Casting off memories of a mentor

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by admin on October 13, 2010

This is as much about someone’s ship coming in as someone shipping out. The fine piece by Low Down reporter Mark Burgess last week on the Chrisalis II, the giant 70-foot Mississippi paddlewheeler built by the late Alan Hopkins churning up the Gatineau River, brings to mind another builder of dreams.

His name was Curt Merrill, and I first met the former Ramsay Road (Cascades) resident 30 years ago. We bonded at the Bishop’s Manor, where I was piecing together a log house which included hanging two seven-inch-thick doors intended to lend a fortifying element to the structure.

Curt appeared sometime near its turn-key state to assess an amateurish stab at locating hardware beefy enough to hold up the door: “You stupid bugger. Those Home Hardware hinges will never work. I’ll build you a set.”

So he did. And in the course of their construction, I was party to a mini-course in welding – as well as any topic that might effuse from the acrid torch fumes and dancing, hot embers.

Curt was a trained teacher, a biologist, on top of his being an inventive sort who relished taking on challenges. His tutoring presence was a godsend, given that one’s building expertise consisted of felling trees in the Swiss Alps and a text, “The New Science of Strong Materials or Why You Don’t Fall Through the Floor,” authored by a British university engineering professor.

The book, though written in language a layman might decipher, still required someone explaining: “Why?” Curt helped this construction neophyte work through the nuances of Beam Theory, for example, and the input was put to practice.

But tutoring came with a cost. The simplest questions initiated a work slowdown – laying down the chainsaw and axe – to fully absorb the answer. Lengthy discourses on matters such as “Why Things Don’t Fall Down” punctuated lunchtimes and spilled over to coffee breaks. As someone who never graduated from anything, I still view the stoppages as Study Breaks. The man who paid us might not agree.

When facets of construction leaned toward the tedious, the discussions might touch on his flying during the Second World War, his work with Indian Affairs and Northern Development in Aklavik, and his recreational pursuits – downhill skiing and boardsailing – well into advanced age.

It was Curt who invented a colourful euphemism for the state of being somewhat out of control – been there, done that – on a ski hill: “I was in Mexican Overdrive.”

But I digress. I don’t remember what Curt had in mind, apart from cruising the Ottawa River and the Rideau Canal with his family, when he built his ship of dreams – The Gatineau Queen – a 45-foot paddlewheeler whose hull consisted of 18 (nine each side) 200-gallon oil tanks welded end-to-end that plied the waters for years before his log-builder son, Greg, drydocked it as a workshop on River Road at Cascades in 1992.

Meanwhile, an Ottawa Citizen obituary announced that Curt’s final voyage, at age 93, ended Sept. 22 at Deep River, Ont.

Mexican Overdrive, indeed.