Sails For The Constitution

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Model of the USS Constitution at the Peabody Essex Museum

In honor of world Maritime Day 2018

My eldest son, Nick, could be problematic. There was the time, at age nine he disappeared at the WoodenBoat Show. To Matilda and I he was among the missing. His mother anxiously wondered if Nick had slipped into the cold Maine waters. He was at a party for the show elites.
After spotting him from a distance on board an absolutely to die for Baltic style schooner I had to negotiate my way through the owner’s security detail…while Nick stood there and smiled at me. After making it clear that that boy was my son they explained to me that he was a guest, and I was not. Afterward, Matilda had to reason with me until I could see the humor of the situation.

How had Nick become a guest? It was exquisite. Nick evaded his mother while I was working my booth. Nick set to wandering the show with a brand new dollar bill in his pocket. My son is no slouch, and he’d spent formative years listening to my friends and me discuss boats. So, Nick walked up to the owner of the said gorgeous boat, pulled out his crisp dollar bill, looks up at the owner, and said – “Mister, if I give you this dollar bill right now…will you sell me this boat?”
Ahh, the essence of the moment; cute kid, money, and the intent to close a fiscal deal at a significant advantage to oneself. How could a capitalist not admire the moxie, and audacity of the attempt?
Result: one invitation to post-show soiree as a guest of honor.

The success of this ploy was so good that Nick continued to use it boat show after boat show. He deployed with such success, and regularity that we had to eventually forbid him from doing it because some of my friends had junker boats they’d happily sell him to laugh at me.

Nick eventually seemed to outgrow his little routine, and I began to forget about it. But one Saturday we were in Boston to visit a friend at the shipyard. We decided to detour for a look at the USS Constitution. As we were standing there admiring the ship, I saw the then Commanding Officer, Commander Beck. I pointed him out to Nick and then saw that old gleam come into his eyes. He reached into his pocket and began walking in the direction of Commander Beck. Losing no time I grabbed my boy. I wasn’t about to have a conniption right there on the wharf, but Beck was looking over strangely at the man and boy with a dollar bill in his hand. To Nick, I said, perhaps a bit too loudly – “If you embarrass me in front of the Commander of the Constitution I’ll sell you to the Navy as a Powder Monkey (actually it was a bit saltier). Nick seemed to realize that he’d pushed things as far as they’d go, and agreed that a frigate was more ship than he wanted anyway.

So….How does this relate to sails for the Constitution you are asking? Commander Beck had recently been the first captain of the Constitution to handle her under sail in years. On the way home from Boston I explained to Nick that sails for this vessel, and taking her out sailing had been a bit of a controversy for a while.
In 1966 I had been a very wet behind the ears enlisted man in the Navy. Sometime between Gemini recovery deployments ( the space program, remember?), the USS Wasp was in the Atlantic for war games. One night several of us enlisted were out by the smokes locker having a very illegal smoke. The topic of conversation? Would they ever put sails on the Constitution? We had exhausted favorite liberty locations, girls, and booze as topics. So, as most Navy men will do we moved onto an irrelevant ( as in above our pay grade) matter.

In the tropics, the night sky can be incredibly dark, even while the glow of phosphorescent organisms lights the sea. So we were all taken by surprise when we first heard and then saw a match flare beyond our circle. Out of the dark came the steady puff of someone lighting their pipe. Not one of us. As the figure moved closer, someone saw the rank, and squeaked out something akin to” Admiral on deck”. It was Admiral Outlaw, one of the senior officers in charge of the war games. He unfroze the crew with a simple ‘“relax”. We all stood looking quietly out to sea for a moment. Then he authoritatively scuttled our BS session. “ The Constitution is a junior command, how would you like to be the lieutenant commander or commander who took a national treasure out to sea, and ran it aground? Your career would be destroyed. Naw. They’ll never put sails on her.”, and with that, the admiral turned and headed back to officers country.

So to sum this story up: keep your dollar in your pocket, and never say never.

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