People and Boats: Elmer Collemer

The first time I met Elmer Collemer was on a warm summer day, and the door to his boat barn was wide open. I had come with my father to check on the progress of a boat he was having built. Of course, before this visit to the barn, my father had never even mentioned this boat to me, but that was just like him.
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The first time I met Elmer Collemer was on a warm summer day, and the door to his boat barn was wide open. I had come with my father to check on the progress of a boat he was having built. Of course, before this visit to the barn, my father had never even mentioned this boat to me, but that was just like him.

Elmer looked like Noah, standing against the beamy girth of a gigantic wooden hull on stilts in the barn. His face was weathered, map-like with charted lines. I tried not to stare when I noticed he had only three fingers on one hand.

It became quickly clear that Elmer was a man of few words. He had a slight lift to his voice when agreeing with people, the classic “ayuh” of the Maine dialect. His eyes were kind, glancing now and then to mine.

The hull comes together

The hull comes together

Looking at the boat behind him, I wondered how that wood, once straight and rigid, had come to look like the ribs of a whale, giant exposed ribs that looked as though a flock of turkey vultures had picked at them. Sensing my curiosity, Elmer said, “Look ‘round if you want, just don’t get close to them steaming barrels, not too forgivin’, they’re wicked hot.” I smiled back at him and gave a silent nod before starting off on my investigation. We didn’t stay as long as I would have liked, but I was thrilled that the boat being built was called a Friendship sloop. Friendship—that had to be a good omen.

Maine seemed to dance in the summer, all bright and cheerful. The locals stockpile their memories of this heaven and hold onto them during the much harsher days of winter. Our first winter in Maine was not easy for my brother and me. We had just moved from Washington, D.C., and it seemed we weren’t moving back. My brother and I walked to school in a new kind of weather that came at us sideways; stinging cold rain—so cold it felt almost hot—mixed with bits of ice. I felt certain nothing good would come of this.

Pretty soon two station wagons followed by two moving trucks piled high with our lives spilled into our big new house with our big family in this tiny town of Camden. Two years after that the real bottom fell out: my parents, after completely uprooting us, were now divorcing. Suffering silently was the WASP way. “Buck up and snap out of it,” was the unspoken family mantra.

As I walked home from school in the freezing weather one November, smoke fell down around me from a chimney. It had appeared suddenly, from that wondrous place I had forgotten for so many months. With frozen bits of hair stuck to my face, I dared to open the heavy door to Elmer’s boat barn.

Once inside, Elmer was as surprised to see me as I was at my boldness to open this door again. Not quite a stranger, he welcomed me in. I barely knew what to say once I made my timid entrance. The man sensed my awkwardness, and smiled.

“Come stand by the stove,” he said. “It will warm you right up.”

“Thank you, Elmer,” I mumbled. I stood warming by the stove, until his gentle voice gave me the nerve to look up.

“Come on over,” he said. “See how far I’ve come since your last visit.”

The author as a child, discovering a boat-building haven

The author as a child, discovering a boat-building haven

We walked around the entire beast of the boat, which was now starting to look like a real seaworthy vessel. The transformation took my breath away. How could he have done this all on his own? As if by magic, the skeletal carcass had become a hull. I could hardly tell where one plank ended and another began. It was the work of Noah, for certain. I could get used to visiting this boat, I thought, looking to Elmer, whose warmth spilled down from his eyes and from every crack in his face.

“Take a peek around while I haul them steaming boards out,” he said. “Got to bend ‘em now.”

I walked back to Elmer’s workbench where curls of soft wood lay strewn about. I wanted some to take home, but did not dare to ask.

A short while later I found drawers full of dark wooden shapes, and drawers filled with bits of what looked like bits of the moon. I had never before seen mother-of-pearl and could only guess at its origin. I held these pearls close, hoping some of their magic might spill into me.

Elmer came over to where I was standing. He seemed thrilled by my curiosity.

“Did you find all my treasures?” he asked.

It must be lonely to work by yourself all the time, I thought. I opened the drawer with the bits of the moon inside and asked, “Where did you find these?”

Elmer laughed. “Well, that is mother-of-pearl,” he said. “It’s a beautiful shell that comes from far away.”

Among those wood shavings and pieces of pearl and carefully crafted wooden ribs, I felt as though I had found my secret garden that day. In Elmer’s boatbuilding barn, I felt a connection to something more important, and something comfortable. I wanted to stop in every day after that, but I did not want him to tire of me, or to be in his way, so I only came by from time to time. Still, every time I visited, and every time I left, Elmer always said the same thing: “Don’t forget me. Don’t be a strange-ah.”

Photos courtesy of Katharyn Remsen Aroneau

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