|Gloucester harbor through one of |
the windows in City Hall
Photo by Marian McMahon Stanley
Twenty-five years ago, I was living in Marblehead taking care of a house that was right on the water. From my bedroom windows I could see the Salem lighthouse, the fake lighthouse in Manchester-by-the-Sea, the Baker's Island lighthouse, and Eastern Point Light in Gloucester. It was Halloween and on my way home from work I stopped to see a friend. “You better go home and batten down the hatches,” she said. “There's a monster of a storm headed our way.” I hadn't heard about it. She told me nobody had—three different systems were about to converge and they were headed right at us.
When I got home the phone rang and it was the man whose family owned the house. He asked if I was going to stay there during the storm. There is a local superstition that unoccupied houses fare worse than occupied ones do during storms. I assured him I planned to stay. This wasn't the first storm I'd ridden out. In 1983 I was living in Houston, Texas, when Hurricane Alicia made landfall and traveled through downtown Houston. I remember thinking it sounded like a freight train roaring overhead. The next day glass was knee-deep in Louisiana Street. It sparkled green, gold, and pink from all the shattered glass buildings, and beds hung out of the windows of the Sheraton.
|F/V Andrea Gail, lost in the Halloween Storm of 1991|
That October night in Marblehead was a wild one. The house shook so hard that water splashed out of the toilets and I had to mop the floor. But that was the worst of it, so I counted myself lucky. The next morning the whole house was dark because all the windows were plastered with wet leaves. When I pulled open a sliding door to the ocean I saw a 35-foot cabin cruiser on its side on the lawn. The seawall was intact, but the pier was smashed to pieces. Everything was a wreck but the house was fine.
|Part of the Names Wall in City Hall|
Photo by Marian McMahon Stanley
Later that day a friend called and asked if I felt like taking a ride up the coast to Gloucester. It was a pretty sobering experience—lots of damage and some roads were completely washed out. We made it to Folly Cove and decided to stop at a tavern there for lunch. While we were eating, a man came in and I heard him tell the bartender, “I hear the Andrea Gail is missing.”
For awhile they called it the No-Name Storm or the Halloween Storm, but eventually Sebastian Junger wrote a book about it and it became known as The Perfect Storm—”storm” being the operative word.
A few years later I moved to Gloucester—the house in Marblehead was sold and I decided I wanted to live in Gloucester where I spent most of my time anyway. One of the first things I did, once settled, was to volunteer at a sculpture exhibit being held in City Hall.
|Gloucester City Hall|
Gloucester's City Hall holds many wonders—some of the finest WPA murals in the country are on its walls, and a family of peregrine falcons lives in the bell tower. But in the stairwell to the second and third floors is its most sobering treasure. There are names stenciled in plain lettering, over five thousand of them. They are the names of men lost at sea. The first is Jeremiah Allen who was lost in 1716, though Gloucestermen had been fishing for a hundred years before that.
For months I spent every Sunday at City Hall and when business was slow, I stood in the stairwell and read the names. Under 1991 are listed the names Michael Moran, Dale Murphy, Alfred Pierre, Robert Shatford, David Sullivan, and Frank Billy Tyne, Jr., the men lost in that Halloween Storm. It was a deeply moving experience and when I wrote The Old Mermaid's Tale I relied on those feelings for the scene in which a fishing boat goes missing in that story.
|Fisherman's Rest Cemetery|
Also in Gloucester is a place called Fisherman's Rest. It is a section in Beechbrook Cemetery where Gloucester fishermen who died on shore are buried, among them Howard Blackburn. Not far from there is a sad group of graves—graves with no names. In them are the remains of bodies washed ashore and never identified.
From where I sit at my desk writing this I can look out the window and see a headstone in the old cemetery out back. It is a headstone only, one without a grave. It reads Erected to the Memory of Moses Morse who was Drowned at Sea in his 42nd Year. 1827. Gloucester is full of reminders of the power of the sea.
|Names Wall in City Hall|
Photo by Nubar Alexanian
This is a good town in which to be a writer—inspiration is everywhere. Thanks for reading.