Dad and me in 1958. I think he gave me that haircut. And the cowboy shirt. I had nothing to do with the bow tie, however.
A number of years ago, I wrote a memoir about my unusual family. It was very well received by a number of publishers who then unanimously rejected it. It seems a book about a family where no one was locked in a closet and starved or chained in the basement with rats won’t sell and that was the end of that. The book was called Centerboard (my father loved to sail) and followed the nine Gelber brothers (and Mom and Dad) through the fifties and into the 60’s. In honor of my Dad and Dads everywhere, Chapter One is today’s post. Enjoy (and call your Dad).
My father was of the opinion that the laws of physics didn’t apply to him. For that matter, I don’t think he subscribed to the laws of nature either. He did, after all, father nine sons in a row. It was 1957 or maybe 1958 and my father, a surgeon who took great pride in the accomplishments of his very gifted hands, decided to build a sailboat. Well, actually, it started out as just a boat. It was later that he decided that it should sail.
We all lived in a big house overlooking a small lake in a quiet village in upstate New York. The house was pink. It was pink the day we moved there in 1956 and was pink until we sold it in 2011.
One evening late in the fall, right after dinner, I went down to the basement – not to the playroom where the TV was, but to the workbench. The workbench was the personal domain of my father. You messed with his tools at your peril; bending dimes in the metal vise attached to the side of the workbench was attempted only during the working hours of a surgeon. If he caught you or even suspected you were messing with the vise, you were in trouble. Big trouble. He had an odd sixth sense about his tools. He could tell if someone had so much as touched a chisel or taken a shot at the wall with his staple gun. He didn’t know who, but he knew.
That evening, I went down to watch my very talented father yell and curse at a sheaf of papers that I can only assume were the directions. There was a large pile of wood, mostly cut into odd, vaguely boat-shaped pieces. There was also a lot of sawdust and the smell of glue – not Elmer’s glue like today, but glue factory glue probably made from the hides of old race horses that couldn’t even muster a show in a claimer at Saratoga.
Laid out in a boat-like pattern were the big pieces of wood and alongside, some smaller deck-looking things. He was trying to figure out just how to attach the sides of the boat to the bottom without whacking holes in it. The directions must have said to nail the sides to the bottom but he was having none of it. Put nails in the bottom of a boat, he must have thought? How dumb is that if you want the thing to float?
He barely acknowledged my presence and kept on working and cursing and working a little more. There were many evenings that fall and winter that I watched and sometimes even helped. He’d let me hold a piece of wood after he’d glued it or used me for a third hand if he needed it. I even felt that maybe there was some camaraderie going on here, although at the age of six I didn’t exactly know what camaraderie was. He was, however smiling more and cursing less.
By the spring, all the wood had been used up. The directions, once neatly packaged, were stained and wrinkled and in a state of disarray. The floor was covered in sawdust, bent nails and wood chips. And there, by the stairway, next to the workbench, sat, wonder of wonders, a boat. A pram they called them. Squat and squared at both ends, it looked more like a bathtub than a thing of seaworthiness. It wasn’t painted yet and the caulk and glue oozed from every join and miter. My father stood over it – proud, defiant, larger than life. He had built a boat.
“Charlie, my boy, what color shall we paint it?” he said to me.
“Blue”, I said, knowing that he had already bought the paint and sparing him the explanation of why red is a lousy color for a boat.
“Blue it is.” And he opened the can of blue gloss marine paint. No primer, of course. Primer was for losers, he must have thought. Real men use paint. Only pantywaists and sissies bother with primer. It must have occurred to him four or five coats of blue gloss marine paint later that he should have primed it first. Cover the wood a little better, maybe.
At some point between screwing in the oarlocks and that little brass eye that goes through the bow, my father had an idea. A really good idea. There were a few pages left in the directions that were labeled “optional sail package instructions.” All he had to do was order the pre-made spars and sails, put in a mounting bracket for the mast and rudder and …cut a hole in the bottom of the boat for the centerboard.
“What the hell is a centerboard?” he said to no one in particular even though I was standing two feet away from him. I didn’t know and didn’t hazard a guess.
“I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to cut a hole in the bottom of my new boat”, he said, again to no one in particular. So my father added the optional sail package, leaving out what he interpreted to be the optional centerboard.
The sails arrived as did the day we were to take our maiden voyage. Maybe it was because my three older brothers took less interest in his big boat project or maybe they were scared or smarter than I was, but my father asked me to go out in the new sailboat with him.
Next order of business, bring the boat up the stairs. My father asked my oldest brother Ben, who was eleven, to help him hump the ungainly boat up the basement steps and out into the backyard. The lake was in back, down a steep embankment with a winding trail to the bottom. The trail was part of a network of trails around Collins Lake worn into the hillside by generations of kids off on adventures. Everyone called it “The Monkey Trail.”
“How do you know it’ll fit through the door?” my brother asked. My father ignored the question.
“Don’t scratch it on the banister. Look out for the wall. Watch what you’re doing.” He rattled off a series of commands that met with no response. This was not an invitation to have a conversation.
The boat was at the top of the stairs on its side. The door was clearly high enough to accommodate it but the opening was too narrow.
“Gotta take the door off. Take it back down. Watch out for the wall,” my father said. Again, no response was required.
Back down the stairs they went with the boat, setting it back into its place among the sawdust. My father, hammer and screwdriver in hand, went up to dismantle the door. The door came off pretty easily and was now leaning up against the pink stucco of the house. There was no screen door so the basement was now open to any and all bugs lurking in the yard. I don’t know where my mother was at the time, but I’m sure she would have complained about the open door had she seen it. Once again Benjy – he wasn’t to become Ben for another few years – headed up the basement stairs with my father, the blue boat and a newfound respect for measuring tapes.
“Godammit”, my father rarely used any other profanity in the presence of his children but godammit was perfectly acceptable. The boat still didn’t fit.
“Where’s the goddamn crowbar?” he roared. I swear I didn’t know whether he was going to whack Ben in the head with it or take off the door frame. The boat went back down the stairs again and my father went back up the stairs wielding the crowbar. I can’t imagine why my father even had a crowbar. Maybe it was for times like this. It didn’t take long for him to pry the door frame away from the plaster walls. The wooden frame pieces made a kind of shrieking sound as they were ripped away.
“That ought to do it”, he said.
I watched from my usual spot next to the workbench as my father for a third time ascended the staircase with his eldest son and a slightly scraped blue boat. With considerable body english and an expletive deleted, the boat popped out of the doorway and into the back yard.
“Charlie, go get the sails and carry them down to the lake.” So, with a combination of fear and delight, I headed for the garage. The sails had already been attached to the wooden spars and the whole rig was rolled into an unwieldy package of dangling ropes, canvas, all manner of unusual brass hooks, fasteners and wooden poles. It was also three times my six-year-old size.
By the time I wrestled the “sails” out of the garage and onto the back lawn, my father and Ben were halfway down the trail to the lake. I needed some help. It’s an odd thing. At the time, there were seven children and, on that day, only two were accounted for. Bob was probably in the basement watching TV because that’s where he always was, but what about Frank and Brian? Frank was seven and Brian was four, certainly old enough to help me haul the sails down to the lake. They were nowhere to be found.
“What’s the problem with those sails?” my father yelled. “Don’t you want to go sailing?”
Now here’s what must have happened. Based on prior knowledge, I knew that my brother Ben, being the oldest, was by orders of magnitude, my father’s favorite. I also knew that Ben understood, even at the age of eleven, that getting into a boat that my father had built, centerboard or no centerboard, was potentially life threatening and he would have no part of it. Ben was also the only one with any sailing experience since he had tried it the preceding summer on Lake George at Camp Chingachgook.
“It won’t sail straight without a centerboard, Dad.” Ben said.
“Since when are you an expert?” said my father. That was his standard reply whenever anyone told him anything unless, of course, he was speaking to an actual expert. It’s worth noting that when speaking to an actual expert, my father would listen intently, taking detailed mental notes so that he could recycle the information with an air of “expertness” to any who would listen. Had he spoken to an actual sailing expert earlier that day, the conversation would have been more like, “You know, Ben, the centerboard’s function is to counteract the thermopassive force vectors of the prevailing hydromolecular pressure caused by the wind so that even if the wind is in your face, the boat goes forward.”
“I’m not going.” Ben said.
“Fine, I’ll just take Charlie,” my father said as I dragged the sails, spars and ropes onto the rickety wooden dock he had built a few summers before. In fact, substitute “dock” for “boat” in this story and knock a couple years off all the ages and there’ll be no need to tell that one.
My father and Ben carried the blue pram to the end of the dock and carefully slid it into Collins Lake. It did, indeed, float. My father attached the rudder without incident and then began to tackle the sails. Since they were already attached to the mast and the mast to the boom, it should have been simply a matter of stepping the mast and raising the sails. But it wasn’t. The mast didn’t fit in the hole that had been drilled in the plywood plank that was nailed over the front seat to hold the mast. The mast was supposed to fit through that hole and through a hole in the front seat and set into a wooden block in the bottom of the boat. It didn’t.
“Goddammit, the mast is too big,” he roared. And he stormed up the hill with what appeared to be steam coming out of his ears.
Since there was no electricity down at the lake, the reasonable approach to the problem would have been to take the boat out of the water and back up the hill, run an extension cord into the backyard and drill the holes a little larger. A really long extension cord from the house to the lake also might have worked, but he probably would have electrocuted himself in the process. The battery-operated drill hadn’t been invented yet. A hand drill might have worked but not very well because the hole was so big.
Minutes later, my father came down the hill, hammer and chisel in hand.
“Couple of whacks with this thing and it ought to fit just fine.” And he went at it with an air of determination I have always associated with warfare and disaster movies.
“Try it now”, he said, the sweat dripping from his bald head.
The holes, which were perfectly round before, looked a little like three leaf clovers or the club suit on a deck of cards. The mast slipped easily through the holes and actually set perfectly into the block in the bottom of the boat, which apparently had been the right size all along. The problem now was stability. The mast moved around in the now slightly oversized hole.
“The wind will keep it from moving too much”, he said with more hope than conviction.
“Let’s go, Charlie,” he said, turning to me as I sat watching from the shore.
The wind was blowing from directly behind us so the boat was pretty much sailing even before I got in. Ben was trying to hold it at the dock as we boarded, my father in the back seat and me in the middle seat. I could see little beads of water forming where the sides of the boat joined the bottom.
“Don’t worry, the wood expands when it gets wet and it seals the joints”, my father said.
“Yeah, right,” I thought, “since when are you an expert?”
With the wind behind us, the lack of a centerboard wasn’t much of an issue. As I learned later, you can sail a refrigerator straight downwind without a centerboard. I have to admit that, for the five or so minutes it took to get from our dock to the other side of the lake, it was fun. I’m not sure if I got more pleasure from the sailing or watching the look of sheer pride on my father’s face. Then, as they say in the news, something went horribly wrong. We had to turn. We had run out of lake.
“Ready about,” he said. I have no idea where he learned the jargon. “Hard alee!”
I had no clue what he was talking about so I just watched what he did. He threw the tiller hard to his right and slid over to the starboard side of the boat. He fully expected the boat to turn onto a port tack and head away from the shore. The boat turned and the sail filled but instead of heading back across the lake, the boat went sideways toward the shore. In the mild chaos that always seems to accompany coming about, it didn’t immediately occur to me that anything was amiss. Then the boat tipped over, depositing the two of us into the unexpectedly cold water of Collins Lake in May.
“Stay with the boat!” my father screamed with a panic in his voice that was anything but reassuring to a six-year-old. “Stay with the boat!”
He had prepped me for my first sailing experience by telling me how, if the boat capsized, to stay with the boat, holding on to it to stay afloat. My young mind interpreted that as, “if there’s a hurricane on Collins Lake while we’re sailing, the boat might turn over and that staying with the boat until the Coast Guard helicopter arrived would be a smart thing to do.”
I stood up. The water barely covered my knees. “What for?” I asked.
The optional centerboard kit arrived a few days later and with fear and trepidation, my father sliced an eighteen inch gash into the bottom of the boat to accommodate it. It still didn’t sail worth a good goddam but at least it didn’t go sideways. It also leaked worse than ever, the wood refusing to expand in compliance with the laws of nature.