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.
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.”
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 — 16268–0T090 – 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 16268–0T090 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.”