pick up the tricks of the fishing trade.

      Your story did remind me of Woody Allen’s suggestion that 80% of life (or success) is showing up. When I looked at the Quote Investigator site to get the actual phrasing, I found this gem that’s even more applicable tucked in as a footnote: “(Great thanks to Jay, who told [Quote Investigator] about a cartoon in the Wall Street Journal of June 6, 2013 with the caption ‘Actually, I’ve found 90 per cent of success isn’t showing up, it’s shutting up.’) I’d say your friend’s experience supports that.

  12. This is one of my favorite stories, Linda. Pearls of wisdom come often in life if we’re paying attention, and I’m always grateful to draw on those later on, respectfully remembering the giver. How wonderful that you had the opportunity to know a little of Varnish John.

    1. I never think of the complexities involved in dealing with Hurricanes Rita and Ike without thinking of him. In those days, evacuations were even more complex than one would be today, since I had my mother and my cat in tow! Getting that crew organized and moving was far harder than getting a decent coat of vanish on in pollen or love bug season, but John’s advice worked just as well. I’ll confess I never thought it would help me find a car part, but there we are. Good advice is infinitely applicable.

  13. I got a taste of the validity of Varnish John’s maxim on the Alaska road trip we’re on (five weeks and currently finishing with visits in Colorado and Oregon).
    We tented nightly and rode with a couple who pulled a smallish travel trailer. Terry has been keeping the double-axle camper in good condition. Traveling with that duo, I’ve learned plenty.
    Turns out he’s a practitioner of the maxim. I now know more about springs than I thought I would.
    After 20 odd years of suspending the camper and on one of Alaska’s rough gravel highways, one of the four snapped, with a ruined tire in the process.
    With the help of a local (that descriptor is used very loosely) mechanic (who wasn’t on a bender per parentheses by locals at a town shop) Terry found a parts store chock full of trailer parts and found a replacement.
    One day later and after four hours of wrestling with a basic tool kit and 20-plus-year-old bolts, Terry replaced the spring and installed the spare.
    Another of the four springs snapped, though, discovered in an Anchorage RV court.
    Terry, using his web search skills, found a parts store and trailer service center in Anchorage. Advised to replace the remaining springs to match, it was off to buy jack stands and a couple of ratchet wrenches.
    With the help of an irritated camper (It’s tough to not make noise when banging away at a frozen nut.) three new springs completed the job.
    We traded a couple of opportunities to learn more about Alaska to learn about undercarriage repair, but the result was an affirmation of Varnish John’s wisdom.
    Thanks for posting that marvelous story.

    1. Your story was just as entertaining. And, yes: replacing all four of those springs was the right move. To be honest, I’d say you learned a few important things about Alaska in the process: if not the history, at least the realities of life there.

      I often think of the parallels between land cruising and cruising with a boat. Whether taking off for the islands or the wilds of Alaska, knowledge, competence, and spare parts are critical. The biggest difference may be that in the middle of the ocean there aren’t a lot of parts stores around. One of my most vivid sailing memories involves waking up at 3 a.m. and hearing a drip-drip-drip that shouldn’t have been, since the boat had a supposedly dripless shaft seal. Nothing focuses the attention like hearing that sound in the middle of the Pacific, halfway between Hawaii and Alaska. But things worked out, just as they did for Terry — and on we go!

  14. Great story about “Varnish John”, Linda. I am glad that your car problems could be solved. It really is a problem just now to get spare parts etc. with the chain of supplies being broken very often.
    Off topic here, but something to share among sailors: two German sailors, husband and wife, whose blog I am/was following have been killed in the storms of “Alex”, the first tropical storm of the year.

    1. I’ve had supply chain issues at work, too. Finding varnish has been a particular problem, and in that situation, too, internet searches and ordering from chandleries in other parts of the country have been the solution.

      I remember seeing Annemarie’s name on your blog. It’s always distressing when such a thing happens. I read several of the accounts, and also noted that they were sailing a CNB66. That’s a lot of boat for a couple; did they have other crew on board? I read that an American couple were rescued, but I wasn’t sure if they were sailors or merely guests on board the boat.

      One commenter on their blog said “it appears the couple was trying to reef the main in less than ideal conditions after the furl in boom system malfunctioned.” Some of these fancy new boats have quite sophisticated hydraulic and electrical systems for sail management, but they’re not without issues. It will be interesting to read Alex’s report with the details in the future. For now, speculation isn’t appropriate.

      1. In my “old sailing days” I always favoured the “old fashioned way” of exchanging foresails and reefing the main by hand. I never trusted electric reefing. If I remember correctly, Annemarie and Volker had experienced malfunctions with their electric reefing before.
        Their boat really is “a lot of boat for two people”, as you say. I agree. It’s very comfortable with that much space inside. but is quite a handful to sail for two people, too much of a handful, if you ask me.
        I’m not sure if the other two people on board were (experienced) sailors at all. I’d have to read more in Annemarie’s blog for that.
        I’m eagerly awaiting Alex’s report on that. Btw, as the yacht was registered in Germany and had a German skipper, there will be an official inquest in Germany.
        Whatever it is, though, and whatever caused it, it always is tragic.

        1. Looking at the specs and photos of their boat in a Yachting World article, I paused at this comment: “CNB says this is the largest yacht that can be handled by its owners. That may be the case, but only provided the owner/skipper has some experience in handling big yachts and their associated loads.
          You would need to have a few reliable sailing friends if not using a paid crew. The test boat has a clever in-boom furling system, but still requires at least a couple of able sailors to work it.”

          Although the sixty-five footer we sailed from Hawaii to Alaska was roughly the same size, it was a much heavier boat, and we had a crew of ten. We still made the 2400 mile trip in ten days, averaging the same speed as the CNB66 on its test sail: proof that titanium and carbon fiber aren’t always necessary. So many questions. Personally, I never was eager to sail on a vessel I couldn’t have single-handed. My upper limit was 36′-38′, which was just fine for coastal cruising.

  15. Life may have originally crawled out of the ocean, but generations later, some of the “richest” still linger close to the source. You are right about how many interesting people – and those with rich stories – stay around water. Great story – one that shows how in tune you are with the area, environment, and humans.
    Aesop lives!

    1. Of course, it’s also true that anyone who chooses to live on or near the water inevitably ends up with some stories, just as farmers and ranchers have tales to tell in the evening. It’s the forced interaction with nature that makes a difference. As much as I appreciate the Space City Weather site, I’ve come to think about it as ‘office worker weather’ — temperature and precipitation reports for people whose primary connection to the weather involves getting from their air conditioned office to their air conditioned car, or driving home in the rain. Those of us who need dewpoints, or wind speed and direction, have to go elsewhere for our information.

      Anyway: we do live in an interesting place, among interesting people who are worth celebrating, even if they don’t show up on the evening news.

    1. You’re exactly right that everyone has a story. Some of those stories never are told, and some never are known, but that’s as much a function of our lack of curiosity as anything else. It’s also true that the internet is a terrific tool. I have my own issues with certain aspects on online life, but being able to search out car parts from the comfort of my desk has a lot to commend it.

    1. And not just disasters, Peter. I have a huge project in front of me — transferring all of my blog photos from an external server to WordPress — and I’d been dallying, a little overcome by the size of the project. Finally, I applied John’s wisdom, found the easiest way to do it, and got started. Yesterday, I completed the task for a hundred blog entries; now, with five hundred or so entries to go, I’ll just do what I can do each day. Even on such a mundane level, his wisdom holds. I’ll bet you applied the same wisdom a time or two during Biene’s recovery!

  16. I’ve often wondered what would happen if I wasn’t able to drive to work (for a variety of reasons – gas shortage, car failure, my actual inability to drive) – the whole idea was scary! I just don’t live near enough work to be able to get there without a vehicle (it’s 13 miles away). I’m quite proud of your resourcefulness!

    1. During the period that I was without Princess, I mostly was frustrated. But, when I considered that we’re moving into hurricane season, the thought of being forced to live through a tropical system without being able to evacuate bothered me most. Of course, I’ve been through plenty of storms, and I’d probably stay put up to a Cat 2 anyway. Still.

      I laughed at your reference to your inability to drive. I don’t worry one bit about that, but I’ll confess that I recently thought of you when I pulled into a parking space and discovered I was at about a 45 degree angle. As I backed out to repark, of course I remembered some of your classic parking photos!

  17. Varnish John knew the value of a few well-chosen words – something extremely valuable in a mentor. And thank heavens for the internet, how resourceful (and serendipitous) of you to find just the right supplier.

    1. ‘Few’ and ‘well-chosen’ seem somewhat old-fashioned today, but those qualities are even more important in a society that can’t seem to stop talking. Of course, John had a couple of other qualities that made his words resonate in a special way. He listened to other people, and he watched what was happening around him. It helped to make him worth listening to.

      Eventually, the part that had been ordered through the dealership arrived. The parts manager asked if she should return it, and deduct the cost from my invoice. All things considered, I decided to go with redundancy; I kept it and put it into my little parts stash. I don’t anticipate problems with the one they just installed, but I’ll be ready if they occur.

      1. It makes sense that Varnish John would pay attention to varnishgal, and pass along his thoughts. Keeping that extra part makes sense. Wish mine were as well organized – in one place.

  18. I love this story! It showed that there are still some smart people around who are willing to share their wisdom, and it also showed what can be accomplished when we take matters into our own hands. Good for you!

    1. There are a lot of people who are smart, and just as many who are kind, and even some who are willing to help others reach their goals. John was smart, helpful, and kind, and he taught me as much about how to teach people a new skill as he did about varnishing. I know I was a better sailing instructor because of what I learned from him, and I certainly became a better problem-solver.

  19. I’m so impressed with your writing style. This reads like a novel, a story with a sweet lesson at the end that makes a person smile.

    1. I’ve often said that when I grow up I want to be John McPhee. There’s no chance of that, but this had just enough of the McPhee style to make me very happy, and I’m glad you enjoyed it, too. When questioned about his ‘style,’ McPhee liked to say, “I write about real people in real places. End of story.” That’s what I managed here, at least to a degree.

      I know you enjoy reading about writing. If you haven’t come across McPhee’s book titled Draft No. 4, you need it. It’s a collection of eight or so essays about writing, some of which were previously published in The New Yorker. Together with Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life and Joan Didion’s White Album, I’ve got all I need in terms of writing guidance.

    1. I’m glad, June. There were a lot of great memories surfacing while I wrote it, as well as the great sense of relief that came with that happy ending.

    1. There’s nothing like a good story. We may not be like L’il Urchin and her sort, pleading, “Tell me a story!” but when a good one comes along, there’s something about it that’s just satisfying, even for big people.

  20. This is a great story on so many levels. Wise man, that Varnish John. Oh, and by the way, I’m not surprised you found a helpful person in Olathe, KS. We used to live there and it was a great, friendly place back then, so I’m hopeful it still is.

    1. It may amuse you to know that the Toyota parts dealership in Olathe is about five minutes from one of my cousin’s homes. I didn’t know that until after I’d dealt with the company, and my part had arrived. I can affirm that the area’s just as friendly as ever. I still have family members in the area: Blue Springs, Independence, and so on. My mother lived in Blue Springs for several years before she came to Texas to be with me, and I always enjoyed going there for a visit — and a couple of pork tenderloin sandwiches!

  21. LOLOLOLOL…. I sure wish I could have been a fly on the wall, when you walked in and plunked that part on the counter!

    1. It was wonderful. I took it to the dealership still in its packaging and shipping container, and let the parts manager open it — so if there was any damage it couldn’t be attributed to me. We all had a good laugh about it, and I’ll confess it: I felt just a little smug, and with the right part finally installed, Princess feels a whole lot better, too.

  22. You learned well, grasshopper. Varnish John obviously recognized something in Varnishgal that merited his mentorship. Maybe it was the simple act of keeping the varnish flowing as the conversation, such as it was, flowed too. This was a well-crafted story tying everything together with Varnish John’s advice carrying the day.
    And good idea to keep the part. Maybe they’ll call you when someone needs it.

    1. I’m sure part of it was just the varnisher’s love of talking shop.. When I was stripping a 65′ wooden mast that had been unstepped and taken to a shed in a yard, he used to drift by, and we’d take on all sorts of esoteric subjects: heat gun vs. chemical stripper, coatings, spraying vs. brushing, and ways to deal with all the natural impediments to a Bristol finish: i.e., lovebugs.

      It would have to be a very good friend in need for me to give up that part — or a really good cash offer. I can’t imagine I’ll ever need it, but you never know.

  23. Wondered where the story was going but glad I followed it all the way to the end!

    Would love some elaboration on just what exactly a varnisher does and why the job seems to be so, well, exacting!

    1. The term for producing a ‘Bristol finish’ on a boat is brightwork, and apart from sandpaper, tape, varnish, solvents, and a really good brush, the only thing needed is patience and an obsessive attention to detail. A customer who was moving to the west coast once asked me to put together instructions for maintaining his vanish, and by the time I finished writing it up, I’d filled six pages.

      I’ll spare you that, but I did find this article, which gives a pretty good overview. My practices differ in some respects from his, but not radically. I work in the marinas, not in shipyards with spray booths, so even his mention of the kinds of “outdoor frustrations” we endure is apropos. Imagine trying to varnish a Steinway piano in the backyard, and you’ve got the picture!

  24. In some circles, Varnish John might be referred to as a “throwback” or “old school”. I think there are more Varnish Johns out there than we might think. Hopefully, there are an equal number of open-minded individuals (much like you) who are willing to listen to their wisdom and apply it with their own brush.

    Having grown up around Florida’s Gulf coast, I was immediately familiar with your description of denizens of boatyards and fishing villages. Some were “colorful characters”, others were to be avoided. (Your description of the boatyard population read like a Mark Twain summary of congress-critters.)

    We grew up with the motto of “if you fall off your bicycle, get back on it and ride”. I reckon our parents were told the same about horses. Varnish John’s admonition should be taught beginning with preschoolers and reinforced at every educational level.

    It is good to once again have access to such incredibly good writing. Thank you for continuing to share your talent.

    1. If Varnish John’s admonition were a part of the curriculum, our poor children would be far better off than they are with the current foolishness infecting the ‘educational’ system. Of course, they’d be better off if they were allowed to be children: roaming free, riding bikes, playing without constant adult supervision. I happened to see a group of young boys riding their bikes through the neighborhood recently, and my heart swelled as though I’d seen a veritable miracle.

      The parallels between boatyard folk and the people who hung around the grain elevators and feed stores of my midwestern childhood are real, although, if memory serves, the commitment to productive work might have been a little stronger at the elevators. One commonality, of course, is that work in both places produces a tangible result, and the possibility of judging that result. I still remember two experiences that eventually led me to varnishing. One was the night I was scrubbing the kitchen floor and thought, “Well, at least when I finish I can see what I’ve done.” Giving up financial security for that kind of satisfaction has been well worth it, especially since there’s room in my new world for Varnish John and his ilk.

  25. It was a pure delight reading this essay, Linda. I am still smiling. I loved entering the world of boatyard work, your descriptions and summaries. Varnish John was a great person to meet here, and his philosophy which you brilliantly carried into the problem with your car and the current supply issue. Then the determination and stamina and ultimate success of your car part was a super ending. Really a treat, my friend, thanks so much.

    1. You’ve had more than your share of having to start where you could start, while doing what you could do; John’s wisdom works for fire as well as for hurricanes, or even the need to find a car part! It only occurs to me now that one thing I love about the boatyards, and boat work in general, is that race, age, educational level, and so on don’t matter. It’s skill and competence that make the difference, and John was as skilled as they come. He also understood that patience was one of the most important ingredients to any success. No expensive brush will guarantee a beautiful finish, just as no Mont Blanc pen will bring a Pulitzer.

  26. I love that Danbury street sign. And I love even more the notion that somebody would appoint themselves your mentor! Varnish John sounds like a real character. Just proves once again that truth can be stranger than fiction!

    1. I’ve been thinking about John a good bit since posting this, and one thing that’s occurred to me is that he might have been intrigued that I was working by myself rather than for a company, and that I was teaching myself the trade ‘from scratch,’ as it were. If I’d been part of a crew, there never would have been the opportunity for such conversations; it’s yet another benefit of my strange occupation!

  27. These are words we should all paste on the wall and keep close at hand. Varnish John was quite a mentor — and a character, too. You were fortunate to be “discovered” by him and to get some of his words of wisdom. How well they have stood you in time!

    1. Real wisdom endures. It seems to me that it’s always based in experience, combined with reflection. Both sides of that coin are necessary; I suppose that’s why we generally sense that the older people among us have that special kind of wisdom. They’ve had more experience, and more time to reflect. And honestly? The best advice they have to offer is generally quite simple, like John’s. If nothing else, it makes it easier to remember!

    1. Inconvenienced — and worse. The whole thing reminded me of the old nursery rhyme: “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe, the horse was lost…” and so on. There’s often a solution ‘out there’ — it just takes a little thought to find it!

    1. There’s sad news. Martha passed away some weeks ago. She went into hospice, and soon was gone. She was one of the good ones, and I miss her a lot.

      Long ago, I had subscribed to her page on a site called CaringBridge, which she used to keep people updated. She’d stopped posting there and I’d forgotten about it, until Mary McCracken posted about her death. Here’s the text of the last post on the site:

      Journal entry by Mary McCracken — Jun 5, 2022

      Dear Family and Friends,

      Our beloved Martha passed into eternity last night, June 4, 2022, around 10:30 pm. She was peacefully sleeping and slipped away, set free from cancer and pain. Her last week was filled with time with family and a few friends, tender and compasionate care from her hospice team, and as always, Ben’s sweet love.

      We will all miss Martha’s bright spirit, her laughter, her smile, her photographs and stories, her deep friendship and the gift of her life in the world.

      Please keep Ben, Jared and Kiersten in your thoughts and prayers as they walk this grieving road. I know they deeply appreciate all your messages, the memories you’ve shared here and on Facebook, and your ongoing presence in their lives.

      I will post here again once I know what decisions have been made regarding celebrating Martha’s life and Ben’s plans for the next bit of time.

      ~ Mary McCracken

      1. Thank you for letting me know. I thought maybe. The last post I read on her blog made me feel she knew it was not going to have a happy ending this time. I so enjoyed her blog, and had only found it around the time their dog died. I didn’t really know her but I certainly cared about her and this is so sad. June 4th, just days before my girl went over the bridge. I’ll think of them together…or certainly in the same beautiful space. Thank you again.

    1. Listening is becoming a lost art, I fear. Thinking about that, it occurred to me that one reason I much prefer blogs to other forms of social media is that, from what I’ve seen, sites like Twitter and Instagram are all about speaking, and rarely about listening. Since I don’t participate, I could be wrong about that — but I don’t think I am.

  28. I know it has been a long while since I ventured by, but tonight I was looking through some old travel posts, and there you were. As I was also looking for an enjoyable tale with which to end the evening, it seemed only sensible to come your way. This tale absolutely filled the bill. I can just picture you walking into the repair shop with that part, and with the wise words of Varnish John to hand. Also, by the way, I enjoyed a lot your seasonal ice cream post. We have been enjoying ice cream and seasonal berries fresh from the farm stand virtually every night. Not so good for the waist line, as they say, but too good to resist. It set me thinking about when our ice cream season will pass, and now I wonder whether butter pecan will end up being a season extender!

    1. This may amuse you. I knew you’d commented, but for the life of me I couldn’t find your comment. I looked in spam, I looked in the trash. No joy. Finally, I checked in the ‘comment’ section of my admin bar, and there you were. I’d keyed in to your mention of ice cream, and was searching among comments on the ice cream post. Never doubt the power of ice cream to claim and hold attention!

      That moment of walking into the car dealership clutching my Princess’s part clearly belongs in the column titled “Life’s Little Victories.” I very rarely experience smugness, but when I handed over that part, I did. Later, I learned why I could find it, while the service manager couldn’t. Toyota dealers belong to associations — in this case, Gulf States Toyota, covering Texas, Louisiana, etc. — and their search was constrained to dealerships in that group. Only a freelancer (me) could go outside the boundaries, and find the part. There’s a lesson there, for sure.

      Speaking of ice cream season: have you ever made snow ice cream? That was one of my childhood favorites. There still are recipes galore online, but now that you’ve made your move, good, clean snow may be harder to find. But if you receive some, it’s an easy treat, like making snow angels.

      1. Snow ice cream! Even though I grew up in the Chicago area, where good cold snow was abundant, I missed out on that one! Yes, don’t think I’d attempt it with NYC snow . . . I am delighted you not only found the missing comment, but also that you found it through ice cream . . . which calls to mind:

        “Let the lamp affix its beam.
        The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.”

        1. What wonderful lines. I’ll confess I didn’t know them, and assumed they were Gilbert & Sullivan. Not so much — but at least Wallace Stevens is willing to invoke ice cream!

    1. Here’s the answer, which it would have been easy to read over: “The next day, the storm made landfall in the form of a casual phone call from my service representative. “It’s not the AC,” she said. “It’s the coolant bypass pipe.”

      Apparently that pipe somehow links the engine and the AC system. The pipe was leaking coolant, and leading the engine to overheat. As the engine became increasingly warm, the AC would switch off temporarily, and then come back on. Or something. I’m no mechanic, but that’s how I understand it. Replacing the pipe and the coolant fixed everything right up.

      I could have managed without a functioning AC, but having moved to Houston in a different Toyota that had none, I’d never advise it.

  29. How did I miss this amazing tale? I’m so sorry you were grounded. Been so caught up in the storms of my own life. I don’t have too many fears any more but one of them has to be never reading one of your posts again. That would be a tough storm to pick up from, but now I know how. You start where you can …

    1. The best “and now for the rest of the story” story is that the car still is running just as it should. There hasn’t been another problem since “all that.” I do have a sensor (tire pressure) that is staying on now, but I’ll take it in for the diagnosticians to hook Princess up to their computers, and we’ll sort that out.

      I’ve had a few new posts simmering on the back burner. I think it’s time to turn the heat up a bit, and see if I can’t serve those up — especially the ones that are pure fun.

      1. The tire pressure light came on just as we began a trip to Kansas last week. I checked all four tires and put a little more air than specified just in case then then went on. Drove 700 miles round trip with no problems.

        1. The guys at the Toyota dealership said that the way mine is acting — flashing for a few seconds before turning solidly yellow — is a sign that it’s a sensor going. It’s common down here for tire pressure lights to come on in our first cold snap, but if temperature’s the issue, they’ll turn off once driving has warmed the tires. There’s always something to learn!

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