No better friend than Capt. Lou

Greg Coppa
Capt. Lou’s loyalty to friends in Wickford, R.I., and beyond, is renowned. Some time ago, his longtime and eccentric buddy, G.I. Joe, passed away. G.I. Joe – who was never called “Joe” but always “G.I. Joe” by the Captain – lived and died on an old wooden Chris Craft that had seen better days.

Idle Hour was moored near the sandbar by the Wickford breakwater. This location was thoughtfully chosen, since the sandbar was like a supermarket for Lou’s buddy. Depending on the extent of the tide and the prevailing wind, G.I. Joe would get clams, quahogs, mussels, conch, periwinkles, oysters and, occasionally, a flounder that got stranded by rapidly receding waters.

Gentle G.I. Joe always shared his bounty with Lou, a kindred spirit in many ways, and nearly every Friday he would make up a couple of gallons of Rhode Island clear quahog chowder for a local soup kitchen. Joe always had something cooking in the galley of Idle Hour, and he offered up meatball sandwiches and assorted other tasty items to mooring mates and others he’d befriended as they’d sailed by. Many old-timers have pleasant images of sitting on the aft deck with Joe while munching on something tasty, watching a gorgeous sunset, and solving the world’s problems.

G.I. Joe had no blood family and no money. Lou was like a brother to him, and Lou dutifully went about making the funeral arrangements. He was very concerned that they be dignified, and he agonized over the details. The problem was that the Captain also had no extra money at the time. So, with hat in hand, he went to see the local mortician to try to strike a deal. Evidently, the meeting did not go well because Lou was overheard to remark in Ryan’s Market shortly afterwards that he suspected the undertaker would charge his paperboy ten bucks to bury a parakeet in shoebox.

While, in the real world, there are limits to what can be done with Lou and Joe’s fish-based bartering system, there are no limits to what you can do with the assistance of good friends. Lou went over to the shipyard at quitting time and explained his problem to Paul, the manager, who bore more than a passing resemblance to “Papa” Hemingway.

After clearing the project with Don No. 1, Paul called over the workers who all knew and liked both GI Joe and Lou and explained the problem to them. They all called home and explained the situation to wives and girlfriends. The shipyard crew wouldn’t be going home this night because there was something very important that had to be done. A large thermos of coffee was brought out as a plan was drawn up.

G.I. Joe’s beat-up, old Dyer dinghy, the rowboat he used for getting out to the mooring, was hauled into the carpentry shop and surveyed by expert eyes. Then each man set out to do the things he could do best, with Lou orchestrating it all, while making suggestions here and there.

All the metal fittings and woodwork were removed. Al and Don No. 2 burnished the bronze oarlocks, braces and cleats until they blazed like freshly minted gold. George and Dom planed and sanded the mahogany seats and railings until they were as smooth as any baby’s bottom. Russ applied four coats of the finest marine spar varnish on the seats, coaxing each to dry with a heat lamp before applying the next one. Mark and Evan prepared the hull for painting, carefully filling and fairing in every crack and blemish so that it would be a perfect surface for Don No. 3 to spray paint.

From scraps, Frank stitched up a smart looking blue canvas cover that would fit tightly over the little boat.

As the moon rose in the sky and then fell, the men worked on, talking little as each was lost in thought. They all knew what had to be done, and they did it. Capt. Lou made more coffee and assisted wherever he could – holding things which needed to be held, stretching things that needed to be stretched, and fastening things which needed to be fastened – until all the work was finally completed. A tired, raggedy looking bunch greeted the sun as it popped up over Wickford and sent a shaft of light into the old paint shed, where GI Joe’s dinghy rested before its final voyage.

That afternoon a memorial service was held on the Town Dock. G.I. Joe was laid out in the newly christened Sunset that was propped up on tubular stainless-steel sawhorses welded up at the last moment by young Robbie. The dinghy and its passenger were surrounded by beautiful mounds of fresh flowers sent over by the undertaker. Just about all of Wickford listened wet-eyed as Capt. Lou spoke eloquently about the exploits and generosity of the war hero, G.I. Joe, the value of friendship, and the real meaning of success in life. No Viking king had ever been given a finer farewell.

Greg Coppa is a freelance writer living in Wickford, R.I., who has been sailing for over five decades.