I’m not a great fan of “Lobsta”; don’t hate it. But don’t love it.
In 1965 I was a waiter at the old Poland Springs Hotel. I carried a thousand platters of lobster with drawn butter into the main dining room. The trays filled with lobster leaked brine all over my waiter’s monkey jacket, and the drawn butter oozed down my arm and into my armpit.
The reek put me off “Lobsta” for several years. By 1972 I could eat a lobster, but like the Melville character, I’d prefer not to.
Sunday dinner at my in-laws was always the same. Dinner served at 11:30 AM, two lobsters apiece, salad ( Kraft Thousand Island or French dressing), bread and butter or pilot biscuit, your choice of water or iced tea. The meal and timing were invariant over the years. My wife could not remember when it had not been thus. My not liking lobster was not reason enough to alter family tradition. Minor illness at the smell of the drawn butter was not sufficient reason to change.
My mother-in-law could not understand why anyone wouldn’t pick the last bit of flesh out of the least spinneret, nook or cranny of a lobster’s body: “Wes, Don’t you want to pick that ragged body? There’s still lots of meat on it!” No, you can have it, and I don’t want the tamale why don’t you take it? “Oh, Wes always leaves the best parts, Mommy,” says my wife. Tamale tastes worse than the rest of the lobster; if the cat won’t eat it, neither will I.
“Wes? What’s wrong? Can’t eat your second lobster? You can’t get them this good in a restaurant.” – stated with a clever nod by my father in law the Cap’n .
No matter how many Sundays pass, the lines are roughly the same. To them, it just seemed unnatural that I disliked the main course. Arguing did no good. After listening to a request for something different, I was looked at for a few minutes in a distracted fashion, my abnormal behavior noted, and the family proceeded to devour lobster.
I had grown up in a family where passionate arguments were the norm, but once won or lost the decision stuck. Discussions rarely ended in my wife’s family. If it was worthwhile having once, the second time around was better. You renegotiated your starting positions, but not your terms. The objective on Sundays was to get Wes to agree that lobster was nature’s best food.
The exception to the endless rehashing of old discussions was the Cap’n, Daddy. In this family, Daddy was always right. If Daddy wanted “Lobsta,” everybody had “Lobsta.” It was the natural order of this small end of the coastal universe.
This particular Sunday, Mommy announced that after dinner, we would plan our summer trip. I had been on a few of these already. Like Sunday dinner, the excursions were patterned and predictable. Sail out past Sequin Light, a race up the Sassanoa River to shoot the Hell Gates, then an evening pause downriver from Bath. The next day there’d be a leisurely sail down to Popham. From Popham, it was out to Matinicus, Monhegan, or some other location, and then home. That year I was determined to suggest an alternative destination.
So, after the last ragged body and swimmeret had been picked clean, dishes washed, and picnic table cleaned, the family gathered in the parlor to discuss the trip. Mommy began. “Daddy, where would you like to go this year?” while Mommy always introduced the topic, she hated sailing and would never join us, a rare never renegotiated item. The Cap’n did not expect Mommy to come and never suggested it. My wife and if he were present, my brother in law faithfully suggested the stalwart choices: Bath, Popham, Matinicus, and Monhegan. I decided to lower an oar into the water. “Well, I’ve never been to Mount Desert Island and never visited Bar Harbor. I’d love to go there.”
A great stillness followed this pronouncement. Everyone looked toward Daddy. Daddy looked toward his pipe and the can of Holiday Pipe Tobacco ( the one with the black on blue illustration of a 1940’s cruise liner and tropical isle). Daddy filled his pipe, lit it, and, drawing on it, said, “Baah Habaah. We don’t do Baah Habaah. That’s just Sodom and Gomorrah on the Atlantic.” And so it was.
The family billed the trip as a sort of” go where we want to go, get there when we get there” event. We’d wind up at Monhegan eventually. Truthfully, it was a paced exercise in tides, ground made good, efficient sail use and pilotage. The Cap’n was a real Master Mariner, had grown up in these waters, and knew what he was about.
One of the few pictures I have left from that part of my life is one of me looking quite salty at the helm of Psyche, the beautiful thirty four foot ketch the Captain owned. It’s a lovely photo until you notice the snaking crooked wake behind me. So, while the Cap’n was trying to calculate ground made good, the crew, me, was not holding the course. Despite being “wet from birth” as a member of a seagoing family, I was a near-total loss as a sailor. The family planned to make a mariner, boat repairman, and generally “useful” individual out of me.
I was a study in frustration with the Cap’n.
Indeed, I was the crew, the only crew. “Wes! go forward and douse that jib!” and “Wes, get the lead line”, and “Wes, bear off a bit more.” It was a trial, but in my secret place, I also loved it. The Cap’n guessed it and put up with me because that love showed through whenever the sails set wing on wing or we ghosted on light air almost too faint to support a gull. The daughter was afraid of the boat; the wife was jealous of it, and the son avoided the topic altogether. Only the son in law grumbled but went with a hidden pleasure. The cruise was a pleasant torment.
Despite the crew’s errors, we continued at a respectable pace with the Captain gauging tides and currents. He took great pride in shooting the passage between the Hell Gates, and in having the right amount of water below and clearance above a nasty bridge further upriver. It was a favorite exercise in tide and timing. He then played chicken with the bridge keeper at Bath, who never gave anything more than scant excess in lifting his span above the ketch’s masts.
The Cap’n liked to tie up at a coal pier on the river in Bath, and take dinner ashore. After dinner, we spent a peaceful night anchored in a cove downriver from Bath. The Kennebec in the failing light with no other boats in sight looked like a wilderness until a scattering of lights came on in nearby cottages.
The next day we proceeded downriver. The Cap’n drilled the “crew” on tacking, jibing, and handling the puffs of wind coming off the land. This is where the snaky wake picture was taken. At Popham, we briefly stopped. I was all set to explore, but the Captain decided that it was too touristy a stop and off we went. I overheard a muttered crack about Bar Harbour.
It as early enough to make a passage to Monhegan. The Captain calculated that we’d get there close to sunset. As was often the case with things nautical, he was close on the mark. The son of a friend was Harbor Master, and we thought we’d be able to get a mooring for “a fifth or a fiver.” But, the son of the friend couldn’t be found, and dark was coming on fast. The Cap’n reluctantly decided on the anchorage. It took five or six tries to get a purchase on the shingle and gravel bottom of the channel between Monhegan and Manana. It was 9:30 before we were sitting down for a favorite shipboard meal: sardines, sea biscuits, and tea. About the time we were finished with the “meal,” the tide turned, the wind shifted, and squalls moved in. Our boat began an uncomfortable arrhythmic roll in the channel between the two islands.
About 10:15, the Cap’n insisted on a game of cribbage. I hate cribbage so much that, to this day, I frequently cannot recall the name of the game. That distaste originated in playing with the Cap’n and his family. As is the case with many things disliked, they do not get done well. Every mistake I made became a gleeful pronouncement, every missed nuance or boneheaded play was chuckle-worthy.
I left the game early. “But, Wes Daddy wants you to play some more.” I’d prefer not to. So off I went to study the lights list, warning to mariners and the 1941 edition of Bowditch. By midnight the roll was bad enough that my wife was looking jaundiced, and even the Cap’n looked bilious. Knowing that I’d soon join them, I did what my father ( Merchant Marine – Engine Room – Not Bridge!) had always advised and “hit the hammock.” Wife and father in law looked at me oddly as I brushed my teeth and climbed into the small forward berth. Doing this left the longer berths in the main cabin for them. After so much dousing of jibs, bearing off, coming about, and hauling sheets and anchors, I was so tired that little could have kept me awake. The crew was pooped.
The next morning I woke around 800 AM. There was a brisk wind from the east, and the unfortunate weather pattern of the previous night was breaking fast. The Cap’n and my wife looked worse than they had last night. After I’d gone to sleep, they couldn’t. The roll had played with those sardines and biscuits. Then the Cap’n had started worrying that the anchor might drag. Being unable to rouse me, an unhappy wife had gone on deck with Daddy to check the anchor. She then stayed up to keep Daddy company. She said little, but gave me looks that said: “why aren’t you feeling guilty?” Both looked seasick, tired, and peeved at me. I felt great and suggested a row ashore after some breakfast. They declined both. So I fired up the alcohol-fueled Shipmate stove and made eggs. Have I mentioned to those of you who never sailed with an alcohol-fueled Shipmate stove that many find the odor sickening? No?
After a generous breakfast, I offered a row ashore and a stroll. My wife declined and told me, with a little lift in her chin, that she’d stay with Daddy. I returned in about an hour because from the shore, I could see signs aboard the ketch that the Captain was preparing to depart. Being the son of a merchant mariner, I couldn’t see the sense of visiting a port and not sampling its wares. As a former Navy man, I was anxious not to miss the ship’s movement, and so I hurried back aboard.
Onboard the ketch, both wife and Captain looked green. The Cap’n told me that he was all for breaking the anchor free now. That meant I was to go forward to achieve that while my wife reluctantly took the wheel under the Captain’s direction.
The sail back to home was breakneck, which did little to ease the tender stomachs aboard. I went below to make coffee, and to fry some bacon for sandwiches. That action drove my wife on deck. Both the Cap’n and my wife began talking about how it must have been something terrible they ate on the trip that made them ill. “Well, Wes was mess cook,” stated my loyal wife. How much cooking was involved in serving you your sardines and sea biscuits, said I. I was sure that the Captain was miffed that I hadn’t been sick when he, with years of sea time, had been.
When we took up our mooring at home, we all agreed that we’d unload trip gear the following day. My wife stated that Daddy would be his old self after Sunday night in his bed. I agreed and rowed them ashore.
The walk up from the cove was silent. It had not been the best trip. My wife was fuming mad at me, and I had been peppered by comments on my seamanship all the way home. “watch your luff…head up…mind your helm!…bear off…watch your luff!”
As we approached the house, out came Mommy. With a big welcoming smile, she exclaimed, “welcome home. I saved dinner for you! I knew you’d want your lobster dinner. I’ve got a salad, biscuit, and some drawn butter!” My companions turned green.