The US Postal Service is at the end of my rope

My heartfelt thanks are extended to the United States Postal Service, which has just sent me robust apologies for destroying a letter addressed to me from, I presume, a reader of this newspaper who (I think) sent me kind words and best wishes, but whose identity is forever lost. The Postal Service communicated to me in a plastic envelope that bears a printed condolence and contained a shred of said letter, indicating to my quick perceptions that this kind of foolishment occurs often enough so they are prepared for it.

I take it my letter tangled with a robot somewhere and the robot won. The single shred, or scrip, of paper salvaged from this disaster has the following: "You left out the bucket rope." That is all my unknown friend got for his 33 cents, and I have no idea how the postal folks found my name to apologize. The name of the sender is lost, so the postal people can't return his 33 cents, ha-ha.

But we do know that reference was to my discussion (Monitor, March 26) of sailors "learning the ropes," and how at sea there aren't many ropes to learn. The man rope, the foot rope, the bell rope, the bucket rope to be sure. Then everything else is a line, sheet, halyard, twine, hawser, painter, or warp. The fact that my lost letter-writer wrote "bucket" betrays him as a seafaring man (or woman) since at sea there are no pails. Only buckets.

I did leave out the bucket rope, but not because I didn't know about it. Up on the St. Lawrence River, a few miles below Rivire du Loup, there is a small village named Trois Pistoles. A pistole (pis-TOHL) was at first a Spanish gold coin worth maybe a dollar, but the word came to mean any of many European gold coins and by the time it got to French Canada a pistole meant merely a coin, any coin.

So this small seasonal Canadian town, farming and fishing, was named Three Pistoles, and this is the story: A sailor on a vessel passing up the St. Lawrence dipped his bucket to got some wash water. Then the string on his bucket parted, and he watched his bucket as it floated downstream in the current and was gone. So he said, "Well, there go three pistoles!" which would be the price of a new bucket.

The last time I was in Trois Pistoles, a quirky character had a small bait-house shop on the waterfront with a sign: "The Old Fisherman of Trois Pistoles," He did keep a fresh fish, and he had smoked salmon, and then he had a few souvenirs he'd whittled that were nice. He considered himself the main attraction of the town. And in his greeting to folks he would say, "When I first came here, this was only One Pistole."

Dipping water from a boat or wharf with a pail on a rope requires know-how. It isn't easy for a novice. If you just lower the bucket by the rope, it arrives at the water brim up, and in that position can't take in any water. Some experts have mastered a quick flip of the rope, which turns the bucket rim-down. But the way most generally used is to hold the slack rope in one hand, and cast the bucket so it hits the water upside-down. Then you draw up the bucket of water. If this is not neatly done the first time, the bucket will then be brought up empty to be cast again.

When done right, the maneuver is quick and easy, but it's awkward if you dangle a bucket on a string and you can't make it drink.

Along with a few other lines aboard ship, the rope on the water bucket is called a rope. In the column that threw the USPS into its apologetic, I mentioned the importance of the bell rope. Ships' clocks that strike "the bails" have been on the market for years, and sporty latter-day salts even have them aboard their mahogany yachts. Land-lubbers admire the authenticity of a seafaring clock that actually strikes the bells automatically.

THE true ship's clock of the days of sail was likely octagonal, a six-day wind-up, and it was kept in the master's quarters, under cover, on the wall. It did not strike. It took close to 100 days to go through the Straits and come from New York to San Francisco, and the way to keep a ship's clock accurate called for faithful winding and tremendous skill with astronomical calculations. The ship's bell, on which the hours, or watches, were struck by hand with the bell rope, was aft by the wheel, and it was the helmsman's duty to jerk the rope. He was the vessel's watchman. If the bell didn't strike, something had happened at the helm, and the vessel was in trouble.

Need I explain that a watch aboard ship was four hours, except for the two shorter "dog watches" from 4 to 6 a.m. and from 6 to 8 p.m. Each half hour was struck, and eight bells made the standard watch. In Liverpool Harbor, it was said, some 50 or 100 ships at anchor would announce eight bells in musical exactitude. All you'd hear was eight "bongs"; ding-ding, ding-ding, ding-ding, ding-ding!

My sea-captain neighbor was kind to me when, as a boy, I stopped by to visit. He always had a "chronometer" instead of a pocket watch, and sometimes would consult it and say, "Almost eight bells, time to tie on the feed bag again!" I was thus excused and could go home to lunch.

And precisely at noon Mrs. Soule, (the mate!) would open the door from the house and shout "Cap'n Soule! Dinner's ready!" It was noonin' time. I'm grateful to the United States Postal Service for its ineptitude. Now, just where did I leave that rope?

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