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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Personal Thoughts

Ancestral Shadows

September 2020

One of my great-grandfathers was a master mariner and sea captain. His grandfather and other relatives had come from central Germany to farm in the new land. However, farming the rocks of Nova Scotia is neither easy nor productive. Father, sons, and grandsons soon set sail to ply the seas. My great-grandfather, Captain Tom, earned his master mariner’s license in 1862. These many years later, a cousin sent me a picture of him. When I opened it, my eyes flooded till I could not see. Why? Because my father looked so much like his grandfather, they could have been twins. I knew there were many ancestral shadows that part of my family. I had to learn more about why. What were the tragedies that gave me such a different life from my second cousin who still lived in the Lunenburg area?

I don’t have a full outline of the book yet, only some of parts to share. If they seem disjointed, they are—just snippets of this developing historical novel, whose arc and denouement I still need to decide.

Batts Beach

As was the custom in the days of the schooner, the captain’s family had sometimes gone to sea with him.  On occasion Captain Thomas Acker’s wife, Rebecca, two sons, George and Will, and his daughter, Mary Isabella had accompanied him.  On his trip in the early spring of 1873, Capt. Tom, as he was affectionately known on board and around the town of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia headed out to sea on his way to Barbados, taking along his older son, 12-year-old George. Young George spent his nights in the captain’s quarters and no doubt dreamed of someday captaining his own ship. The cargo of G. W. Pousland was usually sugar cane and casks of rum, sometimes with a partial delivery to Boston and the remainder to the town of Lunenburg and the province of Nova Scotia. 

One day, while walking Batts Beach, George found a candle, never lit, probably the flotsam from a sunken ship or perhaps just lost overboard. He picked it up and carved lengthwise on this four-inch candle that he turned round as he wrote:

“FOUND
April 5th 1873.
Geo. Acker  
on Batts Beach 
off St. Atlantic”          [Notes: South]

My father gave this candle to me when I was ten years old. Of all my siblings, why he gave it to me, I’ll never know, but it has helped shape my life.

A letter to his wife, Rebecca

Yarmouth  Jan 9th 1877
My Dear Rebecca

I again take the pleasure to tell you that I have arrived at this port after a hard time on the coast for twelve days.  Such gales I never experienced in all my born days.  The vessel’s rigging and sails were somewhat torn to pieces. I have to get a new [jib?] here and after tomorrow will be ready to proceed for Boston first chance.  I was out twenty-six days from PR and finally had to beam up for this port.  Was glad to get in somewhere.  Firewood was getting short.  Provisions hold out well.  I arrived here yesterday.

I received a telegram from L. today that is about the nearest I have heard or can hear from home.  It did not contain anything of importance.  I hope you are enjoying good health—and spent a merry Christmas.  As for myself Sunday and Christmas Day I was repairing sails.

Dear Rebecca, when you receive this write to Boston.  I hope I shall be there.

I should very much like to see you all, especially yourself my dear girl and little Mary.  O how I should like to be at home tonight.  ‘Tis very lonely on board here, all alone you may say.  Give my love to Granny and that Mary and your dear self.

I remain your loving,
Thomas, ‘tis true

I wrote a few lines from P.R. 

Were you ever under water and wished you could stay there?

I am twelve. The two best parts of this voyage are that I am Papa’s cabin boy and that Mama, Will, and Mary stayed home this time. Cold and calm voyage at first, it began to change after we picked up more wood in Boston. As we crossed to warmer water, the sea picked up, perhaps the end of a late winter storm. It had been a very cold and snowy winter. Sometimes we couldn’t even get out to Mahone Bay.

Then came Barbados where the water is the blue of the Heavens and Papa’s eyes, the sand so white a person blinks. We’ve been here for a few days now. I look off the ship’s deck and want to go live down there. I want to walk on the sea floor—pick horseshoe crabs, conk shells and starfish. Arrange them in patterns. Make villages out of them. Invite Mary down to play when she is next here. Spend the night, only one night at first, and sleep on that rock deep off starboard. Wake up and come up for air and breakfast, a breaking of fast.

Nineteen and proud to be aboard the Wilhelmina, George had a reputation for being a competent seaman. The captain expected it. After all, George was Acker stock. His father, God rest his soul, all his uncles and grandfathers were among the best of Lunenburg’s captains and owners. George was coming up on his twentieth birthday and looked to an eventual future of his own ships.

Tonight was his duty. Rough seas pitched and yawed the brig, but he’d been on rougher water. They had passed Boston before dark. They passed the shores of Maine and were crossing the mouth of the Bay of Fundy. George firmly looped the ends of his scarf beneath his jacket and pulled the neck of his thick, navy, wool collar tighter. His mother had knit him the heavy mittens with no fingers a few trips earlier. Ice covered the deck and George was cautious. Unlike most of his mates, he’d been walking both fair and icy decks since he was not much more than a toddler. Still, ice was never good.

The captain passed him with a “George, my boy, how goes it.”

“Well, sir, well. I see nothing out of the ordinary.”

The captain nodded and went to the bow. The third on watch that evening was a young seaman like George.

As George walked toward the stern, the Wilhelmina yawed heavily starboard. George slipped, pitching toward the gunnels. He did not stop and summersaulted overboard.

“Captain! Johannes! He called, but there was no one to hear him over the noise of the wind, waves, and the creaking of the ship’s wood. He began to swim in the direction of the brig, but the waves took it too far too fast. He knew then he would join his father. He thought of little Mary and the game they played about living on the bottom of the ocean. He would dwell there soon enough for no one saw him go over. No one heard his calls. He could have fought death, but death would come anyway. He didn’t see his life flash before him. He saw his future flash before him. He was a husband with children, an uncle to Will’s and Mary’s, a successful ship and family man of Lunenburg. George soon realized he would stay in the water and wend to the bottom of the sea, away from the storm, sink into the silence of the deep. He stopped fighting. He passed through a school of thousands of cod, fish he had caught not that many years ago. He remembered his mother resigning herself to his choice of the sea as any daughter and wife of a Nova Scotia sea captain would. He wended his way into a school of swordfish, the elegant lords and ladies of the deep.

He touched off bioluminescence. On his back and still conscious, he opened his eyes to see his body reflected in the sea above him. He knew he was headed the wrong direction, but no longer had the will to alter his destiny. He rode on the back of a migrating right whale thinking…if only the whale surfaced beside my ship, perhaps the captain or my shipmates would see me…but at this moonless moment he accepted that he would become integral to the sea.

The captain had stood at the bow, grabbed the gunnel as the ship lurched, then went to check again on his two crew on deck. He rounded the deck seeing Johannes, asked him if he’d seen George, then quickly rounded again when Johannes replied, no sir. He stuck his head towards below and bellowed, “All hands on deck! Man overboard! Reverse course!” He raced to take the wheel, knowing that in the darkness finding George was unlikely. A bile-filled ache for the Acker family grew in his gut and a vise clamped his brow. Still he hard turned the wheel and those not awakened slammed against the wall or bunk’s outer edge.

George William Acker has the tall, red tombstone not far from his father’s, but it is only his name above and the dark earth beneath.

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