A Cape Cod Notebook 4/15/08

listenSea Dawn

By Robert Finch

For some time I've been waiting for an excuse to tell you about a very unusual object in our drivewa y. Now that I finally have that reason, I wish I didn't. The object in question is a boat. Specificall y, it's the thirty-five-foot wooden hull of a racing schooner built in 1929 and named Sea Dawn. Sea Dawn had several owners and eventually made her way to Wellfleet. In the late 1980s it was acquired by Kim an d Phillipe Villard, the people who built our house. They were building a sail boat of their own in the driveway and acquired Sea Dawn for parts. After they'd stripped her, they managed to turn the hull over and set it up on wood pilings to serve as a rather unique car port.

In the years since we have lived here, the large upside-down hull of Sea Dawn has provided a durably interesting anecdote to tell to visitors, a landmark for UPS deliverers, and a magnet for our neighb or's young children, Clemmie and Lyle, who think it would make a great clubhouse. But two weeks ago the boat became part of a tragic local story that has left a hole in this community. On April 1, Jan Pot ter, a long-time resident, master builder, and well-known figure in Wellfleet, took his own life at Newcomb Hollow Beach. The story has been reported in the media, and it's not my intention to dwell on it her e. I simply want to speak of my connection to Jan, which was not unusual or notable except in one regard.

I knew Jan for many years, though we were not close friends. On the other hand, he was something more than an acquaintance. I frequently saw him at the local coffee shop, where he always had a friendly and slightly ironic greeting. We spent several late evenings in the local bar watching Red Sox games together. Ours was, at most, a casual friendship, the kind that local gathering places foster without imposing any of the responsibilities or obligations of close friends. But it was real noneth eless, one of those informal but reliable relationships that make you feel you belong to a true community. Last summer, when Jan's oldest son Caleb suffered life-threatening injuries in a skateboarding accident, Kathy and I, along with the rest of the town, rallied around Jan and his family as best we could, because that is what a community does.

The boat, however, gives me a tangible connection to Jan that I value even more now. For you see, on e summer years ago, Jan and his young family lived on Sea Dawn in Wellfleet Harbor, and it was from Ja n that Kim and Phillipe acquired her. Last fall I put a long-contemplated plan into effect and closed in the space beneath the hull to make a workshop out of it. It was something I thought Jan would approv e of. In fact, when I rather proudly told him about it, he did seem pleased. I said he should stop by and see it some time. He said he would, and seemed to mean it. He never did.

But there was another, even more remarkable connection. Two days after Jan's death, our neighbor, Galen Malicoat, the mother of little Clemmie and Lyle, who have so frequently visited that boat, gav e birth to a new son, Ryland James. It was a home birth, with the aid of her husband Beau and two midwives. It was an easy delivery, and mother and son are doing very well.

As a confirmed rationalist, I don't believe in cosmic alignment. But the juxtaposition of these two events, one so dark, the other full of light, seems to stretch the bounds of coincidence. As I contemplate the nexus of death and birth that somehow gathered around Sea Dawn, there comes unbidden into my mind the words of Laura Nyro's great anthem from the late 1960s: "And when I die, and when I'm gone/ There'll be one child born and a world to carry on, to carry on."

myWGBH