Honor and Humiliation
Imagine that you are an eight year old boy on the coast of Maine in the summer of 1941. America hasn't yet entered the war, and, indeed, you hardly know that there is a war going on elsewhere. You like to play baseball with the other boys, but you have only a vague notion that Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams are also baseball players.
At the age of four, you were given a little white flat- bottomed skiff which sat on the water like a swan. It took a while to learn to manage oars much longer than yourself, but, in a week or so, you were moving the boat with moderate speed and some control.
That first summer, you had to suffer the presence of your mother in the after seat, facing you and weighing the boat down, wherever you went. From then on, you were allowed out alone as long as you wore a little red life preserver and kept within the confines of a good-sized bay. Your mother watched you from various vantage points, and still does. But the other boys don't know that. You instead try to give the impression that you're next door to an orphan, one who's tough and mean, and willing to undertake desperate adventures.
In the course of rowing around the bay and the little coves leading off it, you meet many other people in rowboats. There are the inshore lobstermen, who usually row standing up with their oarlocks mounted on stalks sticking up from the sides of the boat. There are also housewives rowing to market, fishermen, and just about any sort of person. After all, the Great Depression is still in full force in coastal Maine, and not many people have cars.
Trucks are also fairly sparse, and the ones that do bounce along the curvy little roads are delapidated and much given to backfiring. Instead, there is a fleet of two-masted schooners which carry freight up and down the coast. These are often sailed by two men and a boy. The boy, on finding himself on shore, will lord it over the other boys.
One morning, you meet a schooner coming into the bay with lumber loaded so high on the decks that the booms have been raised and the sails reefed to clear the load. It's remarkable that the crew can get past the lumber to handle the sails at all, and the whole arrangement is obviously dangerously unstable. As you watch, a woman in a gingham dress climbs over one stack of lumber and reaches down precariously to loose the fore halyards. Then, as she continues to take in sail, and finally drops the anchor, it becomes clear that the entire crew consists of herself and her husband at the wheel. Since there is no boy, it occurs to you to volunteer for that position and run away to sea.
On another morning, you meet a middle-aged gentleman rowing a zig-zag course and singing. This doesn't puzzle you a great deal. Drunkenness is quite common, and the other boys' mothers sometimes wind up with black eyes on Sunday morning. Yours doesn't, perhaps because your father is long gone. Just then, the gent passing you misses a stroke and ends up on his back on the bottom of the boat with his legs flailing in the air. Since he continues to sing, hardly missing a note, you realize that he's a happy drunk, unlikely to inflict black eyes on anyone.
Coming closer, you recognize the man struggling to right himself as old John Heston, a lobsterman known for his three- day sprees. Sometimes, in the middle of one, a jokester ties a bucket to the bottom of his boat. Mr. Heston hardly notices that it takes him three times as long as usual to get anywhere. On this occasion, he isn't hauling a bucket. Once again seated, he speeds recklessly toward some rocks, almost falling sideways as he swerves to avoid them at the last minute.
You usually meet your friends when one boy rows out, and is joined by others who see him afloat. Some have their own rowboats, but more "borrow" ones that happen to be tied up conveniently. If its owner wants it, he can bellow from the wharf for its return. Some rowboat owners adminster a cuff to the head in such circumstances, but the boys are inclined to take their chances.
On this day, there are five boys in boats, and you play a game of
"over-the-line." Using a red navigational buoy and two brightly colored
lobster-pot buoys to form a triangle about fifty yards on a side, the
There are two teams, the DEFENDERS of three boats, and the ATTACKERS of two boats. The Attackers begin well off to the side, and their object is to cross any of the lines into the triangle without being rammed. The Defenders, however, cannot cross the interior of the triangle, and can only row around the perimeter. They thus have to co-operate in order to have at least one boat defending a side that comes under attack. The fastest rowers always belong to the Attacking team, and so it's impossible for a Defender to simply take off after an Attacker and run him down. By the same token, a single defender is likely to be over-matched if left alone to defend a side of the triangle. The other two defenders thus try to help at the corners without unduly exposing their own sides. The game ends when one of the Attackers is rammed, or when one crosses a line.
On this day, you, as the youngest, are one of the defenders. After a good deal of skirmishing, three boats collide without it's being clear whether the second attacker (a2) has crossed the line. An argument immediately breaks out. Tempers rise, and a2 invites all members of the Defenders to accompany him to shore, where he will kick your asses.
Depending on the attitude that a1 may take, you have odds of three to one or three to two, but a2 is known for violence. Just as you, in consultation with your team members, are deciding whether to accept this challenge, a large man is seen bellowing from shore. It turns out that he is the owner of the boat a2 has been using. He doesn't seem to care which side actually won the game, and he may not like having his boat rammed. Since it's a small town with little anonymity, a2 has to row back to the wharf and an uncertain reception. The rest of you row quietly off, far enough to avoid retribution, but near enough to see and hear.
a2 is yanked roughly out of the boat by one big arm and hand, set down on the wharf, and kicked in the rear hard enough to knock him flat. You don't jeer at a2 in his moment of discomfiture, becuase, after all, you'll be seeing him on the streets.
Instead of landing, the other boys drift together in a conversational mode. The game, with its ambiguous outcome, is forgotten, and you swap information. One boy says,
"My dad's fished on the Grand Banks, and he's seen hawks with wings twenny foot acrost that dive down on men in dories. They go for the eyes first. Then, when ya rowin around blind in circles, they eat ya, bit by bit."
"Thass nuthin! A big shark got my cousin off the White Island, bit him plumb in half, and the upper half was yellin and screamin somethin turrible."
These stories are received with a certain reverence, and it's also agreed that, all around them, there are giant octopi who think nothing of wrapping a casual tentacle around a man in the water.
You yourself, more worldly than the other boys, are quietly sceptical. And, indeed, the dangers of the sea hardly need any exaggeration. Offshore fishermen are lost in gales all the time, particularly in winter. Even the lobstermen suffer fatalities, sometimes freezing as they try to stay on an overturned boat with the seas washing over them. But, of course, no one makes too much of these things. They have been going on too long. Anyhow, some of the men who are lost were never much loved in the first place.
In this latter category, but still among the living, is Joe Jones. A man of thirty five or so, and a little slow, he rows almost every day to an offshore island. He there loads his rowboat with rocks which he takes home. As nearly as can be gathered, he is there building a sort of fort in front of the trailer in which he lives with his wife. It's alleged that they throw some of these stones at passing cars, and they do seem to have seen the insides of some institutions.
Most people think that, one way or another, Joe will eventually run out of luck. Still, he inspires a certain awe among the boys. You yourself have an occasional urge to bounce a moderate-sized rock off a shiny new Packard. More important, you realize that anyone who can row an open boat loaded with rocks in the North Atlantic in February is a master of small-boat seamanship.
It was a thrilling day for you when you actually met Mr. Jones. He was returning with his load of rocks when, taking advantage of your mother's distraction by an unwanted suitor, you rowed out of the bay and intersected his course. He seemed amused by your boat and outfit, and challenged you to a race. He easily out-distanced you, but then waited for you to catch up. You complimented him on his rowing, and he allowed,
"Ayer, I kin row. Course todiy I'm feelin some odd."
Lots of people in the town were given to feeling "some odd", and were quick to announce that fact if there was work to be done. But, Mr. Jones, grinning at you, looked the picture of health. Then, saying, "Here's somepin for ya, boy", he picked up a fairly good-sized rock and tossed it over to you. By some miracle, you caught it in both hands before it knocked a plank loose in the bottom of your skiff. He valued rocks, and it was obviously a gift. As you thanked him, he rowed off with a great churning of water and a considerable acceleration. After that, you kept his rock right under your rowing seat as a token of good luck.
There was trouble with your mother about leaving the bay when you got back, but she eventually calmed down. At that point, you told her of your meeting with Mr. Joe Jones. She looked a little uneasy, and you added, experimentally,
"I'd like to grow up to be like him."
"Well, you know dear, there are other people who also row very well. Wouldn't it be even better to be like Mr. Howard Blackburn?"
Most sea stories seem to start with an extremely difficult situation, and then some tragic mistake occurs. Howard Blackburn and his dorymate, Tom Welch, were separated from their schooner in mid-winter on the Grand Banks. They eventually gave up hope of finding her in the fog, and they set out to row to the distant Newfoundland shore. Everything was freezing and seas were splashing over the side when Blackburn tried to rig a sea anchor to give them a few minutes rest. In order to work better, he laid his mittens in the water in the bottom of the boat to keep them from freezing. Welch, who was bailing, accidentally bailed them overboard.
Welch gradually froze to death, but Blackburn, having allowed his bare hands to freeze in position on the oars, made it to the coast.
The local newspaper recently published a picture of Mr. Blackburn as an older man, and your mother was quite taken with him. He is shown, with only stumps for hands, at the wheel of his cruising sloop. He has on a gleaming white shirt and rather formal cravat setting off a handsome white- moustached face with a high forehead and unusually bright penetrating eyes. What particularly appeals to your mother is his gentlemanly aspect, something she hopes against hope that you will yourself achieve. This, she thinks, is a man who has survived a desperate adventure, one which he doesn't dream of repeating, and who has become a super-solid citizen.
Since you listen when the lobstermen and fishermen talk with one another, sometimes even condescending to address their remarks to boys, you know better. Blackburn wasn't that sort of man. After recovering from frostbite, he twice sailed sloops of less than thirty feet across the Atlantic to England. No one seems to know how he managed the sails and rigging without hands.
Not satisfied with that, he attempted to sail a fifteen foot dory across. That was too much. After righting it twice in gales off Sable Island, he returned to Gloucester. At the time of the picture, he probably was living peaceably. But that look of great respectability which so reassures your mother hid a deeper restlessness. You're pretty restless yourself, and you wouldn't at all mind being like Howard Blackburn. Your mother seems to feel relief when, as always, you tell her only what she needs to know.
After Pearl Harbor, German U-boats begin torpedoing American tankers. Most of the sinkings are along the Florida coast, but the scare spreads everywhere. You yourself come under suspicion of subversive activity. You customarily pick up floating objects of any conceivable interest as you row along, and add them to the collection in your skiff. Among other things, you have a large tin can having a capacity of some five gallons. An elderly lady sees you rowing out to sea with it, and, concluding that you're refuelling German submarines, she denounces you to the Coast Guard. A coastguardsman actually comes around to investigate, but your mother vindicates you by pointing out that the can has no bottom.