A Tug Boat and One Man’s Dad

The tug boat that welcomes all visitors to the Mystic Seaport Museum

The tug boat that welcomes all visitors to the Mystic Seaport Museum

My dad's Sea King coffee mug and 1941 victory mug

My dad’s Sea King coffee mug and 1941 victory mug

As Wyn and I walked from the Shipyard Tavern to the visitor’s parking lot, I felt I had to take a picture of the landlocked tug boat that sits right next to the entrance to the Seaport complex in front of the Visitor’s Center. I had worked on tug boats for seven summers during my youth on Puget Sound, and I had of course mentioned this in my application for the whale ship voyage this summer. During high school I had started as a deckhand on the Sea Sled and the Sea Pride, moving log rafts around Everett’s Port Gardner Bay and up the Snohomish River. During college I had graduated to towing log rafts and gravel barges up and down Puget Sound on the Sea Chicken and the Josie Foss, followed by the summer on the Sea King during which we brought big oil tankers into the refinery at Ferndale. I got these jobs because my father Walt Wallace had worked as a deckhand for Foss Tug & Barge as a college student in Seattle and was now making his career with Pacific Tow Boat Company, a Foss satellite in Everett, where he began as dispatcher and was now manager. One of his signature moves at Pacific Tug Boat was to wean the company away from boats such as the Sea Chicken, with its deep, elegant wooden hull, to shallow, steel-hulled boats such as the Sea Pride that he had designed by himself, modern, efficient tugs that could turn on a dime and were powered by state-of-the-art Caterpillar engines.

USS Nautilus (SSN-571), National Archives

USS Nautilus (SSN-571), National Archives

I figured that there must be something special about the tug that was given such prominence at the entrance of a Seaport Museum specializing in nineteenth-century sailing ships, so I looked it up in the Visitor’s Guide we had been given on the Training Day. The Kingston II is a forty-four-foot tugboat “originally built in 1937 at the Electric Boat shipyard in Groton, Connecticut.” She “is thought to have been one of the first all-welded vessels,” having been built “from scrap steel by apprentice welders.” I felt a special shock of recognition when I read that she “spent more than 40 years moving submarines, including the first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus, at the Electric Boat yard” (Visitor’s Guide 17). One of my strongest memories as a teenager is when my dad took me to see the Nautilus when she spent a night in Everett in June 1958 before going on to moor at Pier 91 in Seattle. My Dad was very excited about the visit of this famous submarine because he was still attached to Naval Reserve in Seattle after having commanded a subchaser in the Pacific during World War II. Dad had joined officer’s training in the U. S. Navy immediately in the summer of 1942, when the national crew race at Poughkeepsie was canceled due to the war. I was born in Seattle in 1944 while he was at sea, and he moved our family to Everett for his job at Pacific Tow Boat soon after returning home. He had loved the Navy and had once hoped I would to go Annapolis, but I was not drawn to the military in the way he was, and would have been disqualified anyway because of a bit of a cross in my eyes.

Racing shells in the Mystic Seaport Museum boathouse

Racing shells in the Mystic Seaport Museum boathouse

My dad died in 1997. I wish he could have known about my upcoming voyage on the whale ship. And I dearly wish he could have been with me when I saw that beautiful stack of crew racing shells in the storage warehouse of the Mystic Seaport Archive.

Walt Wallace (third from right) with championship crew in 1941

Walt Wallace (third from right) with championship crew in 1941

Walt Wallace with wife Barbara and son Bob

Walt Wallace with wife Barbara and son Bob

Working on tug boats in Puget Sound had prepared me for Melville’s Moby-Dick in a way that my eleventh-grade English teacher had not. I did not enjoy the book in high school, but I loved it when I studied it as a junior at Whitman College after spending a summer on the Sea Chicken towing logs the full length of Puget Sound. Beginning in 1998, I have spent part of every summer in New Bedford, where in 2000 we launched the Melville Society Cultural Project in association with the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Since then, six of us have visited the Whaling Museum every January for the Moby-Dick Marathon Reading. Every summer we return to tend to the Melville Society Archive which the Whaling Museum houses for us and to plan special programming for the forthcoming year. This summer we will coordinate a Whaling History Symposium while the Charles W. Morgan is docked in New Bedford. We are also collaborating with the Whaling Museum staff in mounting a special exhibition on The Art of Seeing Whales.

The six of us who administer the Cultural Project in New Bedford have always worked well as a team. After our long history together, it was a special pleasure to have three of us, Mary K, Wyn, and myself, in the same whale boat a week ago Saturday. Only when writing up these journal entries did I come to realize the degree to which our Cultural Project team resembles the crew of a whale boat, six individuals who, working together, under the right conditions, can sometimes achieve surprising results even in a relatively brief amount of time, one of us after another taking the steering oar as needed.

Wyn Kelly, Mary K Bercaw Edwards, and Chris Sten next to Peter Michael Martin's Melville the Man

Wyn Kelly, Mary K Bercaw Edwards, and Chris Sten next to Peter Michael Martin’s Melville the Man on January 4, 2014

On January 2, 2014, we arrived in New Bedford on a night nearly as frigid as any the city had seen since Melville shipped out on the Acushnet on January 3, 1841. We felt that Ishmael was not exaggerating too much when he complained about “congealed frost laying ten inches thick in hard asphaltic pavement” upon his arrival in the city in chapter 2. Conditions were so treacherous on January 3 of this year that the city’s streets were closed to traffic and the pre-Marathon evening lecture was canceled. Our hotel was only a short distance from the Whaling Museum, so we were able to walk over there and have our scheduled January 3 meeting with the housebound members of the museum staff by making a conference call from the office of James Russell, the museum’s resourceful CEO. During our time in the building, we made a quick trip the museum’s Center Street Gallery to the Moby-Dick art exhibition of Peter Michael Martin, whose Melville the Man, cut out from a single piece of black tyvek, is our 2013 acquisition for the Melville Society Archive. His stark, striking design, as you can see, was perfect for this frigid day of crystallized clarity.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s