Friday, April 6, 2018

April 6: My Captain, Clinton/Gore, the Battle of the Signs

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.

The 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.

And 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.

Nor, 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 air!

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.

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