Elmer Collemer, wide boards, skinny berth

By Katharyn McLean | Aug 04, 2010
A Collemer Friendship sloop.

The first time I met Elmer it was a warm late summer day and the door to his boat barn was wide open. I had come with my father to check on the progress of a boat my father was having built. Lazy, black-eyed Susans squished up against the tired old barn door jockeying for position and greeted us on our way inside. Others were more determined, toughing up and up as they squeezed through huge wide boards stacked carefully, deep at the end of the driveway. Elmer looked like Noah against the beamy girth of the gigantic hull.

This boat project was a mystery to me; my father had never mentioned it before, but that would be my father. I tried not to step back in horror when I discovered Elmer had only three of his fingers remaining on one hand; I tried not to stare. I looked back up at his weathered face, map-like in charted lines. Did the sea do that to everyone, I wondered. Maine was always dancing in the summer, bright and cheerful. Later I came to know that locals would stockpile this heaven to buffer harsher skies.

Elmer was a man of few words and had a slight lift to his voice when agreeing, with the classic "ayah" in his Maine accent. His eyes were kind, glancing from time to time to my face. The first thing I wondered was how did that wood, straight and rigid, become the whale-like shape curving wide then back together when it met up again at both ends. There were giant prehistoric ribs exposed down one side as if huge ravens and turkey vultures had had their pickings. A steamy haze left its scent on my tongue and wrapped itself around me as it wandered throughout the barn like a friendly ghost. As I looked back at this ship, I wondered how this massive thing make its way to the water. We had come through a door that would not yield, I was certain.

Elmer sensed my curiosity, something that met with impatience at home. "Look around if you want, just don't get too close to the steaming barrels," he said. "They're not too forgiving, they're wicked hot."

I smiled back at him with a bit of a blush for having been noticed at all. I gave a silent nod before I started off on my investigation. There were huge saw blades baring teeth large enough to eat you and long work tables with vices to grip even the most reluctant. Long curls of wood lay about this barbershop and had some form of laughter in their bounce. We didn't stay as long as I would have liked to on that day, but I was thrilled to have discovered this curious place, and happier to know the kind of boat was a Friendship sloop. That had to be a good omen.

Ten years old wasn't quite old enough to navigate much on my own in this new world, and 1963 was clearly a rough year to move to Maine as a city kid. I knew instantly we were separate, separate from these weather-beaten locals, but not knowing why. As a summer person I never considered the rest of the year.

Summer let go and fall gripped the skies with colors that weren't entirely cheerful to me, although the trees were turning a glorious mythical blaze. As the colors deadened and the leaves began to fall, more of the sky matched the turn of the earth, gray and brown. I wasn't going back home, back to Washington, D.C.; this was home now. The permanent move came with a shudder that accompanied me most everywhere that first fall and winter. I didn't want new friends, I wanted my old steady ones. I wanted everything that came before, everything that could stay the same. I wanted to run back. No one could have prepared me for what lay ahead in loneliness or exile.

My brother and I were the first guinea pigs, of our collection of six, to begin school in this quickly cooling place where trees gave up more life than I wanted to witness, and left you bare and gray and very silent. Wind that had once been my friend for so many summers on the sea became my enemy. We walked to school now in weather that came sideways at you; stinging hot cold rain mixed with bits of ice. Nothing good would come of this, I felt certain. I woke every morning in darkness in this place that would never forgive or let go; it was too dark, it was too cold, it was too hard. I cried along with the weather in "drizzmal" harmony.

I cried for myself, but I cried deeply for my brother. We were alone in this unknown, but newly flipped society, and it seemed we would remain so. He was 6 foot 2 inches in sixth grade, a gawky freak to them, no one to dwarf him here, and they didn't like it. He was a source of cruel entertainment, as he kept wandering on the fringe of the playground for months, not a friend in sight. I continued to cry hard in my pillow for him at night, coming up for air, to pray for a friend for him. We mostly felt like we were on the moon, a cold unforgiving moon.

I missed everything about the city, my home, my school, my friends, my mind as it was then; full-time Halloween without the sweet of candy, and in a house too big for winters. It was a beautiful house, however, smack on the ocean, but the crashing waves pounded our diminishing selves. Winter had never arrived in these ways before, grasping on to you for months lasting years. To say it was our new frontier would be an understatement, winter was unrecognizable now.

Summer people; I hadn't really considered the concept, I never really thought of myself that way all those summers, but I wanted to be just that again, a summer person. I took all those summer friends I had for granted, never realizing they wouldn't be there when true darkness arrived in the fifth grade for me. We were from away.

Two station wagons later brought up the rear of my family, followed by Atlas trucks piled high with our little lives that spilled into our big house with our big family, into this little town. This little town that kept to itself, with invisible borders that we ran up against constantly, like an electric fence full of shocking jolts. Except for my brother, the rest of the tribe was too young to notice the shun, I was grateful for that anyway. These years wore on for two more before the real bottom fell out. My parents after uprooting us two years prior, were now divorcing -- like we weren't already the freaks de jour, like my already compromised central nervous system wasn't already trashed; and we all fall down.

We all fall down was really the only way to describe the falling apart of our family. Suffering silently was the WASP way, so nothing of any real help was offered up, or spoken of, to glue the bits of ourselves back together. There we were expected to march on without maps or shoulders to lean on, certainly not to cry on. Buck up and snap out of it, that was the mantra. Fear seemed to take up residency as we moved out of the house we had barely moved into, and unpacked again in our new home. Our new house was at the top of the same road, conveniently spooky. I wandered around within myself looking for an exit lane, a rotary without detour wound its way around me instead. There was more silence as we walked ourselves to school like lemmings headed for the cliff. My brother's loneliness accompanied me everywhere; I was losing my way as my catatonic self emerged.

As I walked home from school in late November with weather that froze hard and spit ice shards sideways, smoke fell lightly down around me from a chimney. It suddenly appeared my refuge -- that wondrous place I had forgotten for so long. The smoke had led me there. I stood outside motionless, with frozen bits of my hair stuck to my face as I dared to open the heavy door to Elmer's boat barn. As I stepped closer and took the heavy latch in my hand I almost backed away in the same movement. The smoke took my hand and the steamy warmth wrapped itself around me escorting me inside. He was as surprised to see me as I was shocked at my boldness to open this door again, on my own. He was still a stranger, but he welcomed me in. What was I doing here? I barely knew what to say once I made my timid entrance. The kind man who stood before me sensed my cold and lonely awkwardness, and smiled as he said, "Come stand by the stove, it will warm you right up." A little lost girl of 10, I must have had that written straight across my forehead.

"Thank you Elmer," I mumbled, in a barely audible voice. I stood mute warming by the stove until his gentle voice gave me the nerve to look up at him.

"Come over, see how far I have come since your last visit," he said. I wanted to have those strong arms and kindness sweep me up. With more shyness and blush than I cared to share, I stepped into this world again, grateful to be at his stove, in his presence, warming every frozen place.

We walked around the entire beast of the boat. What had transpired since my last visit took my breath away. How could he have done this all on his own? The skeletal dinosaur side was all closed up by boards like magic. I could hardly tell where one began and another joined in. We climbed a ladder up against this sleeping beast and descended into the place of many places; a dollhouse for sailors, I thought grinning.

"Down here is where all the mechanical stuff is going to go, and up there in the bow, well that's the big berth's home, and back here, that's where you're maybe going to sleep. There are going to be two more berths over there."

It was Noah's beauty for certain, or Swiss Family Robinsons' dream. I could live here with this stranger I thought, this stranger with warmth spilling down gently from every crack in his face, from his kind eyes, to his drawings in the air of places not made yet. This was more than I could have ever wished for that day. My cold loneliness took leave of me.

"Take a peak around while I haul the steaming boards out. I have to bend them now."

I walked back to his workbench where Shirley Temple curls lay softly in tiny ringlets bouncing up against each other like a gaggle of girls in unstoppable laughter. I picked one up holding it in my hand, its feather weight and curl delighting me. I wanted some to take home, but I would not dare to ask. I gazed back toward Elmer from the workbench in swirling steam from his cauldron, pulling rounded pieces of wood out with his gigantic black rubber gloves guiding newly fashioned wood into forms that would insist on a shape. He was a magician.

I turned back to the bench where massive vices held softer curves that had a place to live somewhere soon I imagined. I stepped farther down the workbench to discover tiny vices I had not noticed before. These held carved curling shapes with wave like designs in perfectly mirrored sides. They were precious little pieces that I thought would fit in my dollhouse as maybe rocking chairs. They had rhythm. I found drawers that held deep dark wooden shapes, black as night, and other drawers filled with bits of the moon. I had never seen mother of pearl before, luminous and lovely. He could have asked God for these, and God would have given them freely to such a man. I held these close hoping some of their magic might spill into me. Other drawers were filled with bright tiny screws, certainly too small for a boat this size. Perhaps they kept him company.

Elmer came over watching my discoveries. He seemed thrilled with my curiosity. It must be lonely to work all by yourself all the time, I thought, as he came up beside me.

"Did you find all my treasures?" he asked. He knew I had been peaking through every drawer. There was the kindest face looking back at my delight and discovery.

I opened the drawer with the bits of the moon and asked, "Where did you find these?" Elmer let a bit of laughter escape as he turned to me and explained.

"Well, those are mother of pearl. That is a beautiful shell that comes from far away and I have to send away to get it. I use it in the special places where you'd see it even in the fog."

There were huge carved pieces that looked as though they had a giant as their keeper. My bold inquisitive mind had a hundred questions, but dared not exhaust him on my first visit. His work was magic, and I half expected to see a genie appear from the steam. I wondered, what was the color that sang in his heart?

I had found the secret door to my heart that day. I discovered my shelter, my refuge. I had a place for comfort, a place I seemed to matter. I didn't mind that he was a silent kind of man. He spoke softly in every twinkle. I worried less in my loneliness. I had my own secret garden and a boat was the flowering landscape. I wanted to stop there every day, but I did not want him to tire of me, or be in the way. But Elmer said the same thing every time I left,

"Don't forget me, don't be a stranger." Elmer began to fill the darkened places I tiptoed through, and the ones I ran breathless from.

Katharyn is a writer/photographer living in Camden. She can be contacted at katharynmclean@yahoo.com.




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