Never tell a pigheaded writer in the midst of a protracted stretch of foot-dragging that he can’t build a boat. At least don’t tell it to this one. I was lollygagging away, taking my own sweet time about getting to the boatload of stories that editors were not so politely inquiring about. Now, editors as a class may be a decent lot, but they rarely appreciate the finer points of procrastination. Some of us writers — though, admittedly, very few — have elevated time-wasting to an art form, and it is simply not polite to impede an artist’s process. So, instead of continuing to screen my calls for those who can’t comprehend the demands of dawdling, I decided to take the trailer out. I headed to Malibu Creek State Park, just north of Los Angeles, California.
The park is only a few miles from my sister’s new house, where I had been enlisted to stop by occasionally to take care of the cat while Brig was on vacation. Don’t worry, the cat is fine — but my sister got more than she bargained for. As I sat in the camp chair and read by lantern light, I had trouble concentrating, and my wandering attention had nothing to do with the coyotes howling at the moon. A thought kept popping into my head: Why can’t I build a canoe out of PVC pipes? Sane people, of course, would be asking why on Earth I’d want to. Had I sustained a head injury on my outdoor adventures? The verdict may still be out, but what had inspired me to pursue this plumber’s canoe was a casual comment by my father. I had mentioned that building the frame of a canoe out of wood required endless sanding and sealing the wood against the corrosion of water, not to mention the splinters, the knots and wood’s inability to be shaped easily. I thought that PVC pipes would eliminate all these problems.
“Yeah, that will work,” said my father. To me, these were four four-letter words. Until he said them, I wasn’t sure I even wanted to build a canoe — I was really just thinking out loud, which is often the way writers avoid writing — but once he threw down the gauntlet, I was obligated to make this idea float. The thing is, my father is a retired rocket scientist. No, really — the kind who gave speeches at the Pentagon and who filed numerous patents for nose cones. The phrases “carbon-carbon” and “re-entry vehicle” were bandied around our dinner table the way other families say “The meatloaf is good.” So my father’s torpedoing of my plastic dreamboat was not the knee-jerk reaction of a chronic naysayer but the response of a former aeronautical engineer. I built it anyway. I lay awake in my trailer trying to figure out how to turn 20 10-foot white plastic pipes into a frame, a frame that would support some kind of skin, a skin that would prove watertight, a watertightness that would simultaneously keep me afloat and sink my father’s four lousy words.
I knew that others would wonder why, since I obviously wanted a canoe, I simply did not buy one. Galileo faced similar cynics. Money was definitely an obstacle, but it was really about doing something — coming up with a concept, shopping for supplies, working with my hands, thinking and rethinking, exploring the outer reaches of trial and error — and avoiding writing. I sat on the floor in my sister’s garage, using a handsaw to cut pipes down to size, drilling holes in the plastic so I could fit 1/4-inch bolts through them, twisting, hammering, securing, cursing. I prayed my sister wouldn’t cut her vacation short, because if she had seen what I’d done to her garage (or if she reads this), she’d forbid me ever to visit her again, or to use the small lake her house sits on. I spent another restless night in the campground. I had finished the frame, bringing the beauty in at 12 feet long, with a 32-inch beam, the perfect craft, I imagined, for paddling with a double-bladed paddle and cutting a decent line, providing in the process an upper-body workout and a simple way to fish.
I’d duct-taped and bungee-corded a wafer-thin blue tarp to the frame to see if the vessel was sound. I’d set it in the water, and it floated as it should have. I’d sat in it — gingerly — and nothing had sprung a leak. But how was I supposed to affix the skin? I ruled out canvas, even though canoes have traditionally been covered by it, because I knew I possess no sewing skills. I found a discarded heavy-duty tarp under my sister’s deck, one side royal blue, the other dark gray, without all that much dirt and mildew on either side. I started slicing the tarp. I affixed 3/8-inch grommets here and there and ran a nylon line through the brass rings. I tugged, yanked and cinched. I then bandaged the crass critter with duct tape, a finishing touch about as classy as wearing both a belt and suspenders. With shorts. I tested to see if the S.S. Penury floated. It did. I tested to see if it leaked. It didn’t. I paddled it around. It held up fine.
I secured an electric motor to the side and smiled as my ugly duckling sliced a quick line across the lake. I raced as fast as I could to remove the evidence of my creative explosion. After I’d cleaned up, I hoisted the canoe above my head, then slid it into the rafters of the garage, out of unsightly sight. “Yeah, that will work,” I said to myself. I had succeeded on a few fronts. I had dodged my deadlines and proven my theory while proving my father wrong. I also now own a canoe. And all it cost was my dignity.