I never took “shop” in high school — the class that took place in a little white building near the campus power plant behind the gym. It was a secretive place where one could go to learn how to use a bandsaw or drill press. While I didn’t take shop, I grew up with one, a long mysterious workroom behind the house on Cape Cod, where first my great-great grandfather retired from the sea to mend sails in the upstairs sail loft, and where, thirty years later during the Depression into the1950s, my grandfather ran a little woodworking business and built Cotuit Skiffs.
The shop was idle when I was very little in the early 1960s and my grandfather was still alive, but all the tools were still in place. Planks of white Atlantic cedar stacked waiting for the next Cotuit Skiff. It was a forbidden place filled with child-maiming lathes, spoke-shaves, adzes, wood planes, chisels, saw horses, a tool-and-die set in an ornate wooden chest lined with green felt, wooden handled screw drivers shiny from use, hand saws, hand drills, banks after banks of drawers with yellow paper labels, little hardware bins made from wooden Velveeta cheese boxes, old crates of Orange Crush (back when Orange Crust was more white than orange), a rack of Woolsey boat paints, jigs for sandcasting bronze sailboat hardware, old lignum vitae ships blocks from long-sunk coastal schooners, kerosene blow torches, cast iron crucibles for melting lead, curls of dried out sandpaper, an old whale oil barrel filled with scrap wood, stacks of metal name plates that said “Lloyd Churbuck Manufacturing, 15 Union St., Lawrence, Mass.”
There weren’t any power tools, save an old silver Turner’s Falls drill that smelled like ozone when it was plugged in. Once when we cleaned it we found an ancient pint of Black & White scotch and a hidden leather case containing a glass syringe and a bottle of ancient morphine tablets. The louche possibilities of those discoveries were thrilling.
The ceiling of the workshop was open, the rafters filled with lengths of bronze sail track, clusters of mast hoops, necklaces of bronze jib snaps. Goosenecks, boom tangs, gudgeons and pintles, balls of tarred Italian marline (which smell exactly like Chinese Lapsang Souchong tea). It was the saltiest place on the planet, the kind of shop you’d expect a former whaling captain and his grandson to equip and hang out in.
A lot of the stuff is still there. Untouched out of respect and the sense that someday someone might want to come in and find a sailor’s palm or a fid. Even the sailmaker’s bench is still in the sail loft, ready for someone to sit and stich a leech with a herringbone pattern. The loft is the site of the first Masonic lodge in Cotuit, started by Thomas Chatfield after the Civil War, and when I step back there in the morning I can imagine the space filled with men in rocking chairs conducting the secret government of the village.
I cleaned the place out this past weekend: the usual spring cleaning. And as I did, uncovering the painted Skiff scantlings on the floor, vacuuming skeins of cobwebs off the windows and decimating thousands of spider eggs, I felt very at home and very happy, in a space where my father heard the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor on the radio with his father. The room where cousins celebrated weddings, air hockey games were contested, illegal devices fashioned, tools stolen, and boats painted. Every year it sags a little more, shrinks a little under the pressures of modern life in a house with no basement, filled with clutter and coats and crap.
But every so often, when it is cleared out, you can imagine a crew of Churbucks and Crosby’s building wooden sailboats on a cold spring day, racing the calendar to have it ready in time for the summer people on the Fourth of July.