Bloke, the Seaman

Growing Up Catholic in America

Detail. Illustration by T. Schluenderfritz

Bloke used to brag that he could take any old motor apart and put it back together so that it would still work. Usually he was right. Once in a while he had to admit that he didn’t do what he bragged about, but those times were few and far between.

Yep, Bloke was on his way to becoming a master mechanic. I, for one, had to tip my hat to him more times than not when he showed me how he did it.

I, on the other hand, was not a very good fixer. I could usually repair a bicycle wheel when I had a flat tire or adjust the seat, tightening it until it was good and firm. 

Bloke, however, would scour the neighborhood rubbish bins to see what sort of junk people were throwing away. Now, most of the neighbors did not toss old bike parts away without first trying to use them. For the most part, though, when some piece of bike junk stuck out of a trash can on the sidewalk, Bloke would check it out. Usually he busied himself by removing rusted bolts and nuts from the old bike part.

Bloke was on his way to becoming a master mechanic.

Once I recall that our very own Kevin discovered a frame from a genuine Schwinn. It was a heavy-duty frame with most of the nuts and bolts still intact. Kev was able to assemble most of the bike enough to have a pretty decent ride. 

Bloke’s mechanical triumph occurred on the day he signaled for me to come to the garage in back of his apartment and dared me to lift the old cloth bedsheet that was hiding some great mystery. He made me promise not to tell anyone else what he was about to show me.

The light was dim in the garage, but I knew that I was on the verge of seeing what Bloke had accomplished. As I moved closer to the strange, shrouded thing, Bloke said, “Go ahead, Sean-O! Take the cover off!”

I took hold of the old bedsheet, stained and blotched with grease and oil, and carefully lifted it off the thing. 

“Wow!” I gasped as I exposed the motor thing that Bloke had been tinkering with for a few weeks. He always closed and locked the garage door after he finished whatever he was doing in secret.

I knew better than to ask my best friend, “What is it?” It looked impressive, and I had to admire the shined and clean metal, but I was not really sure what it was.

Bloke ran his fingertips over the object and then pointed to what looked like a fan at the lower end of the assembly.

“What’s the fan for?” I asked, receiving a slightly impatient frown from the mechanical artist who was giving me the world’s first look at what he had accomplished.

“Remember the boat we found last year?” Bloke said.

Of course I remembered the ancient rowboat Bloke and I had found. Dr. O’Leary, the dentist, knew boys well enough to offer them a fine piece of aquatic history and told us that for the privilege of carting it away, we would be genuine owners of a real lake-going rowboat he had found in his garage. He said it could be ours if we simply carted it from his garage to ours.  

Since Bloke’s family had no automobile to shelter in their garage, and we had no real garage of our own, Bloke’s dad said we could use their garage until he had money enough to buy a car. Until that time, the space could be ours to work on our projects.

Of course I remembered the ancient rowboat Bloke and I had found.

I have to admit that my participation in the great rowboat construction project failed to keep me interested enough to spend the months required to keep my excitement at the fever pitch of Bloke. Soon I tired of Bloke’s instructions — which I didn’t exactly understand — and I bowed to the inevitable. I returned to my hero worship of Lou Boudreau’s fantastic portrayal of the greatest shortstop in history, and my boat-building excitement waned.

I periodically helped out when Bloke needed assistance with lifting and moving his rowboat into a better position for painting or fixing a hole in the side. Bloke, for his part, was at least a sporadic second baseman, so it wasn’t like he had abandoned our team completely.

Now the long-awaited day had finally come. Bloke and I lifted the somewhat-heavier-than-expected “motorboat” onto our makeshift wagon, using the still usable old bedsheet to hide most of our genius. We carted the boat over to the bend of the river swimming hole before anyone had seen us — except Kevin, who was running laps before the sun had made its brilliant salute to the great seamen about to set sail in our neighborhood.

Our swimming hole was the closest and most familiar destination when it came to local waterways. Bloke and I wheeled the wagon bearing our boat into the water and were glad to see much of the boat was trying to float. Bloke said that once we got underway — his expression for “in the water” — the motor would take over and we would be able to move fast enough to keep our boat from going the wrong way — down!

I had to give Bloke credit for his seamanship; the motor he had firmly fixed to the back end of the boat looked shiny and strong. Bloke had tested the motor several times, and now the brass propeller was making contact with the water. 

“Anchors aweigh!” Bloke hollered.  

Illustration by T. Schluenderfritz

There was no one there to see us as the sun made its streaks on the water of our old swimming hole, which looked out onto Lake Erie. As the fan blades pinged and ponged, the smoke made us cough a bit, and we felt the water swirling through the not-quite-watertight holes, sloshing over our bare feet.

I was about to tell Bloke that my britches were now soaked. But as the water continued to rise in the boat, we realized the motor was not quite ready for pushing us out into the Great Lake adventure we had anticipated.

Bloke yelled for me to grab the rope we had tied to the boat, but it was gone before I could find it. Someone up the hill from our hole yelled down to us, letting us know we had been spotted.

We were well out of the water by the time some firemen from the local firehouse arrived. Bloke said he really wished they weren’t the same firemen from the closest firehouse to our neighborhood. He said that everyone probably knew about our venture out into the great world of our own neighborhood!

And as Bloke suspected, we did take a bit of razzing from our friends and neighbors. Fr. O’Phelan told us that the next time the feast of St. Brendan the Navigator rolled around, he would make sure Bloke and I were assigned to serve the Mass so we could hear his special homily about the great Irish seaman.

No one ever bothered to raise the sunken vessel from our swimming hole because it had sunk to the bottom at the deepest part of the bend. And if that boat meant anything to either of us, we never admitted it.

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