The author's one stall garage.
The author's one stall garage.
"If you would know a man, observe his garage. It is a window to his soul." - Anonymous

I faced that awful truth recently, cleaning out our 100-year-old, one-car garage. The contents of our garage started out small, storing one car and two garden rakes. But over the years we added sleds, bikes, then three extension ladders, a jumble of garden tools and rusty lawn chairs, three lawn mowers and finally - the major tenants - five old boats.

As I viewed the clutter, I realized the "boatyard" was a snapshot of a boating life, a journey.

The first boat I hung on our garage wall was a wood-canvas canoe from my high school days. Two friends and I bought a busted, water-soaked craft for $9 from the bartender of a dingy tavern in Fox Lake, Illinois. We replaced a rib, patched a hole with a flattened tomato can and carpet tacks, covered it with an awning, and painted it a blazing Chinese red with enamel from the hardware store. Since then, the gunwales have been scarred from river trips across the Midwest including the Bois Brule, Little Brule, the Fox, the Chicago River and Lake Michigan, where we installed a sail and leeboards. (One April, when the Lake Michigan water was 40 degrees, we filled our wetsuits with hot water from a shower before taking the canoe into the bounding waves.)

This ancient Carlton Old Town canoe, which belongs in a marine museum, holds a cargo of memories, too. On Lake Marie in northern Illinois, we performed a one-act play - "Disaster at Sea" - for a girl's camp. Four of us high school buddies paddled past the beach, tipped the boat over and threw ourselves overboard, flailing our arms as we sank below the surface as if we were drowning. Then we swam under the overturned canoe and came up in the air space underneath, giggling and imagining the pandemonium: lifeguard whistles, girls screaming and running up the beach, police sirens, absolute panic. When we dog paddled to the surface after five minutes, the beach was empty. Everybody had gone to lunch.

A Styrofoam sailboat hangs crosswise from the rafters above the wood-canvas canoe. I bought it for $10 from an outfitter. It was split in half by a wave in Lake Michigan, but I was confident it would sail again, despite the large, jagged crack across the hull.

A neighbor in our apartment building, a guy with a PhD in chemistry, offered to fix it. He concocted a magic potion at the U.S. government laboratory where he worked, but when he poured his "Frankenstein formula" on the crack, a sizzling cloud of noxious smoke arose and it ate an eight-inch hole through the Styrofoam.

Undaunted, I bought a fiberglass kit from Sears and successfully glassed the entire hull. My wife sewed a nylon sail on her sewing machine, and with a homemade, white-pine centerboard and tiller, we launched a virtual sailing cork, which some beachcombers nicknamed the "Deadfish."

 I can't bring myself to sell it. It only weighs 18 pounds; light enough to hang by string, and I can trailer it behind my bike.
Piggybacked on top of the canoe, my next boat - a plastic sea kayak - was an impulse buy, after I took a YMCA whitewater paddling class. I was so excited I bought the first kayak I saw, a 17-foot Aquaterra Sea Lion. Driving home I realized I'd never measured the garage, which turned out to be 17-feet 2-inches. Any shorter, I'd have had to punch a hole in the wall. I hung the kayak over the canoe with ropes from the rafters, and with a pulley and shiny nylon rope it's a breeze to download for car topping.

 It isn't a perfect setup. I can't close the garage door with the sea kayak on top of the car. I have to raise the kayak's bow up and rest the tip of the bow on top of the window frame, which is about nine feet high. The drill is I stand behind the trunk of the car, pull down the stern of the kayak, and simultaneously shove the boat forward and upward, in a cantilever maneuver, until the bow tip rests on a 1-inch frame above the window. That worked fine until one Saturday when I canoed Turtle Creek with the Prairie State Canoe Club. It was a five-hour paddle trip against a swift current and into a 40 mph wind. Bone tired after a long drive home, I did my "cantilever" maneuver, missed the window frame, and shoved the kayak through the garage window.

I covered the broken windowpane with clear duct tape, but my wife noticed it right away so I said, "Some bird must have flown into the window." A month later I broke another windowpane doing the same thing. "Must have been that bird again," she said, smiling. I have four windowpanes left.

Below the kayak and canoe rests a lonely Sunfish sailboat on its side. On the east side of the garage across from the Sunfish is a large cardboard box stacked with a jumble of life jackets, boots, pogies, float bags, a bilge pump and duct tape. The dry suits hang on the rungs of extension ladders.

 I used to keep our three-person, inflatable kayak (deflated and folded up) on that box, because there was no more garage room. It's the family all-purpose, all-comers summer boat, while the sea kayak is the solo Lake Michigan fall-winter-spring craft.

But I got tired of pumping up the inflatable for every trip. One day my engineer neighbor suggested I stretch ropes horizontally wall to wall, and hang the pumped-up inflatable one inch below our automatic overhead garage door.

I tried it. It was a breakthrough. The boat swings one inch above the car, and one inch below the overhead door. It sways rhythmically to the vibrations of the Genie garage door opener and lowers easily for car topping.

Some guys are meticulous about their garages. A high school girlfriend's father, a self-made millionaire, hung his gardening tools according to length along the wall. You could eat off his garage floor. Other guy's garages are like car dealerships, complete with state-of-the-art equipment. Another neighbor of mine has a complete woodworking and cabinet shop in his garage.

I don't fall into any of those categories. Benjamin Disraeli said, "Cleanliness and order are not matters of instinct. They are matters of education. And like most great things, you must cultivate a taste for them." I never cultivated Disraeli's taste for order.

And clearly, my wife didn't "educate" me about garage orderliness like she did about our house. In our house everything has its place. We have closet organizers, behind-the-door hanging shelves, mop-and-broom hangers, and dresser drawer dividers. Things go with like things. My slippers and pajamas match my bathrobe, and ideally would match our bedspread and the bedroom walls.

But my wife cuts me some slack with the garage. She would sell half the boats, but up to now has granted them amnesty.

Maybe it's because I decorated the front of the garage, which faces our kitchen window, to look like a Swiss chalet with storybook window shutters, a geranium filled window box, gingerbread cornices, a papermache vine growing up the garage wall, and an electric candle burning behind lace curtains in the window. From the outside, you couldn't guess my dirty little secret inside.

Inside, it is a boater's garage in all its seafaring glory. Upon arriving home, when the garage door opens and I see the clutter and jumble of boats and equipment, I remember Robert Louis Stevenson: "Home is the sailor home from the sea, the hunter home from the hill."

A man's garage is his castle.

Bob McCray is a community college journalism teacher and writer, who lives with his wife in Evanston, Illinois.