Ray Duckler: A teacher, a student, a schooner, a film

Last modified: 4/16/2015 11:47:00 AM
The schooner is the story.

Or is it?

Maybe it’s the people Keith King loved who have died, or the bumper sticker-like philosophies he espouses about life, or his unconventional method of teaching at Keene State College, or the award-winning documentary that tied it all together during last fall’s Somewhere North Of Boston, or SNOB, film festival.

Pick a topic connected to King, and the journey is a long, thoughtful process. He’s 88, a retired professor who couldn’t be contained by classroom walls, so he brought students outdoors and had them build things. Figure it out, he told them.

His masterpiece was The Peter M. Atwood, a two-mast schooner named after a student whom King was drawn to in the late 1960s.

Atwood died in a fall in 1980, five years before the schooner was launched. His wife, Doris Sullivan, smashed the champagne bottle against it to begin its life.

Four years ago, King took a chain saw to The Atwood, its planks softening and rotting from the fresh water of Lake Winnipesaukee. For 25 years, The Atwood’s masts, 47 and 37 feet tall, and its majestic sails resembled something from a classic movie, sailing among noisy motorboats, grabbing attention from the regulars on the lake, including the captain of the MS Mount Washington.

“The schooner had a good life,” King told me last weekend, in his cluttered living room in Alton Bay. “You knew you had to replace some stuff, so the schooner decided it wasn’t going to live. But she had a good life.”

There was a touch of sadness in King’s voice, an illustration of the dichotomy that has become part of his inner struggle. He finds comfort in saying things like, “If you’re not in touch with death, you’re not living life to the fullest.” After his first heart attack, in fact, he told his brother, “I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t want to.”

His view of life, his acceptance of mortality and loss, has been tested, with the death of his father from Parkinson’s disease, his brother from cancer, his wife from heart disease and Atwood at a young age.

The “Peter M. Atwood” nameplate from the Schooner hangs on the outside of King’s Alton Bay boathouse, adjacent to his log cabin.

He showed me his workshop, moving slowly, slightly hunched over. King has a leaky heart valve and tires easily, but he still drives and loves to talk.

He builds 12-foot-long skiffs, free of charge, for anyone willing to reimburse him for the material. Currently, the crisscross of wood in the freezing garage, surrounded by saws and a wood stove and history, is the start of a boat for a woman in Saco, Maine. That will be the seventh rowboat he’s built.

“The trick in growing old,” King told me, “is doing something new.”

He’s always been good with his hands, but knew nothing about boat building when he spotted a half-built schooner in the late 1970s in Bath, Maine.

In those days, King was in his prime, breaking down teaching barriers as he led his students outside, to renovate an apartment house, build a foot bridge, build a log cabin.

He bought the schooner shell for $1,500, paid by Keene State, and had it hauled back to Keene. Peter M. Atwood did the hauling, donating his truck, his trailer, his time.

And his loyalty.

“Big, strong, young, dedicated, interested and an interesting young man,” was how King described his former pupil.

“King was a father figure to Pete,” said Doris Sullivan, Atwood’s widow. “(King) was, I think, the most positive influence on Pete’s life.”

Atwood tore down old houses and stored the wood and other materials in his 18th-century barn in Kensington. It had rained the night before he died 35 years ago, and Sullivan warned her husband to be careful. He fell from a beam, wet and slippery, while working on a house in Newmarket. He died later in the hospital, at age 31.

“When you lose someone like that, it leaves a big hole,” King said. “You miss the laughter, you miss doing things for each other. He had more to contribute to society.”

Over the next five years, more than 50 people, including residents of Keene and students at Keene State, added planks and rope and sweat to the schooner skeleton King had found.

King said he thought about a name for a week or two before settling on Peter M. Atwood. He asked Sullivan for permission. She told him she felt honored.

“Pete would have liked that,” Sullivan told King.

King’s daughter, Louise King, is a math teacher in Northwood who lives in Pittsfield. She was a young adult when Atwood died and remembered him this way:

“He came across as a real person. He was a kind man and he wanted to do well, and he just seemed like someone you could connect with on a real level. Nothing fake about him.”

That’s why King liked Atwood so much. He devoted his teaching career to reality and realism, to touching and feeling the outside world, to thoughtful decision making and accountability.

“Why is school quiet and clean and neat?” King asked in the documentary, shown recently at Red River Theatres. “Learning is messy and time consuming and dirty and noisy.”

Through the latter half of the 1980s and on through the ’90s and 2000s, King sailed Lake Winnipesaukee, cutting over and through whitecaps, leaning the schooner hard, scaring the students until they realized that the ship’s builder had everything under control.

It’s all in Atwood Vessel of Life, a film by Chris Owen of Wilton. He met King at a summer camp in Tuftonboro in 1986 and had an early seat on the Atwood.

“I felt as though I was present to something real – both the boat and the man,” Owen told me via email. “Something alive, vital, elemental. Very different from my pre-packaged, suburban upbringing.”

The film, which won an award for best documentary at the SNOB event, shows the Atwood, in black-and-white images, at its peak, proud and tall. It quotes Paul Smith, captain of the MS Mount Washington.

“I bet you I saw that vessel 100 times,” Smith says, “and each time it was just as exciting as the previous time.”

Sadly, viewers see King using ropes to yank the schooner onto its side in 2010. Owen, who’d gone to King’s house to reconnect with him, saw it lying in his driveway. In his email to me, he compared it to “a beached whale.”

Owen saw a boat, 25 years old. He replayed much of King’s life in his mind. A metaphor hit him hard. He had to make this film.

“We all have the things and people we have loved over a lifetime, that inevitably we have to let go of, and lose,” Owen wrote to me. “And it’s by engaging in, experiencing, and maybe eventually even embracing those necessary losses, that we emerge into a deeper and fuller living.”

The tragic losses in King’s life have tested his resolve. King’s father, his hero and best friend, died in 1971 from Parkinson’s, at age 71. His son, Keith Jr., died five years ago from prostate cancer, at 52. King said the time they spent together building his son’s house was the happiest time of his life.

Keith Jr. never saw the finished product. He knew he had cancer, but he never gave up hope.

“My brother would say the house was going to be finished by a cancer survivor and an old man,” Louise King said. “He was positive he was going to survive.”

Shortly after his son’s death, The Atwood began to fade as well. Dead spots in the planks became more common. King hoped to pass it on to someone, keep it alive, but eventually chose to let it go.

Some of the wood is stacked in front of his boat house. In the documentary, King is shown burning blocks of wood, pieces of the Peter M. Atwood, pausing before releasing them into the fire.

He said he liked the film, but it made him nervous.

“It scares me,” he said. “It’s about me, and I don’t know if I can live up to it. I hope I’ve made a difference.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter 

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