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
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
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
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