I believe in temporary insanity, because I’ve seen it.
The adventure began with Mom’s long-standing request for an open-concept living room. Arriving home from Sunday School one late winter afternoon in 1955, I was stunned to find Dad suddenly demolishing walls in our small semi-detached Toronto home.
Mom was thrilled, and then flabbergasted. Dad actually had two projects in mind: opening up the room for Mom and building a boat in it for himself.
At that time we were new cottagers, and having searched for the perfect property, we had hacked a long trail through the bush, felled trees, hauled lumber across the lake on a raft, erected a basic cottage, and eventually built a road.
Dad was now ready for something bigger than his rowboat with its five-horse power motor. Promising Mom his new craft would be ship-shape and out of the house in six weeks, he embarked on his project.
We became accustomed to strange sights like hot rags wrapped around wood pieces, bending them to the shape of the hull, and to the queries of puzzled neighbours and delivery men who couldn’t believe a man was building a boat in his living room. The mailman knocked on the door regularly to check on construction progress and, shaking his head, would tell Mom that he didn’t know many wives who would put up with this.
The promised six weeks turned into three times that, and then the great day came when it seemed the whole neighbourhood gathered to see if Dad could “launch” the boat out of the house. He never doubted it for a minute and was vindicated when it passed through the kitchen door and was at last delivered to the cottage. With its shiny coat of varnish, it was a delight to behold and sat beautifully in the water. All was right with the world: Dad had his boat, and Mom had her larger rooms.
We hadn’t counted on the porcupines.
It used to be said that the porcupine population, like many natural things, had a cycle; every seven years or so, there was a bumper crop. This was such a year. We would hear them moaning at night under the cottage, see them up in trees and on the road. Where we never expected to see them was on the new boat.
Arriving late one Friday night in the almost primeval darkness of the lake, our headlights shone on the water and lit up a tableau that became frozen for all time in my mind; at least two big porkies were sitting on the boat’s deck, feasting on Dad’s cherished handiwork. It looked as if they’d been at it for some time. After a moment of stunned silence, Dad raced out of the car, grabbed a piece of wood and, cursing, drove them away. The rest of us kept pretty quiet, realizing the magnitude of his frustration and anger.
The light of day revealed the damage: tooth marks and gnawed sections of the lovingly crafted and varnished deck. From that moment on, it was war. Porcupines in trees were shot, while those unfortunate enough to be seen on the ground were whacked with oars, or whatever was at hand.
Ultimately, the moment came when nothing was at hand. Late one night, as Dad carried an armload of bedding for guests staying in our second small cottage, temporary insanity struck. A hapless porcupine ambled across his path. With his arms full and nothing available with which to attack, Dad, obviously deranged, simply jumped on the beast.
James's boat, built in the Lawson family kitchen
I don’t remember if he jumped more than once, and I don’t remember the fate of the porcupine. I will always remember the sight of the quills lodged in my father’s lower legs and the sight of poor Mom trying to remove them. We had heard the pain would be lessened if quills were cut in half before removal. I think that was just another northern myth.
Mom had always described the moans of porcupines under the cottage at night as sounding as if someone were dying. Their pitiful moans paled in comparison to the ones coming from Dad that night. And if you’ve ever heard that expression, “the air turned blue…”, well let’s just say it turned a very deep, midnight blue.
A year or so later, the boy I would eventually marry confided in a friend that he was going to take me out. The friend, who happened to be a neighbour of my family, said, “Not that girl across the street? Her father’s crazy! He built a boat in their living room!”
I’m glad he didn’t know about the porcupines.
Wendy B. Truscott has taught Kindergarten and French in Toronto, but primarily, she was a Domestic Goddess (stay-at-home mom). After she and her husband moved to their home on a peaceful lake in Muskoka, she joined a memoir-writing group and was encouraged to try fiction. She has now published two successful YA historical novels, Haunted Journey and MacGregor’s Curse. Other interests include painting, genealogy, and memoir-writing, often including comical anecdotes of life experiences, which she hopes future generations will enjoy.
Visit Wendy's website here.
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