Lobsterman Bobby Spear, compact and trim, but pushing 75, came down my walk way the other day and asked whatever happened to the big green fishing boat. What I didn’t know then, was that the boat once belonged to Bobby. That was before Joe Tyson purchased the boat from Bobby and before I “inherited” the boat from Joe. That’s how things work on Peaks Island; there’s always a back story.
I offered Bobby a Budweiser. We sat on fold-up chairs overlooking the beach. For seventeen years, we’ve lived in parallel universes on Peaks Island, my only connection to the man consisting of a raised finger on the steering wheel as we pass each other on Island Avenue. I know two things about Bobby: He’s an accomplished lobsterman and has a taste for fresh venison, which in mid-winter can get you in trouble.
“That’s where the boat rested until last summer.” I pointed down the hill, past tangles of bittersweet and alders, staghorn sumac and Japanese knotweed, to a flattened patch of grass the size of a small house.
Bobby took off his baseball cap and ran his fingers through a shock of graying hair. “That boat could fish,” Bobby said finally. “Ole Mikkelson and Olaf Svendsen, came to Portland in the 50’s and worked on the waterfront for a while until they saved up enough cash to build the boat. Named her the HIRTSHALS, after the town they came from in Denmark.”
“I wondered what the name meant. All that’s left is the stern. It’s propped up below us on the edge of the hillside,” I said, thinking, why after all these years is Bobby Spear drinking a beer with me?
Bobby stood so he could make out the blocky white lettering on the stern and drained his beer. “Mind if I take a look?”
We picked our way down to the beach on a narrow path shouldered by clumps of late season goldenrod and bull thistle. As we approached the stern, two deer exploded out of the underbrush and charged into the shallows. Bobby’s gray-blue eyes flared as he watched the deer swim leisurely towards Little Diamond Island. That taste for venison I mentioned? It was only a few years ago that game wardens following a bloody trail in the snow found three deer carcasses on Bobby’s property…and four more in his basement. The story was complicated by the fact that Peaks Island was being overrun by deer. A State of Maine sharpshooter was baiting the deer in the interior of the island in anticipation of thinning the deer herd. A month after Bobby’s arrest, more than 180 deer were permanently “thinned” and taken off the island on the morning ferry in body bags.
Bobby ran a calloused hand over the lettering. “I kept the name when I bought the boat from Ole and Olaf when they aged out. You can see where I cut the letters into the wood with a chisel; it’s bad luck to change the name of a boat just because you own it. Eventually I moved on to a fiberglass boat: scraping, sanding, caulking, painting; you got two full-time jobs keeping a wooden boat on the water. Joe came by my house a year after I pulled it for the last time and said he wanted to buy it, wanted to rebuild her into a house-boat. We agreed on a price and he borrowed an old trailer from me and floated her off the Centennial Beach boat ramp. Said he was going to drag the HIRTSHALS above the high tide on your beach and strip it down and rebuild it. So, this is where he worked on it?”
“That’s right,” I said. “Joe and his family rented our house when we moved to Pittsburgh for a couple of years where I got more medical training. His plan was to launch the renovated house-boat when we moved back to the island and live year-round on her.”
“Didn’t pay me right away,” Bobby continued, still thinking about the sale. “I didn’t think I’d see a dime for that boat. Then I realized that Joe had stored a diesel lobster engine in my shed. I told him that the engine was going out in the rain unless I got my money. When that didn’t happen, I put the engine out in the rain, and waited, but not too long. He came up with the money. That was the deal.”
“By the time we moved back into our house,” I said, “Joe had stripped the HIRTSHALS down to the waterline. Everything but the shell ended up in the dump: pilot house and decking, fuel tanks, diesel engine, greased fittings.” I looked over to where the HIRTSHALL had rested. “He was a handy guy; I never doubted he was capable of finishing the job…”
Bobby kicked a keg-sized blue barrel, half-buried by the shifting sand. “How many of these did he have?”
“More than a dozen,” I nodded. “Said that when it was time, he was going to get the boat up on log rollers and drag it to the water on an incoming tide.”
“Might have worked,” Bobby said. “The caulk between the boards would’ve dried and contracted by then and without the extra floatation, well, there’s nothing worse than a million leaks in a just launched boat.” He shifted his eyes across the channel to Little Diamond Island where the deer emerged from the water and shook themselves off like oversized dogs before trotting into the woods. “If you can keep a boat afloat long enough for the caulk to swell, she’ll usually be good to go.”
“Course that never happened,” I shrugged. “Once he shelled out the boat and we moved back to the island, he never came back. I didn’t exactly mind the HIRTSHALS sitting there. Folks had been pulling their sailboats and floats up on the beach for years. The difference is that those boats are seasonal. But the years passed and nothing happened. He never offered to pay me any rent. It just sat. Every once in awhile, Sandi or I would bump into his wife, Becky, who’d say, ‘Joey and the boys are planning on coming over to haul the boat to our house.’ It was like I pushed a button on a tape recorder when I saw her: Hi Diana, and she’d say, ‘Joey and the boys are planning on coming over to haul the boat to our house.’”
“When Joe moved the family off Peaks to Long Island, I figured the boat was abandoned. The deer population exploded. They were everywhere, traveling in herds of fifteen or even twenty.”
“I remember them times,” Bobby half-smiled.
“The only surviving gardens on the island looked like Gulags with 12-foot barbed wire fences,” I said. “One day I thought: why not cut a hole in the hull of the HIRTSHALS, hammer in a plywood floor and haul in enough soil to plant a garden.”
“Not a bad idea,” Bobby nodded. “Deer won’t jump into anything if they can’t see where their feet will land.”
“That winter I wrote a letter: ‘Dear Joe and Becky, for the most part, I’ve enjoyed having your boat on my beach, but it’s been six years, and you either move it this spring, or I’m cutting a hole in the hull and putting in a garden.’ Nothing. I viewed the letter as a formality. The chances of Joe floating the boat away, I knew, were less than zero. That spring I cut a hole large enough for me to haul soil in by wheel barrel. That was a job. With a garden hose I kept it moist enough to harvest a quart or two of tomatoes, a few gnarly carrots, and best of all, on Labor Day, the kids harvested the potatoes. They went from the Boat-Garden to the bushel basket to a Fryolator in no time flat and we stuffed ourselves with salted French fries, dipped in Hunt’s catsup. Hold tight, I’ll grab us another beer.”
When I returned Bobby had brought down our folding chairs to the beach. His feet were propped up on a blue, plastic barrel. “So, you say you converted the HIRTSHALS into a garden? Wonder what them Danish boys would have thought about that?”
“I never considered that,” I said. “Think they’d be pissed off?”
“Nah, I mean, I never seen them get worked up about anything. They just fished.”
“That fall, I bumped into Becky on the ferry. She said, ‘Joey and the boys are coming over soon to haul the boat to our house.’ I said to Becky, I cut a hole in the hull 6 months ago and hauled in twenty five wheelbarrows of soil. Didn’t you get my letter?”
“I thought we had time.” For a few more years, Boat Garden represented a grand experiment; corn was a bust, snow peas trailed up the stern. One spring I tossed in a few pumpkin seeds and harvested a half dozen fat pumpkins a few days before Halloween. Through it all, potatoes were my most dependable and anticipated crop. Eventually, the oak ribs rotted out and no amount
of nailing and bracing could keep Boat Garden from pulling apart, creating, an “objective hazard” as my lawyer friend, Larry, down the beach described it.
One summer family reunion, we took the big green boat apart. My brother Steve manned the chain saw. Cousin Wendell and I pried up the rotted oak ribs with a crowbar. My oldest brother Rick and Cleon stacked the good wood, while my cousins John and Mark Beavers dragged the rotted ribbing to a bon fire. John’s sons, Markos and little John, filled two ten-gallon buckets with green copper slotted screws. When my brother Steve chain sawed through the stern, the whole boat collapsed outward. That could have been the end to it, but it wasn’t.
“A few months later I saw Joe poking around on the beach. He wanted to know what I’d done with HIS boat. ‘The planking alone,’ he claimed, ‘was worth five or ten thousand dollars.’”
“I said that the planking was so full of screw holes it was worthless. Anyway, after 10 years, after planting a garden in the big green boat, after my girls played countless games of kick the can inside and around it and gone from grade school clear to high school, when the neighborhood teenagers had discovered it was a place to leave their marijuana butts and an occasional used prophylactic, I figured the HIRTSHALS had become MY boat. So the wood,” I pointed to the pile of cedar planks stacked up against the house, is mine too. Sorry. That’s the way it is.”
Bobby Spear took all this in, downed the last of his beer, and folded his hands on his chest. Neither one of us had realized, until now, how closely intertwined we were with the HIRTSHALS. The sun dipped behind a cloud bank and a waft of fog drifted down Diamond passage. Bobby stood and handed me his empty bottle, “That boat caught fish when everybody else got skunked. Nothing left but the planks, you say?”
“The screws. I saved the screws. Some of them are stripped, but most of them,” I stopped, aware that it seemed to matter that I tell Bobby exactly what had happened to Ole and Olaf’s boat. ”Well, most of them are stripped, but I saved them anyway.”
“Copper screws are worth some money.”
“I cut up the planks for the walkway and used the copper screws as fasteners. I’ve got the rest of the planks in the basement. I think there’s enough wood there for a shed.
“You do that. Build that shed. Cedar planking last forever.” Bobby rubbed a shoulder as we walked back up to the house. We stood for a moment on the walkway and he stuck out his hand. “You know I’m moving off Peaks. Going up to Blue Hill, leaving the water. My sister’s getting old, wants me to help out with the farm.”
A few weeks later on my way to the ferry, I stopped at the bulletin board on the corner of Island Avenue and Welch Street: There was a rain-soaked picture of Bobby’s 38-foot fiberglass lobster boat. Below it, in the same block letters he’d painted on the HIRTSHALS was:
WILL TRADE BOAT FOR TRACTOR.
Bobby Spear: 766-5915