Departures: Among the Yankees: Part 1

Summary: Foreshadowing... Necronomiparagraph... Little restaurant recommendation... hauling line... Did I say that? ... foreshadowing... Why we killed whales (but can stop now)... Shook and oak... Literary reference: Curious George... What's the adjectival form of Mia Farrow? ... Ivoride's progeny...

Ailing and Railing

1999.04.19 MON Mystic, CT

I spent the morning... let's not talk about how I spent the morning. I don't like reading about other people's gastric distress. Unless there's a good story. There was no good story that went with this morning's episode of post-dumpling-soup gastric distress.

I hopped a train to Mystic, CT, home of the Mystic Seaport museum. In Mystic, I headed North from the train station, searching for the Taber Motel & Townhouse, where I hoped to secure lodging.

I walked along tree-lined streets, lugging my luggage. There was space between the houses. A minute might go by during which I saw no cars. After a couple of days in New York City, this was something of a shock.

Walking North, I walked past the entrance to the Mystic Seaport Museum. The place looked bigger than I expected--it took up a few blocks. Across the street, construction equipment worked on expanding the parking lot--apparently, the place was increasing in popularity.

I walked further, did a double-take, double-checked the map. I'd gone past the motel's side-street. I turned around, walked back. I found the side street. It was only one block long, and there was no motel there. The newly-expanded museum parking lot seemed to have buried the hotel.

I lugged my luggage North until I reached the Old Mystic Motor Lodge, where the rooms smelled of harsh cleaning fluids. I'm not sure if that smell is what gave me the sore throat, but it seems like a likely candidate.

Once I was in the room, I ran to the bathroom. Uhm, let's not talk about this.

I wandered downtown in search of food. My guidebook mentioned two places: Mystic Pizza and Bravo Bravo. Since I hadn't seen the movie "Mystic Pizza," I decided to go to Bravo Bravo. Since Bravo Bravo was closed, I decided to go to Mystic Pizza after all. It was pretty good.

Start the Day With Flapjacks and Grave Markers

1999.04.20 TUE Mystic, CT

To avoid the sound of traffic, I walked through the cemetary instead of along the road. I was impressed by the number of names on the tombstones. Mystic's a small town and I expected there to be just a few family names appearing over and over again. Of course, this was foolish. Mystic's been a seaport for centuries. Of course people have been showing up from all over for centuries.

Fenner. Teague. Firgeleski. Post. Hickey. Cole. De Noia. Hamlin. Jacobs. Van Voerkom. Popson. Davis. Christian. Savona. Andersen. Swenson. Paul. Altman. Antezec. Stanford. Crotty. Bates. Strang. Daggett. Ach. Pietrowski. Joseph. Lee. Woodward. Kelly. Alger. Staartz. Goff. Dugas. Wardle. Walkup. Flaherty. Robishaw. Gilroy. Potter. Ness. Jeffrey. Squadrito. Haas. Oriatt. Podzaline. Main. Erlo. Cromwell. Burdock. Wilhelm. Button.

I jotted names as I trotted through. There were some great names. I wrote down only a small fraction; I didn't see most of the markers. But I wasn't here to read grave markers. I was here to go to the Mystic Seaport Museum.

Kitchen Little is a little shack of a place a little ways North of the museum. I really liked the breakfast I had there. It didn't show up in my travel guide. It's so tiny that it almost didn't show up in my field of vision as I walked past. I sat at a counter elbow to elbow with locals, wolfing down pancakes with lemon curd.

All Haul

[Photo: ship's ribs]

1999.04.20 TUE Mystic, CT (Mystic Seaport Museum)

I made it into the Mystic Seaport Museum, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I don't know what to tell you about it, though. There's a few things I can say.

I spent a lot of time looking at old ships. I learned a lot. I watched sailors run up into the rigging of a ship and unfurl (open) a sail. Then I watched them furl it. Nothing wildly exciting happened. I was hoping to get to sail on a tall ship later in the year and was nervous and I was glad to get a chance to see how one might go about doing such a thing. But it doesn't make for a good story. I'll just leave this mention in here so that I can hyperlink it later if I ever do get to sail on a tall ship.

As they do at the San Francisco Maritime Museum, the museum personnel let visitors haul on a line. We had to co-operate to pull together. "Now synchronizing all this isn't easy," our lecturer said, "and so what did they do to make sure they were all pulling at the same time?" I kept my mouth shut. I had an idea of what was coming.

"Uhm, sea chanteys?" volunteered a fellow museum visitor.

Shut up, I thought, but it was too late.

"That's right," the lecturer said, "so that's what we're going to do."

"What do you mean, 'we?'" said some wisecracker. Startled, I realized that I had said it. The lecturer gave me a look. I relented: "Uhm, okay."

I thought, I won't sing. I'll just yell so that we won't lose our place, just like before. It's not really singing. I yelled "Shallow/ shallow Brown" while hauling on a line with a bunch of other people. It wasn't so bad. No-one was in tune, so I didn't stand out as being especially bad.

I paid attention to how ships were rigged. These were big ships, and their rigging was more complicated than what I was used to. I'm used to small boats. Lines are attached to sails at one end; the other end snakes back to the cockpit. On big ships, things aren't so simple. There are lines which you use to adjust the angle of big sails. Perhaps to get more leverage, these lines don't just run from the sail down to the deck; instead, if the sail is attached to mast A the line will hop over to a pulley on mast B and only then seek the deck.

I asked questions. I got answers. The people there knew their stuff.

Chasing Cetaceans

I learned about whaling. Sailors were shanghai'd into whaling. It was somewhere near the bottom of the sailing status order. Fishing was more profitable; also more dangerous. Whaling voyages were long--often three to five years. The voyage would last until the tank was full of whale oil. When the Atlantic had been largely cleared of whales, then the whalers went to the Pacific--since their voyages would last for years, it wasn't so bad putting a few months into going around the world.

Our lecturer showed us where people would sit in the longboats which went out from the ship after the whales; where the harpooner would brace himself; how the boats were shaped so that they could be rowed backwards quickly, away from an enraged whale; the long line which would be played out as the whale tired itself out swimming away at high speed, giving the boat a "Nantucket sleighride;" the spear-length specially-tipped cutting probe which, thrust through a blowhole and twisted around, would wreak havoc on the whale's lungs, finally killing it; the flags to plant in a whale so that it could be spotted later (dead whales float low in the water, contrary to what whaling art might have you believe); the small store of food to help the boat crew row back to their ship from wherever the whale had dragged them.

Whale oil lubricated and powered the industrial revolution. You can talk all you like about the machines but for a time, only whale oil could keep those machines going. Whale oil was used for lots of things--but there were other sources of candle fat, lamp oil. Whale oil was uniquely suited for the high-precision needs of the new machines.

NASA was still using whale oil for a few specialized devices until sometime in the 60s.

Our lecturer said that when people found out that petroleum was even better for lubricating machines it was a big blow to the whaling industry. Whale baleen was still useful for something: corsets; but then those went out of fashion. In mentioning this, our lecturer inserted an editorial remark: she raised her arms and said, "Yayy!" I guess she really felt sorry for those whales.


In the large shipbuilding area, they were making a commissioned replica of the Amistad. I don't know much about shipbuilding, so I can't talk about that. I can't think of anything funny to say about the Amistad. Uhm, okay: how's this? How many times must a slave be freed before they become free? Three times! Once by his/herself, once by the state court of Connecticut, and once by the Supreme court!

Oh dear. That wasn't very funny, was it? I'll write about something else.

Something Else

There was a demonstration at the cooper's, somewhat disturbed by members of a school group. Once every couple of minutes, a few students would burst in:

"What's a 'shook'?"
To transport casks, you disassemble them into staves. By loosening the cask, you can sort of put two or more of them into a sort of concentric formation. This is a shook. This formation allows you to carry lots of empty barrels in a small space.
"What's the best material for transporting fresh water?"
White oak soaks up a bit of water and expands, forming a tight seal; it doesn't put bad flavor into the water. White oak is best.

Each group of students had the same set of questions. After a while, members of the audience, myself included, started to give the answers, to let the demonstrators go on uninterrupted. This constant drilling ensured that I would remember these two facts, which just goes to show that this kind of education really works.

Knowledge as from a Firehose

Later, I would learn part of the reason why fishing was more dangerous than whaling. Fishermen would toss their catches from small boats onto a larger boat. These were big fish, the kind that swim in the ocean. This was a heavy thing to heave while standing in a little boat on a tossing sea. Fishermen fell in the water, fell between boats. Fishermen would gut and cut the fish on the deck of the big boat, standing close together flicking their knives about. If you got cut, icky ocean stuff and fish guts would get in the wound; you were far from medical care.

In the gallery of ships' models, there was a library with many books on the subject. I was surprised to see Curious George Rides a Bike, in the collection. Upon opening it, I was reminded that this is the book in which he makes a boat out by folding up a newspaper.

There was a home with a working kitchen, a loom, and a vegetable garden. In the vegetable garden, I found an uprooted label hiding behind a stone: "Scarlet Runner Beans." Jeez. My mom grew those.

One of the pieces of interpretive text mentioned a Mehitabel Buckingham. My audio tour told me more. Specifically, it told me that I'd been mispronouncing "Mehitabel" for the last few years. It's meh-HIH-tuh-behl, not meh-HEE-tuh-behl.

Unconditional Jump

1999.04.21 WED Mystic, CT (Mystic Seaport Museum)

I'm going to skip ahead to the next morning, when I came back to the Museum for a demonstration of "Sailor's Crafts." You won't hear about the trouble I had trying to get a vegetarian meal at the resaurant Bravo Bravo when dealing with the nice-but-as-twitchy-as-Mia-Farrow waitress.

(Admission the museum was good for two days, though I had to supply my name and address to get the second day's pass. (They haven't spammed me in the years since.))

New Salts

I didn't have much time; I had a train to catch. I was carrying my suitcase. The Museum was nearly deserted. Here it was a Tuesday early in the season, 15 minutes after the place had opened. At the time the demonstration officially started, I was the only member of the audience. I had dropped my suitcase in the dirt and kneeled next to it. A young bearded guy was doing some scrimshaw.

It looked like he was writing on a sperm whale's tooth with a pencil. The tooth was actually a plastic imitation. The pencil (if it had ever been a pencil) had had its lead replaced with a little scraper blade. He was frowning, concentrating hard. Even through his beard, you could tell that his attention was very focused.

He handed over another "tooth," which he said was his first piece of scrimshaw: a cribbage board. He said he'd drilled out the holes by hand. He'd worn out two tungsten drill bits in the process. Imitation ivory, like real ivory, is tough, dense stuff.

I didn't say much. You might remember that I made passing mention of a sore throat before. By now it had taken hold, sunk its claws deep.

Another Museum person (whose name turned out to be Mary K. or Mary Kay), walked up and sat down as the demonstration officially began.

The demonstrator said that artists of the time would color in their works with lamp-black and tobacco juice, whatever was handy. He said that there were more works viewable in the museum's scrimshaw gallery.

Mary K. pointed at me with her chin. "He knows," she said. "He was here yesterday. He was in the scrimshaw gallery." She smiled. I nodded. "Yeah," I said. "You came back for a second day," she said, stating the obvious. I envied her a throat healthy enough to use on such pleasantries. I replied, "I just came back today for this before I gotta catch my train." "Where are you going?" I coughed, somehow got out: "Boston. Going to Boston."

Mary K. said, "Oh, Boston, that's--"

He said, "So long girls, I'm going to Boston," in a funny voice, as if he were imitating something. We looked at him, hoping for an explanation. He resumed scowling, looking at his "tooth."

(Writing this up, I did some web searching and found reference (in the Nottingham Folk Music Database) to a tune called "Goodbye Girls I'm Going to Boston".)

He said that he'd carved mastodon. Apparently the treehuggers aren't worried about poachers driving mastodon's extinct, and there hasn't been a big movement to legislate against trafficking in mastodon ivory. He said that while carving fake ivory creates a smell like Bondo, carving real ivory smells like clipping your fingernails.

A lady walked past and greeted us, stopped to chat. She was on her way from the administrative offices to the library, taking the long way, taking in the sun. Apparently, she was one of the librarians in the research library. She said, "In the winter, I'm glad to be in there, but on days like this..."

Everyone agreed that this was a good day to be working outside.

"Yeah, I guess I won't see y'all in the library today," the librarian said. She peered at me, "And you, I never see you there."

"Uh," I ventured before my throat seized up.

Mary K. said, "He doesn't actually--uh, he's a visitor." I nodded.

The librarian looked embarassed. Hah! Maybe I couldn't talk, but maybe that was preventing me from making a fool of myself. Ha ha. I tried to convince myself that I was glad to have a sore throat. I wasn't buying it.

It was time to go.


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