by 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 their own grandchildren.
Many grandfathers are shadowy figures in the background. Maybe they say Grace at the Christmas dinner table, (if they can remember the words) but more likely they sit quietly, listening to the chatter, trying to cope with a new way of life that they can’t quite understand. They will be sat in a comfortable chair in the corner and stay 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 photos in a picture album of smiling people they can no longer remember.
It's rare to find a grandfather blessed with the panache to be the life of the party.
My grandfather was one of the rare ones. His name was Bill Harragan. He was a back-up tenor with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company when it made its first voyage to America in 1887. The tour was a flop – Americans didn't warm up to Gilbert & Sullivan then, (very few of them do today). The backers abandoned ship, left for home, and many of the troupe was stranded. The lead singers earned enough money to return in style, but the second team was left behind. Bill Harragan was one of the latter.
On the other hand he liked it here – he’d already 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 a desire to go home or making his way in the new world. He was a flop with the D'Oyly Carte and marrying Rachel Booth looked like a better choice. He did so, and the two of them moved into a small house in Bergen Beach in Brooklyn where they had five daughters in six years.
He was born with a natural command of English that many 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 in bold type 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 teach those who could how best to say what they were trying to say. He would have been a natural on an internet literary site.
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 a strict New England upbringing, begged him not to. As a result the girls grew up wiser in the ways of the world than most girls born in the final decade of the nineteenth century and were far quicker-witted than the men they married.
Old Bill never lost his edge. But there were times when his five teen-age daughters and his straight-laced wife made the house in Brooklyn seem very small to him. Rachel’s menopause, and the girl's menstrual cycles often conflicted and resulted in a bedlam of crying and the sound of slamming doors.
Under such conditions the average Englishman will either grow a beard, 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 maybe his marriage. He could have named it after his wife, but he didn't. He might have used his daughter's initials .... in which case it would 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 sang ... the night the scheduled lead was too tight to go on.
The "Pinafore" was not a big boat, it wasn't new, and it wasn’t in tip-top condition. 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. Its owner, (an Irishman), was overjoyed to sell a boat in such 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 lying in the muck of Paerdegat Channel was a magic carpet which would whisk him away from a houseful of bickering females.
He had it raised and dragged to the boatyard, and for seven years he labored lovingly, and not having a fortune to spend, did every bit of it alone. The motor was reconditioned, the hull was re-caulked and a bilge pump was installed. He even worked out an underwater system of stabilizer fins on the hull to help keep the 'son-of-a-bitch' from rolling in a dead calm. By the time three of his daughters were 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 to Rockaway Inlet, which in turn brings the hopeful mariner to Sheepshead Bay and thence to the open sea. It was a route in which 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 long 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 in New York’s backwaters.
Old Bill Harragan was not used to small boys. He considered us to be dull witted dwarves and fully responsible for our own decisions. He would sing his bawdy minstrel songs and bellow at us as he peed 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 the advice frequently shouted at us from other boatmen in our vicinity. For instance, to our delight we discovered 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 one of our ‘dwarf’ mates from drowning if he fell overboard. We promised old Bill we'd never tell our parents of our 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 and 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.