Old Boat Finds Friendly Berth in Birney Schoolyard

Times Staff Writer

USS Birney II, a 17-foot former Coast Guard boat now firmly anchored to the Birney Elementary School playground, is awaiting its christening with sparkling apple cider Friday morning .

The 600-plus Birney students are also waiting. The bright blue, yellow and red vessel has been tantalizing the youngsters for weeks now, as adult volunteers welded, sanded, painted and generally made the craft shipshape for its big moment.

"We're fighting to keep the children off the boat now," said Karen Harding, Whittier Council PTA president and prime mover of the new boat acquisition.

A Birney Tradition

Having a boat in the middle of the playground at landlocked Alice M. Birney Elementary School is a long-established tradition. In the 1950s, a 35-foot wooden boat was donated to the school, and it became the school's landmark and the centerpiece of its yearly Thanksgiving pageant. It served for three decades as the Mayflower from which little Birney Pilgrims disembarked to greet little Birney Indians and celebrate the founding of turkey day.

Over the years, however, the old wooden boat deteriorated. "The wood kept popping from the sides," Harding said. "Dads would nail the wood back, but it just kept getting worse." Finally, it was decided that the old boat had become dangerous, and last year, the USS Birney I was removed from the play yard.

Paper Ship a Failure

For last year's Thanksgiving pageant, the teachers created a Mayflower substitute: a bulletin board covered with paper made to look like a sailing ship. "It just wasn't the same," Birney Principal Steve Kennedy said. The school remained boatless until Harding, a Birney alumna and mother of a present-day Birney kindergartner, decided to find a replacement.

After pricing new boats and realizing that they cost more than the El Rancho School District could afford, Harding found a former Coast Guard vessel a private owner was selling for $500. The school board approved money for the project and the renovation began. The new boat is metal rather than wood, and at least 400 pounds of metal accessories, such as ladders, have been welded to it, Harding said.

Welded and Sanded

"I dare anybody to try to destroy this," she said. "We've welded this so securely and sanded it perfectly smooth. We've taken every safety precaution." Harding, who directed the volunteers and did much of the work herself, said she has done research to make the boat's fittings as authentic as possible.

The new boat is expected to last much longer than its predecessor. "It will probably be here when the school is long gone," Kennedy said.

"It is all kinds of things to the kids of this school," he added, "not just a boat. Their imaginations go wild with it."

The school will celebrate the boat's dedication with a nautical vengeance. The school board, school superintendent and members of the Pico Rivera City Council will attend the ceremony, which also will honor the 35th anniversary of the Birney PTA.

All four kindergarten classes will sing "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean," "Sailing, Sailing," (with new lyrics written for the occasion) and, the piece de resistance, "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," sung as a round--a difficult feat for the 5-year-olds, who have practiced many hours, Harding said.

After the songs, Principal Kennedy will smash a bottle of cider against the boat's prow, speeches will be made, balloons will be released and each student will get a boat-shaped cookie.

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