Saturday, July 23, 2016

Jean Laffite: More About My Invented Ancestor

The always gorgeous Jason Momoa as
Jean Laffite in Comedy Central's Drunk History
My father was a story-teller of the first order. In fact I come from a long line of storytellers so it should come as no surprise to anyone that I turned into a storyteller, too. But Dad... Dad was shameless and woe betide the most gullible of his children, because it has gotten me into trouble more than once. This all started somewhere around third grade when we were given an assignment to make a family tree. I pestered my mother for information until she met the limit of her patience. Then she told me to go ask my father, who was downstairs working in his woodshop.

Dad was almost always working in his shop, but he usually was willing to take a break. On this occasion he got out a huge sheet of plywood and one of those weird, flat carpenter's pencils that he always used and he drew me a family tree. It was a thing of beauty. It was also pure balderdash but who cares? I wish I still had it because I know I was descended from a lot of incredible people. The most impressive one (to a third grader) was Jean Laffite the Pirate! Oh, the thrill of having such an illustrious ancestor.

Maison Rouge ruins in Galveston
Eventually I came to the disappointed realization that I really wasn't Jean Laffite's great-great (how many greats?) granddaughter. I can't remember what my teacher thought of my family tree, but my teacher that year was a nice lady who knew my parents, so she probably just rolled her eyes and though, “Oh, Tino!” So, great-grandpa-less, I made my way in the world. But Jean Laffite was never very far from my daydreams.

The first time I went to Galveston, Texas, I drove past some interesting ruins in an overgrown field, and slammed on my brakes when I saw a sign identifying the ruins as the remains of Jean Laffite's Maison Rouge. At that time there was no fence around the ruins like there is now, and you could wander through them, which I did, listening for ghosts. Over the next couple of years, I visited the site a few times and someone told me that it was haunted by a pack of black hounds from hell with flaming red eyes, who one could hear howling on moonlit nights. I actually went there a few times at night, but apparently the ghostly hounds chose to take those nights off.
Laffite's Blacksmith Shop when I first saw it on Bourbon Street in New Orleans

As it is today, a popular night club

Inside, the original hearth has been preserved
Later, in New Orleans, I encountered Laffite's Blacksmith Shop which was in ruins. Both the Laffite brothers, Jean and Pierre, had trained as blacksmiths and when they first came to New Orleans from France they opened up shop there. Eventually they found privateering to be far more profitable, but they maintained their blacksmith shop as cover for their new enterprise. These days the shop, which is on Bourbon Street, has been converted into a nightclub. I have not been there since, but it looks good in the pictures.
The Olde Absinthe House before renovation. Jean and Pierre Laffite met
with Andrew Jackson on the second floor to plan the Battle of New Orleans
The interior when the meeting took place
The sign today

The front today

Downstairs bar today
Also in New Orleans on the corner of Bourbon and Bienville is Jean Lafitte's Old Absinthe House which has been in operation since 1806. It is said that it was on the second floor of that building that the Laffites met with Andrew Jackson to discuss strategy before the Battle of New Orleans. That whole story is pretty fascinating. In the War of 1812, the British had attempted to recruit Jean Laffite but, being French, and thus considering the British a natural enemy, he wanted no part of that. Jackson, weary from the Indian Wars and carrying 2 bullets inside him, headed for New Orleans and, seeing what was available to him as troops, knew he needed artillerymen. Who better for that than the notorious Laffites?
Laffite's signature on a letter to the President

By the way, I doing research, I see that most places spell the name of the brothers “Lafitte” but if you look at the letters that Laffite himself wrote, he always signed it “Laffite” thus I have chosen to use that spelling.

After the Battle of New Orleans, the Laffites received full pardons for past sins from the President, but it didn't take long for them to go back to their old ways. As the United States became more united and new laws were passed, Jean no longer felt safe in New Orleans so moved operations to the wild frontier of Texas, settling in Galveston.

Sketch of Laffite from the description
by someone who knew him
There is a popular story that, after the Battle of Waterloo, Jean and Pierre had a plan to capture Napoleon from Elba and bring him to New Orleans. The truth is, it is hard to know what is fact and what is folklore where Jean Laffite is concerned. As I was doing research I came across two descriptions from people who had actually met him. One, a man who was at the Battle of New Orleans, described him as “six feet tall, uncommonly handsome, and a powerful build, with black hair and eyes, very attractive to the women who followed him wherever he went.” The second description came from a lady who met him when, she estimated, he was about forty. She wrote, “he was over six feet tall, exceptionally handsome with a fine figure, thick black hair just touched with gray, long side whiskers, and hazel eyes.” She also made note of the fact that he was with a lady “of voluptuous proportions” who kept her eyes on him. He is said to have been fluent in French, English, Spanish, and Italian, too.

We know from other writings that both he and Pierre had many mistresses and Jean had at least one daughter. There is much speculation about whatever became of him. Some say when things got too close in Galveston, he buried his gold, set Galveston on fire, and moved on to the Yucatan. Others say he moved to Illinois where he lived under another name and wrote a journal. I have read parts of the journal and, while it is exciting, I am pretty sure it is fiction.

So that is probably more than you wanted to know about my famous invented ancestor, but it has been fun writing about him. In fact, there is every reason to believe I'll be doing more of that—he's too good a character to waste.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Liebster Award: A Blog Challenge

The Liebster Award is given to anyone with a blog who wants to participate. Since C. Lee McKenzie tagged “anyone who wants to play” I'm taking her up on it. To play you have to thank the person who tagged you with a link to their blog, answer the questions, then pass the tag on. I'm going to pass it on to Susan Oleksiw as well as anyone else who wants to play. By the way, Lee will be an #AuthorLove guest on this blog in the near future.

  1. If you had only one good deed you could do in this world, what would that be?
    Promote tolerance. I am so appalled by people who are prejudiced against groups of individuals that they know nothing about. I'll never understand the need some people have to denigrate others when they don't even know them.
  2. What is one fictional character you'd like to be? How come?
    Minerva McGonagall because who wouldn't love to live at Hogwarts and do magic and teach lots of wonderful young people to be witches and wizards.
  3. What's your fondest memory from childhood?
    Mary Opelt's Woods. This was a large woods across the street from where we grew up that was named for an old woman who used to live there. To me and my friends it was the most magical place in the world. We knew every tree and rock and we played so many games and acted out stories. It will always be a part of me.
  4. Is there any story you wish you'd written? Which one?
    That's a hard question to answer. There are lots of stories I love but I don't think I could have written them. Probably I would just pick one that was made into a hugely successful movie rhat I made a lot of money on so I could worry less about selling books and spend more time writing them.
  5. If you're a writer, what genre do you wish you could write, but just can't?
    I don't think there is one. I've never tried fantasy or sci-fi but don't really want to. I've tried erotica but it bores me so I guess that's all there is to that.
  6. Are you going to participate in the A to Z 2017? Why or why not?
    Probably. I had a really good time this year.
  7. What makes you happier than anything else in this world?
    Having a good writing day makes me happy. Being with people I love does, too. Listening to people tell stories from their lives is also a wonderful treat.
  8. What is the meaning of success to you?
    Having the freedom to do what you want without feeling like tou always should be doing something else.
  9. When you were in grade school, what did you want to be when you grew up?
    A spy and a nun.
  10. Is there anything you want to do, but are afraid to try?
    Not really. There was when I was young but by now I've done most of them.
  11. Please share a paragraph or two from your current WIP or your favorite quote.
    This is what I'm working on today:
A whirlwind of butterflies fluttered past the car door as Grace Winter parked and got out. She ducked to avoid them but couldn't help smiling. Charity Wilde, wearing jeans and a t-shirt splattered with dirt, knelt at the edge of the flower bed surrounding the sign for her family's motel and tavern. A rainbow of flowers swayed in the sunlight of the June afternoon as Charity pulled weeds and dumped them into a plastic bucket.

“So this is the famous butterfly garden,” Grace said, walking toward her. “It certainly seems to be attracting butterflies.”

“Hi, Doctor Grace.” Charity turned, shading her eyes, to look up at her. “Haven't you seen it before?”

“I noticed how lovely the flowers were, but I didn't know it was a butterfly garden until your father told me. He is so proud of you.”

Charity's face lit up like magic. If there was anything in the world she loved more than Boone, her father, Grace couldn't imagine what it would be. 

“It's very special. See, this is verbena and that's milkweed and over there are lilies and lantana. All of them are full of the kind of nectar that butterflies love. My dad said it would be nice if there was a garden along the deck he built out back, so when Lucius has time he's going to help me with it.” Lucius Wicket, Boone's closest friend, fellow bartender, and all around handyman, had been Charity's willing assistant in planting her garden. “I was reading about plants that are good for bees, too, but Dad said he didn't think that was a good idea so close to the hotel.” She sighed. “I guess he's right but bees are important. People don't realize it, but they're dying off and then what will we do?”

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Legendary Howard Blackburn: Gloucester Hero

As I am writing this on Saturday, July 16, 2016, the Cape Ann Rowing Club's annual Blackburn Challenge is in progress. It is a grueling race that involves rowing or paddling small sea craft on a twenty mile course circumnavigating Cape Ann in the open sea. Many people who live in coastal communities have experience in open sea rowing but twenty miles around the island is not for the feint of heart.
Howard Blackburn

The Challenge is to commemorate the accomplishments of Howard Blackburn who was born in Nova Scotia in 1859. At the age of 18 he moved to Gloucester to find work as a fisherman. In 1883 Blackburn was fishing from the schooner Grace L. Fears when a sudden winter storm came up separating him and his dory mate from the schooner. With no shelter and no provisions in bitterly cold conditions all Blackburn could do was row. He rowed for five days without food, water, or sleep. He had lost his mittens and knew his hands were in trouble so he set his fingers in a curved position wrapped around the oars and there they froze stiff.

Route of the Blackburn Challenge
Blackburn Tavern back in the day
Eventually he made it to the coast of Newfoundland where he was rescued and, though his rescuers tried to save his hands, he lost all of his fingers, both thumbs to the first knuckle, and a number of toes. By the time he returned to Gloucester he was a hero, but his fishing days were over. The people of Gloucester raised what funds they could and Blackburn went into business first with a dry goods store that eventually acquired a liquor license and became a saloon. Over the years in spite of various attempts at temperance and Prohibition, he continued to find sources to supply his saloon with booze, but even being a bootlegger wasn't sufficiently exciting. He caught gold fever and decided to organize an expedition to the Klondike.

After sailing around Cape Horn, Blackburn quarreled with his partners and eventually returned to Gloucester without ever panning for gold. But his thirst for adventure remained strong and in 1899 he set out to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a Gloucester fishing sloop, Great Western. After 62 days at sea, with no fingers and few toes, he reached England. In 1901 he repeated crossing the Atlantic, this time headed for Portugal where he arrived in 39 days. He also sailed down the Mississippi River and back up along the Eastern seaboard.
Howard Blackburn
Halibut Point today as painted by
Eileen Patten Oliver
Blackburn died in 1932 and is buried in the Fisherman's Rest section of Beechbrook Cemetery but his legend lives on in Gloucester. His tavern still stands and is now known as Halibut Point Restaurant & Bar. I am pleased to say I have imbibed more than a few cold ones there. Blackburn's story has been told in the book Lone Voyager, written by another illustrious son of Gloucester and my friend, Joe Garland. Joe, I am proud to say, is the man who told me I had to write The Old Mermaid's Tale: A Novel of the GreatLakes and he read every page of it as I was working on it. A few years back the entire community of Gloucester had a city-wide read of Lone Voyager with prominent citizens doing readings from the book in various locations.

The race today is, I believe, the 30th such race and there are plenty of participants. And now, I am going to go and look for the results.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Meet Fluff McDuff by Paula Langford #AuthorLove

Fluff McDuff is the creation of Paula Langford 
whose work I have admired for a long time. 
Fluff is quite charming--I hope you enjoy 
him as much as I do.

 Fluff McDuff is aimed at the pre-reader/early reader age group, with limited words but pictures that introduce pre-K children the ideas of environmentalism and things they can do to help threatened species to recover in nature. Fluff McDuff is a milkweed seed. He is a happy little guy who floats through the countryside making friends with birds and looking for a place to settle down and become a milkweed plant.

I have been reading children’s books and drawing pictures longer than I have been doing just about anything else. My first story was about a chicken, and was illustrated on the living room wall behind my father's recliner. It was not well received by the critics, who had to repaint. A lot more stories and pictures were written and drawn, mostly when I was supposed to be doing things like math homework, which accounts for my lack of mastery of the multiplication tables to this day.

Fluff McDuff has more adventures and friends in the works. Finally, my childhood habit of turning leaves, sticks, bugs and flowers into "friends" and giving them names and personalities has paid off.

Learn more about Fluff at:

Saturday, July 09, 2016

The Legendary Fisherman's Sweater

There are few items of clothing more evocative and more distinctive than the legendary fisherman's sweater. The two most common types are the Aran sweater, first developed in the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland, and the Guernsey sweater from the Channel Island by that name between England and France. However knitters from other countries have developed their own versions of it, especially the Finns and those in other Scandinavian countries.
A group of fishermen all wearing Guernsey-style sweaters

The primary difference between Aran and Guernsey knitting is the way the pattern is created. In Aran knitting the distinctive cables are created by literally removing a section of stitches with a third needle and holding them to the front or the back of the work while a few stitches are knitted, then knitting the stitches on the extra needle. This gives a raised, 3-dimensional appearance that is both attractive and adds bulk, and thus warmth, to the sweaters. The pattern for Guernsey sweaters is created by using various combinations of knit stitches and purl stitches.
Some excellent historic photos of fisherman sweaters

When I was a young knitter, first learning about fisherman sweaters I purchased Gladys Thompson's Patterns for Guernsey, Jersey's & Arans. I practically memorized that book and, though hundreds of books on knitting have been published since, it remains one of the best. It was originally written in 1955 and was republished in 1971 with a foreword by the inimitable Elizabeth Zimmerman. The book not only shows a wide variety of patterns, but discusses the types of wool preferred by the knitters in various communities, the colors and dyes, and also a variety of ingenious techniques employed to add strength and longevity to the garments.
Both Guernsey and Aran in this group

The preferred wool depended upon availability but the wool was spun raw in order to retain as much lanolin as possible. Wool thick with lanolin was both warmer and weather resistant. In the days before rubber Grundies, fishermen needed all the protection they could get from the damp and cold of the North Atlantic. I cannot help but think that knitting with this wool was also soothing to rough, callused, chapped hands. Both women and men knit in those islands. Knitting sweaters was not a far cry from mending fishing nets, and weaving the baskets used to haul fish to and from boats. The patterns were named after things commonly seen—Horse's Hoof, Anchor, Triple Sea Wave, Herring Bone, etc.
My brother Wayne in a combination Fair Isle/Aran sweater and my dad in in an Aran style sweater.
I made both sweaters.
There is a legend that the patterns were unique to particular families and, while that may have been true early on, it did not take long for knitters to copy one another's patterns and share them. In John Millington Synge's play, Riders to the Sea, one of the women identifies the body of her dead son who was lost at sea by the pattern in the sweater that she knit for him.

After I started knitting Aran and Guernsey sweaters I started developing my own combinations of patterns. I also incorporated Fair Isle patterns which were the Scottish equivalent of fisherman sweaters, developed in the Shetland Islands. These patterns carried two strands of yarn on most rows which also added to their warmth and durability.
Four Valentines in sweaters I knit. From l. to r:
Sister Chris in Aran-style, brother Jack and me both in Aran/Nordic-style, and sister Anne in Aran/Fair Isle style.
These days the traditional fisherman's sweater is more a matter of fashion than utility and most are made with lanolin-free, lightweight yarns. When I first moved to New England in the late 1980s I ran an ad in Yankee Magazine offering to knit a custom Aran sweater in exchange for two or three nights in B&Bs up and down the coast. I made quite a few sweaters and got to visit quite a few lovely places including Nantucket and Monhegan Islands.

For those not quite ready to tackle an entire sweater, Seaman's Scarves are a good beginning project. They can be knit in either Aran or Guernsey patterns. What distinguishes these scarves is that they are short—just long enough to fold across the chest of mariners working on deck—and the part that wraps around the neck is knit in a wide rib stitch to minimize bulk and maximize warmth.
An Aran style Seaman's Scarf modeled by Gloucesterman, George.
These sweaters have a long and noble history. Examples of sweaters over a hundred years old can be found in both textile and maritime museums. I always marvel at how tight and perfect the stitches are. For those who spent their lives at sea under the most miserable of conditions, warmth and protection were vital. These sweaters now are loved mostly for their style but they served an important purpose and served it very well.
Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

TMI Blog Hop: 26 Things About Me #TMIblogHop

The TMI Blog Hop is going around again and I decided to play along. Thanks to Debbie the Dog Lady and Yolanda Renee for piquing my interest. This is me, from A to Z

A: Age
A lady never tells her age and, even if she did, she would tell the age she prefers.

B: Biggest fear
Running out of time. I have so many books to read and things to make I feel like I'll never accomplish all of it.

C: Current time
11:46 a.m. I should be working but here I am.

D: Drink you last had
Iced coffee--it's sitting right beside me now.

E: Every day starts with
Coffee and my Inspiration for Writers post on Facebook and Twitter

F: Favorite Song
I tend to prefer classical music, especially baroque but I've told my family that I want the Rolling Stones' "Hony-Tonk Woman" played at my funeral.

G: Ghosts, are they real?
I think so. I write ghost stories and have often sensed another's presence.

H: Hometown
St. Marys, Pennsylvania. The inspiration for my Marienstadt books.

I: In love with
Gloucester. I've been her 20 years and love it more every day.

J: Jealous of?
Authors who are good at book marketing. It is a constant challenge for me.

K: Killed someone?
Only on the page--but I'm a serial killer there.

L: Last time you cried?
I have been weepy a lot lately although mostly happy tears. I watched a video of a very talented young man yesterday that had me in tears.

M: Middle name

N: Number of siblings
Seven--three brothers, four sisters

O: One wish
That people would just calm down and think before reacting

P: Person you last called?
My brother just to see how he was doing. He was recently in the hospital.

Q: Question you're always asked
How did you come to live in Gloucester?

R: Reason to smile
Many of them--many, many, many. Not the least of which is the cardinal outside my window, chirping his little heart out.

S: Sounds that annoy you
Loud television. I'm not a TV person and get crabby when I am reading and can hear someone else's television blasting.

T: Time you woke up
7:00 which is quite early for me.

U: Underwear color
Black--it makes me feel dangerous and mysterious

V: Vacation destination
My back porch. I live in a town that people save all year to come to for a week

W: Worst habit
Procrastination--I don't know why I do that but it annoys me.

X: X-Rays you've had
Not many. Mostly when I had oral surgery.

Y: Your favorite food
Homemade rhubarb pie with strawberry ice cream! Ever since I was a kid. I used to ask for it instead of birthday cake.

Z: Zodiac sign

Saturday, July 02, 2016

A Difficult Anniversary: Gettysburg and Hemingway

One hundred and fifty-three years ago today, the Battle of Gettysburg raged in the fields surrounding a town not far from where I grew up. Fifty-five years ago today, Ernest Hemingway, the man whose work has influenced me more as a writer than anyone else, took his own life. I have always said that I learned more about writing from reading Hemingway's A Moveable Feast than from all the writing classes I ever took. 

It's hard to say if the two anniversaries have anything to do with each other except that both events have lingered in my soul through most of my life. Gettysburg because it was close to home and is a place I've visited on a few occasions. For me there has always been a sense of such tragedy about that place. Over the years it has become a great tourist destination where people attend re-enactments, tour museums and battlefields, and recount in lurid detail what went on there. Often while stuffing themselves with ice cream and sausages and corn dogs on a stick. As I'm getting older and crabbier I find it harder to excuse that kind of behavior. Lincoln said, “...from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of their devotion.” I have a hard time reconciling that with the way some people behave on that hallowed ground.

Then there is Hemingway, who wrote about war unflinchingly without sentimentality. I was a kid when he took his own life, and I remember the shock people expressed at the time. I knew who he was because there had recently been a story about him in Look or Life Magazine. My mother always bought both of those magazines and they were packed with pictures. I loved looking at them and there had been an article not much earlier about Hemingway moving back to the U.S. from his beloved Cuba after Castro came to power. It's interesting that right now I'm reading Oscar Hijuelos's Beautiful Maria of My Soul and just last night read the chapter in which Maria flees to Miami because of Castro.

In high school I read For Whom the Bells Toll and then The Sun Also Rises. I think the work of Hemingway's that had the greatest effect on me back then was a short story called Hills Like White Elephants. I knew when I read it that there was something more going on than appeared on the surface, but it took me several more readings to “get” it. A couple girlfriends and I discussed the story and were as appropriately shocked as Catholic high school girls of that era would be. The story haunted me for years—partly, because I kept trying to figure out if the guy was lying to her, and, partly, because I couldn't believe people wrote stories about things like that.

A few years later I discovered A Moveable Feast and fell madly, hopelessly, unendingly in love. I loved everything about it from Hemingway's droll, tongue-in-cheek way of writing about his friends, to his open appreciation for the tiniest details of his life in Paris—the tiny glasses that Alice B. Toklas served her liqueurs in, the way girls cut their hair, the way street vendors dressed. I have no idea how many times I've read that book—both the original and restored versions.

Last year, when I was writing The Bucktail Cap in the Trunk, I rewatched the Ken Burns series on the Civil War and also watched a few other movies and read numerous articles on Gettysburg. I have a hard time with people who appear to romanticize war. I appreciate the people who are willing to do what they see as their duty and to fight. I know they are heroic, but there is always part of me—maybe the old hippie—that persists in the thought, what if they gave a war and nobody came? From the earliest civilizations people have fought wars and, ultimately, a lot of people die and a very few people profit. It makes no sense to me.

Hemingway wanted to be a soldier, but he suffered from weak eyesight and was turned down. He drove an ambulance in the First World War, and he fought with partisans in Spain's Civil War. Later in life he seemed to grow increasingly insecure in his masculinity. He hunted big game, boxed, attended bull fights. He married four women. But he still wrote wonderfully. The young Hemingway, the guy who wrote droll articles about Parisians, and delicious, gossipy yet poignant descriptions of his friends, is the Hemingway I love.

As for the tens of thousands of lives lost at Gettysburg, we'll never know what they might have done. They gave everything they had in those fields. So, today on this anniversary, all I can say is we need fewer lives snuffed out for causes, and more who look at the world with loving eyes and put that into words. That's about as good as I can do.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Crockpot Rosemary Focaccia #DomesticGoddess

I've been blogging a lot about my experiments with my new Ninja 3-in-1 Cooking System and, naturally, I spend way too much time online looking for ideas. On Pinterest (which is highly addictive) I kept seeing recipes for crockpot bread so I got a bright idea. This could not be easier. What you need is:
  • 1 1-lb. loaf of frozen bread dough (they come in bags of 5 loaves)
  • 1/4 c. olive oil
  • 1/4 c. rosemary needles
  • 1 gallon sized zipper bag
  • 2 sheets baking parchment or wax paper
  • a crockpot
There are lots of recipes for the dough but, since I had the frozen dough anyway, it seemed like a logical choice. So, before I went to bed last night I took a zipper lock kitchen bag and put inside a loaf of the frozen bread (still frozen) plus the olive oil and the rosemary. I zipped it shut and massaged it until the bread was coated in oil and rosemary, then put it in a bowl and went to bed.

This morning the bread had risen so high that it stretched the bag to its limits. All I did was line the crockpot with 2 large sheets of wax paper (you are supposed to use parchment but I didn't have any so I took a chance on the wax paper and it was fine.) I dumped the contents of the bag onto the wax paper and spread the rosemary around with my fingers. Put the id on and turned the Ninja to Crockpot High (if you use a regular crockpot just turn it to high) for 2 hours.

After 90 mins. I checked it and the bottom was a gorgeous golden brown so, using the wax paper to turn it, I flipped it over, put the lid back on and let it cook for 30 minutes more. This is the result:

It was steaming hot but I sliced the end off because I couldn't wait to taste it. It is delicious--really great rosemary flavor.

I'm going to try it again soon using sliced garlic and shallots instead of the rosemary. The crust is crunchy and the inside is so tender! And it could not be easier to make.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Meet James Oliver #ArtistLove

Not long after I moved to Gloucester I noticed the most amazing drawings in various publications. They were so detailed and so beautifully rendered that I could not help but take note. Eventually I learned they were done by James Oliver. I've admired his work for such a long time that I'm delighted to have him on my blog. Also, Jim is married to Eileen Patten Oliver who was on this blog a few weeks ago.

Lanes Cove Fishermen

James Oliver

Cape Ann native James Oliver is creating art in several mediums in the Gloucester studio he shares with his wife, painter Eileen Patten Oliver. A native of Cape Ann, James Oliver specializes in etching, pen & ink and pencil drawings, and assemblage sculptures incorporating items found along area shores. At age 16 he learned the process of etching, and at one time, operated an etching studio in the Lanesville neighborhood of Gloucester, MA. He was co-owner and illustrator for North Shore North newspaper (2001-2003) and was also the illustrator for Common Sense newspaper and Gloucester Island News and did the cover art for author Peter Anastas’ book, A Walker In The City. James’ pencil drawing, “Floyd the Clam Digger” is in the permanent collection of the Cape Ann Museum. He is currently an Artist Member at the North Shore Arts Association and is a former member of Local Colors Artist Cooperative and the Rocky Neck Art Colony. He has many pieces in private collections around Cape Ann and the world.

Poet Peter Todd

Joska Gambla

Catnip Bill

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Twenty Years of Fiesta: Viva San Pietro

One of the first things I learned about Gloucester when I moved here twenty years ago is that there is no point in making much in the way of plans for the last weekend in June—unless you plan to be gone from Thursday to Monday and who would want to do that. The last weekend in June is devoted to St. Peter and is known here as Fiesta. Gloucester is a fishing town and many of the residents here are from Sicilian backgrounds. They honor St. Peter as the patron saint of fishermen and they are very serious about their devotion to him.
Statue of Saint Peter being carried through the streets

 The first few years living here I went to everything! I went to the processions when local fishermen carried a statue of St. Peter on their shoulders through the streets while people prayed, tossed confetti and flowers, and taped money to the statues. I went down to the harbor to watch the seine boat races and the guys walking the greasy pole and, of course, the Blessing of the Fleet when the Bishop comes. The ceremony is held down by the statue of the Man at the Wheel and it is filled with prayers and flowers. And I went to the parties held in bars and in people's homes. I live on a street just a few blocks from the harbor and many of my neighbors fish.
Gloucester's mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken leading a cheer for St. Peter

After being an enthusiastic participant—and sometimes voyeur—I stopped going down to the carnival. It was filled with young people and families. It was loud and crazy and I began to be less and less enthralled by all the commotion. I liked to walk down and check out some of the hats that the Hat Ladies created—they are masterpieces of local color. The Greasy Pole walkers often show up in hilariously wild costumes and it is worth it to check those out. One year my parents came during Fiesta and I sort of think it scared them. They would venture out during the day but once it got dark and loud they were eager to be home.
Seine boat races

When the son of the family next door to me became old enough to walk the pole, our neighborhood got a real shot in the arm. Joe is young and cute and one of the most polite young men I've ever met. Because he was now among the Greasy Pole walkers, things got lively on this street and the parties got wilder. I was perfectly content to fix myself a gin and tonic, go out on my back porch, and listen to the fun.
Loading up the Greasy Pole walkers

Walking the Greasy Pole with City Hall in the background.
Inside the tower of City Hall written on the walls are all the names of
Gloucester fishermen who have died at sea in the 1600s

But through all the years, the thing that has stayed with me is the absolute, total and complete devotion of these people to their saint. The processions and parades remain the focal point at least for the families. No matter how drunk and wild and crazy the carnival and parties become, the devotion to Saint Peter rules everything. The cries of “Viva San Pietro” fill the streets.
Blessing the fleet with the Thomas E. Lannon in the background

I've written before about the European origins of these devotions. I have to remind myself that these men we see laughing and drinking and partying in the street, these men dressed like Marilyn Monroe or a pirate or a giant baby as they walk the Greasy Pole, come Monday these men will put away their costumes and go down to the docks and get on boats and they will go out to sea in search of fish. And there will be times when the fishing is poor, and the water is rough, and the waves are high and then they will count on St. Peter to help them come back home. Some will not be able to do that no matter how they pray.
Viva San Pietro!

So, relax, don't fight it, just enjoy. It's that time of year yet again. Viva San Pietro!

Thanks for reading.