Thursday, July 8, 2010

Sailing on the USS Constitution: Crossing Generations

When my son Miles invited me to go underway on the USS Constitution – “Old Ironsides” – there was no wavering. I was eager to climb aboard the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world where my son happens to have the honor of being a sailor.

It is appropriate for Miles to serve on the USS Constitution, as he is a devoted historian with roots meandering back to the first English settlers of this country, including William Trevor, one of two hired seamen on the original Mayflower and two families – Pettengill and Ingersoll – that sailed to the New World with the Winthrop Fleet in 1629. Miles’ English ancestors were founding fathers of towns such as Newburyport, Salem and Sandwich, MA. Sailing historical ships is literally in his DNA.

Speaking for myself, I am entrenched in historical research. I am no stranger to Unites States History, spending many years as a Civil War musicologist, performer, reenactor and having recent writing projects steeped in New England History.

On the morning of July 4, I stood before the USS Constitution and watched as sailors in period uniforms scurried around the shipyard in preparation for the cruise. As a seasoned reenactor, I recalled that familiar sense of pride as people stare in awe, stealing a glimpse into our nation’s rich past.

I followed my son up the gangway. He stopped and saluted the flag and then the officers on deck. His perfect posture – a strong 6’4” frame outlined by the sun – summoned an unexpected surge of emotion and overwhelming pride. Other than reading, research and musicology, I have no experience with the military.

There have been Pettengills documented in all of the wars of this country beginning from the Pequot Wars in the 1600’s to my father who served in Occupied Japan. There were over 90 Pettengills in the Civil War. As a historian and earthy artist, unless written in a book, almost all military terms are foreign to me. Seeing my son in this setting is fitting for him and awe-inspiring for me.

Some of my strongest reactions actually strike me as odd, probably because I have no reference point. For example, the boatswain’s whistle gets me in the solar plexis. Whenever a dignitary boarded the ship, the announcement of his name and rank was followed by a series of whistles. The whistle means many different things to me. It means that my son is truly a sailor on board this historical ship; he is no longer eight years old; he has become a remarkable young man. The whistle means that it is real, that the rituals and protocol of the United States Navy are my son’s way of life.

Miles is accustomed to musical signals and prompts. I smile at the memory of calling my kids home by playing reveille on my trumpet (as a professional trumpet player, this made sense). The kids in the neighborhood thought it was very cool; my kids did not know what the big deal was. For instance, at suppertime, I walked over, pulled one of my horns out of my case, stood on the back porch and wailed on it. Then I listened. If I heard them making their way home I could go about my business. Sometimes they were deeply engaged in play, requiring another blast. I returned to the back porch and belted out reveille twice as loud. After a pause, one of them would yell…”Coming, Mom!” They could gage by the loudness of the call and the last note, whether or not I was agitated. (An exaggerated glissando meant get home now.) They rarely pushed me into playing reveille three times or playing the 'horse race bugle call' or 'call to post', which let them know that it was urgent.

People crowded together as the sun beat down on the shiny black wooden ship. I was glad that I wore shorts. Tearful pride returned and swelled in my chest at the sound of fifes and drums playing familiar ballads, airs and marches that have stayed with our country, becoming our own folk music.

The period attire of most of the crew consists of the 1813 naval uniforms, the officers wear three-cornered hats and wool coats with brass buttons and some men carry muskets. If it were not for the woman jammed beside me wearing springy, metallic stars on the corners of her sunglasses, I could have sworn that it was 1797.

Soon the ship got underway. Because the sails are being restored, two tugboats navigated the ship. The stark contrast between the red and white stripes of the huge flag waving against the blue sky begged me to take photos; it was almost surreal. The last time I felt this patriotic was three years before at Miles’ graduation ceremony when over nine hundred sailors in Cracker Jack uniforms sang “Anchors Aweigh”. That scenario brought me to my knees. I wasn’t sure if it was from exhaustion, playing the song hundreds of times in one of my brass bands, or the fact that my son was now in the United States Navy, and he and the lives of nine hundred others – as of that moment – had changed forever. It was everything. I cried.

Being on the deck of the USS Constitution brought me back to that “Anchors Aweigh” moment. A colossal sense of pride engulfed me. I gripped a nearby thick rope when three lovely young women – The USO Liberty Bells – sang the “Star Spangled Banner” a Capella. It was not like one of those divas who sings before a ball game, going crazy with a series of arpeggios as if enduring a root canal. They sang in beautiful, tight, melodious harmonies.

Miles went to a lower deck, as a “Damage Control Fireman”. He was a part of the cannon (long guns) operation. I know that this is partly due to his training and experience as a QM and Diver aboard the USS Chancellorsville – a Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser.

The ship was surrounded by security such as the US Coast Guard, Boston Harbor Police and State Police Boats. The Coast Guard boats had men with machine guns on the front. For someone who cries at Bambi and Free Willy, this is significant. A Fireboat with streaming sprays led the way and the 125’ Schooner, the Liberty Clipper, remained close by. There were boats and ships of all types, sizes, classes and ages encircling us at all times.

At one point, a retired Navy LST passed by in the other direction. There were a series of whistles. The sailors on board stood along the outer decks at attention until a certain whistle signaled them to return to their business.

As we approached Fort Independence on Castle Island, we were given a two-minute warning before the 21-gun salute – the firing of the cannons. I pulled the complimentary orange earplugs from my pocket even though I brought my own. Crowds of waving people lined the walls of the fort. I felt the booming cannons beneath in my feet and each shot fired shook through to my core. Thick clouds of white sulfur smoke hung in the air burning my senses. I could only imagine what it would be like for our ancestors, as we only experienced reduced charges.

After the return fire, all of the surrounding ships and boats sounded their horns and the people from the fort and onboard cheered. Was the surge of tears from the sulfur or the thought that I was sharing a unique event from many centuries ago with my own son? I pondered the question while listening to “America the Beautiful” sung by the Liberty Bells, which was poignant in itself.

She then did her famous turnaround back towards her berth in the Charlestown Navy Yard. On her return sailing, she gave a 17-gun salute at the U.S. Coast Guard Station in the North End. I did not flinch or secretly dab tears from my eyes upon hearing the uplifting strains of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” by Juliet Ward Howe, the woman who created Mothers Day in the name of peace, only no one really knows this and most continue to honor Hallmark.

The guests received a parting gift to commemorate the day – a spent shell casing marked with an image of the ship, which is perfect for my office.

I carried the heavy shell in my backpack and returned to the lounge with my son to eat pizza. I walked down the hallway of the barracks, lingering and looking at photos of heroes, officers, sailors of the year and even a photo of my son holding the American flag as a color guard at a Celtics game.

I watched while he ate pizza. I saw my little boy in his eyes…the innocence of the child who I cradled and sung lullabies to every night, and convinced that there were no clowns in the woods…the boy who taught me the names of every type of tractor and urged me to trap big spiders under glasses for him to return outdoors instead of killing them…the boy who believed in Santa Claus and never chewed gum when he wore braces… the strong boy who carried fifty-pound feed sacks on his shoulders to the barn…the boy who finally mastered math just because he believed that he could, and the boy who played the trombone in my brass bands.

He wanted me to be proud. I was. When I praised him, he used to say, “Mom, you’re just saying that because you’re my mother.”

Yes, Miles. I am your mother. And I will tell you now as I always have, I am proud of you, and you just happen to be my son.


  1. For some reason, writing this did not come easy...

  2. It is hard when you do something that touches your heart. They says it is sweeter when you write with heart rather than pen. You belong to the first kind. I felt it. Good job.

  3. I have a cane that was passed down through my family from the Old Iron Side that was given to dignitaries- I do not know much about it or how many were given out? Do you happen to know anything about these?

  4. Kelly,
    I have just recovered comments from my blog so I apologize for the delay in responding. I will inquire about the cane of which you speak.