Story and photos by T.L. Petersen
Union John Estes has crossed the Pacific Ocean seven times by ship.
But now his ships will never see the ocean, or for that matter, water of any type.
Sitting at his kitchen table in his small second-floor Union apartment, Estes works for hours crafting scale-model wooden ships. He's been doing it for years, starting when he lived in Arizona. He laughs, trying to remember how many early efforts have been left behind as he's moved and travelled.
The ships themselves transport the observer to worlds far away and times far distant.
There's a Mediterranean fishing trawler with a curved prow, complete with stacks of wooden crates piled on deck. A model of the Bounty rides invisible waves nearby. A Mississippi steamboat no sails rests above the living room window.
And on the table is the pride of John Estes' collection, his most involved and largest model yet the USS Constitution. "Old Ironsides,'' originally built in 1797 and still an ocean-going American sailing vessel, sits anchored in Boston Harbor.
There is a significant difference between the real ship and the model, though. Color. The real ship is painted white and black with green gunwales. Estes doesn't plan to paint his model, choosing instead to use light and dark woods to indicate colors.
Estes' Constitution is nearly complete. It is only missing the yards and yards of black thread rigging, and the sails, which he needs to cut, hem and add the tiny rigging holes to should he decide to add the sails to the model. He might not, in order to keep the rigging visible.
Estes, at home healing from having his carotid artery cleared and reopened, says he started building model ships in about the 1980s. He believes his career as a carpenter and draftsman helps him to read the instructions, craft the tiny individual pieces and follow the complex graphic directions.
And complex it is. For the Constitution, only the basic internal hull shape was provided. Estes had to shape and form the planks of the ship, the deck and each of the multiple masts himself a miniaturized ship-building crew of one to do the work that required thousands of man-hours for the original, along with the skilled craftsmen and the hundreds of slaves who actually built the mighty sailing ship.
"The Constitution was a 53-gun frigate," Estes explains, pointing out the small gun ports he had to build to replicate the original ship.
Between details of how a model ship is built, he has stories from the original frigate. The original, for example, provided a huge market for southern hemp growers, since every one of the tons of rope rigging and rope it carried was made of hemp. That included the rope that was used once to pull the frigate away from pursuing attackers.
All the attackers were trapped in windless doldrums, but the crew of the Constitution rowed ahead of the ship, dropped anchors and winched the ship forward time and time again, opening the distance between the American crew and the enemy.
Estes finds building the wooden models a test of his skills and an absorbing challenge one that takes him far from the details and troubles of daily life. He's concerned about his children. He's worried about medical bills and threats from the courts to take his savings. So with little else he's capable of doing as he recovers, he works on the model, carefully checking his work on the rigging against the blueprint that hangs on his dining area wall.
There is a picture of the finished Constitution on the lid of the materials box, but this isn't the same as a jigsaw puzzle. No clues provided, just a picture of the goal if all the details fall together. A magnifying glass makes the work possible, since medical problems have limited Estes' vision to one eye most of the time.
"I'm about 90 percent done," he says. "I'm down to the rigging details now."
Almost done but not, he hopes, with model ship building.
He'd like to recreate a Revolutionary-era privateer, like the ones Thomas Jefferson and others purchased to give the young America something to send against the British as the foundation of an American navy. And maybe a Mississippi paddle-wheeler.
Estes grew up in a split family between Kentucky and Arkansas. He left Texas at 17 and joined the Navy. After the Navy, he's lived in different parts of the country and been a volunteer with the Red Cross and with Habitat for Humanity. Before health problems got severe, he was in the National Guard.
Now he builds his ships. An old prayer seems to hang over the ships themselves, and maybe describes John Estes' life now, although he doesn't mention it.
"Oh Lord, protect me. My ship is so small, and the sea is so big."