Two stories 27 years apart. A boat flipped over. A memorial.

My dad died five days ago. I wrote a dedication for my father (appended at the end of this post) the day that he died… and then remembered this old short story, which I eventually found.

This is a mostly true story I wrote about my Father and I when I was about 19 y/o. I’m not sure that the coast was actually ‘nightmarish’ or that we were quite that ‘wind-torn’ but I’ve resisted the urge to give this an edit for adjectives and posted it like it was submitted to a writing contest 27 years ago. All the boat/fishing stuff is true. The laughter part is definitely true. I may have exaggerated about the… well… I was trying to be ‘real’ at the time. I’m so happy about it now. 

He would have been just a few years older than I am now when this was written. 

@@@@@ THE BOAT

“Nice night,” I offered easily as I opened the passenger side door of his truck to get in out of the downpour. I was met by the familiar smells of sea salt and outboard motor exhaust that always surrounded the man when he was fishing. We sat there together for a short while in a silence broken only by his heavy breathing and the soft hum of the engine. We never did talk much when we were together like this, and even if we did talk, it was usually only after careful thought. He seemed to think that the ‘conversation’ was the awkward part of any relationship, not the silence. I think that’s one of the things about him that I appreciate more and more every year.

“I should have known this storm would…” he started and then stopped, shaking his head, “…no I shouldn’t have – and I know better than to talk like that – I’ve let it go through storms like this before; I just didn’t think that it would flip over.” I never heard any fisherman I know call their boats ‘she’ or use words like ‘capsize’; I really don’t know why.

I’d seen the ageing fisherman every summer when I came home from university in Halifax to work at the local refinery. I’d help him in and around his boat, and he’d let me make my own mistakes. He always treated me like a real person that way. He’d work at the refinery and haul lobster traps all spring on next to no sleep, and never seemed to miss a step. He’d changed this time though; the first change I’d seen in him since I could remember. He had the same wind-weathered face, red and wrinkled. He had the same strong squat body, the same lumbering walk; he always moved better when he was on the water. I remember seeing him play old timers hockey when I was younger. The old timers teams were always understaffed and he used to play sixty minutes a game on defence. He tried his best, worked hard for all sixty minutes, but he was clumsy; he’d panic in a tight situation. Put him on the outboard in a storm on the other hand, and the man was an artist, every movement smooth and efficient. It always mystified me the way he seemed to be two different athletic entities. Looking back at it now, it doesn’t really seem that strange. Everything he did was driven by practicality; if he needed to be able to do something, he did it.

He motioned his hand in the direction of the boat. I followed his pointing finger, and I could just make out a whitish lump through the sheering rain. My face twisted in sickened fascination as I realised that, yes, the boat had flipped over. And, what’s more, it had drug the anchor about 50 yards.

‘Oopsy…’ I muttered.

‘Yeah… that’s just what I said.’ He returned.

I smiled slightly at the oft mentioned remark and looked out over the rest of the wind-torn water. It foamed and churned more violently than I’d seen in the fifteen or so years that I could remember. It was late, much later than the time when the wind was likely to give that retched boat any rest. The current was going with the wind, slowly pushing the boat toward that nightmare shore. We sat there. Silent. Waiting.

The sun set slowly somewhere behind those dark, grey clouds. We were calculating the drift of the boat again and again in the fading light. If it didn’t grab that little rock bed we both knew it was floating over, or there wasn’t enough of the anchor left to dig into the bottom of the bay, we had two choices: let the boat be beaten to splinters by the crashing waves on the shore, or risk being beaten into splinters ourselves by trying to haul it to safety in the middle of a storm.

I glanced over at him from the passenger seat of his ageing 4X4. There really was a difference in him this year. The dry teasing wit was the same. The solidity from which he spoke about all the things he knew was unshaken. But his drive was failing. Granted he’d had a severe snowmobile accident last year and smashed up his leg; he’d really only started walking right again in January. Sure, the arthritis in his left elbow was getting a little bit worse and his other injuries old and new acted up more and more every year. But it was more than that. This is the man that I had watched stand on one leg – his other one was in a cast – and haul lobster traps into the boat. He didn’t do this because he had to or because he was greedy, he had hired me to haul the traps for him for that spring. It was his will (not that he would call it that) that did not allow him to be stopped by something as insignificant as a broken leg. He seemed different now. He wouldn’t go out on the water if the wind was blowing too hard. If he was tired from working shift at the refinery, he would go down to the beach, check his boat and just got to bed. There was a time when he would have just shrugged and gone out on the water anyway. This is not to say that he’d become lazy. He was still doing more work in a day that I do in a month. He just seemed to have lost his edge. He started to buy things instead of make them himself, and he would bring his boat motors into the shop instead of fixing them himself in his garage. Little things had changed that would only be noticed by someone who’d watched him with so much fascination for so many years.

“I’ll take the rowboat and go out… ” I began, but was immediately cut off by his stern voice that always carried such a tone of finality. “It’s not worth it.”

It was the indifference that caused me to wonder about how much energy the man still had. True, it was only in the last year or two that I was experienced enough to actually take part in the decision making process. True, I was twenty and he was over fifty. It just seemed to me that five years before we would have tried to save that boat before it made its own decision as to whether or not it was going to smash into the coast of our small village.

I drove up and down the coast of the beach on the three wheeler that evening, recovering the refuse that the Bay had spit out all over the shore. We recovered one of the gas tanks, a couple of tubs, and a few other odds and ends all tangled in the seaweed that had been torn off the bottom of the bay. The boat had already been safely hauled on shore the few other times that I’d done the floating equipment run. It was just one more thing that felt out of place that night.

“I think it caught,” he said, as I got back into the truck after putting the gear I’d found on the beach in his fishing shed. “You’re all wet. You might as well go to the house, take a shower, and call it a night. There’s nothing else we can do here until the wind dies down.”

I went to bed that night with mixed feelings. I had the same rush that I always had after being so close to the pounding sea and being trusted as a compatriot by the man I’ve always admired so much. I was troubled though; the man had been so calm, so dispassionate. I could not understand how, in the face of such a beautiful challenge, he could simply tell me to go to bed. I realise now how romanticism comes quite naturally to a twenty-year-old who is not forced into a situation where his own living – or someone’s life – depends on the outcome.

“Wake up…” he whispered at five the next morning, accompanied by a strong gentle shove, ” the wind’s calmed down.” The memory of the night before blew through me, and I jumped in the air and into an old pair of jeans. I charged down the hall pulling my T-shirt over my head. “Better put on something warm,” he said, “it’s cool out.” I glanced at the old thermometer that has always been outside the side window; five meager Coastal Canadian degrees. shit. That is cold.

I reached the side of the bay, rubber boots on, and my rugby jacket pulled over my shoulders. The sight that greeted me was possibly the most forlorn of my life. I saw a figure outlined in the Bay, standing alone on the seaweed strewn beach, shaking its head. I turned my eyes in the direction of the shoal that we had hoped the boat had caught on the night before. The boat was there all right. It was floating alone, upside down, with nothing else visible in the wide bay that was post-fury green, pale and dirty. The waves were rolling long and high, the aftershocks of the night’s violence continuing their slow deliberate journey to crash to peace on the rocky shore.

“What the hell can we do with that mess?” I whispered half to myself. “’Don’t know”, he replied in his unstudied monotone. I watched him as he glanced around first at the sky, then at the water, and finally at his mistreated boat. The sky was flat grey. Ugly. The boat was bobbing upside down like a dead whale, its white belly turned up to the sky and being slowly eaten by the barnacles, being tugged to and fro’ by the careless current. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, I saw the old fisherman’s shoulders straighten. He turned and he began stomping toward the shed.

He hauled out about fifty feet of black rope – the thickness of my wrist – and threw it on the ground. We both glanced at it, and mechanically moved together to drag the rowboat into the water so I could go out and at least get hold of his much abused boat. It was a completely different challenge than we faced when the boat had sunk the year before. When a boat sinks right-side up, all you have to do to bring it safely to shore is to attach one end of a rope to the ring at the front of the boat and the other to the truck, and drive like hell. Now, with the boat belly up, we had to somehow flip it over before it reached shallow water. A boat upside down on the beach isn’t such a bad thing, but if we hauled it in with the outboard attached it would rip the motor to pieces.

I rowed out over the huge long waves, moving in slow motion, timing to the beat of the tired bay. I grabbed on to the end of the massive rope that I had taken with me and attached it to the ring at the front of the boat, which was now underwater. I then grabbed on to the boat’s anchor rope, which had, incidentally, hooked on to that rock bed the night before. It was the small spare anchor that I found at the end of the thin nylon rope, the one that was used when we made quick stops mackerel fishing in the current. The three massive anchors that are supposed to hold the boat in a storm we found later, pretzled: Isn’t irony beautiful.

The old fisherman started to haul in the boat with the truck and stopped when it was about twenty feet from shore. “Hold it there, I’ll be right back.” He ‘sprinted’ up the beach hill to the house and came back about five minutes later pulling a familiar black wetsuit over his head. The wetsuit was torn and partially rotted with age, his once firmly muscled body seeping out in places. He waded out into the cold bay, hardly wincing as the icy water made its way through to his body that was covered in silver hair so thick it looked like a rug. He swam over, grabbed hold of the boat and said, ‘go take the truck.”

I rowed back the short way to the sea littered beach, jumped on shore, and started to haul in the rowboat. I then heard the last thing I had expected; the old fisherman had started to laugh. I turned back to one of the most remarkable sights I’ve ever seen, and indeed that I’m ever likely to see. My father perched cat-like on the bottom of a boat that was floating upside down, in the middle of the bay, in an old bedraggled wet suit, red faced and laughing. It had started to snow. I turned my back on him and started to walk to the truck, shaking my head and smiling.

We tried every way we could think of to turn that boat over, ripping off the motor in the process. All in all, it went rather badly. After the motor fiasco, we just hauled the boat into shore and flipped it over by hand. We had absolutely no idea we could even do that. I was smiling the whole time. It appears I was wrong about my old man. He may not have been as reckless as he used to be, just a little slower and maybe more stoic because of the obstacles life has thrown in his way. But the strength of character that I had always admired in him hadn’t changed a bit. I still smile now every time I think about him that day. I’d like to remember my father exactly like that. Crouched on the bottom of his boat in his wetsuit, laughing at the snow.

Rene Cormier – a dedication

This is the post from Facebook the day dad died, which i wanted to have my own copy of it on the blog. I haven’t edited it… though I clearly didn’t quite have all my marbles rolling when I wrote it. I’ll leave it as is.

My father died today.

It was sudden, though he hasn’t been particularly well. It’s a shock, though not an incredible surprise, with his first cancer scare over 20 years behind him. It’s a kind of slow, creeping emptiness as the person who has been the ‘adult in the room’ in so many of the things I’ve done is no longer in the room. “hey dad, does this sound like a good idea to you?” He’d probably say no about this blog post… as unlike his son, he was never particularly interested in attention.

Attention is Mom’s job. We like to tease her about it, but she gave him his space for almost 55 years. Allowing to be who he was. More on this in a future post.Bonnie scanned through our pictures of him today and in most of them he was making something with the kids, watching them kiss fish (a long story for another time) or standing in front of cake. It says something about when we take pictures, in a sense, because while it does say a great deal about the man, it doesn’t tell the whole story. I mean. He was super handy. And he did know a great deal about fish. Also. Lover of cake. All true. What I’ll miss the most though is something that escapes the camera.

In the conversations I’m having in the background with people who knew him… it’s his wisdom that keeps coming up. Bits of advice, a kind quiet look, a short talk stolen on the sidelines of a gathering. Quiet moments watching the sun rise over the water in a fishing boat. Watching the flick of his fishing rod in a brook that never seemed to catch a branch. The way his voice could cut through (and often end) a conversation with one comment. I learned so much watching that man go through the world.

He was THERE. He was very, very honest. If you asked for that wisdom, you got it. Unvarnished. When he engaged, you got all of him. When you needed helping, he helped. If you were figuring something… you couldn’t find a better partner to figure with you. Needed someone to tell you what’s what? He had a 100 year old expression for you. He was so present.

Smart man. So many things i learned how to do from the way that man approaches a challenge. “Why do we need to do it that way?” “if any idiot can do something you can be that idiot, you can do it”. He approached everything like he could, given enough time, given enough staring at it, actually do something about it. I loved watching him discover youtube. A lifelong fisher, the first time he ever did a proper rope splice was at, like 65 after watching a youtube video. He also read almost everything I ever wrote… as ridiculously pedantic as my language gets, with a grade 9 education, he followed along.

A good man my father. Something I’ve said hundreds of times. He was proud that his kids were leading lives they were happy with. He was endlessly amazed that he had four grandkids who he was fascinated by, who he was proud of each in different ways. He wanted to make a difference for his family. To leave them more secure than he started. To give them the skills he’d learned and help them be ready for the world they were in.

A job well done old man. We thank you. Rest.

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