"But oh! shipmates! on the starboard hand of every woe, there is a sure delight; and higher the top of that delight, than the bottom of the woe is deep. Is not the main-truck higher than the kelson is low? Delight is to him - a far, far upward, and inward delight - who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self. Delight is to him whose strong arms yet support him, when the ship of this base treacherous world has gone down beneath him. Delight is to him, who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns, and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges. Delight, - top-gallant delight is to him, who acknowledges no law or lord, but the Lord his God, and is only a patriot to heaven."
-Herman Melville "Moby Dick."
This past sunday, we here in America observed the annual celebration of fathers day, wherein we thank our dads for the gift of life. (a comparatively trifling gift given what all our poor mothers went through carrying around or collective, lazy, prenatal asses, but the holiday of thanks is deserved nonetheless)
But I and my father spent the holiday in separate states, and when you consider that those two states are among the smallest, geographically, in the union, one might easily draw the conclusion that I'm a bad son for neglecting my pappy on this day of appreciation. But if I am ever accused as such, the accuser probably doesn't know my family very well.
My father's birthday is June 24th, and so we in my family have tended to celebrate the two events as one occasion, and I'm making the wild, dangerous drive through the wild, savage lands of Rhode Island and into Connecticut this friday to celebrate with my family this weekend, leaving this past sunday, free for me.
With some time on my hands and a bit of money in my purse, I decided to scratch an itch.
Earlier this year, I recounted my treks to the two largest and most prosperous tribal reservations in New England. [link]
I expressed my despair at the horrifically skewed, feast-or-famine wealth distribution of contemporary Native Americans as well as disgust at the impersonal, conglomerated image the indian casinos package themselves in.
But having gotten that out of my system, I was curious about other historical tourism available to me here in southern New England, which brought me to Plymouth plantation.
Now, I was never geographically close enough in my youth to ever field-trip there but now I'm an adult with a car, and I can do as I please on weekends.
I really didn't know what to expect, as my image of the place was mostly informed by the standup act of the hilarious Eugene Mirman;
"Plymouth plantation is this place in Massachusetts, and it's where the Mayflower landed! ... Probably... But it's this place where these actors dress up like pilgrims and Indians, and basically what they do is, they reenact Thanksgiving... FOREVER!!!"
Well, that made me curious, but when I recently read the sexy/badass/awesome/witty/epic/killer/sick/groovy/sweet book "The Wordy Shipmates" by the brilliant Sarah Vowell, my curiosity was peaked further;
"In terms of historical tourism, the pilgrims of 1620 get all the glory. Families, my own included, plan vacations around visiting Plymouth's Mayflower ll and Plymouth Plantation village, the recreated Colonial English town and Wampanoag village on the outskirts of town. My sister, Amy and my then seven-year-old nephew Owen visited it one summer. It is populated by actors who will, under no circumstances, break character. Not even when Owen suggested they could really spruce up their cramped little houses by; "Shopping at Home Depot! Or Lowes! Because Lowes offers every day low prices!" We strolled around the village paths among men and women in colorful 17th century garb. When Owen asked one woman in a blue skirt why she wasn't wearing black like Pilgrims were supposed to, she told us that only rich people wore black, and stared at me in my ripped, black t-shirt like I was Marie Antoinette. We then made the acquaintance of one man Amy dubbed; "The Pilgrim Archie Bunker." We had just wandered through the Wampanoag village and watched a woman cooking in a clay pot, so Owen had indigenous peoples on his mind. He told Archie about his collection of Hopi and Navajo Cachina dolls he started after his visit to the American Southwest. After an annoying back-and-forth after which Archie apparently determined we came from New Spain and were, "Suspected of Catholicism," we returned to the subject of Cahinas. Archie backed away from Owen asking if the dolls were "Poppets." "No, not puppets," said Owen. "They're wood carvings." I told Owen that poppet is a doll used in witchcraft, you know, like when Scooby Doo goes to Salem? Owen shook his head at Archie and said; "Cachina's are GODS, Hopi and Navajo gods." Archie pointed a finger at Owen's chest and raised his voice; "NOT THE TRUE GOD, JESUS CHRIST!" Then he told Owen that he had never shot an Indian personally, but he wouldn't lose any sleep over it if he did, and if he traded with them, he wouldn't trade anything of value, perhaps a pot filled with holes.
Then my sister grabbed Owen by the arm and said; "Lets go, Owen! Lets get outta here before mama punches a pilgrim!"
Okay, after I read that, I HAD to go.
I found it very hard to believe that even the accuracy of the attitudes portrayed by actors would extend to sneering at people in black and expressing distain for Catholics. After all, this is Massachusetts, and after the Irish potato famines, there are literally more people of Irish Catholic descent in Mass than you can shake a big shillelagh stick at.
So, this past saturday I spent a very agreeable afternoon with my friend Michelle, then after bidding her goodbye, I planned my trip before turning in.
A black t-shirt was a must, of course.
I also had the presence of mind to bring along my wampum necklace.
Wampum, or the worked purple inside of quahog shells is commonly believed to have been native American money. This is a misnomer. Wampum was actually held in a high place of spiritual significance. But as the first Europeans to contact the tribes of the east coast saw them using it for trade, they assumed that it was a Native American analogue of money.
Wampum did actually become a form of currency, and up until the end of the 18th century, you could pay your way on the Brooklyn ferry with the stuff. But eventually, the dollar became king and wampum went back to being shellfish.
I got my necklace as a gift from a historical re-creationist in New bedford Massachusetts, and while I had no idea i it would be of any use to me or not, I wore it under my ostentatious, faded, black t-shirt all the same.
I also tucked my Boatswain's whistle in my pocket, just in case.
An hours drive brought me to Plymouth Mass on a sunny, beautiful sunday morning, and I was ready for my trip.
One of the first things I noticed about the Plymouth Plantation is how they actually DO go out of their way to give it's visitors an informed, rounded view of 17th century New England.
The very fist exhibit I encountered in the whole place was a four-room collection of film strips, newspaper clippings and historical tidbits all relating to the history of Thanksgiving as a holiday, and it's perception in the American mind.
If I've read the cultural zeitgeist correctly, our collective Thanksgiving story goes something like this;
"A whole village working together for the benefit of everyone. During the first thanksgiving at Plymouth, Wampanoag Indians, as well as a Patuxet named Squanto, helped teach the pilgrims how to farm, fish, hunt and share the bounty of that first feast. A TRADITION THAT CONTINUES TO THIS DAY, AND JESUS AND 9/11!!!"
(thank you, Patton Oswalt)
Now, I've already talked in other of my journal entries about the history of Thanksgiving and the all but invisible plight of the Native Americans that inevitably comes with any discussion of the holiday.
I've talked about how the tradition didn't even become a National Holiday until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln, looking for any kind of morale-booster for a war-ravaged America evoked the image of the sauce of sustenance of the original settlers and called for a National "Thanksgiving."
I've even touched on how the reason the Plymouth company was able to settle Plymouth so easily was due to a plague of smallpox, likely unleashed by Basque fishermen, which ravaged New England in 1617, all but wiping the Patuxet tribe off the face of the earth, leaving the corn fields they had tilled behind to be used by the Mayflower pilgrims.
Now, if you ask most Americans what the contributing factors were for the Mayflower company to establish a foothold in Plymouth, I doubt you'll hear the word "Plague" escape many lips.
Yet during, my trip, I both heard the plague mentioned and read about it on exhibit descriptions several times.
It seems that the current stewards of Plymouth plantation are making an effort to present as much of a full picture of 17th century New England as they possibly can.
And while the information I found available was refreshingly forthright and consistent with the many historical sources I've read, my actual experience in the Plantation itself was quite interesting as well.
Before actually venturing out into the two villages that make up the bulk of the plantation, I sat and watched an introductory video, explaining the precepts of what I was to encounter.
Obviously, to have the inhabitants of the Wampanoag village speak in their native tongues for the sake of historical accuracy would be very counterproductive. And having the actors playing characters too had the potential to be problematic.
So it turns out at Plymouth Plantation, while the English settlers in their own village ARE playing parts and presenting opinions not their own but consistent with English settlers at the time, the Wampanoag are essentially serving the roles of contemporary historical re-creationists.
And naturally, with the hair-trigger sensitive racial issues endemic to any enterprise such as Plymouth plantation, the powers that be did go out of their way to keep everything as copacetic as possible, case in point, this sign at the entrance to the Wampanoag village:
The village itself was quite picturesque and very stimulating to walk through.
The re-creations of traditional native housing were texturally fascinating, but the range of the people who occupied this re-created village was even more fascinated.
When you walk into the village, you really do get the sense that you've stepped into another time and place. You really do feel like you've walked into the daily lives of a pre-columbian contact tribe... Mostly.
Don't misconstrue my meaning. There were several very bright, engaging people I talked to in the village, as one of the main attractions of Plymouth plantation is talking to the actors and historical re-creationists. We were encouraged to both in signs and in the introductory film to ask the people questions, and I did really meet some bright, helpful people. One in-particular, a boy who couldn't have been older than fifteen with a long-bow, moccasins and buckskin breeches was very knowledgeable and engaging, answering every question I asked with a charming demeanor. Conversely, there were one or two vividly unenthusiastic tribe members who stood in sharp contrast to the bright kid who was probably a deft shot with his longbow.
There were also some details that made for a jarring contrast. Namely, I don't think it was a tradition among Wampanoag women to wear big, chunky Tina Fey glasses, and I'm reasonably certain, no matter how wise or honored the Elders of the tribe were, they didn't putt around on rascal scooters.
But all in all, the Wampanoag village was very enjoyable. I saw a woman cooking haddock and green bean soup in a traditional clay pot. I saw one tribe member slow-burning a deep indentation into a log to make a canoe, and got to play some of the games common among Wampanoag youth.
After very nearly being thrown out of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum for... very not-subtly violating their "No photography" rule, it was a very peaceable and happy experience to put under my belt... And being allowed to take pictures was a huge bonus.
My experience with the resurrected bit of Wampanoag culture behind me, it was time to move onto the English village.
Having read "The Wordy Shipmates" I was prepared for any belligerent forefather I might encounter.
Well, as it turns out, my experience at Plymouth Plantation would be anything but hostile.
While not encountering a Pilgrim Archie Bunker, for lack of a better description, my guy was more like a Dan Conner... Maybe an Adam West.
You can see in the picture how he's taking a large axe to a piece of timber. When I engaged him in conversation, he told me that it was part of the repair for the barricade surrounding the village, how the old planks were worn and needed to be replaced. I asked him if woodworking was his job, and he told me the lot had fallen to him to help repair the barricade, after his term as temporary governor of the colony expired.
The most sinister thing he told me was that, "The only thing the Indians respect is strength. If you show you're weak, they'll fall all over you. But if you put up a strong wall and a strong defense, they will respect you."
He inquired what my profession was, and I told him I was a baker. He told me that a man like me might stand to make a good living in the new colony, as there was no man of that profession yet. But then again, with the characteristically rocky New England soil, there was little to grow but corn, which could be made into little but a flavorless gruel.
On the whole, the village was a marvelous recreation, filled with actors which, true to Sarah's word, will not break character and do speak in that 17th century vernacular which can be hard to follow if you're not careful.
That, and the detail and texture put into the surroundings was marvelous.
Everything down to the cramped houses, houses that routinely housed a single family that would barely pass for a studio apartment space-wise these days. And of course, the topper of the whole village was this great, boxy building on a hilltop with a pulpit and benches downstairs, and a full gunnery of cannons upstairs.
That's the founding of America all right!
After a caloric binge of a lunch, I made haste to the shores of Plymouth, for my ticket included admission to the "Mayflower ll" replica as well.
Finding parking was an ungodly nightmare, but after much shenanigans involving paid parking, I sidled down to the Plymouth docks and found the ship herself.
In a lot of ways, you could call the ship a microcosm of the Plantation itself. There were several good-quality exhibits outside the ship itself , and on the ship, low and behold, there were more historical actors who, under no conceivable circumstances, will break character. And conversely, they have a few people acting as guides in collared shirts and baseball caps, on the same levels of the ship as the gals in frocks and guys in pantaloons.
But all the headaches with parking were forgotten when I descended into the bowels of the ship, and I met the rock star actor who blew all the others out of the water.
This guy could probably have his pick of any period-piece in Hollywood, in my humble opinion. The speed of his wit, his ability to think and speak in that all but incomprehensible 17th century vernacular, and his elephantine knowledge of the Mayflower history.
When he asked me where I was from and I told him, Attleboro Massachusetts, his response was thus;
"Well now, Attleboro is the name of a town in England, and Massachusetts, well that's an Indian name for all the forests and valleys west of here. You're probably some Irish fellow strolling about the land on those bandy legs of yours," the latter statement made as he pointed to my shorts.
I think I just made a new best friend forever.
So the gentleman in his authentic garb, long silver hair and shiny, gold pirate earring treated me to a very long, involved speech about the economic and social factors that lead to the establishment of Plymouth colony, about the religious faction who started the movement and about those not religiously-inclined who had signed on for the transatlantic crossing.
Evidently the character he was playing was a merchant who worked on behalf of the people who owned the Mayflower.
Yeah, the Mayflower, one of the symbols of our national identity, was little more than a rented U-haul, paid for to plop off it's passengers in the new world and get back to running wine between Holland and England as quickly as possible.
According to my new best friend, his plans were, "To be done with the passengers and hope we get back to England for Christmas."
Once he had finished his speech, I asked him about Stephen Hopkins.
A subject near and dear to my heart, seeing as how he was my great-something grandfather.
My new pal then proceeded to tell me the story of how Stephen, who belonged to the Church of England and was not a breakaway Protestant, was one of the scant few who had made the atlantic crossing before.
Evidently, Stephen had been enlisted to travel to Jamestown Virginia beforehand, but his ship had run aground on Bermuda. When the time came to take up the return journey, Hopkins asked "Why we should condemn ourselves to hell when we are here in paradise?"
His crew didn't take kindly to his attitude, and had he not recanted it might have cost him his life.
One of the signers of the Mayflower Compact, Hopkins' wife gave birth at sea, giving one new life to the crew tally after losing only two souls on the passing.
I thanked my new friend sincerely for his time, to which he wryly replied;
"Well, I'm glad I set you straight."
... Everyone so needs to party with this guy.
Well, in any case, my happy encounter on the recreation of this fabled vessel, I wandered the scenic sidewalks of the Plymouth shoreline, the streets buzzing with traffic, when I made a surprising discovery.
I was standing right next to Plymouth Rock.
Yeah... You know that big, historic, impossibly significant historical landmark you learned about in grade school, the very naval stone on which this great nation was forged... Yeah.
This is it.
Beyond that, the rock wasn't even mentioned in any of the notes or journals of any of the original Plymouth settlers... Ever... Ever.
And we didn't even recognize the rock as the place where he Pilgrims landed until one hundred and twenty years after the fact, according to an alleged secondhand account.
So in all probability, the rock has no significance whatsoever.
But to the eternal credit of the people who run Plymouth (but not the ones who set parking regulations) they actually do put up a sign beside the big flippin' temple explaining the full, unbiased story of the rock.
What's more, as a national landmark, the rock is free. Anyone can wander on up and have a look. Which I, for one, appreciated.
But perhaps the most significant monument in Plymouth is up a hill directly behind the temple of the rock, a statue of Masasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag tribe upon first contact with the Mayflower pilgrims, and who is credited by many as being the guest of honor at the first Thanksgiving.
Perhaps more telling though, right next to the stature, there is a plaque stating that the site of the hill you're standing on is an annual pilgrimage for many a Native American, lamenting Thanksgiving as a day of National mourning for the blight brought upon the indigenous peoples of the Americas. All of it, quite literally a stones throw from the flippin' marble temple dedicated to the coming of the Pilgrims.
It was kind of a weird sensation, walking back to my car among the sidewalks crowded with summer tourists after having seen a monument to a once proud, all but decimated people, an enshrined rock held up as a totem of true America that in all likelihood had no real significance, all the while I passed cheap taffy shops, souvenir stores where you can buy little Pilgrim lawn gnomes, lawn gnomes of dower, white-bearded, blunderbuss-wielding Pilgrim fathers and their surprisingly lithe, full-figured wives, and of course, olde timey photography.
Because as everybody knows, there were few photographers more accomplished than the 17th century New England settlers.
Well, my ships clock is telling me it's nearly my bedtime, and I really should wind this thing down to some sort of conclusion.
It turns out I didn't need my black t-shirt, or the black beret for the full effect. Nor indeed did I need my wampum or my Boatswain's whistle. No real amount of studying or mental preparation could have prepared me for what I' found in Plymouth.
Should I chose to marvel at the care and detail put into preserving our history and the refreshingly honest, forthright manner in which it's presented?
Should I stand startled at the juxtaposition of the beautifully-recreated Wampanoag village and the gentleman in the immaculate native headdress riding around on his scooter to signify that there really can never be any recapturing of the past?
Should I feel disgust at the monument to genuine human suffering and the resilience of the few souls still left behind to tell the tale being overshadowed by an entirely overhyped rock just downhill from said monument?
Or should I just be grateful that I had fun, I learned a lot and I'm going to get to spend my dad's birthday with him this weekend?
... I think all of them, probably.
Well, in any case, if you're ever in New England, and you have some time to kill, definitely check out Plymouth. The plantation alone is worth he trip.
Plus, I have to like the place, because I found a really kickass wall decoration in the gift shop.
Well, thanks for getting this far, intrepid reader.
HAPPY THANKSGIVING! [link]
"Being a Pilgrim sure is a drag-ith."
-Joanie Cunningham, from the Thanksgiving episode of "Happy Days."