The usual pleasantries that make up so many conversations weren’t part of his repertoire. If you wanted to enter his world, you had to do some homework and you had to bring your A-game.
But if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to always be the smartest person in a room, you could have asked Steve Sauer. He would have known.
I first met Steve at the old Rod and Reel Shop in front of Mrs. Gentry’s house on the Destin Harbor more than 50 years ago. Buddy Gentry ran the Sailfisher charter boat below the shop, and since Steve didn’t like to fish or spend time on boats (in the water), he worked in the store in the summers while he studied architecture at LSU.
Buddy knew boats and he knew how to fish. He also knew about electronics, wiring, and engines. He studied accounting at Auburn and was good with numbers. Steve wanted to build boats.
In 1973, Steve and Buddy built their first boat, and for 30 years they operated from a small triangular lot on the corner of Benning and First Street. It was a nail-biting adventure to watch them tow a brand new 60-foot boat— which took a year to build—with a beat up tractor to the boat ramp at Joe’s Bayou for its launch.
It was just about a perfect partnership. They built 52 boats and never built the same one twice. They were artisans and operated much differently than the factories that turned out Bertrams, Hatterases, and Vikings. Steve lived just down the street from me. Buddy lived two blocks away. The boats were built three blocks from my house. They were in the neighborhood. One afternoon, I drove my daughter Leah and three of her friends to Ace Hardware. We loaded up on duct tape and cardboard and glue. It was in May, that wonderful time of the school year when sixth graders built homemade crafts to race in the annual boat race at Marler Park.
It was a wonderful father-daughter event if your father knew how to build a boat out of cardboard. I didn’t even know how to use duct tape. Driving back to our house, in a true moment of serendipity, I caught a glimpse of Steve Sauer in his driveway. I stopped my truck, backed up, pulled down Steve’s driveway, unloaded the girls and the materials for the boat, smiled at Steve, and, without a word, went back to my house to watch golf on TV.
I recently told my son Chatham about Leah’s boat building episode. He had a story, too. He had a school project in a seventh grade science class that required him and Cameron Destin to build a model for earthquake-proof homes.
Neither of them bothered to ask Dewey or me for help. They marched off to the G and S shop (Steve was usually alone there on Saturdays). Steve spent all day helping them build model homes to scale. He explained the geometry to them and showed them what made it possible for the plans to work. One thing is certain—their teacher could rest assured that their fathers had offered no assistance.
Obviously, out of necessity, I raised some resourceful children.
Steve shared some habits of some of our modern visionaries, like Steve Jobs at Apple and Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook. He didn’t have time to put much thought into his wardrobe. His work and leisure attire was the same. I don’t think I saw him wear anything except for pocket t-shirts, blue jeans and tennis shoes for 50 years.
A potential catastrophe was averted when the K-Mart store in Destin closed 20 years ago. Steve effortlessly switched to Walmart as his clothing supplier.
Before the drone things got popular, Steve built a remote-controlled airplane, a glider, in the 1980s. Many afternoons after work, Steve could be seen at the top of the Matterhorn, on the island, operating that plane out over the Gulf.
About a year ago, Steve ordered a custom made bicycle. It might have been the most extravagant thing he’d ever done. It was a hell of a bike, and he would show it off to anyone who would pay attention. It had a carbon frame and was expensive. He used it primarily to get from his house to Harbor Docks. Most afternoons, he would park the bike down on the docks, and, depending on his mood, he’d either walk up the hill and sit at the bar, or he’d stay down by the boats and read.
Steve didn’t read mysteries or thrillers or romance novels. For the last 10 years, he’d been reading Noam Chomsky. Chomsky is a linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, social critic and political activist. In these environs, Chomsky is not much of a conversation starter. I’d try to hang in there when Steve would talk about Chomsky, but he knew it was a little over my head.
Over the years, Steve had a recurring thought that we would talk about quietly—and in jest. He was convinced that Destin would be a much more habitable town if the Destin Bridge was blown up. Obviously, this was a sensitive and complicated matter.
Dave Conkle, a friend and G and S customer, and I visited Steve just before he died.
Steve, with a glint in his eye, reminded me of the advantages to blowing up the bridge. He’s passed now, and I tell this story because Steve is the only one who would have known how to blow it up, and if something like that ever happens, it can’t be blamed on him—I’m sure he was only joking.
We live in a world in which people seem to race to be average. There is a sameness to so many things. A style becomes a trend and then a movement and then everything looks the same. There was nothing average about Steve Sauer.
These days the variety of people who are held in high esteem and become popular icons is endless. The celebrities who are admired in the world of athletics, politics, music, film, literature and business only seem to have one thing in common. They’re famous. They have millions of followers on social media and they’re on the cover of the magazines at the checkout counter. I’m not even sure why many of them are famous. Anyway, there are very few people I truly admire.
But I do know people who admired a boat builder. And I know why.