What I’m reading: quarantine bookshelf

After the usual crisis obsession with the news wore off for me after President PineSol speculated about disinfectant injections and ultraviolet enemas, I turned to my favorite information delivery device — the good old book. Here’s what I’ve been reading and not reading the past six weeks.

  1. Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel. Apparently this is a bestselling post-apocalyptic flu book. I thought it sucked but I finished it. Cormac McCarthy she ain’t.
  2. The Stand: Stephen King. I’ve read it twice before and it’s still one of his best, but this time I didn’t make it very far.
  3. Travels in SiberiaIan Frazier: this as part of my research into my own book about Bethuel Handy’s shipwreck on the Siberian coast in 1858. A masterpiece of travel writing and one man’s obsession with an amazing place. That led me to ….
  4. Great Plains, also Ian Frazier: a nexploration of America’s great middle ground. I’m half-way in.
  5. The Baroque CycleNeal Stephenson. On the recommendation of my brother in law I started this uncompleted trilogy again. I’m in the first volume, Quicksilver, set in Boston and London during the plagues of 1666 and 1721. Loving it.
  6. Barry LyndonWilliam Makepeace Thackeray. Stanley Kubrick pulled this obscure gem off the shelf and made my favorite film from it. The book is brilliant.

Cape League Cancels

I wondered yesterday (while tending a pile of burning brush) when the CCBL would make the tough call to cancel this summer’s baseball season. It seemed inevitable, and now it’s official: no Kettleers this summer.

For a lot of players at the top of their game, this has been a year of lost opportunities, the kind of year for an athlete with pro ambitions that can’t be shrugged off as a bye. For some, this summer was going to be their best chance to show the pro scouts what they could do. Now they will continue to workout on their own, trying to stay in shape without a team like every athlete in the world who has been benched by COVID. Wondering like the rest of us when the bleachers will reopen and the ump will yell “play ball!”

The Olympic athletes who have spent four years preparing for Tokyo, the marathoners who planned to run Boston, my niece Allison’s volleyball team and my nephew Ted’s soccer season are all on hold, paused, all held up by the big viral rain delay.

These are the days that history will remember with asterixes and footnotes. The year of suspensions and cancellations. The year nothing was played. The kind of disclaimer that Ted Williams was tagged with because of his service as a Marine pilot in WW II and Korea, the “what-if” speculation of what he might have achieved if war hadn’t cancelled the game.

My condolences to the volunteers that make the Cape Cod Baseball League such a gem, to the Cotuit Athletic Association (who just broke ground on new visitor stands), Coach Mike Roberts, his staff and all the college players we won’t get to meet and welcome to the village in the summer of 2020.

The Minimalist Aftermath

My percipient friend Ben emerged from his Upper West Side COVID cave in beleaguered New York City yesterday morning, alarmed by the crash of oil prices enough to share a Financial Times story that in effect (if I read it correctly) said oil was selling for negative $37 a barrel. Today the New York Times quoted some oil trader as saying that if you had an empty oil tank that you could make $37,000 simply by accepting a 1,000 barrel delivery.

My favorite part of the NYT story was the comparison of all those supertankers now steaming from the Persian Gulf to America full of worthless oil with the Cold War bombers that missed the recall signal and were still approaching the coast in Fail Safe.

I get it, but I don’t get it. If the energy industry can’t make a buck because the world took a mulligan this spring and stopped driving and flying and cruising, then pretty soon there won’t be anyone left who can keep pumping and digging the stuff out of the ground until we drain the tanks and need more to refill them. And so on and so forth.

But what if …..(after this all sinks in and becomes the new normal), that along with handshakes, a third of the world decides that going forward it doesn’t need to drive to the office, take the girl’s travel soccer team to the tournament, or book a 10-night cruise on the Princess Corona? What if we decide it’s cheaper and healthier to keep eating rice and beans and working through the cans of Hormel chili in the pantry than going to Fudruckers for a Blooming Onion and the Fire-Breathing Wings? What if we stop driving the minivan every day to the hardware and drug and liquor and grocery and convenience stores and just have everything delivered to our doors? Does the great divide in society become one between those who can be “virtual” and those that have to show up and punch a clock? Do cities decline and suburbs get bolstered? The unforeseen is breathtaking, but for the life of me I can’t say with any convinction what will change as I’ve been avoiding people for decades and feel no regret that I won’t be able to attend my 40th college reunion, because I didn’t go to one before.

If I were going to search for the opportunities to emerge from this collective global trauma, I’d say the safe bets would be on developing the measures to anticipate the next pandemic. Sure, it took 102 years for a pandemic to remind us a microscopic virus can make more of an impact on more people than terrorists flying jets into buildings, but it’s a sure bet that some things are going to change now that we’ve experienced one in our lifetimes.

One of history’s great lessons is that most historical events or crises have little to no direct impact on most people. The Battle of Waterloo was a great battle, but in terms of direct impact on people it meant nothing more than wounds or death or medals for those who participated that day in Belgium. When a crisis is completely pervasive, when the threat is — to use the current phrase of the zeitgeist — “existential,” then history is pretty clear on how human nature reacts, responds and adapts to the invisible enemy of a virus. First is the pressure on science to explain and detect the threat and then defeat it. Second, once science fails to save the day by figuring out a vaccine or successfully launching Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck into space to drill a hole into the approaching asteroid and blow it up, mankind tends to declare everyman for themselves and turns to magical thinking and prejudice to explain the inexplicable. The 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic also saw a failure of Federalism as President Woodrow Wilson refused to acknowledge the problem and Governors and Mayors tried an uncoordinated hodge-podge of public health measures ranging from locked down borders to imposing curfews and bans on public gatherings.

But the Spanish Flu didn’t render twenty-five percent of the population unemployed. In fact, it wasn’t really that much of a crisis for the simple fact that it occurred in a disconnected, un-networked world where there was very little news, and very little data. My grandfather may have felt differently after coming home from school in Portland Maine one day to learn his mother had died from the influenza. But he hadn’t been pulled from school and sequestered at home for weeks prior to her death because the apparatus to do that, the entire field of public health and pandemic response simply did not exist.

This crisis is unique in the history of plagues for one reason — the pervasiveness of instant communications and the ability to quarantine vast segments of the population while remaining in operation thanks to the instant communications enabled by the Internet. If there was no 24-hour news cycle to fill with pointless, divisive debates about whether calling the virus “Chinese” is racist or not; if every skeptic and crank like myself lacked a Twitter account or a blog to vent their spleens or comment on the news, then a great deal of the anxiety behind the COVID crisis wouldn’t be able to spread. But spread it has, and ironically as the virus goes viral, the data scientists are turning to such Internet hits as the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon and the 2005 World of Warcraft “Corrupted Blood” plague to better understand how people spread the coronavirus.

I think the remaining months of 2020 will go down as one of the most important periods on history’s timeline, months that will mark the start of some substantial and long-lasting changes to civilization. In the short term, as oil falls to a negative price, as Neiman Marcus and the New York Sports Club files for bankruptcy, as unemployment overwhelms the old software that pays its claims, there will be more fear and more divisiveness to keep us awake at night or howling at the television set. In the medium time frame — the six months remaining until the election here in the US — the crisis will continue to be politicized and the conversation will grow ever more partisan and bumptious the closer we get to an election likely to wind up in the courts.

But in the long term I turn to Barbara Tuchman, one of my favorite historians, who wrote in her collection of essays about the craft of writing history to remind “…people in a despondent era that the good in mankind operates even if the bad secures more attention.”

So yes, we can celebrate clean air and views of the Himalayas for the first time in decades. We can celebrate the immense collective discipline we exhibited when we stayed home to flatten the pandemic’s curve. But to look at the current climate of messy histrionics and political theatrics and be afraid, to wonder if we’ll ever go out to dinner again or take that cruise to Guadalupe, we should once more turn to Tuchman and her prescient words, written in 1973 as the House voted to impeach Richard Nixon:

“Nor should we be paralyzed by fear of exacerbating divisions within this country. We are divided anyway and always have been, as any independently minded people should be. Talk of unity is a pious fraud and a politician’s clicne. No people worth its salt is politically united. A nation in consensus is a nation ready for the grave.”

Sampson’s Island Dredge

This week the county dredge took the last bites out of the appendix of sand that had hung off the south side of the Point the last 10 years or more. She chewed it off up to the new salt marsh that has been forming right where there had been a salt marsh in the early 1800s that produced three tons of winter cattle fodder every year.

I’m glad to see the channel is wide open again. For the first time since the mid-1960s you can see open water all the way to Grand Island. Boat traffic will regain some sanity next summer but swimmers are going to have to work for it to get to the Point on their morning swim (hopefully the widening will persuade the inexperienced from attempting the crossing on a Saturday afternoon in July. With a cooler for a PFD.)

This is the second part of the project to widen the channel, build a sand dune for the terns to nest on, and pump the rest of the 40,000 cubic yards of sand nearly 2 miles through a floating pipe running down the Seapuit to the beach next to the west jetty of the Osterville Cut.

According to the Barnstable Clean Water Coalition there will be one more round of dredging in 2021:

Phase one began in November 2018 with the removal of approximately 130 feet of the western tip of DNSI. Five acres (5,000 cubic yards) of the dredge material was placed in the middle of DNSI to enhance nesting habitat for shorebirds. The remaining material (39,800 cubic yards) was deposited on the eastern end of DNSI for beach nourishment and bird habitat.

“Fall 2019, phase two, will see the removal of an additional 130 feet at the western tip of DNSI. Again, some material will be placed in the middle of the island for habitat enhancement with a larger amount added to the eastern end for habitat and beach nourishment. In phase three, to be completed in 2021, we will remove an additional 130+/- feet from the west end and “back pass” that material to the east end.”

Transcribing History: Whaling Log Books

On and off over the past two years I’ve been writing a book about the wreck and rescue of the crew of the Nantucket whaling ship Phoenix. For a long time I struggled to find a first hand account of the 1858 disaster written by the captain of the Phoenix, Bethuel G. Handy, Jr. of Cotuitport, brother of my great-great grandmother Florentine Handy. The closest I came was a four-part story published in the Daily Alta, one of San Francisco first newspapers, which interviewed Handy in the fall of 1859 after he entered the port aboard my great great grandfather Thomas Chatfield’s ship the Massachusetts.

Captain Bethuel Gifford Handy

Chatfield’s Reminiscences briefly relates the story of the wreck and Handy’s (Chatfield and Handy married the other man’s sister and so were brother-in-laws x two) hard trek over the frozen straits between the island where the Phoenix went ashore, then over a mountain range, followed by a 100 miles hike along the coast and up the Uda River to a Russian fort where he spent the winter. I could find no first-hand account penned by Handy though, and assumed the ship’s log book had been lost in the wreck or was sitting in some distant relatives attic, repurposed as a scrapbook the way so many old whaling logs were treated.

I finally found the last logbook of the Phoenix in the collection of the Nantucket Historical Association and I made plans to take a day off from work and ride the ferry over from Hyannis for a day in the NHA’s library. I emailed the librarian to warn her I was coming, but literally missed the boat and had to postpone the research. A few weeks ago, as I made plans to get over to the island I searched for the manuscript in the NHA’s online archives and discovered the archivists had kindly digitized the book. I was very excited to download a PDF and finally read, in the fine penmanship of the time, my ancestor’s account of a summer spent hunting whales in the Sea of Okhotsk, ending with the agonizing loss of his first command on the reefs surrounding Elbow Island in the Shantar archipelago.

I transcribed the log over two weeks, struggling at first to decipher Handy’s handwriting but gradually getting comfortable with the format of the entries , his abbreviations, and the occasional illegible scrawled. After some time in the process I realized there was a trick to deciphering illegible handwriting, a combination of paying attention to context and carefully examining the ascending and descending strokes of the pen from the lines above and below the word in question. Often I would find a version of a previously illegible word that I could decipher, allowing me to go back and correct any ambiguities.

Foreword to the final log book of the whaling ship Phoenix

As I finished I received an email from the NHA announcing a gift that would fund the transcription of its collection. The email said the NHA was looking for volunteers, so I emailed Sata David, the digitization archivist running the project and offered to start transcribing other log books from ships involved in the events that took place 100 years ago.

The experience was tedious at times, doubtless a reflection of the tedium of life at sea as the Phoenix sailed from the Hawaiian islands to the Sea of Okhotsk in the spring of 1858. But then things quickly started to fascinate me, subtle clues such as the gradual degradation of Handy’s handwriting during stressful times such as gales or being lost in the pack ice in the thick summer fog. The account is very terse, there are no personal asides, no confessions of doubt or fear, just a daily record of weather, wind and work.

Who slashed X’s across the entries describing the loss of the Phoenix? The Captain? The owner of the ship? A disgruntled crew member? An annoying researcher?

Here’s the entry from October 12, 1858 when the Phoenix dragged anchor during a blizzard and went ashore on Elbow Island.

Handy’s account

And here is my transcription for that day:

Tuesday 12th [entry crossed out with large X in pencil]
Begins with a fresh breeze from E steering over toward the North Shore saw nothing began to breeze on at 2 PM wore ship and steered for Elbow Isle at 3 took in main topgallant sail at half past 3 pm took in fly jib and spanker at 4 dubble reefed the topsails at 6 came to anchor 2 ½ miles west of Elbow Isle blowing a strong gale and began to rain at 9 pm the wind came out W in squall and blowed a gale accompanied with thick snow very dark could not see anything lett[sic] go second anchor and gave her all chain she lay without dragging until half past 3 AM let up a little and blowed harder a heavy sea a running she began to drag being too near the land to slip the cables we gave her all extra iron fluke chains fin chains boat anchors etc. dragging still and very close to land commenced to cut away the masts while doing so she struck on the end of a reef and dragged over broke off the rudder pintles and done no more damage after she got over the reef she stopped dragging the tide was falling but water enough to drop the rudder out of the port wedged it up as well as could she soon began to strike bottom started the pumps and found she leaked badly pounded and found two feet of water found by keeping both pumps a going could keep her free the rudder working in the port had nocked[sic] off one of the planks off of the stern ends this day the tide down and the ship striking bottom heavey and still a blowing [another pencil X at the end]

With the final piece of puzzle in place (for now, research is addictive and I could spend another year in the archives) the writing can proceed. I’ll publish chapters as I draft them and link to the source material as I go.

Former Cotuit Kettleer Lights Up Fenway

How cool that Mike Yastremski spanked a homer for the S.F. Giants in his first game at Fenway with his grandfather, the almighty Yaz looking on?

I remember the summer of 2010 when Mike played for the Kettleers under coach Mike Roberts. That was a treat, but last night’s homer made it all the sweeter.