The lily pad finally croaked

A version of this appeared recently as a column in The Sault Star

It’s not often I get choked up when I’m tearing down an old deck.

Unless, perhaps, there’s a lot of dirt and dust trapped between the boards.

But taking apart the Lily Pad the other day was poignant for a few reasons.

The Lily Pad wasn’t just any old deck. The fact that is had a distinctive name, other than “front deck” or “side deck,” might be your first clue.

It sprawled beside my dock, irregular-shaped and green, roughly following the curves of the shoreline. 

The curvy lines of the Lily Pad took some imagination and a lot of wasted lumber to make

You could call The Lily Pad the signature piece of my oeuvre as an amateur public artist. But that would imply that it was a) art and b) that I had other artsy stuff in my construction portfolio.

However, like genuine public art, that deck proved to be ephemeral.

The Lily Pad endured but 11 years of Northern Ontario summers and winters before falling to the wrecking ball.

(Technically, to an old guy with a crowbar and a power-screwdriver.)

Had to be done. The Lily Pad was rotting and someone might well plunge through it to the ground below. Odds are it would be me, and the putative artist would have to be hoist in his own petard up to a more solid piece of deck.

I didn’t set out to build a lily pad 11 years ago. But the shape of the building site was irregular. The foundation beams were irregular too, having been recycled from an iced damaged dock. The builder certainly was irregular.

So the deck became irregular, a free-flowing structure that came to resemble something a frog might sit upon on calm, sunny day, which is exactly what I planned to do as often as possible.

Presciently, I already had decided to stain it green.

The Lily Pad prepares to meet its maker, at the hands of its maker

Once it became apparent that rectangles would be as rare as sobriety on The Lily Pad, I herringboned the two-by-six floorboards, as was a fashion at the time.

I rounded off every corner with a jigsaw, carving a wavy front into the part that faced the lake. Then I cut railings out of 2 by 6 boards to match those curves. Apparently what sets a would-be artist apart from a carpenter is the amount of lumber he wastes.

People travelled from far and wide, or as far and wide as you can travel in a pontoon boat, to marvel or smirk at my creation.

And though my first impulse was to name it Turtle Island, gradually it became known as the Lily Pad.

It was a darned useful structure for 11 years. And as I tore it down the other day some of its functions flickered through my mind like a clumsy flashback in a second-rate vintage movie.

The Lily Pad provided stubbed-toe-free passage to a shallow swimming spot, a place to sit, sun, even sleep (if memory serves me well), eat, drink, snack, store water toys, play tag, shuck t-shirts and towels, lose fishing gear between the cracks, play in the sand. (I attached a sandbox to the back of it) and step on broken plastic sand toys with a bare foot.

Plastic furniture blew off it with distressing frequency, sometimes into the deep water beside the dock. 

Patio umbrellas sometimes soared through the air as if in search of Mary Poppins. If I fastened them more firmly, a mocking wind would just snap their poles. (I live on a breezy point.)

Smaller dogs loved the cool and shady refuge they found under the Lily Pad so much that more than once I had to slither under it to haul one out by the collar, trying not to snag myself on a fish hook that a grandkid had dropped between the floorboards.

But I had a special attachment to The Lily Pad because I built it while my No. 2 grandson (in age, not merit) was being born.

I remember plunking a portable phone beside me while I sawed and screw-drove and swore, measuring six times and cutting once, waiting for news of his arrival. That phone had to be recharged a few times, because he was as casual about deadlines as I was about completing construction projects.

The good news arrived about the same time it was becoming clear that what was emerging from the swamp of my artisanship was something strangely shaped.

I drove to the hospital to cradle that newborn, then rushed back to complete the product of my own act of conception.

When I told Grandson No. 2 that story the other day, he didn’t beg me to restore the Lily Pad. Kids accept change better than old fogeys do. But I doubt it I could replicate even if I had blueprints.

What moved me even more about tearing down the Lily Pad, and replacing it, if my body ever recovers, is that this might well be the last deck I build. And I’ve built scads of them.

A deck was my first substantial construction project, back when I was about 14, probably motivate by a misplaced belief that it would impress 14-year-old girls. I’ve built dozens and dozens of decks since, each greeted by almost universal yawning from the gentler gender.

Even if I set folly aside this time and focus on function, I figure that deck’s going to need replacing in about 11 years.

Odds are there will be other things needing replacement before then. Knees. Hips. The homeowner himself.

Coming soon to this site, a new but less interesting deck

The Complete Angler: Tragic Tale of Fred the Fish has an ending

You might recall I baited the hook and left you dangling a few weeks ago by withholding the ending to The Tragic Tale of Fred the Fish and inviting readers to guess what happened. No one provided the correct answer. Some of you picked up the completed story at my book-signing session Aug. 11 at the Northern Ontario Book Fair in Sault Ste. Marie. For the rest, here it is. 

I love to fish, but only for sport. You won’t find a trophy trout on my wall, not even a fur-bearing one or Big Mouth Milly Bass singing Take Me to the River. Catch and release, that’s me.

On a sunny day you’ll find me hiking to a nearby lake, plunking a piece of worm on a hook, casting out and then leaning back against a tree until my daydreams are disrupted by  a bobber living up to its name.

One day I forgot the worms. For lack of any better substitute, I cut off a small chunk of hot sausage from my lunch pack, attached it to the hook and let fly.

And the fish went bananas, attacking that bait like their lives were at splake. Captivated by cacciatore. Who would guess Italian sausage would drive fish wild, even in a lake near Sault Ste. Marie? 

Next trip I remembered the worms. But the bobber seemed to be on a union-mandated break all morning.

Then at lunchtime, when I dug into my pack, something very strange happened.

There was a splash at the shoreline. A fair-sized fish flopped onto the grassy bank and flipped up the slope to my feet.

It glanced sideways at the sausage, clearly coveting my cacciatore. So I carved off a tiny chunk and flipped it into the air.

Flexing its caudal fin it leapt and snapped up the spicy morsel. Then, mustering the closest a fish can come to a satisfied smile, it waddled back to the lake like a glutton departing the Mandarin on all-you-can-eat-crab-legs night.

In days to come there were encores to this fishy performance. I could almost fillet, er feel it, that moment when he’d leave the lake behind and take a lunge for my lunch.

Then one day as I headed homeward I heard a noise. The fish was flopping along the trail behind me. 

I slid the patio door shut behind me, but that fish flapped its tale noisily against the glass. Curious, I let it in. It headed straight for the toilet, jumped in and swam around in circles.

As the days went by, Fred (it turned out Fred was its name), spent less and less time in water, somehow developing an amphibious ability to survive mostly on air. Eventually he never had to go near water, except to wash down his cacciatore at mealtime.

Sounds bass-ackwards, but it’s true.

And he became not just any run-of-the-mill Fred the Fish but a true friend and companion.

Fred might have been a fish out of water but he soon got in the swim of human ways.

At night we’d play cards. Go Fish was his favourite.

We’d read books together. We started with One Fish Two Fish Whitefish Blue Fish. But Fred caught on quickly and before long he was deep into The Old Man and the Sea, Trout Fishing in America, Moby Dick and everything by Salman Rushdie.

We celebrated his birthday February 28, which made him a pisces.

Fred and I would watch Extreme Fishing together and he would cheer for the fish.

His favourite hockey team was the Sharks, favourite football team the Dolphins, favourite baseball team the Marlins.

We’d have a beer or two while watching the games. But it’s a good thing Fred couldn’t master the twist top or pull tab (had didn’t have prehensile thumbs, or any thumbs at all for that matter) because he drank like a fish.

Sometimes when he was in his cups, literally, Fred would tell me long and often tedious fish tales about his school days in the pond.

It was survival of the fittest of the fishiest, to hear him tell it, a fish-eat-fish underwater world. Throw in fish-eating birds and its a wonder there were any survivors to snap at a worm.

But Fred’s nemesis in the kingdom of Neptune was a certain invasive species, a rosy coloured guy with a big mouth who was native to Russia. This alien was always trying to hack into poor Fred. Perhaps that accentuated his impulse toward accelerated evolution.

Still, I hadn’t lost my love of fishing, or lying in the sun pretending to fish. So Fred would accompany me, flopping along the path, then perching beside me and cheering for an inactive bobber. Sometimes he’d even take a dip and hook up with his old buddies.

Perhaps I should have seen tragedy lurking in the weeds. (Perhaps, clever reader that you are, you already have.)

One day when I was heading home with an empty creel and Fred flipping and flopping at my heels, I heard a noise that chilled me to the fishbone.

It was the distinctive sound of sliding scales — not the musical kind or the way cheap companies pay their workers, but standard equipment on a fish

That was followed by a plop and a splash.

Then, to my horror, a gulp and a sputter.

As I spun in my tracks, eyes scanning the stream over which we had just crossed, castigating myself for missing that sale on fish-sized personal flotation devices at Canadian Tire, my blood ran cold.

My fishy friend floated belly up on the water as if it were a bed of crushed ice in the deli department. Then his lifeless body sank slowly beneath the surface.

Fred the Fish had drowned.

Notes: So it wasn’t the mysterious Russian-speaking fish that put an end to Fred. That was a red herring. 

The Tragic Tale of Fred the Fish is based on a story I heard once, possibly told by the late Utah Phillips, labour organizer, folksinger, storyteller, Wobbly and presidential candidate, who might have borrowed it from someone else.

Photo by Silverleaf Writers Guild

At the book-signing Aug. 11 during the Northern Ontario Book Fair, held in association with Fringe North and the Up The Arts multifest in Sault Ste. Marie.

Could I Have Flunked Kindergarten?

These reflections on Kindergarten graduation ceremonies have been published in the June 29 Sault Star.

I went to a kindergarten graduation, starring a couple of special grandkids, the other day and came home with mixed feelings.
No, my qualms weren’t because people in my age cohort are supposed to cut back on sugar and the kids’ graduation was about the sweetest thing anyone could imagine.

Getting down and dignified at the grad with William (Wilhelm) and his big brother Cameron, both bad influences on their grandfather.

I think my uneasiness arose because I can’t remember graduating from Kindergarten myself.
Now, you might suspect this is one of a gigantic pile of things, growing faster than a giant hogweed plant, that I have trouble remembering, afflicted as I am with oldtimer syndrome.
But those of us whose first item on every day’s To Do list should be “spend 20 minutes looking for To Do list” usually have no trouble recalling events from our distant childhoods.
We’ll come up with an idealized version of what really happened, because the passage of time acts like a game of broken telephone on the truth.
But those memories belong to us, so we should be allowed to take whatever liberties with them that we desire. After all, who wants to look back on a crappy childhood?
Still, since I can’t recall graduating from kindergarten, could it be that I didn’t?
Should I imagine myself in the lead role of a cheesy 1980s movie about a grown man forced to sit in a tiny desk for a year because his educational and employment credentials are invalidated by lack of a kindergarten diploma?
Will I finally have to learn to share my crayons?
I don’t think they ever expelled kids at the kindergarten level. But it’s certainly possible that I was invited not to return.
If I were a teacher assigned to teach the same grade next year, the last thing I’d do is recommend a trouble-maker repeat it.
And I dimly recall leading a sit-down strike against the inclusion of tomato juice as one of three daily beverage selections, not to mention a lie-down strike against compulsory napping.
So my teacher (only one and no assistants, in those days) probably fabricated as much evidence of solid progress as she needed to inflict me on her colleague in Grade 1.
Actually, I think the real reason I can’t remember kindergarten graduation is that there was no such thing in those long-ago times when dinosaurs roamed the Jurassic playground.
Instead of donning a mortar board and being handed a ribbon-bound diploma to the applause of faculty and family, we tremulous tots took home final report cards that told our parents if we had a seat in the Grade 1 come September.
Kindergarten was just another grade. We weren’t leaving the school. No fuss would be made until 10 or 11 or 12 years later when we graduated from Grade 8.
A part of me thinks making a big deal of kindergarten graduation is akin to giving every child a whole boxful of trophies just for existing.
In that validation movement, adults imagine there are no winners or losers, even though by Grade 3 or so every child knows exactly who won and who lost every competition of any sort. And anyone silly enough to swallow the everyone’s-a-winner bunk grows up grossly unprepared for the real world.
We had our own version of everyone-gets-a-trophy when I was a kid. It was no-one-gets-a-trophy.
You might win a city championship, a provincial championship, a national championship, but you wouldn’t get a trophy. Your team might get one, but they’d have to give it back after a year.
If you did really well and got really lucky you might get a cheap felt crest to be sewn onto your jacket. More likely you’d be handed a cheap felt chevron with “hockey” or “baseball” or “bowling” on it, to be sewn on to the sleeve of your jacket.
No one who placed second or worse ever got anything more than a hurried mention over the school PA system the next morning.
Kids who just couldn’t amass enough chevrons in real life joined the cubs, scouts, brownies or guides, where you could get a patch just by burning a few marshmallows.
Still, despite my curmudgeonly instincts, I sort of like the idea of a kindergarten graduation ceremony.
For most of the kids, it’s probably the first time they’ll appear on a stage before a large group of strangers. That’s good experience.
But not too much is expected of them: just hear their names called, walk a few steps to receive a diploma and return to their seats. And all of them equally share the limelight and whatever stage fright there might be.
All the kids have to do, really, is show up and not wet their pants.
There were “awwws” and guffaws from the adults as teachers recited what each child liked to do best at school and at home and what each wanted to do when his or her long educational journey is complete.
The police and fire services will have to go on a massive hiring binge a few decades from now if even half of those tots follow through on their occupational choices and their desire to help others.
But there will be dancers, Toronto Maple Leafs, a princess, a fairy, a mother and even (god help her) a writer as well, if kindergartener’s dreams come true.
For adults, the graduation ceremony is a welcome reminder of the innocence and idealism we all possessed when we were five or six.
The soon-to-be-Grade-One-ers might have glory in the present and look expectantly toward the future. But the adults in the crowd also have the pleasure of revisiting the past.