Groves, Texas is a sleepy little bedroom community nestled among the Pecan trees of Southeast Texas. Oil is king in that part of the world. The Spindletop boom days are long gone, but that part of the world known as “The Golden Triangle” is still home to some of the largest petrochemical refineries in the country. It’s a blue-collar coastal town with gracious people and plenty of bar- b- q crabs and boiled crawfish. Fishing and crabbing are second only to the high school football.
In 1983 I packed up my Mazda pickup with everything I owned and moved there to join the staff at one of the local churches. I married my sweetheart and had my first three sons in Groves so that place will always be close to my heart.
With the ocean just a short distance away, I decided to try my hand at sailing. I’d never done it before, but hey, how hard can it be? I managed to finagle my way into a twenty-two foot sloop someone had named, “The Clay Bird,” and purchased a captain’s hat.
Being on a tight budget, I found a ramshackle marina underneath the rainbow bridge just off the intercostal ship channel near Port Arthur. Port Arthur is one of several towns surrounding Groves so I could be “sails up” in about twenty minutes.
Leo’s Marina was run by a crusty old sailor named Pat Leo.
Various dead boats were strewn around the grounds in countless stages of decay. Several old sailboats bobbed in their docks like forgotten old men on park benches waiting for the kids to come for a visit.
A large rusting trackhoe sat motionless like some dystopian relic. I don’t really know what Pat did with it. I never saw it move. I assumed that it was there to haul a sinking boat out of the marina.
This was no yacht club. But it only cost me $20 a month and I enjoyed the salty feel of the place.
Captain Leo and his buddies loved to sit in lawn chairs drinking beer under a homemade gazebo that overlooked the boat slips. From there he could dispense priceless nautical wisdom, and delight as he watched the rookie seamen like me make amateurish mistakes.
On the open water sailboats are agile and fairly easy to manage, but when you come into the port they turn into lumbering hippos. It’s easy to take it too fast and overshoot your turn or mistake the current and wind and sideswipe someone.
Invariably the novice skipper at the back would bark orders to his over-stressed first mate at the bow. The first mate was usually a wife or girlfriend, and the shouting did little to enhance the relationship as she tried to keep your bow from crashing into your neighbor’s stern.
Pat Leo’s great love was his “Cedar Belle.” The Belle was a 29-foot wooden sloop with the old school displacement hull. Leo cared for it like a lover. That boat was his life. He’d built her himself out of planks of cedar painstakingly shaped and fastened over the spars and keel.
The rest of the marina looked like a sailboat’s nightmare, but the Belle was always spit polished and her rigging was perfectly organized.
A few weeks ago I went back to Groves to visit with Amy’s family. It had been more than twenty years since I’d seen Leo’s Marina so I thought I’d pay a visit, you know, see if Pat ever finished the tugboat and catch up on what he was up to.
Pat was long gone. I assumed he’d passed. The old Tug was just as I remembered, and there close by I saw the Cedar Belle. I could barely make her out. She was out of the water sitting in the graveyard of other broken vessels. Her seams were opened. Her planks were coming off.
Without Pat’s constant loving care the Belle had fallen apart.
I think I heard the spirit whisper a reminder to me that day, “Bill, your spirit is like that boat. It needs daily attention if it is to remain ship shape and seaworthy.”
It’s a good reminder. Habits form. Decay happens. Without careful attention relationships deteriorate and attitudes rot. Life, like an old wooden boat, is fragile.
I resolved to pay closer attention to the small things that keep life buoyant and vital.
2 Corinthians 4:16 came to my mind, “Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.”