“A Winter Apprentice”

By John Holt Willey

Polar Bear & Co., Solon, 2016, 280 pages, trade paperback, $14.95

John Willey’s memoir “A Winter Apprentice” opens on the heels of World War II at the Good Will Farm (now known as Good Will-Hinckley). He and a school friend, besmitten by a fascination for boats, decide to build one on the sly and launch it in the Kennebec River. There turn out to be some problems with the vessel, but completely seaworthy is John’s overarching desire to make things — and not just solid objects.

The story skipjacks over the next couple of decades, when he worked variously as a reporter, a would-be novelist and a private detective, along with developing cabinetmaking skills, to the mid-1970s. Wearied by the boredom of detective work, he closed up his office in San Francisco and returned home to Maine to seek his fortune — i.e., a more meaningful and fulfilling life. With woodworking and boats quite near the center of his spiritual being, he found a minimum-wage job in the summer of 1978 as an apprentice joiner at the Paul E. Luke boatyard in Boothbay Harbor.

“A Winter Apprentice” then recounts the grueling, frustrating, humiliating, enraging and, most of all, instructive and fulfilling details of learning to build sailing vessels. Willey piles on the terminology within a fascinating narrative, describing, for example, the nooks, niches and nicks of making and placing a narrow two-door medicine cabinet over a sink in the below-deck confines of a sailboat, and generously spicing the narrative with sailing and boat-building terms that reflect the intricacy and fineness of the work: coamings, bungs, backsaws, stays, spars, the mysterious imaginative process called lofting.

But beyond the physical details, every bit of this story shapes the emotional and spiritual atmosphere of the yard and its craftsmen. For while the literal material is boat building, the book’s real themes involve the complexities of learning and teaching, and the fact that the true aim of any difficult task is not its physical product, but the satisfactions of high-quality creation. This produces not just recollections of funny, poignant and painful boatyard anecdotes, but really, a philosophy of life.

Integral to the story are the bosses, who are the master builders and, more importantly, the teachers. Paul, the owner, and Earl, the foreman, are finely drawn, real-life Maine Yankees, constantly suppressing their frustration with the apprentice’s fumbling mistakes. They bark. Their tempers flare. The apprentice’s anxiety through the first few months of the work is practically palpable. And so is his determination to swim or sink — learn the craft or get fired trying. He perseveres, and so do his teachers. A couple of months into the struggle, it starts to be clear that everybody is succeeding. Revelation.

The point is not just how to do it — joining, learning, teaching — but how to do it well. In one of the many well-integrated philosophical asides, Willey observes:

“Some of my heat probably comes from the troubling places I passed through on my way to the Luke yard; … some of my heat surely comes from the time I arrived at the yard, unsure, a little scared by all these professionals, who, you can be sure, were there chiefly to build and to learn to build, like myself. All I can tell you about the rest of what they came for is this: Building good things lifts the spirit, even if you happen to find glue drooling on you from a job overhead.”

Once Willey lands his job, this memoir gains a rich profluence, involving skillful character development, relentless wry good humor and an acute yet humble ability to express what it all means, that carries you along like a prevailing wind. “A Winter Apprentice,” if you ask me, is must reading for all teachers — for those who understand that significant frictions are elemental to deep-level learning and, more importantly, for those who don’t.

John Willey, of Waterville, is also the author of “Observed from a Skin Boat,” www.centralmaine.com/2015/02/05/off-radar-dana-wilde-reviews-poetry-by-john-holt-willeya collection of poems.

Off Radar takes note of books with Maine connections every other week. His book “Summer to Fall” is available from North Country Press www.northcountrypress.com/summer-to-fall.html. Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].