“Dave’s Brain Box” by Joel Sackett – The Legacy of Dave Ullin

Dave's Brain Box Book Cover by Joel Sackett image courtesy of Joel SackettWhen photographer, Joel Sackett and I first sat down to talk about his new book, “Dave’s Brain Box”, I’ll admit I knew very little about Dave Ullin. Of course, I’d heard of him, but for the most part, mentions of Dave were always in passing while interviewing someone on another subject. The overall impression I was left with when Dave’s name came up, was that he was a striking and unique man who was frequently seen down at the waterfront or walking about town. I’ve since learned that Dave was much, much more—he was a man whose legacy should be shared and celebrated!

When Joel and I discussed how the article would be structured, he was very clear that he wanted to share Dave’s life with not just those that knew Dave but also to solidify his place in Bainbridge Island history.

Dave was born on September 14, 1942 and grew up in Alki Beach in West Seattle in a home hand-built by his parents and grandparents. At an early age he bonded with the environment, exploring the large maple forest that bordered his home, learning to utilize what nature had provided to create and build the things one needed. When he was still a young boy, his family purchased 400 feet of waterfront property on Westcott Bay, San Juan Island. As his sister, Jan Ullin Staton notes in the book, “It was our favorite place and Dave and I always wanted to be there.” Initially, the property only held a 16×16 foot Army surplus tent, but Dave and his father began collecting 2x4s and other wood that washed up on the beach and built a cabin.

Dave also learned to build kayaks and paddles, which he and Jan used to explore the shores near their Westcott Bay retreat. Dave’s curiosity and love of using what nature provided (or what others discarded) became a life-long passion. He was very interested in physics and engineering, educating himself as a young boy through adulthood in order to build whatever it was that he needed at the time. He gardened often with his mother, and learned to refurbish and repair boats with his dad as a teen, always appreciating the hard work and fruits of his labor.

Dave Ullin image by Joel SackettAfter high school, Dave joined the Coast Guard, and then the Reserves, and later took a boat-building course on Lake Union, purchased and rebuilt a Navy whaleboat, was a logger out of Shelton, WA, did trolling in Alaska, and beach logging in the Puget Sound. Eventually he purchased a 45-foot tugboat named Spruce, which was moored at Riverside Marina on the Duwamish River. When the marina was sold, Spruce was towed to Eagle Harbor, where Dave made his new home as a liveaboard and would eventually become a devoted steward for the environment, an advocate for simple living, volunteering, helping, teaching and sharing his skills, philosophies and thoughts, which at times seemed controversial, but in retrospect bordered on brilliant.

Not long after Joel moved to Bainbridge Island, he saw Dave walking through town and he immediately caught Joel’s attention. “I didn’t know what he was all about, but he was visually very striking,” Joel recalled.  “Over the next few weeks, I saw him more often in Winslow and asked a few of my new friends about him. When I showed up early one morning where his tugboat home was tied up, he wasn’t terribly receptive.” However, they talked and visits to Dave’s tug Spruce happened more frequently after that and evolved into longer conversations.

“Dave would often talk about boat building, tools, and techniques, which were not my passions,” Joel said. “I talked about photographs, particularly light, which I often stopped to capture. We developed a curiosity about each other.  I wasn’t a liveaboard or a builder and he wasn’t an artist, but it was a good opportunity for both of us to see the world through each other’s eyes.”

Dave opened up a new way for Joel to communicate with people, “The problem is that, thus far, it only worked with Dave. We would be talking about something and Dave would go silent, close his eyes and look to the sky. The silence could last for 10, 15, 20 seconds,” Joel said of his friend. “Sometimes he would just walk away.  It was very unnerving the first few times he did this. But then not having to keep up a constant flow of words became liberating.  Dave would often call me at 7 a.m. the next morning from a payphone in Waterfront Park, picking up the conversation where we left off, ‘Hey, I was thinking about what we were talking about yesterday and…’”

Dave's Brain Box Book Back Cover by Joel Sackett image courtesy of Joel SackettDave was well known by his friends and those that saw him around town for his practical apparel, clean shaven face, purposeful and methodic gate and his signature canvas tote, which often held the tools he’d need for the day and almost always held his “Brain Box”. As Joel notes in his book, “Dave took notes. On the backs of recycled envelopes, various sizes of pads, notebooks, and index cards.” The index cards were kept inside a waterproof box a little bigger than the 3×5 index cards it contained, which was eventually coined, “Dave’s Brain Box”. Dave kept his thoughts, his philosophies, bits of conversations he’d had, personal history, reminders and much more on these cards. He’d frequently refine and revise the cards, using red ink to note the changes. “He restated key thoughts that he was always fine tuning, like about volunteerism, education, purposeful work, or the ‘Web of Life’.” Joel views these index cards as “artifacts” due to their fragile nature from having been handled so much by Dave as he revisited them and made frequent revisions.

After talking with Joel about Dave and reading Dave’s Brain Box, I quickly realized that Dave left an indelible impression on many people. Tami Allen, Bainbridge Island Police Department Harbor Master and Betsey Wittick, grape grower, wine maker, teacher, co-owner of Bainbridge Vineyards and proprietor Laughing Crow Farm, shared some of their experiences with Dave. 

“When I first met Dave in 1999, I had to learn to take two full breaths to keep myself from interrupting him,” Tami Allen said. “I became aware of my heartrate and breathing, but more importantly, I was learning to listen and to allow others more time to speak. Interchanges like this are rare, leaving space for reflection before a response.”

Tami and Dave would meet at the top of the dock weekly to dig up holly and blackberry, “I wouldn’t miss those Fridays for anything.” She also noted that Dave had a very small environmental footprint, creating little to no landfill and composting his waste. “He ate raw oats ordered in bulk and fresh kale, picked from several gardens in town.”

Dave kept a close eye on his surroundings in the harbor and if he noticed “even an inch of change in a vessel’s waterline and catch site of any list as he rowed through the harbor,” he would stop to assist the vessel Tami recalled. “He saved many a vessel from sinking- including a decommissioned ferry in Eagle Harbor. He would get frustrated when a boat was left to founder and feeling for the vessel, would stay up all night to keep it from sinking. He would row in a storm to a dragging vessel to let out scope and add his own gear at times. With a dinghy, he towed a swamped vessel weighing 10 tons to the beach for dewatering.”

Together, Tami and Dave raised a sailboat out of the mud in Port Madison using only a bucket and the incoming tide. “Since it was December and the middle of the night, my wife asked where I would be going at that hour. When she heard it was Dave, she said, ‘Okay, Dave counts as three, you can go’.  I appreciated working with him on the water having the benefit of his knowledge and physical strength without machismo or belittling.” If asked, Dave tried to help other boaters learn the art of self-sufficiency, anchoring and living off the grid.

“I recall Dave’s index cards he’d carry in a canvas tote.  He served as Harbor Commissioner and spokesperson for BAMBI (Boaters and Mariners of Bainbridge Island). He wrote eloquent letters regarding anchoring and living on the water. He lamented that new boaters limit their travel from dock to dock and our gentle harbor should remain a training ground for self-sufficiency. He didn’t want anchoring boundaries. He wanted to let wind, depth, current and weather dictate mooring decisions.” Dave’s letters can still be found in the comment archives for the Open Water Anchoring and Mooring Area, also known as the “Dave Ullin Open Water Marina”, a name, Tami says, that Dave “most surely would have contested.”

“From the outside Dave might have appeared ‘simple’, ‘slow’ or even a little scary (as he often had a serious look to his face, wore clothes that were not like what others wore – like wool pants with suspenders, logging boots, carefully mended old sweatshirts – and carried a big canvas bag),” Betsey Wittick recalled. “But those of us who had the great fortune to get to know Dave (and I really mean we were extremely fortunate!) realized that Dave moved and thought in a very low, powerful gear! You had only to attend a public hearing for the island’s Comprehensive Plan or a city council meeting where Dave was speaking at the Public Comment section to know what I’m talking about. It would start with the usual introduction: ‘My name is Dave Ullin, I live in Eagle Harbor’, but would be followed by 30-45 seconds when Dave would close his eyes and compose his thoughts – an eternity for those of us living in the modern world of 10 second sound bites and instant satisfaction!” His words were often profound in nature, she said, “the result of weeks of mulling about an issue while cloistered in the hull of his boat. Dave took nothing lightly or frivolously.”

Betsey frequently ran into Dave at T&C “the meeting place of the community!” where they’d have half-hour chats, which revolved around topics such as splitting rocks with hand tools, building steps in a trail, sharpening a crosscut saw, and reforms to the current education system.

“One of the most fun experiences I had working with Dave was running educational projects with some of the local schools,” Betsey said. For Dave, purposeful activities and pioneer skills were important parts of a child’s education and he was happy to share his knowledge. One day, while at the (now gone) laundromat on Madison Avenue, she spotted Dave with a group of preschool students pulling a log up the street.

“When I asked what the heck was going on, he told me about a friend who was a preschool teacher that was trying to come up with a better activity for these young minds than just running around during recess. Dave was pulled in because of his early experiences helping build his family’s house and his commitment to purposeful work. The result was an amazing experience with physics (using an inclined plane) and a parbuckle (requiring teamwork) and a cross cut saw used to cut logs into lengths (Dave let the kids use his best saws as he wanted them to be successful!) then the satisfaction of effort by splitting into firewood (Dave set up a safe gig to hold the log upright with a chain). Dave had traveled to Seattle to find small splitting mauls that could be handled by very young people, Betsey noted. “Dave helped me to set up similar projects on my farm but he was always worried about how showing what he had learned would affect the next generation – he had a strong point of view!”

“My last thoughts about Dave (at the moment) are that I wonder if he was from the past or the future,” Betsey said. “I hope all will look at Joel Sackett’s book with that point of view – what do we need to learn from Dave’s Brain Box?”

The overall intention of creating Dave’s Brain Box is to share his thoughts and ideas. “I’ve been thinking about how our community may benefit from Dave’s writings,” Joel said. “It was great when he was here and now it’s a pleasure to share stories about him.  But Dave’s thoughts and values have the potential to live on and continue to help us build a sustainable community.”

Dave’s Brain Box” can be found and purchased at the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum gift shop and The Chandlery at Winslow Wharf (133 Parfitt SW), and hopefully will be available at the Bainbridge Public Library and other locations in the near future. Going forward, Joel is hopeful to hold readings of the book to share both Dave’s thoughts and his own memories of this legendary man.

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