I spent the first day of summer driving from North Bay, Ontario to my weekend sojourn at Milton, Vermont. The first third of the drive, through wild and beautiful country, was followed by a surprisingly easy skirting around the population centers of Ottawa and Montreal, and an even easier entry into the US of A.
After crossing the US – Canadian border it took only a few minutes to zip through a slice of New York and into northern Vermont. I meandered southward through the bucolic Lake Champlain islands to the home of my hosts, Erik and Meredith Breiland.
I’ll write about my wonderful stay in Milton later, but right now I’ll share a story about a wonderful serendipity that came my way en route. I encountered a man I normally would have avoided. Thanks to his invitation, I opened up and spent a lovely hour I shall not forget. He taught me a lesson about being open.
I had pulled off the freeway to fuel up in the little industrial town of Arnprior, outside of Ottawa. I was sticking the gas nozzle in the tank when a big guy on a motorcycle roared up on the other side of the pump.
His bike was an old Harley-Davidson. He and his motorcycle and his denim jacket were worn and dirty. He looked to be about 80 years old.
An elaborate, embroidered patch with the name and logo of a motorcycle club covered the back of his jacket. On the front were 15 to 20 embroidered patches of varying shapes and sizes, neatly sewn in rows and columns.
One patch read TRUMP, another, POW-MIA. I saw the Confederate rebel flag, a profile of Hillary Clinton’s face with a red circle around it and a diagonal line through it, an AK-47 or other assault-style weapon, the white power fist, and others in the same vein.
He looked at me as I looked at him. I am sure he noticed my ubiquitous “California Rowing” hat and, that day, a Station L Rowing Club shirt.
Each man’s clothing screamed out his brand.
We nodded to each other and I walked into the convenience store to pre-pay. He came in as I walked out. I was washing the windshield when he sauntered over, looked directly into my eyes and with a friendly smile said, “Hi. Tell me about the boats.”
“Sure. I’ll pull around back.”
“I’ll go over to Tim Horton’s and get us some coffee.”
I parked around the corner in the parking lot of a shut-down poutine shack. He limped across the street carrying two large cups of coffee and, – although I hadn’t asked for them – a stir stick, packet of sugar, and tiny container of cream for me.
He handed me the coffee and extras. We sat down on the edge of the boat trailer. He said he saw my Oregon license plates and that one of the best times in his life was in 2015 when he rode his Harley out to Oregon.
The best part of his visit had been Crater Lake. He was amazed that the north road to the lake was still closed by snow so late in July. He talked for five minutes about the lake’s geology and geography. He was professorial: I felt as if I were sitting in a college classroom. Most of what he shared was news to me, despite being an Oregonian since 1971.
Then he asked if I would zip open one of the boat covers, so he could have a “peek”. I partially unzipped the cover of the Pocock so that he could at least see and touch the hull – something I had done for several others on the trip.
I thought, this man deserves much more.
So. I unstrapped the boat and assembled a pair of slings; and with one of us at each end of the shell, we lifted it off of the trailer and onto the slings. I rolled the cover completely off and set it on the trailer.
Together, we rolled the wooden racing shell over so it was top-side up.
He knelt with both knees in the dirt next to the boat, and practically glued his eyes on the joinery between the western red cedar hull and Alaskan yellow cedar splash rails. He said, “Who made this? He’s a fuc*ing genius.”
Now it was my turn. I told him that Steve Chapin, the Port Townsend shipwright who built this special racing shell, is a genius and, in fact, one of a handful of craftsmen in the world capable of building such a craft.
I gave him some history of the Pocock cedar racing shell tradition. I said I first connected with that tradition as a college kid in the late 1960’s; that I had met Mr. George Pocock, who for decades built the ancestor shells to this one; that I admire Mr. Pocock and in my mind he is the grandfather of American rowing; and that I consider my affinity for wooden racing shells and my current trip to be my small contributibon to this sacred tradition.
I said the shell’s name, BETTER ANGEL, is inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s plea for peace and union, which concludes his first inaugural address.
He stood up and gave me a long look.
We rolled the boat over and set it on the slings hull side up. He looked at the seam between the halves of the hull and began to count tree rings. He turned to me with tears in his eyes and said, “God bless you. What’s your name?”
“Don. And yours?”
“Tim, what brought you to Canada”, for by now I guessed I knew something of his past.
“Raised in Phoenix. Not headed to college. Dad was a U.S. Army soldier in WW2. I served in the U.S. Army in Viet Nam, did my job, came back, got sh*t on by people who had stayed home, visited a friend in Canada, got treated with respect, became a citizen here, had a life. You serve?
“No. High lottery number. I hated the war and loved you who fought.”
We talked about careers, family, love of nature, love of boats, other topics. He is my age, 70, a finish carpenter. When he says the man who built BETTER ANGEL is a genius, he knows what he is talking about. He knows what he is talking about on many other topics.
Together we finished our coffee, put the cover on the shell, set it on the racks and strapped it on. We shook hands again and wished each other the best. We drove off our separate ways.
We didn’t talk about what our clothing said. There was no need to. We already liked one another.