Before the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News gussied itself up over the last thirty years, my brother and I would play in its small-craft building, which today would look like a warehouse, were it still around. Not like a big-box store made to look like a warehouse: it was a real, un-air-conditioned, sheet-metal-sided, concrete-floor warehouse.
We’d climb on old gondolas and tugs and dugout canoes illuminated only by a translucent, fiberglass ceiling. We could see the pine needles and dirt accumulating in rows along the corrugated roof from inside the building. We played underneath a white, fallow field blessed by inattention and sunlight.
A sign in the aisles said not to climb on the boats, sure, but no one was ever in the room with us: no docent, guard, member, or guest. Only birds.
The building’s doors stayed open. The prefabricated construction invited nests. The birds’ sudden flights drew our attention. The room echoed with their pipes and amplified their wings. Beneath them, my brother and I were like Mole and Water Rat; each boat seemed headed for adventure.
From adulthood, I see the glory and the dream the birds and we shared. Like Thomas Cole, I look back and paint a guardian angel in each boat. The whole, eclectic fleet we played in could have been headed for the Gates of Dawn.
And now? Is there such a room? I’ve spent my life nesting or looking for places to nest. My mud and pine needles protrude out of the walls of professions and spill out of a church community. I fly to my small library with bookmarks of straw. Like the birds, I utilize; I don’t use things as they seem intended.
Yea, the sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O LORD of hosts, my King, and my God. [Psalm 84:3]
I feel myself circling, or I feel myself building. (It’s never all circling or all building, though, but it’s primarily one or the other; it’s a season of one or the other.) I’ve been circling for years now, looking for your altars, O Lord. It has been a beautiful search, and I am grateful for the wings.
Most of the time, though, I think I’m just looking for Little Portly. Trying to keep a kid in line at school or helping him learn past participles. Saul looking for his father’s asses. Could be. Could be each of us is looking for his father’s asses.
[There are no birds in the new, 17,500-square-feet International Small Craft Center. You can see the boats we played in, but you may not touch. I should complain. If you exhibit part of my childhood, at least make it interactive.]