A Boy and his Boat...A Christmas Story
Knox County — By Sandra Sylvester
Every time he walked up the street Quint stopped a minute to look at his boat. Well it really wasn’t his boat…yet…but it would be some day.
His boat was a peaked nose skiff and it had been sitting in his neighbor’s yard set up on some pieces of wood for a long time now. It had a For Sale sign on it that was even fading because the boat had been sitting there so long.
The guy who was selling it, Frankie Ames, was now stern man for his father and didn’t need the skiff anymore. He’d once pulled his own traps from it, but he’d outgrown it now that he went to haul with his father every day. So the boat sat. It’d been there all summer and now with fall and winter coming on, Quint was afraid the boat would rot if it sat there much longer.
Quint knew Frankie quite well because their fathers were good friends. They were both lobstermen and living in the South End as they did, they looked out for each other even though they were in competition for the best places to set their pots along the shore.
Frankie wanted $50 for the skiff and Quint thought that was too much money. It was 1955 and coming by that much money would be hard even if he did have a newspaper route.
Quint was in the middle of an all boy family. There were two brothers younger and two older. The Withee family didn’t have a lot of extra money to throw around so if you wanted something you pretty much were on your own.
Quint’s whole name was Quinton Thomas Withee. The Quinton came from a crush his mother had when she was in summer camp as a teenager. All the girls had a crush on the swimming supervisor, Quinton. His mother, Evelyn, swore she would name one of her kids after him when she grew up. Quint was the only one she got to name and she had to fight for it too. Thomas was the concession as it was a Withee family name, so she agreed to use it for his middle name.
Even though his mother doted on him, he often felt lost in the family. His two younger brothers were too young to play with and besides they were brats. As much as he wanted to tag along with his two older brothers, that rarely happened. So he ended up hanging out mostly with his friends down at Sandy Beach which ran along the bottom of the South End. They’d set up some glass bottles on the rocks that people had just tossed over the banking, and throw rocks at them. The small beach was often used as a garbage dump in those days.
If it was summer, they had to wait till the tide came in and covered the sewer pipes that ran into the ocean before they could swim in the water. Sometimes the submerged pipes were used as jumping off places.
It didn’t feel like summer on this day as Quint trudged through the slush and snow up Mcloud Street to go pick up his papers at Jack Green’s grocery-type store on the corner of Pleasant and Main Streets. He’d then walk up Pleasant Street to Broadway to deliver those papers; then he’d pick up some more papers at Bobil’s Market on the corner of Pleasant and Broadway and deliver them along Broadway and some of the side streets along the way. It was a long route and not a very pleasant one in the wind and cold like it was today. In the summer time he used an old bike that the boys in the family shared; but in the winter he just slung his newspaper bag over his shoulder and across his chest.
Every penny Quint earned from his newspaper job went into a canning jar he kept under the small cot that was his bed He shared a room with his two younger brothers who had the bunk beds. He never took the jar out unless they were out of the room. Being the brats they were he just knew they’d run up to Skim’s store and buy all the candy and soda pop they could if they found his stash.
Quint’s father, Winny (short for Winston) knew how much his son wanted to be a lobsterman. When he was 12-years-old like Quint was now he couldn’t wait to get out on the water in some kind of boat like his own father, a lobsterman too. It was in the blood he guessed. He got his own lobstering license when he was barely five and he’d bought each of his boys a license for their fifth birthdays. Who knew what would happen in the future? At least his boys would have an occupation if they wanted it.
Winny wasn’t so sure about this boat Quint wanted though. It was a lot of money and there was no way he could help the kid. He about kept food on the table and a roof over their heads as it was. He talked to Quint one day about his plans and how he thought he could get aholt of that boat he wanted so much.
“Lobstering is hard work, son,” he said. “You sure you want to get into it so soon? I’d put you on as stern man but your brother, Paulie, is with me now. I can’t afford both of you. Besides, you’d probably be in the way more than anything and you and Paulie don’t exactly get along very well either.”
“Ah, I know Dad. I couldn’t stand being on that boat all day with him, that’s for sure. He don’t like me and he’s always hitting me in the shoulder.”
“Well, you’re a big kid, Quint, and you probably could handle the skiff all right, but what about everything else you’d need? That stuff don’t come cheap you know.”
“Like what?” Quint said.
“You gotta have oars for that boat don’t ya? And what about pots, warp, bait bags and all that stuff? Then you gotta buy bait too.”
Quint rubbed his face with both hands like he always did when he was worried about what to do about something. “I know, Dad. At least if I had the boat I’d have one thing at least…the most important thing.”
“Well, how much money you got right now?”
“I got about $25, about half I guess.”
“How long did it take you to get that money even?”
“I dunno. Quite a while I think.”
“I don’t think you’re going to make enough money on that paper route to get that boat in the water by spring…not with everything else you’ll need to go with it.”
“Well, Dad…er…I was hoping that maybe you could help me out with some of the other stuff. Don’t you have a couple old traps I can repair so I’d have something to start out with?”
“Maybe…we’ll see. First like you say, you need the boat first. If you can pay Ames for it by Spring, I’ll see what I can do. OK?”
Quint’s face lit up with the thought of being a real lobsterman. “Thanks, Dad. I’ll have that boat by spring, you’ll see.”
“OK, Quint, OK,” Winny said, not too enthusiastically. He wasn’t so sure about his son’s plans, but the kid had to learn you can’t always have what you want. He’d just watch and see what happened.
That winter, Evelyn got sick. Real sick. She had some kind of blood disease and Quint ended up taking care of his two little brothers a lot and even helping with the housework. His mother didn’t have too much energy and she slept a lot. She even ended up in the hospital a couple times and what money they had in the house soon disappeared for medicine and hospital and doctor’s bills. Winny couldn’t afford health insurance so he ended up making payments to the hospital, the doctor, etc. so that he could at least feed the boys.
It was a rough winter. By the time Quint got through with his route; helped feed his little brothers; did his homework and maybe listened to the Lone Ranger on the radio; he was pooped and some nights he fell into bed with all his clothes on. There was no one left to even take his clothes off for him or to take care of him at all. He tried to take the place of his mother while his father was out trying to get some odd jobs during the off season and his older brothers were doing the same. Sometimes he was so tired and hungry he’d fall asleep at his desk at school and the teacher would yell at him.
Along about Christmas time, his mother took a turn for the worse and they didn’t know if she’d last till the holiday. She was in the hospital again and in and out of consciousness. Quint went to the hospital every day and just sat by her bed holding her hand. He just made the cut off for being old enough to go into the wards. All the nurses knew him by his first name after a while. They’d bring him a candy bar or some other treat to cheer him up a little. They didn’t know very many boys his age who would be so attentive to their sick mother like Quint was.
It looked to be a very sparse holiday in the Withee household. No one was even in the mood to go out and find a tree and put decorations on it. As for Christmas presents, there probably wouldn’t be any unless some charity or other adopted them for the holiday. It was a quiet household. They mostly just sat around looking glum and worried about their mother. She was the glue who held them all together. What would happen if she never came home again?
A couple weeks before Christmas, Quint saw a sign in Green’s window when he went to pick up his papers. There was going to be a raffle for a boat about the size of the skiff he was saving for. They were also going to raffle off some gear and ten lobster pots. The proceeds were to benefit the fishermen’s widow and children’s fund.
Quint looked closer and saw that the tickets were $1 or five for $4. The raffle would be held outside the Chamber of Commerce office down at the Landing. That office overlooked Penobscot Bay where the South End’s lobstermen did much of their hauling. The raffle was only a few days off and Quint didn’t know if he could come up with $4 by then or even $1 but he was going to try. This could be his ticket to being a real lobsterman and he wasn’t going to let the opportunity pass him by.
The day before the raffle Quint told his mother he wouldn’t be able to come up and see her the next day because he had something special he had to do. He hoped she’d understand. She did of course and whispered, “You go, Quinton. You don’t need to hang around here so much anyway. Go enjoy yourself for once.”
Just before Quint went down to the Landing for the raffle drawing he looked in the Ames’ yard and couldn’t believe his eyes. His boat was gone! Where was it? His heart sank and he almost gave up the idea of going to the raffle. What was the sense if he didn’t have a boat? He doubted that his four measly tickets could get him the boat and all the gear too.
He didn’t have time to go knock on the Ames door and ask about his boat; so he took his mother’s advice and with his four precious raffle tickets in hand he ran as fast as he could before the drawing started without him.
He’d told his Dad about buying the tickets hoping he wouldn’t be mad at him for doing so when there was so little money in the house. Surprisingly enough, Winny was proud of him instead. “Quint, you did the right thing. Even if you don’t win, you might help out some poor fisherman’s family. Who knows, you could be in a bad situation like that someday yourself. We fishermen have to take care of each other, right?”
Winny had even shook his hand like he was a real man.
Quint spied his father as he came up to the big crowd in front of the Chamber. His father waved him over and they stood together as the raffle began. Quint saw quite a few South End lobstermen in the crowd. In fact every one of them had waved a hand to him in greeting. It was very strange somehow. Most of the time the lobstermen were so preoccupied they didn’t even notice if he was around when he went down to his father’s lobster boat. Everyone was in a holiday mood was Quint’s guess. He smiled back and waited for the raffle to begin.
The raffle started out with just a few bait bags. Some girl, of all people, had the ticket for them. When they got to the ten brand new lobster pots; a whole mess of warp rope, a set of oars, and more bait bags, he paid more attention. That would sure help his cause even if he had to find another boat. For sure he couldn’t win the boat and the gear too.
He looked at his tickets, keeping a close eye on all the numbers as he listened to the loudspeaker. “The first number of the winning ticket is 5.” Yes, he had that one. “2-13-25-6.” As the man read off each number, Quint couldn’t believe his eyes. He had every one of them.
He was too excited to speak. He looked up at his father with his mouth open as he pointed at the winning ticket he held in his hand.
“You got the ticket, son?” his father said.
Quint just shook his head yes, still not able to speak.
“Speak up then, quick. Raise your hand. Hey, over here,” he yelled. “My son has the ticket. He’s got the ticket,” he said, as he raised Quint’s hand high.
Everyone turned to Quint and before he knew it he was being pushed forward to receive all the glorious gear that was piled up by the front door of the Chamber. He ran his hand over one of the traps like it was a favorite dog or something. Everyone clapped and patted him on the back with their congratulations.
“Hey, Quint. Now you can be a lobsterman. How bout that?”
Quint turned and spied Frankie Ames’ father, Emmet.
“Oh, hi,” said Quint. He really wanted to ask about his boat that was now gone, but was too embarrassed to do so since he’d just won all this stuff.”
“Yeah, I guess I can,” he said lamely.
Then an amazing thing happened. They took the tarp off the skiff that was also in the raffle. It looked very familiar. It could even be his boat, but it was all repainted and in good shape. He doubted it was the same boat, but it sure was pretty though.
The announcer addressed the crowd again. All the lobstermen looked at each other knowingly and Quint could see a few make a thumb’s up gesture. Maybe they thought they could all win it, he thought. He was sure his luck had run out for the day, but was curious to see who would end up winning the boat. He glanced down at his three remaining tickets but didn’t hold out much hope.
“6-15-20-2-66” the announcer said.
“Nope, not mine. Oh well,” he said to himself.
There was a lot of rustle and low-key murmuring in the audience as a bunch of lobstermen gathered in a circle with their heads together and their hands out looking at their tickets.
“What the heck is going on, Dad? Who won the boat?”
“I don’t know, son, but I guess we’ll find out in a minute.”
Quint felt someone at his left elbow and looked up to see Emmet looking down at him.
“How much money you got in your pocket, son?” he said.
“Just tell me how much money you got in your pocket,” he demanded.
Emmet didn’t crack a smile, but was very serious. His father poked him and said, “Answer him, son.”
Quint felt down in his pocket and felt a couple bills. He didn’t know how they got there as he’d just given all the money he had for the raffle tickets. However he pulled the money out and it turned out to be $2.
“Two dollars,” he said, meekly.
“Seems like enough to me. What do you all think?” he said, as he turned to the crowd of fishermen behind him.
“Yeah, Yeah,” they all said in chorus. “That should be just about right,” said another lobsterman.
Emmet held out a raffle ticket to Quint and said, “Son, I’ll sell you my winning raffle ticket for that $2. Whadda ya say?”
“What?” Quint said, flabbergasted. “Don’t you want the boat?”
“That is my boat, Quint,” he said. “It’s the same boat’s been in my yard that you keep looking at all the time. Since you didn’t seem to want it, we decided to fix it up and raffle it off for a good cause. But you know what? I can’t think of anyone better than you to win it.”
All this time, Emmet is standing there with a serious straight face. All of a sudden he let out with a big guffaw and the crowd joined in.
Still flabbergasted, Quint handed over the money and Emmet gave him the ticket. It never occurred to him that Emmet actually had a raffle ticket for his own boat. Then all the lobstermen standing nearby lifted him up on their shoulders and took him over to see his new boat. He was a real lobsterman now.
That Christmas turned out to be a good one after all. His mother came home the day before and she said she was feeling better every day. The new medicine seemed to help a lot.
On Christmas Eve, Quint and his father were in the kitchen trying to put together some macaroni and cheese and hotdogs for the family supper that night. Quint was feeling a little guilty that he had won all that stuff down at the Landing and his brothers had nothing. He’d put the money he was saving for the boat, $27.50, into the kitchen money jar where they kept money for day-to-day needs as far as food went. He would continue to contribute some of his paper route money for the rest of the winter at least.
His two older brothers, Paulie and Frankie, got jobs shoveling the businesses out up on Main Street after the recent storm. His father had lucked out and got two part time jobs; one as a snow plow driver for the city in which he got paid by the storm; and helping out part-time down at the ferry terminal. He thought he might get that job up at the fish market on Park Street that he’d applied for. Between what the boys put into the jar and what Winny came up with they managed to get two small chickens to roast for tomorrow and some vegetables to go with it. They also got a pumpkin pie and an apple pie that were day old at the local bakery.
Evelyn would sit at the kitchen table and direct her men as to the cooking on Christmas. They were all looking forward to having their mother around again. She was feeling better and better every day. Tonight they had set her up on the coach so she could be with the family but also lie down if she got tired.
Paulie and Frankie were in the living room seeing to their mother. The younger boys, Butch and Billy, were supposed to be helping set the table but they were doing more running around than anything.
As Winny was about to spoon out dinner on the plates he stopped for a minute.
“Hey, guys, did you hear that?”
The boys stopped what they were doing and listened. They all heard car doors slamming and a lot of happy sounding laughter and then there was a loud knock on the front door. Billie and Butch ran to the front door and opened it wide.
All they could see was a huge Christmas tree already fixed up on a stand. Then they heard the voice of Emmet Ames from somewhere behind the tree. “Anyone need a Christmas tree in here?” he said in his booming voice.
The evening meal was all but forgotten as in came the tree; bags full of prettily wrapped presents and about ten people. Quint recognized a couple of nurses from the hospital and Emmet of course, but wasn’t sure he knew the rest.
Emmet said, “You boys know where your mother’s tree decorations are?”
Butch spoke up excitedly. “I do. I do.”
“Well you best go get them,” Emmet said, “so you can trim this here tree. We have to have something to put these presents under don’t we?”
The boys ran off in a whirl as all the welcome intruders were greeted and there were happy handshakes all around.
“Quint,” Emmet said. “We brought your boat and gear too. You wanna come out in the driveway and help us put the tarp over it? We’ll put the traps inside it and maybe you can find a place in the shed to store the rest of the gear. OK?”
“Sure,” Quint said as he grabbed his coat and ran out the door with two other lobstermen he thought he knew.
The lobstermen soon had the boat and the gear covered up. Then Emmet went back to his truck and pulled some more stuff out.
“Hey, me and the boys had some extra stuff laying around and I threw in a couple buoys to get you started. We’ll put this stuff in the shed, OK?”
Quint was again flabbergasted in the same way he was the day of the raffle. He managed to tweak out a “Thank you.”
“Ah, it’s nothing, son. We lobstermen all got to stick together, right?”
Emmet held out his hand and shook Quint’s like a real man. Quint felt so grown up and proud.
Emmet said, “Son, your Dad says you been helping out here a lot; taking care of your brothers; trying to help with the cooking and stuff and then going up to see your mother every day besides doing your paper route. Well she’s home now and things are beginning to look up so your father says. So here’s what I want you to do, OK?”
Quint listened intently. He thought to himself. How can it get any better than this?
Emmet continued, “You know my wife, Mildred don’t ya? She came with us tonight.”
Quint shook his head “yes.” “Sure I know her. She’s the mitten lady. She makes mittens for us kids in the neighborhood. She gave me a pair once.”
“Well Mildred is going to come by as much as she can and look after your mother; try to catch you all up on the housework, laundry, etc. And…she wants you and the two little buggers to come over every school day morning and have some breakfast before you go to school. You think you can handle getting them over to our house OK?”
“Sure I can, but what do I tell my mother? She’ll be expecting to make it for us.”
“Don’t worry about that, we’ll take care of that and don’t tell your father anything about it, OK. He leaves pretty early anyway, right?
Quint shook his head yes.
“OK, then. If you can handle that one thing, all you have to worry about is school and your paper route. Let your father and me worry about the rest of it. Then we’ll get your boat in the water in the spring. OK?”
Quint shook his head yes again. How could he argue with that? Suddenly he felt a big weight lifting off his 12-year-old shoulders.
“Also, do you know Eliza Steele, the county nurse?”
“Sure. She comes to school to check us all out once a year.”
“Eliza will also be coming by to check up on your mother and how she’s doing. That’s her job so don’t be surprised if you see her coming, OK?”
“OK, Mr. Ames. Thank you very much…”
“Hey,” someone yelled from the open door of the house, “c’mon back in and get some pizza before it gets cold.”
The last man in the door that night had held out a bunch of pizza boxes to Winny. “Here, take these out in the kitchen and we can all grab a slice,” he said. Macaroni and cheese and hot dogs were soon forgotten.
Emmet gave Quint a pat on the back and they both went back into the house.
The evening turned into a real party. Paulie got out his guitar and strummed some chords so they could all sing Christmas carols. He sometimes got to play with the country bands that came to town. He was quite good at it too. The tree was beautiful even if Billy and Butch had put all the ornaments mostly in one place. Frankie put the lights on for them and Evelyn’s eyes glowed with joy when she saw the tree all lit up. She loved Christmas lights so much.
That Christmas Eve and the Christmas Day that followed were the happiest Quint and the rest of the family could ever remember. The people who came that Christmas Eve also brought Christmas dinner with them, all ready to warm up in the oven. Evelyn’s “boys” would not have to bungle their way through cooking a big dinner after all. The menu they’d planned would make another good meal later on.
Quint never forgot his first lobster boat and how he’d come about it. It was a conspiracy of course, but he could never figure out how he’d also gotten the gear to go with it. Was that part of it just luck or would the men have done the same thing if he hadn’t won the gear? He’d probably never know the answer to that question.
Merry Christmas to all my friends and family; to everyone in the South End and to everyone up in Maine.
Note: I’d like to thank Kendall Merriam, Woody Post, and brother, Ted Sylvester, for all their help as I was writing this story. Thanks for listening.