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Hardships and warships lead to bottled ships

Maurice Poulin relaxes at a small workbench in his home in Nahant, Mass., building ships in bottles.

The 85-year-old’s hands are steady. Just outside the window, waves from Boston Bay slap the shore and a sea breeze fills the room.

Maurice Poulin, 85, is a retired Coast Guard World War II veteran and keeps his love for the sea alive by building ships in bottles. One of his models was recently selected for display by the Smithsonian Institution museum in Washington, D.C.

“The older you get, the more relaxed you want to be,” he says.

For Poulin, a long-retired Coast Guard veteran, these painstakingly crafted models are a reminder of days served on much larger ships.

“He’s done so many of those models of famous ships and he incorporates some personal touch into them,” says Calantha Sears, Poulin’s neighbor and curator of the Nahant Historical Society, where three of Poulin’s ships are on display.

“I think we’re very lucky that he chose Nahant, and I say that as a third-generation, lifelong resident,” she says. “He’s an amazing man and we’re lucky to have him.”

To date Poulin has made nearly 400 ships in bottles. Most he’s given them away as gifts to friends and family, to admirals and local museums, but one of his recent works will sit on a very distinguished shelf: in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.

Born in 1922, Poulin recalls growing up in hard times when nearly everything was in short supply.

“The Depression formed our generation,” says Poulin. “We had to have stamps to buy everything: gas, sugar, even butter.”

The stamps were required in addition to the monetary price. They were dated, and included the quantity of the item people were allowed to buy. The government donated bags of food and clothes, he says, including pants that could be easily identified as government-issued by the stitching.

“It was easy to tell all the kids who had no dough by the line on their pants,” he says. “It was embarrassing.”

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Jobs were also scarce.

“For a young kid, there was nothing to do but hang around,” he says.

In 1939 he found a ticket out of his depressed community. He joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Depression-era government program that hired young men to build dams and roads or work on reforestation projects. The CCC founded many of the national and state parks in America today.

Poulin went to Colorado where he helped build dams.

“It was like a kid playing with mud,” he says.

And a kid he was. To get into the CCC, boys had to be 17 years old, he says. Poulin was only 16, so he faked his birth certificate to make himself a year older.

“There was nothing else to do,” he says.

CCC paid him $30 a month. He kept $5, and the remaining $25 was sent home to his parents in Lowell, Mass. “It was more to help the family,” he explains.

He says back then there was no welfare and people would grab any job available. “They’d do anything to make a buck — sweep streets, pick up garbage.” When he was 10 years old, Poulin and his friends walked the gutters and collected tobacco from cigarette butts to sell to teenagers for pennies.

“After the Depression, anything would have been better,” he says. He joined the Coast Guard in 1941. Between 1942 and 1945 he served aboard the Leonard Wood, a 535-foot transport ship.

He says for him and his fellow servicemen, the military supplied a steady flow of camaraderie, food and paychecks that were once scant. The new conveniences came with a downside: He found himself in the middle of a world war.

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The Leonard Wood carried landing craft that were loaded with tanks, trucks and troops to be sent ashore during invasions. During battle, the men aboard the Leonard Wood were deployed as crew inside the landing craft or as gunners on the ship. In the three years aboard, Poulin did it all, narrowly escaping death several times.

“We would be blinded by bombs going off right off our quarter,” he says.

He recalled one battle when a group of enemy airplanes swooped in to attack. One plane approached Leonard Wood low and fast.

“I swore it was going to hit me in the eyes,” he says, pointing two leathery fingers pointed square at his face. Instead, it buzzed over his head, attacked the ship next to the Leonard Wood, and killed every man aboard.

“War is very strange like that,” he says. “I think it’s all about luck.”

Even now, more than a half-century later, he still seems to have luck on his side. Poulin’s ship in a bottle of the Coast Guard Cutter Eagle will be exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution museum until August 2010.

Luke Pinneo is a Petty Officer 2nd Class with the Coast Guard’s 1st District in Boston.

This story originally appeared in the February 2009 issue.

See the related article, Seventh model boat show set for April