There is a closed group on a social media platform to which I’m pleased to belong. Many of the members are older than I and almost all more experienced in things maritime and nautical than I could ever pretend to be. Most often, I lurk, commenting when discussion ranges into an area I know well. It’s not a group that tolerates foolishness.
How I came to be accepted, I can only guess. In any case, I carefully watch, read, and learn from my seniors, which is what we are supposed to do onboard.
So what is the primary area of interest for old sailors who have “swallowed the anchor” – ships, of course.
A photo of a Union Steamship Liner will get posted. And a chorus will follow of when they served aboard, what the passage was like. Then comes the discussion of how this vessel compares with another. Yup. Sooner or later, it does come down to the curvaceous nature of the ship. Over and over again, and being a carver who does portraits of vessels, I take the critique they offer seriously.
We indeed form attachments to the vessels we serve. But, it’s not just the coin a seaman gets paid for a cruise or passage. They discuss how comfortable the ship was in a blow, who was steward, cook, and the gang they went ashore with. And then they get back to the lines of the vessel.
So, I know a family that’s been building boats and vessels for centuries. But, unfortunately, the family split around 1792 because of a fight between the two brothers, both boatbuilders. The two camps within the family rarely speak. No one knows the cause of the argument, but as one family member told me, “being boatbuilders, it was over either the lines of a boat or a woman.” From everything I’ve learned, it was the boat.

Not to curtail this post unnecessarily, but I think you get the picture.

Clean up

No, matter how careful you think you are, minor errors can creep in. They may be small, but they look big and need fixing. For example, on this ten inch mast hoop portrait of a Town Class sloop, I was particularly upset by the miscut of the line on the sail batten. You get involved and miss things.
I caught this in time to fix it.
As I finish up, my habit is to take a carving outside of the shop for a look under different lighting. So I took this one outside to the natural daylight, shifted its position to look at it from different angles, and then splashed it with some mineral spirits. That final bit is something that I almost always do while carving cherry. It gives me a clue about what the piece will look like varnished and makes the fine lines pop out. Notably, on cherry, it doesn’t raise the grain much.
I corrected the errors in carving, started the varnishing cycle, and then fit the finished portrait into the mast hoop. These mast hoop portraits range from ten inches in diameter to about sixteen inches ( internal diameter), and are among my favorite things to carve.


I coughed to clear my throat. I felt as though my tissues had been, what’s the darn word? exsiccated, no desiccated? Hell, all dried up! When I tried to get up, I felt friable; Maybe I was going to crumble. Temporarily homeless, the Jones’ boat was the best I could do. Spinney had promised to shift me to something more suitable ASAP. But for now, I was “boat sitting” for the Jones family, and they had allocated the dusty forward berth for the sitter.
Since the divorce, I had no home in the cove, so Spinney’s boatyard in the harbor was my temporary home while I attempted to finish the fieldwork I had started the previous summer.
Over the next three weeks, I finished up the fieldwork, started some local historical work in the public library’s local history room, worked at Spinney’s boatyard, and shifted my living accommodations from the dusty berth on the Jones’ boat.
I also started dating one of the local young women who was a varnisher at Spinneys. For those who don’t know much about professional varnishers, let me tell you: they are real sticklers for detail. On our first coffee date, Karen managed to affirm that I was truly divorced, in a doctoral program, and was not indigent ( poor yes, indigent no). All that answered in the affirmative, I would be allowed to squire her to the movies that Friday night. So we became a local item.
Now, having learned the dangers of close personal relationships with individuals in communities where you do fieldwork, I had been careful not to get in too deep with Karen. However, Karen had recently divorced and wasn’t eager to “sin in haste and repent at leisure”. So we agreed to enjoy each other’s company and leave it at that.
Our former spouses didn’t know this and assumed that we were going at it hot and heavy. So their planned revenge was to date each other to make us jealous. The result was that Karen and I were seen laughing in each other’s company all the time. Not because we had firmly bonded as a couple, but because the antics of our ex-spouses hugely amused us. It was akin to an old-fashioned Comedy of Errors.
In due course, I returned to grad school at the end of the summer. My farewell date with Karen was a memorable evening at one of the harborside restaurants, and we agreed to stay friends.
Around Christmas time, I opened Karen’s holiday card and out slipped a note. Karen filled me in on the local news but saved the best for last. Georgia and Todd – our exes- were getting married. The inevitable had happened, and the next generation was on the way. Naturally, the Cap’n was displeased; his new son-in-law was a lawyer and perpetually seasick. But, on the other hand, Cora, Georgia’s mother, was in heaven over the prospect of having a new grandchild to spoil.
I was past the first flush of anger at my ex and was happy that she had found happiness, even if it had originated as revenge. But I laughed as I imagined the Cap’n giving orders onboard Psyche to a daughter, Georgia, and a son-in-law, Todd, who were perpetually seasick. Perhaps he’d have good luck with the newborn?


In graduate school, my focus was on maritime communities. For anyone who has read more than one or two posts in this blog, that’s no surprise. But during the time I spent as a practicing anthropologist, the opportunities to wander down towards the shore were few. I wound up working with primarily urban populations. Rather than analyzing the economic and cultural patterns of life in coastal communities, I was on the case for urban ethnic gardens, cuisine, saints festivals, and curiously folk medicine.
This innocuous detour leads me into the world of herbal and vegetative products of the garden that get used for treating any number of ills. I was deep enough in the weeds ( so to speak) that I incorporated what I found into my class lectures when I taught anthropology to nursing students.
To be clear, I was not on an adventure seeking new cures and drugs. Instead, I investigated kitchen gardens and found that any number of remedies lurked among the pot herbs. Or that across ethnic groups, a particular flowering herb had great symbolism as a sign of springtime. The same plant used in one dosage with alcohol aided digestion but stronger stimulated an abortion.
These days across the internet, there are thousands of dealers pandering miraculous herbal cures. But, if you are into this sort of medication, the alternatives could be available in your garden. Be careful, though; there are some potent and dangerous things growing in your flower patch, and more than one innocent abroad has been poisoned by sampling the unknown.


My preference in surgical cases was for orthopedics, hand surgery, and plastic surgery. But Miss Piggy, our OR supervisor, would tell you in strong terms that it was her job to run an OR, not to cater to a technician’s foibles. So, I’d trot off to bronchoscopies to peer into the inner workings of bronchioles.
Miss Piggy ( her own choice of nickname) did not tolerate haughty surgeons any more than she put up with my requests for certain types of procedures. As much as possible, she nourished her staff, the surgeons, and the anesthesia team. But she had no qualms about chopping a head off for the sake of good order and discipline.
An Operating Room always is in the process of evolving in terms of equipment and procedures. Surgeons arrive with unique new widgets that make a procedure easier. They ask the OR supervisor to procure three of them for their personal use. Since the gadget is expensive, and Dr. Callahan is the only one interested in using it, only one is procured.
The device proves challenging to clean and sterilize, and technicians receive inadequate training in setting it up. Result? Dr. Callahan has a temper tantrum in front of the entire surgical team and the still awake patient.
Hearing the scrimmage in one of her operating rooms, Miss Piggy descends on the unsuspecting surgeon and staff. Calling for calm, she asks Dr. Callahan into the tiny scrub room that contains the sinks we wash up in before gowning and gloving for a procedure. Unlike in movies, the ones in our surgical suite are tiny – there is barely room for the bulk of Dr. Callahan and the heft of Miss Piggy. The voices start as a murmur that swells to a rumble. There is a staccato drumbeat of threats from the surgeon, followed by the low thunder of Miss Piggy’s explanation of exactly how it will be. Finally, Miss Piggy silently leaves through the door into the next room. A moment afterward, Dr. Callahan emerges and begins explaining the setup and function of the widget. His enthusiasm gradually spreads to the rest of the team. After the procedure, Dr. Callahan mentions that he will contact the manufacturer’s rep and have them come out for more training.
After the caseload has been completed, the staff sit down for a fast debrief on the day before heading home. The blow-up in room three hardly merits a sentence. Just another day in the OR. Today it was Dr. Callahan taken to task for poor preparation. But It could have been my friends Marilyn, Rob – or myself. Miss Piggy is an equal opportunity head chopper. Her favorite procedure is decapitation – performed with flair, a touch of dignity, and forgiveness afterward provided that you ” go forth and sin no more.”


I think I have a reputation for raffish workshop areas. The photo is of my workshop in the mid-nineties. I’ve never been able to have the sort of lovely shops you see in the woodworking magazines. It would be sheer pretense anyway. My shops tend to get set up wherever there is room; esthetics be damned.
Still, there should be some requirements for work areas. You might think size would matter, but I’ve known carpenters with hatches cut into their shed backs so they could work with long planks. And an early mentor of mine worked in the corner of his kitchen. So not size.
Thinking on it, I’d say that the criteria are good light, a stable work surface, and a handy place to rack tools ready for use. Depending on how much stink or dust you create, you need to add ventilation.

One of my earliest shops spaces was a picnic table, a carver’s hook, and my tools. This “shop” was in the woods of Ontario. I wasn’t lonely in this shop. I had to put up with a pair of Whiskey Jacks ( Canadian Jay’s) who’d come by and noisily critique whatever I accomplished ( unlike most critics, though, they’d shut up for an oatmeal cookie). I use that recollection as a reminder to myself that creative areas do not need to be complex.
People say to themselves, “Wait. When we move or retire, I’ll have a lovely workshop like that one in Fine Woodworking.” My advice is that you not wait. Creativity in wood can work well under simple circumstances. You may have to scale your projects to size, but you have no excuse for not being creative.


It was reported elsewhere on the internet today that this was National Merry-Go-Round Day. How appropriate. Here I am, digging into a new bath of dummies books as I try to learn more computer topics that I had hoped to escape. Round and round I go. Grrrrr…hear the guttural growl as I mark off the days on the calendar. The latest is a book on Illustrator CC; how long can I maintain my decorous poise when faced with some of the challenges put before me by these books?
In my normal state at the computer, you could hear the ivy grow. Yes, I am that slow. But now, I am buzzing with information that is newly absorbed. I might even retain some of it two weeks from now.


Woodworkers spend money on foolish things every year. Why? We see it on the web in a video or the catalog and realize that it is the solution to a problem we do not have. So out flashes the credit card, and next week we are looking for storage space for the new item.
Most of what we buy gradually finds its purpose. In my shop, neatly put aside in chests, rests the tool porn I could not resist: my collection of Leigh Valley planes. Now, remember I am a carver. So I may trot the beauties out once a year, exclaim over them, ” My Precious!!”, use them for ten minutes, and away they go for another year. I might also trot them out to show visiting woodworkers; they are pretty impressive.
But resting in one for the drawers are the set of exquisite Japanese chisels that I bought in the early seventies that have never been used. Back then, I envisioned a different shop and future, making elaborately carved chests. The chisels were to be part of my primary toolset. Guess what? They’ve never been used. I take them out and clean them once in a while. The vacuous look on my face says it all. I still haven’t figured out how I’d use them.
Now I’m sure that you have your little secrets tucked away also. But, before you gainsay me, let’s take an inventory of the: pots, pans, mechanics tools, yarns, or photographic equipment that sits idle. I’m not accusing you of waste or impulse purchases. It’s just that despite carefully considered plans, things can go in wildly different directions.
The chisels are my touchstone to early days, and I probably will not part with them. However, I have parted with other things that don’t and never will fit into my work scheme.
Some years ago, I gave away a set of high-quality miniature turning tools to a turner who had the will but no tools. I had the tools but no intention to turn. It worked out well. At Christmas time, I was gifted with some lovely miniature Christmas tree ornaments, a small bowl, and a few other items. I also cleaned my carving tool collection of unnecessary duplicates by gifting knives and gouges to students.
The critical thing in gifting things is to consider the utility and need you have for the tool, not how much it cost you. Frequently people keep what they neither want nor need, based on its cost. That’s a false economy. You paid for it years ago, and its resale value might be pennies on the dollar. Give it to a good home.


“Don’t rain on my parade!” The young woman who whispered this to me did so as I pointed out that the exact idiom used in 1965 had been just “cool,” not “like cool.” Being a dialog coach for her student film project was not working as planned. First off, I’d lived a long time since the sixties, and our language use continues to grow. Second, so much ’60’s jargon I hadn’t used for decades.
Additionally, most of her idiom seemed derived from movies that got it wrong in the first place. We’d go to the movies to laugh at how folkies and hippies were being depicted. There especially seemed to be an artificiality to the language: put five groovy’s in one sentence and make it authentic was the logic.
I couldn’t transport her and the scriptwriter to Beacon Hill in the sixties. So I sat her down with some old reel-to-reel audio tapes I dug out from 1971. Despite moldering away in the basement for decades, they brought back old memories with a huge contact high.
I’d been living in Eastie then, and some old friends from Baltimore had driven up on a whim. It was Reading Week for me at the university, but the prep for exams took a back seat to guitars, songs, good weed, and many, many songs. The talk was natural and exactly what she needed to hear. Afterward, she finished her notes and asked, “Whatever happened to them?”
I skittered away from the blunt truths of drug overdoes, alcoholism, stupidly avoidable car crashes, religious cults, and conversion to radically conservative forms of capitalism. “Unfortunately, we all grew up.”

Stash – Flashback Friday July 23, 2021

I was talking to Spinney. It was a late August Sunday evening, and we were watching the sun sink into the bay. A conversation about the green flash had evolved into a discussion of the Golden Age of Piracy. I was going on about how the piratical equivalent of the fence was really the most essential part of the operation. There wasn’t much “yo ho ho and a bottle of rum” without the cash to pay for the booze and fast women. Spinney allowed that this was true. He took a sip of his beer. Then, looking out over the bay, he went silent for a moment. Finally, he said: “it’s not just about a good fence; it’s also about a good place to hold the goods until the fence can move them, or until the fence agrees to a price.” I did a fast take on Spinney, “What?” This was Spinney speaking, deacon of his church, most ethical boatyard owner on this stretch of the coast.

Spinney went on: “My family has been around this stretch of the coast since before the first Census. Even before the Revolution. Some families claim to have been here before the Pilgrims landed. Not a few of us moved goods that the Crown saw as against the “Navigation Acts.” My father was known to move goods from offshore and Canada during Prohibition. Not my family, but others made a racket some years ago, breaking into summer people’s homes and emptying them out. An excellent place to stow goods is essential. You can’t exactly keep two hundred cases of Canadian Whiskey in your garage. Well, you could, but that’d be the first place they’d look, Likewise with stowing four rooms of antique furniture.

I bit. “OK, where would you put it”? Spinney look towards the bay, pointed out to Boomkin Island, then a bit further to the ledges known as the Spires. “Out there, here and there.” The summer cottage break-ins were solved because the police chief was a Grey. He knew the spots that old Alden Grey used in the Thirties. Unfortunately, Alden’s grandson was no Alden. He had no clue that other family members knew those spots. Todd was not too bright, and the Chief didn’t like a family member dragging the Grey name in the mud. So one morning, they rounded up the furniture and soon afterward rounded up Todd. That was the last I can recall of the old spots being used. There were a few attempts to use sites on Old Ram, but those were outsiders.

“So Spinney, are there still goods out there? Could you show me a spot or two?”
Spinney quickly changed the subject to sports, a topic he knew I knew nothing about and liked less. Soon afterward, the sun went down, and we each went our own ways.

Next week Spinney showed up in his battered green pickup truck. I offered him a cold beer, but he said: “no time for that now if we’re going to get to the Little Widows before dark.” I didn’t bother questioning but assumed that this was the inevitable continuation of our last conversation. Spinney was going to show me one of the spots. “Now I know that you anthropologists make a point of confidentiality. So understand that what I’m going to show you is in the way of being a family trade secret.” I glibly agreed never to reveal the secret … not that I could ever pilot a boat out to the nubs of rock and spruce we were about to visit.
“Anyhow, one of the Widows has been a family spot since before the Revolution. There are lots of Spinneys in the state. But, particularly my family to this one town. So my spots are only known to close family.” As Spinney was laying out the family history, we were going recklessly, or so it seemed to me, through narrow passages from the inner bay to outer. I had once been out with Spinney in a thick fog that he had navigated through solely by the benefit of the rare sounding, dead reckoning, and wave sounds from adjacent shores.

The sun was almost gone when we reached the tiny islet he assured me was the location of a Spinney spot. Searching around in the tide, Spinney eventually found a rusted chain with a shackle. To this, he secured the boat. Walking into the thicket of stunted oak and spruce, Spinney suddenly reached out and stopped me. He reached down and grabbed the edge of a ratty tarp. Shaking off several years of storm wrack, leaves, and jetsam, Spinney revealed a rusted metal hatch plate. “Grab the other side. I haven’t been out this way for years, and the last time I was still young enough to handle this myself.”
Lifting up the hatch almost pulled my arms out of their sockets. In his 80’s, Spinney was as lean and spare as they come. He was known as a compact powerhouse around his yard. Straining not to drop my end of the hatch, I awkwardly crab-walked back the few yards while Spinney effortlessly walked off with his side. “Ok, put this down easily now.” Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a flashlight, and careful not to shine the light about, he illuminated the contents of the stash. “We have to be careful about the light. Don’t want anyone ashore getting curious”. Inside the were stacks of wooden cases, brandy, Scots Whiskey, rye, Canadian, liquors, sherry, and more. I felt a terrible thirst building. It had been a dry ride out, and the night was cooling. Spinney must have read my mind because the next thing I heard was the clink of two shot glasses being pulled out of his jacket. “What shall it be?” asks Spinney, as politely as the bartender at the Anchor Bar over in the harbor. “Well, Spinney, it’s your stash, so it’s your choice.”

Spinney cast the light over the stash and waved his hand over a few of the closest cases while he contemplated his selection. Then, reaching down seemingly at random, he pulled up a Napoleon brandy. “This will take off the chill.” Opening the bottle with a bit of flair, Spinney pours us both a shot that we knock back fast, making room for refills. We lingered over the refills. I’m sitting on a speck of island drinking from a stash of booze that’s been sitting there since Prohibition. I am in on one of the biggest secrets on the coast. I’m also thinking about how hard it would be to confirm documentation from other families about similar spots and traditions. I am thinking about an article in American Anthropologist (Traditions and Family in Illicit Coastal Trades: Stashes and Spots along the Mid Maine Coast). It could be a big help in getting the tenure track after I finish my dissertation.
Spinney has been my confidant for years. He has questioned me closely about anthropology and academia as I have asked him about life in a coastal community. In the jargon of my trade, Spinney is a “key informant.” In short, Spinney knows what is running through my head. Then, quietly he refills our glasses and says, “No, you’ll never be able to write it up, except maybe when you’re my age. But, it’ll be a nice story to tell when you’re out for drinks.”
I looked at Spinney and said: “Yeah, especially when I add in that I sat here drinking booze hidden from the time of Prohibition.”

Spinney sat there quiet for a few minutes. “Uh. Wes?” “Yeah?” “This stuff is old, but it’s not from Prohibition. About twenty years ago, I closed the roadhouse we used to run up on Route 29. The rest of the family are straight-out teetotalers, and I couldn’t stow this stuff in the barn, so I stashed it out here”.

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