Tonight is Mischief Night- the night before Halloween. I’ve been away for the past seven Halloweens so I’m very excited about tomorrow. Gabriel, being born in Copenhagen, had his first Halloween last year but I missed it being, where else, in Copenhagen.
In Woods Hole, Mischief Night is celebrated at the Community Center. Tonight I arrived after work and there were dozens of children in costumes sitting on the wooden floor. Parents were seated in an arc around the back and the curtains were drawn while preparations were made off-stage. Nothing particularly scary happens unless you are my three-year old niece, Lydia, who is at the stage where clowns or any costume really, is absolutely terrifying. Mostly kids perform dances, and songs and stories are read and then there is a showing of the costumes. It’s a marvelous little village-level event. The talent is local and we applaud the children we see throughout the year having their first crack at stage fright.
At tonights event, I remembered that I have my own little mischievous story that would be a fun one to tell some night light this. A group of kids might not get it but it amuses me so I thought I would write it down in celebration of the day. I think of this as akin to one of those Kipling Just So Stories which are rooted in fact (“How the elephant got its truck”) but otherwise are a work of fiction. My story was concocted at Woods Hole’s own Captain Kidd bar. I had arrived to meet friends and these friends were entertaining friends from out of town. We get that a lot in the summertime. They were seated in the back room of the bar which is a box-shaped room with four tables and panoramic views of Eel Pond, the central waterway of the village. The Kidd itself has a dock and additional docks extend out from the shore representing marinas and other restaurants. Atop many of the pilings are mounted plastic great-horned owls, which are meant to serve as scarecrows or, more accurately, scare-gulls. Gulls, being large birds, are capable of depositing a sizable load on some rather fancy and expensive brightwork on these docks. The owls, however, don’t fool anyone. Well, at least not the gulls. My story starts when one of the out-of-town guests asked what the owls were for. Rather than answer truthfully, I decided to see if I could pull a good one out of my head right on the spot. Here is my Just-So story.
Why the Owl Sits on the Piling
“You know”, I said, “that this part of the country has a rich maritime tradition and, at one time, was heavily involved in whaling. New Bedford, which plays a key early role in Moby Dick, is just over that way, across Buzzards Bay. Nantucket, over the horizon to the south east, was said to produce some of the best ships captains. Here in Woods Hole, the Candle House, next to where I work, got its name because it was used to process spermaceti and other whale oil products. Further down, along Penzance Point was the Pacific Guano Works where they processed guano (birdshit) for industrial nitrates. Back then,” I said, “ships came and went throughout the year and they might be gone for years at a time. This was the age of sail and before the Panama Canal. A trip to the whaling grounds or the Pacific guano islands was two years – minimum.”
“You might be familiar with the classic New England whaling captains houses,” I inquired, setting my hook a little deeper by adding in another element of fact. “We have some nice examples here and all over the Cape. They tend to be large, and often on a hill overlooking the sea. One famous feature of these houses is the widows walk. You’ve probably heard of them. They are the small flat deck at the very top of the house. Legend has it that this is where the captains wives would ascend in order to anxiously scan the horizon for overdue ships. The name, of course, is derived from those wives who’s ships were destined never to return.”
“Of course,…” I said, setting my hook deep, “…these widow’s walks were only of use during the light hours of the day.” I then proceeded to talk an alternate path forward in history.
“At night, specially-trained owls were posted atop poles, not unlike the ones you see there, which were set every quarter mile up and down the coast. These owls took up station, only just relinquished by the anxious captains wife, hours ago, and used their amazing night vision to scan the horizon for the appearance of the topgallant that would herald the arrival of another ship. Should this occur, these owls had a special call that would be repeated, station to station, up the coast until, within earshot of some lucky captains wife, she would arise and prepare for the hoped for arrival of the ship and a reunion, years in the making.”
(I then proceeded to make a distinct owl-like sound with a bit of an SOS-like cadence)
“Since that time, it has been a distinctly southeastern New England tradition, to welcome all mariners, to any harbor, large or small, with a representation of an owl on an owl-pole. Just as the pineapple is a traditional symbol of welcome and hospitality, so too is the owl a traditional symbol of refuge and homecoming.”
Spent and exhausted, I gave it a rest after that.
Was it convincing? I’ll let you determine that. I will say I have told it more than once and, depending on the delivery, it can sound pretty convincing. Like any good New Englander, try it yourself and see.