Lake Fausse Point, Louisiana

August 2nd, 2003

The Last Boat
By Roger Emile Stouff

In dreams, becoming numerous of late, the hazy but saturated images of my father building his last boat play over and over again, night after night.

Though I don't know how many boats my father built - there were many - I remember the last one, and though I was myself overfull with the arrogance of youth and the disdain for so many things which today are essential to me, when my father built a boat I took interest. That was two decades ago, but movies of the mind play without fail each night. In the dark realm of sleep, my consciousness clings to these scenes, grasps at them, clutches them longingly.

It was a bateau, 16-foot long, and wide of beam. There under the carport of the old house, which is gone now, he set up sawhorses and with circular, jig and hand saws began cutting out the shapes of frames, transom and stem. It was to be a commercial fisherman's boat, and designed accordingly. My father had no training as a boat builder; he had come by his skill through instinct, and the craft he conjured from stacks of dry planks and sheets of plywood sprang up like sculptures, an extension of an artist's lifework.

He could look at a boat and tell if it was right or wrong, one of his dearest friends told me. He could see what a boat should be.

Perhaps it is the bias of a son for his father's work, but I've seen many wooden bateaus in my time. They are mostly, boxy, straight-sided things with emasculated sheers and linear, uninteresting and anorexic lines. That they will float was apparently enough for their builders. But not for Nick Stouff.

In my dreams, that last boat takes form, coming to life in a way which cannot be denied, for boats are in some way alive. A good boat must not be an aberration in its environs, it must flow with the tides and currents along which it is intended to co-exist. The water is its cradle, its spirit guide. It should follow the flow obediently, bow forward, not twist sideways like a miscreant log. When required, it should turn easily, and when directed, it should find a calm, quiet balance, still and silent. It must be well-behaved and well-mannered.

This is how the last boat appears in my dreams, and as she was built. In the panorama behind my eyelids, he wears khaki pants perpetually, and button shirts. Most times a pencil is behind his ear, and a King Edward cigar in his mouth. His brow furrows over the pencil mark demarcating a frame notch; his hands, thick and strong, work a Bailey hand plane over the rails, turning them from four-sided angularity to gently rounded grace. Curling, paper-thin shavings litter the carport, and I pick them up, all those years ago and just last night, wrap them around my forefinger as I watch the Bailey create yet more curling ribbons of cypress to drop to the floor.

I help him move sheets of plywood, hold planks steady to be sawn. The old Craftsman table saw roars, the battering of galvanized nails rings across the yard. The smell of fir and cypress and glue is everywhere. Father and son, who over the years grew estranged, completely by fault of the latter, save for this one act of creation. In itself, it is a search for divinity. For grace. Water bound my father and I together, water flowed far thicker than the blood we held in common. It had grown shallow and murky over the preceding years, but we were after all both people of the lake. Water is stronger than steel when binding lives.

Her planking went on firm and solid; her deck took shape and her seats, rails and beams locked into place. Several fresh coats of paint give her a resplendent glow in my dreams. Last of all, the letters NIX etched into her transom, the mark of her builder. He was no Joel White, no Edwin Monk, no Atkins, Mason or Wittholz. He was just a parttime boatbuilder, known for his craftsmanship across Louisiana and into the margins of adjoining states. But I could imagine drifting in that vessel, riding and driving her, though I knew I'd never have the chance. This was someone else's boat, the engine would not even be installed until after it left that carport at the old house.

Then the day came that it did leave, and my father cleaned his tools, sharpened their edges, and put them away as a boat builder for the last time. I recall that exact same day he took his boat out from the boatshed and made a trip to the lake, alone. We had not been together in that boat for years. After the last boat was gone, I went back to chasing illusions. Now and then, we'd talk about building a boat together, but the saw horses were never set up in the carport, the cypress never stacked, the plywood never marked with pencil.

Though our estrangement ended, by then my father was too ill to fish with me, or to build with me. Now and then, he'd tell me to go check on the boat in the boatshed, make sure she was dry, make sure there were no visible signs of problems. I would comply, but he would find the strength sometimes to follow me out to the shed despite having ordered me to take care of the boat's upkeep. He'd let me check her over, but he'd stand there at the door and look at her, reliving her creation, the feel of her slicing through the surface of the lake, the gentle relaxing as he let the throttle down and she would glide low, like a bird, resting into the water, obedient and elegant.

I wake from these dreams, and feel it as well. We are people of the lake, my father and I. And in my workshop, the Bailey planes are sharp and clean. On the wall hang two of his draw knives, and in a plywood box are low-angle block planes and spokeshaves. Out in the woodshed are planks I have been greedily hoarding, sorted by size and length and grain.

She floats upon the river of his thoughts, Longfellow wrote. She floats in dreams, too. We are people of the lake, my father and I. The building of a good boat, one necessarily of wood for those like us, is the search for living creation. Divinity and grace we cannot find in cathedrals or cold oak pews. Hymns are sung between the gunwales, communion on the waves rippling like whispering ancestors.

It is not necessary to understand the love of boats to understand the love of creation and grace. It is not required to feel water in the veins to comprehend dreams. It is time for my father and I to build, again. To glide the currents of home waters, searching for creation, immersed in divinity. We remain, after all and despite the innumerable forces that have attempted to sway us, people of the lake. ~ Roger


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