The put-put boat
No moving parts but lots of smoke, noise and angry neighbors
November 21, 2005
The black Austin taxi coursed its way through the downtown Tehran traffic. Inside with the smell of the old leather and gasoline I sat next to my mother with anticipation. In 1958 most daily shopping was done in the neighborhood stores or at the door from various vendors on donkeys, bicycles and wagons, but the trip to the Bazaar was always for special items such as cloth, rugs, jewelry, house wares, etc. I knew there would also be special treats of candy, food, drinks and perhaps even a toy.
The taxi pulled to the curb, mother paid the driver and we both exited and maneuvered through the crowd to the ornate entrance. We had to run the gauntlet of vendors and porters even before entering the long corridor of shops and arcades.
“Hey lady, nice scarf here, very cheap, very pretty.”
“Socks here, combs here, shoe polish, laces.”
“Arzoon, ghashang (cheap, pretty).”
Once inside, as we coursed our way to the heart of the Bazaar, the aromas of spices, wool and various wares became stronger. The echoes and the colors increased. Every few yards the sunlight would shine through a skylight, penetrate the congested air, bounce off the copper, brass, silver and piles of carpets and rugs and gently come to rest on the dusty ground. Here and there my eyes would seek the carrot juice vendor, the Kababi with his smoking manghal (grill), the sweets and of course the various toy vendors.
We almost missed him as we hurried to the cloth vendor, my mother’s destination. He was sitting alone against a wall between two shops. The shaft of sunlight had illuminated his weathered face, thick white eyebrows and unshaven faced topped by a worn knitted skull cap. In front of his dirty bare feet lay a large copper washtub, gleaming.
“Pesar jan bia bebin. (Dear boy, come and see)”, he yelled as we passed.
I paused, wandering what he had in store.
“Bia, bia (come, come)”, he yelled again.
“Don’t listen to him we don’t have time,” my mother called back to me.
“Bezar bebinam cheeyeh (Let me see what it is)” I pleaded with her as I walked over to him.
When I came closer, I noticed a handful of tin boats floating in the tub. The old man looked into my eyes and whispered “Sabr kon ta bebini (wait till you see)”.
Noticing my mother’s impatience, the old man hurriedly picked up a little tin boot and with an eye dropper forced some kerosene from a small bottle into the boot. He then took a box of matches out of his torn pocket and lit the wick in the toe of the little boot. He picked up a boat out of the tub put a drop of water in the two tubes protruding from the rear. Slowly, he slipped the lit boot into the boat and then gently floated it in the water. With the exception of a little smoke out of the funnel on the top nothing happened.
“Bia berim, vaghtam talaf shod (Let’s go my time is wasted)”, my mother ordered.
“Sabr kon khanom, bezar bebineh (Wait lady, let him see),” the old man pleaded.
“Chee bebineh? (See what?)” My mother demanded. “Bia berim (Let’s go),” she pulled me by the hand.
“Put” the boat coughed, and there was a ripple. I pulled away from my mother and stepped back to the tub.
“Put-put” it coughed again, jerking forward each time.
“Put-put-put-put . . . .” The coughs were now becoming louder and more consistent. A number of other children and parents had stopped to look.
“Khaily arzan, faghat do Toman (Very cheap, only two Tomans).” He stated.
“Bia berim, dir shod (Let’s go, it is late),” she repeated.
I pleaded with her to buy it. She was not to be moved. I promised chores, homework, silent play, not hitting my siblings and lastly practicing my Santur (Dulcimer).
“Khodat va khaneh ra atash mizani (you will set yourself and the house on fire)” She stated emphatically. “Bia berim.”
As I chased after her rushing steps I kept on pleading and promising finally that I would be good and quiet for the rest of the day, no the rest of the week!
I guess that offer was the clincher. She turned and reiterated “the rest of the week?”
“Yes, the rest of the week,” I implored.
“Well let’s see from here on.”
All through the various arcades of jewelers, rug merchants, kitchen brass and copper wares, all the way to the clothier I was silent and close by. Every now and then she would turn sternly and look to see if I was keeping my word and I would smile sheepishly.
Even the clothier, with the measuring tape draped around his neck and his glasses at the tip of his nose, commented on my good behavior.
“Na kheily shaytaneh vali emrooz movazebeh (No his is very devilish but he is careful today),” she would correct him. On the way back she let me know that I had shown good behavior and now she knew what I was capable of and would expect the same every day.
Once at the washtub she again demanded the price. The old man scratched his bristles and repeated “Do Toman khanoom (Two Tomans, lady).”
“Panjah Rial (Fifty Rials)”
'“Nah khanum (No lady).”
“Nah chieh? (What do you mean No?)”
It went on like this, back and forth and finally with a final emphasis she stated “Yek Toman ya Hichi (One Toman or nothing)” and turned to leave.
The old man seeing her about to leave picked a boat out of the water and reaching over murmured “Khoobeh yek Toman (one Toman is O.K.).”
She dug into her purse and handed him the bill, the old man handed me the boat carefully and we hurried out of the old bazaar and into the sunlit street.
I spent that whole summer in the garden next to the ornamental pool, adjusting the rudder and aiming for distant shores with various bugs as passengers. “Put-put-put-put . . . .” you could hear that boat all over the neighborhood, especially during the afternoon siesta time. It was a magical toy. No moving parts but lots of smoke, noise and angry neighbors.
Forty years later walking through a California Mall with its polished walls, floors and bright artificial lighting, I began reflecting on the dusty old bazaar and remembered the old man and the little tin boat. I described the boat at every opportunity to toy shop owners, friends and coworkers. They must have thought me very strange. Who would give such a toy to a young boy? Surely sooner or later he would burn the house down. In this litigious, code obsessed society who would risk their business on such a dangerous toy? Wouldn’t a radio controlled, electronic, digital, computerized, mass produced, UL tested plastic boat be better? I finally gave up my search and consigned the tin boat to happier childhood memories.
It was a bright sunny day at the peddler’s faire in Petaluma. I was just enjoying the day, wasting time, browsing through the stalls. Here and there I would remember items similar to those of my childhood in old Iran, a comic book, cowboy holster and cap guns, View Masters, meat grinders, brass trays, Commodes, chairs like my grandmother’s, etc. Having completed the main stalls, I was about to turn and leave but in a corner of a parking lot I noticed another smaller stall that I had missed.
I walked across the street and approached the small stall with its meager offering. A seated old Chinese man with a felt hat and weathered face studied me with weary eyes. I scanned over the lacquered and bronze Buddhas, the incense burners, bead necklaces and clay pots of bamboo. There were no exceptional items. I was about to leave when I suddenly noticed one item of interest. There in the middle of the small table was a speed boat with a red flag on the stern. It did not seem to have been stamped out. The old man noticing my curiosity picked up the little boat and held it out to me. The boat seemed to be an aggregate of various orange juice cans welded together. He pointed out the tiny tube protruding from the rear. Reaching into the boat he extracted a tiny candle and said “put little water in here then fire candle”
“What happens next?” I knew the answer but had to hear it.
“put-put-put . . .” He said moving the boat along the table with his hand. “You want?”
“Five dollars” I said emphatically.
“O.K., five dollar,” He said with a smile.
In the past few years I have actually found several more “put-put” boats. I have them sitting next to each other on a shelf in my study. I have not lit any yet but I know one of these summers when my grandson can appreciate it I will fill the plastic wading pool in the backyard and say “Dear boy, come and see.”