Mum, her dad and brothers (each kid with a turtle) in the rowboat about 1930.
I think it’s no mistake that cathedral arches and the prows of boats take the same shape. Both are structures of beautiful form following function, created to lift us through the stormy waves of life and keep body and soul afloat. I am not sure my father thought our old row boat was beautiful on the days he spent in the hot sun with it inverted on a pair of saw horses, laboring to patch it up for another season. Like Burt Dow’s colorful Tidely Idely, our vessel had a few “tender places” between her planks. She was a classic New England dory of some sort, happily retired to the tame, silky-warm waters of our southern New Hampshire Lake. Our boat was always referred to simply as the rowboat.
My father was an ocean boy, who grew up summering in Duxbury, Massachusetts. He had been in the Navy on a destroyer during World War II and was one of the few sailors on his ship who liked to swim off her side if the water was warm enough. Once he swam clear under the ship from one side to the other. After the Battle of Santa Cruz, he defied rules and jumped overboard to save a drowning seaman—probably not the best idea, as he was the ship’s chief engineer. The captain “balled him out,” then presented him with the ship’s flag, flown during the battle. He never told us the story until he was well up in his eighties, waking at night thinking he was still aboard the Mansfield.
Like Ratty in The Wind in the Willows, Daddy adored messing around with boats. He taught me to splice rope and let me help him make outhauls for our boats. He built us a raft complete with a narrow, canvas-covered, plank for a diving board which was conducive to games of pirates and Billy Goats Gruff. He made a ramp for our dogs to scramble aboard by, and maintained the raft with copious amounts of creosote every season. Still the rowboat was a challenge.
I have no idea how old she was. My mother, born in 1920, had grown up with her and I scarcely believe that my grandfather bought her new. By my era, the fifties, she may well have been half a century old. In any case, I have a vivid picture in my mind of Daddy blistering the paint off the bottom of the boat with some sort of electric paint-stripping tool. I can still smell the fumes, mixed with sun on pine needles, lake water, and sand. Then there were hours of hand scraping, sanding, and carefully packing the seams with oakum. At last, he would give her a new coat of white paint over the thick strata of many summers past, with perhaps a fresh layer of dark green for the inside as well. My brother, environmental journalist, Ted Williams, once wrote in Gray’s Sporting Journal that in her latter years our boat was probably more of a paint rowboat than a wooden one.
She was heavy. It must have been a job to wrestle her onto the sawhorses. Then she was dragged down to the water and launched for another summer. What a vessel for four kids! She had three plank seats that fitted into place, as well as a triangular built-in bow seat which was much fought over. She had floorboards which also fitted neatly into their appointed sections and which kept our bare feet out of the bilge. A few inches of water in the bottom was inevitable, no matter how carefully Daddy caulked her seams. This bilge was ripe with dead worms, soggy sandwich crusts, potato chips, rusty hooks, and the occasional bloated sunfish. After a rain, there was no choice but baling. Atlas himself could not have lifted the rowboat to dump her out once she was filled with water.
But the crowning glory of our boat was a spacious, built-in stern seat which curved along each side and boasted a dark, sloshy, and odoriferous well, perfect for storing bait, turtles, empty cans, or any flotsam and jetsam picked up on the lake. This stern seat easily accommodated an aunt or grandmother’s ample bottom as well as the smaller butts of several children, usually myself, my sister and a cousin or so.
Mummy liked to tell of the time her father (Baba to us) caught a snapping turtle by getting it to bite onto an oar. With thoughts of dinner, he argued the beast into the well and delegated his six year old daughter to sit on the cover. It was a scary ride home for little Mary Lou, seated atop an angry, thrashing turtle. It was fruitless to boot, as she always described the soup, boiled up after the turtle was given the coup de grace with a brush hook, as “vile.”
Our destination was usually “the swamp” which lay directly across the lake from our camp. Drew Brook winds under three small bridges before opening into a lovely little marsh as it flows into the pond. In the fifties when fewer camps had been built in wetland areas and weeds were not a problem, the water level was kept lower. It was low enough for us to enjoy a sandy beach at home and for the rowboat to bump and scrape—passengers crouching, eyes squeezed shut against falling flakes of rust and rotten wood—under the first two bridges.
We loaded the boat with fishing rods, shiner nets and pails, picnic lunch, butterfly nets, and most important for my sister and me—nets for catching turtles. Then we donned the cumbersome, many strapped, life jackets of the era which were about as comfortable as wearing an empty cider keg around one’s chest, and set off across the lake. I spent much of the voyage staring over the transom into the water. From the first dimly waving pondweed as we approached the sandbar, to the murky depths beyond the second bridge—which offered up hornpout, perch and the occasional trout—there was much to fascinate a kid.
We caught snappers and musk turtles, but the sought-after jewels were painted turtles. Maneuvering the rowboat through the weeds was heavy work. Mum had a bad back, but that didn’t stop her. She was as keen a turtler as we were. It was a matter of pride to be able to spot a yellow and black striped head among the myriad broken weed stubs glittering in the sun. There’s one . . . about ten feet away on the right . . . it just went under . . . I think it was a baby . . . wait . . . everyone be quiet . . . scoop under it . . . There! It might be a miss, or the net might be held triumphantly aloft containing a tangle of weeds and a frantically clawing turtle. One extracted, the turtle was passed around for all to admire its bright yellow plastron and gorgeous black carapace edged with red.
We kept our turtles as summer pets in a cage on our beach, to be released the morning we once again donned shoes and returned to school. It was a small comfort, as we faced another year confined to the classroom, to set something free. When my girls and their cousins were small, my sister and I took them up the inlet in kayaks and canoes, portaging over instead of under the bridges. We caught many turtles, but always let them go before paddling home.
The rowboat didn’t last forever, except in my memory. One year, Daddy gave up and purchased a noisy, nearly indestructible, maintenance-free aluminum canoe. On the Fourth of July he piled the rowboat with driftwood and brush, anchored her a hundred feet out from our dock, paddled out in the new canoe, and set her alight. She burned to the water-line on a summer night filled with fireflies, fireworks, and shooting stars. It was as fitting an end for her as a Viking funeral pyre. I remember a sense of honorable celebration more than sadness. The next day, my brothers towed the blackened ribs, which arched eerily up from her bottom, to the swamp--there to dissolve, like so much other organic matter, into the muck of the wet wilderness she had so often prowled.