The DOT transit bus rumbles down Second Street SW weekday mornings to deposit Coast Guard people at a boxy building where the road meets the river. The Guardsmen then disperse to boxy offices inside.
It's a rare day indeed when anyone arrives ahead of a workingman named Brownie, who spends his days laboring on real live boats, shaving boards and replacing planks under the baleful gazes of the boating bureaucrats at their windows.
Brownie's real name is Fulton Brown, but no one at the Fort McNair Yacht Basin where he works knows that. Even Bobby DeMarr, who grew up next door to Brownie and learned the shipwright's trade from him, never heard the name Fulton in 15 years.
Brownie likes Bobby. "I'm the oldest shipwright that's available in this kind of work," said the 71-year-old with a smile, "and Bobby's the youngest. He's a good boy. When I look for him at 6 o'clock in the morning, he's there."
A lot of days start at 6 or earlier for Brownie. "Yesterday we got here so early we had to wait for the sun to come up to start working," he said.
He had planks to replace in a battered old motorsailer that lay in cradles on the railway -- the only marine railway left anywhere around Washington, according to Brown.
The Fort McNair boatyard lies somewhere between anachronism and collapse, with hints of its former grandeur as the Corinthian Yacht Club overpowered by the hulks of collapsing yachts at the docks and up on blocks. It sits at Second and V streets SW at the end of long rows of abandoned houses and in the shadow of fenced Fort McNair, where the generals live.
Brownie fits nicely in this strange melange. The son of a St. Mary's County boatbuilder, he came to Washington during World War II, served in the Marines and wound up as a shipwright in the Navy Yard for 22 years, servicing among other vessels the official yachts of five presidents.
He retired on May 29, 1972, he proudly recollects, when he was assured of a good pension. "My father tried to get me to come back and run the yard but I said no, not until I got my 20 years in. Now if my boss tells me something I don't like I can knock him alongside the head and not worry about it. I have a good paycheck coming in."
Brownie, the dean of Washington shipwrights, doesn't look 71. He's hearty and strong though his eyes are a little cloudy. "I like to keep going and keep in shape," he said. "I know one way to do that is to take a pint of whiskey every day. I've had a couple of nips already today. And I keep going; keep working. One thing I don't miss is a good meal. I eat three of them a day. I'm thinking right now [at 9:30 a.m.] what I'll have for dinner."
As far as the work goes, Brownie doesn't exactly overwhelm himself. DeMarr, who built two 32-foot Bay-built workboats with Brown in their adjoining backyards in Clinton, said he gleaned his knowledge by helping out.
"Mr. Brown always likes to have someone around to do the work," said DeMarr. "Now don't make that sound bad. If you're a kid this tall, though, what else are you going to do? That's how I learned things."
Brown generally manages to have help. Last week as he revived a fading sailboat named Curlew, Johnny Byrd, another Clinton neighbor, was the assistant. The assistant got to do most of the work while Brown drew lines for butt-blocks, edges to plane and figured out what could stay and what had to go.
"Pull that board off too," he said, pointing at a plank whose edges were showing early signs of rot. "Somebody made a repair there that didn't know what he was doing. Take a look at that wood. Nothing but common-ass pine."
Monumental events brought Brownie, a genuine St. Mary's County waterman, to spend his life in and around the capital. First it was World War II, which deprived his father of materials to keep the boatyard he owned running. Brownie came north and wound up in the Marines.
He'd have gone home after the war, but materials were still short. Then love interceded. He got married. His wife got a job at Patuxent Naval Base near Leonardtown, then transferred to Washington and found him his job at the Navy Yard. "Finding me that job," he said, "was the best thing she ever did for me."
His favorite presidential yacht was the 94-foot wooden powerboat that Eisenhower called Barbara Ann, Kennedy called Honey Fitz and Nixon called Patricia. "That was one of the best boats in the world," said Brown. "She was long and narrow and had a deep draught and I don't believe she had a plank of rotten wood on her." Sequoia , which President Nixon used, was a lesser craft. "Well, she had to be rebuilt every year, that's all," said Brown.
He worked with a crew of five other Navy shipwrights. If the president came by while they were working "we'd just ease off and leave him alone," Brown said. "One time Truman came by when we were working on the old Williamsburg . I noticed him looking at me so I looked back. Finally I said, 'Hello,' and he said, 'Hi, how are you?'"
Such are the small triumphs in a man's life.
The shipwrights worked in pairs, and Brownie's partner was a tall, thin fellow who took moonlight jobs on Saturdays. "He wouldn't work Sundays, being a strict Methodist," said Brown. One day a decade ago the fellow got in a jam putting a bottom on a boat at the McNair yard. Brown lent a hand and he's been there ever since.
Which makes him a hired hand, even though he comes and goes as he pleases. Brownie gets a good laugh from that. "My father had that boatyard down the river and believe it or not now I own it. And here I am working for somebody else. I ought to have my head examined."