Boats, and a personal introduction


Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats,” said the Water Rat to the Mole, in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.

Consider this an introduction, a “pleased to meet you.”

Only a few of you know me. For what it’s worth, I’m still getting to know me, and I’ve been around me all my life.

I’m from Chattanooga, Tennessee. That’s where I was born, and it’s where I lived most of my first 30 years of my life.

Spending three of my formative years in Indiana didn’t turn me into a Yankee (or Midwesterner). Nor did my later years in Georgia, Virginia, D.C., North and South Carolina, and Mississippi turn me into something other than me.

Throughout my adult life, I have considered myself “pan-Southern”. I’ve lived or worked in every southeastern state, from Tennessee to Georgia, to the abysmal District of Columbia, south to Georgia again, west to Texas, and north through Arkansas to Missouri.

Florida doesn’t count. Most of my time there was in Boca Raton, which is essentially south New Jersey.

Really good bagels. I’ll say that for them.

I’ve also spent at least some time in most of the other of these united states, but I generally prefer to stay in my native corner of the country except for brief visits elsewhere.

For most of my childhood, I existed in a valley just west of Chattanooga, in a small town called Tiftonia, or Lookout Valley, so-called because it was in the western shadow of Lookout Mountain. Site of an important Civil War battle or three, and also the site of Rock City and Ruby Falls, of painted-barn fame.

I damn near married Ruby’s great-granddaughter, matter of fact. Her family was mostly hard-working, but a bit hoity.

As a photographer, I shot a few weddings up there, on top of Lookout Mountain. But as a photographer I didn’t have a real job, in those people’s opinion.

From where I grew up it was only about a mile to the Tennessee River.

As the fish swims, it was maybe two more miles.

As this young boy walked, it was between three and twelve miles, depending on whether he went over the mountain or down the valley and then downstream, following Lookout Creek, to the river.

Boats were important in my family. Not in a Louisiana bayou “we live here and need boats like y’all need cars” kinda way, or in a “we were commercial fishermen” sorta way. More like a “we’ve always liked being in and around boats, so we started making them and just never quit” kinda way.

The first real boat we ever built was actually nowhere near the Tennessee, or any other river that I know of. Matter of fact, it was in the basement of an old farmhouse south of Indianapolis, just off U.S. Highway 31.

(For what it’s worth, my first personal boat was a sort of raft. I don’t think anyone in my family knew I was floating across ponds on a hollow-core door at the age of seven. I also don’t think they particularly cared. I had two significantly older brothers, but I reckon I was the most Huck Finnish of the batch.)

I was only in the second and third grade when that first truly constructed craft came into being, so don’t go doubting my judgment where “constructing a massive johnboat in the basement” is concerned. I couldn’t have brought the supplies home from the 84 Lumber up the highway, all by my lonesome, and it was not necessarily my choice.

I got roped into it, but at least I learned how to use a hammer, chisel, and drill.

That thing was a monstrosity, and I still don’t know why we made it, and I certainly don’t know why we made it there.

“There” meaning both in the middle of Indiana, and in the basement of a farmhouse.

Sixteen feet long, almost four feet wide, made primarily of three-quarter-inch plywood, with much-more-than-sufficient bracing. I swear that thing weighed 300 pounds, and the only way out of the basement was either up the narrow stairs and through the entire house, or out the coal chute.

I do believe I’ve repressed (or is it suppressed?) the memory of how we got that thing out of the house and onto a car.

Between my third and fourth grades in school, we moved (all seven of us) back to Chattanooga, away from the land of snow and corn and tar that bubbles on summertime roads. Found a house to rent, and my parents lived there for the next quarter century or more. Took the boat with us, and soon put it to use.

Mind you, a massive wooden johnboat wasn’t meant to be propelled on the Tennessee River with a two-and-a-quarter-horsepower outboard. I think it was a Johnson. Maybe an Evinrude. Might have been a 2.5 HP. It was a long time ago, and I was young, and memory is a fragile thing.

But the fact that we shouldn’t have undertaken that endeavor sure as hell doesn’t mean we didn’t do it.

You just ain’t been stuck until you’re “five miles downriver from the pullout, and there are three of you, and you only have two paddles, and the float bowl fell off the motor into 200 feet of water” stuck.

You’ll maybe notice that I never said it was a good boat. I only said that we built it and went out in it.

That thing may have been a slight improvement on the hollow-core door, but maybe not.

We had our share of trouble.

“Chew the sweet out of that gum, quick. We really gotta patch that leak.”

Who would’ve thought Hubba-Bubba was an essential component of boat repair?

I don’t reckon I ever got over my boat thing. As teenagers, my brother and I built or rebuilt probably 20. We’d buy or build one, use it for a few weeks or a year, then sell it and start over again.

In my late 20s I went to work on a Tennessee River towboat. I took lessons from Captain Milton, and considered becoming a pilot. Never had any desire to be a captain. On the weeks when I wasn’t out on the M/V Bearcat, I took a job on a side-wheeler river cruise boat. More hours at the wheel, learning from Captain Mike. I got two-thirds of the way to a pilot’s license before deciding to get married for the first time.

I believe the boat sickness must be hereditary.

When my son was only two years old, he suddenly got it in his head that a boat would be a good thing to have. He woke up crying one morning, a dream apparently lodged in his head, asking, “Why can’t I have a boat? I really need a boat!”

I didn’t teach the kid about the necessity of boats, at least not consciously.

Must have been heredity. I haven’t even been on a boat in about 18 years, unless you count ferries in New Orleans, Baltimore, San Francisco, NYC, and a few other cities of theoretical importance.

But there was a time. There certainly was.

A few years ago, when I was coaching my daughter through the process of not being a complete heathen (also known as homeschooling), she decided one day that she wanted to learn about was boats.

“I got this,” says I to myself.

“Been preparing for it my whole life,” says I.

Pulled out about 12 books, including the Annapolis Book of Seamanship, Off in a Boat, and Kon Tiki, and away we went.

We also watched the wonderful film The Secret of Roan Inish, but that wasn’t unusual. We still watch that one about once a month. If you haven’t witnessed young Fiona’s struggle to locate her young brother, who sails about the Irish islands in a tiny cradle-boat, do yourself a favor and find it, post-haste.

At the moment I have no boat. I was supposed to buy an aluminum skiff a while back, but the tornado that hit Hattiesburg that spring dropped a pine branch right smack through the thing, skewering it to the north Avenues backyard it occupied, about a day before the deal was supposed to go through.

I’m still in the market, to a certain extent. Technically, we live in a flood zone, according to the federal government. We pay a hefty insurance bill to do so, anyway.

I wonder: Could I write one off, tax-wise, as an insurance policy? I’ve told my wife I’d like to keep a small skiff strapped to the roof of the carport, ready to float us away from here if the creek ever gets out of control.

Grayson Capps had a good point when he wrote, in “New Orleans Waltz:” “FEMA oughta issue everybody a mud boat, equipped with ice chests and fishing poles. Then when the hurricanes come again this summer, we can all go fishing in the Gulf of Mexico.”

J. Daniel Cloud is a Hattiesburg-based writer and photographer who lives right next to Gordon’s Creek. He figures if he can’t live in the mountains, he should at least be allowed a boat. His wife remains unconvinced.