Scottish troubadour Alastair McDonald sings lyrics that tell a great truth for our times and resonate especially in Rhode Island, where we live close to the fishing industry and enjoy its hard-won harvest.
He sings of Aberdeen, where fishermen risk all in bringing to market the herring they gratefully call their “silver darlings.”
McDonald’s rendition of a song by that title reflects the dangers that generations of Rhode Islanders have faced in wrenching their livings from the sea:
With ice in the rigging and death down below, With the gales screaming wild and the glass hanging low, The wives and the sweethearts are women who know, The price of the silver darlings.
The ladies of Aberdeen, as do scores of local wives and sweethearts, understand that price is not always a reflection of true cost.
How apropos as we contemplate the immediate price we’ve paid in threats and damage to our national institutions, and wonder, if unattended, what these might cost us in the long run.
Scotland’s balladeer isn’t the only McDonald to use ocean rigors as metaphor for the true prices we pay. In 1987, Rhode Island fisherman John R. McDonald described for an oral history project his 43 years of going down to the sea via Newport.
As he spoke to an interviewer from the local historical society, talk inevitably got around to some of those who sailed from their harbors and did not return. One danger in the early, pre-radar years was from passing steamers.
“If it was calm or foggy you could hear them, but other than that…you just take your chances,” he recalled.
And then, there was the wind. Once, carelessly unaware of a storm forecast and caught in a gale far offshore, “It was blowing and the boat was taking on a lot of bad weather. When you’re young you do a lot of foolish things and we were lucky enough to survive – manage to survive, I’d say.”
This was in a 39-foot, wooden dragger, no haven from unexpected ocean fury.
McDonald, who lived in Warren, knew the true cost of bringing fish to market.
By way of example, he told his interviewer, “Freddy Jones lost his son on that boat that capsized from Point Judith a few months ago,”
McDonald’s own dicey moments included the time he nearly lost a leg when it got caught in a winch. Once, a swinging block hit him in the head and left a permanent scar. One frigid January he slid overboard and managed to pull himself back on deck only by shimmying up a cable.
In his homespun way, John McDonald, who died in 1991, taught a lesson that applies today as debate swirls on how to protect our democracy that so recently has been battered by storms of its own.
Too bad he’s not around to advise those who won’t fish or cut bait when it comes to safeguarding our valued institutions, because on dry land he was no stranger to politics – he was once chairman of the Warren Republican Town Committee and a member of the Republican State Central Committee.
Given the posture of many in today’s national GOP, he’d for sure make an intriguing interview, and I’d love to be the one to do it.
I wouldn’t presume to speculate on what he’d say, but he wasn’t afraid to paddle against the tide: When he first ran the Town Committee – because no one else wanted the job – power in town was almost exclusively in the hands of Democrats. Later, he engineered a Republican victory, a rarity for Warren.
Politics included or not, the lessons he learned at sea far transcended the deck of his fishing boat.
He told his interviewer that out on the water, survival depends on vigilance, on anticipating and heading off mortal dangers that always lie in wait.
When it comes to disaster, said the fisherman John McDonald, “Sometimes when you take things for granted, that’s when it happens.”
Gerry Goldstein (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired Providence Journal bureau chief and columnist.
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