'Captain Dan' Was the Hero Down the Street
During the last few years of his life, Cdr. Donald MacMillan came to be called Captain Mac. I think his wife brought this about, as they married late and she may not have known that in Freeport, Maine, where the Arctic explorer grew up, he was always known as Captain Dan. Not "Don," as you might suppose, but Dan. I grew up in Freeport, too, and Captain Dan lived at the foot of our street.
When he wasn't in the North, or off on his lecture tours, we howdied about every day and he was my boyhood hero, as he was to every other boy in town. Captain Dan had been with Adm. Robert Peary on that dash to the North Pole in April 1909. By my time, say the 1920s, he was commanding his own expeditions into the North and had many awards and decorations for his own accomplishments.
MacMillan was born in Provincetown, Mass., where as a lad he amused himself and scairt others by climbing the rigging of sailing vessels in the harbor and perching on mastheads like a fish hawk. Then his sister, Letitia married Winthrop Fogg, the apothecary in Freeport, and shortly brought her brother Donald to live at the Fogg home. At once he transferred his waterfront activities to Freeport Harbor and Casco Bay, and was still a lad when he began winning sailing races.
He studied the winds and tides until he knew best what courses to lay out at different times, and he won so often he got his title "Cap'n," which may well be a military rank, but 'longshore in Maine it has been a long-respected title for a man who commands a vessel. Cap'n Dan was Cap'n Dan in Freeport High School. When he entered Bowdoin College he had no masts to climb, so he scaled the chapel spire and left his freshman cap on the peak.
When his lecture tours became routine, he'd invite the boys of our end of town to assemble to hear the lecture he had prepared for the coming season. Complete with stereopticon slides, we saw and heard what people would pay to see and hear all across the country. And more besides, because now and then he'd snap off the lamp in his projector and add something not in his script. One year he showed a picture of his vessel high and dry somewhere in a Greenland cove, and he didn't plan to say more about that. But to us boys he explained, "It's not good to tell people how we got the boat afloat. It was a real miracle. An iceberg of some size rolled top to bottom just off our cove, and a kind of tidal wave came and lifted us free."
We believed this.
Then sister Letitia would serve cookies and cocoa, and we boys would go home to tell our folks what Cap'n Dan was going to say next winter in Chicago, New Orleans, Fresno, and way stations across the country. When the Peary party left its base camp for its run to the North Pole, plans had been well laid. Each evening, after a day's trek by sledge, camp was made and two men dropped off to stay in it. The next evening, another camp and two more men. At the last camp, a half-day's distance from the Pole, MacMillan and a partner were left. Thus our Cap'n Dan stopped a half day from the Pole.
Peary, his Eskimo escorts, and Matthew Henson - a man described unfairly at the time as Peary's "servant" - proceeded the next day to the Pole, made the observations, and returned to the camp where Cap'n Dan and his companion were sheltered and warm, had food ready, and all were glad to see each other. The retreat was orderly, with a warm camp, food, and care for the dogs each evening. Reviewing Cap'n Dan's account of this afterward, I always felt his nose was a bit out of joint at not being chosen for the last day, as probably it was, but early on I just wondered why Peary had a servant. To choose neckties and press pants? Henson, an African-American, was in fact a linguist and explorer in his own right.
Not all the difficulties of exploring the Arctic are encountered in the Arctic. In 1925 we watched Cap'n Dan leave Freeport aboard his schooner Bowdoin. It was a good send-off, with colored balloons released to tell the Eskimos he was coming, and he went to Christmas Cove, his customary mooring for first-night-out. The next day he would be off the coast of Nova Scotia. But the next day he was back in Freeport, by borrowed automobile. He got his own vehicle out of the Fogg garage, and then he borrowed Ike Skillin to drive him, and they set out post-haste for Washington, D.C. Our sympathies then were loyal to Cap'n Dan, but at this late date I must choose words with care.
That was the year Cap'n Dan was joined for the expedition by Richard Byrd, a Navy rear admiral, a hero, and a polar explorer. He brought an expandable vessel and an airplane, still a bit of a novelty in 1925. At Christmas Cove, Cap'n Dan smelled something that caused him to wonder and he called time-out and headed for Washington to get ranks straightened out. He didn't like for somebody else to be boss of his expedition. When things were straightened, he rejoined the Bowdoin and Rear Admiral Byrd. That year was not Cap'n Dan's happiest.
ANOTHER year, as the Bowdoin left Freeport, Cap'n Dan was pleased to see that Cappy Lawrence Dixon, harbor master, was coming along. Cappy was in his Dolphin, a substantial craft with diesel power that could outrun any Coast Guard boat. This was important because Dixon was reportedly a leading rumrunner. As he continued to keep close to the Bowdoin, Cap'n Dan wondered if his presence added prestige. And this time at Christmas Cove, Cap'n Dan learned that Cappy Dixon intended to go North, too, and had arranged to be gone three months. On the way home, he would go to St. Pierre and Miquelon, two French possessions in the Gulf of St. Lawrence where the Dolphin was well known.
Cap'n Dan persuaded Cappy Dixon to leave the expedition by the Straits of Belle Isle, so Cappy came to St. Pierre and Miquelon some three months early. One year Cap'n Dan brought back a true Eskimo sled pup named See-nul-nuk. He was puppy fun, but proved a treacherous dog, and we boys kept beyond his chain.
Another time Cap'n Dan brought an Eskimo to Freeport, a happy man who became the town's favorite. As he spoke English well, we boys had him tell us how to skin a walrus and things like that. But Ee-tuk-kas-shoo couldn't stand our Maine winter weather, and just after Christmas went back to Etah.