22: How to Build a Sailboat

22: How to Build a Sailboat

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Dad

How to Build a Sailboat

There’s a long, long trail a-winding into the land of my dreams.

~Stoddard King, Jr.

When I was young, a few books were neatly stacked on the end table in our family room. One of those, about how to build a sailboat, always intrigued me. Its glossy photos of sleek craft cutting through turquoise water spoke of adventure. The step-by-step guidelines were written to convince readers like myself that building such a boat was as easy as following the directions on the back of a cake mix box. Yet I always opened that book with the same sense of puzzlement. My mom had given it to my dad for his birthday one year, and I guess the implication was that he wanted to build one. The puzzle was my mom thinking that dad would ever do it.

My dad was handy, no question. But growing up, he and my grandpa owned three department stores in our small town and the surrounding communities, and he worked Monday through Saturday every week that I could remember. On most evenings, he set up his bookkeeping at the kitchen table. Sunday was his only free day, and usually involved yard work or upkeep on our house, the three store buildings, or, as they aged, my grandmothers’ houses. He built many practical things over the years — cabinets, shelves, a playhouse — but never a sailboat. I concluded, as I flipped the pages in that book, that though my dad dreamed of building such a masterpiece, he just wasn’t in a position to act on his dreams.

Dreams, I was sure, were things that one attained in the short term. I dreamed of a new bike, getting my braces off, or making the cheerleading team. My idea of a “long-term” dream back then was getting my ears pierced when I turned fifteen. It didn’t occur to me that dreams could, or should, lurk for very long.

As malls and new highways were built in our rural communities and people found it easier to leave town to shop, my father’s stores struggled. With my grandfather gone, my dad worked harder to keep it all together. Though Dad never let on, I’m sure his dreams at the time concentrated on just making payroll. Swept up in my own world of proms, graduation and college classes, I barely noticed that his fifty-hour weeks had increased to eighty.

As a married adult, I began to learn that some dreams, like saving for our first house, take time. About this time my dad announced that he was selling the stores and retiring. Looking back, I wonder why I was surprised. Preoccupied with my own life, I guess I hadn’t noticed it had gotten that hard. “Dad,” I remember asking with concern, “what will you do?” Now it was his turn to be surprised. Didn’t I realize, he asked me, that there were so many things he’d just been waiting to do?

Dad dusted off those many dreams, prioritized a list, and never looked back. He’s learned to scuba dive, has built local renown for his duck decoy carvings, hammered for Habitat for Humanity and recently ran as the only fifty-year graduate in the 5K Alumni race at his alma mater. He and Mom have traveled the world, taught English as a Second Language to new Americans and welcomed six grandchildren into the world.

It turns out that Dad knew a lot about dreams. He knew that sometimes, like it or not, they are shelved for the rigors of life. He taught me that as long as you have the courage to pull them back out, they can be as glossy and vibrant as ever. Dad never did build that sailboat. He swapped that dream for a more practical option in the landlocked Midwest, and got his pilot’s license the year after he retired. He is now putting the finishing touches on a Starduster II bi-plane he has built from a starter pile of metal. I learned many things from my dad, but one of the most powerful has been the hope and happiness of reaching for life’s dreams — even if they take time to build.

~Gail Wilkinson

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