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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

10/09/1989 - Columbus Day with my Grandfather

 F. Muller, USS Chesapeake

Baldy was already up, sitting is his big winged chair, holding a cup of coffee. I smelled its deep aroma across the room.

I sat opposite, and we got into a chat about the war of 1812.

He spoke about the encounter between the British vessel HMS 'Shannon', and the U.S. Frigate, 'Chesapeake'. This was prompted, because a New York friend of mine, John Filler, who is an amateur but accomplished historian, had mentioned to me that the 'Chesapeake's' captain, a man named Lawrence, was buried in Trinity churchyard, in New York.

I mentioned this to Baldy and the topic was brought afresh. He perked at mention of naval history. Sometime last spring, we had spoken about Oliver Perry's fights with the British on lakes Ontario, Erie, and Champlain . . .

" . . . Lawrence, who was mortally wounded, mumbled, "Fight her till she sinks. Don't give up the ship!"

Baldy pronounced these words as if his own father had been on the decks of the 'Chesapeake' himself. He reminded me that the 'Chesapeake' had been constructed as one of a group of frigates built for the young republic to face the growing menace of Barbary Pirates. In 1801, Yusuf Karamanli of Tripoli, demanded a tribute paid to him which was more than the construction cost of the 'Chesapeake' herself. Jefferson responded by sending a fleet of frigates, including the 'Chesapeake' to the Mediterranean, intending to sweep the pirates from the seas there. The 'Chesapeake', for various reasons, did not see action, and was called back to Boston.

Baldy continued:

"The 'Shannon' drew broadside to bear on the 'Chesapeake'. Both ships raked decks with fire from all guns . . . Sixty died on the Chesapeake alone."

"The 'Chesapeake' had a green crew, and they handled her badly. She luffed in a quartering wind and was overcome."

I went to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. Baldy was still on-topic.

"It was Perry, who first uttered the expression, 'Don't give up the ship'. He flew that slogan on a specially made flag at the Battle of Lake Erie . .

"He swept the British from the 'seas' there. He used small lake boats, built quickly out of whatever wood was at hand.

"These ships frequently leaked, and had to be brought ashore on gentle beaches, and careened over so that their hulls could be caulked with oakum, and tar.

"Shipmen in those days wore a pigtail, tarred into a knot at the back of their heads.

"Their hair became an awful matted mess, held tight by that ubiquitous 'pine-knot'. Coming ashore to get married, such a man might 'cut the knot', wash himself, and then repeat the process again for his next assignment, often in a different port. This led to many of these sailors having multiple wives."

He winked!


Now the leaves are turning red. For thirty five years I have watched them turn. Knowledge and death. Autumn in the north-east is touched with poetry.

That poetry now, includes winter.

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