I think growing up in a land-locked state made me obsessed with all things nautical. When I was very little, my friend Erin and I found an empty beer bottle by the side of the road when we were riding our bikes one day. We had the idea to leave a note in it, that would be found by someone else years from then, probably in a different country. So, in our neatest printing, we wrote what we thought must be an intelligent, well-constructed letter sure to impress anyone who found it. Because we were in a land-locked state, and we knew that throwing it in the Red River would never get the bottle to India (or somewhere else exotic), we buried it in the ground, hoping it would burrow its way to China. Of course that didn’t happen, but in the week before someone from school found it, and asked if we did it, we imagined all sorts of amazing scenarios.
When my parents were visiting for Thanksgiving, we spend an afternoon at Plimouth Plantation. We’ve always been a family very interested in historical re-enacting, so this was just the most logical thing for us to do. Leaving Plimouth, and trying to get back on I-95 to go back home, we came to one of those charming New England forks-in-the-road that is actually five roads, poorly marked, and you’re choosing your path at 55 m.p.h. We chose wrong, and ended up going way out of our way by Cape Cod–New Bedford–Fall River. It was scenic, though, and had I not been completely sick of driving, I would have enjoyed it more.
As we were driving through New Bedford, we saw a sign for the New Bedford Whaling Museum, and my dad started freaking out. “The New Bedford Whaling Museum, that would be great. We’ve just gotta go to the New Bedford Whaling Museum.”
My mother and I ignored him because he tends to get very excited about things when they’re right in front of him, and then forget then later. I’d exhausted my patience trying to secure things to entertain him with that he had previously expressed interest in, so I was waiting out anything else he mentioned to see if it stuck before committing.
This one did though. “I’d really like to see that New Bedford Whaling Museum,” he said the next day over Tim Horton’s (just kidding, this was Thanksgiving Day, Tim Horton’s was closed—thank god). Since he’d remembered the Whaling Museum two days in a row, I said that yes, we could go if we had time.
Sadly, we did not have time on that trip, but it got me thinking. A few weeks later, I had a Saturday off and thought I might cast about for some culture. I googled the Whaling Museum and found that on January 3rd they have a 24-hour Moby Dick Marathon. At 8 bells in the forenoon watch (12pm), people start reading Moby Dick, and they don’t stop for 24 more hours. Traditional whaling fare is served (cider, coffee, clam chowder… no hardtack), and the whole thing is free. Amazingly, I found some friends interested in going to this thing with me, and it was so much more than I expected. There were readings in Danish, Portuguese, Japanese, French (we caught the Japanese reader, and I must say, she didn’t seem as into it as some. The coordinators practically prodded her up to the podium, but once there, she read quickly, of course I didn’t understand a word of it). For chapter 41, we adjourned to the theater for a performance-style reading followed by a rousing round of sea chanties accompanied by a concertina.
People of all ages were there, and two boys probably 10 and 12 got up and read, and didn’t even giggle when then said sperm whale. I have to say, though, the most astounding thing was sitting and listening to Melville’s words describing the sheer enormity of the whale, while sitting under a giant whale skeleton mounted to the ceiling– filling the entire ceiling. The audaciousness of men to go out in puny boats and hunt these prehistoric monsters, and the madness of Captain Ahab to think that he deserved to kill a giant creature who let him live—it’s mind-boggling.
The people singing the chanties, and doing the re-enactment were so into it, and so proud of themselves and of New Bedford, it was a really heady experience. Like I’ve said before, I’m always really surprised and amazed by people who are so proud of where they come from, especially since this is so different than what I grew up with (the whaling, not the pride). Sadly, we didn’t have time to see the actual museum, but we’ll do that later.
We’re already planning to go next year, and read as well. Hopefully, they’ll have the promised grog too, I was pretty disappointed that it wasn’t offered, and more than a little irritated when the woman I asked about it looked at me like I came to the Moby Dick Marathon to get wasted or something. I now have bumper sticker that reads “Call me Ishmael”, and no idea what to do with it, but my obsession is growing.