The Canoe

I have often been accused of having a fertile imagination. Perhaps that is the reason that I have had so much trouble over the years convincing people this story is true. I used to tell this dark tale at social gatherings, often ones where alcohol was served. Nobody ever bought into it. On these occasions I increasingly became the target of hecklers. Eventually the story began to take on a life of it’s own. I stated getting threats from my relatives. My own family is now in denial. But every word is exactly how it happened. It’s about my uncle Chet, the only character in my family that ever achieved notoriety, and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his disappearance which remains unexplained to this very day. It begins when I was a young lad of 17.

Back in ’66 I was a geeky high school junior living with my mother in a small red ranch style house not far from the Merrimack river in Peterborough, Massachusetts just north of Boston.

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My father had died in a car wreck when I was quite young. All throughout my adolescence, my mother struggled to keep things going in a practical sense which occupied most of her waking hours. I would help any way I could but my principal job was to go to school and be a good student. So like lots of teen aged kids I often had time on my hands when I was not  in school. I developed the ability to amuse myself with technical things fairly early in my young life. Even though my father was not around I never really felt deprived. Besides I really didn’t have a good domestic model to compare my “family” to. My uncle Chet was married to my mother’s sister Marilyn (everyone knew her as Melo) and had 2 daughters (my cousins) Linda, and Nancy. Linda was my age and Nancy was 3 years younger. They were the closest thing I knew of to a “normal” family unit.

My Uncle was famous for his droll sense of humor and his well documented habit of designing amazingly elaborate practical jokes. He was of Swedish origin and a real rugged outdoor guy. His first love had always been  going hiking and exploring out in the woods any chance he got. His thirst for adventure probably had its roots in his days in the  navy where he had spent 20 years and had traveled all over the Caribbean and Europe. But after getting out he took a regular day job at the Gloucester airport as an aircraft radio technician. Gloucester is of course out on the Massachusetts coast, about 30 miles east of where he lived in Seabury, MA. He would take great pride in his ability to find new circuitous routes to drive to and from work. His imagination would sometimes get the best of him. His favorite route took him on safari through the heart of Edward Parker State Forrest which was on the way.

Summer vacation would always mean one thing: camping! He would spend all winter making detailed plans for the next summers adventure. When my cousins were very young, they were tolerant of spending 2 weeks of their summer vacation  with Chet and Melo out in a tent in the woods somewhere.

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But the older they got , the less they wanted to be there. By the time they were in their teens, summer vacation for them was more about being with their friends and going to dances than back packs and tents. My uncle and I had photography, radio, and hi fi as common interests so we had always hit it off pretty well. So it was a natural  development that by the time I reached high school, I started going along on vacation with them. I would happily play the roll of the son he never had. It was great fun. Each subsequent year I would look forward to camping with my uncle & aunt. My uncle had acquired a Chevy Greenbrier van which he had customized for camping. They were the coolest wheels I had ever seen. Each year we would strike off to increasingly distant and remote locations. One year, we went to all the way to Newfoundland, Canada. It was there that my uncle first started to talk about wanting to build a canoe for next year. His plan was to drive the Chevy to the end of the road somewhere then strike out with packs and canoe further into the wild. He was a real pioneer in spirit. Shortly after returning from Newfoundland that year, he began bringing building materials over to our house. Their house in Seabury had no basement and he somehow managed to convince my mother to let him use our basement for canoe construction. He started showing up at our house one or two nights every week after work either to deliver some materials or tools. Soon one side of the basement was full of tools and fiberglass and plywood forms and long thin strips of redwood. It was now the fall and I was back in school and would have to be in bed at a reasonable hour. Some nights I would hear him down in the basement working away late into the night. This continued throughout the fall and into the winter. It was very time consuming construction that required cutting hundreds of individual strips of redwood. Each one had to be precisely sanded and steamed and bent and clamped and glued into place. Ever so slowly the craft took shape under the patient steady hand of the master technician. Now being a senior in high school, my time was increasingly taken up with studying and socializing and part time jobs after school. For me time began to pass more quickly and after a while I lost track of what was taking place in the basement. Before I knew it, Christmas had come and then New Years. But my uncles’ tireless construction continued. He hauled in pails of fiberglass and lacquer and polyurethane. The whole house smelled like solvents as he would apply layer after layer after layer of hard clear coatings over the redwood strips. He would have to wait several days between each application in order for the material to “set up” properly. So by New Year he could only work on it one night each week. So it was through January. We saw less and less of my uncle.

Then one Wednesday in mid February I woke up to find a snowstorm howling outside. School was cancelled for the day which was one of my favorite events. It snowed all day and into the evening. I clearly recall at around 10 in the evening the phone rang. It was my aunt Melo. She wanted to know if Chet was there working on the canoe. She had called the airport but by then he had left. She was concerned that he may have gotten stuck in the storm. By then the snow was 20 inches deep and still coming down and the wind was blowing hard. My mother told her that he was not there but that traffic was sure to be terrible because the roads were not plowed yet. I had not actually seen him at all that week, and was unsure if he had even been over the week before. I could not imagine anyone better able to deal with a blizzard. The Chevy van had heat and beds and food and water and lights and radios and extra batteries and fuel. It had absolutely everything. I secretly envied my uncle. He was probably having a ball somewhere camped out in the snow and wind riding out the storm warm and dry in the Greenbrier.

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Thursday brought a brilliant and sunny but frigidly cold morning with a stinging wind from the north. The main roads in town had been plowed over night and school was open again. I was up extra early in order to shovel out the driveway. This was my job and I had to get done in time to catch the school bus which in spite of all the snow showed up right on time at 7:20. When I came home that afternoon my mother informed me that Chet had still not been heard from. I was not at all surprised. He was probably in Edward Parker State Forrest again, this time on a polar expedition. But my aunt was not so calm. She was starting to get seriously concerned that something was wrong. Maybe he had been in an accident or gotten stuck and tried to walk through the blizzard and froze. I knew better. I wasn’t the least bit concerned. I expected him to show up at any time to work on the canoe. Night fell. No uncle Chet. The temperature dropped below zero. Melo was now getting frantic. She decided to call the police to see if they had any reports of a tall Swedish guy in a customized Greenbrier van. The vehicle was one of a kind (so was my uncle). There would be no mistaking either. She was told that there were hundreds of vehicles still stuck in the snowdrifts and that not all roads were open yet. But they took the report anyway and agreed to get in touch with her if they found him.

Friday dawned perfectly calm and bitterly cold.

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By our thermometer it was twelve below zero as I trudged up Farlane Road to the bus stop on the corner. The hard packed snow squeaked and complained under my boots. Any vehicle whose engine would start left a thick fog like exhaust trail of arctic sea smoke. I was oblivious. It was finally Friday and I was looking forward to the weekend. By the time I got home from school the temperature had crept just above zero. But the strengthening late February sun made the day seem almost pleasant. As soon as I came in the door my mother met me and declared that my uncle Chet had still not been seen or heard from since leaving the airport in the blizzard on Wednesday night. She seemed to expect me to do something about it. My aunt had now filed a formal missing person report with the police.

It was true. My uncle had an eccentric streak but it always seemed harmless and even a little cool. He had occasionally been guilty of losing track of time when he was on one of his adventures. I could relate to that. No problem. I still thought that he was probably mushing across the tundra of Edward Parker and that he would show up when he got tired of playing Roald Amundsen (the other famous Scandinavian Antarctic explorer). I had the whole weekend ahead of me. I was going to make the best of it. My uncle could take care of himself.

Monday morning came too fast and too early with an ominous slate grey overcast. The air temperature was still well below freezing as it had been all weekend. The forecast was for more snow, this time changing to ice by dark. Wonderful. All I knew was the weekend was over and it was back to school. I had spent most of the weekend out and about with my friends, only hearing the latest Chet watch details from my mother when  passing through the house to grab a sandwich or a shower. I wondered if he had ever gone this far before. Maybe my aunt and uncle had a fight or something. I still never for a moment thought that he could be in any sort of danger from the elements. The elements were his element. If something was really amiss, it must have been something else. If he was in any danger it would be from my aunt when he finally showed up.

The next week crept by. Still no word came from the authorities on the whereabouts of my uncle. The snow and ice and damp cold made each day seem even longer. The disagreeable weather seemed to get even me down. I began to think  about all the possible scenarios that could have befallen my uncle. But as fast as I imagined them, I discarded them. He was just too well prepared and – what?  Capable. That was it. He was just too capable to be done in by a snowstorm. My mother stopped giving out the periodic briefings from my aunt. I think by talking about it she felt she was somehow tempting fate. There was just nothing to discuss.

The weekend again came and went. Sunday was the first of March. The weather remained overcast but the temperature finally started to moderate. It had been frigid forever. My aunt had a second “interview” with the police, this time they came to her house in Seabury. It had been  two weeks since the storm. They asked her for more details about my uncle, in particular “personal” background information. They were clearly looking for some motive for the disappearance. Nobody liked the sinister tone of the discussion.

Practical considerations were now starting to have an effect as well. My aunt had been working part time at a textile company up in Lowell that made “Pellon” which, as it was explained to me, was some sort of stiff backing material used in clothes. I guess someone had to make the stuff shoulder pads were made of. She had been in touch with airport about my uncle’s status. He had put away almost 6 weeks of vacation time and she was told she was entitled to his benefits such as disability. But until the situation became clearer, my aunt had to start drawing down his vacation salary he had banked. Vacation was the most precious of commodities to my uncle. My mother said that if he was really on a little adventure of his own making, it would serve him right. My older cousin Linda was my age and looking forward to graduation. My younger cousin Nancy, was now in high school so the need for day care was not an issue either. My aunt decided to go to work full time at the Pellon factory. I think this was done for more than one reason.

March seemed to fly by. It was my senior year in school. The pace of life really seemed to accelerate and my calendar was always full with part time jobs, senior school activities, and hanging out with my friends on the weekends. I was not one of the “beautiful people” in school but always seemed to have a date on most Saturdays. I would work more part time after school to help with the finances. I was busy. Gradually the sun started to go to work on the mountains of snow and ice that had built up. My mother stopped speaking about my uncle altogether. It was as if he had never existed. She would talk bitterly about all the hardships Melo was going through, but would no longer take part in the speculation about Chet’s fate. I tried to be philosophical. After all, there was not a single thing I could do to bring him back. My mother told me to call my aunt and be supportive. I spoke with my aunt alone only rarely. But now it was a really unnatural and uncomfortable conversation. What was there to say? But she had a surprising bit of information to share. Edward Parker State Forrest was technically closed in the winter. Abandoned was a more accurate description. Although the roads through were not barricaded, they were not plowed either. This raised all sorts of questions in my mind. The police said that they had contacted the park service and they were assured that the forest had been “secured”. What that meant I have no idea. Later that spring after much of the snow melted, I clearly recall going for a ride and driving all through the state forest.

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I don’t know what I expected to find. I guess I just needed to look for myself. It was just a big peaceful forest crisscrossed with a few unpaved but well maintained roads. It took several hours to cover the whole area. I never told anyone.

I can honestly say that spring and summer were a blur for me. I graduated from Peterborough high school in June and immediately started working at the local TV sales and service shop as a repair technician. I also began thinking about getting my own place and moving out. I felt I needed “my own space”. What did I know? Nothing much changed with respect to my uncle. My aunt hired an attorney to look into  her options. She wanted to collect his social security and navy pension checks but his vague status in the eyes of the law was making it impossible. The outcome was that she would have to file for death benefits in order to collect. And without a body that would be difficult. But it was the only thing to do.

I never got a vacation that year. The TV shop was doing a booming business and I put in long hours and was able to make some good change. By the fall, I told my mother that I wanted to get my own place. I expected a fight. But I was amazed to learn that she had wanted to sell the little house for a long time but was only keeping it for my benefit. After all it was just her and I and the house upkeep and mortgage was really hard to justify. She wanted to move into some sort of assisted living community where she did not have as much to worry about. So it was, that my mother and I started the process of selling 17 Farlane road.

 

The plan was to wait until next spring and then put the house up for sale. That would give me enough time to do some badly needed fixing up. I spent weekends painting and wallpapering and fixing anything that I knew how to fix. It was an education for me.  We had a series of yard sales to dispose of years of extra household items which somehow we never could bring ourselves to throw out. By Christmas the little house was really looking pretty good. The only thing I still needed to do was to clean out the basement. One day shortly after Christmas while I was at work, my mother had a visit from a “representative” from an insurance agency. He was working on a claim for death benefits filed by my aunt. My uncle had apparently taken out a “sizable” life policy shortly after getting out of the navy. That was over 10 years ago. But the tone of the representative who was really an investigator was clearly hostile. My mother would have none of his insinuations. From what I could gather, she showed him the door.

The basement was a narrow little space which was divided roughly in half by the stairway and the boiler which was in the center of the house. On one side of the stairway were boxes of lots of my old toys and magazines and clothes. There were also tools and dishes and old bicycles and just miscellaneous items.. They were all fair game for the yard sales and, failing that, the dumpster. I made quick work of them. On the other side was my uncles workshop. I could not seem to bring myself to go over there. It was like hallowed ground. It was also creepy. Finally one Saturday, I decided this was the day. There was a bulkhead door which led from that side of the basement to the back yard. I unlocked the big iron doors and let the spring sunlight flood into the musty space. It was just as he had left it. All his tools were neatly hung up on hooks and on shelves. His work bench was organized, every screw and nail and bolt had its own neatly labeled container. There was a layer of grey dust on everything and in some places some spiders had started to build webbing but strangely not a hint of sawdust could be seen. Even the trash bucket was empty. I was fascinated. I felt like an intruder though. But what dominated the space was the great canvas covered form that ran the length of the shop. It was set up off the floor on a supporting frame such that the top was almost chest level. I was really creeped out now. I don’t know exactly why but I needed to call my aunt and ask her what to do. I knew what to do but I think I needed to be absolved of any responsibility for disturbing the shrine. I bolted up the stairs and dialed my aunts number. She said in very few words to sell everything and send her half the proceeds. There was clearly no sentimental attachment going on here.

So I went back downstairs. This time I was determined to have a look at this thing my uncle had so lovingly created from sweat and tiny strips of wood and fiberglass. My heart was racing. I grabbed the canvas tarp and pulled it back. The redwood canoe  was finally exposed to the first sun light it had ever seen. I have never really been into sailing or canoeing. But my eyes were immediately seduced by it’s graceful lines. Only later did the degree of fine detail work become apparent. It looked like finely crafted furniture. The rich redwood hull was literally as smooth and hard as glass. Even the polished brass hardware which secured the seat and decorated the rails was bright and shiny. It was a clinic on craftsmanship. What a boat. I just stood there for the longest time overwhelmed by my discovery. My uncle had clearly left a part of himself behind. How ironic was this? After spending countless hours giving birth to this amazing work, to think that he would never have the chance to launch it. I felt compelled to call my aunt again and tell her about the wondrous work that I had uncovered. I went back up the stairs, picked up the phone and dialed her for a second time. I did my best to explain that a part of him was really locked up in the loving care he had lavished on this work of art. It was not what my aunt wanted to hear. I pleaded with her to at least come and look at it before she made any final decision about its fate. “Just sell it.” was all she had to say and hung up. I later found out that earlier that day she had filed papers suing Chets’ insurance company for the $750,000 policy proceeds to which she felt rightfully entitled.

That was when the private investigators started coming. It seemed as if there was a different one that wanted to talk with my mother and I every week. My mother was under instructions from my aunt and her attorney to be polite and answer their questions but not to volunteer any other information. I wondered what other information there could be. I can only imagine what my aunt was going through. This kept up for several months. It was now June and our little house finally went on the market. I had arranged for some friends to help me move the canoe out into the yard. The plan was to take it to a local boat retailer. I wanted an appraisal before I tried to sell it. I secretly wanted to keep it and I just might have if I had a place to keep it. But my tiny apartment would not allow for such luxurious artwork. It was way too large to use as a coffee table.

The next weekend I showed up at the house with 3 beefy colleagues that were the guys that delivered the TVs for the shop. We opened up the bulkhead doors and all filed down the iron steps. They were as impressed as I had been. We wisely had brought lots of heavy blankets to wrap around the prize craft to keep from scratching the mirror finishes. Once we completely wrapped it in blankets and secured them with duck tape, we ever so gently lifted the canoe off its stand. The first surprise of the day was that it weighed  maybe 500 pounds. It took all 4 of us to maneuver it. The plan was to work it around the stairway and the boiler so we could angle it up the bulkhead  and onto the truck waiting in the back yard. It was hard work. We inched our way around, trying to avoid making any contact with the stairway or the 2 support columns which held up the house. The columns seemed to be in just the wrong spots. It was like parallel parking a big car in a tiny parking place. The major difference was we had to lift and maneuver the car. We went forward and back / forward and back / each time inching our way around the basement to get the right angle to make a run on the bulkhead stairs. At first we thought by raising one end of the canoe and working the other end into an opposing corner of the basement, we would then have a clear path to the door and the stairs. It took all our strength to waltz around and then press the bulky craft high enough to gain the right attitude for the door. But try as we would, we seemed unable to clear the obstacles and approach the bulkhead door directly on. After several empirical attempts we decided it was time to return the canoe to its original place of honor and go for some geometry. After making a series of measurements and calculations, it was then decided that by carefully inching the canoe part way up the stairway to the upstairs, we would then have the clearance we needed to revolve the object in the small amount of space at our disposal thereby gaining just the correct angle for our exit up the bulkhead and into the back yard. So ever so slowly and carefully we guided the bow up the cellar steps which connected to an upstairs hallway. This could only be accomplished by rotating it 90 degrees to starboard in mid air. It was agony. There never seemed to be any place to stand which would allow us to move the canoe to the angle we wanted it. We knew what we wanted to do but seemed unable to lift and turn it in the right way. Then someone started to laugh. I could see victory slipping away. Worse yet, the canoe was now suspended in space half way in the basement and half way extended into my mothers’ upstairs hallway. Something had to be done. So we decided to drink beer and regroup for a final assault. It was starting to get dark by the time the unthinkable started to look possible. We managed only to restore my mothers upstairs hallway to its original unoccupied condition and wrestle the behemoth back to the place where it had all began. My colleagues thought it was just the funniest thing they ever saw. I was not yet ready to accept defeat and humiliation but it was now late and they all went their separate ways leaving me to contemplate my fate and the fate of my dear mysteriously departed uncles greatest accomplishment.

My mother was not amused. There were people coming to look at the house. What would we tell them? My aunt was not amused. She was sick to death of hearing me gush about the damn thing. I was not amused. I was sore and tired and discouraged. I was ready for a vacation. My uncle was who knows where.

In the coming weeks I made several more attempts at discovering the secret of how to liberate this magical craft from the dungeon. I even called professional movers. Surely they could find a way to lift and turn and rotate it in just the right way to gain access to the exit. But it was no use. The result was always the same. My mother was losing her patience. She had accepted an offer from a couple and the paper passing date was set. Time was running out. She said that the house would be empty and the canoe would be out on time. The movers were scheduled to come in about 10 days. It was now August. What could I do? My mother didn’t care. She even suggested taking a chain saw and putting it out of it’s misery. I was the only one left that felt a warm connection to my uncle through this creation. It was clear that both my mother and aunt had long since decided my uncle was a cad and wanted no more to do with anything connected with him. The one exception was the insurance money. There were now suits and counter suits. The only winners were going to be attorneys.

On the day the moving people came the canoe was still just where it had always been. They proceeded to move every single object out of the house except the canoe. Before we drove away, I went back down the basement stairs one more time to have one last look. I was about to launch my uncles creation on the sea of mercy of the new owners of our little house. We never heard a single word about it from the new owners. After all it was a thing of great beauty.

My aunt won the law suit with the insurance company and was awarded the $750.000. She also won damages. My cousins both graduated from high school, moved out, and got married. So Melo sold the house in Seabury and bought property in the Virgin Islands, moved there, and built a brand new house on the beach. It was now 5 years from the famous day in February and the snowstorm. No trace of my uncle nor the distinctive Chevy Greenbrier van ever was found. Could he have somehow flown out from the airport before the storm on that strange day? I can’t help but wonder. I have often been accused of having a fertile imagination. Was this all planned somehow? I had heard my uncle and aunt talk years ago about wanting to retire to the Caribbean. Perhaps this was the grandfather of all practical jokes. I still get a card every Christmas from my aunt. It always has Santa on it under a palm tree. She simply signs it Chet and Melo.

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