I lost my mind around 3 pm on the first Sunday afternoon of the New Year. I woke up to negative 2 degree temperatures and spent the rest of the day lolling on the couch binge watching until I couldn’t take it anymore and had to get some fresh air. So I bundled up and gingerly slipped and slid and down Old Shore Road to the harbor for a quick walk to Handy’s Point then home again via the town dock. I surprised a gaggle of Canada Geese riding out the deep freeze in the marsh at Little River, shuffled my feet over piled up ice cakes, and eventually made it home before the sun went down for a well deserved scotch by the fire with the dog.
Not being an especially wealthy man, I’ve always wondered about my lack of ancestral fortunes. Ask my late father how much money he made and he always replied, “A dollar ninety-eight.” His father was alleged to have passed on partnering with Howard Johnson and the guy who invented the reclining arm chair. There have always been many “woulda-coulda-shoulda” regrets expressed during cocktail hour on the back porch.
But Captain Thomas Chatfield, my great-great grandfather, did pretty well by the standards of 19th century Cape Cod by doing his part to make the Right Whale a very endangered species and by assisting in the capture of a British prize ship during the Civil War.. All of which combined managed to afford a really nice old house in the center of the village.
Chatfield couldn’t have made too much money from his whaling years because he was captain for only one voyage of the whaling ship Massachusetts, the same ship he went to the Pacific three times before in his teens and early twenties. In 1858, when he was 27 years old, he was given command of the ship on the recommendation of his wife’s grandfather, Seth Nickerson. Chatfield sailed from Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard to the northern Pacific for his one and only voyage as captain, his last aboard the Massachusetts.
I couldn’t figure out how he managed to support himself into his 90s from a single voyage that took place in his late 20s. Whaling captains were very well paid on a share system that saw them get the biggest portion of the profit after the owners, with the remainder divided among the officers, boatsteerers (harpooners) and the ordinary seamen. So there was upside to be earned, but a whaler’s wages never seemed to me to be the kind of pay day that would keep the wolf from the door for six more decades.
Chatfield lived 12 years in row aboard the Massachusetts beginning when he was 17 and first shipped out as a cabin boy. In 1859, after rescuing his brother-in-law Bethuel Handy from a shipwreck in the ice of the Okhotsk Sea, Chatfield docked the Massachusetts in San Francisco, shipped her cargo of oil and bone east on a clipper ship, then sold the old Mattapoissett whaler to a local San Francisco merchant, put Bethuel in command and because he missed his wife and daughters, he shipped himself back to Cape Cod via the Panama isthmus.
When the Civil War broke out Chatfield immediately volunteered and was commissioned an “acting volunteer lieutenant” in the U.S. Navy. A lot of whaling captains shipped out on Union war ships, handling the navigation and seamanship while the career officers and Naval Academy graduates managed the gunnery, tactics, and other war stuff. Chatfield received orders to report to the New York Navy Yard where he was given his commission signed by the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, as well as a uniform, saber, and orders to sail to report aboard a freshly built Staten Island steam ferry, the U.S.S. Somerset.
Chatfield described the Somerset in his Reminiscences:
“The Somerset was simply a Ferry boat of the size of those plying in Boston Harbor. She had been bought by the government while on the stocks, had been strengthened to enable her to support a battery, and was designed for service on the blockade, and for river work. Her battery consisted of two nine-inch smooth bore Dahlgren guns placed on pivot carriages, one on each end, and four long thirty-two pounders in broadside: a very effective fighting craft in smooth water, but next to worthless in a sea. Her crew consisted of one naval lieutenant, commanding, four acting masters, and four acting master’s mates – these of the line. Her staff officers were one acting first assistant (chief), and three second assistant engineers, paymaster and surgeon, with enlisted men sufficient to number one hundred and thirty, of all ranks: and she had no spars, simply two flag-staffs.”
The Somerset was under the command of Lieutenant Commander Earl English, a 33-year old graduate of the Naval Academy who had been severely wounded only a few years before in the assault on the Barrier Forts at Canton during the Opium Wars of 1856. He had started his career in 1840 as a midshipman aboard the U.S. frigate Constellation, then was assigned to Annapolis, graduating in ‘46 and then assigned to the frigate Independence on the California coast during the Mexican War. Chatfield’s peer in age, but superior by far in naval credentials, English was highly respected by Thomas is his letters home to his wife in Cotuit and later in his reminiscences.
The orders to take a double-ended, flat-bottomed Staten Island ferry out of New York Harbor and into the open Atlantic was cause for concern as the Somerset received orders directly from Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to sail to Key West and join the East Gulf Squadron and its blockade of the Florida coastline. The fact that the ferry was steam powered and could out-maneuver any sailing vessel would have made it an invaluable vessel. On April 13, 1862, the Somerset and her sister-ship the U.S.S. Fort Henry sailed south in company, only to have to put in at Hampton Roads, Virginia when the Henry’s machinery made it impossible to go in reverse. There Chatfield was able to tour the ironclad Monitor, fresh from its battle with the Merrimac.
After an uneventful voyage from the Chesapeake to Key West, the Somerset refueled and reprovisioned, let its boilers cool down, and was then ordered to patrol the Florida Straits between the Keys and Cuba. That same spring of ‘62, Admiral David Farragut and the West Gulf Squadron had successfully attacked and captured New Orleans. Welles ordered English and the crew of the Somerset to keep a keen eye for any Confederate blockade runners trying to rush cotton to England’s mills as the ports of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were closed by the Union Navy.
On her maiden patrol in the Straits of Florida, the Somerset steamed within sight of the coast of Cuba west of Havana. What ensued that Sunday, May 4, 1862 wouldn’t conclude until a Supreme Court decision three years later.
“I think it was the fourth day out: the weather was a beautiful morning, wind light, sea smooth: and being Sunday the crew were dressed in white. I had charge of the deck from eight to twelve. At nine o’clock we sighted a large, square rigged steamer coming from the eastward. We were then some half way between Havana and Matanzas, and some six miles off shore. I headed the Somerset for the steamer, shaping her course so as to intercept her, and notified Capt. English: and very soon everyone was one deck, all agog for what might turn up. We passed within easy hail. We were turning the helm astarboard to fall quickly in her wake. Capt. English hailed “What ship is that?” The answer came: “The British ship Circassian.” Then from our Captain: “This is the U.S. Str. Somerset. Hove too, I’ll send a boat aboard of you.” The answer came quick “Havn’t got time.”
“This conversation lasted say thirty seconds. Immediately the order “Beat to Quarters” was given, and the drummer was ready with his drum, and within not more than two minutes a blank cartridge (a peremptory order to hove to) loomed from gun No. 1. No notice was taken of that. Next came the order: “Solid shot across her quarter point blank. Don’t hit her,” and a minute after the shot plunged up the water a short distance of her starboard quarter. No notice was taken of that either. Next the order came “Load pivot with five-second shell: elevate seventeen hundred yards. Fire to hit.” Now that order might seem inconsistent. The five-second shell would explode at thirteen hundred yards: four hundred yards short, had the ship been distant seventeen hundred yards. But Captain English did not wish to injure the ships hull, but to explode the shell over her. The aim was true, and the distance well estimated: the shell cut one gang of her forerigging off just under the top, and exploded over her forecastle, scattering the pieces about her deck. Fortunately no one was hurt. Her engines stopped immediately, and she came too with helm aport, and lay until we came up to her.”
The Somerset’s boarding party examined the ship’s papers, learned she was British owned and sailing under British flag and therefore ostensibly a neutral ship. But finding irregularities with the Circassian’s lack of a destination, Commander English declared the ship was a blockade runners and seized her and her cargo as a prizes of war. The British captain argued that the ship was very neutral despite having sailed from New Orleans before Farragut captured it, and now that he had captured it, the blockade of the port was no longer in effect because Farragut lifted it when he occupied the city and took it for the Union. Doubtlessly perturbed by the Captain’s convoluted interpretation of admiralty law, English ignored the protests and had the Circassian taken under tow by the Somerset because his own engineers didn’t know how to start the captured ship’s boilers and her own black gang refused to cooperate.
“We took the big brute in tow, first transferring her crew, with the exception of her officers, steward and two of her engineers, to the Somerset, placing them under guard: and in that shape started for Key West: and with the help of the Gulf Stream were off Sand Key (entrance of Key West Harbor) early the next forenoon: and a novel sight it must have been to onlookers. That ferry boat, looking more like a big sea turtle than a war ship, creeping into the harbor with that big square rigged ocean steamer in tow..”
A fan of of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubreyad gets the concept of naval prizes. Basically it was a very legal and enriching form of commercialized sailing with large amounts of gunpowder involved. It was the basis of some big British admiralty fortunes and was still in effect during the Civil War for officers and crews in both the Union and Confederate fleets, not to be discontinued for another couple decades.
If an enemy vessel — naval or merchant — was captured, it was then auctioned off by a Naval Prize Court who dispersed the proceeds on a formula not too different from the share system used on New England whalers. The Admiral overseeing the operation, even if not aboard the victorious ship, got a percentage. The commander of the ship got a big share, and then every other officer and sailor got a piece of the action. If the ship was full of gold, then an ordinary seaman could receive as much as five years pay from a single prize. Often the capture got tied up in the courts, which was the story of the Circassian in the decade following the end of the Civil War. If you want to read the Supreme Court opinion, click here. The opinion was penned by Justice Salmon Chase and gives all the details a lawyer or admiralty law geek could ask for. The New York Times published an editorial on the matter which basically said “huzzah” to the court and sneered “…we think that foreign Governments will hesitate before they treat the judgments of that tribunal as so wanting in equity as to justify reprisals.”
While the cargo was disposed of and the Circassian’s owners lawyered up, the Somerset went on to have an illustrious series of actions along the western coast of Florida, freeing slaves, busting up saltworks and maintaining the blockade. A great and very detailed history (sourced in part from Chatfield’s war letters and accounts) of the ship’s subsequent actions can be found at the Naval History and Heritage Command’s website.
The New York Times reported on the sale of the Circassian’s cargo. It was a very rich prize:
“A portion of the cargo of the prize steamer Circassian, was sold yesterday at No. 18 Murray-street, by Mr. JONES, auctioneer, by order of JAMES C. CLAPP, Esq., United States Marshal for the District of Florida. There was a large attendance of buyers, and the bidding was very spirited, as the articles offered were, in the main, of a superior description.
The sale opened with a case of porcelain articles embracing vases, fruit dishes, wine coolers, and mantel ornaments, 30 pieces, which were purchased at $140. One case of hardware containing one dozen carpenter’s pencils, one dozen tower nippers, quarter dozen coach wrenches, four dozen C.S. gimlets, assorted: two dozen boxwood rules, half dozen Kent hammers, half dozen saddler’s hammers, half dozen bright garden hammers, half dozen hatchets, half dozen claw hatchets, hail dozen turn-screws, London, was sold at $295.
A case containing miscellaneous articles of French manufacture, glass tubes, leather spectacle cases, and fancy articles in general, was bought by Mr. S. HOUSEMAN at $1,200. There were 107 lots offered in all, which brought prices varying from $25 to $1,200. The proceeds of the sale will amount to about $100,000.
In August last, the first part of the cargo of this steamer was sold for $125,000. The vessel has since been appraised and taken by the Government at $107,000. The brandies she had on board will be sold on Tuesday next, by Mr. HEWLETT SCUDDER, at the store in Park-place, and it is expected they will realize $100,000.”
By war’s end the Circassian stood as one of its richest prizes with a gross value of $352,313.
How much of that went into the ancestral pocket will never be known. Chatfield was a frugal guy who supported a big family of daughters and son-in-laws as well as his own siblings and parents back in Cornwall-on-the-Hudson. How he managed to finish his whaling career at the age of 33, spend three years in the Navy, then return home to Cotuit and prosper is probably due in part to some of the Circassian prize money. That windfall and his own thriftiness probably allowed him to own the Joseph Eaton, a coastal schooner he captained until his 50s hauling granite from Maine to Albany for the construction of the State Capitol. He also managed to own two Greek Revival houses across the street from each other in Cotuit’s center, using one for sleeping the other for eating, with a Wampanoag woman cooking in a shed called “Little Mashpee”, and daughters, son-in-laws and grandchildren scattered between two other cottages. In his reminiscences he mentions the Panic of 1873, the financial crisis that sparked a two-decade “Long Depression.” He never was wealthy, but by Cape Cod standards any whaling captain was the 19th century equivalent of a hedge fund cowboy. It has been said that Nantucket and New Bedford were the wealthiest cities in the world per capita at the zenith of the whale oil market in the 1820s and some substantial Quaker fortunes live on to this day such as the Howland’s (Hetty Green, the “Witch of Wall Street”). At least one of Chatfield’s daughters married a wealthy man, Freeman Hodges, an Osterville native who worked for Henry Flagler as his real estate “front man” — buying up the land that would be the right-of-way for Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway that ultimately would terminate in Key West.
In his retirement Chatfield made and mended sails in the sail loft at 854 Main Street, the same loft where he held the first meeting of Cotuit’s Masonic Mariner’s Lodge. His sailmaker’s bench, his leather sailmaker’s palm, massive fids for splicing hawsers, blocks and sheaves: all still hang from the rafters.
The sad end to this story is the wreck of the ill-fated Circassian in the late fall of 1876 on the southern shore of Long Island near Shinnecock Inlet. Despite several very heroic small boat rescues and weatherong two gales and multiple attempts to float her steel hull ship off the beach, the Circassian went down with a skeleton crew of Shinnecock Indians put aboard to salvage her, but who were trapped by a third fatal storm that killed all but four survivors.
“Every home on the Reservation had been affected because so many of their lost men belonged to the same families and so many of the families were interrelated. The two Walkers were brothers; the three Bunns cousins. The Cuffees too were of the same family, two brothers and a cousin. Andrew Kellis had left work on the Circassian a week before to start on a whaling voyage; now another Kellis brother was out on the beaches looking for Oliver. Every house was in mourning. All three of the tribe s Trustees were dead, and all of the men lost were married with the exception of William Cuffee. In one house a woman lost a husband and a brother; in another a husband and a brother-in-law. Her daughter, with several young children, was also made a widow. In all, nine widows and twenty-five fatherless children were left behind. Long Island history has never seen any shipwreck so devastating to so many closely related families. Brothers, brothers-in-law, and cousins were all lost. “
A long time ago my father’s oldest boyhood friend, Reid Higgins, presented him with a hand-carved wooden sign painted green with gilded letters in beveled quarterboard font that said “C H U R B U C K” surmounted by a rampant, gilded eagle facing “dexter” (or to the right.) For as long as I can remember it has been screwed into the southern side of the house’s front porch. It used to be a fall ritual during Columbus Day weekend to unscrew the eagle and sign and store it indoors for the winter. Since 1991, when I’ve lived in the house year round, the sign has stayed outdoors year round too. And lately it’s been showing a lot of wear and tear.
It has been cleaned up, re-gilded and re-painted, at least two times I know of, in the past forty or fifty years. My grandmother asked a local woman who restored picture frames to do it once, and Reid himself took it back to spruce it up a long time ago. A few weeks ago, on an impulse, I took it down and into the shop. It was much worse than I thought it would be. Other than a few shreds, almost all of the gilt had flaked off. The name board had barely any paint left on it with white primer dominating what was left of the weatherbeaten green.
This is how I brought it back to life for whomever gets to do it next time. It was a lot of fun, I learned something new and cool, and it kept me from going crazy over the frozen holidays.
I took a light wire brush wheel and a cordless Dremel and got most of the flaking paint off without over scouring the mahogamy Reid used to carve the eagle. The detailed feathering and layering of his carving is exquisite and I didn’t want to sand it down or otherwise dull the sharp definition of the plumage. I went over it quickly with the Dremel, then fine steel, followed by a light layer of paste paint remover. The paint on the top edge of the eagle wings, the crown of its head, and top of its beak was long gone, and years of sun and water and snow had caused deep grooving to occur in those areas along the grain line. The sign that forms the base was in worse condition, with similar grooving on the top edges and deep splits forming in the end grain on the right and left ends of the Churbuck sign.
After getting off all of the paint remover and washing it all down with mineral spirits, I took a sponge and thinned down some boiled linseed oil with one part of mineral spirits to three parts linseed and swabbed that over the entire bird and base three times, letting each coat sink in and dry overnight for three days.
Then, with a sanding block and 220 grit sandpaper I smoothed everything down and got ready to prime.
I used primer and paint sold by Fine Paints of Europe, the American distributor of Holland’s Hascolac line of paint. I’ve used a lot of this stuff — I painted the entire house myself one year using about $10,000 worth of Hascolac Oborex and knew from their brochure that someday I wanted to restore something with their Brilliant line of enamels. The stuff is not cheap. I spent about $150 on a quart of white primer, a quart of green enamel, and a tin full of Swedish Putty from a local hardware store that carries FPE.
After priming two coats of white, I sanded it and applied a very thin skim coat of Swedish Putty. This is some medieval substance essentially made out of finely ground glass (silica) and oil. It goes on with the blade of a clean putty knife and can be sanded to a glass smooth service with fine sandpaper after it dries. The warnings that came on the tin were of the skull and crossbones severity so I dutifully wore a mask when I sanded the putty smooth. Silicosis is basically “glass lung” and I like my lungs.
I used the putty as a filler to close up the open grain in the wood and repair the deep splits in the end grain. It can be applied to curved surfaces and trim with a sponge soaked in linseed oil, so I did the inside of the carved letters with that method.
I took a long time sanding the Swedish putty obsessively smooth, stepping down from 220 to 400 to 600 grit paper until the surface was immaculate. I hit it with an air gun, cleaned up the workarea to get rid of as much dust as possible and broke out a new Omega brush and the green Brilliant enamel.
The difference between Hascolac paints and other paints are apparent as soon as you dip the first brushload and start painting. I made all my brush strokes in one direction and put the paint on straight up, no thinning, but was very parsimonious about how loaded up I let the brush get with green paint. The coverage is surprising, but the beauty of the paint is how it self-levels and dries into a gleaming, candy apple kind of sheen.
I applied three coats of green, sanding between then with 400 grit paper. I was very happy with the final result and waited for the mails to deliver me my first booklet of 23 ⅓ karat gold leaf, coton gilder gloves and a German squirrel fur gilding brush.
I’ve never gilded before so I wanted a couple gilding videos on YouTube made by custom sign makers. It looked pretty straightforward.
The first thing is to paint everything that will be gilded a bright coat of yellow and tape off everything that won’t be gilded with blue painters tape, using an xActo knife to cut out the carved letters. I used a little bottle of yellow Testors paint and covered the bird and all the letters with a single coat. Why yellow? That coat, called the TK coat, acts as a radiant substrate for the gold which is microscopically thin to the point of translucence. It you want a dark, subdued shine, you gild over dark paint. If you want brilliance you first must put down some thing light and bright.
Gilding was pretty simple. First I painted some gilding glue over the surface to be gilded. The stuff goes on a little thick and viscous and is a light tinge of blue when applied. After 30 minutes the blue disappears and the gilding glue is tacky and ready for the gold leaf. Tug a wax paper page out of the little booklet of gold, flip it gold side down over the surface coated with gilding glue, and brush very gently with the squirrel brush. I found that a straight tapping of the brush worked best, pushing the leaf down to adhere to the glue and lifting it off the paper backing.
I didn’t want to mess up. Something told me that stripping a botched gilding job would simply suck so I was determined to do it right. Besides, I bought $50 worth of leaf — 40 3”x2” sheets f– and used about three quarters of it. After the gilding goes down, one just looks for the yellow under paint and dabs a little more gold leaf on it, until everything to be gilded is covered with a layer of gold and fuzzy with loose flakes. Flick it and smooth it with the gilding brush, burnish it with a finger tip in the white cotton gilding glove, and we’re talking a very expensive rainy day project for the kindergarten class.
I cleaned up the lettering with a very fine modeling brush and the green enamel. Then I coated all of the bird and the lettering with two thin coats of shellac to protect the gold from the elements.
And here is the final result.
In another post I’ll talk more about the man who carved the sign, Reid Higgins, and his amazing carvings of local shore birds.
I’m a dog person who started life as a cat person. I grew up with a pair of yowling Siamese cats acquired in Houston in the early 60s, but will always remember my first dog, a mutt named Sam Houston who rubbed his butt on the floor to my immense amusement. Sam Houston vanished to the “farm” one day and I had to be content with the two cats until the arrival of a black labrador retriever named Mildred Midnight (Churbuck dogs were generally female and named after deceased great aunts or former girlfriends).
Once we moved to Cotuit in 1991 my wife Daphne decided country sea-side life required a sea-side dog. She did her research and found a breeder of Skye Terriers in Western Massachusetts. She had always been a terrier person, growing up around Yorkshire Terriers and had always admired the Skye breed from her childhood in Paris. She came home with a little puppy whom I named “Harry” because he was hairy.
Skye terriers were once one of the most popular breeds in England due to Queen Victoria’s love of them and the legend of Greyfriar’s Bobby — a story that became the subject of a book by the same name which was filmed by Disney. Bobby was a Skye terrier puppy abandoned in 19th century Edinburgh by his owner, a night watchman named John Gray who passed away in a rooming house near Greyfriar’s Kirk, or churchyard. After Gray was buried in the Greyfriar cemetery Bobby guarded the grave for 14 years and became a sensation in the Scottish city, with patrons of a local pub keeping the dog fed and comfortable through its heroic vigil. After Bobby died in 1872 a statue was erected in his honor.
Today the breed “one of the most endangered native dog breeds in the United Kingdom” according the the UK’s Kennel Club. When my wife acquired Harry the breed was ranked absolutely last on the American Kennel Club’s list of the most popular breeds.
Skyes are considered the oldest of the terrier breed and are speculated to have come to Britain from the wreck of a Spanish galleon during the disastrous rout of the Spanish Armada in 1588 in a storm which blew the Spanish fleet across the Irish Sea and beyond. Their name comes from the Isle of Skye on the northwestern coast of Scotland in the Inner Hebrides archipelago (home to one of my favorite single malt scotches: Talisker.) The dogs were prized for their long coats and low, extended bodies. Think of a full sized dog with tiny legs that looks like a hair covered caterpillar. That hair hangs over their face like a sheepdog’s, giving them face-first protection when they chase a fox or otter into a rocky crevice or hole.
According to Wikipedia:
“Skye Terriers were first described in the sixteenth century,when it was already noteworthy for its long coat. Some confusion exists in tracing its history because, for a certain time, several different breeds had the same name “Skye Terrier”. The loyal dog, present under the petticoat of Mary, Queen of Scots at her execution, has been ascribed as a Skye Terrier. In 1840, Queen Victoria made the breed fancy, keeping both drop-(floppy) and prick-(upwards) eared dogs.
This greatly increased its popularity and the Skye Terrier came to America due to this. The AKCr ecognized the breed in 1887, and it quickly appeared on the show scene. Its popularity has significantly dropped and now it is one of the least known terriers. There is little awareness of its former popularity.”
Harry and I had a special relationship reflected in his insistence on being near me at all times, and my giving him multiple names ranging from the “Scottish Shit Pig” to “Kenneth Branagh.” He had an immense jaw and a rack of teeth that would make a Rotweiler jealous. I think we waited a bit too long to neuter him as he was oversexed his entire life and was fond of dragging the children’s stuffed animals onto the lawn and raping them while the summer walkers on Main Street marveled at his rutting diligence. His coat was a wiry misery of mats, burrs, sticks and leaves. He was remarkably fast for a dog with nearly no legs, and a great game that amused the children was called “Where’s Daddy?” in which I would hide somewhere in the house while Harry searched for me.
His bad behavior led to enrollment in obedience school. I was elected by my wife to be Harry’s handler and went with him to group lessons at a trainer’s house near the Marston’s Mills airport. Harry did not appreciate his leash and refused to learn his lessons like the other dogs, leading the trainer, a nice young man named Derek, to take him from me to teach him a lesson. That lesson deteriorated into a snarling attack and Derek having to swing the dog in the air with centrifugal force to keep from being bitten. Other than his hatred for the leash and a taste for biting the children if they messed with him, Harry was a very smart animal and went on to impress Derek and the other owners at the obedience school with his very percipient ability to obey and perform various tasks.
Harry also was a roamer and despite investing in an “invisible” electric fence and a shock collar, was able to break free and roam the village like some nocturnal assassin. Where other dogs in my life had been too stupid to avoid the skunks living under the boat shop, Harry managed to kill them without getting skunked, leaving multiple skunk corpses in the flower garden for me to dispose of. During the Labor Day meeting of the yacht club my wife and I watched with horror as Harry lifted his leg and peed all over the back of a nice lady wearing a white Irish fisherman’s sweater.
I loved that dog and still rue the day when he was hit by a van on Main Street in 2000, ending ten years of delightful companionship. He was followed by another Skye Terrier, a rescue I found in Nashville, Tenn. named “Ned” who was perhaps the sweetest, stupidest dog I’ve owned. I’d get another Skye in an instant.
While going through some junk I discovered a copy of a paper I wrote in 1977 in college on the origins of the Fair-Haven Sharpie, a flat-bottomed oyster skiff popular in New Haven, Connecticut in the 19th century. I wrote this for Professor William Ferris, then a professor of American Folk Lore in the American Studies Department of Yale. While most of the syllabus and lectures focused on his work in African-American music and culture of the Mississippi Delta, I went down a more local path and researched the development of the sharpie, tracing its origins back to the dugout canoes built by the Iroquois. The research entailed me walking east from my dorm room across to the Fairhaven neighborhood on the banks of the Quinnipiac River in search of any old timers who might have worked in the once burgeoning oyster fishery. I had a cassette recorder, a notebook, and a cheap camera.
I thumbed to Mystic Seaport a few times to check out their collection of small boats and did my time in the research library there reading Howard Chapelle, the dean of American small boat design and curator at the Smithsonian. Chapelle had speculated on the dug out canoe origins of the long, narrow skiffs and I went a little deeper and keep digging into the construction techniques and coastal migration of the design up and down the East Coast. The sharpie was a very popular working boat and was utilized in the commercial oyster fishery from Cape Cod to Florida.
I lucked out with my leg work when I poked my head into a Fairhaven barber shop and asked the old timers there if they knew any old oystermen. I was directed to a local nursing home and there I met three very old codgers who still had their wits and could regale me with stories about the boats they built, sailed and worked from most of their lives.
When it came time to present the final paper in Ferris’s class, the grad student who ran my seminar (the once a week gathering of a dozen students and their assigned seminar leader) interrupted me and told Ferris I had never, not once, attended a single seminar during the entire term. Which was true. I worked in the library printing press during the afternoon before rowing practice and needed the job to keep my scholarship, so I blew the seminar off which I did in almost every lecture because I saw no point listening to blowhard classmates suck up to the grad student.
Ferris (who also graduated from The Brooks School, my prep school) said something to the effect of, “Oh yes. The oyster boat paper. About that. Have you considered post-graduate work in maritime history? I’m giving you an A+ and recommend you continue the work, it’s fascinating and the most novel piece of work I’ve seen in ten years of teaching this class.”
Wow. Okay. Wonder how he would have felt if he knew I had handed in the same paper to two other professors that same term and racked up two more A+’s for the same work.
Anyway, a reporter at the Cape Cod Times was doing some research on sharpies for his brother who was building one, and he came across a copy of the paper on file at the New Haven Historical Society. I guess one of the three professors deemed it good enough to submit it on my behalf.
Earlier this week I received a ThinkPad T25, the 25th anniversary edition of the Lenovo ThinkPad, teased a couple years ago by Lenovo’s lead designer and my former colleague and good friend, David Hill.
I’ve been without a ThinkPad for the past four years. In a fit of madness I bought a Microsoft Surface Pro 2 in 2014 before joining Acquia. While my new employer had once supported a few ThinkPads for its more discerning engineers, the standard issue laptop was a Mac Air, an odious little device that somehow brought to mind Christopher Buckley’s observation that a man driving a minivan is half a man. The former CEO of Acquia, hated seeing me with the Surface just because. I said, like a smarty-pants, that the corporate HR culture wbpage said “Mac or PC? Yes!” He said “Not anymore” and thenceforth I was relegated to forevermore lugging around the Mac to meetings while keeping the Surface docked and hidden at my desk for serious work.
There was something very unsettling and traitorous about going to a competitor’s laptop after five years spent at the dawn of Lenovo marketing the iconic ThinkPad. I felt like I was missing a phantom limb. The Mac was an act of treachery, a true tergiversation. My allergy to Apple products goes back to when I was a reporter for PC Week (“The IBM-standard News Weekly of Corporate Computing) and competed with another Ziff-Davis publication, MacWeek. I never met Steve Jobs, thought John Scully was meh, and for the life of me could never figure out the weird propeller key on the Mac’s keyboard. “It just works!” the Mac addicts would tell me, but Apple has always rubbed me the wrong way. I guess it comes down to the lack of a right mouse button, a sense of the void when it comes to file structure, and a general feeling the things are smug and “twee.”
The ThinkPad however….where to begin in my reverence for those black rubberized rectangles with the red mouse pointer embedded in the middle of the keyboard? Is it just that their keyboards are so sublime, so tactile, so responsive that it’s no wonder the ThinkPad became the standard tool for professional writers just as the Leica M was de rigeur for war photographers? Is it the meaty heft of the total package? A feeling of invulnerability that with it’s magnesium roll cage and hard edges that it would be the weapon of choice if one had to charge the cockpit against a mob of hijackers?
In the documentary “Page One,” the late (and sorely missed) New York Times media critic David Carr interviewed the founders of Vice. He whacks away at his ThinkPad during the interview, taking notes directly into the machine (the same way I used to when I was a reporter), keys clacking away as he is shown a video produced by Vice about Liberia to make the point the upstart media company was the future of journalism in the digital age and the Times was a dinosaur. When Shane Smith, one of the founders of Vice dissed the Times, Carr interrupted him, looked up from the ThinkPad and said:
“Time out. Before you ever went there, we’ve had reporters there covering genocide after genocide. And Just because you put on a fucking safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do. So continue.”
When I starting working for Lenovo I quickly forged a bond with David Hill, the vice president of design who was the guardian of the ThinkPad’s flame. David came to Lenovo from IBM’s PC group and had been the steward of the ThinkPad’s design since 1995. The first CMO of Lenovo, Deepak Advani (also a former IBM executive) hired me to establish the new brand online, via Lenovo.com, digital advertising, social media, etc.. While poking around for a theme to hang the first corporate blog on, I rejected the easy path of a ghostwritten, bland affair by our CEO, Bill Amelio and instead homed in on David because of his demeanor and slightly demented passion. I proposed he become the leading voice of the brand with a new blog called “Design Matters” and offered to help with the writing and production because he was such a busy guy. It hindsight, he was the right person to kick off Lenovo’s first blog, touching an audience who was very skeptical about the future of the ThinkPad as IBM divested itself from the commodity world of PCs and handed over the design to a Chinese company, a company only known for contract-assembling PCs for western brands and inventing a graphics card that displayed the Chinese character set on the screens of IBM compatible clones (which a pretty big deal if consider how enormous the China market for PCs has become).
Lenovo was a complete unknown when it was formed in 2005. Today it is number one in the market, ahead of Dell and HP. The name “Lenovo” was coined by an expensive brand consultant and always evoked an image of a French anti-cellulite lotion in my word-warped mind. The company was a partially state-owned enterprise that dominated the Chinese market for computers but was utterly unknown in the rest of the world. Lenovo launched in the hope of becoming one of China’s first true global brands and do for the country’s reputation what Sony and Toyota had done for Japan in the late 1960s, and Samsung, LG and Hyundai had done for South Korea in the 1980s — become a premier status brand associated with innovation and high-concept design and dispel the image of China being a low-cost, low-quality producer of dreck.
The negative sentiment expressed by the ThinkPad faithful towards Lenovo was intense, verging on racism. As I read the comments on the gadget blogs like Gizmodo and the independent ThinkPad forums, I discovered a cult of over-weening, obsessive, compulsive and paranoid cultists who knew down to the penny the precise bill of materials that comprised a ThinkPad almost as well as David’s own staff. Each and every new ThinkPad released by Lenovo in 2006 was scrutinized by the horde for signs of cost-cutting or diminished quality. The rubber feet under the case. The feel of the rubberized paint on the lid. The fit and finish. The decals….The faithful were skeptical and on high alert.
One day while scanning social media chatter for annoyed customers I found a complaint by a writer named James Fallows beefing that the paint on the keys of his new ThinkPad was wearing off under his fingertips. I brought this to the attention of the product managers who sort of shrugged it off until I told them Fallows was the preeminent China correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, (and the co-author of a piece I had written with him in the 1990s for PC Computing on the myth of the garage and innovation in Silicon Valley). We contacted Fallows, swapped his fading machine for a new one, brought the defective one back in, and realized that indeed the paint had been changed and was prone to defects.
David’s writing on Design Matters attracted more comments than any blog I have ever seen or been involved with. A carefully thoughtout disquisition by David into hinges, a behind-the-scenes look into the design lab in Japan run by Arimasa Naitoh, a reminiscence about the ThinkPad’s original designer Richard Sapper… all of them evoked responses in the hundreds from commentators that confirmed to me the heart and soul of Lenovo wasn’t Lenovo per se, but a simple black laptop that had been sent into space by NASA, which sat on the desk in the Oval Office, was toted into battle by war correspondents and was the only computer any self-respecting Master of Universe would crack open in a board room before announcing a hostile takeover. It had to be defended against the bean counters.
David retired from Lenovo this past summer but is still consulting to the company. When I unboxed my new ThinkPad I thought of it, wistfully, as Lenovo’s retirement gift to David in lieu of the proverbial gold watch. I watched him defend the essence of the ThinkPad during my five years at Lenovo; fighting to keep it pure and free from the bling that our competitors drecked their machines up with. Blue lights. Chrome accents. David would howl at the lengths the competition would go to ruin their machines and was deeply offended when his arch nemesis, Apple, introduced a black MacBook.
I shared his frustration when some of his team’s greatest concepts were shot down by the product marketing teams when costs needed to be cut to keep the machine competitive. I suffered the failure of the leather-bound special edition ThinkPad, the Scout, in ‘07 with him. And I watched him light up when he was able to invite Richard Sapper back to design the Skylight in ‘09.
David and I shared great barbecue in Raleigh, laughed at the existential insanity of Lenovo’s Chinese-IBM culture, and hatched numerous schemes and plots to do the right thing by a machine that was inspired by a lacquered Japanese lunch box, the bento box.
The 25th Anniversary ThinkPad has some retro touches — the red, green and light blue ThinkPad logo cocked at its “seemingly arbitrary 37 degree angle” on the corner of the cover and the red-accented mouse buttons under the keyboard. And yes, the keyboard is back, a 7-row throwback to a time when the ThinkPad was the machine for making words happen, a pre-chiclet QWERTY monster that was tweaked and fitted into place with a reverence for the typist’s fingers like no other laptop keyboard before or since. Other than that, the T25 is just a laptop. It runs Windows 10, has an i7 processor, a half-a-terabyte SSD hard disk and a nice touch screen. It doesn’t convert into a tablet, fold back on itself, have a pen, or act like a Swiss army device. It doesn’t have some heart pounding audio system or special gamer capabilities. It’s just the essence of computing from a time when IBM was the greatest computer company in the world, when laptops were the height of technology. When we typed like real writers and didn’t talk to our smartphones as we walk blindly into traffic.
I have it because I need it to use my hour-long train ride into Boston productively writing one of the two books I now have under way. The old Surface Pro 2 has a magnetic clip-on keyboard covered in faux-felt with all the tactile pleasure of a cheap, ill-fitting suit. It’s time to write and I need the ultimate writing machine, one worthy of going into battle or space. This is probably going to be my last ThinkPad (and I have six of them in closets upstairs to remind me of that wild five-year ride marketing the damn things), and it’s a ThinkPad for the ages.
I look forward to opening it, to using it, to deleting the Lenovo bloatware and making it my own. I like the looks it gets in the office, a somewhat covetous look like the ones I get when I wear a good suit and a great pair of shoes. It’s an accessory and a companion that subtly cries out “classic” without shouting.
The machine came exquisitely boxed and packaged. The kind of packaging Apple is great at and David long dreamed of doing. It came with a small book written by David five years ago on the occasion of the ThinkPad’s 20th anniversary. He dedicated this edition “…to the memory and magic of Richard Sapper. He was a great mentor, friend and masterful designer. ThinkPad would not exist as we know it without his vision and determination.”
That may be true, Sapper was a genius, but to also quote the booklet: “David …conceived, along with longtime collaborator Richard Sapper, the evolution design strategy where the core DNA is passed along to each successive generation. David often compares this strategy to how Porsche manages the design of their forever classic 911. This approach is unheard of in a fast-paced high technology market where change dominates. Evolutionary design has created ThinkPad brand value and related design recognition at unprecedented levels within the industry. ThinkPad loyalists are cult-like in their affinity for this highly authentic design classic.”