I thought launching would be this glorious event, not slow as setting cement. It took us three days to bulldoze the ship down the river bank. She was really stuck there between floating and not floating like a car on a cliff. When the Coast Guard rescue boat plowed up river its wake moved the back end of the ship slightly. I felt it rise and fall about a quarter of an inch.
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I was sitting in the middle of the deck next to Jeff. He was a friend of the family and he looked like he was waiting for a roller coaster to reach the top of its first climb. We were using a rope that was tied across the deck, railing to railing, like a seat belt. The deck was twenty six feet wide and there were other people there too. Volunteers. Some were sitting on plastic lawn chairs but I couldn't bring myself to acknowledge who they were. I didn't really see them. I was looking at my boots thinking, Did we make any of them sign a waver?
I reassured myself that as long as the river remained like a piece of glass, at the peak of its tide, everything would be okay. But the tide would change soon, probably, and we'd be totally screwed. I thought it would pull us sideways, but not completely off the launchways. As it receded, we would slowly and surely settle on the mudflat in some new, messed up position. We'd slowly lean over sideways as the water drained out from around us and then at the crucial moment we'd tip and roll upside down with me still sitting on the deck. Just before going out of site, I'd hear my dad yell, "It's not rocket scientist work!" and my last words: "You mean rocket science!"
The bulldozer developed a cloud under its hood that rolled into the air and lingered like a ghost. How appropriate, I thought. Of course it was caused by the dope running his heavy equipment nearly fifty feet into the Pleasant River. He gave us a few more encouraging punches, which I could hear but not feel, and then called it a day, backing out of the river. The steel treads scraped angrily against the home made train tracks.
I rubbed my boots on the deck, grinding sawdust. "Did I mention," I said to Jeff, "that we don't really know if this thing won't just flip over once we're floating?" I tried not to picture a soda bottle rolling in the water, but there it was, spinning like crazy.
He was sitting with both of his hands in his lap. Fingers folded like he was in a Sunday school classroom. "No," he said, "you didn't mention that."
I knew Jeff was a smart guy, but I didn't expect him to know jack shit about what I "aquadynamics." "The hull is very round, you know. And we're not ballasted yet, so..." There was no way he could have missed those two facts. He had been stopping by every week for the last two years. He had to know what I was talking about, unless he was completely out of his mind.
He looked out over the river in the direction of the rescue boat. It cruised slowly, with its nose in the air like a hound, sniffing.
I popped my knuckles, a new habit. Maybe he didn't know what ballast was. "Frankly, I'm surprised we made it down the river bank. The mud is like, three feet thick, you know." I didn't add was that the ship weighed over two hundred tons, unballasted.
"We asked God to bless it." He sounded very suspicious, like maybe I had undone the blessing. Like after our hotel owning/pastor-on-the-side friend, Tim, had read his two page long prayer I pulled out a wrinkled scrap of paper and read the antidote.
I tried to pop my knuckles again but they were spent. "I'm just saying," I said, "if it starts to roll - I mean, we're really top-heavy here - if it starts to roll, we need to have a plan." I said.
He just looked at me. Blank as the river itself.
"Just in case... you know. We should probably consider that possibility. But I'm sure it won't happen."
He kept looking at me, unfazed. What strength! What faith! Even then, despite having what I now realize was overpowering rational thoughts, I looked up to him. I wanted to be just like him.
I pictured us climbing up side turned deck. Running, clawing, fingernails scraping across the grain, breaking backwards.
"The Bible says it's a sin to worry."
"I know. I'm not worried." My feet looked like they were someone else's. I expected them to move. I was wearing boots that I hardly ever wore. I didn't know why I had chosen them. They made me too tall and the soles were so stiff I walked like a cowboy. They made me clumsy. I had made myself awkward.
"You should trust God more," he said, implying that I had not faith, that as far as he could see I was an atheist who needed to be saved.
"No," I said, "I trust God..." He, and everyone who knew about the ship, knew that we had never designed a boat before. We didn't actually design this one either, or even consult a marine architect. The fact that we made it this far was our proof that God must have had a hand in it.
"You need to relax," he said. "This heat is really getting to you."
"Maybe." It was August, probably 84 degrees, which I considered a relentless heat wave.
"You must be dehydrated or something."
"I'm not thirsty."
"You can be dehydrated and not feel thirsty."
"I guess, maybe."
My little brother, Tom, was now using our old ski boat, the Lady Bee, to pull side to side on the back end of the ship, trying to wiggle it off the train tracks. Anybody could see this was a futile thing to do. The ship was only about six thousand times bigger than the Lady Bee. But that ski boat could pull Tom and me on the water skis like nothing. While the other ski boats struggled to reach plaining speeds, Tom and I popped out of the water. From a sitting position, up to our necks in the water, we would almost fly into the air. I seriously thought that little boat might have a chance.
Tom unhooked the rope and zipped out to the rescue boat and shouted, "Any chance I can give you a rope?"
Most of them looked away, like they had accidentally seen someone naked. One of the men raised a loud speaker that was painted to match their rescue boat, which I considered flamboyant. "We're not rated for towing." It was loud enough for the entire crowd to hear. I couldn't help but notice their twin three hundred horse power engines next to the Lady Bee's eighty five.
Yes, there was a crowd that had formed hours ago and was still growing, like a clogged artery. It stretched at least a quarter of a mile down the road and along the river. It blocked traffic, and a few people were taking pictures with their cell phones. We hadn't advertised the launch. These were just folks passing by.
I suspected they were quite impressed with us, but I also thought they might be a little taken aback by our rather unorthodox approach to launching. "Rather unorthodox" was how we were described on the local radio show, Boat Talk, on WERU. Crowding around the solar powered radio, the whole family listened attentively to the segment of the show dedicated to us. Unpacking the meaning of "Rather unorthodox" the two hosts virtually ripped my dad, and by extension, us, to shreds. "The planking looks like a patchwork quilt!" "I seriously hope they're listening to this show right now, and that they take this as a queue to start listening to people in general." A caller: "It's really scary. They want to take handicapped people on that thing!" "Disabled," I said to the radio.
Tom, disgusted with the rescue boat, put the throttle all the way down, causing the Lady Bee to jump out of her hole and into a skim. Ah, he really showed them! When he neared, I could see that the ship's ass was already trying to drift down river. Dad had the rope coiled by now and heaved it with both arms back out at Tom who snatched it out of the water with a boat hook, tied it to the cleat and put the throttle down again. That rope squirmed like a tape worm uncoiling. He cut back to an idle just as the rope snapped out of the water, so as not to break it, then he floored it again.
He was like my older brother. More skills, kept his head on better, not struggling just to stay on the team, like me.
The engine grew unnaturally loud and began to rattle. The prop warmed the water and churned it foamy around the engine.
Dad jogged eighty eight feet to the bow with the handheld radio to his good ear. Then he jogged back to stand before Jeff and me and told me to go down and check for leaks, dammit.
I caught up with my other little brother, Bob, in the cavernous galley. At six five he towered over me.
Whereas most sailboats, even tall ships, were crammed and low ceilinged, our galley was eleven feet tall. Anyone else would have divided it into two levels. "It's bone dry forward," said Bob. He had already removed most of the hatches on the floor. Handing me a flashlight, he pointed to the spot he thought I should check. He had the covers, or hatches, or whatever the hell you call those things - lids - leaning against the ribs. Twenty two unfinished paintings. I stuck my head and shoulders into one of the square holes next to the five hundred pound wood stove that wasn't bolted down yet. I pictured it tumbling across the room. A tossed die, landing corner-wise into the very hole I was stuck head first in, my legs trying to run.
My head pressed into a thin patch of tar and it pulled my hair as I backed away. I could hear the Lady Bee's motor throttling just behind the planking. Moving to the next hole, I could sense the ship turning slightly, though none of the shadows moved. It still smelled like the shipyard: gasoline, scorched epoxy, dead fish. Already a hundred years old to me.
"Don't tell me, tell the Captain." The captain was Dad. Bob didn't want the volunteers to become too informal. He was like an older brother too.
"Were there volunteers down here?" I asked. But now he was crawling, actually crawling inside the bilge! Tunneling under the floor! Actually, he would have been better off than anyone in a roll-over, snug as a bug between the ribs and floor joists. "Right." I scrabbled up the ladder with my stiff boots and delivered the good news.
"Where's your radio?" he said. "You don't have a friggin’ radio, just sit down there with Jeff." He was breathing hard.
Someone finally turned off the bulldozer, which continued sputtering, not wanting to die.
He stood inches from my face. "You don't even want to be here, do you!" I was used to hearing this, inches from my face. That breath!
"No, I do." He didn't mean anything against me, I knew. That was only just the heat of the moment talking. Plus it was hot-ass August. I tapped the dust off my boots and sauntered clumsily back to Jeff.
"Get out of the way," Dad said walking past me on his way to the back end - the stern, whatever - still holding the radio to his ear, to check on Tom's progress. It occurred to me that, of course I didn't have a radio, there were only four and they weren't even ours. They were loaned to us, handed out, on the first day of the launch and I wasn't there in time. I was under the ship, using a fifty-ton jack to lower the back end a fraction of an inch onto the damn old train tracks. I was holding up the entire boat - ship - and if anything slipped, the whole thing would crash down. And I'd seen a jack or two slip while under tremendous pressure. What happens is those things fly into the air like their origami. My escape route: through the cross braces, which leaned at every conceivable angle connecting the cradle to the hull. A forest after a volcano ripped the leaves and branches and bark off all the trees. There were other people down there too with smaller jacks. Volunteers I was supposed to be managing. But I hardly knew they were there. I was supposed to be making sure we all lowered our jacks at the same time so that none would have all the weight at once and explode. But I couldn't think of anyone but myself. Selfish old me! That's why I didn't have a radio.
Dad gave Tom the thumbs up and headed back to the front. As he trotted by, he and Jeff did a high-five as I was tightening my life jacket.
"What are you saying?" said Jeff. But I wasn't saying or doing anything so I ignored him.
I had given Jeff my life jacket. The one I had worn for years. It was better than the hunter-orange ones we set aside for all the volunteers. Now I could see it was far too small for him and the buckles couldn't even reach each other, his chest was so big. Another big brother figure, I suppose. More selfishness too: me giving the old and taking the new.
I noticed three men had piled into Tom's green canoe and one of them had a video camera. Dave Barez. He'd been filming us off and on for months. Footage for a documentary, in which I hoped to feature prominently. "You once said you see your dad as an historic figure... what did you mean?" "It takes tremendous sacrifice to do something really big." None of them knew how to paddle or hold the paddles and they veered back toward land. The one in the back started paddling backwards, trying to turn the little craft. "What do you mean by 'sacrifice'?" "He's given up nearly everything for this," including his sanity and dignity and common sense. The one in the front held a long stick way out in front. A lance.
I could not see them now as they approached the bow, but they were trying to give us that last push we needed, to make up for the petty coast guard. They might as well have been throwing cotton balls at us! I turned to Jeff and laughed at their high hopes. He did not see the humor but smiled as politely as a police officer. "What?" he said.
A small section of the crowd broke into a rendition of Amazing Grace, though completely out of tune. They were some other species that observed different rules concerning keys and octaves and notes. Arbitrarily picking up a note and slapping it onto a word or two or three. But it was all for our sake, not theirs because this particular group saw us as a bunch of heroes. So their tortured little song was a bit of a sacrifice. My sister, Liz, was sitting in her wheelchair next to the group, smiled at their poor excuse for music. She looked like an ambassador thanking a crowd, nervously, for a human sacrifice made in her honor. The ship was for her. Everyone knew that.
My mom stood behind Liz, ready to grab the handle bars and push her through the crowd. Maybe to safety. Always there for her daughter.
But then I could see that she was singing along too! She was probably ready to push her squarely into the center of the choir. How Mom loved that song!
I always thought Amazing Grace was what you would sing at a funeral.
Behind Mom I saw someone and I instantly fell in love her. Mimi. She stood out from the entire crowd, which numbered now around a thousand. Slowly shaking her head, no, somehow ambiguously. Could have been overwhelmed by what my dad would call the "magic and mystique" of the ship, or she could have been scared out of her wits, unfaithful like me. I fell in love with her and wanted to be with her, selfishly. I couldn't take my eyes off that beautiful, well proportioned head. I knew she was an art therapist from Philadelphia. I had played my guitar for her the night before while my family was the special feature at Tim and Mindy's spaghetti dinner - meanwhile the ship squatted helplessly on the riverbank, on the three feet of mud! I had taught myself how to play the guitar and administered it in small doses. Three minutes every three minutes no matter what. So I slurped down some noodles and then avoided the praise and worship session by slinking off to the office with my guitar. "Mimi," I whispered, "I want to show you this tune I wrote."
Then she did what I never would have expected in a million years. "Me?" she mouthed, pointing to her gorgeous head. Nobody around her noticed what we were doing, what was happening between us. The forming of skepticism and its expression. I didn't know how she knew I was looking at her, unless she had been having similar thoughts about me...
I mouthed, "Uh huh," but that looked the same as a gaping mouth.
Then Jeff asked, cautiously, "Are you... sold out?... for Jesus?"
I nodded yes to the Mimi's head and she nodded yes back! Then we smiled and she had to look away. Quite an awkward experience to share with someone you hardly knew.
Jeff nodded approvingly and at just that moment the ship spun free from the hold of the train tracks and Tom dragged it with painful overheated slowness to the center of the river. The crowd roared and Dad stood like a professional wrestler on the front railing. Fists in the air. Jeff pulled out a digital camera and called him over to pose. Dad stalked to the center of the deck and raised his arms again, looking straight into the camera, his face stern and serious. He slitted his eyes, carefully not looking at me.
Jeff looked knowingly (or was it condescendingly?) at me, climbed out from under the seat belt and asked me to join him trying to tip it in a run from one side of the deck to the other (couldn't be condescending). Of course I didn't want the boat to tip but I was still filled with love of Mimi. At the end of the day, irrationality comes out on top. We leaned our backs against the railing and took off for the other side and we did a tag team gut buster into that railing. Felt much better now and despite our best efforts, she didn't budge.
"It's a solid rock!" declared Jeff, harkening back to Psalty The Singing Songbook's advice: Don't build your house/ on a sandyland/ Dont' build it too near the shore/ Well it might look kind of nice/ But you'll have to build it twice/ Oh you'll have to/ build your house once more/ (repeat). You better build your/ house upon the rock/ make a good foundation/ on the solid spot/ Oh the storms may come and go/ but the peace of God you will know!
Of course we were, what, three hundred pounds? Trying to tip two hundred tons? Our little test didn't mean anything. Anyone with half a brain should have known that. But I was in a fervor. "I know," I said.
Breaking free from the crowd of volunteers, Dad swooped over. He stumbled over two lawn chairs on his way over to shake my hand to show his satisfaction with me. This despite telling me hundreds of times that he could do it without me, that it would be easier without me, that I should leave.
"I know," I said. Realizing how unsturdy the ship might still prove to be. I took off the life jacket. Little did I know, the cradle was stuck to the hull like a giant crab. It probably stabilized us by virtue of its sheer size. So technically, we hadn't launched yet.
The shipyard, without the ship. Empty of soul despite the crowd and the mess we had been making for the past four years. A small contained wasteland. Long dead grass, little bits of wood and paper, long strings of plastic wrap. Dozens of crumpled tar buckets. Four huge black and white drums of epoxy, mostly empty, dented. Horrible and ugly now.
"Do you feel better?" said Jeff.
"Two gallons of gas aught to do it."
"What did you say?"
Everything that got us this far wilting in flames.
They were already hoisting Liz in her wheelchair up onto the deck. I didn't notice her coming out on the Lady Bee - that Tom worked so damn fast! Jeff held the hatchway open as they lowered her with ropes down below the deck. "Are you excited, Liz?"
"Praise God." A real trend I started!
As far as I knew all the hatchway covers down below were still propped up on the ribs. Twenty two holes her wheelchair could fall into. I called to Bob, "Do you have the covers back down?"
"I got her."
"Put the covers down!"
"Captain says we got to keep checking for leaks."
Then Dad called me to the front to help lower the anchor and I had to go. "You up for this? We're really doing it! We're really doing it!"
"You don't look happy."