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.

03.13.02 | 12:41 AM ET

sunsetPhoto illustration by Michael Yessis.

I can’t remember a time before Mr. Spencer started building the sailboat in his backyard. He worked out of sight most of the time, hidden behind the garage and the side-yard fence, but I knew what was going on back there. All the kids in my suburban Los Angeles neighborhood knew. When I rolled past the Spencers’ house on my skateboard, the thwack of hammer pounding nail and the drone of power tools echoed into the street. When their neighbors, the Maples, invited me and the other local kids to swim in their pool, we peeked at the skeleton of the boat through holes in the fence. I looked for new fixtures and added planks, studied it from bow to stern. I kept tabs as she overwhelmed the yard and grew past the edge of the garage. She became visible from the street if you knew to look, and I always looked. In a neighborhood of thick, trimmed lawns and earth-toned stucco exteriors she was a monument, filling the narrow streets with the promise of adventure.

When Mr. Spencer finished the boat, I gathered with the other neighborhood kids to watch him free it from the backyard. My memories are among the most vivid of my childhood:

I am sitting on the sidewalk in front of Mr. Spencer’s house, head cocked, squinting at the boat through the sun-stroked bangs of my bowl cut. She’s tall, as high as the roofs of the houses on each side. She’s too wide, though, so Mr. Spencer and his friends cut away parts of the overhanging roofs. The buildings make cracking sounds. Dust floats and twinkles in the sunlight. The boat has room to move, and they inch it toward the front yard.

The two houses are giving birth.

The boat slips into the front yard and stretches out toward the sidewalk. The houses seem shrunken. The cars are Tonkas and Hot Wheels. Then my memory skips. The boat is gone. Mr. and Mrs. Spencer and their two daughters, Karla and Danette, have disappeared. And I am again skateboarding down 18th Street, kicking past the Spencers’ driveway, hearing only the click, click, clicking of my wheels over cracks in the pavement.

I didn’t know where the Spencers had gone. I don’t remember ever talking to Mr. or Mrs. Spencer about it. Not Karla or Danette, either. They were several years ahead of me in school, in junior high, and I was afraid to talk to junior high girls. Word on the neighborhood grapevine was that they had gone to sail around the world, and their non-destination destination filled me with glee and wonder. It was better than knowing they were snorkeling off Maui or had simply moved to another far-away town. Some of my classmates’ families had already done that. The Spencers, though, had seemingly abandoned the traditional concept of home. They weren’t in one place. They were every place. And they’d damaged their house to get there. What could be so important, so magnetic, that someone would want to do that?

The days and weeks after their departure passed and the events began shrinking into memory. I had other things to worry about, like Little League and putting stickers on things. But three months became six months then a year, and then two years. The Spencers still hadn’t returned. Each time I passed by their house, I’d notice the empty spaces where the boat used to be.

I sometimes daydreamed in class, projecting fantasy adventures on the family. If we were studying the Panama Canal, I envisioned the Spencers passing through the locks, Karla and Danette leaning over a rail, laughing, looking off at a falling, purple sun. Other times I conjured high seas, which, wearing bright yellow rain slickers, the entire family fought courageously but not without lots of screaming.

Eventually I envisioned tracking them down, fighting pirates and stormy seas myself. It was the first time I’d been confronted with travel as more than a means of getting from destination to destination. The mystery of the unknown pulled at my gut, and I loved the feeling. Relatively predictable excursions like family vacations, soccer tournaments and holiday visits to the relatives only heightened my desire to solve the riddle of the Spencers. I studied flight schedules and the spider-webby route maps in the back of in-flight magazines. I took barf bags and little bars of soap off airplanes, just in case I found myself dirty in a strange land. I wanted to be somewhere else. I wanted adventure. I wanted to explore.

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.”

A bright blue sky reflected down on Cabrillo Harbor in San Pedro. Rows and rows of boats bobbed in their slips. Mr. Spencer pushed an empty wheelbarrow up the ramp outside berth 33 and greeted me in the parking lot with a firm handshake. He’s a wiry man with blue-collar hands and a sculpted head of hair. He was in the midst of transferring supplies from his Plymouth Voyager for an upcoming trip to nearby Catalina Island with his daughter and grandchildren. I helped him carry a load down to the boat.

I wouldn’t have recognized Watercolor if I had been on my own. She was large and clean, the mast thrusting into the sky. I’d never seen her with the mast. Mr. Spencer climbed aboard and I handed him the backpacks and air tanks we’d brought down from the mini van. Then I climbed up for a tour.

The boat was built to hold four people comfortably. The forepeak in the bow contained two beds built for the girls and a toilet. A small fridge, a sink, books on a bookshelf and two long, narrow benches filled the central area he called the saloon. The master bedroom was in the aft cabin. A chart table and a television sat near the corner and half a double bed was hidden under the deck. After Karla and Danette went off to college, Mr. Spencer and his wife, Edna, had docked the boat and lived there for four years, cruising into the Sea of Cortez and other places whenever given a chance. I walked from cabin to cabin with a growing sense of pride. It wasn’t my boat, but I felt an attachment bordering on ownership. On some dreamy level, it felt like mine.

We retreated to the saloon where Mr. Spencer pulled two small boxes of his grandkids’ Shoutin’ Orange Tangergreen Hi-C from the fridge.

“I should have bought some beer,” he said.

“That’s all right,” I said, poking the tiny straw into the box. “This is fine.” I meant it. Being on the boat made me feel like a kid again, and drinking a kids’ drink heightened the effect. We sat across from each other on the benches, slurping, and I studied the cabin. Mr. Spencer leaned back, squeezed a shot of Hi-C into his mouth and reeled off the specs. The boat was a forty-two foot double headsail ketch rig with a hull and deck of ferro-cement. It sounded impressive, even if I didn’t understand most of what it meant.

He reached past me and pulled an old photo album from the bookshelf, flipping past family snapshots to a series of black-and-white images dated February 1977. In one shot the boat rests between the houses, its deck even with the bottoms of the roofs. In another, the boat, dressed in scaffolding, stretches from the tip of the garage almost into the street. Danette stands underneath it, shining in white against the darkened hull, while Mr. Spencer glances over his shoulder at his daughter. Fluffy is running between them, chasing something.

One particular image stood out. In it, the boat rests diagonally in front of the Spencers’ garage. The top of a palm tree rises behind the hull like fireworks bursting. In the foreground a dozen or so kids are sitting in the neighbors’ driveway. Some are small and some are bigger. Some are wearing shirts with horizontal stripes and some are sitting on skateboards. Two tall girls stand on the sidewalk with their arms crossed, and a blurry little boy runs into the lower left corner of the frame. Everyone is looking across the lawn at the boat. The image felt pulled from my memory.

boat

“Can you see yourself there?” Mr. Spencer asked.

“That’s me I think,” I said, pointing at a boy with a bowl cut, leaning back on his skateboard. “I still sit like that. But I can’t remember that shirt.”

“I’ve often wondered what those kids thought,” he said.

I shifted on the bench and answered.

“I want to thank you for doing what you did,” I said. “I know you built the boat to expose your kids to the world but your actions created ripples, and those ripples reached me.”

I kept talking, bouncing from point to point, random detail to random detail. He listened and smiled as I detailed some of the adventure fantasies I’d projected on him and his family, how he helped influence the direction of my life, how I felt my travel experiences gave me, as he had described it previously, a directness of life.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m rambling.”

“That’s alright, I’ve never minded rambling. That’s what cruising is about.” He paused, studied my face, then let out a small laugh. “You just want to ramble in a fashion that allows you to enjoy unexpected discoveries.”

I smiled and relaxed, feeling we had both been doing just that.

Our conversation drifted from the photos to politics to family, and then it was time to go. I slurped the last drops of Shoutin’ Orange Tangergreen from the tiny cardboard box and thanked him for having me aboard. I climbed down the ladder and walked up the ramp to my car, alone. Street traffic was flowing and I sped past a series of mini-malls, gas stations and hole-in-the-wall food stands. The freeway onramp came upon me quickly, but I didn’t get on it. I made a left turn and took the long way home.