Time constricts. You turn your head for a moment, and bills pile up, deadlines approach, laundry and dishes clutter. It seems like just last week I was sending pictures of my popsicle stick boat model to Mike, and saying “I think it’ll take about a month to build.” That was March. Now it’s July and five weeks until I set sail on my book tour, which could either be my big break, or a huge flop.
In mid-June, Katie quit her job to see what else is out there. I encouraged her to do so. (I left a career at the New York State Assembly to write and travel, and although it’s been hard financially, I think the benefits of working for myself, setting my own schedule, working outside of an office, experiencing the sun in the middle of the day–far outweigh the costs.) With alacrity she offered to help me construct the boat, and I eagerly accepted her help. It came at an especially opportune time, because Sam, who ‘d been helping me on weekdays, is a recent father, and can’t come down to help as often.
So we went to New Baltimore to put a second coat of primer on the canoes. It was late June and about 95 degrees. Katie rolled up her sleeves as we mixed the paint and flipped the canoes upside down. With sweat beading on her forehead, she said, “This feels great. I’m out of the office. I feel like a real laborer!” It took about an hour to coat both canoes with white paint.
My dad, meanwhile, was cutting firewood from some recently-felled trees, as my mother burned brush and leaves. After a while, Dad passed us, under their carport, where there was a pile of about 50 forty-pound bags of mulch. My parents were having their driveway resealed the next day, and my dad had to get the bags of mulch off the driveway. I felt like a brat painting while my father, already sweating buckets, began to move the mulch bags onto the lawn. So I put my brush down and went over to help him. Katie followed, watched me throw a bag over my shoulder, and carry it onto the pile. She bent, tried to lift a bag, and couldn’t get it over her shoulder.
“How much do you think this bag weighs?” she asked. She spends about an hour a day working out, and I think she thought that would translate to manual strength. But there is a kind of strength that builds in your bones and sinews as much as in your connective muscles from years of doing things like raking and lifting mulch, which is different from the kinds of muscles you build doing pushups and leg lifts.
“I’d say it weighs about 40 pounds,” I said.
Undeterred, Katie bent and lifted a bag, which much effort, dragged it ten feet away, and put it on the ground by the pile of mulch. I lifted it onto the top of the pile. This went on as we helped Dad with twenty or so bags. Finally my mother came up from the bonfire, saw Katie lifting the heavy bags, and said,
“Katie! What are you doing!”
“I’m LABORING!” Katie said. I couldn’t help but laugh at how she brought the word full-circle, and enjoyed doing manual work.
Next, Katie and I carried the pieces of the deck out from the workshop onto the driveway as the canoes dried. I only needed Dad’s help for the middle, heaviest section, which is composed of a piece of plywood connected to six 2X4s. By then the canoes were dry, so Katie and I carried them to the driveway and measured the distance between them. We placed the sections of the deck on top.
I’d bought new bolts capable of passing through the multiple pieces of plywood and joists. The idea was that the deck would be built of multiple sections, each of which could be carried by Katie and I and stacked in the back of a pickup truck, and then bolted together at the river on the canoes. That, I figured, would allow Katie and I (or Mike or Sam or Dad and I) to use the boat whenever we wanted, without a trailer. We lined up the deck and drilled the holes for the bolts to connect the two center pieces. But when we put the back section of the deck in place, we realized that we didn’t have bolts long enough to pass through all the decking and joists. We’d need bolts at least 7″ long. So we drove up to True Value in Ravena and bought the bolts. As soon as we got back, I held the bolts next to the two sections of deck, and saw that they would be long enough to pass through the two sections of deck and connect them. But then I tried to drill the holes for the bolts to pass through, and my drill bit was too short.
It was now almost four o’clock in the afternoon, and although we’d been working for five hours, we’d only painted the two canoes and drilled four holes. I didn’t want to stop again to drive back to the store and spend another $15 on a longer drill bit. So, while Katie held the two sections of deck in place (by sitting on them), I drilled holes through the back deck, and then we took that deck section off. There were dimples in the bottom deck where the drill bit had passed through and made its impression. I used the bit to drill the holes through the bottom deck where the dimples were. Then we put the back deck back in place. I was able to pass bolts through two of the holes, connecting the decks in those two places, but I couldn’t put a bolt through one of the holes, because the hole was situated right above the canoe, and it hit the canoe instead of passing through. And another hole in the top deck didn’t line up with the hole in the bottom deck, because I must not have drilled them straight, so I couldn’t get the bolt through there. The engine I’d just bought would be attached to the back deck, and it needed to be connected damn well to the rest of the boat, or else the 7.5 horsepower force of the engine would just break the back deck off from the front. Two little bolts would not do the trick. So I lost my patience and started to curse and throw tools around. But seeing Katie there, I thought I needed to be more manly and not get so frustrated as soon something didn’t turn out as planned. (Especially because Katie is going with me on this boat tour, and is kind of nervous because 6 of 7 of my previous rafts sank, and asks me, now and again, to explain to her why I believe that this new raft will be safe.)
So I was kind of throwing things around in frustration, and Katie was offering to help if I could give her some direction, which I couldn’t, because I was frustrated (a word that means you have run out of ideas). Luckily, just at that moment, my friend Jake pulled into the driveway. He’d offered to help to get the new outboard motor I’d bought running. He would’ve come earlier in the day, but he had to wait to pick up his two year old daughter, Rosalyn, from daycare.
Jake’s arrival relieved a lot of stress, because Katie basically looked to me for direction, because the raft construction was my plan based on my previous experiences, but I was out of ideas. Jake is a hands-on type, who owns an outboard motor and is fixing up an old sailboat, so we could look to him for fresh direction.
Katie hadn’t met Jake before. Indeed, except for a visit from Jake two weeks earlier, I hadn’t seen Jake in about ten years. But he is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. He messaged me one night while I was working at El Loco, because he is running for Town Council in New Baltimore, and I had run for Assembly in that district five years ago, and he was looking for advice.
I want to make an aside right here and just say that I think of Jake Cowell as a great friend and a spectacular candidate for office. He is a gym teacher, he has travelled all over the country, he has been dating the same woman as long as I’ve known him (who is also very sweet and smart), to whom he is married with a two-year old daughter. When he told me he was running for office, my first thought was not whether he would do a good job, but whether the process of running for office was good for him, as a person. Because when you run for office, you have to interact with a lot of people who you know you could help, but they will only vote for whatever party they are registered for, even if it is against their own interest, the interest of their community, the interest of their family, and the economic interest of the area. But I sat down with Jake two weeks earlier and after ten years I found that he was the same smart guy, who loves life, who grew up in the area and wants to help as best he can, who has ideas and energy, who is invested in the area as a property owner and the patriarch of a family, who is neither a strict liberal or strict conservative, but someone who wants to bring the community together to lower taxes, stimulate economic activity, and just make the area a place for people to be proud to say that they live in. Plus the damn guy is busy as heck between raising a family, his own hobbies, and running for office, but he wanted to come over and help me with my boat motor, after not seeing me for ten years.
So Jake came and introduced Katie and I to Roselyn, who was shy at first, but immediately took a liking to Katie. Katie picked her up and showed her around my parent’s yard, looking at trees and dandelions, as Jake and I carried the 1957 Johnson two-stroke engine out into the yard and hooked up a hose and tried to get it started for the first time.
The man who sold me the motor said it ran great. However, the rubber fuel lines, which run from the 1957 gas tank to the motor, were cracked, and the fuel in the tank was old. There are two dials on the motor which point to “lean” and “rich”, which I didn’t really understand. There are some other switches which I didn’t completely understand either. Anyhow, Jake showed me how to prime the motor by pushing a button on the gas tank which pressurizes the tank and sends the fuel up into the engine. We took off the engine’s cover and Jake marveled at how clean the parts were, since they are 60 years old. We put the engine in neutral gear, twisted the drive into the “Start” position, pulled out the choke, and pulled the starting cord. Nothing happened. Jake tried pulling about ten more times, and nothing happened. I tried pulling a few more times. We looked at the engine some more. Jake pointed to a little reservoir in a glass bulb which had fuel in it. He played with the choke. We tried to start it with no luck. We tried starting it with the clutch in drive instead of neutral, with the choke pushed in, with the drive set to “forward.” No luck. Jake got some tools from his car, and I got some electrical tape from my parents’ garage, and we mended the fuel lines. We played with the dials. Finally, with the top dial set to “rich” and the bottom dial set about half, we got the engine started. Jake, Katie and I clapped. Roselyn pointed to an airplane flying overhead, which was much more interesting, from her perspective. We tried to adjust the throttle and the engine stalled. We tried to restart it with no luck, again and again, until we primed it even though the fuel reservoir was full. Then the engine roared to life again, but Jake said it seemed to run too fast, and smoke wafted from the impeller, so we shut it off. By now it was almost six at night, Roselyn was getting antsy, Jake’s wife was home, and Katie and I had been working on boat things for seven hours, so I decided to pack it in. Jake was nice enough to help me take the boat apart and carry the heavier pieces back into the garage, and carry the motor back inside, so that Katie wouldn’t have to do it. Then he left, and Katie and I cleaned up the rest of the driveway.
Here is a picture of the workshop I’ve set up in my parents’ garage, in case you’re interested. The windmills which will supplement the propulsive power of the boat are on the wall.
On the way home, I said to Katie, kind of discouraged,
“We just spent eight hours putting a coat of paint on two canoes, drilling eight holes, only six of which will accept the bolts they’re designed for, and starting the engine which is supposed to get us to New York twice.”
Another week passed. Time moves quicker the older you get. I’d like to think that’s because the older you get, the shorter any period of time seems, relative to how long you’ve lived. But I think its also a function of having a life. I work at least five days a week, to pay for things like rent and utilities. We celebrated Katie’s birthday. I’m trying to write a book on the Erie Canal, and that requires reading on the subject two to three hours a day. Anyhow, after a week or so I I hadn’t made any more progress on the boat. So I called the man from Athens who sold me the motor and asked if he’d come up to my parent’s house and try to start the motor with me. Nine days after the events I just described, Katie and I drove to New Baltimore on a rainy Wednesday morning, carried the motor on it’s stand, attached to it’s gas tank, into the driveway, and hooked up the garden hose to the impeller. Mike (the man who sold me the motor) showed up, and we tried to start it. I must have pulled the cord 100 times, because my hands blistered.
We cleaned the spark plugs, took the top off the engine and looked at it’s insides. We fiddled with the starting levers. Still we could barely get the motor started–only after priming aggressively–and then we couldn’t adjust any of the levers without it stalling out. So Mike left, Katie and I drove to Napa, bought new spark plugs, I changed them out, and it made almost no difference. Now we’d spent three hours working on the engine, to no effect, and I had to drive back to Albany to work that night.
I researched the motor on some boating forums. It seems that this engine works in an old fashioned way–it sends air pressure into the gas tank, which in turn sends fuel back up into the engine. Since the fuel lines were cracked, they might have been leaking air, and therefore not pressurizing the engine. My new hypothesis was that if I changed the fuel lines, they wouldn’t leak air, and therefore the engine would get oxygen and not choke out. But the boating forums also had CAPITALIZED WARNINGS THAT THIS KIND OF FUEL TANK CREATES AND EXTREME EXPLOSION RISK.
Nonetheless I only had this engine, so I figured I’d fix it rather than replace it. After all, I’d spent $375 dollars on it, I couldn’t afford to buy a new one or pay a mechanic to retrofit the engine to a new fuel tank, and I’d wanted to learn about motors as part of my list of things to learn in my 30s.
I made that list on the eve of my 30th birthday.
So a week later, Katie and I drove to New Baltimore, determined to clean out the gas tank, change the fuel lines, put new fuel in the engine, and get it running. We wanted to try the boat out in the water with the motor that day. We got to New Baltimore at 10 am. The first thing we did was paint the two canoes yellow–the most striking color, I thought, so that I could attract attention while on the river trying to advertise my book.
Yellow was a good choice: my three-year-old niece was up visiting my parents, and she looked out the window and exclaimed to my mom, “Yellow boats!” That’s exactly the reaction I’m looking for.
Next, I guided Katie around as I cleaned the motor. I was particularly proud to know what I was doing on this task, because I used to make a living cleaning, torching, sandblasting and fixing gas tanks on the night shift at a place in the ghetto of Albany. First I got rid of the old gas the way my grandfather used to: I found a stump in the woods which was in the way, and poured the old fuel on top of it. It will help it disintegrate, so that my parents will be able to drive their truck in that place to get firewood without worrying about popping their tire. Next I used regular dish detergent and a garden hose to clean out the inside of the motor.
It was about ninety degrees and I figured the water would evaporate from the tank if I let it sit in the sun for a while. We touched the canoes, but they were still tacky from the paint. So we drove up to Coeymans Marina to talk to one of the mechanics in the repair shop, just to see how expensive it would be to replace the tank because it is an EXTREME EXPLOSION RISK. The shop was open but we couldn’t find a mechanic. And since Katie had never been to Yanni’s Too Restaurant, we went inside and got a couple of beers and calamari. At that point, Jake, my old college buddy who is running for Town Council, texted me. He was down at Barren Island, and he said we should come down to see the place and take a ride on his sail boat.
This I couldn’t resist. I’ve always been interested in Barren Island. My grandparents used to tell me about an amusement park that was there in the 1910s, with a ferris wheel and observation tower. My mother grew up in Coeymans, a mile upstream, and used to swim in the area and tell me about finding tokens from the amusement park on the beach. Barren Island is a peninsula now, having been connected to the land, like so many of the Hudson River islands, when the Army Corp of Engineers dredged the Hudson and shot the silt onto the shore. In middle school I had a friend named Andrea who lived in Coeymans and I used to walk two miles to her house, and then we would walk down to the island to explore it. I couldn’t believe that an amusement park used to be there, because it’s full of tall trees now, 20 times taller than a man. We’d walk through the woods and look at the abandoned old-timey cars there, and find holes in the ground which must’ve been parts of old foundations, which we were too scared to explore. I couldn’t believe that hundreds of people would take day-liner steamboats from Catskill or Albany to spend their leisure time in this overgrown place. But then I found a book by Edward Giddings called Coeymans and the Past which had pictures of the amusement park, in my grandparent’s lifetime. It really brought home how quickly nature retakes anything man creates and abandons, because there are no traces of any built structures now. When I was in high school, my first real girlfriend and I walked around Barren Island in October, sat on the cliffs overlooking the river, gazed at the fall foliage across the river, and that was probably the first time I really fell in love. After college I read a book by Adrian Van Der Donk, “A Description of New Neatherlands,” written in the early 1700s, which had descriptions of the island. Anyhow I always felt it was a real shame that the place was overgrown and underused, so when Jake told me that he’d fallen into being the caretaker of the island, because his wife was related to Mr. Briggs, the owner, I was almost ecstatic about coming to see what he was doing.
So Katie and I packed some beers in a cooler and drove down to Barren Island. There is a paved road which leads from the highway to the Coeymans Filtration Plant at the southern tip of the island. Right before the gate for the filtration plant there is now a dirt road which leads up through the woods to the north side of the island. When we were almost at the northern tip, Jake’s black lab came running out of the woods and almost jumped through the driver’s window into the car with us. Jake showed us where to park, and we got out, gave Jake a beer, and he gave us a tour. At the top of the biggest hill on the island, Jake had made a clearing where there was a nice lawn and a place for a bonfire. From this spot we could see all the way to Castleton to the north, and across the river to Schodack and Houghteling Islands. Jake had made walking paths, and dug out around the brick foundations of other structures so we could walk around and see what used to be there. This is a kind of preservation which doesn’t get enough credit, because, again, I’d walked around this island for years and never saw exposed foundations, etc, because it was all overgrown private land. He told us about how his wife’s great grandfather, so-and-so Briggs, had built the first electrical power generating plant in the Hudson Valley, after selling his shares in the ice business, because he knew refrigeration would kill that industry. Then he sold the power plant and built the amusement park. Jake had built a stand for his canoes, kayaks and sunfish. He showed us the stairs he had built–which took many man-hours–to descend down the cliffs to the bay at the north of the island, where he had build and floated docks, and where he had a sailboat which he is in the process of fixing up. He offered to take us out on his sailboat (the sails are all destroyed at present, but his sailboat had an outboard motor). So we carried a canoe down, and used a piece of driftwood and a small snow shovel from the trunk of my car to paddle 40 feet out to the docks, which of necessity were situated over deeper water. Then Jake took us out into the river, down around Mathews’s Point. This was not the first time Katie had seen my hometown from the river, for I’d taken her out canoeing, somewhat dangerously, on our fourth of fifth date, but it was the first time we’d been out together on a vessel that didn’t operate under human power, and we felt like a king and a queen in the lap of luxury in this sails-down, broken-deck sailboat with its mast laying across the deck and portions of the railing broken off. After about an hour we got back to Jake’s dock, and he said he had some brush he had to burn that night (a Monday) and we should come and join him for a bonfire. So Katie and I drove back to Albany to feed the cat, get long-sleeved clothes, some more beer, and drove back to Barren Island to meet Jake just before dark.
What a nice time we had that evening. It was twighlight when Jake lit the bonfire, which illuminated the surrounding field and reflected across the cliffs onto the dark river thirty feet below. Over our heads the stars sparkled. I asked Jake about the several poles supporting chains along the dirt road and in the field where we had the bonfire. He laughed and explained that they constituted an Ultimate Frisbee course, and then showed Katie and I all the different kinds of frisbees one uses for the game, as one would choose different clubs for golf. We talked about television shows, and then my book, and then the writing society Katie, my friend Sarah, and I, recently started, which Jake wanted to participate in, if only as an audience member. We cooked hot dogs and some stewed beef I’d brought, on sticks. Jake told us the story of the stick he’d carried for something like twenty years for fire-poking and fire-cooking. Eventually I said to Jake,
“It’s funny man, I feel like you and me have such similar lives or interests or something. You’re fixing up a boat–I’m fixing up a boat; you’re running for office in New Baltimore–I ran for office in New Baltimore; you’re the caretaker of an island in the Hudson River–I was once the caretaker of an island in the Hudson River. We’re doing all of these similar things, and yet we haven’t seen each other in, what, ten years? Until like a month ago. I feel like this is going to be a very productive friendship renewal.”
I cannot pretend to quote Jake (people have different speech patterns, only some of which I can replicate verbatim from memory, but not Jake’s kind) but he agreed whole heartedly.
Perhaps the quaintest part of the night was around 11:30. We strolled down the hill from the clearing, into the dark of the woods. We could see lights shining through the sparse black tree trunks between us and the harbor, across which, upstream approximately two miles, was the facility where they are building the new Tappan Zee Bridge. We emerged from the trees onto the landing above the harbor, and, carefully, descended Jake’s homemade stone and cement stairs to the beach. Earlier, when we’d taken the sailboat out, we had to canoe across the water to the sailboat from the bottom of the stairs. But the tide had receded, exposing ten more feet of beach before it dropped off and made a place for the sailboat, in the moonlight, to bob. We walked along this low-tide beach. There was a fallen-down tree with it’s roots exposed, like 300 fingers of wood dangling. Jake and I talked about me bringing my boat to the spot, so that I’d always have access to it, floating, without having to transport and assemble it. Jake needs to move building materials, like plywood, paint, two-by-fours and hardware to fix up the docks and sailboat. This material is difficult to move by canoe, especially alone. My boat is a platform run by electricity powered by windmills. It could generate the power for Jake’s island and allow him to use electric speakers, power tools, chargers and to jump his sailboat motor. He could stack his materials on my boat, and troll across the harbor. He could easily ferry three people and two coolers over to his sailboat–this would require two delicate trips in a canoe.
Around two am we poured water on the fire. Driving home, I remarked to Katie that we’d spent four hours just the three of us talking, and there was never an awkward moment. We’d washed out the motor’s gas tank, painted the canoes, and now we had a more convenient place to store the vessel. Plus I’d gotten to explore Barren Island, I’d renewed my friendship with Jake, Katie had seen Yanni’s, and we’d both taken a sailboat out on the river. Not bad for one day.
Sometimes I wonder if I made a mistake leaving the Assembly, and I’m fairly certain Katie must sometimes wonder if she made a mistake leaving her office job. But days like these recent ones make me remember why we left. Even if we didn’t accomplish all that we’d set out to do, still, we’d packed our day full of adventure in a way we couldn’t have done in a cubicle (or husbanding our strength for 8 hours in a cubicle the next day). If we can pack every day full of such novelty and adventure, then someday we will look back and think we had a LIFE full of such stuff. That is my real goal with all of this.