Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Yard work in Trinidad, but mostly missing Dad's wood shop in wintertime Michigan.

     I've wanted to write something of the yard work being done in Trinidad.  Of my day to day life as I stay in the hotel and meet Tim every morning for breakfast before heading to the boat for a day's work, but my mind keeps dragging me back to my father's woodshop.  Maybe it's because I'm doing mechanical work again, and that part of my brain is associated with the shop where I learned to read a tape measure, how to get the most from a piece of sandpaper, how going slowly and thinking carefully actually speeds up a job.
Sitting on the keel of the boat, the only
shady place to take a break.
     The days haven't been hard, but the boat's unplugged and without air con and roasting in the sun, and I'm dripping sweat and up to my shoulders in diesel fuel everyday.  I bath in simple green every time I have to walk out of the engine room to answer the knocking of some rasta-man standing on the ladder with his dreads wrapped in a kind of Dr. Suess hat asking me if we need any polish work done or winches serviced.  Everyone sees the boat and thinks of the money they can make from it.  Definitely my least favorite part of the job is having to be firm in sending people away.  Firm, but respectful as they almost beg for work.
     I'm a bit of a hermit by nature.  Except for these short snippets with the boat guys ("Sorry, we don't need any help with the winches. -They've just been done. -Please don't walk on the decks with your shoes on.  -No.  -No thank you.  -No.  -I'm sorry I can't right now.  -So long."), the only real talking I do is with Tim in the mornings at breakfast.  And that's mostly about what we're planning on doing for the rest of the day, the projects lined up and the parts needed and what makes logistical sense to get done first.  Not that we're all business, I try to get him tell me at least one story from his college years or a sailing regatta before heading off to work.
     The rest of the day is spent by myself on the baking boat in silence, except for the occasional "sonofabitch" when I hit my head or drop a washer.  But it's satisfying.  I just go slowly and accept that searching for dropped nuts and cleaning up diesel spills is part of every job no matter how careful I am.  I find it all very satisfying and mentally stimulating.  Mechanics and troubleshooting are just puzzles, and I like puzzles.  The engine room yoga is getting hard though.  Tim and I have been going to the gym in the evenings, and yesterday was back day, and it made today's "blind stretch around high pressure hydro pump with wrong sized wrench" a very difficult move.     
The space aft of the generator, one of the
better places to have to do repairs.
     But as I try to capture what it feels like to be on the boat in the heat wedged between an engine and floor joists while my weight is on the elbow that's connected to the hand I'm trying to use to manipulate a ratchet, while my other hand's fingers think they're holding a wrench on the right nut (but actually aren't), while diesel fuel is pissing out a pipe I'm somehow holding a thumb in while turning a ratchet, I can't really explain how it is I enjoy this.  Maybe it's one of those things I shouldn't examine too deeply.
     My brain is mostly occupied with solving these puzzles, but when I'm doing something tedious, wire brushing a sea chest, or wrapping teflon tape around pipe thread, I go back to Dad's woodshop, and from somewhere outside a waft of cut wood and sawdust drifts into the engine room, and I'm three-thousand miles North in the wintertime.
     Even though the fire's out in the stove it's still warm enough to take off coats and hats. Snow falling and grey outside, the wood shop is bright and strangely large and open after coming in from the claustrophobic sense of heaviness and contraction created by the cold. The oppression of the lack of scent that comes with winter overridden by the smell of sawdust, lumber, woodstove and varnish.
     Dad goes to the far end of the shop where the wood stove is on a raised platform he built so he didn't have to get on his knees to load the firewood, and from a pail he takes handfuls of sawdust and small scraps to throw into the ashes of yesterday's fire. He uses a hatchet to break up a chunk of two-by-six and stacks those around the sawdust. Then he places a log on each side of the kindling pile, and one across the tops of those so it crosses above the kindling pile. Then he cheats; grabs the bottle of lighter fluid and douses it all. He glances at me as he does this, knows I think it's funny he's using a method he once taught me was a wimp's way of making a fire.
     That was a long time ago though, before it was okay for me to grab a beer from the mini-fridge by the door and crack it open to drink while watching him take a match from a cast-iron holder mounted on a cedar paneled wall and strike, then toss into the stove where it flashes and ignites everything in the fast yellow flames of the fluid before the wood catches.
     He closes the steel door with the glass window so we can still see the fire, latches the long arm in place, and I meet him in the middle of the shop by the assembly table, handing him his beer. Normally the assembly table has a kevlar surface showing, but today there's cardboard taped down so nothing is showing, and above the table, hung from strings he screwed to a board he in-turn screwed to the ceiling, are four snowshoes.
Snowshoes and canoe in the background of where my
head has been taking me the last couple days.  
     The shoes are the latest project. We've been varnishing them, put the first coat on this morning and now we're checking them to see how they're drying. Standing next to them, they smell of damp varnish and are still tacky, might not be ready for a second coat in the morning, we decide, maybe by this time tomorrow afternoon.
     Then we have to decide if we'll want to be varnishing this time tomorrow afternoon. Beer time. Old Milwaukee's Best Ice time, the only beer in Dad's woodshop, not by rule, just because.
     I tell Dad we can play it by ear, I don't have to drive home for a few days and there's no rush, if it takes two days to dry, we'll do it when they're ready. We drink our beers looking at the woodstove, looking at the old canoe we built years ago, looking at the table-saw, radial-arm saw, planer, jointer, drill press, router table, tools I've been around all my life and some that are new. All strategically placed throughout the space based on frequency of use, largeness of the machine, the state of the material being fed into it, the need for it to be near other tools. It's a choreographed ensemble. He doesn't know it, but he's thought out and created a dance.
I wish I could have a year to apprentice with my dad and
learn everything from soldering to adjusting a table-saw
to knowing when to call it a day.  Love you, Dad.
     Raw uneven boards fed into the planer with long flat blades smoothing the widest surface of the board, preparing them for the jointer, the next machine in line, which can straighten a bowed edge, which will go well against the guide of the table-saw, which after being fed through, will create a fine quality finished board. Like great art, seeing it finished it looks effortless, natural, as if it were the only way such a thing could exist.
     We talk about my work.  The chance of me quitting to go sail around the world.  His plans for the property. Where he and Mom are going to vacation this summer. We drink beers and get more from the fridge. The fire's ripping in the stove now and there's not much left to do in the shop until tomorrow. We don coats and hats, carry our beers in gloved hands and I lead the way out, because he likes to be the one to turn off the lights and close the doors, making sure everything's okay before moving on.