Ernest Pattillo was born into a corn-milling family in Tallassee, Alabama, about 30 or so miles from Montgomery, the state capital. The mill and the creek running by it offered everything a boy could want: scrap lumber, nails, hammers, and saws; turtles, catfish, and swimming.In the mid-1950s, when Ernest was 10 years old, he and his cousin Alton, mindful of summer’s passing, wanted to do something exciting before school started. The creek suggested a boat, and the cast-offs littering the mill suggested building one. They started with a bent and rusted sheet of corrugated metal roofing and a 2×4 bristling with old nails. The boys pulled nails and sawed off two lengths of 2×4 for stems. After they folded the ends of the roofing around the stems and nailed them home, they applied tar to seal the gaps there and the buckshot holes everywhere else. The canoe was only 5′ long and could only hold one of them, so they built a second.When the cousins got their canoes to the creek, they quickly realized they would have to scale back their dreams for the first expedition. The canoes were unstable and had barely an inch of freeboard. They only had their hands for paddling and had to reach carefully over the sharp edges of the roofing to keep from cutting their armpits. Ernest and Alton used the canoes until their youthful enthusiasm took them in other directions.
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