Memories of Cousin Elmer

by Maynard Bray, April 18, 1997

M. (for Maynard) Elmer Montgomery has been on my mind a lot this past week. He died just a week ago and was buried day before yesterday. I’ve been reviewing all the times spent with him and how very deeply he came to influence what I’ve become.

My father had great respect for Elmer’s manual skill even though he was far from a craftsman himself. Through frequent visits to Elmer’s “coop” at his parents’ place where he built ship models, I came to have that same appreciation. Partly because we had no car during the war years, the Bray family rarely went anywhere to visit, so our frequent walks from Mechanic Street to “the hill” on weekends were big occasions for me, and getting to go inside Elmer’s “coop” always was the highlight. I can’t remember just exactly when most of this took place—that is, whether it was just before or just after (or perhaps some of it even during) Elmer’s tour of duty. The first model I remember him working on was the one of the bay coaster and I’m pretty sure that was after the war. Already in glass cases in “the coop” were a smooth-planked peapod and a dory as well as models of the steamers J.T. Morse and Vinalhaven, and several other boats he’d been interested in.

While Elmer was away in the service, Mom and Dad would both be sitting in Aunt Helen’s living room where the model of the whaleship Elmer had built was encased. I wasn’t much interested in the gossip, so I spent the time looking at that wonderful model. I think it was of the Wanderer and I can recall it vividly now even though it’s been years since I’ve laid eyes on it. The other model he’d made was of one of the great Gloucester fishing schooners, heeled under full sail on a realistic model sea. I liked that one, too, although it was far less detailed and not as absorbing. I anxiously awaited his return so I could see his partly completed model of the clipper ship Flying Cloud which they said was stored up in the attic.

Dad took me over to see the creation of Elmer’s outboard boat which I ended up buying from him about 15 years ago and have here in the cellar now. It started, as I remember, from the drawing he’d made for the peapod model; he kept the lines of one end of the peapod (which became the bow of the outboard boat) and extended them to form a square stern. Then, when he got started on building the actual boat, we often went over after Dad’s and Elmer’s working day and watched the progress. I think those were the first steamed oak frames I ever saw being bent; and it seems to me he used only a teakettle over a hotplate for a steam source. The 2nd floor of the barn became the boatshop for this project. This was during the time Elmer was courting, so there were some nights nothing went on at all and our trip would be an encounter with Aunt Helen or Elmer’s bachelor brother Earl who would simply tell us that this was a “courting night.”

Elmer arranged to have Woodbury Snow do the caulking, and Dad and I were there to watch some of that process and to hear Woodbury sputter, which he always did. It was quite a show, but everyone including Woodbury who came to see Elmer’s new boat take shape remarked on what a beautiful job he’d done. I was proud for him and enthralled with the boatbuilding process which, for the first time, I’d seen happen from beginning to end.

Dad had purchased a boat a few years before for us to use at our Crescent Beach cottage. We (actually I was given the privilege) named her Sea Biscuit. She was built for rowing and, in retrospect, made a poor outboard boat—but that’s what she became about the time of Elmer’s launching when new outboards once again were available. Elmer, who I watched, carefully fitted a reinforcing block on Sea Bicuit’s stern to take our new Evinrude Zephyr 5 hp motor. (That motor was a perfect match for the cranky boat: it never wanted to run. How I envied the 5 hp Johnson Sea Horse that Elmer had on his new boat.)

It was soon apparent from our runs in company with Elmer and his new bride in their boat, and from a couple of scary times in choppy waters, that we needed a boat more like his, so, with Elmer’s guidance, Dad ordered a brand new one from Mr. Tabbutt of Thomaston. I watched that boat grow from a half-model to a real boat just as I had Elmer’s and it was a dandy, actually a better shape than Elmer’s because of the changes Elmer generously suggested. We (especially me) loved it, but only had it for a year or two before Dad had his first heart attack around 1949 or 50 and we had to sell both the boat, with its 7-1/2 hp Evinrude Fleetwin, and the cottage.

Elmer and Helen then became involved in building a home next to ours. By that time, I think he was working for Dad at the Loan & Building and I was splitting my spare time between watching Bert Snow and Maurice McKusic develop what they called the Snow Marine Basin in Lermond’s Cove and helping Elmer finish off the new house. Helping meant mostly watching him use handtools to carefully build the cupboards, put up the inside door and window trim, etc., etc. He was fussy and patient and I loved that approach because, when finished, his work looked so good and was so admired by the people who saw it. By contrast, work at the Basin involved hauling and launching boats on planks and rollers and lots of other interesting but heavy, outdoor types of activities. Don Merchant and I were nearly inseparable chums by this time (the junior high school years) but when not with him, I gravitated to the new Montgomery house-building project. Looking back, when on my own, I fussed too much because I wanted what I built or fixed to look as good as Elmer’s work but had neither the skill to pull it off nor the tenacity to stick with it until finished. I still start too many projects and complete too few, but have never lost the passion for good boats and fine fits.

I loved looking through Elmer’s photo albums which seemed filled with sailing vessels that I’d just missed seeing but which he’d captured so beautifully with his camera. (I visited often, too often no doubt, as I think about how I invaded the quarters of these newlyweds.) Books had been published on ships and boats, but we had only two at home, both of which I eagerly devoured to the near exclusion of a brand new set of WorldBook encyclopedeas and other reading material. They were The Book of Old Ships by Culver and Grant, and Steamboats on the Penobscot by John M. Richardson. But Elmer had more, and also had lots back issues of The Rudder and Yachting. magazines The public library of course had these too, but getting there was a hike and there wasn’t anyone there to share it with. I haunted Elmer’s library and drank up the contents of those wonderful publications of his (and prevailed at directing the topic of conversation away from what Helen might have preferred).

Then I got a driver’s license, Dad bought a black 1939 Plymouth sedan from Miller’s Garage, and I discovered girls. Boats? Woodworking? Books? No way! In my junior and senior years at RHS , I worked at Nelson Brothers’ Garage, Rockland’s Dodge & Plymouth dealer; souped-up up the family Plymouth with a sun visor, fender skirts, a red-painted steering wheel I scrounged from a Chrysler, painted-on whitewall tires, and a two-tone green paint job. I took off the cylinder head and had it planed for more compression but still, the only way I could get it to “lay rubber” was to pop the clutch with the front wheels cramped over. The back tires squeaked, not squealed, and there might have been a detectable few inches of rubber left on the road. Mom and Dad spent some sleepless nights those teen years, I regret to say.

Anne entered my life in the fall of 1951 at the height of my time as a motorhead. (The Plymouth was followed by a 1940 Buick, then, for a brief time, by a 1940 Packard convertible that kept losing connecting rods.) Once I borrowed Don Merchant’s boat Sea Wolf and took Anne sailing that first summer of 1952. First time for her and she so loved it that to keep her I went back to boats. Boats stuck us together like contact cement and have remained a primary focus for us to this day.

Elmer Montgomery had played a vital role, as had my father. Both were exceptionally fine men who were always there offering opportunity and substance during those formative years when my receptors were open widest. I’ve been forever grateful. Dad died way too young, but his support and encouragement while alive was always there, be it boats, model airplanes, flying lessons, photography, or whatever other endeavor I showed an interest in. For example, he paid Elmer to build a 10′ dory-skiff like the one Elmer’d just finished for himself. The deal was that Elmer would build it in our garage and that I’d help him all the way, then take care of the finishing and painting. Thus the good boat Crumb (to go with Sea Biscuit) was born, lavender insides and all. With that project, I went from observer to participant—and Truman fired MacArthur while we were putting on the planks.

Crumb later renamed Annie and served us well for years after Anne and I were married.

Elmer taught me patience, an appreciation for craftsmanship, and a passion for boats and ships that surely, without him, I’d have missed out on. And in the half century since, we’ve enjoyed many a chat about wooden boats and other things nautical. He’s been like a favorite uncle. 11 Mechanic Street won’t be the same without Maine licence plate 97-100 in the driveway. I’ll miss him terribly.

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