During my impecunious boat-owning days a wise man told me about a theory that he felt helped keep him and his vessel safe: The credit in the box. This theory held that the more credits you put in the box -- replacing worn dock lines, changing the oil on the engine, replacing the fuel filters, updating the through-hull valves, downloading the latest chart information, upgrading the VHF radio antenna, greasing the steering cables and a million more chores -- the more likely you were to be able deal with an emergency out on the water and the less likely you were to find yourself in a life-threatening position.
It's a good theory for getting through life, too, I imagine, but at the time I was just trying to keep up with the challenge of keeping an old tub afloat and in reasonable repair so I could get back into the slip without (A) breaking anything or (B) hurting anyone. So I spent a lot of time putting credits in the box against the day that might come when all hell broke loose and I needed enough readiness and good luck to survive.
Those days came a couple of times down on the Lower Neuse just off Pamlico Sound, a treacherous body of water not because it's deep, but because it's shallow -- and the bathtub effect from raging winds in a bad storm made it supremely difficult to steer on a slow boat. We got hit twice with white squalls -- storms so sudden and so violent that it was impossible even to see the bow of our 37-foot sailboat. In both instances we relied on the trackback feature of a new GPS so that we could follow our digital path back the way we had come, and a newly replaced antenna (the old one was water-soaked, crusty and corroded and would fade after a few seconds of broadcasting) that allowed us to contact nearby shrimp boats and warn them where we were. Those unseen shrimp boats would put down their outriggers during a storm, giving them more stability but also vastly widening their profiles -- and we worried about running into them in the whiteout conditions. Nervous times, but we came through -- although after one storm I never again found the horseshoe life preserver we kept tied to the stern rail. Blew away so fast I didn't even see or hear it go. One moment it was there by my elbow, the next it was somewhere over, I don't know, Whortonsville or Hoboken.
Putting credits in the box also meant keeping spares for every essential part on the boat -- spare fuel filters, spare float switches for the bilge pumps, spare bilge pumps, spare fuses, spare cotter pins, spare stainless steel split-rings and machine screws and wood screws and grommet maker and wire connectors and nylon-center nuts and 12-volt cable and deck cleats and scores of other small parts. They went into a big red box -- the boat box, full of theoretical credits and actual screws, washers, nuts, bolts, wire strippers, clamps, gizmos, widgets, thingamajigs and whatzits, not to mention a pair of left-handed round tuits, that sort of thing.
The boat is long gone -- sold to a sailor who took off for Central America and got within a mile of it before the packing gland of the main shaft floated out and the boat began to take on water. He got in before the boat went down and managed to save the day -- but I hung onto that red box. It resides atop a stack of Southern yellow pine in my shop, and it keeps on saving my day. Yesterday I went to it twice -- once for a half-inch ovalheaded machine screw and nut to replace a lost set on a six-foot long circular saw guide, and again for short stainless screws to fasten the wobbly heads on a couple of garden cultivators.
That boat box has bailed me out more times than I can recall, and every time I look in it I find something else that still may be useful one day. A single-pole, single-throw line switch. A pocket hacksaw with blade. A pair of U-bolts the next time I plan to put up a stern-pulpit UHF antenna. A small tube of a sticky adhesive caulk that sailors call White Death, because once you use a little of it, you manage to track it around the boat. It never comes up and it never dies off.
All this makes me a pack rat, of course. I hardly ever throw anything out. I still have raised panels from a door in a Greensboro house where William Sidney Porter -- O. Henry in his writing days -- played as a child. There's a half of a fancy stylized brick from walkway around the building that once housed the N.C. Supreme Court. A piece of granite, somewhere, from the foundation of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. And somewhere, if I can ever find it, there's a limb section from a tree where Mosby's Rangers were reputed to have hung some Yankees in retaliation for the hanging of some Rangers during the Civil War.
And so I hang on to old pairs of pliers that no longer ply, rusty lag screws and chewed up carriage bolts that no longer fasten and an ancient sawtooth setter that may come in real handy one day. As they say Down East, you just don't never know.