How “THAT” Came About

Part IV


To say that I was busy over the next year and a half doesn’t begin to describe the creative frenzy which overcame me. I’d built plenty of houses and boats in my time, but I’d never faced a challenge of this size and been so deeply excited by the certain knowledge that I could do it. Building a 62` trimaran in primitive jungle conditions, without ‘jack-scratch’ for materials, except what I could scrounge or create myself, gave me a profound sense of power. I loved every minute of it. I lay in bed at night staring into the dark while my brain worked feverishly. I grew thin. My eyes took on the glaze of obsession. But, damn, I loved every minute of it.

Chung and I built the big curved mold upon which the plywood panels for the hull would be made from uniquely cured lumber. I found out from Maria Elena, the owner of Fronteras’ most respectable whorehouse, that there was a considerable pile of Spanish cedar drying in the attic of her establishment. I went to inspect and, sure enough, it was good straight stuff, dried to fragrant lightness by the heat of business rising from below. I stripped the lumber into small pieces and laminated them to a mold 25` long by 14` wide. It looked like a section of massive donut when I was through.

After years of planning, collecting materials, and setting up shop, the sun finally rose on the day when we were ready to build the first vacuum-mold plywood panel. I’d been awake all night, mentally rehearsing each step in the process. The big question was the vacuum mold. In theory it worked, but I never believed in anything until I did it myself. I figured it would take about a week to complete one panel... assuming that all my ancient, jury-rigged equipment worked.

Chung and I were up with the roosters, guzzling coffee. Like a couple of little boys who couldn’t wait to dig in the dirt together, we squirmed in our seats and poked at our food. We were too excited to eat. Soon, as the sun peeked over the trees, we high-tailed it up the hill to the shop. At the entrance, we smoked a cigarette, neither of us talking, both of us staring at the huge pile of lumber neatly stacked from floor to ceiling.

We squashed out our cigarettes on the dirt floor, pulled on our gloves, and marched to the lumber pile -- pulling about 20 boards off the big pile and re-stacking them next to the sawmill. The sawmill was a strange looking contraption, powered by the old Bedford truck which we had blocked up under one wheel. The saw arbor was mounted on a concrete pedestal. The two were connected by a 1-½” shaft with self-aligning bearings bolted into concrete. I’d turned a 6” rosewood pulley wheel, slid a belt over it and the rear tire, then put belt dressing on the whole works. We’d hooked a 3” cable around the nearest orange tree and back to the truck with a come-along. All we had to do to tighten the belt was give the come-along a couple of jerks. Since the saw arbor was stationary, we cut slots in the table legs so it could be bolted to varying heights.


The night before, we had filled the old truck with gas and checked the oil – we were about to discover that she guzzled the stuff – we got 100 bd. ft. to the gallon... in fact, running across the river for gas and oil took up a major portion of Chung’s life. Chung started her. She gave a shudder, blew a loud explosive fart out the back end and a blast of black smoke that moseyed off through the trees as if it were looking for a place to sit and watch. Chung put her in second gear and let the clutch out nice and easy.

The belt started moving, flopping around the pulley...fwap-fwap-fwap. On the sawmill, 52 carbide teeth screamed ‘EEEEEEE’. The truck engine sounded like it was pulling, 10 tons up a steep grade... ‘RRRR-AWP-RRR’. The Lister diesel ground out a rusty, raucous ‘JUG JUG JUG’. The compressor: CHICKITA-CHICKITA’. The vacuum compressor: ‘SPOOSHSH’. Through the trees, the faces of my Kekchi neighbors appeared, wide-eyed. Up to now, the loudest element in their world had been the screams of the howler monkeys. They listened to my intolerable racket for the next year and a half, and not one soul complained. Chung and I had our ears stuffed with cotton within 15 minutes.

For eight months, Chung tailed, and I pushed. It was hard, hot, noisy work. Together, we ran 10,000 bd. ft. Of lumber through; each 2”x12”x20’ was cut in half; then each 2”x6” section was turned on edge and we ran it through a 3-blade setup which gave us four boards ¼”x 6”.

Next, we took our pile of ¼”x 6”x 20’s and ran them through the planer for consistent thickness. The planer was a 12-inch Rockwell which had been so damaged that the store clerk in Guatemala City had handed it to me in a basket. I got it in working order and powered, it with a Briggs and Stratton engine.

The next day, I took the section of the small model we were going to make and projected it onto the large mold with a crayon. Then, we covered the big mold with strips of wood diagonally, cutting them off an inch beyond the perimeter. Altogether, 4 layers of strips were laid up and stapled at the edges, each layer marked with a different color crayon. The layers were then set aside in readiness for the next day. The resin tray was prepared, and we gassed up all the machines and checked the oil. Finally, we cut the plastic sheet which would cover the wood during the molding. We were as ready as we were ever going to be. Tomorrow was the big day... we were going to vacuum mold our first piece of plywood. I did not sleep worth a damn.

We were up at 5 o’clock, checking the skies because we couldn’t vacuum mold on a rainy day. It looked good in the heavens, so we went into action. I had asked Bonnie to help, and she located a neighbor to baby-sit. I’d also enlisted the help of Martín, the village chief. Bonnie poured and mixed the resin and filled the applicator tray with the liquid. Chung put resin on the first layer of diagonal strips which had been placed on the mold the night before. Martín shoved pieces of the second layer through the resin tray and handed them to me. I stood on top of the mold with a staple gun, fastening the second layer to the first, as Martín handed me the pieces.

We worked like crazy people to get the pieces laid up before the resin went off. In one hour, we had 350 pieces in place. I laid a thin sheet of plastic over the four layers on the mold, inserted the vacuum tube, then the fly screen, and then the final plastic sheet. The mold was sealed (I had split a PVC pipe in half and edged the mold with it; with the plastic laid over the split PVC, I snapped a full PVC pipe into the half section, and I had a tight seal).

Then, I jumped to the ‘iron horse’. This requires some explanation... I had bought a very old 3-cylinder refrigerator compressor, months earlier, in Livingston, for 75 quetzales. It had been years since anybody had tried to operate it. I put in new piston rings, cleaned it up, and got it to run. Meanwhile, I had also purchased an old tractor at a United Fruit Company auction. It was a tiny thing – an 8 hp JLO French-made machine that had been used to haul bananas through the fields. I turned the clutch housing upside down and replaced the clutch pedal with an aluminum pipe to use as a lever arm. With a shaft and two pulled wheels with belts, I attached the little antique engine to my little antique compressor. In order to start this contraption, I had to remove the hand-screw on top of the cylinder head, then insert a phosphor-coated Tampax halfway into the hand-screw. With one hand, I could just get my fingers inside to trip the fuel-injection lever. With the other hand, I wrapped a 5’ belt around a small flywheel; then I put both feet against the engine, belt in both hands (I was now doubled over), straightened my body and pulled with both hands as hard as I could. If I was lucky, she kicked over, and I tightened my Tampax screw immediately. Once started, she’d run all day on 1½ gallons of diesel fuel, but the hellish noise from the ancient devils was enough to make a man look forward to the silence of his own grave.

ILO Diesel - vacuum pump

The compressor was hooked to a steel storage tank which was sort of on permanent loan to me from the oil pipeline people. The 200-gallon tank measured 8’ long and 3’ in diameter and served as my vacuum storage.

With the other three watching, I jumped onto the iron horse, threw the belt on, and prayed for it to start. It did. CHUK-CHUK-CHUK-CHUK, loud enough to make our eardrums quiver. The gauge on the tank began to rise. When it stopped, I jumped back to the mold and opened the valve.

The moment of truth had arrived. We stood around the mold – Bonnie, Chung, Martin, and I – and held our breath as the vacuum sucked the air out of the wood and resin sandwich. It snapped and cracked and sucked and burbled, unleashing a stunning chain of events. None of us had appreciated the power of a vacuum mold. Resin oozed through the woods as if it were cheesecloth. In three loud, eventful minutes, it was all flatter than a pancake. We stood there with our months open, hardly able to believe what we had seen. I ‘came to’ first. “It worked! Good Christ, how it worked!” I hollered and laughed and danced around the shop like a man possessed. Only then did I notice that a few village people had come to watch, their eyes glued to the mold. If the force of the vacuum surprised me, they were absolutely dumbfounded. It was a long time before they cast one last puzzled glance in my direction and headed back to the village.

By 9 a.m., we were scrubbing resin from our hands with industrial alcohol (burned like hell but seemed to be the only thing that worked). We retired to the house for a three-hour rest while the tractor pulled a constant vacuum on the 200-gallon storage tank. Sometime late in the afternoon, we peeled off the plastic and, for the next two hours, Chung and I took turns grinding the new plywood panel. Finally, we spread a coat of resin over the whole thing, waited for it to dry, and then applied another coat. After it dried, we flipped it off the mold onto the shop floor where we ground out the inside and applied two coats of resin. Our piece of plywood was 20` long by 14` wide, compound curved, and weighed 700 pounds. When it was finished, we slid it into the bodega (storage shed) and started on the next sheet.

We repeated this four-day process over and over again for nine months and produced 16 gigantic plywood hull panels. On the flat mold, we turned out bulkheads, doors, floors, and a gangway. I lay in bed at night creating decorative plywood designs from my jungle of exotic woods. The galley would be sunny sanjuan with special spalted sanjuan for the doors. The beams were alternating laminates of mahogany and sanjuan – red-yellow-red-yellow. The headliners were rosewood of the richest grains and color variations I could find. For the forward cabin, I cut a wild pattern of ellipses out of very yellow wood called irayol, and the identical pattern out of very red mahogany, and interchanged them across the length of the flat mold. It resulted in a beautiful piece of plywood. For another bulkhead, I laid up a giant keyboard, each key a different kind of wood. Altogether, I used 25 varieties of tropical wood throughout the boat.

I was busy, absorbed, hopelessly enthralled. Somewhere deep in my soul, I felt fear. If I didn’t hurry and get this boat into the water... well, I couldn’t see beyond that. Whatever lurked there in the dark mists of the future was too frightening to name.

I remember little from those days except the sweet face of my new baby son, the incessant din in the shop, the fresh smell of newly planed cedar, and the ever- thickening sawdust on the shop floor. Half of the 10,000 bd. ft. Of lumber became sawdust. It wasn’t long before we were working on a bottomless floor of the fluff – nice to walk on, but hell when I dropped a cotter pin. Chung had a sieve he used for finding such things. He spent a lot of time with that sieve and a shovel. My five acres of pineapple, out back, were covered with sawdust, and huge piles of the stuff rotted all over my back yard and Chung’s. His other main chore continued to be taking the canoe across the River for gasoline...he made hundreds of trips with our five-gallon can.

His three little girls and the children from the village loved the shop. The kids worked long, hard days tending to their chores, but when they were free, they knew where the playground was. We hung a swing for them, and they swooped from rafter to rafter, their squeals and shrieks adding to the general din. They made roads and valleys and mountains in the sawdust. They jumped in it, buried each other in it, rolled, in it, threw it, and went home to their mamas covered with it. Except Chung’s girls who, of course, had no mama.

Since Marta’s death, they had assumed all of their mother’s responsibilities even though Yolanda, the oldest, was only seven years old. Yolanda’s eyes had turned hard, and she never smiled. She climbed on a stool to reach the top of the limestone stove where she made the family’s meals; she stood in water up to her waist to wash the family’s clothes. She washed dishes at the water’s edge every morning. She swept the dirt floor of Chung’s house with a broom twice her size. She combed the lice-infested hair of her sisters. She did the best she could, and she never asked for help. At seven years of age, she was already a proud, resolute woman.

Work on the boat proceeded at a fast pace until the day when Sidney almost stopped it for good. Sidney was my burro. He was a damned nuisance, but then I liked his rotten attitude. I accommodated him as best I could, having a natural understanding for boneheadedness myself. He loved garbage pits. The deeper, the better. I spent many a good day winching Sidney out of deep holes. Finally, I built him a portable ramp so he could climb out himself. If he wasn’t down in a hole, he’d wade out into the water to cool off. Frequently, he sank in the mud, and we’d have to stop our work and spend half a day hauling him out. He was a stubborn old cuss; he’d pull back his lips and flatten his ears, and give me a piece of his mind when he felt like it. Ever since he swallowed the fishing line, however, he’d been particularly out of sorts. Can’t say I blame him. I tried pulling it out when I noticed it hanging from his behind. He didn’t want any part of that, so he took off at a gallop, the fishing line reeling out of him all the while, with me holding the free end. He cut a few fancy corners around a lemon tree and a couple of palms and made it all the way to the bamboo stand when the fishhook on his end grabbed hold of something, and he stopped in a hurry.

“Sidney, you dumb jackass, whad’ya doin’ running away from me when there is a 100-pound-test line hooked to something you probably can’t afford to lose?” Which there was. The next morning, his left testicle was as big as a cantaloupe.

He liked lying in the cool moist sawdust of the shop after that. Didn’t seem to mind the kids or the noise. Only thing he minded was dogs, pretty women, and the blueprints for my boat. Dogs he kicked; women he bit if they gave him any sweet talk; and ever since the business with the fishing line, he was out to get my blueprints. Sidney hung on to his resentments through thick and thin, and he’d figured out how to get back at me. So far, I’d caught him in time, and there were only a few bites gone; but the last time, he had a chance to chew for a while, and by the time I pried them out of his cheek with a stick they were nothing more than a big sticky wad. That did it. I put him up for sale, and a neighbor bought him within a week. Sidney got even anyway... I missed him something terrible.

I was changing Marquito’s diaper one morning when Chung came in for our usual cup of coffee before heading to the shop. Bonnie had gone to Fronteras for supplies. He played with Marquito’s feet while I tried to keep from sticking the baby with a pin. Marquito was laughing and squirming. He was a cute little bugger with two daddies who adored him.

“Got some news,” I said to Chung. “Know that big boat half sunk in the river over by La Baccadilla?”


“Well, I finally got the scoop on that thing. Right now, it belongs to Ana Belly (Ed. note: Guatemala’s largest manufacturer of canned food). The president of the company has a vacation home right here on the River. I went to talk to him. Asked him if I could salvage the boat. He said it was nothing but a pain in the ass to him and an eyesore besides, and that I could do whatever I wanted with it. How ‘bout that?!”

Chung looked puzzled. “Why we want another boat, Marcos?”

“Oh, Chung,” I cried, disappointed in the man’s lack of understanding. “Think what we could use off that boat. First place, it’s no ordinary boat. It was built back in 1932, in Cuba, at cost of $250,000. In 1932, that was a whale of a lot of money for a 54’ powerboat. Whole thing was put together with silicon bronze screws. Know how much those things cost these days? Way outta our price range. But now we got ‘em for free! Not only that, there’s miles of electrical wiring, copper tubing, and good Wilcox-Crittendon through-hull fittings and cleats.... and I don’t know what all. We get it all free, Chung! Only thing we gotta do is take the boat apart.”

Chung gave me a weak smile. There wasn’t any doubt in his mind, who was going to take that boat apart.

Later in the week, Chung and I took the launch over to the Baccadilla and chain-sawed the boat into manageable pieces which we towed to our bay. First, we tried burning the hull and then picking up the screws, but the fire softened them to the point of being unusable. So, for the next few months, Chung removed 300 pounds of silicon bronze flathead screws by hand, one at a time. Fifty percent turned out to be okay. In any case, it was enough to put THAT together when the time came. He also took out about a half a mile of wiring, and we salvaged a lot of the interior wood which I made into furniture for Chung’s house, a crib for Marquito, work benches, and a room divider.

My Indian friends, all up and down the river, began bringing me items for the boat. Most of them worked for wealthy Guatemalan’s, Germans, or Americans who lived elsewhere most of the time but kept their boats in the river. Somehow, my Indian friends identified with me. They knew all too well what it was like to make something out of nothing, and they wanted to help. In the evenings, it wasn’t unusual for a canoe to slip quietly into our bay. An Indian would step out with something wrapped in a blanket. It might be a barometer or stainless steel porthole, or a ship’s clock. Whatever it was, I was always assured that Señor So-and-So “didn’t need it anymore.”

Evenings, when I eased my aching body between the sheets, I smoked slow cigarettes, listened to the critters in the thatch, and thought about the next set of obstacles I had to overcome: The one facing me now was the engine. In the normal course of events, it was a bit soon to start thinking about an engine since we didn’t have a boat yet. But, earlier in the day, I had heard an announcement over the radio about an engine for sale over in San Felipe, just up the river. Since engines didn’t come up for sale very often in this part of the world, I took the launch over to San Felipe right away for a look, and found that the owner, Don Humberto, was in the United States. The engine, however, was there, half in and half out of the water, lying in a small wooden boat awash with weeds, and slime, and mud.

“Looks like a pretty nice little boat,” I said sadly. “Humberto, he always take care of things,” she said, sweeping her hand over the whole of their property, “but not when his heart broke. You see, he built this little boat for our children. But they big children now. He work hard to send them to university in Florida. He build boat for when they come home on vacation. But they big, very big children. They want fiberglass speedboat, not small wood boat. Humberto, he not touch boat after that. He walk away from it two years ago. I don’t want to see it anymore myself. You take it. Take it now.”

“But don’t you think I should talk to him before I take it? How much does he want for it?”

“He sell cheap. Don’t worry about that,” she said. “But you take now. I don’t want it here when he comes back.” The engine in Humberto’s heartbreak was a 62 hp Perkins diesel. Just what I needed and, after I got her cleaned, she ran like a clock.

Back to Part III

Forward to Part V

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November 9, 2012
© 1997-2012 Phillip Landmeier