Entry begun Monday, June 23, 8:30 pm
Exultation is not the first word that comes to mind about travel these days. The airplanes that carried me from Cincinnati to Philadelphia and from there to Providence had the smallest seating space I ever remember. In Philadelphia there was barely time to get from one concourse to the next, connected by a shuttle bus, by the time the plane for Providence was supposed to board. I get there just in time but it wasn’t loading. There was an unspecified mechanical problem and no estimate yet about how long it might last. At least that would presumably give my checked luggage time to catch up with my plane, which was a very long distance from where we had landed. The delay lasted only about twenty minutes, and things began to get better. Beginning with the woman who had the window seat to my immediate right, even more confined than my aisle seat.
I love how you meet people traveling you would meet in no other way. Somehow Japan came up as the plane was preparing to taxi and it turns out she and her two teenage sons had spent six weeks backpacking on Japan’s public transportation, seing the sights and sleeping in the cubicle hotels, having such a good time they did not want to come home. Today’s mission was quite different. Her mother in the East is suffering from Alzheimer’s and is being nearly starved to death by the daughter (sister of my seatmate) who had taken her in, it turned out, only to siphon off the mother’s monthly benefit check. A sister in the South, and police in the town where the mother now lives, had agreed that the mother had to be extricated from this intolerable situation, an operation my seatmate, with the local police on call, was to perform tomorrow morning, taking Mom to Sis in Florida before flying back to the city near the Great Lakes where she works two jobs totaling 60 hours a week, both sons now having left the empty nest.
During the two flights I read about half of The Charles W. Morgan by John F. Levitt, first published in 1973 and updated by Mystic Seaport staff in 2013. This book is answering some of my questions and telling me many things entirely new. The cabin boy on this ship usually did sleep near the officers’ quarters, whereas the cook was sometimes assigned to the forecastle. The relatively spacious quarters of the “captain’s day room” in the Morgan has something to do with the fact that five different captains had wives living aboard with them, one of whom gave birth during the course of the voyage, the new son replacing the captain’s sixteen-year-old son from a previous marriage who had recently died in a fall from the mast. Yes, there were floggings on this ship, even after the practice was outlawed, and more than one near mutiny.
It might not be so surprising that Melville knew about the long history of the Makah Indians hunting whales along the Olympic Peninsula near Ozette, because the Morgan spent considerable time hunting in those very waters in the 1840s. In 1862, the Morgan joined the whale ships that had begun to send boats into the “shallow waters” of Scammon’s Bay in Baja California “to hunt down female whales and their calves.” One female fought back so strongly to protect her young that she “stove” two of the Morgan’s whale boats. In the 1850s, Charles Melville Scammon, for whom the lagoon was named, had been the first whaling captain to send armed whale boats into the gray whale lagoons for (usually) easy kills. He eventually had a change of heart and in the 1870s published an illustrated treatise on the species (Marine Mammals of the North-Western Coast of North America) that is still a classic (see Dick Russell’s Eye of the Whale).
Things got better for me as soon as I saw the deep blue of the Atlantic Ocean through the window of the plane. Ultramarine is the word that came to my mind and my eye at the same time. My checked bag in Providence got to the carousel almost as soon as I did. The Enterprise rental car agents were courteous and efficient. The air outdoors was fresh and breezy. Driving to New Bedford I saw two tug boats near the new bridge that skirts Providence, and the traffic was smooth the rest of the way on I-95. A huge new sign for the New Bedford Whaling Museum crowns the hill as you approach the city, a harpoon, rather than an arrow, pointing to the right. MacArthur Drive, the street immediately in front of my waterfront hotel was newly paved, no doubt for the arrival of the Morgan. I was a little before check-in time at the Fairfield Inn, but they were still able to give me a room with a view of the harbor.
After checking in, I went to the Whaling Museum, where Melanie and other staff members were installing our Art of Seeing Whales exhibition. It was wonderful to see the Dutch and Chinese whales ready to go up on the wall right inside the entry, and before I left they were up. All walls were lined with works waiting to be hung, more or less in the order in which they will be mounted. There was some confusion about certain frames and mounts that took a while to work out (I walked up the hill to the flat file in our Archive in the Whaling Museum’s Research Library to get some matts that had been used when some of our Matt Kishes went to Washington, DC), but I am entirely confident that Christina and her team will have the exhibition close to its final form by the time Mike Dyer, Vanessa Hodgkinson, and I get off the ship two evenings from now, if we sail according to schedule. When Christina arrived from a meeting, we went looking for Skin’s Path, Aileen Callahan’s charcoal drawing of the whale’s skin, which will fit just right in a niche where a space had opened up because works that had been chosen turned out to be more suitable for display cases than mounted on the wall.
I saw Vanessa at Crowell’s Gallery and frame shop, where she had shown her Moby-Dick works in January—and where some of the works for the exhibition at the Museum were currently being framed. Vanessa came over to the exhibition space soon after I went back and helped with some questions about the installation. Christina took Vanessa and me out for a drink and tapas at Cork, one of the many flourishing restaurants and cafés from which one can now choose in New Bedford, a far cry from the situation when we began developing our Archive here a decade ago. Christina and I enjoyed hearing about Vanessa’s plans for her adventure on the Morgan and related projects, and Christina and Vanessa enjoyed the twelve new drawings by Matt Kish that I had brought with me from the Midwest.
After we parted, I had clam chowder up the street at Freestone’s and returned to my hotel to write out and type up this entry. Vanessa will meet me here at 9 am tomorrow to take the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard. Mike Dyer was not at the Whaling Museum today because he is walking from New Bedford to Wood’s Hole before taking the ferry from there, admirable devotion to the spirit, and locomotion, of the era in which the Morgan first sailed.