Sail­ing Your Boats

Northern Pen - - EDITORIAL - Ed Smith The View From Here

Note: In mem­ory of columnist Ed Smith, the North­ern Pen is reprint­ing a copy of one of his col­umns, en­ti­tled “Sail­ing Your Boats.” Smith’s col­umns had been pub­lished in the North­ern Pen for 35 years, un­til his death in Au­gust 2017.

Grow­ing up wasn’t some­thing I ever wanted to do.

Which prob­a­bly ex­plains why I never quite man­aged it. It wasn’t some­thing a whole lot of peo­ple ex­pected me to do, ei­ther, but that’s a dif­fer­ent story.

As soon as the prospect of grow­ing up be­came real and in­evitable, some­where around twelve, I re­al­ized I wanted to stay right where I was and not get a mo­ment older. The only thing at­trac­tive about be­com­ing adult was that it got you out of both day school and Sun­day school, and that was it.

Adults didn’t seem to have a lot of fun. They wor­ried a lot and worked a lot and got mar­ried, none of which seemed very ap­peal­ing to me. But above all, adults had no time to sail their boats. I just loved to sail my boats.

In the early spring, around about Easter, the rain and the warm sun on the snow caused large pools of wa­ter to form in the hol­lows of the gar­dens, and in the ditches by the sides of the road. And while our fa­thers scraped the bot­toms of their sk­iffs, and read­ied their gear to heed the age-old call of the sea, we small boys heard the same call from gen­er­a­tions now long gone, and an­swered it the only way we could—with our lit­tle boats and our lit­tle pools of wa­ter.

Mak­ing a boat was easy. A piece of two by six was best, if you could find it, about fif­teen inches long. With the axe you shaped and flared the slender bows, and rounded off the stern. With a ham­mer and chisel you gouged out a hold in the cen­tre for cargo, and with your pocket knife you whit­tled on a slender split un­til you had a mast that would fit into the hole made by a brace and half-inch bit. Then you made a lit­tle mould in a piece of wood, melted some lead in an old tin can over an out­door fire, and poured your­self an an­chor.

All you needed now was a small fin­ish­ing nail to drive into the bow, a long piece of line, and a good long alder. With one end of the line tied to the boat and the other to the alder, you could, by walk­ing the ditches and ma­nip­u­lat­ing the alder, sail away to the seven seas.

When I was seven, some­one gave me Robert Louis Steven­son’s Tales of the South Pa­cific, and even with the words I didn’t know and couldn’t un­der­stand, that book fired my imag­i­na­tion and drove my lit­tle boats. The ditches be­came great har­bours and far-off wa­ter­ways. The lit­tle brooks flow­ing into the small gar­den ponds were mighty rivers lead­ing to dis­tant oceans. And I was cap­tain and lord of it all, and could go wher­ever I wished and for as long as I wished, or at least un­til my mother called me for sup­per.

I spent hours sail­ing my lit­tle craft to the far corners of the earth, even when other boys my age had grown out of it, and called me silly be­cause I still wanted to. Day af­ter day, I raced home af­ter school to sail off to some dis­tant shore where only I could go. Where only I seemed to want to go.

But my sail­ing days were num­bered. I knew it and re­gret­ted it deeply. A small voice in­side grew louder with each spring.

“You don’t have too much longer to sail your boats.”

And af­ter age and the taunts of other boys had fi­nally forced me from my ships and oceans, I’d some­times see some younger boy with his lit­tle boat on the end of his alder and line, and say wist­fully to my­self, “He still has lots of time to sail his boats.”

I’ve said it of­ten since. Al­most forty years later, I still re­call those long spring evenings of child­hood, tow­ing my plank boat through muddy mag­i­cal ditches and slimy en­chanted bogs where Cleopa­tra lounged on her barge and Ulysses urged his men on­ward. And on those warm spring evenings when the smell of wet earth prom­ises new life, the call to sail my boats is just as strong as ever.

So why don’t I? Be­cause the time to sail boats comes only briefly, and then is gone for­ever. We move on to other stages and other dra­mas in our lives, and if we do not sail our boats when the time is right, we miss it al­to­gether.

There is a time to sail, and a time to re­mem­ber sail­ing.

Some­times a young cou­ple with a small child tod­dling be­tween them will re­mind me of the days when ours were small and at home where we could tuck them in and keep them safe, and I’ll say to my­self, “Lucky peo­ple. They still have lots of time to sail their boats.”

But of­ten, too, I see peo­ple so caught up in the busi­ness of mak­ing a liv­ing and mak­ing ends meet and work­ing for this cause and that, that I feel like touch­ing them on the shoul­der and whis­per­ing, “Don’t for­get to sail your boats.”

Some­times I see overly-am­bi­tious and ca­reer-minded in­di­vid­u­als anx­iously mak­ing their way up the lad­der, work­ing long days and nights and week­ends and never tak­ing a holiday, while their fam­i­lies not only grow up but also away, and I think, “Fool­ish peo­ple. You don’t have much time left to sail your boats.”

There will be a time to re­gret never hav­ing sailed at all.

What­ever boats you have to sail, I sug­gest you do it now, while you still have wood and line and alder, and the pools of wa­ter in the ditches and in the gar­dens have not dried up, and the magic is in the air, and it is still spring.

Be­cause the time for sail­ing boats passes very quickly and is gone for­ever.

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