Every inch a raft

GAZEBO, belvedere, pagoda, alcove - the names are as varied as the parts of the world from which they came. Ours, true to the New England soil on which it stood, was simply called ''the summerhouse.'' It was nothing but a rough-shingled roof, four bark-covered cedar cornerposts, and a plank floor. It stood on a slight rise, afloat on a broad lawn flowing down through flower gardens and lapping at the foundation-stones of our Victorian house. In its studied shabbiness and structured informality, it seemed like something out of a 19th-century English landscape painting.

Rural Massachusetts, however, was not quite so romantic: The weather had some most un-English quirks. Over the years, the snows had weighed heavily on the roof, and the ice had wedged apart the planks. In the spring the mosquitos drove out any seekers of evening leisure; by the heat of August, the lush grape vines growing up the posts made it a dark and breezeless chamber. It was in the last stages of decrepitude when my father finally gave it his full attention. A few weeks later he was finished: The summerhouse, honoring a change of taste that would send the back-yard gazebo the way of the pterodactyl and the buggy-whip, had become a garage for our camping trailer.

For some years the cedar corner-posts lay in a heap at the edge of the woods. ''Might come in handy,'' my father and I would observe as, year by year, I grew through the age of insouciance and toward adolescence. And one early summer, when the grapes were still green among their hand-shaped leaves and somebody had given me a copy of ''Huckleberry Finn,'' the purpose of those posts suddenly became clear. With several friends and a crateful of tools, we transformed them into a raft.

And such a raft! We laid the cedar posts, cut in half, side by side to form a square on the lawn. We decked it over with planks. At the bow, a rope; at the stern, a rudder. Over it all, from a pole planted amidships, flew a white flag. It was, to all appearances, the perfect raft for a summer bunch of Tom Sawyers.

But it was more than a mere toy. Deep in the woods of the bird sanctuary a half-mile away was the pond. Somehow, with brute determination rushing in where foresight feared to tread, we jimmied the lumber contraption off the lawn and onto my red wagon. Tottering over the sidewalks, stumbling through the underbrush, we wrenched and panted our way to the shore and slid the raft into the water. Triumphantly, it floated. Without another thought we clambered aboard, our paper sacks of lunch in hand. And gently and steadily, impelled by natural laws benignly indifferent to the astonishment of four small boys, it sank - first to our ankles, then to our knees, and finally to our waists.

We scrambled back to shore and unloaded, but to no avail: Those cedar posts, which had held up so much snow for so many winters, were simply too small. In the end, surrendering our visions of luncheon on the sunny deck, we settled for a one-man crew - our smallest member, clutching the flagpole in shin-deep water as the raft drifted helplessly along the shore.

I suppose, looking back, you could call it a fruitful failure. Like many such failures, it has parceled out its lessons patiently over the years. The first we learned almost instantly: Trudging home with the wagon, we left the raft half-grounded on the weedy shore, thereby learning (as the economists say) not to throw good money after bad. We learned other lessons during bright winter mornings at school: Archimedes and his bathtub, the concept of specific gravity, and the incompressibility of fluids all added their explanations to our failure.

But in the end it was not through science but through art that, quite by fluke, I came to terms with that experience. I had done what I suppose all writers do now and then: written a nicely designed and carefully crafted piece that said all the wrong things. It, too, was made (as so much writing is made) of left-over ideas from an earlier structure - made, as it were, of old posts and beams found at the edge of one's verbal woods. It had a bow and a stern and a great rhetorical flourish amidships. It cost a long day's labor to produce and a heavy trudge to deliver. And it, too, sank, inexorably and without apology, into the depths of unpublishability.

Literary critics, when they discuss this sort of thing, talk of form versus content. I've always distrusted that distinction - believing, with the poet William Butler Yeats, that you cannot tell the dancer from the dance. Yet there it was: high-gloss prose draped over insubstantial argument. And there we once were, four lads in a green-grape summer, holding so surely to our sense of form that we never gave a thought to content. It was, as I say, an absolutely lovely structure, every inch a raft. And it sank.

I suppose that's one of the marks of maturity - a willingness to admit that form is not all and that content, in the end, will survive. Does that mean, then, the ultimate overthrow of all the flash and glitter of youth? Not at all. The world is full of clumsy things that float. And in a world which so often tears down one gazebo only to build another, having dry feet really does count for something.

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