Lake Fausse Point, Louisiana

March 1st, 2003

Haul Out
By Roger Emile Stouff

There are three lights on in the carport; beyond the cascade of illumination at the open front, the darkness is only pin-pricked by a few porch lamps and street lights. Cars pass by now and then, and off somewhere on the edge of the reservation a dog is wailing at the moon.

I stand and look out at the night for a moment, and the sky is clear and cool. Across the majesty of the cosmos expands incredible beauty and awe-inspiring complexity, making me feel insignificant and humble. A speck of celestial dust, this rare and wonderful old earth and those of us who live upon it too seldom look up to consider the great mystery of Creation.

But I turn away and start with fresh sandpaper on the transom of the old wooden bateau sitting on its trailer under the carport. Bow facing the night, it seems ready to lurch into the darkness, using some street lamp or bright star as a marker, a signpost. For weeks we have labored, this old boat and I. Her bottom was scarred and battered from too many drifting, wayward logs on the lake, too many encounters with the boundaries which lurk beneath the surface of Sheti. Upon turning her over and placing her on sawhorses, the boat's underside was a sturdy, unbreached barrier between its passengers and the water, but it had paid a cost for its vigilance. Together, under night skies and sunny days, we were both resurrected.

Now, with the boat's bottomside planking smooth and whole again, painted and clean, she sits right side up facing the night. Her sides are resplendent with fresh, new oil-based paint, hunter green with a black waterline, and the nicks and scrapes soothed along her gunwales. The transom has been stripped of paint and a soft spot discovered, the first I know of in the boat's long life. With careful and sparing application of epoxy, that minor bit of decay will vanish.

As the sandpaper scrapes along the old fir plywood, clearing away the last specks of paint, it occurs to me that these hands are two years younger than the boat beneath them. They are also at least partially the hands of its builder.

I have, at times, considered carefully wrapping the old boat in canvas tarps, sealed against the elements, protected from rodents and bugs. Something so important, so treasured, at times I am reluctant to use it for its intended purpose. I'll build one just like it, I tell myself, and keep this one from harm. It was in every way my cradle, the safe and happy den from which I was reared.

But as I see it now gunwales flaring outward to the sweep of the upturned bow before curving slightly back inward to the head block and touch the memory of it falling at my feet in specks of sawdust, I know it cannot be packaged and stored away. If there is a pivot and a crux to my existence, a fulcrum to lift all the hardships and joys of my life, it is this old wooden boat. A spot of rot, no larger than a half dollar, is no less a mirror of my soul than the solid steadfastness, the sweeping grace and the cargo of memory than my own regrets and successes. As long as a spark of life and a whisp of breath persists within me, this old boat and I are bound to each other. I could no more put it aside than I could cut off my own hands.

What defines us is unique to the individual, I think. I am defined by this old bateau. Everything that I am, good and bad, is to be found in its lap-joint oak frames, laminated transom and wide sprayrail. Within a few moments in a small wooden boat my character and my soul were forged.

Next day, as October brings a crisp nip to the air, I rub down her varnish with a scuffing pad and carefully apply two new coats of spar. The brush flowing over the deck leaves tiny furrows of varnish, like the wake of the old boat across the lake, which settle and flow out to become glassy-smooth again. Within an hour, it has dried to a satin luster, the rich fir plywood glowing amber beneath.

Inside, there are more nicks and scars to be tended to, but by the weekend, she should be back afloat, in her element, returning me to Sheti and ancestral promises. Each passing year when this old boat returns, with me in its folds, mark another season in two lives. For as long as there are home waters and old wooden boats, there are promises kept. We are home again.

Leaves spiral down around me, blown off tree limbs by October, scurry across the ground like dancing wraiths. I set free the dog and she lies with her head on her paws watching me replace the cap piece of the transom with a new piece of mahogany. A few pecan leaves flutter and come to rest inside the hull, trembling under the slight breeze sweeping over the gunwale. The varnish flows from the brush, around the gentle curve of the head block, though I am careful to avoid the stainless steel rubrail along the sides. There may be specks of dust in the finish, but this is October, and the boat and I will carry it with us until the next haul out, until the next remembering.

Many times has this old boat drifted into these words, many times has the thought of it swept into these ramblings. This old boat has carried me from the cradle, it will carry me to the grave, as faithfully as it always has. And when at last I look back on my life in the last fleeting moments of breath, it shall be condensed into a few moments in a small wooden boat, a microcosm, a digest of existence well-spent.

It is family member and friend; it is mentor and guide. Within its hull, out there on the waters of my ancestors, I am complete. What will happen to it when I am gone, I cannot guess and perhaps should not ponder. It is enough to know that it has carried me well, and that I have tended to its needs as best I could. There are many things in a life which mark the measure of a man. Few would consider the devotion to an old wooden bateau a significant yardstick. There are moments in this life when such disregard leaves me speechless and mournful.

The things which matter in my life are not disposable; the things that require the most care, the most fretting anxiousness, are the most treasured. She has carried me through thunderstorms and squalls, across a lake which stood up on its hind legs and threatened to devour me and the old father at the tiller; she is by no means frail or delicate, for she has been pitched airborne by impacts with logs and stumps at full throttle, but she requires care.

And as I stand now, slightly more than amidships in this life, I believe I understand that caring is the greatest gift of all those given me by a few moments in a small wooden boat. ~ Roger


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