Concerning the officers of the whale-craft, this seems as good a place as any to set down a little domestic peculiarity on ship-board, arising from the existence of the harpooneer class of officers, a class unknown of course in any other marine than the whale-fleet.
large importance attached to the harpooneer's vocation is evinced by the
fact, that originally in the old Dutch Fishery, two centuries and more
ago, the command of a whale-ship was not wholly lodged in the person now
called the captain, but was divided between him and an officer called
the Specksynder. Literally this word means Fat-Cutter; usage, however,
in time made it equivalent to Chief Harpooneer. In those days, the
captain's authority was restricted to the navigation and general
management of the vessel; while over the whale-hunting department and
all its concerns, the Specksynder or Chief Harpooneer reigned supreme.
In the British Greenland Fishery, under the corrupted title of
Specksioneer, this old Dutch official is still retained, but his former
dignity is sadly abridged. At present he ranks simply as senior
Harpooneer; and as such, is but one of the captain's more inferior
subalterns. Nevertheless, as upon the good conduct of the harpooneers
the success of a whaling voyage largely depends, and since in the
American Fishery he is not only an important officer in the boat, but
under certain circumstances (night watches on a whaling ground) the
command of the ship's deck is also his; therefore the grand political
maxim of the sea demands, that he should nominally live apart from the
men before the mast, and be in some way distinguished as their
professional superior; though always, by them, familiarly regarded as
their social equal.
Now, the grand distinction between officer and
man at sea, is this- the first lives aft, the last forward. Hence, in
whale-ships and merchantmen alike, the mates have their quarters with
the captain; and so, too, in most of the American whalers the
harpooneers are lodged in the after part of the ship. That is to say,
they take their meals in the captain's cabin, and sleep in a place
indirectly communicating with it.
Though the long period of a
Southern whaling voyage (by far the longest of all voyages now or ever
made by man), the peculiar perils of it, and the community of interest
prevailing among a company, all of whom, high or low, depend for their
profits, not upon fixed wages, but upon their common luck, together with
their common vigilance, intrepidity, and hard work; though all these
things do in some cases tend to beget a less rigorous discipline than in
merchantmen generally; yet, never mind how much like an old
Mesopotamian family these whalemen may, in some primitive instances,
live together; for all that, the punctilious externals, at least, of the
quarter-deck are seldom materially relaxed, and in no instance done
away. Indeed, many are the Nantucket ships in which you will see the
skipper parading his quarter-deck with an elated grandeur not surpassed
in any military navy; nay, extorting almost as much outward homage as if
he wore the imperial purple, and not the shabbiest of pilot-cloth.
though of all men the moody captain of the Pequod was the least given
to that sort of shallowest assumption; and though the only homage he
ever exacted, was implicit, instantaneous obedience; though he required
no man to remove the shoes from his feet ere stepping upon the
quarter-deck; and though there were times when, owing to peculiar
circumstances connected with events hereafter to be detailed, he
addressed them in unusual terms, whether of condescension or in
terrorem, or otherwise; yet even Captain Ahab was by no means
unobservant of the paramount forms and usages of the sea.
perhaps, will it fail to be eventually perceived, that behind those
forms and usages, as it were, he sometimes masked himself; incidentally
making use of them for other and more private ends than they were
legitimately intended to subserve. That certain sultanism of his brain,
which had otherwise in a good degree remained unmanifested; through
those forms that same sultanism became incarnate in an irresistible
dictatorship. For be a man's intellectual superiority what it will, it
can never assume the practical, available supremacy over other men,
without the aid of some sort of external arts and entrenchments, always,
in themselves, more or less paltry and base. This it is, that for ever
keeps God's true princes of the Empire from the world's hustings; and
leaves the highest honors that this air can give, to those men who
become famous more through their infinite inferiority to the choice
hidden handful of the Divine Inert, than through their undoubted
superiority over the dead level of the mass. Such large virtue lurks in
these small things when extreme political superstitions invest them,
that in some royal instances even to idiot imbecility they have imparted
potency. But when, as in the case of Nicholas the Czar, the ringed
crown of geographical empire encircles an imperial brain; then, the
plebeian herds crouch abased before the tremendous centralization. Nor,
will the tragic dramatist who would depict mortal indomitableness in its
fullest sweep and direct swing, ever forget a hint, incidentally so
important in his art, as the one now alluded to.
But Ahab, my
Captain, still moves before me in all his Nantucket grimness and
shagginess; and in this episode touching Emperors and Kings, I must not
conceal that I have only to do with a poor old whale-hunter like him;
and, therefore, all outward majestical trappings and housings are denied
me. Oh, Ahab! what shall be grand in thee, it must needs be plucked at
from the skies, and dived for in the deep, and featured in the unbodied
This chapter, titled in the book "The Specksynder," is all about social rank and importance upon the seas. Harpooneer and captain and crewmen. Each person on the Pequod knows his own place and significance. Of course, Ahab reaches the station of mythic in Ishmael's narration, plucked from the heavens and dredged from the ocean. A salty demigod, in a way. More legend than man.
In the weeks since my dad died, I've been thinking a lot about him. I have said before that he and I had a complex relationship. We rarely saw eye-to-eye on most things. He was ultra-conservative. Made Ronald Reagan look like a communist. I am, to say the least, liberal in my leanings. Universal health care. Free college education. Open borders. Anti-guns. Pretty much everything that my father wasn't.
I was living at home during Bill Clinton's reelection campaign. My father had Bob Dole signs all over his front lawn. I drove down to the Democratic headquarters and picked up about five Clinton/Gore posters. I hung one on my bedroom door. When I came home the next day, my door was bare. I put up another Clinton/Gore sign. The next day, my sign was gone; my door, bare. I put up another Clinton/Gore.
This battle raged for two more days. Eventually, my father realized that he wasn't going to win. He gave up, and, for the next two months, he had to put up with Bill Clinton's name greeting him every time he walked down the hallway to the bathroom.
This story is the stuff of legend now at Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings, recounted with laughter and fondness. My father was the Ahab of our house, and I was testing the waters, casting harpoons. While I may not have agreed with his social and political stances, I respected him, and I think he grew to respect me, as well.
And now, he haunts me every day. I see him when I play the organ at church. He sat in the corner of the choir loft every Saturday evening, listening and responding. When I go to my parents' house, I see pictures of him and my mother, always smiling what he called his "shit-eatin' grin." And when I see Donald Trump on the television, I think of my father. He voted for Trump.
My father served in the Army during the Korean War. He worked hard for over fifty years as a plumber. Raised nine children with my mother. Buried two of his kids before he died. He saw his wife slowly forget how to play gin rummy or cook a meatloaf. Yet, like Ahab, he got up every morning and stalked the decks of his ship.
I'm sure my father's life will continue to gain in myth as the years pass. That's what happens. Truth becomes shrouded in exaggeration and then passes into legend.
Saint Marty is thankful tonight for the Battle of the Signs.