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HMS Pinafore


Harry Buschman

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 party.

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 the question.

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 aground.

"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 'fleece'.

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

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