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Tom Chaney: A Project So Preposterous and So Sublime

Of Writers And Their Books: "A Project So Preposterous and So Sublime." Tom reports on the dream of an eight year old - to build another boat out of something guaranteed to float - wine corks. This column first appeared 1 March 2009.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: The Wisdom of Sister Fidelma

By Tom Chaney

"A Project So Preposterous and So Sublime"

John Pollack was the 1995 winner of the eighteenth annual O. Henry Pun-Off Championship. Of his more notable puns was his response to a challenge concerning "flying off the handle" his response was "U-2?"

But Pollack is best known for his cork boat.

As a child of six he built his first boat out of slats of wood. He stepped on it, launching the boat's brief maiden and final voyage -- straight to the bottom. Right then he decided to build another boat out of something guaranteed to float. He hit upon wine corks.

He was seized by a dream from that day through a career spanning political organizing, an Antarctic expedition, and speechwriting in Washington for a congressman and later for President Bill Clinton.

Pollack seized upon the celebrations of the approaching millennium parties to begin collecting wine corks from bars in the Washington area. Soon he realized that not enough bottles were being emptied fast enough to supply construction needs for the Viking style boat which would eventually hold six or seven people. He enlisted the support of the firm Cork Supply Group; headquartered in Portugal -- source of the world's greatest supply of cork.

He imprest the design assistance of an architectural student and friend Garth Goldstein. Pollack was, according to his mother, the organizer. Garth was the "bust one's chops at the last minute" partner.

Commandeering a double garage on a north Washington, D.C. alley; convincing a team of volunteers soon to number over 100 to work on the boat; Pollack and Goldstein solved design, supply, and transportation problems to launch the cork boat for its voyage down the Douro River in Portugal in 2002.

The voyage of Cork Boat was slated for the Douro because of its long history as a river along which wine and, therefore, corks were shipped. It flows some 133 miles from east to west across Portugal from the Spanish border to the Atlantic.

During that adventure the Cork Boat crew were adopted by the Portuguese. Lockmasters assisted them, trains which ran along the river saluted them with whistles, boatmen on the river gave tows and advice. "As we drew closer and closer to Porto, we marveled at our apparent celebrity. Mayors along the river now sent boats out to greet us, and restaurants refused to let us pay."

A year and a half later Pollack published an account of the project in a memoir, Cork Boat [Pantheon 2004].

The book fell into my hands because the local book group has chosen to read it for their next book discussion. I picked up a stray copy finishing it in what might be called one session -- some time out for a Sunday lunch.

I have always been a fool for reading about somebody else's dream being realized. Nothing much of significance happens in this world without a dream -- called foolish by peers as the dreamer forges ahead toward a goal seen as impossible or unnecessary by the earthbound clods who cannot envision what might be, blinded as they are by what is or what was.

What is most impressive about such dreams, be they practical or whimsical, is the infection of the dream as others are enlisted in its fulfillment.

Pollack was such a dreamer. His dream grew out of that childhood incident and out of the tragic death of his sister Sara, his best friend. The siblings were nigh inseparable. Sara was killed when their parents and the two children were on vacation in India. The family were riding ponies on a treacherous mountain trail when the sister's pony took a misstep dumping the child off into the raging stream. Efforts to save her cost the life of one guide. Her body was never found.

This tragedy is woven through the entire fabric of Pollack's account of the building of the boat and its launch on the Douro voyage.

Cork Boat is a delicious read. It is a poignant memoir, a great adventure tale, and a fine example of following the impossible dream.

While as an adventure, it is not in quite the same class as Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki, it is worth mentioning in the same breath. Kon-Tiki was made of balsa, much lighter than cork, yet it ventured on the high seas. Pollack and Goldstein's project evolved into their theme "165,321 corks. 1 boat" emblazoned on souvenir corks and the project tee shirts.

After the Douro expedition, Pollack notes, the cork boat stayed in Portugal. Their next project? "Back in Ann Arbor, my parents are still saving corks. . . . But Garth says that, for our next project, we ought to build a rocket ship out of bottle caps. I've always wanted to go to the moon."

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2014-03-02 04:32:09
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