The Writers Voice
Favourite Literary Website
For better or worse, each of us has a grandfather. Many of us never get to know
them. Sadder still is that many grandfathers don't get to know us either.
Often they're only shadowy figures in the background -- maybe they say Grace at
the Thanksgiving dinner table, (if they can remember the words) but more likely
they sit quietly, listening to the chatter, trying to cope with the changes in a
way of life that they only dimly remember. Most of them will be confined to a
comfortable chair in the corner. They will sit there until taken back to the
'home' or helped upstairs to a small bedroom in the back of the house where they
will sit like a child, looking at the toys of their past.
It's rare to find a grandfather blessed with the panache to be the life of the
My grandfather was one of them. His name was Bill Harragan. He was a second
string tenor with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company when it made its first voyage
to America in 1887. The tour was a financial disaster -- Americans didn't take
to Gilbert & Sullivan then, (very few of them do today). The backers abandoned
ship and the troupe was stranded. The lead singers had earned enough money to
return, but the second team was left behind. Bill Harragan was one of the
latter, but he liked it here -- he met a pretty Connecticut lady in Hartford
while they were on tour and stayed with her family. When the rug was pulled out
from under him he was torn between the desire to get back home or making his way
in the new world. His success with the D'Oyly Carte had been marginal, and
marrying Rachel Booth looked like the better choice. He did so, and the two of
them moved into a small house in Brooklyn where they had five daughters.
He was born with a natural command of English that even unschooled Englishmen
are gifted with. He could spell arcane and esoteric words without knowing what
they meant; he said if he closed his eyes he could see them written there on the
back of his eyelids. He could punctuate like a pro and consequently found work
as a proof reader for the American Book Company, a publisher of public school
texts. He couldn't write a lick, but he could tell those who could write, how
best to say what they were trying to say.
He could sing not only Gilbert and Sullivan but all the scatological ditties
written for the English four-a-day music hall and he taught them to his five
daughters, even though his wife Rachel, with her strict New England upbringing,
begged him not to. As a result they grew up wiser in the ways of the world than
most girls born in the final decade of the nineteenth century and were far more
quick-witted than the men they married.
Old Bill never lost his edge. But there were times when his five teen-age girls
and his straight-laced wife made the house in Brooklyn seem unbearably small to
him. Rachel underwent menopause, and the girl's monthly cycles often resulted in
a bedlam of crying and a slamming of doors. Under such conditions the average
Englishman will either grow a garden, buy a horse, take a mistress, or enter
politics. Instead, Bill bought a boat. It was a well calculated decision that
saved his sanity and his marriage as well. He could have named it after his
wife, but he didn't. He might have used his daughter's initials .... in which
case it could have been the "EGGER"; if you took them in order of their
appearance. But he didn't do that either. He christened it the "HMS Pinafore."
The captain of the Pinafore was the only role he starred in the night the
scheduled lead was too drunk to go on.
The "Pinafore" was not a big boat, it wasn't new, and it was less than
seaworthy. Furthermore, it was lying in the mud at the bottom of Paerdegat
Channel in Bergen Beach when he bought it, and all he could see of it was the
tip of its stubby mast. It had been a victim of a severe winter storm. The
owner, an Irishman, was overjoyed to sell a boat in this condition to an
Englishman. He often mentioned to his fellow boat owners in Bergen Beach that,
"The son-of-a-bitch rolls in a dead calm." But to my grandfather the vessel now
lying in the muck of Paerdegat Channel would be his magic carpet to whisk him
away from the house of bickering females.
He had it raised and dragged to the boatyard. For seven years he labored
lovingly, and without having a fortune to spend, did every bit of it alone. The
motor was reconditioned, the boat was recaulked and a bilge pump was installed.
He even worked out an underwater system of stabilizers to help keep the
'son-of-a-bitch' from rolling in a dead calm. By the time three of his daughters
had married he was ready to put to sea. Paerdegat Channel, however, leads to the
sea in a very circuitous manner. It empties into Jamaica Bay which is a
secondary waterway leading from Rockaway Inlet, which in turn brings the hopeful
mariner to Sheepshead Bay and thence to the open sea. It was a route that Jason
and his Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece would have considered out of
Before long his daughters began to bear children. I was one of them, and before
1920 had drawn to a close he was blessed with nine grandsons. We were his
Argonauts and with him we navigated the Duck Point Marshes, the Ruffle Bar and
The Yellow Bar Hassock.
Old Bill Harragan was not used to small boys. He considered us to be short,
stupid men, and fully responsible for the decisions we made. He would sing his
bawdy songs and bellow at us as he pissed over the side of the boat leaving the
tiller in the hands of whoever had the presence of mind to grab it before we ran
"Bring her about, God dammit -- you tryin' to strand us out here?" Such was the
extent of our maritime education.
We learned the law of the sea not from him but from our own mistakes and from
the advice frantically shouted at us from other boatmen in our vicinity. For
instance, we discovered to our delight that under certain conditions the little
'Pinafore' had the right-of-way over larger craft, even tugs with barges under
tow. We learned how to fish and, more than once, had to save each other from
drowning when we fell overboard. We promised old Bill we'd never tell our
parents of these brushes with disaster or the dangers we faced in our quest for
The nine of us were cousins, and if it hadn't been for old Bill Harragan and his
"Pinafore" we would never have known each other. We lived in different parts of
the city and only got together on those rare days in the summer when the sea
sang its siren song and captain Bill had money enough for the gas. I suppose he
ventured out alone when we weren't there, but bearing in mind his uncertain
seamanship, I doubt if he sailed as well as he did with his Argonauts.
He died while his grandsons were off to the war -- none of us were around to see
him go -- it was a journey he had to make alone. He was a rare grandfather. His
nine grandsons are grandfathers now and I venture to say none of our
grandchildren hold us in such high esteem. He left us all the old songs from the
bawdy days of English minstrelsy and the fleeting image of the golden fleece at
the entrance to Sheepshead Bay.
©1996 Harry Buschman
Critique this work
Click on the book to leave a comment about this work