Saturday, July 31, 2010

Tempestuous seas

Somehow, during my father's first year at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, while working part-time as a trainee engineer in Chattanooga, he found the time to construct from scratch a model Spanish galleon. As I was growing up it sat on a shelf above his workbench in the basement. A thousand tiny knots in the rigging. Shellacked billowing sails, painted with the symbols of Christian empire. Rows of gun ports with upswung covers and the mouths of cannons sticking out. On the deck, tiny cannons on their carriages with wheels not much larger than pinheads. Ladders to the forecastle and aft upper decks. A golden bear inscribed on the stern. It seemed to me a thing of preternatural accomplishment. (Click pic to enlarge.)

Why did he keep it in the basement? Why not in a place of honor, on the bookcase in the living room, for example. I never asked. I would never have dared to ask. But I had an intuition it had something to do with my mother, perhaps a marking out of her own inviolate territory.

There was another sailing ship, a tiny one, that my father made for my mother while they were courting. Its hull was a half walnut shell, bowsprit and all, to which my father had glued a cardboard deck. Above he fashioned full three-masted rigging. As I was growing up that little ship resided in a corner of the china cabinet in the dining room. In a funny way, it was as inspirational to me as the infinitely more accomplished Spanish galleon in the basement.

Then, one evening at dinner, when I was about eight or nine, for a reason I cannot recall, my father took the little walnut ship out of the china cabinet, pried off the deck with a dinner knife, and there written on the underside in his neat engineer's hand was the message "I love you," hidden all those years. The message struck me as terribly romantic, but I have a vague recollection of something unsettling in the air at table that evening, an ironic tilt to the atmosphere. I was too young to pick up on the subtler complexities of matrimony, but wise enough to remember the handyman's token of romance and forget the sparks of discontent.

(Tom, Thanks for the pic and for all you are doing for family history.)