Preview: The Influence of a Boat and Ben

March 25, 2012

Avatar Peter Neill

His name was Ben Massey, and he dates from my childhood. African-American, he worked for my grandfather – as driver, jack-of-all, and sometimes unexpected advisor. There was a summer house on a lake in Michigan; I was sent there to escape the ghastly humidity of the St. Louis summer, or perhaps, more likely, for my parents to escape the responsibility of what to do with an only child with time on his hands.

From a very early age, then, I was Ben’s companion, or he mine. And that relationship formed and shaped me – it introduced me to Midwest summer baseball, to urban blues and gospel music, to what a girl was, and to Nature defined by the lake and early morning or twilight fishing expeditions — for perch, blue gill, and the mysterious, terrifying carp — in the boat.

It was a cheap skiff, straight stem, hard chine, flat bottom, square transom, more or less held together with tar, roofing nails, and leftover house paint. There was a confrontational Evinrude. I will never forget the soul of that engine – its never reliable burr, the awful sound of its sudden silence, and the meaning of its resonance when, home in bed, with my cheek against the screen, I could hear its brothers taking other fishermen safely home in the dark.

Peter Neill's Skiff

A sketch of the skiff by Peter Neill

The boat was not a thing, but a forum: a platform for discourse and learning. In that boat, I was instructed in life from a particular point of view, not the lessons I was studying in school or the values intoned to me in church, but rather the wisdom of a black man in the 50’s, woring for whites, split between lifestyles, politics, financial and social contradictions. He knew a lot that my father, a lawyer, could never understand; he had a powerful sense of irony and paradox; he was a natural teacher, storyteller, stand-up comic, preacher, confessor, and my very best man friend, even now in memory.

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