Traveling in Watercolor

Travel Stories: Mr. Spencer built a boat in his backyard and then disappeared. Decades later, Michael Yessis tracks down his former neighbor and discovers an unexpected path to adventure.

I got a taste when I turned 15. My dad worked for TWA and everyone in our family had a plastic green card with whitewashed mug shot laminated in the corner. It was a company pass that enabled us to fly standby for free on any of the airline’s flights. My parents agreed that I could use my pass to fly to Chicago with my friend Tom, whose father worked for American Airlines, to see the Cubs play the Dodgers at Wrigley Field. We took the train from the airport and stayed in a cheap motel, wedging a chair underneath the doorknob each night to keep bad people away. We snuck into Soldier Field through an unlocked gate and took pictures of one another making Super Bowl-winning catches in the corner of the endzone. We chased batting practice home runs on Waveland Avenue and got on TV. We drank Big Gulps and talked to Buddhists on the El platform. It was the first time I’d ever heard of Buddhists. On the flight home the pilot aborted one landing, then brought our jet in smoothly while a woman in the row behind me screamed “We’re gonna crash!” It wasn’t high seas and pirates but it was the greatest adventure of my life. The power of travel to transform had been established.

So, as an adult, I have structured my life, as much as I’ve been able, around travel. Three passports and four continents later, however, I still hadn’t been able to shake my curiosity about the Spencers. I’d often hop a plane or a bus or sometimes a boat and I’d think about the curiosity about the world they helped inspire. Where did they go and where did they end up? What drove Mr. Spencer to build the boat? In a sense, what drove them also drove me. I’d think about these things mostly when I was in Los Angeles visiting my parents. I’d pass by the Spencers’ old house, head home, grab a Coke from the refrigerator and start reminiscing. It became a running routine. “Remember the Spencers and the boat?” I’d say to my Mom and Dad. “Remember they had to tear down part of their house? Remember?” I’d swear that someday I was going to track them down.

One day recently my dad telephoned me.

“Guess who I just ran into?” he asked.

“Who?”

“Guess.”

“I don’t know. Who?

“Guess.”

Here we go again.

“I don’t know.”

“Don Spencer.”

“Who?”

“From down the street. Don Spencer. The guy who built the boat.”

Mr. Spencer had come back around the neighborhood for a visit. He was standing on the corner talking to the neighbors and my dad had joined them.

“You’re kidding,” I said, stunned.

“I told him you’d want to talk to him,” he said.

My dad gave me Mr. Spencer’s phone number and I prepared to call. This took two weeks. Confronted with finding out the details of his family’s adventure, I started thinking that maybe these were things I actually didn’t want to know. If I didn’t talk to him he’d always be alive in my mind, sailing around the world, having fantastic adventures and perpetually leathery, sun-drenched skin. In my imagination he’d always be larger than life, a builder of giant boats, an explorer of the world, a man unafraid to sacrifice a part of his home, among other things, for the sake of adventure. In reality, he couldn’t possibly live up to my heroic dreams. I thought maybe that was why, though I talked about it often, I never really tried that hard to track him down. But as the facts my Dad had already unearthed—Mr. Spencer’s daughter Karla now lived in the same old house and Mr. Spencer had returned to town, too, working across the boulevard as an artist—seeped in, the fantasies began decomposing. And though the details I’d learned weren’t what I had envisioned, they triggered new curiosity.

I called Mr. Spencer at his studio and introduced myself by way of my father and my memories of standing outside his house, watching in awe with the other kids as he clawed away at the roof of his house. The radio played loud in the background and he excused himself to turn it down. When he returned to the phone he was as eager to talk about his craft and his adventures as I was to hear about them. Immediately he filled in all the gaps in my memory.

“What year was that?” I asked.

“1977. We got it into the water February 11. It took me about two weeks to get it all the way from the backyard into the front yard.”

I did the math in my head. The final push had taken place about two months before my eighth birthday.

“How long did it take to build it?”

“I started January 1, 1972. Just laid the strong back that day.”

“What did you name it?”

“Watercolor.”

“Great name.”

“Well, I’m a watercolor artist and it seemed very appropriate. It connotes creativity. I wanted to chisel a pattern of behavior that had opportunities for inspiration, and one that forced us to deal, on a direct level, with nature and getting along with one another in close quarters and doing your job as it ought to be done because everybody relies on it. It gave us a directness of life.”

He spoke in long paragraphs about the boat, how being an artist and a teacher allowed him time to build, how he checked books out of the library for inspiration and guidance. He talked me through their planned cruise down the California coast to Mexico, on to Costa Rica, through the Panama Canal into the Caribbean. Their actual route followed the original course until Mexico, where poor weather forced them west to Hawaii. They eventually returned to the mainland more than a year after launch. He detailed their dog Fluffy’s bout with seasickness and the time the engine vibrated off its mounts heading into Puerta Vallarta and the hurricanes they skirted that were named Carlotta and Danielle, eerily similar to the names of his daughters. He talked of high seas and mountainous swells, just the type of man versus nature stories I longed to hear.

“Was building the boat something you’d always dreamed of doing?” I asked.

“No.”

A jolt ran though my body. I had always imagined it was his dream to live a life of adventure, and, by extension, my dream. He finished his thought. He had been doing a lot of work using National Geographic as a reference and it struck him how rapidly the world was changing.

“I got this idea that if I was going to be a good dad I’d have to introduce my kids to the world. I thought, How do you maximize inspiration given your various windows of opportunity?”

Mr. Spencer’s recollections and his perspective on travel surprised me and seduced me. He hinted about travel as educator, as simplifier, as liberator, articulating ideas that had been rattling around my head but hadn’t quite come together. I wanted him to talk more about them, but I’d asked only for 15 minutes of his time and we’d been talking for more than double that.

“Do you still have the boat?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Can I come see it next time I’m in town?”

“Sure.”

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Michael Yessis is the cofounder and coeditor of World Hum. This story received the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Bronze Award in 2002 for personal comment.

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