Just Paddling Through:
Around this time of year I grow itchy to get moving on outdoor projects. It's not that I particularly enjoy yard work. It's more like once the snow's finally (finally) gone, all the sticks that fell from the trees over the past several months begin to torque my OCD and all I can think of is getting them picked up. At least the ones that are too big for me to run over and crunch up with my lawnmower. Because, while I don't particularly enjoy yard work, I do love using my lawnmower to crunch stuff up.
I was lucky, growing up, that neither of my parents placed much importance on lawns. Oh, they wanted the grass cut, and the leaves raked (or, later on, crunched up with the mower), but they never cared if it was crabgrass, fescue, or Creeping Charlie. As long as what was growing was sort of green and kind of kept short, things were cool. As a result, we never really had much in the way of "spring work."
This changed for me the late 1970s when I worked on the boats for Lloyd Holland at Conneaut Lake Cruises. There was plenty to do each spring. I was lucky there, too, because Bob Kennedy, my de-facto boss on the docks, was always willing to do as much as he could by himself. This meant the stuff that I didn't enjoy, like putting in docks and mucking out bilges, was mostly already done. Add to this my relative lack of physical strength ("Waddaya mean you can't swing a 13-pound sledgehammer?"), and the result was me spending a lot of time swinging a paint brush.
"A coat of paint covers a multitude of sins," my dad used to say. That was more true at the docks than any other place I've ever worked. Our ferry, Redwing, was decades past her last haul-out. There were times when I kind of thought the only thing between the in- and outside of her hull was the paint I slathered on at the start of each summer season.
The sternwheeler, Barbara J, was years younger and in better shape, but she was a much fussier boat to paint. When I was there she was several different colors. The trick to making her look good was to start at the top and paint your way down to the water line, switching colors as you went. That way, you never worried about drips and drabs because you had the chance to cover up your own mistakes, sooner or later.
We sometimes had "adult help." Lloyd's friends, particularly Wayne Koch and John Davis, spent time getting things ready, but they had real jobs. Not like us college kids. And there were some things they just didn't do. For instance, the hulls of both boats took a lot of paint and you had to get into the Lake to do the work. It didn't matter if you stood or floated on a preserver, it was dead-certain that your butt, along with everything else in that general vicinity, was going to be submerged in water cold enough to make you ache. That was a youngster's job.
But, worse than the hulls, by a long, long stretch, were the big paddles on the stern of the Barbara J. They're split down the middle, you see, with a set on each side. Each set has an inside, an outside, a top and a bottom, and each paddle and its support has the same. You paint for what seems like forever and then, turn around to find yet another side that you've missed. Plus, you can't paint the paddles all at once. The very best you can do is half at a time, then wait for the paint to dry, then spin them halfway, then wait for the water to dry, then paint the rest. You can, literally, paint the rest of the whole boat in the time it takes to do the back end.
You have to get inside the paddlewheels to do the job. Stand and sit on the pipe that forms the axle. After several hours of that, your feet and butt, along with everything else in that general vicinity, don't feel so hot. Try real hard not to lose your balance and fall down through the paddles, or across, or worse, straddling the pipe (kee-runch!). Try not to get the paint in your hair, neither, because that's not no sissy latex paint your working with, there kiddo. It's oil-based and that's gonna take turpentine or gasoline to get that out.
There could be other problems with the job. I once came out of the boat house to find my freshly-applied paint on the half-done wheels being washed away by a test-run of the engine and transmission! I was a little angry, at first, until it was pointed out to me that at least they had checked to see if I was back there before proceeding.
It was worth the aggravation, all the same. Few things in the world look better than a freshly painted boat, sitting, ready for another year. The Barbara J very nearly sparkling and the old Redwing taking on an air of elegant decrepitude. Both awaiting first bumps of their clean, white hulls against some blackening tire on some dock post by some bumbling pilot. Me, most likely.
All these years later, Bob Kennedy and I remain friends. We only visit about once a decade, but when we do, it feels like the last time I saw him was yesterday, if you know what I mean. If you ever asked me if I miss working the boats with him, my answer would be a resounding "sometimes." But, if you ask if I'd like to paint the Barbara J's paddles one, more time? That's easy: NO! NO!! NO!!!
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