Des Bird's Boat
By John Latta
A lot of truckers remind me of my favorite cousin, Des Bird. I never failed to be in awe of the way he seemed to be able to do anything, fix anything, explain anything (even if he was putting me on more than once), ride anything and build anything.
He was a farmer, and therein I think lies the idea that has crept into my head that he would have made a great long-distance trucker. Farmers also inevitably have to be very resourceful and creative about the way they get the job done. Both tend to do it their way, not the book way.
Des saw virtually everything as interesting. If a tractor transmission burned out or a horse went lame, an engine quit in a plume of oily smoke or a pump started leaking, he’d look at it quizzically right from the start. There was no “Darn it, why does this always happen to me?” He’d maybe sit and look at it for a while, rolling a cigarette and working out how to fix it, unhurried by the expanding leak or the fire.
Most of the problems he had to deal with were sources of enjoyment to him. And this was true whether it was a broken-down machine or a fallen fence that left all of his livestock mixed up with all of his neighbors’.
Last time I saw him he was standing under a wooden platform that would hold a water tank, a several thousand-gallon model that would supply a local school. He and his equally quirky and resourceful father-in-law, Rusty Evans, were figuring out how to raise it. All they had was their car, some hand tools and some rope. I waved and drove off. When I got home five or six hours later, I called back to the farm and the tank was up.
Des once built a boat just because he’d never done it before and he wanted one. Fifteen or 16 feet, inboard/ outdrive jet boat run by an old car motor. I was a teenager at the time and totally impressed by new, expensive, off-the-lot products, not homemade stuff. Given my choice, I’d want something gleaming with chrome and custom dash, sparkly two-tone fiberglass and a brand new famous-brand outboard on her stern. A homemade boat would have felt like a hand-me-down, like we couldn’t afford a new one.
But cousin Desmond had built something special. It had power to spare, turned on a dime and ran the shallowest of water at full power. It knifed through choppy seas, handled shore-breaking waves with ease for in-close fishing and raced surely through narrow twisting channels in mangrove swamps without ever having to be throttled back.
He didn’t take pride in it because he’d saved money. He was proud of it because he’d figured out how to build it and had thrown in some refinements and efficiencies that made her superior in handling and capability to what you could have spent 10 times as much on down at the showroom. From her first few days in the water he’d look at her and you could see him already wondering how to improve her.
I think that it was riding in that boat that I ceased to be a puppet of the marketing and ad agency boys. I had been flipped: suddenly I valued individuality more than the material trappings of success.
Without rebellion or anger, Des simply lived his own way, and he was first to show me – long before the books – that the world was a man’s to live in as he chose. That you didn’t have to live according to the script you saw laid out before you by other people who expected you to impress them or be one of their followers. He showed me that you didn’t need a brand new boat to be a boater and that the only person you have to impress is yourself.
Yep, Des would have a made a great trucker. I see big rig drivers like him all the time out there, unmoved by the pressures of the marketing and ad agency boys.
“You tell me I could be driving a new top-of-the-line pickup truck, wearing suits with designer labels, eating in fancy restaurants three times a week and weekending in my cabin on a lake?