Ben Schrank

An Anniversary and Contest for Marriage is a Canoe

“A Day with Peter Herman Contest”, sponsored by Ladder & Rake Books, a division of Timmler Products, Inc.

Peter Herman’s Marriage is a Canoe, continuously in print since it was first published by Ladder & Rake in 1971, is the preeminent self-help book on love and marriage of our time.

Marriage is a Canoe is the spellbinding true story of Peter Herman’s thirteenth summer, which he spent with his grandparents on Lake Okabye, near Millerton, New York, in 1961. During that summer, Peter absorbed lessons about life and marriage from his grandparents, largely while trout fishing with his grandfather.

Mr. Herman wrote his book directly after graduating from Columbia University where he received a degree in English. He wrote in the mornings and at lunch, while he worked as an advertising copywriter for McCann Erickson in New York City. The first edition was published in December 1971, when Mr. Herman was twenty-three. It is his only published work.

This sensational book began its life as a gift-edition-sized hardcover emblazoned with a painting of two figures paddling a canoe on a lake at sunset—a timeless American image meant to appear nostalgic. Canoe sold 5,900 copies in that first edition, copies that are now rare and worth thousands. Since then, Marriage is a Canoe has been in print as a paperback Ladder & Rake Evergreen edition, with three distinct revisions, five new forewords and several afterwards, addendums, and notes to new and old readers. There are over two million copies of Marriage is a Canoe in print and 38 foreign editions.

The book has never appeared on the New York Times or USA Today best-seller lists because expert publishing analysts have called it the most shared self-help volume in the world. At the same time, its consistent sales over so many years must be attributed to the undeniable universal wisdom that every reader discovers in the book’s anecdotes.

2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the events upon which the book is based. In celebration of this anniversary, beginning on October 1st and ending on November 1st, Ladder & Rake will hold a contest. The winners of that contest, one lucky married couple, a couple with normal everyday problems, will visit with Peter Herman.

All contest entries must be no longer than a couple of paragraphs. The most compelling dozen entries will be read by Peter Herman, who will select our winning couple and then meet them for a stroll around Lake Okabye followed by afternoon tea and supper on a Saturday in November toward the end of leaf season, at his home in upstate New York.

Our winning couple will also enjoy a complimentary weekend at the Inn at Lake Okabye, in Millerton, New York. They will receive the entire back catalog of important self-help books from Ladder & Rake and a signed first edition of_ Marriage is a Canoe_.

One hundred second prize winners will receive signed copies of the new, 50th Anniversary edition of Marriage is a Canoe, to be released with selected new commentaries, in a handsome collectible hardcover edition, priced at $40.00, and available to all for purchase in late December 2011.

The Introduction to Marriage is a Canoe by Peter Herman, Published by Ladder & Rake Books, October 1971

Dear Reader:

In this brief volume I will share some stories that were told to me ten years ago during the summer of 1961, when I was thirteen. The stories are meant to entertain. But they are also life lessons.

In that summer of 1961, my parents divorced. I was bewildered and lonely. During those July and August weeks, while my parents spent each night fighting over their possessions, I was sent to stay with my grandparents, Hank and Bess Latham. They lived in a grand old cabin on the shore of Lake Okabye, in Millerton, New York.

Over the course of our days together, we took long walks around the lake and I learned the proper names for the many things found in nature that had been, before then, unfamiliar to a city boy like me. We enjoyed picnic dinners of fried chicken and lemonade at dusk on the lawn that rolled down from their cabin’s back porch to the shore of the lake. I played baseball and went to square dances with the local children. And just about every day, my Pop and I went fishing on Lake Okabye, in his Old Towne canoe.

The stories my grandparents told me have become the lessons and guideposts that I return to as I go about the happy business of being a hard-working man, a kind neighbor, and an honest citizen. But what I remember best, and what I’ll share in these pages, is all that my grandparents showed me about how to be a good husband and lover.

The truth is that though they would never come right out and say it, my grandparents were eager to share their philosophy of love. They were terribly upset at my parents because of how badly they mishandled their marriage. And I believe they wanted to keep me from following in their footsteps. My grandparents took a risk; they brought me, an unhappy young boy about to enter adolescence, inside their world and they talked to me about their marriage. The risk paid off. They showed me how to nurture a truly loving relationship.

I am sorry you weren’t there with us that summer. But the wonder of all that happened then and my need to share it is what compelled me to write this book. I have done my best to fill this volume with all the lessons I learned about love from my grandparents. Their stories are meant for whoever might care to read. Because I believe anyone who does read, will benefit.

Peter Herman, April 12th, 1971, New York

From Marriage is a Canoe, Chapter 1, First Day

On the morning of my first day, before I went fishing with Pop, I helped Bess with the chores. Pop had gone in to town to buy groceries and a few things he said he thought we might need for fishing.

Bess and I started in the little bedroom above the kitchen, where she threw a summer quilt in the air. It floated down onto the single bed that my mother had slept in when she was a little girl and that I would use during my stay.

“Did you see that?” Bess asked.

“It’s a nice quilt,” I said.

“It’s not just nice,” Bess said. “This is a wonderful patchwork quilt. It is made up of squares of fine and different materials double-stitched together so tightly that not even an angry outdoor cat can claw it apart. It’s stronger than it looks. Do you understand?”

“Sure,” I said, uncertainly. I didn’t yet know whether I wanted to be there or not. I missed my friends. But my grandparents’ world was so fresh and new and I didn’t yet dare to even act grumpy around them.

“Now we’ll open all the windows so that sweet Lake Okabye air can rush through the house.”

“Okay.” Obediently, I went into the hall and opened the window at the top of the second staircase.

“Light as feathers and strong as iron,” she called out to me.

“What is?” I asked. She followed me into the hall and then we went into one of the spare bedrooms and started on the bedding in there.

“Our quilts are,” she said. “Will you get us some pillowcases?”

I went and found them in the linen closet. When I got back she said, “Sit with me a moment.”

So I sat down with her on the side of the bed in that big spare bedroom that nobody ever used.

“Peter, listen. We know you’ve witnessed some ugliness between your mother and father.” She hugged me, before going on. She had blonde hair that I’d watched her put in curlers the night before. I thought she smelled like flowers. “If you want to talk about it with us, you can. Now let’s make this bed.”

I think we both knew I wouldn’t be able to really talk to her. I was too embarrassed. I was thirteen. She threw another patchwork quilt in the air. I stared, transfixed by the orphaned bits of fabric, now stitched together, spinning in the light.

“Pick up an end and pull,” she said.

And I did just what I was told and I couldn’t help noticing that it was light as feathers and strong as iron!

“I like this quilt,” I said.

“Yes, this is a good one—I made it out of Pop’s old shirts and some Italian wool he brought back from the war.” She paused. “I think I hear him now.”

I pricked up my ears and I could hear him too.

“Hello!” Pop yelled. Bess smiled. We could hear him lumbering around in the kitchen.

“Ready, Peter?”

“Are we done, Bess?” I asked.

“I’m not but you are. You two see if you can catch some trout.”

“Okay,” I said, though I’d never touched a live fish before. I followed Pop to the kitchen. He was much, much taller than me. He was a burly, clean-shaven man with a bald head, in a white t-shirt and blue jean overalls, always with a Lucky Strike cigarette either between his lips or tucked behind his ear.

“Let’s gather what we’ll need,” he said.

I found myself nodding, uncertain about what to do next. But just like his wife, Pop smiled patiently at me.

He said, “We can only bring with us what makes sense to bring. And not more than that. Why do you think we can’t bring more?” Pop stared down at me and waited. I understood that he was trying to teach me a lesson, though it looked like it had been a while since he’d done that.

“Because the boat will sink?”

“Yes. And who needs the weight? Not two people in a canoe. When Bess and I go out, which we’ve been doing since long before your mom was born, we just bring what we need. You can’t bring too much in the canoe because it’ll just get in the way. Wait’ll you see our canoe! It’s strong and if you care for it through the seasons like we’ve been doing, it’ll support you and it won’t break down. But it’s just built for two adults and maybe a few children, at the most. Try to make it hold more than that and it’s just no good at all. But we do need our icebox for sandwiches and the bait bucket and a towel for you in case you want to swim.”

“Sure thing,” I said.

Pop wrapped the sandwiches and I put them in the ice box. It was so quiet in that house that we could hear Bess humming Hank Williams’ “Crazy Heart” on the floor above us.

We gathered the rest of what we needed and went out to the great lawn behind the back porch. And, because I’d come in after dark the evening before, that was the first time I saw the canoe. It was old and the outside was painted a milky green and the inside had mahogany ribs that glowed in the sunlight.

“This is sure something!” I cried out. And I didn’t stop myself the way I would have in the city, where I was learning to play it cool and not show too much enthusiasm for anything.

“As I said, Bess and I have done a nice job of taking care of it,” Pop said. “You know how to paddle?”

I felt some heat on my cheeks, and I frowned and shook my head, looked down at the shiny grass beneath my sneakers.

“Never paddled a canoe?”

“No, sir.”

“Don’t call me, sir! I’m your Pop. All right, what about fishing?”

I could only shake my head.

Pop laughed a big belly laugh and he smacked the back of my neck and I stumbled forward. I glared up at him when he did that, because I felt ashamed for not holding my ground.

“That’s fine! First we’ll learn how to handle this canoe. You’ll see what it can hold and what it can handle and what it can’t. Then we’ll learn to paddle it, together, just like me and Bess did when we first met so that someday you’ll know how to take a moonlit canoe ride with your sweetie. And then we’ll show you how to fish!”

“Okay,” I said, and then lower, “thanks.”

“Don’t thank me. You’re going to work this summer. You’ll do your share. And we’ll have you paddling and catching fish soon enough!”

Good love is a quilt—light as feathers and strong as iron. __ A good marriage is a canoe—it needs care and isn’t meant to hold too much—no more than two adults and a few kids.