Of Dinner, Ditties, Decades, And a Drum

To advertise something on TV, a voice exclaimed, "It's incredible! I can't believe it!" There's a lot on TV I can believe all right because, like the Queen, I practice at it. And now here's one from real life you'll find hard to believe. We take our evening meal here in our comprehensive sanctuary for gracious senior living at our own table, assisted and supported by Lady Phyllis, who likes anything with chocolate sauce on it. A good merry time we make of it whilst the other octogenarians frolic in similar unabashed fashion. In this way, it happens that a lady there sits with her back against that of my goodwife. They are nigh, one to the other, but being back to back socialize lightly beyond "hello" and "how ya doin'?" I now skip back some 70-odd years.

* * *

About 1920, I received a book that I read and enjoyed. It was titled, "The Indian Drum," and for a boy of my age it was fascinating. The background was steamboating on the Great Lakes. I was saltwater, Down East, and knew a good bit about a sail from the sea captains who lived on our street. But I didn't know any more about steam than our sea captains did. What they taught me about navigating included steam all the same, and among the lore they passed along was the jingle about "Green to green and red to red." I always supposed that was for sailing craft only, and at that time knew nothing about the Great Lakes. For that matter, neither did my neighborhood ship captains. I never went to sea.

Half a lifetime later, I came to live next to Capt. Alan Bellhouse, a career master mariner born in England, and one day while comparing notes I learned that as a boy he, too, had heard the Green to Green. He said:

Green to Green

And Red to Red,

Perfect safety,

Go ahead!

He said, "That foolish rhyme includes every navigational rule in the book, and the book has 100 pages!"

That was the point of the thing. Memorize a bit of doggerel, and down to the seas! I said I always supposed it was Great Lakes, and he said no, it was steamship lore, not sail, and they knew it in Liverpool as well as in Bangkok.

The novel "The Indian Drum" was published in 1917; I read it two or three years later, and the plot was easy. In a cliff by Lake Superior, a cleft in the rock causes waves to boom when driven in by the wind. That is the Indian Drum, and legend says the drum will beat once for every life lost on the lake.

This time, some 24 lives were lost, and the drum beat but 23 times! Either the drum was wrong, or there was a survivor! The novel tells the story. I grew up, remembering the book as a great yarn of my boyhood, and also remembering "green to green" as the way to handle traffic if I ever went to sea. Port is red, starboard is green.

I wanted to quote the whole rhyme but found I lacked a word here and there after many years. So I dropped a note to good Shirley Martin, who just retired as reference librarian at the University of Maine. She spared me the tedium of ever looking anything up. Eureka! she wrote, and said the book looked like a good read and she was taking it home overnight. Her letter came two days later, and I have the navigational code for you now. I believe there is everything here that you would need to know with a vessel anywhere in the world, even on the Great Lakes!

Green to Green and

Red to Red

Meeting steamer do not dread

When you see three lights ahead.

Port your helm and show your Red.

For passing steamers you should try

To keep this maxim in your eye,

Green to Green or Red to Red

Perfect safety, go ahead.

Both in safety and in doubt,

Always keep a sharp lookout;

Should there be no room to turn,

Stop your ship and go astern.

If to starboard Red appear,

'Tis your duty to keep clear;

Act as judgment says is proper,

Port or starboard, back or stop her!

But when on your port is seen

A steamer with a light of Green,

There's not much for you to do;

The Green light must look out for you.

'THE INDIAN DRUM" was written by William MacHarg and Edwin Balmer and was published in Boston by Little, Brown & Co., 367 pages (hard cover), $1.35 net. These authors had already collaborated on a successful mystery novel, "The Blind Man's Eyes." It got good reviews. So all right: We were sitting at table for the evening meal, and I was telling of the quest I had just concluded for "The Indian Drum" and the verses in it for Green to Green. "The university library," I said, "has a copy of 'The Indian Drum.' "

Whereat Mrs. Thomas, who sits at the next table with her back lined up with that of my wife, turned in her chair to face our table, and she said with pride, "My father wrote 'The Indian Drum.' "

Incredible; I didn't believe it! Mrs. Thomas is, indeed, the daughter of Edwin Balmer. She, too, has a copy of "The Indian Drum," and I have it here beside me. Mr. Balmer's daughter says I may keep it to read again, and I shall.

But I already know how the story comes out.

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