Saturday, August 13, 2016

Memories of They That Go Down To The Sea

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.

22 comments:

  1. Definitely does seem like a fertile place for a writer to grow in. Your posts always make me want a trip up East!

    @mirymom1 from
    Balancing Act

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    1. I think we all have a place that is perfect for us. I'm in my perfect place and I count myself lucky.

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  2. Poignant and beautiful. I believe that deep-sea fishing and mining are still our most dangerous professions. Perhaps illogically I know where I would rather meet my end.

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    1. I was trying to find stats on the most dangerous jobs and I think logging is at the top of the list followed by fishers and miners. I agree about where I'd rather meet my end though.

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  3. Hi Kathleen - this does sound like a wonderful place from which to draw inspiration from. Wonderful views too - I love looking across roof tops ... but I love the sea ... though like you and EC would rather not end my days in it. Having had grandparents in St Ives in Cornwall ... fishing and mining are 'in the blood' - though that wasn't the family's life back in the 1800s ...

    I respect the sea - and storms can be devastating ... wonderful post - and I love the title of it ... cheers Hilary

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    1. Hi, Hilary, thanks for visiting. There are so many wonderful stories out of Cornwall, I think it would be a fascinating place to live. Yes, the sea is certainly a huge presence!

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  4. What a story. My best friend and her husband got married during that storm. Needless to say, they have never forgotten an anniversary.

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    1. Wow, I should think not! That storm is remembered by a lot of people for a variety of reasons. It's nice to know some of them are happy reasons.

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  5. You were so brave to stay during the storm. I would have ran like a coward;) It is sad about all the men lost at sea. So tragic. Thank you so much for your support and comment on my blog. I appreciated it.

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    1. Thanks for visiting. Staying during the storm was not really a big deal. Like I said I've been through storms before. My brother always says, "It's exciting as long as you don't killed."

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  6. Gosh, what a story, Kathleen - so poignant!

    Susan at
    Travel, Fiction and Photos

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  7. What a wonderful post. I live in Devon, England, which has a proud sea-faring tradition. We get storms here too but nothing to rival those in the USA.

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    1. I've read about Devon. It's one of those places that sounds so inspirational. I'll bet there are stories everywhere.

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  8. Your part of the U.S. always holds grist for the writer's mill. Even the town names recall those early days when the Europeans came to this vast land. I love reading about the storms and the cemeteries and all the lore of the East Coast.

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    1. Thank you, Lee. I love living here. I've been here for almost 30 years and can't believe how the time has flown by.

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  9. The region must be so laden with grief from hearts broken from loved ones lost. The same is true here from the many lives during hurricanes and floods. Grist for the writer's mill? I cannot help but see lives shattered, islands of souls submerged by sorrow and loss. I am a big softie I guess.

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    1. Shattered, yes, but also brave and valiant. It is a way of life that so many people love and would not do anything differently despite the risks.

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  10. Scary. I don't think I'd want to ride out a storm like that.

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    1. It's scary at the time but it makes a good story later on!

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  11. This gave me chills. Lovely post. And what a story you tell! A fisherman in North Carolina's Outer Banks once told me about white caps in the toilet. ~grin~ Glad you made it through safely.

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    1. Thank you. Yes, I'm sure all fishermen have similar stories to tell!!!

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