Some people have a creative genius that is so powerful that just being in a space that they used inspires a powerful feeling of wonder. Think of Thomas Edison’s Lab in Orange, NJ or Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny. This feeling awe in the presence of a visionary can also happen in the unlikeliest places with a heretofore unknown hero. That was the case for the Theodora R, a 35 foot sailboat, and her captain, Mr. Fritz Damler.
I encountered the Theodora R in a remote corner at Tinkertown Museum in Sandia Park, NM outside Albuquerque. Tinkertown Museum is the folk art creation of a single man, Ross J. Ward. For over 40 years, Ward carved, collected, and constructed a menagerie of wooden figures and eccentric Americana. It was never his intention for his labor of love to be anything other than a place to pursue his passion for creation. For years, without desire for recognition, Ward painstakingly created his characters and scenes using his skills as a carnival painter. As you wander his hallowed halls, you begin to catch the attitude that Ward’s creation was born out of his soul’s desire. He created, because to not create, would mean not being true to his passion. The result is a hodge-podge conglomeration of oddity and amusement that is equal parts whimsical and thought provoking.
Ward’s vision and signature are seen throughout the winding mazes of kaleidoscopic wonderland. This scenery stops abruptly when you cross a bridge and encounter a humble barn housing a fairly weathered boat. Tinkertown, among other things, is a monument to the unexpected, but this boat juxtaposed against the junk museum, at first seems out of place. Only in approaching the display do you learn the connection between Tinkertown and the Theodora R. Fritz Damler is the brother in law of Ross Ward, first of all. More importantly, his decade long voyage in the vessel was his pursuit of passion. Ward, a passion pursuer himself, found his desires kept him close to home, but he wanted to find a place of honor for the ship as its own monument to a different kind of soul searching.
In context, the Theodora R fit right in with the “follow your heart” mantra of Ross Ward and Tinkertown. Being a “follow your heart” kind of gal myself, I instantly wanted to know more about the skipper of the Theodora R. Without even reading a word, it was easy to sum up his character just by looking at his choice of transportation. He wasn’t in a hurry-those that travel by sailboat rarely are, and he likely possessed a jack of all trades set of skills.
He was also a rugged adventurer, and if the hand-drawn map of the voyage was to be believed, he had quite a story to tell. Handwritten notes, like pins on a school child’s salt map chronicled his sometimes mis-adventures, including a shark attack off the coast of Vanautu and a near collision with a whale in the South Pacific. Tracing his voyage is much more than just a lesson in geography. It is also a lesson in humor, grit, and making the most of what life has to offer.
After marveling at the map on the wall, it would be a sacrilege not to take another slow lap around the old wooden schooner and look a little closer. As I circled the living history of the life of Frtiz Damler, I was inspired. I couldn’t help it. These warped decks were where he fended off sharks and whales and watched more breathtaking sunsets than could be counted. The humble sleeping berth was where he rested his body, weary from pulling lines and tacking through unfavorable winds. The whitewashed helm was where he sat and contemplated life’s most nagging doubts. The ideas of who we are and why we are here and whether life had meaning. This is also where he wondered, after a random shark attack or a night of rough seas, whether a life on the (sea) road less traveled was really worth it.
He must have decided that the good outweighed the bad, for he kept at it for over a decade, and in that I find inspiration. Although his life would not be the life on the sea would not be one I would choose, I feel a kinship with another soul who crafts a life that honors his passion, and pursues that life no matter the cost. I feel like there is more to learn from Fritz Damler and his voyages, so I vow to read his memoirs Ten Years at the Mast to dig deeper into his character. My only regret is that the old sailor that stands at the masthead doesn’t have a book to tell his version of the voyage. On the stories he could tell.