I hope you’ve read “Pornchai’s Story,” published last year by Bill Donohue at The Catholic League. It’s a tale about the triumph of grace, and a necessary prelude to this special post. TSW readers often ask for the latest scuttlebutt on my friend, Pornchai Moontri. Well here it is, but first you have to know the origin of “scuttlebutt.” A “butt” is a wooden cask for ale or water. A “scuttle” is a hole with a lid cut into a ship’s deck.
So aboard ship, the “scuttlebutt” is a barrel of water near the scuttle from which the crew may drink. Aboard tall ships like those carved by Pornchai, news and gossip would pass among the crew as they stopped to drink – just like at your office water cooler. A good ship’s captain wanting to know the mind of his crew would ask his officers, “What’s the scuttlebutt?” It’s one of hundreds of terms used in daily life that had its origin on the decks of British Royal Navy ships at the dawn of the 19th Century.
So this post is about ships from the age of sail. Did I just let the cat out of the bag? Ah, there’s another one. The “cat” or “cat-o-nine-tails” was a rope with nine knots used to flog errant sailors. Kept on deck in a canvas sack, a sailor would “let the cat out of the bag” with any number of offenses from dereliction to disrespect to drunkenness. So, let’s get this post underway. Oh, there’s yet another!
To get underway used to be to get “under weigh,” meaning to haul anchor so the ship can move. I learned a lot of these terms through a wonderful series of historical novels by Irish writer Patrick O’Brian. He wrote twenty-one volumes of his famed “Aubrey-Maturin” series, the first of which was Master and Commander. The book became a great film starring Russell Crowe.
Patrick O’Brian used actual Royal Navy ship’s logs from the 18th and 19th centuries to weave his stories into real events, a technique known to writers as “verisimilitude.” The result was a series of breathtaking high sea adventures for O’Brian’s two fictional protagonists, Captain Jack Aubrey and ship’s surgeon and physician, Stephen Maturin – the latter a devout “Papist” in a strictly Anglican Royal Navy, and an accomplished spy for British intelligence.
To date, I’ve read 12 of O’Brian’s 21 volumes and was just finishing the first Master and Commander when I met Pornchai Moontri five years ago. After 14 years in a Maine prison, Pornchai had just been transferred to the New Hampshire prison when we met. That story is told powerfully by Pornchai himself in “Pornchai’s Story.” It’s a work in progress – as is the story of us all – but I had a lot less to do with the redirection of Pornchai’s story than he suggests. Pornchai has always been the person he is. He just had to haul in an anchor that kept him from setting sail.
ST. MAXIMILIAN IN RED AND WHITE
In “Loose Ends and Dangling Participles,” I described how Pornchai thanked the Lord for helping him hoist that anchor by Consecrating himself on the Solemnity of the Assumption to St. Maximilian Kolbe’s dual movements, the Militia of the Immaculata and the Knights at the Foot of the Cross. Pornchai now offers each day in prison for the community of believers he met on his spiritual path – the readers of These Stone Walls. Pornchai will be 37 years old on September 10. He has been in prison for 19 of those years – more than half his life. Many TSW readers have demonstrated to Pornchai what it means to belong to a community of true believers who share in both the suffering and the triumph of the Cross.
In my June post. “Create in Me a New Heart. O Lord,” I wrote that Pornchai told me awhile back that he was carving a ship in honor of his namesake and patron saint. He casually said that the “St. Maximilian” was going to have a black hull, but then he decided to add red and white trim. This stopped me in my tracks.
He wasn’t consciously aware of the significance of red and white for St. Maximilian. In a life-changing dream, young Rajmund Kolbe was offered the red crown of martyrdom and the white crown of sanctity by Mary herself. Because he could not choose between them, she presented him with both. In the end. he surrendered his life as a martyr of charity, and earned both crowns. Pornchai finished the St. Maximilian just a week before Saint Maximilian’s feast day on August 14. We were not quite sure of what to do with her. (It’s also a Royal Navy tradition that ships. regardless of their names, are spoken of with feminine pronouns.).
Pornchai didn’t want her to be sold, so one of our friends, Leo Demers came to the prison on August 14 to take custody of the St. Maximilian until the day when Pornchai or I can retrieve her in freedom. You may recall Leo from my Holy Week post. “Simon of Cyrene: Compelled to Carry the Cross.” The “St. Maximilian” is beautiful in her simple design, and I think St. Maximilian himself would be proud to stand on her deck. I promised some photos of her. and here they are:
HE NAMED HER AFTER ME!
One of Pornchai’s more ambitious projects was an 18th Century Royal Navy “ship of the line” as British warships were called. She was to be a vessel of his own design, and so complex that Pornchai decided to make three of them at once from a single plan. She was a three mast 28-gun, fully rigged and fitted model measuring 42 inches from stem to stern. As with all of Pornchai’s projects, every block, pulley, and plank – over 1,000 pieces – had to be hand carved with precision from basswood, black walnut, cherry, and birch.
I was very moved one day when Pornchai – half way through assembling the first of the three vessels – told me that he decided to name her after me. I anticipated something majestic like “The H.M.S. MacRae” or “The U.S.S. Father G.”
Then came the day of unveiling. With a thousand hours of carving and assembly, and her meticulous rigging complete, I was invited to her unveiling in the prison Hobbycraft center. Pornchai had also built a handsome cherry and Plexiglas case to display her. Upon the case was a plaque declaring my ship to be, “The Olde Baldy!” Majestic nonetheless!
There are now three vessels in the world bearing the name, “The Olde Baldy.” All three were purchased by friends and TSW readers. “The Olde Baldy” is proudly displayed in the homes of Mrs. LaVern West in Cincinnati, Dr. James Guzek, M.D. in Washington State, and Father David Deibel at his family home in Michigan. LaVern provided some nice photos of “The Olde Baldy” at anchor in her Cincinnati home. Here she is:
SHIPWRECKED ON AN ALIEN SHORE
The art of woodcarving and model shipbuilding were honed in Pornchai during his years in a Maine prison. Pornchai was 18 years old when sent to prison with a sentence of 45 years. The first five were a blur of despair, violence, and trouble for Pornchai. Then he met Mike Tribou, a fellow prisoner and carpenter who offered to teach Pornchai his skills with woodworking. Mike is out of prison now, with a new family and a new life, but he and Pornchai remain friends. I am proud to say that Mike is also a TSW reader.
Pornchai’s woodcarving skills evolved into carving model ships because of the influence of another prisoner, Ray, who taught him the highly specialized skills of shipbuilding and rigging. Pornchai’s first ship was sold instantly in a store displaying the work of Maine prisoners, and the buyer asked him to build three others just like it. Pornchai used his profits to purchase wood, tools and supplies for future vessels.
As often happens to prisoners, however, getting moved from place to place meant losing everything, including expensive tools. In each new prison Pornchai would have to start over. Pornchai finally landed in the New Hampshire prison five years ago. In “Pornchai’s Path to the Narrow Gate,” writer Ryan A. MacDonald described how Pornchai’s life turned around here.
The waiting list for admission in the New Hampshire Prison’s Hobbycraft Center was almost two years, but Pornchai waited patiently. During that wait, he often told me of his love for woodcarving and his model ships. Until I saw “The Olde Baldy,” however, I had no idea of the depth of Pornchai’s skill. Photos just cannot capture the beauty and majesty of his gift.
SAILS ON THE HORIZON
Most of Pornchai’s vessels are “skeleton rigged,” meaning that the sails are not visible. On rare occasions, Pornchai has also designed ships in full sail. The sails are often a burden since each has to be hand sewn and many of the sails are different sizes. Sails in the ship’s “tops,” as the crew would call them, are smaller than the “mains” or mainsails. A ship in full sail is enormous work since a good craftsman doesn’t use sails to mask authentic rigging. Pornchai worked long hours on a fully rigged ship in full sail that he completed last month.
He was very glad that this ship was purchased by a friend, TSW reader and frequent commenter, Sharon Morris who just happened to be visiting New Hampshire from Cleveland, Ohio last month. Sharon was with her grandchildren when she drove by the Concord prison and told them of Pornchai’s life and recent conversion.
The prison store is open only on Saturdays, and Pornchai’s ship had just that morning been displayed. As soon as Sharon walked into the store, she spotted the beautiful ship from across the room and asked the store manager who carved it. Sharon and her grandchildren walked out carrying Pornchai’s ship which she presented as a gift to one of her sons who will name her. While the ship was in the final stage of completion Pornchai took a few photos of her still on his workbench. I think you’ll agree she is magnificent:
Pornchai’s largest project of the last few years was a replica of “Old Ironsides,” the U.S.S. Constitution built to perfect scale. He hand carved 2,600 individual fittings, tied her rigging with 20 different sizes of cord, and carefully fitted each plank for her deck and hull. Working three to five hours a day, Pornchai completed Old Ironsides in a year, and then donated her after she was featured in the Newport (NH) Library Arts Festival. The photos simply do not do justice to Pornchai’s craftsmanship:
IN MEMORY OF GRETA
At this writing, Pornchai is working on his most special project of all, “The Greta,” named in honor of his Godfather, Pierre Matthews’ wife, Greta D’Heygers Matthews who left our shores one year ago on 18 September 2009. Greta is a very special soul whose native Belgium has a long history of sea travel. Pierre’s Catholic parish in Ostend, Belgium has a display of model ships carved in memory of departed loved ones. Pornchai’s labor of love is for Greta and Pierre.
“The Greta” is modeled after a famous ship, the “We’re Here,” a schooner immortalized in the Rudyard Kipling classic, Captains Courageous. A distinctive feature is the carefully placed ribbing used to strengthen her hull against northern seas. Still on Pornchai’s workbench awaiting masts and rigging, The Greta’s strong and beautiful hull was photographed for this post:
A few months ago, just after Pornchai’s Baptism, a TSW reader sent him a beautiful verse by Henry Van Dyke, and he thought of it as he began work on “The Greta”:
“Gone From My Sight”
by Henry Van Dyke
I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength. I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of while cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.
Then someone at my side says: “There, she is gone!”
Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side, and she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.
Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at the moment when someone at my side says, “There, she is gone!” there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout: “Here she comes!” And that is dying.
Here comes Greta! Here come all our loved ones who live in fond memory in our hearts and voyage full sail to the glory of Heaven aided by our prayers and thoughts and dreams. They count on us, the living, to be about the task of living, to do our best in trying times, to BE our best, to haul anchor and let grace fill our sails, and to honor them with our lives as we unite our souls with theirs.
Pornchai Moontri’s art – like Pornchai himself – reminds us of the power of grace to transform. Come, sail away on life’s great journey of faith to the light that no darkness can ever extinguish. Come sail away upon that great wooden vessel the Cross of Christ – carved for us in love by Our Father, and upon which we are redeemed and made living and whole. Come sail away to the freedom found by Pornchai Moontri in his new home – a life of faith in Christ.