The ostensible reason why Ahab did not go on board of the whaler we had spoken was this: the wind and sea betokened storms. But even had this not been the case, he would not after all, perhaps, have boarded her- judging by his subsequent conduct on similar occasions- if so it had been that, by the process of hailing, he had obtained a negative answer to the question he put. For, as it eventually turned out, he cared not to consort, even for five minutes, with any stranger captain, except he could contribute some of that information he so absorbingly sought. But all this might remain inadequately estimated, were not something said here of the peculiar usages of whaling-vessels when meeting each other in foreign seas, and especially on a common cruising-ground.
If two strangers crossing the Pine Barrens in New
York State, or the equally desolate Salisbury Plain in England; if
casually encountering each other in such inhospitable wilds, these
twain, for the life of them, cannot well avoid a mutual salutation; and
stopping for a moment to interchange the news; and, perhaps, sitting
down for a while and resting in concert: then, how much more natural
that upon the illimitable Pine Barrens and Salisbury Plains of the sea,
two whaling vessels descrying each other at the ends of the earth- off
lone Fanning's Island, or the far away King's Mills; how much more
natural, I say, that under such circumstances these ships should not
only interchange hails, but come into still closer, more friendly and
sociable contact. And especially would this seem to be a matter of
course, in the case of vessels owned in one seaport, and whose captains,
officers, and not a few of the men are personally known to each other;
and consequently, have all sorts of dear domestic things to talk about.
the long absent ship, the outward-bounder, perhaps, has letters on
board; at any rate, she will be sure to let her have some papers of a
date a year or two later than the last one on her blurred and thumb-worn
files. And in return for that courtesy, the outward-bound ship would
receive the latest whaling intelligence from the cruising-ground to
which she may be destined, a thing of the utmost importance to her. And
in degree, all this will hold true concerning whaling vessels crossing
each other's track on the cruising-ground itself, even though they are
equally long absent from home. For one of them may have received a
transfer of letters from some third, and now far remote vessel; and some
of those letters may be for the people of the ship she now meets.
Besides, they would exchange the whaling news, and have an agreeable
chat. For not only would they meet with all the sympathies of sailors,
but likewise with all the peculiar congenialities arising from a common
pursuit and mutually shared privations and perils.
difference of country make any very essential difference; that is, so
long as both parties speak one language, as is the case with Americans
and English. Though, to be sure, from the small number of English
whalers, such meetings do not very often occur, and when they do occur
there is too apt to be a sort of shyness between them; for your
Englishman is rather reserved, and your Yankee, he does not fancy that
sort of thing in anybody but himself. Besides, the English whalers
sometimes affect a kind of metropolitan superiority over the American
whalers; regarding the long, lean Nantucketer, with his nondescript
provincialisms, as a sort of sea-peasant. But where this superiority in
the English whaleman does really consist, it would be hard to say,
seeing that the Yankees in one day, collectively, kill more whales than
all the English, collectively, in ten years. But this is a harmless
little foible in the English whale-hunters, which the Nantucketer does
not take much to heart; probably, because he knows that he has a few
So, then, we see that of all ships separately
sailing the sea, the whalers have most reason to be sociable- and they
are so. Whereas, some merchant ships crossing each other's wake in the
mid-Atlantic, will oftentimes pass on without so much as a single word
of recognition, mutually cutting each other on the high seas, like a
brace of dandies in Broadway; and all the time indulging, perhaps, in
finical criticism upon each other's rig. As for Men-of-War, when they
chance to meet at sea, they first go through such a string of silly
bowings and scrapings, such a ducking of ensigns, that there does not
seem to be much right-down hearty good-will and brotherly love about it
at all. As touching Slave-ships meeting, why, they are in such a
prodigious hurry, they run away from each other as soon as possible. And
as for Pirates, when they chance to cross each other's cross-bones, the
first hail is- "How many skulls?"- the same way that whalers hail- "How
many barrels?" And that question once answered, pirates straightway
steer apart, for they are infernal villains on both sides, and don't
like to see overmuch of each other's villanous likenesses.
look at the godly, honest, unostentatious, hospitable, sociable,
free-and-easy whaler! What does the whaler do when she meets another
whaler in any sort of decent weather? She has a "Gam," a thing so
utterly unknown to all other ships that they never heard of the name
even; and if by chance they should hear of it, they only grin at it, and
repeat gamesome stuff about "spouters" and "blubber-boilers," and such
like pretty exclamations. Why it is that all Merchant-seamen, and also
all Pirates and Man-of-War's men, and Slave-ship sailors, cherish such a
scornful feeling towards Whale-ships; this is a question it would be
hard to answer. Because, in the case of pirates, say, I should like to
know whether that profession of theirs has any peculiar glory about it.
It sometimes ends in uncommon elevation, indeed; but only at the
gallows. And besides, when a man is elevated in that odd fashion, he has
no proper foundation for his superior altitude. Hence, I conclude, that
in boasting himself to be high lifted above a whaleman, in that
assertion the pirate has no solid basis to stand on.
But what is a
Gam? You might wear out your index-finger running up and down the
columns of dictionaries, and never find the word, Dr. Johnson never
attained to that erudition; Noah Webster's ark does not hold it.
Nevertheless, this same expressive word has now for many years been in
constant use among some fifteen thousand true born Yankees. Certainly,
it needs a definition, and should be incorporated into the Lexicon. With
that view, let me learnedly define it.
GAM. NOUN- A social
meeting of two (or more) Whaleships, generally on a cruising-ground;
when, after exchanging hails, they exchange visits by boats' crews, the
two captains remaining, for the time, on board of one ship, and the two
chief mates on the other.
There is another little item about
Gamming which must not be forgotten here. All professions have their own
little peculiarities of detail; so has the whale fishery. In a pirate,
man-of-war, or slave ship, when the captain is rowed anywhere in his
boat, he always sits in the stern sheets on a comfortable, sometimes
cushioned seat there, and often steers himself with a pretty little
milliner's tiller decorated with gay cords and ribbons. But the
whale-boat has no seat astern, no sofa of that sort whatever, and no
tiller at all. High times indeed, if whaling captains were wheeled about
the water on castors like gouty old aldermen in patent chairs. And as
for a tiller, the whale-boat never admits of any such effeminacy; and
therefore as in gamming a complete boat's crew must leave the ship, and
hence as the boat steerer or harpooneer is of the number, that
subordinate is the steersman upon the occasion, and the captain, having
no place to sit in, is pulled off to his visit all standing like a pine
tree. And often you will notice that being conscious of the eyes of the
whole visible world resting on him from the sides of the two ships, this
standing captain is all alive to the importance of sustaining his
dignity by maintaining his legs. Nor is this any very easy matter; for
in his rear is the immense projecting steering oar hitting him now and
then in the small of his back, the after-oar reciprocating by rapping
his knees in front. He is thus completely wedged before and behind, and
can only expand himself sideways by settling down on his stretched legs;
but a sudden, violent pitch of the boat will often go far to topple
him, because length of foundation is nothing without corresponding
breadth. Merely make a spread angle of two poles, and you cannot stand
them up. Then, again, it would never do in plain sight of the world's
riveted eyes, it would never do, I say, for this straddling captain to
be seen steadying himself the slightest particle by catching hold of
anything with his hands; indeed, as token of his entire, buoyant
self-command, he generally carries his hands in his trowsers' pockets;
but perhaps being generally very large, heavy hands, he carries them
there for ballast. Nevertheless there have occurred instances, well
authenticated ones too, where the captain has been known for an
uncommonly critical moment or two, in a sudden squall say- to seize hold
of the nearest oarsman's hair, and hold on there like grim death.
Ahab is not feeling all the sociable. There is no gam between the crews of the Pequod and Albatross. Unless the captain of the Albatross has news of the white whale, Ahab is uninterested, even hostile. I think he sees such an interaction as a distraction from his mission of revenge. I cringe every time I type a phrase like "mission of revenge." It is bad writing, but an apt description of Ahab's motivation. He only has one thing on his mind, to the detriment of ship, crew, health, and happiness.
It is Memorial Day weekend. For my non-American readers, Memorial Day (which happens on the last Monday in May) celebrates members of the American armed forces who have been killed in battle--in the Civil War, Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Gulf Wars, and Afghanistan. Typing out that list of conflicts really drives home how much war has shaped recent history. It's a little sobering.
However, most people in the United States don't really spend a whole lot of time honoring these fallen soldiers this weekend. Instead, Memorial Day is simply an excuse not to work, to travel and have family barbecues. In a way, these three days are the equivalent of what Melville describes as a gam. Family and friends going out of their way to see each other, eating and drinking and telling stories. It's become the unofficial launch of the summer.
I don't mind the gam nature of this weekend. I like seeing friends and family. I like eating barbecued hot dogs and watermelon and corn on the cob. Enjoy the celebration of summer freedom. As a kid, I remember this weekend as a time to run under sprinklers in the afternoon, play outside with friends until dusk, catch frogs and fireflies in the night. Campfires. My parents sitting in lawn chairs, drinking from long-necked beer bottles.
On Monday, I will take my kids to a Memorial Day parade. Then, we will drive out to the cemetery for a Veterans of Foreign Wars ceremony. There will be a 21-gun salute. Taps will be played. My daughter and son have been attending these events since they were babies. I like to remind them that it's not all about getting a day off from school, that it's not all gam. Afterward, it will be family and barbecue, as required.
I believe in honoring veterans. They paid a lot so that I can sit here in McDonald's with my son and sister, eat, and write this blog post without fear of some government agent rushing in to arrest me. I can criticize the President of the United States. Disagree with Congress. Point out that it's just as patriotic to stand for the national anthem as it is to kneel. Because that's what my country should be. It's what those men and women died for. Freedom.
Saint Marty is thankful today for all fighters for democracy and freedom.
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