Pittsburgh Years

The Bugeye





y father and mother had by this time moved to Northern California where he had two sisters who had gone to California during World War Two.  They had left Naperville, Illinois for work, adventure, and perhaps to find husbands in the great, booming West.  They did.  Dad had little money now and he took a job welding large steel dumpsters in a factory.  His coworkers were strong young men; he was in his sixties and it was hard work.  But by now he had come up with another idea.

Alameda.jpgThere is a naval base in Alameda, California, the city where he and my mother now lived.  The main street had a number of tattoo parlors, bars and all the similar attractions that seem to captivate young sailors.  But the side streets seemed pretty much like a flat suburban city in the Midwest.  In this place he had been taken by the water itself, novel for a Midwesterner and, as well, I’m sure, by the proximity to his sisters.  He seemed especially interested in the fishing boats there, vessels built for work, unlike the thousands of expensive sailing yachts moored in echelons of neatly spaced slots, ready for pleasantly frittering away a weekend.

 Jack London had once lived just across the estuary that separated Alameda from Oakland.  There was a monument to his memory there along the water that my dad showed me once when I was there for a visit.  He told me then, with the peculiar little grin he sometimes got on his face when he was planning something outrageous, that he thought that he had time for another adventure.  The idea he had been germinating was to build a boat.

Of course it was not to be just any boat, not a boat built from standard plans, not a design that had been proven, a standard boat that had taken its shakeout cruise.  It was to be a new kind of boat, one in which he and my mother could live out their lives contentedly, rolling pleasantly to sleep at night with the gentle motion of the middling waves of the estuary, or on nearby San Francisco Bay, or some other such place.  And, if they didn’t like the place after a while, they could just move, up-anchor and move.  He once mentioned the Columbia River, and I got the impression that he had read-up on it.    

It was not to be a sailboat which I think to him probably seemed frivolous, a fey amusement for the young and the rich.  It was to be a powerboat, powered by a diesel engine like those of the fishing boats, an engine that just would not quit.  He began his research and rigged a place in their apartment where he could draw up plans, rough plans that perhaps only he could understand, but a genuine design nevertheless.  Diesel fuel was 14¢ a gallon because boats did not pay road tax then.  The State of California has since decided that a road is a road, no matter that it might be of the liquid variety.  Besides, the state then, as now, needed money.

When he was ready, he rented some space in an old lumberyard that was no longer in operation; it was cheap.  He still had the old, blue, Plymouth Valiant and to its front he rigged a removable, crane-like structure of angle-iron with which to lift in place the heavy steel plates of which the boat was to be constructed, 3/16 inch plate.  After all, he was a welder; welders use steel.

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Valiant Crane
The boat was to be large, 45 feet long, plenty of room for two people to live in.  Unlike other boat designs this vessel would be fully enclosed; there was to be no lower deck, except for a very small one aft.  It was to have large, fixed, plate-glass windows and, atop all, a small structure above, constructed largely of Plexiglas, like the cockpit of an airplane.  From this vantage point two people could sit comfortably and the boat could be maneuvered: a wheel for controlling the rudder and controls for the engine, including its reversal—there are no brakes on boats.  To me, raised with automobiles, this always seemed an egregious fault.  

Inside, when it was finished, there would be, toward the bow, a small head complete with a very small, stand up shower and, just aft of that, two opposing bunks, one for my mother and one for him.  And under and aside and above each bunk would be carefully fitted drawers and cupboards and special spaces for each thing that he could conceive would be needed.  There would also be, farther aft, two other collapsible bunks for visitors.  In the central space would be a heavy, teak-wood table surrounded by a galley complete with an oven, a refrigerator and all the things that my mother would need. 

Below deck, unseen, there was to be constructed dozens of small, welded-steel chambers, custom-built tanks really, sets of them connected together in such a way as to hold considerable quantities of diesel fuel, fresh water and sewage; these fluids would not be able to slosh around dangerously with this sort of compartmentalized construction.  In the rear, aft of the galley, was to be the engine room which, besides the main engine—a big GM diesel, familiarly called a “Jimmy Diesel” by the cognoscenti—would also house a diesel generator and an array of large batteries to maintain power when the generator wasn’t running.  Finally, aft of that would be a small observation deck, a place to sit and take in the pleasant nautical sights and perhaps, if the place was right for it, a place to swim from; we were all good swimmers.  The boat was designed to be self-sufficient for extended periods.

Finally, in the high bow, toward the top of the hull, would be two hemispherical, Plexiglas portholes, one on each side, for light and ventilation.  From these two bulging, bug-like “eyes” the boat took its name: The Bugeye.  From a distance, at sea, it would appear to be a floating, insect-like spaceship, perhaps from another star system.  It had little resemblance to a traditional boat.  This no doubt pleased him.

My mother eventually, and now I think reluctantly, had followed along later to Alameda from their previous apartment some distance inland.  Though I was barely aware of it—pleasant letters were written back and forth every few months—their long and relatively steady life together in the Midwest had been slowly breaking down, their togetherness now tentative, everything undecided; children grown, life seeming to wind down.  I understood, from occasional letters from my mother, that all was not well between them, and that booze was increasingly taking its toll on him.  That was saying something considering their longstanding proclivity for alcohol.  She, at her age, had cut down dramatically, while he was apparently making up the difference.  The notion that my parents might actually split up seemed inconceivable to me.  I put it down to the normal stresses and strains of a long marriage.

The boat was in part, I think, his inducement to her for a life that might yet suit them both.  And my mother bought into the deal; when the shell of the boat had been constructed they moved there together to live cheaply while the boat was completed.  All-in-all, construction was to take several years, since he worked every day welding containers, working on the boat only at night and on weekends.

They went to navigation school together and she bragged that she got better marks than he.  She was seventy.

Building the Bugeye: A Pictorial