Home from the sea

By Doug Cabral

Note: I published this on July 18, 2012, in a column I called At Large, in The Martha’s Vineyard Times, which I owned and edited. Word spread today that Bernie has died.

The ports: Casablanca, Odessa, Piraeus, Naples, Rio, Recife, Durban, Togo, Abidjan, Monrovia, Dakar, Manila, Da Nang, Rotterdam, Cameroon, Panama, Haifa, Saigon, Borneo, Singapore, Midway, Taiwan, Cadiz, Lagos, Hamburg, Yokohama.

The ships: S/S Austral Patriot, S/S Gibbes Lykes, S/S African Dawn, S/S Flying Clipper, S/S Gulf Queen, S/S American Leader, S/S American Reliance, S/S African Sun, S/S Mormactrade, S/S Export Buyer.

Bernie Holzer of West Tisbury has sailed into and out of all these seaports, and many more, many times. He has sailed over oceans on these ships and many more over more than 60 years. Of course, he’s been many, many times to Vineyard Haven, Woods Hole, Hyannis and Nantucket, as purser on the Steamship Authority ferries. Bernie is an able seaman, retired from the sea and Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds.

His record of achievement, besides seeing the world from the decks of freighters and tankers, includes painting precise, faithfully rendered pictures of seagoing vessels – most of them historic Vineyard and Nantucket ferries – and gracing his wide circle of friends with his visits. His attentions to his friends were not scheduled, because who knew when he’d get paid off an oceangoing ship or when he’d go looking for the next one. But they were orderly, dependable, and delightful, every one – genuine pick-me-ups for the visited, genuine gifts each time.

When Bernie dropped in on the new mothers in his circle, he was cautious. A confirmed and devoted bachelor, he held out until Simeon (Simi) Denhart, a schoolteacher, tamed him after his oceangoing days ended and while he was working on the ferries. There never was a more devoted partnership.

In his seagoing days, Bernie dropped by for coffee break. He might stay for lunch. He’d hold the baby, but he drew the line at babysitting. “I got to go,” he’d say, if the air seemed pregnant with a possible request from the mom to look after baby while she made a short trip to the store. He had other stops to make on his friendly rounds. And, as excuses go, “I’m shipping out from New York the day after tomorrow” always did the trick. After years of shipping out, from Boston, New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, and elsewhere, when Bernie wanted a ship his seniority meant that the choice of berths was his, and his name went to the top of the board. So, if he needed to clear out, nothing stood in his way.

Bernie grew up in Toledo and began his lifelong trade on lakers, the Great Lakes freighters that carry bulk cargoes in and out of the Midwest. It wasn’t his plan exactly, but his father saw a chance to improve Bernie’s fortunes, and he took it, as any father might.

The career path for 16-year-olds in Toledo at the time was narrow and discouragingly steep, and Bernie didn’t mind that. He and his buddies, he will tell you, were having a lot of fun doing the things that city teenagers enjoyed. His dad persuaded Bernie to apply at the union hall where seamen waited for jobs. And, the day came when dad hunted Bernie down to say that he’d had a call from the union hall. There was a berth available if he wanted it. Bernie told his dad that, of course, he certainly did, but to get it he’d have to make a drive of a couple of hours to meet the ship. Bernie, who had no car, said it was a shame but he had no way to get there. His dad said, I’ll drive you.

Approaching 80, Bernie, trim and fit in his seagoing days, is slight now, his blond hair is white, and the tone of his voice cackles more than it did when he welcomed passengers aboard the old Islander. A great reader of history and biography, his sight has dimmed a bit, so he listens to books on tape, despite some hearing loss common to members of his family. His is still the familiar voice you once heard and never forgot, telling you that you couldn’t smoke (“For the next 45 minutes, you don’t smoke.”), that you couldn’t have a beer until the ferry left the dock so you’ll just have to wait, that your pets needed to be kept off the seats and out of the lunch counter area, and that, before you disembarked from the ferry in Vineyard Haven, you needed to be sure you had all your belongings, including the “rug rats” or “curtain climbers” you’d brought along. The passengers, most of them, smiled when they heard this.

He was also the purser who befriended the 7 am troop of Falmouth Academy students from the Vineyard on their way to Woods Hole and school. And, because he was friendly with most of their Island parents and nearly every other Vineyarder who traveled with him, he made time to shoot the breeze with many of them and keep the students’ parents up to date on whether the kids were doing their homework on the boat, or not. Sometimes, he kept the truth to himself if he judged it prudent to do so.

Bernie found his way to the Vineyard with the help of Lambert Knight, a mariner of some considerable accomplishment. He and Bernie met in the West Indies when Bernie shipped as crew on a small yacht. Sort of a seaman’s holiday. The two crossed paths and became fast friends. Later, at the Knight house in Vineyard Haven, Bernie never refused a meal made by Lambert’s wife, Sally, a celebrated cook whose specialties, including extraordinary chowders and soups, arrived at the newly opened Black Dog Tavern in 1972, in the passenger seat of Sally’s sporty little roadster, with the top down.

When he came ashore — or rather when he left the deep water life — Bernie and Allan Miller built a little house at the top of a hill in West Tisbury. Since Simi joined up, the place has grown and become less simple but handsomer. Bernie’s done a lot of work on the place himself, tutored by boatbuilder Ross Gannon, who lives nearby. Now, he tells me, when they’re doing woodwork, he and Simi share the job. She lines up the wood on the table saw, and when she runs it through, he helps guide it off the saw.

Bernie still goes to sea regularly, although it’s alongshore not deepwater. He goes lobstering every Saturday with Bill Austin, Tom Reynolds, and John Christensen, in Bill’s boat. The four, friends for decades, get a few lobsters every time, although Bernie admits he doesn’t like to eat lobster. What he likes are his friends, and he tends those friendships, even if lobster is involved.

What you want in a shipmate is a lot like what you want in a friend. On freighters, tankers, lakers, ferries, sailboats, Bernie is the perfect shipmate, cheery, helpful, standing his watch, never complaining. I have a photograph of my son Matthew, Bernie, and me, sailing in a fall gaff riggers’ race out of Vineyard Haven. The weather was snotty and dead ahead, the current against us on both legs, and Vineyard Sound came over the rail repeatedly on the windward stretch to soak us thoroughly. For Bernie, it was just another damp day offshore.

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A good and decent man – Donald DeSorcy, builder, R.I.P.

The common thing to do these days is to celebrate the widely known and often celebrated. A very few of these deserve to be exalted. What is uncommon is to mark one’s neighbors for their plain, unpretentious intelligence, generosity, and square dealing. The builder, businessman, and landlord Donald DeSorcy, who died July 17, was one of these.
When my wife Molly and I bought The Martha’s Vineyard Times in 1991, we set out to move the business from what had been its headquarters since its founding in 1984 to more spacious and visible quarters. News reporting demands more protein, fewer calories, less cholesterol, and an atmosphere that is bland and diligent rather than spicy. The old Spaghetti Pot restaurant building off State Road, Tisbury, where we were, had a let’s-order-pizza aroma that impeached the standard newsroom smells of perspiration, printer’s ink, stale coffee, bourbon, and cigarette smoke. Donald had just the building we needed.
He took a flyer on a young couple with a young business whose future was uncertain. He remodeled the building to suit us, priced the vast space so that we could afford it, and let us alone to do our work. The newspaper has now dwelt in what feels like its one and only home for more than 20 years. Donald, reserved, genial and wry, stopped by from time to time to chat, while making the working man’s rounds of his company’s construction projects in his tiny red pickup, a stub of a cigar stuck in the side of his mouth, mostly unlit. He was always fun to see and talk to, charming in his effortlessly direct way, and always wise, helpful, and encouraging. Subtracting one Donald DeSorcy is regrettable. Adding more like him is what we ought to do.

My life in my palm

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I applaud the Supreme Court decision forbidding police from rummaging in my cell phone the next time they arrest me. Indeed, I applaud every restraint imposed on the government’s intrusion in my affairs. The elusive balance between privacy and national security that everyone talks about but no one seems able to strike seems to have tilted steeply away from privacy and toward government nosiness, and that’s bad for humanity’s very essence.
You may say, what’s the difference between Twitter devotees and Facebook Tumbler, Instagram, and Snapchat mavens who put themselves out there without apparent compunction and the government, which doesn’t put much except blarney out there, but tows its surveilling net through the ocean of humanity gathering a big catch 24/7/365. But obviously, the Tweeters and Facebook posters are exposing themselves – unhealthy, incomprehensible, promotional, narcissistic, and inauthentic generally – while government is dredging for us, and without asking if it is all right.
Anyhow, excuse the rant, because that wasn’t the point of this post. Actually, the point is that I’ve often thought, if only a cop would come by, place me under arrest for suspicion of, say, loitering, seize my cell phone, and rummage through its accumulated data to see if I’ve been naughty or nice. And then, when he discovers that my digital life is innocent and incoherent, he turns out to be one of those genial community policeman type cops, so he shares with me what he’s found on my phone.
Because I certainly can’t find a damn thing on it, and I don’t know why there are 15 copies of the Black Dog Cafe phone number in my contacts collection. It the cop gives me some idea of what’s on that phone, it will have been a great help.
You see, I have a Blackberry, and it’s gone out of style, as I have. It doesn’t understand much anymore, and what it does understand it doesn’t share with me. No Siri. No vivid, intuitive interface, no apps, a three inch screen, and tiny buttons far smaller than my thumbs and thus the source of much confusion to people who receive my text messages.
Everyone says, get an iPhone, but I resist. Maybe it’s just because everyone says it, and nearly everyone has one, and absolutely everyone who has one is staring at it absolutely all the time. I don’t ever stare or scroll through the miniature icons and characters on the midget screen of my Blackberry, because really, who could make sense of it. When it rings, I answer, unless two days earlier I’d silenced the little monster and forgotten to switch sound back on. Then the next sound I hear is Molly’s voice – “Why do you never answer your phone? What’s the use of a phone if you never answer?”
Which is why I conclude that a little – a smidgen – of government intrusion, delivered when I ask for it, officer, might be a good thing.

No fun

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Alessandra Stanley, in a TV review in the New York Times, was pleased by the new BBC series, Three Musketeers, in part because the writers had taken a bit of naughty liberty with the Dumas story, let a little 21st century air into the story set in 17th century France, and made some fun of the foppish monarchy that would before long forsake its guilded carriages for crude tumbrels. And, why shouldn't the writers have been a little sporty, because, as Ms. Stanley says, “purists are no fun.” Ah, well, it was just comment on a TV series. There are so many of them, so many reviews too.

As it happened, I've been rereadiing Christopher Hitchen's meditation upon Thomas Payne's Rights of Man(Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006), a small book that had a small reception, by a penetrating polemicist and essayist. Perhaps Ms. Stanley had in mind those stuffy old Puritans, or perhaps the indefatigueable Islamist jihadists, or Vladimir Putin. If so, she's right. But today, the zeitgeist wrestles against the purists, no matter what their views are. It's a moment for what feels right for me, and nothing is immutable, unambiguous, itchy, confiining, or not fun.

But Payne was onto something, and he was definitely a purist. His influence spurred revolutions in 1776 and 1789, the first of which we'll celebrate soon. Payne's book, as Hitchens says, is “not just a paean to human liberty … it always kept its sights raised to a point somewhat beyond the immediate political and social horizon … [it] is both a trumpet of inspiration and a carefully wroght blueprint for a more rational and decent ordering ofsociety, both domestically and on the international scene.” Of course, it hasn't always been fun, and it's cost a great deal of blood.

 

 

Charles W. Morgan Redux

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There are a couple of bits to add to the last post, which described one leg of Morgan's 38th cruise. I spent a 19th Century day sailing aboard her. More than 170 years after she began nearly a century of whale hunting, her travels this summer have an historical not a commercial purpose. She will raise the profile of Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, which has funded this living and sailing exhibit with milions in donations and hundreds of volunteers. And, she will remind her audience along the New England coast of a maritime industry, launched and grown here, when the world needed whaling's products to improve the lives and fortunes of communities across the globe.

How did this relatively small, niche nonprofit, not dedicated to vast, global problems, realize what was by every reasonable measure a grand idea? I'd say passion and courage did it. Here are three examples.

Matthew Stackpole is a descendant of whaling families at Nantucket. His father, a newspaperman, novelist, museum curator, and historian, wrote an authoritative examination of the birth of the whaling industry in America called Whales and Destiny(University of Massachusetts Press, 1972). To understand this industry and what Edouard Stackpole called “A Whaling Kingdom Without a Country”, his book is the place to start. Anyhow, his son is steeped in whaling's history, its impact throughout the world, in the Charles W. Morgan's unique, surviving importance as a memorial to an American industrial era, and to life under sail, something he has experienced firsthand throughout his life. Matthew Stackpole helped raise the millions necessary to reconstruct – actually to revive – Morgan, and he has spent years talking to donors, to historians, to anyone who would listen about the value of the Morgan project and especially the value of rebuilding her so that she could embark on a 38th voyage. His was a passionate commitment.

Then there is Ralph Packer, a Martha's Vineyard resident similarly in the thrall of marine history and coincidentally the owner of a marine towing company and a substantial waterfront presence on Martha's Vineyard. On his own, to press along the notion of this early 19th century sailing vessel, authentically rebuilt, should sail again, Packer offered to supply at no cost a tugboat to shepherd Morgan on her summer-long 2014 cruise along the New England coast. Then he added space for her to moor at his Martha's Vineyard dock for a week, when islanders and visitors could inspect her and learn something about her history and the history of her industry. To make this latter offer, Packer had to spend three years getting permits to dredge the harbor in front of his wharf and then to do the dredging, all on his dime. That's a passionate commitment too.

Finally, there is the leadership at Mystic Seaport, which was not challenged by the ambitious goal of rebuilding the aged whaleship. That's a perfectly understandable museum-like project. Mystic has done such things in the past. But, here, challenged by the passions of those – like Stackpole, Packer, and others – there was another possible step – more expensive, riskier, horrifically more complicated – namely, to let Morgan, a National Historic Landmark, go sailing again. Making that decision took institutional courage on an exemplary scale.

 

Whaleship reborn

During her 80-year whaling career, which included 37 globe-girdling voyages, the Charles W. Morgan never visited Vineyard Haven. Built in New Bedford in 1841 and now preserved, reconstructed in authentic detail, and relaunched by the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, the Morgan, Captain Kip Files, arrived at the Tisbury Wharf Company’s dock at Vineyard Haven on Martha’s Vineyard Wednesday, after a splendid day’s sail from Newport.
Vineyard Haven is one of several stops along a promotional route that will have her visit such New England ports as New London, Newport, New Bedford, Boston, Provincetown, and cruise over the right whale sanctuary at Stellwagen Bank.
After a longish tow from her Ft. Adams dock, at the end of a hauser from Ralph Packer tug Sirius, Captain Paul Bangs, Morgan dropped the towline and added sails as she approached Gay Head. Robert McNeil’s Cangarda, a restored 19th century steam yacht, joined a growing flotilla of small craft, sail and power, trailing the Morgan, delighted and astonished at this visitor from two centuries ago. Bailey Norton of Edgartown was aboard Cangarda. He is a descendant of Thomas Norton, captain of the Morgan on her first whaling voyage.
Rounding West Chop, Captain Files chose to take a hitch into Vineyard Haven Harbor, before turning around clew up his sales and take Sirius alongside to move her to her mooring at the Tisbury Wharf Company, which has been dredged and deepened especially to make a comfortable berth for the whaleship, which draws as much as 17 feet.
The cluster of smaller craft, some of which had trailed Morgan from Rhode Island Sound, but also including Vineyard Haven craft, including the schooners Charlotte, Malabar, Perception, Alabama, and Ishmael (never seeming so brilliantly named) followed her. Crowds watched her progress east in Vineyard Sound at West Chop, and Islanders gathered at Coastwise Wharf and Tisbury Wharf, and anywhere else that served as a vantage point, to welcome Morgan in her 21st century incarnation.
Morgan is a barque, which means three masts, with square sails on the foremast and the main and fore and aft sails on the mizzen. She was launched originally as a ship, which means square sails on every mast. Today, in addition to two jibs and a staysail, plus mizzen and mizzen topsail, she carries a course foresail, with two topsails and a topgallant sail above. On the main, there is the course, two topsails, the topgallant and a royal at the very apex of the rig. By contrast, Shenandoah, Vineyard Haven’s square-rigged centerpiece since 1964, carries two square sails on her foremast, a topsail and a topgallant. She’s known as a topsail schooner.
Nantucket was a prosperous, world-famous whaling hub. New Bedford became the world capital of the whaling industry and the richest city in North America in the 19th century.
The Vineyard, apart from shore whaling by Wampanoag Indians, lived on farming, shore fishing, and coastwise schooners passing north and south through Nantucket and Vineyard sounds. Its contributions to the 19th century heyday of American whaling were crewmen — Azorean sailors, Gay Head (Wampanoag) Indian harpooners, and Vineyard sailors, mates and captains. The Morgan’s visit memorializes their vital places in her celebrated commercial history.
The Vineyard and Gay Headers were represented Wednesday by Elizabeth James-Perry, a Wampanoag descendent for whom the trip was a spiritual recapture of sorts, and Matthew Stackpole of West Tisbury, a professional fundraiser for Mystic, who has helped raise millions of dollars for Morgan’s reconstruction. Another Vineyarder, the craftsman, boatbuilder, and artist Frank Raposa, who is among his many talents an expert caulker, joined the Morgan construction team in Mystic when it came time to caulk Morgan. And, Gannon & Benjamin, the Vineyard Haven boatbuilders, constructed one of Morgan’s whaleboats, hanging in davits today.
Morgan’s maiden voyage, 35 in her crew, took her back and forth across the Atlantic, around Cape Horn to the Arctic and back again around Cape Horn, to her New Bedford home port, three and a third years in all. The captain was Thomas Norton. He and many of the crew were Vineyarders. Fortunate and profitable throughout her career — despite howling storms, Arctic ice, hostile natives where Morgan stopped for water and provisions, attacks by Confederate raiders — Morgan, an early factory ship, came home with a variety of products in demand worldwide and especially sperm oil, the premium lubricant and fuel for lanterns and machines until petroleum was discovered and refined. As many as six of Morgan’s 21 captains during her whaling career were Vineyarders and many of her skilled crew, harpooners and boatsteers were Gay Headers. Morgan was a profitable business that enriched her owners and investors, and created livelihoods for captains and crewmen.
Morgan, a National Historic Landmark, the oldest operating American commercial vessel still afloat, and the last wooden whaleship remaining in the world, was decommissioned in 1941 and became a Mystic Seaport exhibit. Today, she did what she knows how to do very well – sailing fast, handling well, getting where she was going efficiently and with an easy motion that her passengers, most of them at least, found comfortable.

The Last Word

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Published April 30, 2014

This is the 807th and last weekly At Large column I will write for the Martha’s Vineyard Times. The series began in November of 1998, and I haven’t missed a deadline since. All by itself, that’s something to be proud of, I suppose. But actually, it was never my plan to begin the column, and I certainly never imagined I’d rumble on for more than 15 years. Figuring that I’d have to say something at least mildly interesting and certainly true in this final installment, I’ve been thinking lately about my lack of a plan, not just for the column, but for all the years I’ve logged as a newspaper writer, editor, columnist, and owner. I didn’t chart a course for any of it. It was all an accident — delightful, as it turned out, but unimagined and unplanned.
James Reston, then a columnist at the New York Times, gave me a job as a feature writer at the Vineyard Gazette in 1972, after someone brought to his attention a story I’d written about living on my little boat with a big dog. A little while later, the woman I worked for left for a bigger, daily publication and a book writing career, and I became the managing editor. The learning curve was steep, but as luck would have it — and there is so much luck bearing on this tale — besides Reston, I worked under the guiding wisdom of Henry Beetle Hough, the Gazette’s hallowed editor, and Bill Caldwell, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary during his career as a columnist at the Record of Hackensack, New Jersey.
Henry’s reputation has over time parted ways with the workaday reality of this gentle but formidable man. He was not a summer visitor. His paper was not conceived as a postcard to summer folk who lived their lives elsewhere for most of the year, hankering all the while for their Vineyard vacation houses. He was a fully committed year-round Vineyarder, a member of the regional school committee, a bank director, the one who, with me, called the funeral directors — there were two in those days — early on Friday mornings to see if they had “anything for us” before the press began rumbling. And, he was the one who sat at the Linotype machine to set the late obituary in type. He meant his newspaper to be a tool for Islanders first, and then for others who loved the place and its land- and seascapes, as he did.
Bill Caldwell taught originality and impeccable prose. His copy, which, in an odd and ironic twist, came to me for editing, though it needed none. No X-outs, no punctuation, spelling, or construction errors. Utterly perfect in every respect when he yanked it out of his typewriter and brought it to me.
Reston, the owner and publisher, whose archbishop-like presence led the great and powerful in the nation’s Capitol to genuflect, taught that beginning life as a sports writer and indulging a taste for flavorful sports metaphors and workmanlike, colloquial prose could make a columnist’s analysis of Washington politics and international diplomacy pleasurable and instructive to readers. He also taught newspaper office politics — a fervid, constant pastime in this business — at which he was clever and subtle.
In 1980, I left the Gazette, and it turned out that raising cattle, horses, pigs, chickens, hay, feed and sweet corn was next for me. But, six years later, I had a call from the founders of The Times, intended to be a competitor to the Vineyard Gazette, and an offer. Five years after that, My wife and I bought the paper, and a few years after that, we met Barbara and Peter Oberfest, because our children went to the Vineyard Montessori School together. We and they formed a durable and successful two decades long partnership, and they are the publishers of The Times today.
This column wasn’t my idea either. I began it at my wife’s suggestion. I had been writing a weekly editorial for several years before that – the one across the way on the Editorial page this morning is mine, another and final effort to get you to see things my way — but Molly said back in 1998 they often sounded bossy, and the subjects were boring. Well, no arguing with that. “Why don’t you write something more varied and occasionally fun,” she said. “You don’t want readers to think you’re a bossy, boring person.” (In the end, her hopes may have exceeded my grasp.)
But, as so much else over these many years has been, it was fun, and I enjoyed the unusual and enviable freedom to write what I liked on whatever topic I liked. Best of all, many of you were kind enough to say you enjoyed at least some of them. You stopped me in the market or the drug store or on the ferry to tell me so. On the other hand, some of you objected. A very nice Chilmark woman clipped a copy of one of the columns and mailed it to me with red pencil corrections to nearly every comma, capitalization, and word choice I had used. I’m sure she intended to be constructive, and she certainly was a diligent reader.
Her fading rewrite, pinned to the wall in my office, reappeared the other day as I took down the photos and cards I’d saved over all these years, including the bumper sticker someone gave me that said “MVTimes: Hateful Journalism Every Thursday.”
My colleagues over all these years have been numerous and varied. A few came and stayed. One preceded me on The Times, and she and one or two others have been with me for almost a quarter of a century — excellent, committed people of integrity and, yes, durability. There were tough times as well as triumphs. The ones who came and went quickly left their indelible marks too — the young reporter who, in interviewing for the job, failed to mention that he was dyslexic; the theater reviewer who, inflamed with artistic integrity that brooked no clumsy amateur performances, lumbered the grade school kids acting in the school play; the giggling summer interns who found most of their stories at the beach; the section editor who never met a deadline she couldn’t miss; the other one whose only skill was meeting deadlines; the California website geniuses who built a site that drained our treasury, exhausted our patience, and vanished, leaving us face to face with the fact that we were fools and had been taken to the cleaners.
Today, this happy accident has run its course. Peter and Barbara will navigate the next leg of The Times trip. Molly and I wish them and all of The Times folk great fun, accidental or otherwise.
Newspapers, in print or online, are by nature carried along moment by moment in the bouillabaisse of human events: births, deaths, tragedies, triumphs, fire, flood, politics, arguments, sports, crabbiness, euphoria. We are exposed to it all. It’s the job, and thanks to you — readers, customers, newsmakers, colleagues, neighbors, friends, critics — it has been a terrific job to have. There has always been smiling promise and great, often unexpected, opportunity for someone like me — especially in your neighborly, encouraging, indulgent, and enthusiastic company.