Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Wrecking Master

by Jesse Halsey
Deep ruts in the grass mark the effort of heavy wagons in avoiding the muddy highway. Cap’n Harry had laid out fence rails in front of his place. He took great pride in the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the road. But, when the unpaved and almost ungraded highway became “sticky as a Mortar bed,” as he expressed it, why then he always relented and took up the rails. Then some adventurous farm boy would leave the muddy tracks and, while the old man fussed a good deal about it, he never did anything.

“Why don’t you keep your rails down one spring and keep folks off?” This was Squire Jim’s advice.

“How’d you feel if some fella’s horse got scratched and got lockjaw ‘cause he drove over my rails some dark night? I always manage to patch up the front and scratch in a little grass see and get things lookin’ ship-shape by Decoration Day. Someday we’l have a good road. There’s pebbles enough on Sebonac Beach to build a stone highway all the way from the railroad to the church! Then everybody would have a grass plot along front. Strange we can’t get that appropriation through the town meetin.’”

The half-formed leaves cast their sufficient shadow over the village street. Cap’n Harry, with wheelbarrow and rake and shovel, was filling in the ruts and scratching in the seed. The street had been plowed and crudely honed to an indefinite crown. Frost had been gone for two months but Cap’n Harry had been so busy with his spring planting that his “front” had been neglected. This was not unusual, however. He always calculated to have it repaired and seeded and the sidewalk neatly edgetd by Decoration Day.

“Mornin’, Cap’n,” called a boy from horseback as he bought his animal to a walk. “Looks like it was goin’ to rain.”

“Yes, reckon it will. Never seen it fail yet. Fine sunset Friday night, sure to rain before Monday mornin’! But the rain’ll do things good—getting’ a little dry. Rain’ll help the corn.”

As if to reinforce the old man’s statement of fact, a little trail of dust followed the heels of Jimmy’s horse down the street.

“Now, Sis, you run fetch that pail of red top settin’ inside the woodhouse door. I”ll show you how to sow grass seed.”

Little Eliza turned into the “gap,” sped across the deep yard and presently returned with a wooden bucket half filled with the feathery stuff. The Cap’n bent his rheumatic back, scattered the seed along the ruts and over the bare spots that interspersed the green that already covered the greater part of the ground.

“Let me try, Gramp!” And with that the child began to ladle out small handfuls of the seed.

“Not that way, Lizzie, spread it ‘round like this—this. Don’t take much if you put it in the right place.”

Quickly following the old man’s example, the child took over the sowing while the old gentleman, straightening his back with a half-suppressed grunt, began to rake in the seed after the child.

“Yes, it’s goin’ to rain. Rheumatism in my back tells me that.” And with that he glanced up toward the weather vane on his old barn. “Swingin’ into the east’ard,” he mumbled to himself.

The big weather vane, fashioned to simulate a sperm whale, hung lazily with its upturned tail toward the south. The angular square knob of a head and the open jaw with sawtooth edges pointed dead north.

“Won’t stay there long,” thought the old man. “Always goes to the east-ard when it comes ‘round backwards.”

Several neighbors came along the street, passed the time of day with Cap’n Harry, and went about their business.

Miss Deborah came out of the big house across the street, chatted for a moment and out from the folds of her apron, brought a couple of molasses cookies for little Liza.

“Didn’t hear you say, ‘Thank you, Lizzie.’ But then I don’t hear too good. I know you would.”

Like Dr. Johnson, his model, Cap’n Harry had found that most people responded to a hint better than a reprimand. Likely this had been the secret of his popularity and efficiency. Who can say?

The old man and the little girl dragged the heavy stone roller up and down over the new sown grass and the old lawn, exhausting most of their surplus energy.

Jimmy Bishop, coming back from his long errand, dismounted, took a turn of the bridle reins around the hitching post and, with a boy’s enthusiasm, ran the roller back and forth two or three times, finishing the area, then dragged it back to its place in the yard under the sour apple tree. Little ‘Liza seated herself in the wheelbarrow, holding the rake and shovel, and the Cap’n pushed the girl and the barrow into the yard and out by the woodpile.

Reaching the pump, both of them vigorously washed their hands and faces and came through the back door into the kitchen.

“Dinner is not quite ready, Father. Why don’t you go in and lie down.”

Crossing the dining room, the pair reached the Cap’n’s cubby hole. In later times it would be called a “den” or “study” but the agglomeration of all sorts and conditions of things made it a place wonderful to behold. In a prominent place on the wall just over the deal table, which served as a desk, but just visible above the piled disorder, hung a framed certificate signed by the Governor of the Commonwealth and granting Cap’n Harry the authority of “Wrecking Master” for ten miles of the Atlantic shore.

“Tell me a story, Gramp,” whispered the little girl as she climbed on the old man’s knee.

“Not now, child, I’m too tired, but this evening after supper . . .”

As grandfather fell off into a quiet snooze the little girl stated out of the back door, only to find that it was beginning to rain. “Gramp is right,” she thought, “he said it was going to rain. He’s always right.”

True to his promise, when the evening lamp was lighted and the supper things had been cleared away and little Eliza had helped to dry the dishes, grandfather began one of his tales of the sea.

“Twenty years ago, just before the war, there was a big ship came ashore off Flying Point in a snowstorm. Old Cap’s Bill White, who had been wrecking master for a good many years, got a crew together and managed to launch a whaling boat. For some reason or other he gave me the leading oar and, after a rough time of it, we managed to get out under the lea side of the ship and took off the passengers and the crew. Two or three days later, on a high tide, the vessel was floated and I went with Cap’n White and the crew that sailed ‘er into New London.

“The owners and the insurance company between them paid Cap’n Bill the two thousand dollars for his part in salvaging the ship. This he divided among the crew, and I got one hundred dollars, which was a good deal of money in those days but a good deal more before the war was over.

“Some years later when Cap’n White had retired, Governor Thompkins made me wrecking master. That’s my old certificate hanging over my desk.”

The storm was howling outside, and the rain could be heard in torrents on the low shingle roof, but a bright fire burned in the fireplace. The warm spring day had reverted to the wild March and an easterly storm swept the coast. The state of the elements seemed to be reflected in the old man’s mind and, while it was no uncommon thing for the family circle to hear the round of stories that the old man’s experience had accumulated with the years, that night he was “wound up,” according to neighbor Clark, who had dropped in for an hour.

The next morning little Eliza, venturing out before breakfast, discovered with dismay that the heavy rain had washed grass seed and ground alike down into the gutter and carried it away. The strip between the great trees and the road was washed clean and the old ruts had reappeared. But by afternoon, when the sun had come out and the mud had dried up, the energetic pair, Gramp and ‘Liza, were making the same repairs and scattering more seek. This time no neighboring boy came by to help with the roller and, though the afternoon sun was out bright and warm, the last few turns up and own thoroughly exhausted the old captain and his helper; and that evening there were no stories.

Years afterwards I asked my [sister], Eliza, now a middle-aged woman with children of her own, what most impressed her in her youth, and she answered, “My grandfather’s perseverance. He was wrecking master of the shore before the days of lifeguard and lighthouse. It was his business to organize the volunteer crews from the village to help a vessel in distress, and then to salvage the vessel, or its cargo if the vessel was hopelessly wrecked. This endangered life and limb, but no matter what the conditions of the weather my grandfather could always command the help for the villagers. Everyone fit to row and oar was a volunteer if he said the attempt should be made. Everyone knew that if it were humanly possible he would meet the situation—nothing would turn him back.”

I knew something about my [sister]’s life –ill health, financial reverse, disappointment; none of these had ever baffled her. I felt that the old man had had an apt pupil in his granddaughter.

Another decade passed and I visited the old village again. In front of Cap’n Harry’s place from the church to the beach stretched a smooth macadam road. Most of its way, beginning in the north end, it is shaded by great elm trees, but in front of Cap’n Harry’s place, where his descendents still live, there are two giant trees, called the “trees of heaven” by the Chinese. These were little saplings when Cap’n Harry planted them, now eighty years or more ago, saved from a French freighter whose crew he salvaged. His was not always an easy or popular job. When this boat, the Lavalley, had stranded to meet the necessity of casing a tide, he ordered his crew to board and cast offboard the cargo, or part of it. Now, the captain of a ship, it is well known, is supreme lord of his own vessel—when she is afloat. But this boat was aground and Cap’n Harry had authority to salvage as much as possible.

With his crew he went aboard and told the French captain, through a poor interpreter, that in order to meet the next tide and save the vessel the cargo must go overboard. The captain objected vociferously in his Gallic fashion, but Cap’n Harry’s blunt New England manner and word had its way and overboard went the cargo. Great bundles of fruit and shade trees were first jettisoned. These drifted up on shore and were being appropriated by the native population when Cap’n Harry, knowing it was his business to save as much as possible for the owners, went ashore and forbade his neighbors to take the trees away. He was a deputy sheriff and, knowing that he had authority back of his determination, most of the people desisted. But, with his ready ability to meet a situation, he sent for local squire, who was always the auctioneer, and on the beach the trees were sold. Many orchards in the section were planted or replenished from this stock.

On either side of his front gate, Cap’n Harry planted a couple of ailanthus trees, a novelty in those days. He said he was tired of nothing but elms. But he lived to regret his choice. In his later days his chief pride in the village street was the overarching of elms planted by an earlier generation than his. But today his great grandchildren go in and out between the old ailanthus sentinals.

He had been not only the master of his vessel and the master of his shore, but, I have gleaned from the reminiscences of his contemporaries that he was mater of most situations.

He was the oldest of a family of five. His father, the owner of the local water mill, died when he was nine. Energetically he set himself, under his mother’s direction, to help about the farm and assist his uncle at the mill. When they were old enough, his mother, to give them an education, moved to New York, kept a boarding house and put the children in school.

This was unusual. In that neighborhood most boys, as soon as they were able, went to sea and engaged in the whaling trade. Harry and his brother, after a couple of years’ schooling, began to learn a trade and became expert builders. Then, after a couple of voyages whaling, they settled down in New York and began building operations.

During the early 30s of the last [19th] century they amassed a considerable fortune, only to lose it through a crooked partner in a "depression" in 1840. Cap’n Jim, the younger brother, went back to the sea and made an enviable reputation and snug fortune from the whaling industry.

Cap’n Harry, however, with his young wife and child, went back to the old farm. The mill had been sold to pay for his sisters’ schooling. Rebuilding the old farmhouse and introducing some of the refinements that he had built into city developments, he settled down to work the farm and carry on his mason’s trade.

Dozens of fireplaces in that now-fashionable community burn to this day and no one that he fabricated was ever known to smoke. He was short and stocky, broad shouldered and rather portly, but quick on his feet, and his grandchildren remember how he could out-run them and, at eighty years of age, hold a broomstick in his hands and jump over it.

He saved the wreck of his New York fortune and rehabilitated it. When the Civil War broke out, though far from a young man, he volunteered his services, but was rejected. His heart was not sound, they said. Forthwith he organized a company, drilled it on the village green and sent it away to the war, feeling that he had done his bit, saving from the wreck of his own disappointment his patriotic usefulness.

When the railroad first came through that rural community it cut his farm in two. He negotiated a trade with a neighbor so that the two dismembered farms were made units, but both became triangular, as the railroad caught them on the bias. In the trade, Cap’n Harry acquired a big street frontage, but this was poor compensation for the rich upland as the hill ran out into a sand bank and five acres of useless land were his and five acres of the best upland went to the neighbor. But, always resourceful, the old wrecking master, at the protest of his son, but with the help of his rugged grandson, turned this sandy area into a productive asparagus bed, the first in the community. Even in his last days rheumatism did not prevent him from going into the woods for berries in the their season and, though he couldn’t bend his back, he would put a pail under the huckleberry bushes and knock the berries off with his cane and then take them home and pick them over.

He was fat enough to be good-natured, was a regular Yankee Jack-of-all-trades, and good at most. Very expert and painstaking was he in the construction of a building. Some of his houses still stand in Greenwich Village in the metropolis and many of his plastered walls have outlasted newer ones in the island village where he lived in his later years. One of his grandchildren still has the old framed certificate signed by the Governor: “To whom these presents may come be it known . . . Harry Halsey Wrecking Master.”


Montauk Pete said...

Anne -- This is great. Was "Cap'n Harry" Henry Halsey, builder of 49 N. Main?

AECH said...

Hi, Peter--just saw this. Yes, I think that Harry and Henry are one and the same.