A human being should be able to
change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a
ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort
the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an
equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a
tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein
Avast, Me Hearties!
I knew it had to happen sooner or later. Hugh’s developed an obsession that isn’t a pure science topic, and it’s pirates. Blow me down and prime the cannons if I haven’t buckled more swashes in the last month than you can shake a cutlass at.
Being a creature of habit, I can’t help approaching this the same way as every other interest, so I bring home the library’s entire nonfiction section on piracy and start scrounging for documentaries. Some of it’s pretty neat. Apparently, one of the more feared pirate fleets in the waters off of North Africa was based in the lawless port town of Bugi, and their dread fame spread so far they became a tale told to frighten children -- the origin of the word "boogiemen." When they took your ship, they’d bring everyone on deck and feed them a cup of foul tamarind mash so that everyone would throw up, just in case you tried concealing a ring or some coins by swallowing them. Having, like any other parent, cleaned up my share of puke, I shake a sad head for the poor cabin boy assigned sifting duty.
It only takes Hugh his usual day or so to start becoming an expert. Pirate flags turn out to be a little more complicated than I remember. The Jolly Roger (from the French jolie rouge, or "happy red," since early versions were often red to indicate the pirates were out for blood) wasn’t just a skull and crossbones, but different for each captain. “I see through my spyglass they’re flying a skull and crossed cutlasses – it’s Jack Rackham!” Hugh immediately divides the famous pirates into two camps – Calico Jack is one of our friends, so his flag on the horizon means we’ll invite him on the treasure hunt with us, but Black Bart Roberts’ appearance means the gunpowder had better be dry. We soon have a favorite, as well – Edward Teach, infamously known as Blackbeard, who bore six pistols and stuffed lit cannon fuses under his hat to wrap his head in a veil of intimidating smoke. Too impatient to wait while people pried tight rings off, he just snipped off their fingers and dropped them into his pockets for later.
My favorite historical footnote so far, though, concerns Grace O’Malley, known as the pirate queen of Ireland. Just one day after giving birth at sea, her ship was swarmed by rival pirates while she nursed her newborn below decks. As the tides of battle turned against her crew, she burst onto the deck with a musket, howling with such dire postpartum rage, her opponents were completely taken aback. “Hey, mom,” the boys told Janice while we watched the Discovery channel special, “she’s like you!” Sure. Excepting her lack of bloodthirsty cohorts and the fact that she’s one of the least musket-wieldy kind of people I know, mom’s got spunk.
Hey, wait a minute! This has gone way past barbecuing (cooking meat outside over open fire was called boucan, the source of the term boucan-iers) and dad’s penchant for talking in silly voices. Aren’t I the same sorry bastard who spends half his columns decrying violence in children’s media? Suddenly Captain Yellowbutt (the pirate name Hugh chose for himself) has four different cutlasses to accessorize with, and he’s debating the relative aesthetics of decorating your yardarm with a severed head. I haven’t even convinced him to swab the kitchen floor. Shouldn’t I be keel-hauled for this (dragged with a rope off the starboard railing under the hull, across the barnacles and the keel and finally spluttering back up to the port side)?
Well, maybe. And then again, maybe not. This is the twenty first
century, where pirates are otherwise ordinary people who download
movies because the local cinema charges $10 for a seat, unless they’re
CEOs strip mining here and running sweat shops there while assaulting
competitors with brand logos flying proudly overhead. The world
changes, and even I have got to adapt. Hugh’s laser-focus mind is a
force of nature, not easily derailed, and there are some up sides
buried in the melodrama and carnage our three-bedroom galleon’s become.
The scourge of the seas is a gateway to the Vikings and other exciting
history, fishing and nautical skills, conflict management and firearm
safety, law and politics, and cartography. Hugh’s still soft hearted
enough to share his treasure with the weeping merchant, making his
black-hearted rum-soaked quest for ill-gotten gold actually play a
little more like Gilbert and Sullivan. Besides, he’s a BOY! What’s
more, so was I! It’s been too long since I sprang a trap, led a
charge, and gutted a scurvy dog. The man who denies me my share of the
fun better be ready to share a locker with Davey Jones. Arrrr!
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