Most of us are good at a few things, whether it's helping customers, working on cars or baking bread. We manage to pose and bluff our way through a few more, perhaps casting a fly without totally embarrassing ourselves or somehow behaving well enough in the airport to avoid a strip search. We've achieved basic competency. But mastery? For me, "I'm no expert" would make a good family motto.
The people I admire most are blessed with tremendous curiosity, along with the attention span, time and imagination to become masters of weird topics, experts at stuff. And I use that slightly goofy word, "stuff," on purpose. I idolize the best scientists, writers and artists who seem to know all there is to know about fancier topics. But idolizing somebody doesn't necessarily mean liking them.
Curious people who become experts at stuff are nearly always smart and well-engaged in life. The best of them also overflow with humor - they know they're a little eccentric.
And, within limits, the weirder the stuff, the better I like them. Everybody's an authority about what was on TV last night, but it's a rare man who can knowledgeably discuss the differences between the 1907 models of marine engines from Fairbanks-Morris, Acme, Standard and the St. Clair Motor Company.
My friend Jack Edwards is just such a man. With a spirit at least 20 years younger than the 62 on his Washington State Driver's License - maybe 40 years on his playful days - sporting high-top Ked's sneakers and jaunty attitude, Jack is richly enthusiastic without being a pain in the ass about it.
For as long as I can, I'm going to avoid using the past tense when thinking about Jack, who died in a terrible accident a couple weeks ago at his home up Abernathy Creek outside Longview. He is, is I tell you, a passionate nut about all sorts of obscure Northwest boy stuff, from the first generation of fishing boat engines on the Columbia to old salmon canning labels.
For Jack and other friends like Clarence "Snooky" Barendse in Knappa and Jim Mitby in Aberdeen, collecting artifacts and obsolete knowledge about this region's old days is something more than a hobby, more like a way to bridge the past and present. Possessing, studying and understanding these things is to touch a bygone time, occasionally catching a glimpse of a precious distant simplicity.
Anybody with luck and money can collect labels, duck decoys or Ilwaco train artifacts, but it takes a brave and determined man (with a patient wife) to find and restore century-old boat engines. Jack's the man, scouting out forgotten engines half buried behind fallen barns, later toting around incredible restoration jobs on the back of a flatbed trailer, firing them up to play a rhythm that is music to the ears of only a few.
These engines are a neat symbol of Jack's life - tough and functional, but with a sense of style. Leafing through old brochures I've set aside to show Jack the next time I see him, I see a sales pitch that will make him chuckle.
"Being satisfied from results that we couldn't improve the design, we improved the finish. The 1910 'Perfection' is finished with three coats of enamel in a handsome shade of blue with a gold stripe, making it the most striking and attractive engine on the market, one that will add to the appearance of any boat."
He would share my mirth over a time when manufacturers proudly touted the paint scheme on their six horsepower, two-cylinder engines. But he also would have set about figuring how to paint one of engines to match, just to be totally accurate.
Oops, slipped into past-tense verbs, Jack. Sorry. You'll always be alive in my heart.
It's one of those misty July days as I write this small remembrance while sitting at home up above Baker Bay. I can't quite see him, but I can hear the pop of Jack's engine from all the way up this Columbia Barbery Coast. I'm pretty sure he's holding a bottle up to all us on the shore. His merry laughter rolls across the waters.
But Jack, why'd you have to go so soon?