obituary

A Geezer Crosses the Bar


That-Was-The-Week-That-W-That-Was-The-Week-473964gc2smFrom the keyboard of Surly1
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Originally published on the Doomstead Diner on June 14, 2020

“Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.”

 ― Alfred, Lord Tennyson  


"Crossing the bar" is a nautical metaphor Tennyson uses to compare death with crossing the "sandbar" between the river of life and the ocean beyond (death), the "boundless deep", to which we return. My friend Joe has crossed the bar.

When you retire, lunch is one of the few ways an old man has any chance for a social life. Thus it was with a small circle of my local friends. Every 4 to 6 weeks, several of us would gather for a "geezers' lunch." My friend Joe would generally facilitate the gathering, making the phone calls and wrangling the troops. He was the straw that stirred the drink. 

We geriatrics would toddle into some local pissoir for seafood, a couple of beers and some spirited conversation. Attendance would vary, but centered around four people: Al, a writer, poet and local gadfly, and publisher of a journal of working-class poetry with a small but fervent national following; Angelo, a painter and entrepreneur, who was successful at business without any real love for it, and who was far more interested in art and his own lines of independent thought; your obedient servant; and of course Joe. All of had met during Occupy in 2011, when old gathered with young on the streets to protest repression and economic injustice. Joe was a Renaissance man, by turns boat builder, contractor, student, teacher, gardener, actor, and especially raconteur.

And now Joe is gone.

Joe's devoted wife called me with the news and asked me to spread the word. The news hit me like a building falling. He had just been part of a gathering at my home the previous Friday, where we brought our own lunch, socially distanced on the back deck in heartfelt conversation while sucking down a twelve-pack of Modelos. I still don't believe it.

Joe was immensely intellectually curious, and was always delving into historical or nautical subjects. At lunch that Friday he had three books on 9/11 In hand. This was completely typical Joe; his appetite for knowledge and his intellectual curiosity was restless and unquenchable.


According to Joe, he once attended St. John Vianney seminary in Goochland, Virginia. At the end of that year he received a letter from the bishop, cordially inviting him not to pursue further studies for the priesthood. Joe attended Old Dominion College (at that time a branch of William and Mary) in the late sixties before embarking on a career in construction. From Joe's unofficial bio:

There was a satisfaction that I found in working with a pile lumber in the morning and walking away at the end of the day with a structure in back of me. Residential construction led to commercial construction of restaurants, hotels, motels, banks and apartments. As my woodworking skills developed I found occasional work for piratical friends who were restoring large wooden sailboats. I fell in love with wooden sailboats and wooden boat building.

From there, Joe worked for a year or so at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in their small boat shop but did not enjoy daily exposure to clouds of fiberglass dust and polystyrene vapors. He took over the management of a utility/ general-purpose carpentry shop for the Navy Exchange, then applied for a teaching position with the brand new Norfolk School of Boat Building opening on the downtown Norfolk waterfront. A direction was set for ship building and ship repair, and acting(!). Even though he left college without graduating, he maintained a lifelong interest in American and European history, as evidenced by his voracious reading habits.

During the mid-1970s he worked in the U.S. Merchant Marines. Sailing on small and medium sized tugboats while controlling tugs and barges of vast tonnage gave him a fundamental understanding of how ships handled under challenging sea and weather conditions. His practical experience, coupled with a respect for traditional building skills enabled him to teach woodworking and boat construction at the Norfolk School of Boatbuilding. This school was (as far as I know) the first official, permanent boat-building institution in one of the nation's earliest ports. It closed in 1991.

In 1980 Joe had already left, to work with the Norfolk Shipbuilding and Dry-dock Corporation as a rigger, eventually working his way into production engineering management.  In 1985, Joe started his own company, Decking Design, Inc., a shipboard marine flooring and decking firm serving naval and commercial shipping on the East Coast. He became a federal contractor and laid teak decks on warships. With that company, he ran work with 35 full-time tradesmen through 1993.

Since then, Joe continued work as an independent boatbuilder, artisan, craftsman and instructor.  He also worked with the historical department at the Mariners Museum in Newport News, VA as an interpreter and historical character actor. He portrayed, "the old sea captain", for audiences from all over the world. It gave Joe the opportunity to commit some of the works of Tennyson, Conrad and E.B. White to memory. His work as a character actor led to his being hired to portray a wealthy New York banker in the two episode historical documentary, "Clear the Way", based on a life of the Irish-American Civil War General Thomas Francis Meagher. The film was set during the 1863 draft riots, and produced by an Irish production company. The documentary film was shot in and around Hagerstown, Maryland in conjunction with the Smithsonian and National Geographic.

Following "Clear the Way", Joe continued to work in film and theater projects. He has appeared in, "A Witch in Time", and "Bon Voyage" produced by John Graves Warner, another personal friend. Joe's gift for voices and a beard straight out of the 19th century, led Stephen Spielberg to cast him in "Lincoln" as a "Republican Senator." He's in a number of scenes.

Joe also loved to perform and would memorize long seafaring stories and poems, from authors like Tennyson, Conrad, Villiers, Masefield, A.H.Clark, C.Fox Smith and E.B White, then perform them in public. He would commit many pages to memory, with the accuracy and precision of an Islamic adept memorizing the Koran.

In his later days, Joe served on the board of directors for Nautical Adventures, Inc., a nonprofit that helps disadvantaged youth in Hampton Roads.  His last love was the Tidewater Wooden Boat Workshop. Aside from his wife, "Miss Patricia" in Joe-speak, the Tidewater Wooden Boat Workshop may have been his greatest love.


Of all the many things Joe did, perhaps the Tidewater Wooden Boat Workshop was his finest hour.

Joe's partner there was retired Marine Col. Tom Brandl, who shared his enthusiasms. The Tidewater Wooden Boat Workshop is a program that teaches young people life skills through boat building. Every meeting with Joe was an opportunity to be regaled with stories of young people having breakthrough "aha" moments as the learned the relationships between math, design, and problem solving. Joe's phone was always loaded with photos of the students and their workshop projects, and he beamed with pride and he shared those photos and the stories behind them  One of Joe's greatest pleasures was knowing that he was helping to shape lives, as the realization dawned upon his students that they could solve problems they heretofore had no idea they could even address. By learning concepts, how to use tools, and how to apply effort wth their own minds and hands and heart. This was Joe's greatest gift.

We geezers and broken-down former Occupiers recognized Joe as a wordslinger of the first order, a tireless fighter for causes of social justice, fairness, and equity under the law. Joe had empathy out the ass for anyone getting the short end of the stick or dealt a bad hand, an attitude which infused his latter day boatbuilding teaching and evangelism. He was always aware that those folk were his folk, working folk, and always felt a tie to the weaker-thans and the forgotten. He was an honorable man.

And now he has crossed the bar.


banksy 07-flower-thrower-wallpaperSurly1 is an administrator and contributing author to Doomstead Diner. He is the author of numerous rants, screeds and spittle-flecked invective here and elsewhere. He lives a quiet domestic existence in Southeastern Virginia with his wife Contrary. 

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