When Every Day's a Holiday, A Sailor's Life Is Sweet

My late friend, Captain Bellhouse, began English and finished Yankee enough with a home by Maine's bounding tide. He was a gentle man (two words) who liked ice hockey and contrived once a year to have his anniversary dinner on the night of a crucial game. The anniversary, he told us, was of the establishment of the sugar business in New England, with which he was solidly identified because he brought freighters up the Mystic River on holidays. I'll explain in a moment.

As a sort of relic from Maine's glorious age of sail, he performed not on the afterdeck in a gale with a megaphone, but in comfort at a polished desk with an intercom. In retirement, he was a magnificent person to have around. And once a year he'd invite his neighbors to have dinner with him and his family, meeting at the restaurant and afterward attending the hockey game.

The captain used to say that he hoped someday to do a definitive book on the subject of Boston holidays. Coming from the "red rag" British Merchant Marine to become a veteran of American seafaring, he encountered his first Boston holiday in all innocence. He had a cargo of sugar and was to dock at a refinery, or sugar wharf, somewhere upstream of an area he knew only by its Colonial history as taught in English schools. The captain said he was fascinated by Boston.

On every successive trip, he looked forward to turning his responsibilities over to the pilot and then exploring Boston with his binoculars. Captain Bellhouse would laugh and tell how he was amused by the fate of the six-masters. In sailing days, as vessels got bigger and bigger, there came the six-masted vessel. And there came a day when there were two six-masted sailing vessels afloat, huge hulks capable of heavy cargoes and great speed, and presenting new problems to the sailors.

These two vessels had the Seven Seas to sail in, but they collided in Boston Harbor. Captain Bellhouse liked to meditate on this, but he also came to know the Old North Church, the North End where they had the molasses flood, the grasshopper on Faneuil Hall, and such Boston treasures as seen on the way upriver with sugar.

And as he came and went, tide after tide and year after year, Captain Bellhouse noticed a curious fact. Trip after trip, no matter when his vessel approached, it was on a holiday.

Oftentimes, he noticed, things just happened to come out even, but sometimes this was also contrived. That is, a couple of days before landfall, sometimes just off Nantucket Light Ship, his engineer would report a fluctuation in the starboard response, and the ship would go on half speed during repairs. This meant coming into Boston Harbor on Wednesday instead of Tuesday, and after a time the slow-witted British master-merchant-mariner realized that Wednesday was a holiday and Tuesday was not. On holidays, a crew gets holiday pay for discharging cargo.

Captain Bellhouse said he was never aware of any of these holidays until they embraced them in Boston. He seemed to remember that Straw Hat Day was May 21, but he wasn't sure. On Straw Hat Day every man in Boston wore a straw hat and summer became a fact. The crew got time and a half.

The thing about Boston holidays that amused the captain was their ability to adjust to the sugar imports. Major holidays, like Christmas, Easter, and the Fourth of July came at stated times and were on the calendar. No captain would bring his vessel into port on Dec. 25. But in all innocence, Captain Bellhouse would approach Boston Harbor at any old time, and find he was docking on Dorchester Day, or the anniversary of the Tea Party.

Captain Bellhouse told me he knew as a fact that the Great Fire in Chelsea was celebrated in Charlestown on the third of October. The second time he was due on October third, he deliberately ordered a delay, and found that on October fourth they had the Salt Fish Derby in Everett.

THE very big holiday that is strictly Boston (Maine and Massachusetts, to be exact) is Patriot's Day. That's the patriotic observance of the ride of Paul Revere and the consequent business at Concord Bridge, memorable otherwise, the captain said, for the rhyming of "flood" with "stood" by the great Ralph Waldo Emerson. The captain said he knew without being told never to come up the Mystic on April 19. On that day, the entire population of Boston runs in the Marathon, and every gardener in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the State of Maine plants peas.

The lantern signal from The Old North Church is reenacted, and the "one if by land" is brought from the Boston Museum of Fine Art by Brinks Express. (Brinks Express Day is observed in South Boston in February.) Paul Revere rides again each year, a role carried out somewhat in the Oberammagau style by the president of The Ancient and Honorable Order of Hibernians. A beef stew follows traditionally at the Boston Athletic Association.

So you can see why sugar costs so much, and how the succession of Boston holidays would fascinate any young man from England. Time and again, the captain would be at his ease while the derricks were unloading sugar, and he'd watch the fireworks as town after town drove the Redcoats away again, or celebrated the first pair of rubber boots made in Haverhill. Listening to the galloping horses and the cries of alarm mingled, of course, with the rollicking chanteys of the crew as the hearty lads racked up holiday pay.

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