Enrolling in a Wooden Boat Building Program

I haven’t been very active on my writing website, and for good reason. Back in 2020, with the world turned upside down, my family and I moved to Maine. Being away from the city and closer to nature was a necessity for me. I spent the year reading Thoreau, taking hikes, and thinking about what trajectory my life would have. I knew nature was central. I knew in nature I would find the best connections. Practically, I decided I would train myself in all the ways necessary to navigate deeper into the woods. I would learn as much as I could to better my relationship with the nature world, as well as gain knowledge to be safe as I explored. So, for the last three years I’ve been studying everything from trapping to bushcraft. One aspect I wanted to further develop what my use of tools. My connection to creation. My connection to the things I would use day to day as I travelled deeper. To go into the woods was not enough, I needed knowledge to fix a canoe paddle or bang together a container for supplies. What I needed was a solid foundation of woodworking skills. I also needed a boat. So, it only made sense to study wooden boat building. Being in Maine, I found a school and began attending in September. They’ve been gracious enough to allow me to do a poetry reading for the students and staff as well as publish a series of articles reflection upon my time there. The first article is linked below as well as a copy of the text:

ENROLLING IN THE WOODEN BOAT BUILDING PROGRAM – A SERIES BY TOM LAASER

Building a wooden boat is a dream for many people. It’s the type of thing when mentioned in conversation at least one person will say, “Wow, I don’t think I could ever do that.” Wooden boats are timeless. Any culture at any time near water had boats, and until recently, they were made of wood. The profession of shipwright is as storied and colorful as that of sailors. What kind of person in the 21st century would want to learn to build wooden boats? Me, for one, as well as all the other students in wooden boatbuilding programs across the country and wider world. The concept of a school for boatbuilding is a recent one, previously apprenticeship was the standard entry into the field. Like many professions, the Industrial Revolution and technological advancements have radically changed how boatbuilding works, especially where wood is concerned. The prominence of composite materials as well as the scarcity of quality wood, has made the world of wooden boats into an interesting, yet enduring, niche.

Maine is an incredible place with a rich maritime tradition that is still alive in ways that you can’t find anywhere else. The rocky coast of Maine is still dotted with boat yards, many generations old, repairing and building boats in both composites and wood. The inland forests are still full of garages packed with old patterns, jigs, and pieces of long since closed yet famous boat shops. You can’t walk five feet in any direction without seeing a boat peeking out from under a tarp or a canoe patiently waiting for its next trip.

               With this rich culture still alive, Maine is home to more than one Boat building school. I was lucky enough to live close to The Landing School of Boatbuilding and Design in Arundel. It’s a unique school, born in the 70s out of a barn, expanded, yet still down to earth in a very “Maine” sort of way. Their cornerstone program is Wooden boatbuilding, but they also have programs in Marine Systems, Composites, and Yacht Design. The entirety of the modern marine industry feels distilled in its walls.

               Enrolling in the Wooden Boat Program was both exciting and terrifying. My woodworking experience is beginner at best, not to mention I’d decided to jump right into boatbuilding, a woodworking field that feels mysterious to even some master carpenters. Prior to the first day of class I was given a list of tools to buy. Outside of a hammer and screwdrivers, I had no idea what any of the tools were or how I’d use them. I couldn’t imagine I’d be able to build something with them. The tool list came with several books to buy as well. I flipped through them, but like the tools, most of it felt like a mystery. I hoped that once I got my hands on things then it would click.

               The first day of class was a gentle introduction. Our class is only eight, with two instructors. That’s a great ratio for any class, especially for something so hands on as building a boat. We were each told to pick a bench and organize our tools. I had no idea what to do with my tools. I laid them here and there in what felt like a vague organization. Looking around it was obvious some students had been near a work bench before, with old and worn tools, some unloading three times the amount of tools as on the list. Thankfully, I was not the only one with bare essentials and no idea where to put anything.

               Our class is an interesting mix. If you were wondering who studies wooden boatbuilding – Well, there’s no one answer and each answer is very unique. Our class has several veterans, one retiree who had already build a few boats and had an extensive woodworking background, a few guys wanting to change careers, and one fresh out of High School taking a gap year before college. The general level of woodworking experience was low, with a few exceptions, and many had experience being around and on ships. Some in the class expect a career in the Marine Industry after school and some are seeking something else. The task of the Landing School is a daunting one – take a group of students of wildly different skill levels and experience and give them a comprehensive education in woodworking, the process of boat building (both traditional and modern) and give them skills to succeed in the Marine Industry if they chose to or give them the tools to succeed in another endeavor.

               That daunting task falls on our two instructors – both named Jake – which at first felt like it would be confusing but has turned out to make things easier. Like the students, both Jakes come from very different backgrounds and skill sets. Both are graduates of the Landing School, as are most of the staff (which should tell you something about the school in itself). Their diverse experiences complement one another and have led to some very interesting learning opportunities. Somehow, they’ve been able to take this mixed group and not only keep us on track but help us all individually with our skills.

               Before we can work on the boat, we needed to lay a foundation of skills. The first week was introductions to safe shop practices. Our first hands-on task was an essential one – tool sharpening. If your tools are not sharp, there’s not much you can do. We were shown how to sharpen our planes and chisels, as well as how to disassemble them. Many of us had hand planes still in the box, covered with a thin layer of protective oil. We disassembled, cleaned, sharpened, assembled, and tested each tool. We were given a run down of the various techniques involved in using hand tools. Then we were introduced to the mill room, shown each tool from the table saw to the jointer, and took turns trying them. One amazing aspect of the Landing School is its equipment. I can imagine many carpenters drooling over the array of tools at our disposal.

               Now that we had the basics we launched right into our first project – a bench dog. A bench dog is a small piece of wood with a cleat that sits on the edge of your work bench and holds your sharpening stone. Since we had just learned to sharpen our tools, it made sense to build a bench dog.  Given simple plans we were set loose to build it. We build our bench dogs quickly and returned to more classroom time learning the basics of woodworking and boat building. The following weeks were a combination of lecture and hands on learning. Our second project was a tool box – beginning with one piece of lumber. The program emphasizes learning every aspect of the building process, including milling our own stock and figuring out the most economical ways to cut it up for building. Our task was to take this piece of lumber and a set of plans and figure out how to cut it all to size and size it in a way that used all of the wood. I messed up this aspect immensely and soon found one of the best parts of the program – its ok to mess up, its expected. Coming from having no woodworking experience, it always feels like carpenters get everything right the first time, and making mistakes doesn’t happen. But as we were told, “Remember: you’re in school!”

               Before we knew it the first month of school was over. We’d established a foundation in hand tools and basic woodworking and we’re slowly building those as well as boat building terminology and techniques. What came next was the most challenging (in my opinion) of all boatbuilding: Lofting…

Connecticut and Androscoggin River Trip

I recently wrote an article that was published by Project Healing Water’s New England Region. The link and full text is below:

Several Maine veterans of the PHWFF Augusta Chapter came together for a fly fishing weekend at Lopstick Lodge in Pittsburg, NH this August. Arriving Friday evening, the group found themselves in a row of cabins right on the shore of First Connecticut Lake. While the cabins could be considered ‘traditional’, they lacked no amenities and were more than comfortable. Volunteers leading the outing grilled a delicious dinner that everyone enjoyed looking out over the lake and rolling mountains. Starting on a high note, the weekend only got better from there. Saturday and Sunday were long days full of fishing. The guides of Lopstick Outfitters divided the group into twos, loaded the drift boats, and took every one on different stretches of the Connecticut and Androscoggin rivers.

The group was a mixture; veterans young and old, different branches, experiences, some long-time fly anglers, and some complete beginners. The guides expertly navigated the needs and wants of each member, bringing them on waters that proved both challenging and rewarding. Each day when the sun got high and fish went low, the boats would find a quiet spot onshore and the veterans were treated to lunches that would be considered gourmet in a restaurant. The weather all weekend was warm, sunny, with passing clouds each day that provided just enough covered for the fish to come out and skin to not burn. Only once did a rain pass through, quickly, with guides living up to their reputation by being prepared and having rain gear on hand for those who didn’t bring any.

Fish weren’t the only thing on the rivers as the boats would glide by bald eagles, a loud family of beavers, and even a fawn who stood on the bank as the group passed. All with the gorgeous backdrop of Northern New Hampshire.

Each night the boats would pull in, the veterans would collect around a large and warm dinner, and talk into the evening. Despite differences of age, service, and angling experience, all quickly found themselves as part of one big fishing family, swapping stories, advice, and many pictures of fish.

This long weekend was an idyllic snapshot of the best of PHWFF and the sport of fly fishing as we know and love it. Standing on a drift boat, slowly sliding along, casting a fly recommended by a fellow veteran you just met but instantly trust, and waiting for that brief but immense moment with a guide yelling “Fish on!” and a splash in the water, is such a simple thing, but in the company of others, can be profound and healing in a way words can’t explain.

No One Can Win Here

Afghanistan. So much to process. I’ve written a piece about my thoughts regarding the withdrawal of Afghanistan that was recently published by CounterPunch. It can be read there or below.

“No one can win here,” I found myself whispering as I looked at the distant mountain peaks surrounding Bagram Airfield. Single file out of the C-130 we came. It was 2013, a point at which we were told the war was all but over. We were not here to fight; we artillerymen were here to train the Afghans to shoot their Soviet-era howitzers and supervise. Most of the younger soldiers were disappointed, feeling as though they’d missed the war and were relegated to cleanup crew. I was one of them, itching to be a part of history, active history. At the back of my mind were the memories of watching the towers fall, watching the news coverage as soldiers entered Afghanistan. The silence surrounding my father’s Vietnam Era service. I hadn’t joined right out of high school, but the urge to be a part of history never went away. The urge to do rather than to speak. I found myself in my mid-20s, with a wife and children back home, surrounded by mountains larger than I’d ever seen, with a duffel bag on my back and an ill-fitting boonie cap on my head half a world away just so I could feel like I did something. I believed in America. I believed in democracy. And a healthy democracy demands participation. This was my service to the country. My civic duty. My moral duty.

“Looks exactly like Arizona!” echoed back and forth between the Arizonians in our platoon. They felt oddly at home. I felt foreign. The terrain very unlike my native New England. Speaking a non-native language. Carrying a gun. I felt a defiance in the mountains. You do not belong here, they were saying in chorus. Nowhere else have I felt a terrain more alive than Afghanistan. The glowing purple mountains, the stark lines in the rocks, the snow that fell so unnaturally slow. Every rock pulsed with a soul. I fell in love with it instantly. I fell in love with the sunsets, the snow, and the defiant mountains. A bittersweet romance from the moment boot touched tarmac.

Equally alive are the people whom the mountains have chosen. A selection of tribes who mirror the mountains in beauty and complexity. Prior to deployment, I had immersed myself in Afghan history and politics. I’d read every book I could. I also received an abbreviated training in Dari, which alongside Pashto are the two official languages of Afghanistan. The idea was that every platoon, regardless of job, would have one Dari and one Pashto speaker. With only so many interpreters and since we were no longer technically fighting, but training, having someone around at all times with a passing knowledge of terms was thought to be helpful. My elementary level Dari proved to be an open door to the Afghans I met. My faulting attempts at speaking with them was always met with surprise and enthusiasm.

I found myself torn between so many differing sides of reality. I was madly in love with Afghanistan – its people, its land, its soul – All of which both embraced me and held me at arm’s length. You do not belong here, said the mountain chorus. Most of my fellow Americans did not share my love. Uninterested in the humanity of the land, they were content to stay to themselves, get the job done, hopefully kill someone, and then get the fuck back to ice cold beer and football on tv.  I don’t blame them. My love affair with Afghanistan has given me nothing but heart break. Many nights I would find myself sitting cross-legged in front of a tv watching an Iranian soap opera, drinking chai and chewing sugar candies with the Afghan interpreters. The shows improved my conversation skills and the interpreters were always willing to point things out for me to pick up. These nights like any other night of friends sitting around watching tv. Except the moments they would speak Pashto between themselves, and the M4 carbine of mine I left resting on the door frame, that reminded us of our differences. Of a gap between what could be and what was.  I would return to the American side those nights to snide remarks and questions regarding my feelings toward the Afghans. Many of the Afghans I worked with would say of me, “You are not American! You are Afghan!” They said this as a compliment. The truth was, I was neither Afghan, nor American. I was foreign. On all fronts.

I was, and am, a lover. I love people. I love the land. I found myself, much like all of us, trying to grapple with what it was to be a citizen of your country. What it was to be a part of a piece of the Earth. So much gray area. All one human race? One nation helping to build another? Most Afghans aligned more with their tribe than the made up “Afghan” national idea. Were we truly helping these people? Were we avenging 9/11? There were, and still are, no clear answers. An existential crisis distilled in the air of that region.

Our job, as well, was one of contradiction. We were not, as stated, training the Afghans to shoot artillery. There was a team who oversaw the Afghan battery of old Russian D 30 howitzers. On the other side of the base was our guns. When we were fired upon or needed to assist an Afghan platoon out on patrol, both Afghans and Americans would be called up. But only one fired at the enemy. The Afghans would be allowed to shoot, always before us, and never at the target. They were not trusted yet and the consensus from the team overseeing them was that they were a long way off from being ready. Our platoon was left feeling as though we were doing something, while being told we were not to be open about the something we were doing. The Combat Action Badge, that shiny piece of metal non-infantry combat men covet, was denied on the grounds that the Afghans officially engaged, not us.

No end in sight. No clarity. It felt as though, on all sides, there never had been clear cut objectives. The existential paradox of that region radiating off those mountains confused and obliterated any idea of linear goals. Reflecting those mountains, the Afghans were never clear either. Many Afghans we worked with would hoot and holler when our guns went off. They’d cheer and yell “Yes! America!” But, in the quiet of the night, in the glow of an Iranian soap opera, I would hear brief wistful talk over the chai, “Sometimes I do miss the Taliban. At least with them you knew things. No smut around. People did right.” The divide between a religious state and a liberal nation were on display. Even the Afghans were unsure of our intentions, unsure of their own leadership, and unsure of what path would give them what they truly wanted.

I’m sitting on a granite boulder on the edge of a pine forest. Woods and mountains. The only places I feel at home anymore. Only wild areas show any clarity. I’m on my phone, talking with a battle buddy from deployment. He too moved to the woods for clarity. We’ve been watching the American troop withdrawal. Seeing the bodies cling to the same C 130s that brought us there. Receiving the million and one emails from every veteran organization under the sun with links to crisis lines and resources to talk. I think about the Vietnam vets. The support they lacked. How truly on their own they were when Saigon fell. I owe them a lot. Many crying alone. Many sitting at wood’s edge alone. They found each other. They built vet centers. They advocated and lobbied so that soldiers like me would not be alone like them. I sit alone in the woods, a place I wouldn’t have been able to get to had it not been years of help from all those organizations and crisis lines they built. My friend is nonchalant about the Taliban’s quick retaking of Afghanistan. Numb, I feel. Both of us. Numb to all.

So hard to not be cynical. To shrug your shoulders and say, “Oh well, so much death and suffering for nothing.” It would be true, of course, to say that. But it feels so inhumane. However, we just experienced twenty years of people not telling the truth. Not being brutally honest and it only brought more suffering. It feels as though we all wanted a linear story. What is our purpose? How do we get to it? Without those questions answered there’s no winning, whatever winning would mean. What was it we wanted to do with Afghanistan? What is it the Afghans want? Again, we are in an existential grey area. To feel nothing. To feel too much. Maybe my friend and I are just overwhelmed and our brains are protecting us from what could happen if we dwell on it. I am, after all, more content to be alone in the woods. “Fuck it, man, I’m just going for a hike,” my friend says before hanging up. “Me too,” I say, slide off the boulder, and walk into the woods. Only two days later we’re on the phone again, “I’m just so torn up,” he says, “I don’t know what to think or feel.” Me too. I think about the news coverage. The phone calls I’m receiving from concerned people, many of whom I haven’t spoken with in years. Why care now? Why the moral outrage now? Afghanistan’s withdrawal is just the newest outrage of the month for people. Last month was the Uighurs (remember that genocide still happening?) and tomorrow will be something else. And the people of Afghanistan will continue to die and the veterans will continue to mourn. I never much respected moral outrage, less so now. The same inclination against it brought me to serve. I needed to do something. Action. I find that many people love to be outraged, but few are willing to follow that up with action. Moral outrage has its place, it can humanize us animals. Provided we do something to help, even something small. But it can also be addicting. Make you feel good. Feel like a good person. Then go back to your beer and tv – no sacrifice required. Sadly, this is the majority position. I don’t blame them, though. Entering into these things, truly entering into them, requires a blood sacrifice. It requires your time and your effort with no hope of reward. It’s not thirty second videos you watch one after the other, it’s a rich story in which you must be a character and hold out until the end.

And me, and all of those decades of veterans. And all those Afghans. Families. Children. We stand before those mountains having offered our blood sacrifices. Years of it. Palms outstretched, waiting for an answer. For connection and honesty. To feel victory. As though we did something and won.

Best of Medic in the Green Time

I met Marc Levy a few years ago while running the Salem State Veteran Writers Workshop. He is a decorated Vietnam veteran and world traveler as well as a published author of fiction and poetry. His writing, as well as his comments and critiques in those workshops were always thought provoking and showed a crystal clear way of cutting right through things. He is one of those authors who, after reading a passage or a story, you think, “How does he do this with words?” His writing pulls you in with an intensity that always makes you question reality for a moment, often capturing and conveying emotions and states of mind that feel viscerally real. In person, he is a kind and humble man. When speaking with him you often get the sense that behind his eyes are cataloged thousands of stories and events he’s lived through, each vivid and worth hearing. However, ever the writer, he often listens and observes more than speaks. His example, both in person and on page, have been standards that I hope to some day approach in my own life and writing.

His website, Medic in the Green Time is a skillfully crafted and curated collection of stories, anecdotes, and information. Not only his own writing, but also that of others fill its pages. I highly recommend spending time searching each page of the site as it always has something new and illuminating. From this collection, he has recently published a “Best of” anthology. Alongside his writing is that of other fantastic writers, many who have found their words on his site. I am honored to have a poem of mine published in this anthology. If you’d like a copy, it can be found on Amazon.

Waiting Together: A Ten Minute Play

Two years ago I wrote a ten minute play about two Army veterans sitting in a VA Hospital waiting room. The play was well received and Salem State University hosted a staged reading of the play. The evening was a success, generating a lively conversation after the performance as well as inspiring the Salem State University 10 minute play writing Festival which is entering its 2nd year this November. I’ve included a link to a recording of the play uploaded by my good friend, author and Vietnam Veteran Marc Levy:

My teeth don’t chew on shrapnel

Today is V.E. Day – the day that commemorates the end of World War II, as such it was the day chosen for the release of a new Anthology: My Teeth Don’t Chew on Shrapnel. Last year, I had the honor of being invited to participate in a Veteran Poetry Workshop in Oxford, England hosted by Oxford Brookes University. It was one of several workshops working with both UK and US veterans and family members. We were joined by Dr. Niall Munro (Senior Lecturer in American Literature and Director of Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre) Dr. Jane Potter, Alex Donnelly (Founding Director of the Oxford University Disability Law and Policy Project and former Naval Intelligence Officer) and Dr Rita Phillips (Lecturer in Psychology, Robert Gordon University). The writing portion of the workshop was lead by Susie Campbell, PhD researcher at Oxford Brookes and poet. Over a weekend we discussed veteran writing, perceptions of veterans and how writing may affect it, as well as producing our own writing.

The passion and commitment to this project on the part of the organizers was apparent to me all weekend and in the many e-mail conversations since. I am sure each of them committed many hours of hard work on their own time as well as with minimal funding.

Two of my poems are included in the anthology, as well as an interview. The anthology is available in several formats including one with audio clips of the poet’s reading their work.

Enjoy!

https://www.brookes.ac.uk/poetry-centre/veterans–poetry-workshops/

Welcome to my blog

Welcome to my new site! This is my first blog entry and is being used as a place holder for the time being. Check back in periodically (or subscribe) and you will be updated on any new entries. For more information about myself please see my Bio page.

Thank you for visiting!