The last six months have seen many tributes to Brendan Kutler, a member of the senior class who died in his sleep in December. But perhaps the most unique tribute of all began at 5:30 a.m. on June 2, when eight seniors climbed atop the wooden pergola outside of Seaver and built a pirate ship in Kutler’s honor.
The group christened their creation the “S.S. Kutler,” painting the name on both ends of the ship. The campus flagpole, around which the ship is built, now boasts a mast and a pirate flag below the American flag. An anchor hangs below the ship, through the pergola.
The project was the brainchild of Joey Rafidi ’10 and Robert Reeves ’10. Reeves came up with the idea of building a pirate ship on the pergola over a year ago, and he and Rafidi planned out the project.
“There was an American flag up there. I thought, wouldn’t that be funny if it was a pirate flag?” Reeves said. “[Rafidi] and I became the captains [of the project], so to speak.”
Rafidi was glad that a group of Brendan’s friends was able to come together to create this end-of-year tribute, and that the group’s efforts panned out as planned.
“It was nice to see the kids really do something by themselves,” Rafidi said. “I just wanted to see it work. I wanted to see if this was possible. For a long time I didn’t think it was going to happen really.”
Reeves originally envisioned the ship as “the ultimate senior prank,” but said that sometime after Kutler died, the project took on a new meaning. Nick Mancall-Bitel ’10, who worked on the ship, said Kutler’s parents, Jon and Sara, requested that the ship stay up until graduation.
When they began planning, Rafidi and Reeves looked for a pre-made pirate ship, but, Reeves said, “that’s not something you come by very often.” So instead, they created their own design and bought the necessary materials. They used PVC, a type of plastic, for the frame, and foam insulation materials for the walls, which they painted to resemble wood.
They first assembled the ship at Rafidi’s house with the help of Andrew Wang ’10. On Tuesday after school they invited Mancall-Bitel, Wang, Rohun Bansal, Jesse Orrall, April Rosner and Charlotte Shih to disassemble it and learn how they would put it back together the next morning. They prepared until almost midnight.
At 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday, they converged on campus, attached a rope ladder built by Bansal and Wang to the pergola, climbed to the top and started construction. They finished at 7:15 a.m.
Working atop the pergola was not easy. The seniors had to balance carefully on the pergola’s wooden beams.
“It actually felt like being on a boat,” Rafidi said. “At one point my foot did slip and my leg went through [the beams].”
Mancall-Bitel said that he was not worried while working atop the pergola.
“You get up there and you’re on your hands and knees for a few seconds, and then you kind of get used to it,” he said. “It hurts your legs [a lot] to stand on the beams because it puts weight on your feet in weird places. But it’s only 10 feet [above the ground].”
“We walked cautiously, were safe, watched out for each other,” Reeves said.
While the group was building the ship, students and teachers stopped to look, with some taking pictures. Mancall-Bitel called the reaction to the ship “surprisingly fantastic.”
“I keep saying to people, I’m amazed that we built a pirate ship and all that, but I’m more amazed that nobody stopped us while we were up there, and then even more afterward,” he said.
Cinema Studies teacher Ted Walch, who taught Kutler the last two years, saw the ship being built at about 6:45 a.m. on Wednesday morning.
“The commando builders were high aloft the pergola taping the sides, raising a flag and dropping an anchor,” Walch said. “I saw the name S.S. Kutler. I saw the delicious imagination that transformed a flagpole and set sail a vessel of love and wit and hope.”
Like Mancall-Bitel, Reeves was surprised by how positively the S.S. Kutler was received. He said people have come up to him to tell him that the ship has “inspired them, or empowered them.”
“I was hoping that it would be received positively, warmly, that people would be surprised and impressed,” he said. “What surprised me most was the depth of the reaction. It was a very special thing for me.”
Reeves added that Jon and Sara Kutler came to see the ship and take pictures.
“They were very touched,” Reeves said. “[Brendan’s] mother was crying. His dad sent us a follow-up e-mail that was very touching. It made it that much more meaningful.”
By June 7, five days after it was constructed, the pirate ship was beginning to fall apart.
“The ship wasn’t really designed to last any longer than the day we put it up,” Rafidi said. “Keeping it up for graduation is going to be really difficult. Whether we like it or not, PVC and foam don’t hold together that well in wind.”
Several school maintenance workers and members of the group have already worked to fix the ship and make it more stable. But the group’s tribute is not yet finished.
Said Mancall-Bitel: “We’re wearing eyepatches at graduation.”
This article was written by Sammy Roth and originally published in Harvard-Westlake Chronicle, June 6, 2010.