The Devil

I

You’d be hard-pressed to find any family of seafarers, fisherfolk, or plain coastal types without some horror tale on the water. It just goes with the territory; salt water envelopes most of the world and is dangerous. 

Lurking beneath that calm tropical paradise you’ve vacationed in are currents, tides, rips, rocks, tidal flats, and reefs – these might all be known hazards, but that doesn’t mean that they are less deadly. Circumstances and bad luck can be the dividing line between inconvenience and tragedy. And that’s just the stuff you can make plans to avoid or correct.

There’s just a ton of stuff you can’t plan for; rogue waves, sudden squalls, engine failures that put you at risk on lee shores, collisions with unseen objects, and illness at sea. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. It’s no wonder that hidden in every sailor is a tiny little superstitious knot. It might not be as apparent as a refusal to sail on a Friday, no bananas on board, or not whistling while you set sail, but it’s there. But without a doubt, the most dangerous element at sea will always be the human element.

Where I lived on the coast, it was considered bad luck to change the name of a boat. But, if you did, many boatyards followed procedures that seemed more like heathen rituals than practices you find in any of the local Baptist, Congregationalist, or Methodist church.

Libations would be poured to Neptunas Rex and Davy Jones. Coins under the masts would be added to, carefully put back in the exact locations after repair, or eliminated in exchange for a completely new set, and of course, the boat would be thoroughly cleaned fore and aft. Sometimes this would not be enough.

II

One of the Allens from over to the cape purchased a very smart lobster boat third-hand. He did this against his wife, father, and brother’s wishes. He’d been thrice warned.

The boat had started life as a workhorse lobster boat built by a well-known builder out of Boothbay. She’d worked the waters of the mid-coast for years as the Hattie Carroll. Then, about 1974, she’d been sold to a New York City Banker who had her gutted and fixed up as a fancy boat to tour clients around during the summer; what we call a lobster yacht these days. 

Then, without any to do, he’d had a signmaker slap some vinyl letters on her, and her new name was ” The Cheek Of The Devil” in a fancy script. The boatyard had suggested that a bit of ceremony would be nice, but he wanted what he wanted, so he got it. No ceremony, but it was the talk of the harbor. Using the Devil in a boat’s name was not typical and not thought lucky.

He didn’t enjoy his boat long. A fire started offshore, and all aboard went into the bay. Unfortunately, there hadn’t been enough floatation devices aboard for all the guests, so he yielded his floatation vest and drowned. 

The boat survived with severe fire damage but was salvaged and put up for sale.

She lay in Spinney’s yard for two years before being sold. I wouldn’t know if the reason was the fire, the owner’s death, the name, or a combination of all three. But sit in the back of the yard, she did. To locals, it was the Devil when someone referred to that boat. That should have been enough to discourage any local from buying it. 

History and name suggested that nothing but ill luck was involved in that boat. Wash it in a bathtub of holy water from Saint Jerome’s, pour libations all day long, and do whatever hocus pocus you wish, and none of that would help. My father-in-law, the Cap’n, put it succinctly enough when offered the boat at a bargain rate, ” I wouldn’t allow any of my kin to sit in its shadow, much less step aboard.”

III

The Devil sat there until Jacob Allen went looking for a cheap boat with fast lines that he could pour a high-power engine into for lobster boat racing. The Devil fit the bill. And over a long Maine winter, he worked to rebuild the boat into his dream of a fast racer. 

During the spring, his trial runs seemed to indicate that he’d be a contender in any race he entered. Unfortunately, Jacob was not the type to go full speed ahead, only at a race. He’d run circles around other lobster boats in the local harbor gang he belonged to. Jacob took pleasure in almost swamping small craft he considered to be in his way. Jacob wasn’t well-liked.

Jacob was known to infringe on the territories of nearby lobstermen and was closely watched until, one day, he was caught. The first time you get caught, you will likely pull your traps and find a half hitch in your line. It’s a warning that your trespass has been noted. Do it again, and the penalties will go up. 

The Devil proved as successful as Jacob believed it would, and victory was frequent. Now I do not know how plush the prizes are these days, but back then, it was peanuts. You raced for the joy and pleasure of it. Jacob also raced because he loved to rub other skippers’ noses in how fast the Devil was. In a family of quiet Mainers, he inherited all the ego.

IV

I was helping out at Spinney’s boat yard that September hauling out summer people’s boats, and overheard Spinney talking to my father-in-law, the Cap’n. They both agreed that Jacob was heading for a fall. they quieted down when I walked up, but it was common knowledge that Jacob had been robbing traps, and something was bound to happen.

Things get slower as the weather gets colder; lobstermen spend more time repairing and making new lobster pots ( or traps), repairing their gear, and taking care of their boats. But on Halloween evening, the blast rocked the entire harbor as the Devil blew up with Jacob Allen aboard. The official report said Jacob had ignited a puddle of gasoline while starting his boat. A death by misadventure, I guess. But knowing people understood that Jacob Allen had been a scrupulous man in caring for his boat.

Murder was suspected but never proven. There wasn’t much of the Devil or Jacob Allen left for an inquest, just the mutterings of people about the enemies he’d had and someone finally canceling a grudge hard.

At the coffee shop in the morning, there were comments about how the boat had been ill-fated from the start, and then, more quietly, someone muttered that the Devil had certainly known his own.

Potluck

The discussion was about weird feelings. The sort of queasy stuff you get from too much blood at a car crash.
We were eating potluck at Josie’s. I brought the ice cream (dessert), Todd a casserole, and Josie the five-alarm chili. We were on dessert when Todd exclaimed, “collywobbles!” “What are those” asked Josie. Then Todd clutched his belly, ” the stomach pain I got from your chili!”

Evil Eye

Working for a narcissistic paranoid is not fun. It is impossible to accurately predict if a comment, action, or even a look will result in a temper tantrum that will leave weeks of hard work in disorder, a state of dishabille, and just ruined. This was life with Joltin’ Joe, my boss.

After grad school, I was hired by the library system of a midsized city near Boston to run a series of special collections and a cultural center. The cultural center was to provide programming that was to be informed by my background as a cultural anthropologist. This was the theory. And it was supported by the ethnic communities I was working with. But, unfortunately, the theory was not supported by Joltin’ Joe.

The federal grant funding my job and programs gave me a certain amount of freedom and protection from Joe. But, in Joe’s view, this wasn’t good. All things should be under his purview and control. So, subsequently, every meeting with him, as my boss, was full of threats and bluster. He might not be able to strip my funds from my program or quickly fire me, but he could make my life miserable and make me dance on command.

I had a standing invitation every day for lunch at Millie’s home. Our relationship was unique. she was originally from the same neighborhood as my mother in New York City. Building on this, a relationship developed between her and me and her and my mother. My mother heard about it the next day if I did something wrong. It mattered not a wit that I was a thirty-year-old man. “Louis…Millie told me that you…” and so it went. If I appeared aggravated by a meeting with Joltin’ Joe, My mother and Millie would discuss it. So one evening, I received a call from my mother telling me that when I saw Millie the next day, I should follow her instructions strictly.

The next day I walked from my office to Millie’s for lunch; it was Friday, meaning Millie’s homemade pizza was on the menu. After eating, Millie handed me a small gift-wrapped package. Untieing the ribbon and unwrapping the box, I found a gold chain with golden pepperoncini. I remarked on the pepper but was reminded it was a cornicelli and a repellent for the evil eye – malocchio. I knew more than a bit about the evil eye; my Italian aunt had made sure I learned how to make the “horns” to repel it and had a general briefing on how it was cast. But I had never worn the little chains with cornucelli. “Millie, It’s lovely, but you know I don’t wear jewelry…” “Quiet! Your mother and I have discussed this. That awful boss of yours is making you ill!”

I looked at Millie and asked, ” you mean that you think he’s giving me the evil eye?” “No, you fool! Wear the Cornu, and he’ll worry that any evil will reflect on him. People like that are always superstitious fools. He’ll think you are giving him the evil eye because you hate him so much. So he’ll avoid you like you’re the devil himself. Practice looking at him this way…”

About a week later, I had a meeting with Joltin’ Joe. He was his usual abrasive, abusive, and self-centered idiotic self. I wore the gold chain and cornicelli prominently. I also made some hand gestures that were vaguely intimidating whenever he tried to make a point. Eventually, he grew red in the face, started screaming, and told me to leave. I made sure to give the blow-by-blow to both Millie and my mother. From then on, I always wore the gold chain whenever I was likely to meet him; he showed a reluctance to be alone with me.

After this, I was pretty much left alone for several months. Then, Joe got ill and had a stay in the hospital. Word got back to me jokingly that he’d told someone I had cursed him.

Of course, I had not. But I never denied it. I merely slowly closed and opened my right eye while slyly smiling.

Music

I have to watch my step. Memory is an intermittent joy and trap. I am either blessed or cursed with lots of experience. It’s intermittent, and it can be a pain, you know where.
A song can set it off and expose my memory weakness. I am in the thick of it and haven’t even moved. A bit too much like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five for my liking.
I prefer my visits to the past without the audio prompts provided by old rock bands or folksingers. Those tend to stir the mud, and I have to deal with the recall of things that pierce the heart.

I prefer to trip through the past in a controlled fashion. I’m in charge. I visit as I wish. Dampen down the violence of young love, the intentness of feelings, or the stupidity of inaction.

This way, it becomes conjecture on the possibilities of human behavior. And not observations of our weaknesses.

The Debating Society

When younger, I was not known for my snappy comebacks, sarcastic salutations, or pithy badinage. It wasn’t that I was boring; just inexperienced and lacked the experience needed to elevate me to the level of my peers. By way of contrast, they were all medal holders, college-educated, and more than a bit full of themselves.

But the habitus of the Folkie Palace – its ingrained way of dealing with the world- was one of continual debate, argument, and discussion. Having learned in college courses to compare and contrast, they now could take this technique to ridiculous levels.

Much of the evening debate was over Giant Imperial Quarts of Narragansett beer. Debate and argument are thirsty work. Throats become dry. Unfortunately, there was a tendency for the debates to extend long enough into the night that supplies of lubricant would need replenishing. Long past midnight, these sessions would continue.

One morning, after a particularly boisterous debate, our conclave of genii decided to review their notes and continue the topic. But, regrettably, the letters became scribbled and illegible after a page or two. So, after consideration, they decided to borrow a tape recorder for the following get-together.

The following Friday, they carefully prepared. Beer. Yes, Food, Yes, tape recorder, Yes. They began as always. Feeling their way with preliminary statements, carefully developing logical pathways for exploration, and slowly building into the more dramatic disputes they were particularly eager to explore.
Long into the moonlit night, they continued till the last discussant passed out over the final Giant Imperial Quart. He declared himself the winner. His last conscious act was shutting off the recorder.

Sometime late Saturday morning, after the group returned from the Tarry and Taste with coffee and donuts, a sober group rewound the tapes. They eagerly listened to the earlier arguments, discussion, and carefully reasoned debate. Then, somewhere beyond the second hour of the tape, things changed, arguments slurred, slowed, and there were occasional outbursts of raucous laughter. By hour four, a grim silence had settled over the group as they listened to the unmistakenly drunken hollering and yelling.

Someone leaned over the recorder, silently shut the machine down, and ripped the tape from the reel. In moments all the evidence was at the bottom of a trash barrel, and a sober and silent group quietly made their way down Grove St. to the Harvard Gardens, where they morosely drank in silence for an hour.

Eventually, someone quietly opined that they’d never do that again, to which his neighbor promptly corrected him to wit that never was much too indeterminate a time frame. Finally, across the table, a third maintained that as it was, a non-reproducible event never was, in fact, correct. Eventually, everyone had chimed in, and without the benefit of notes or recordings, the habituees of the Folkie Palace Debating Society began another Saturday night.

What is Culture?

If I recall correctly, one anthropological author categorized some 254 definitions of the term culture. I think I read the first dozen or so and stopped. But, of course, it would not have mattered if I had all of them at my beck and call the night I wound up discussing culture with ‘Chaales” – Charles for those who don’t speak with an affected accent.

Charles only believed in culture with a capital C, not lowercase. He had no fondness for the affectations of the common lot. “Culture” was created. Design was involved, not the obtuse scratchings in the dirt of the proletariat.

I might have abandoned the evening early if the other company at dinner had not more than compensated for the boorish behavior of one pseudo-Brahmin. But Charles finally did get to me. At last, he demanded that I define culture as I understood it. So I began rattling off three or four definitions. I went through it being shared behavior, attitudes, goals and beliefs, etc. I rattled on for great length because, in those days, all of that stuff was at my mental fingertips. I would soon sit for my Ph.D. Comprehensive Exams: There always was a culture definition question in it, a freebee giveaway that no one could miss.

After all this he gave me a slight pouting smirk and asked, “Yes, all of that is fine. But what is Culture?”

I was more than a bit exasperated, and realizing that I was being baited, I snapped out a sarcastic line I had used in a vulgar little song I had written about our anthropology department. In it, a grad student tiring of continual queries about what culture is snapped out that, like True Love, culture is a many splendored thing.

That seemed to stop him, and before he could recover, I turned my back and walked into another knot of people having a more mundane discussion about the dinner we had just finished. But since then, I rarely go beyond basic definitions of what culture is, and then they tell them that like true love, it’s a many splendored thing.

And that’s my definition of culture, and I’m sticking with it.

The Creative Process

Some artists, musicians, writers, and craftspeople – most creative types – are uncomfortable with having viewers ogling their creative practices. There is a certain discomfort at having the inner workings discovered, so there is a tendency to throw a shroud over the proceedings. This way, you don’t see the bowls of nachos and ice cream at four am, the tantrums, or the Googling when they are just “out of good ideas” and resort to “research” on the web. I have been known to consult my cat; if she disparages something, that’s the end.
I have to be circumspect here because friends might be upset if I give away too much of their creative processes to idle viewers interested in things best left in the dark. Many view the creative process as full of aha moments, when it’s more like head scratching, belly rumbles, and a burp.

For me, it’s this way: periodically, my bench fills with sketches, photos, or even mockups of things I am considering. Bunches are put off and may never get done. Others percolate for years, and some undergo a prototyping process. Prototypes lead to finished projects or a trip to the woodstove for bad stuff. Wood ashes wind up in the garden soil, so nothing is truly wasted.

Having said that about my creative process, I’m like many others and don’t invite inquiries or watchers. I’ve found that watchers are always just a second away from offering opinions; this is my process, not theirs.

My wife and I were on the verge of getting socially close with a couple. But one was always trying to get an invite into the shop. So if they came over, it was inevitable that they’d ask for a shop tour. Then, not satisfied with looking, the comments would flow about how they’d do something or how I should think about a process. My wife didn’t seem to mind this. After all, it wasn’t her issue until the spouse sought to comment on cooking. So we gradually unwound that relationship – a bit too invasive.

So, if you have a clever friend, be careful of intruding on their processes. Be supportive, and make lovely comments, but don’t attempt to hijack the show unless they do the equivalent of throwing hands up in the air and gasping, “I just don’t know what to do!”

I don’t get violent, but some do.

Parsimony

The other night I played guitar for about an hour to ease my way into a sleepy state. My fingers found their way into some of the songs I used to do in the ’60s – which then passed for dirty songs – a label more symptomatic of American society’s smutty-mindedness than anything else. While playing, I realized that when I was young, I was more interested in the words, while now my hands seem more interested in the structure of the progressions and melody. This appears to be an everyday occurrence, that we begin liking something for one reason, and then our appreciation matures.

Maybe it shows a tendency in our minds to avoid waste, admit that we were wrong or avoid abandoning that we have invested much time.
It could also be part of life’s satire that things get turned upside down.

But I reflect on relationships that mature over the years, crafts that take on new meaning, and skills that evolve. It’s certainly not by some trick of planning. After some thought, I’ve decided it is a sort of unconscious thrift or parsimony. Our mind inquires and finds deeper meanings in what has fascinated us.

Sweepers. Sweepers!

Yesterday was a reorganization day in the 8X10 carving shop. I have to reorganize spring and fall because the shop still fulfills its original purpose as a greenhouse for some of our tender perennials, such as the bay and our rosemary plants. 

The pressure is to move “almost done” projects to being done, so the space is freed up for plants. As a result, there is little silence during this project. Instead, I embrace my inner sailor and concoct epitaphs that would singe the ears of most seamen.

But somehow, I manage to find the space. So I created some new shelving over the workbench and a new drafting area. But, of course, working in a tiny area means creativity needs to be your motto.

Because yesterday was reorganization day, today was a sweep-out day. So I announced it to the only crewman, my dog Max, the cat sensibly had slept in while it rained. So there I was on the shop 1MC ( main communicator) – “Sweepers, sweepers, man your brooms. Give the ship a clean sweep down fore and aft, sweep all decks, ladders, and passageways…”

As the broom swept chips, sawdust, and debris out, I could again see the shop’s concrete deck. All ready for a new round of projects!

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