Sub dreams


Sub dreams

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Phil Skinner
Danny McWilliams works on a 36-foot version of the Nautilus at his Ellijay home. The Nautilus is a fantastical machine, piloted by the fanatical Captain Nemo in Jules Verne’s "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” When he was a kid, McWilliams became obsessed with the sub after seeing the 1954 film of the same name, a Disney flick starring Kirk Douglas.

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ELLIJAY — Danny McWilliams has a submarine in his yard. His yard is not on an ocean, lake or even a big puddle. And so his sub sits, a too-tangible reminder that not all dreams work out as planned.

His dream boat is a replica of the Nautilus, the submarine made famous in Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and brought to life in the Disney film of the same name.

It’s resting on a Gilmer County slope 65 miles north of Atlanta, a land of ponds and creeks, not oceans and rivers.

It’s a faux submarine, 36 feet long, built of pine and fiberglass, a series of plywood panels that have been glued and screwed together.

It tapers to a point at each end. Along its gray sides are portholes made of Pyrex salad bowls. It looks like an angry sturgeon.

So far it has cost $2,119.93 in materials — McWilliams is nothing if not meticulous — and $50,000 in man-hours. He’s been sawing, banging and slapping fiberglass on the thing since October 2012. It’s cost him two teeth, too.

And, truth be told, he’s getting a little tired of it. Cool nights and shorter days are a reminder that life is fleeting. He has other things he wants to do.

But yes, he says, he will finish the damn thing.

On a recent morning, McWilliams lit a Pall Mall and looked at his Nautilus. He ran a hand over a bumpy spot where moisture had buckled its plywood hull. He touched one of its salad-bowl portholes as gently as if it were the eye of a living thing.

He’d planned to launch it at Lake Lanier or Allatoona this fall, with the help of an electric trolling motor to push him toward the opposite shore.

People would cheer!

Photographers would go nuts!

It’d be a dream afloat!

But float it won’t. McWilliams may have the largest yard sculpture between Atlanta and Asheville.

“I guess,” he said, “that I’m crazy.”

A child’s fancy
McWilliams is 56, but part of him is forever 6.

He was that age when his dad took him to a theater to indulge their shared love of science fiction.

In the building’s darkened confines, the little boy watched, wide-eyed, as Capt. Nemo traveled the world’s seas, killed bad guys and fought a monstrous squid.

Young Danny came away smitten with that movie. Nothing from the 1954 film held his imagination more than Nemo’s submarine — a great, gray presence, capable of stealth and mayhem, lethal, long, a leviathan. He never forgot it.

The boy, born in Sacramento and the son of an Air Force man, lived overseas in his early years before he and his siblings returned to America. The child became a man, the man, an electrician.

He worked at commercial sites, wiring big buildings, always on the move. He traveled to California and Texas before settling in Georgia, where he has family. He got married, but that didn’t work out. He has no children.

One constant throughout his travels is his love of boats, and he has built a few: a catamaran, a couple of rowboats, a 24-foot sloop. But none captured his fancy more than Nemo’s boat.

Days at work, nights in bed: He imagined how his Nautilus would take shape if ever he built one.

“There was never a time,” he said last summer, “when I wasn’t thinking about it.”

You could say the Nautilus’ figurative keel was laid at the Hooters in Canton. You also could guess that beer played a role, and you would guess right.

McWilliams and a couple of buddies were having some brews in fall 2011 at Hooters on biker night. They were debating various versions of the Nautilus depicted in books and films. Which was the best? McWilliams held out for the ’54 Nautilus — the Nautilus, he called it.

Phooey, a biker answered. He liked the tall, sleek Nautilus from the 2003 movie, “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” That sub looks like a saber, gleaming and deadly.

McWilliams sneered. That Nautilus, he said, was computer-generated — a creation completely out of proportion, too long and too skinny. It would never float! The Disney Nautilus, he continued, was a realistic scale as well as old school; craftsmen built an 11-foot Nautilus for the Disney flick. It was real, tangible.

“They got into it, arguing back and forth,” said Atlanta resident Matt Smith, who was on the sidelines, holding a beer. “That guy, he didn’t know who he was dealing with.”

McWilliams grew exasperated and raised the ante. He could build the Disney Nautilus in his back yard.

Oh yeah? the other guy said. Prove it.

On Oct. 13, 2012, about a year after that beery exchange, McWilliams asked his roommate, Karen Tirado, if he could borrow her car.  His motorcycle, a 1980 Honda 650, was hardly the machine for the trip. He took her ’04 Dodge Neon to the Jasper Home Depot. He bought as much wood as the car could hold and headed home.

Later that day, his saber saw whined.

‘I ain’t rich’
When he takes off his cap, McWilliams looks surprisingly like Mark Twain in his Tom Sawyer period — salt-and-pepper hair, more salt than pepper; piercing, deep-set eyes; a strong nose with just the hint of a hook. It’s easy to imagine him astride a ship deck, much like a younger Mark Twain did as a riverboat pilot when he was called Samuel Clemens.

McWilliams has a bit of boat pilot in his soul, too. His double-wide mobile home is filled with nautical memorabilia — a model sailboat, resting on its keel beside an overstuffed chair; numerous pictures of ships under sail; a brass-and-wood wheel that came off an old Chris-Craft yacht he once owned; a black hat, festooned with a long red feather, that he wears as Capt. Morgan, the guy on the rum bottle.

All that pales, of course, to the thing in his yard. To reiterate: It is not a true submarine, but a surface craft, designed to look like the Nautilus as it appeared in the movie. Real, working submarines aren’t cheap.

“Let me tell you,” he said, “I ain’t rich.”

McWilliams gets by on less than $1,500 a month, a disability payment stemming from a 2000 industrial accident that left him with reflex sympathetic dystrophy. The condition is characterized as chronic, crippling pain. After his injury, the lower back pain was so severe that doctors installed a spinal cord stimulant. The device sends constant electronic impulses to lessen the pain. It’s just under his skin on his back, a lump shaped like a business card. He’s happy to show it to you.

Because he is disabled, unable to work for extended periods, McWilliams feels like he has a point to prove: “Disabled people can do jobs.”

But that’s not his only reason to see the Nautilus through.

“This has always been my lifetime dream,” he said. “How many people get a chance to fulfill that?”

There is something about the Nautilus, agreed Michael Crisifulli. The New York engineer’s website features 167 renditions of the Nautilus, beginning with the sketch that graced Verne’s 1870 novel and leading to the present. “I have more to add, too.”

Like McWilliams, he’s a fan of that lethal fish, the Disney Nautilus. It’s the Empire State Building, the ’63 Stingray, the Beatles: the standard by which all others are measured. He credits its creator, Harper Goff, with making something that transcends the big screen.

“(Goff) wanted to make something that would stick in people’s minds,” said Crisifulli. “I think he succeeded.”

Home Depot regular
 The lunch trade had dropped off when McWilliams pulled into the parking lot of the Jasper Home Depot. It was mid-September, hot and muggy. In the distance, Georgia’s mountains rose in a series of hazy humps.

McWilliams stepped out, a smile under his mustache. He had a list: plywood, fiberglass, more boards.

The doors slid open with a cool whoosh. A smiling clerk said hello and did he need any help finding anything?

McWilliams said no. “Everything you need for a submarine? Right here,” he said.

A wheel on his pallet rattled as McWilliams pushed it through a canyon of wood: wood siding, wood boards, wood poles — truly, a felled forest. He stopped at a stack of 3/8-inch plywood, 4-feet-by-8, about $23 a sheet. McWilliams squinted, grabbed the top sheet. “It’s good.”

He stopped at a stack of pine boards, 1-inch-by-6, each 8 feet long. He grabbed several straight planks. They clattered as he laid them beside the plywood.

Next stop, fiberglass. Dry, it’s a white, gauzy netting; add the resin and it turns into sloppy, gloppy fabric that becomes a waterproof surface when it hardens. It can be shaped, sanded and cussed. McWilliams had done all three.

A clerk cut the plywood long ways into three pieces, each 16 inches wide and 8 feet long. “The only way I can fit them into the car,” he said.

Another clerk came by. Was everything OK?

“I’m Danny McWilliams,” he said. “I’m building a submarine.”

The total bill: $104.35. McWilliams doled out some twenties and counted his change. He popped the trunk on his roomie’s little car and carefully loaded it. The car’s rear end sagged. It toiled slowly onto Ga. 515, sticking to the right lane while faster traffic whizzed past. It went down one hill, groaned up the next, until McWilliams reached narrower roads leading home. The bright-blue car vanished in the fading green of late summer.

Before he was done, McWilliams would make 34 trips to the store.

Second thoughts
By the end of September, everything had gone to hell — his schedule, his boat, his plans. Maybe even his dream.

It had been a cruel summer. His sister died. His motorcycle wouldn’t go. The rains wouldn’t stop. He fell off a ladder onto the Nautilus, losing two teeth.

McWilliams also had begun to ask himself: Would the thing float? Suppose he launched it and the seams came apart? What if his gigantic dream became a Titanic reality?

“I can swim, that’s no problem,” he said. “But if that thing sinks, they’ll want me to get it out. That would be expensive. Remember: I’m on a very, very, very, very shoestring budget.”

Tirado, his roommate, came in. “Did you order the other bowl?” she asked. Plans for the boat called for three portholes; McWilliams had installed two.

“Oh, yeah,” he answered. “I’ve got to do that.”

McWilliams headed outside to check on a coating of fiberglass he’d laid on the boat’s hatch. Good, it was dry. He attached a sanding wheel to his drill. The machine whirred. McWilliams bent to the fiberglass, which was getting harder by the moment, and ground at its rough edges.

The airship
Imagine a 40-foot vessel, its bow resembling a gaping mouth, its windowed stern rounded like vessels that plied the oceans three centuries ago. From the middle of the ship columns rise 8 feet or higher; atop them are twin bags filled with inflated helium balloons. It looks simultaneously imposing and fragile: the marriage of wood and whimsy.

It is an airship, and it has landed in McWilliams’ imagination, taking the spot the Nautilus held for so long.

The airship also rests, in a 4-foot miniature, on a table in McWilliams’ kitchen. Built of foam board from the Dollar Tree, it is the first step in what McWilliams hopes to be a platform for photo shoots, parties, videos, films, you name it.

While he was toiling away on the Nautilus, McWilliams was thinking about the airship. He sketched out his dreams, and a friend refined it. He’s itching to get started on it, weather and cash willing.

McWilliams has started a fundraising website, hoping to lure investors to help underwrite the airship. He figures the airship — no, it won’t really fly; it will just look like it’s ready to take off — will cost about $6,000 to build. As of Nov. 11, he had secured $25. Another $5,975 to go.

On a recent November morning, McWilliams circled the model of the airship. His eyes glittered. “I build things to live,” said McWilliams. “I hope I die with a hammer in my hand.”

But what about the Nautilus?

Thomas Lockyear, director of the Florida Keys History of Diving Museum, wants it.

A couple of months ago, Lockyear was on his computer, scouting ideas for the museum’s February fundraiser, and his search led him to McWilliams’ Nautilus. Was it kismet? The museum is planning a Verne-themed fundraiser.

Lockyear wrote McWilliams an email: When you’re through with the Nautilus, we’d love to have it.

McWilliams responded: You can have it.

“I’m director of a museum built on the inventions and exploits of people just like (McWilliams),” Lockyear said. “It really takes a pioneering spirit — the fine line between creativity and insanity — to do what Danny did.”

Of course, Lockyear has to come up with enough cash to move it from North Georgia to South Florida, or roughly 750 miles. The museum is a nonprofit; it has to spend its cash carefully.

And McWilliams needs to finish it. It lacks a bit of fiberglass, some sanding here and there and maybe a bottle of champagne broken over its snarling bow. Then he’ll jump on the airship. When that is done, maybe he’ll do miniature versions of the Monitor and the Merrimack, the Civil War ironclads that changed the face of naval warfare. Then, perhaps, he’ll turn again to the Nautilus. He can build another one, a better one!

It’s cruising in his subconscious right now, waiting to surface.

You never know what will come through the e-transom. In late spring, I got an email about a Facebook page detailing the construction of a submarine in the Georgia mountains. A submarine? In Ellijay? You may as well build an igloo in Plains. I found the page and knew, just knew, I had to talk to the man behind the little Nautilus.

Mark Davis
Staff writer

About the reporter

Mark Davis joined the AJC in 2003 after working in Philadelphia, Tampa and his native North Carolina. A graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Davis has reported on heroes, bums and creatures that walk, swim, crawl and fly.

About the photographer

Phil Skinner has been a photojournalist at the AJC for 16 years, working on a variety of stories, including the Masters, Olympics, Atlanta Braves, presidential campaigns, hurricanes and all kinds of human interest stories. Previously he worked at the Sun-Sentinel, the Boca Raton News, the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Jupiter Journal.

Next week: Lynn Garson grew up in a life of privilege, but her happy ending was hard-earned.

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