I already told you the story one time about the Moline Meltdown that was part of the search in the old days for the great blue-pink American West night so I don’t have to repeat that here but I did start to think that the story of Captain Cob and the S.S. Blue-Pink Night that was part of it would be easier to tell and I would not get myself so balled up in the telling if it was done as a ballad. Make it shorter and more to the point, if nothing else. Also an important source for this story, or model for the story if you will, was Red Sovine’s Big Joe and Phantom 309 as translated by Tom Waits. And Big Joe was nothing but a “talking” ballad in the old Hank Williams or Woody Guthrie style. So I am in good company. Here goes:
The Ballad Of Captain Cob And The S.S. Blue-Pink Night
Okay, let me tell this thing straight through even though I know it will sound off-kilter to you anyway I say it, hell, it will sound half off-kilter to me and I lived through it:
See, back a few years ago, yah, it was back a few years ago when I was nothing but a summer-sweltered sixteen year old high school kid, a city boy high school kid, with no dough, no way to get dough, and nobody I knew who had dough to put a touch on, I went off the deep end.
Plus, plus I had about thirty-six beefs with Ma, around par for the course for a whole summer but way too many for a couple of weeks in, and not even Fourth of July yet.
Worst, worst, if you can believe this, I had a few, two maybe, beefs with the old man, and having a beef with him with Ma the official flak-catcher meant things were tough, too tough to stay around.
Sure, I know, how tough can it be at sixteen to stay put waiting for the summer heat to break and maybe have some clean clear wind bring in a change of fortune. But don’t forget, don’t ever forget when I’m telling you this story that we are talking about a sixteen year old guy, with no dough and plenty of dreams, always plenty of dreams, whatever color they turned out to be.
I threw a few things together in an old green, beaten to hell, knapsack you know enough to get by until things break, that stuff and about three dollars, and I headed out the door like a lot of guys headed out that same kind of door before me in search of fame and fortune.
I hit the main street with a swagger and immediately start thumbing as if my life depended on it. Right away a car, I didn’t see where it had come from before it came into my view, a late model car, looked like a 1961 Ford, slowed down, the driver rolled down his passenger side window and asked where was I heading.
I said “west, I guess,” he said “I’m heading up to Maine to work. Too bad I can’t help you.” As he readied to make tracks I say, “Hey, wait a minute, I‘ll take that ride, North or West it’s all the same to me.” Whoever said that my fortune could not be made in Maine just as easily as in California.
This guy, if you are thinking otherwise, turned out to be pretty interesting, he wasn’t any fruit like a lot of guys who stop when they see a young guy with a dour, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders pan like mind, and are ready to pounce on that fact.
Seems that Kenny, Kenny of a thousand ships, his name was, worked the boats, the ferries out of Portland and Bar Harbor over to Nova Scotia and filled the time we traveled with stories about different funny things that happened on the trips back and forth.
And this one story that I didn’t think anything about when he told it. He is going on a bit about how one time out in the misty mist his uncle, Captain Cob, Captain Caleb Cob, some old swamp Yankee, whom he served under in some boat saved a bunch of people off an island ferry, off of Portland Light, got them to shore, and went back out looking for more.
Well, he was telling his stories, and I was telling mine about this and that, but mainly about my love of the sea, and about going west to see the Pacific when I get tired of the Atlantic.
Suddenly, Kenny said out of the blue, “Hey, if you’re gonna bum around I’ll leave you off at Old Orchard Beach, right at the beach, there’s plenty of places to sleep there without being bothered.
See, though this guy, Kenny, was so good, such a good guy, that when we get there he doesn’t just let me off on Route One and so I have to thumb another ride into town like most guys would do but takes me right down to the pier, the amusement park pier.
Then he said you know it is probably better to get away from this crowded area, let me take you down Route 9 to the Saco jetty where you can set yourself up in an empty boat. Okay, that sounds right and besides it’s won’t be dark for hours yet and it’s not dark enough for me to make my big teenage city boy moves.
I could see right away that Kenny was right, this place was quiet and there were many row boats just waiting to be used for housekeeping purposes. But, what got my attention was, maybe fifty yards away, was the start of the longest jetty in the world, or so I thought.
Hey, I had walked a few jetties and while you have to be careful for the ill-placed boulders when you get to the end you are feeling like the king of the sea, and old Neptune better step aside. I started walking out,
Christ this was tough going I must be a little tired from all the travel. Nah it’s more than that, the granite slaps are placed helter-skelter so you can’t bound from one to another and you practically have to scale them. After about a hundred yards of scraping my hands silly, and raw, I say the heck with this and head back.
But put sixteen, hunger for adventure, and hunger to beat old fellaheen king Neptune down together and you know this is not the end. I go around looking at my boat selection just exactly like I am going to rent an apartment. Except before I set up housekeeping I am going to take an old skiff out along the jetty to the end. So I pushed one off the sand, jump in and started rowing.
Now I am an ocean guy, no question. And I know my way around boats, a little, so I don’t think much of anything except that I will go kind of slow as I work my way out. Of course a skiff ain’t nothing but a glorified rowboat, if that. It’s all heavy lifting and no “hi tech” like navigation stuff or stuff that tells you how far the end of jetty is. Or even that there is a heavy afternoon fog starting to roll in on the horizon. Yah, but intrepid that’s me.
Hey, I’m not going to England just to the end of the jetty. I said that as the fog, the heavy dark fog as it turned out, enveloped the boat and its new-found captain. I started rowing a little harder and a little more, I ain’t afraid to say it, panic-stricken.
See I thought I was rowing back to shore but I knew, knew deep somewhere in my nautical brain that I was drifting out to sea. I’m still rowing though, as the winds pick up and rain starts slashing away at the boat. Or course, the seas have started swelling, water cresting over the sides. Christ, so this is the way it is going to finish up for me.
What seemed like a couple more hours and I just plain stopped rowing, maybe I will drift to shore but I sure as hell am not going to keep pushing out to sea. Tired, yah, tired as hell but with a little giddy feeling that old Neptune was going be seeing me soon so I decided to put my head down and rest.
Suddenly I was awoken by the distinct sound of a diesel engine, no about six diesels, and a big, flashing light coming around my bow. I yell out, “over here.” A voice answers, “I know.”
Next thing I know an old geezer, a real old geezer decked out in his captain’s gear is putting a rope around the bow of my boat and telling me to get ready to come aboard.
After getting me a blanket, some water and asking if I wanted a nip of something (I said yes) he said I was lucky, lucky as hell that he came by. Then he asked what I was doing out here in the open sea with such a rig, and wasn’t I some kind of fool boy.
Well, I told my story, although he seemed to know it already like he made a daily habit of saving sixteen year old city boys from the sea, or themselves. So we swapped stories for a while as we headed in, and I had a nip or two more.
As we got close to Saco pier though he blurted out that he had to let me off before the dock because he had some other business on the Biddeford side.
Here is where it gets really weird though. He asked me, as we parted, did I know the name of his boat (a trawler, really). I said I couldn’t see it in all the fog and swirling sea. He told me she was the “S.S. Blue-Pink Night”.
I blurted out, “Strange name for a boat, what is it a symbol or something?”
Then he told me about how he started out long ago on land, as a kid just like me, maybe a little older, heading to California, and the warm weather and the strange blue-pink night skies and the dreams that come with them. I said how come you’re still here but he said he was pressed for time.
Here is the thing that really threw me off. He gave me a small dried sea shell, a clam shell really, that was painted on its inner surface and what was painted on it was a very intricate, subliminally beautiful scene of what could only be that blue-pink California sky.
I said, “Thanks; I’ll always remember you for this and the rescue.” He said, “Hell lad that ain’t nothing but an old clam shell." When you get over to that Saco café at the dock just show it to them and you can get a meal on it. That meal is what you’ll remember me by.”
Hungry, no famished, I stumbled into the Saco café, although that was not its name but some sea name, and it was nothing but a diner if you thought about it, a diner that served liquor to boot so there were plenty of guys, sea guys, nursing beers until the storm blew over, or whatever guys spend half the day in a gin mill waiting to blow over.
I stepped to the counter and told the waitress, no, I asked politely just in case this was a joke, whether this old clam shell from the captain of the “Blue-Pink Night” got me a meal, or just a call to take the air.
All of a sudden the whole place, small as it was, went quiet as guys put their heads down and pretended that they didn’t hear or else though the joint doubled up as a church.
I asked my question again and the waitress answered , “What’ll you have?”
Then she asked me did I know anything about the captain, and how did he look, and where did he meet me, and a whole bunch of questions like this was some mystery, and I guess maybe there was at that.
Then the waitress told me this (and I think every other guy in the room by the loudness of her voice),
“A few years back, yes, about six or seven years ago, there was a big storm that came through Portland Light, some say a perfect storm, I don’t know, but it was a howler.”
“Well, one of the small ferries capsized out there and somehow someone radioed that there were survivors clinging to the boat. Well, the old captain and his nephew, I think, started up the old “Blue-Pink Night” and headed out, headed out hard, headed out full of whiskey nips, and one way or another, got to the capsized boat and brought the survivors into shore and then headed out again.”
“And we never saw them again.”
“Here is the funny part; when he was unloading his passengers he kept talking, talking up a perfect storm about seeing the blue-pink night when he was out there before and maybe it was still there.”
“I guess the booze had got the best of him. But hear me son, old captain was square with everyone in this place, he used to own it then, and some of his kin are sitting right here now. He was square with them too. So, eat up kid, eat up on the house, ‘cause I want you to save that old clam shell and any time you’re on your uppers you can always get a meal here. Just remember how you got it.”
“Thanks, ma’am,” I said.
Then I slowly, like my soul depended on it, asked, “Oh, by the way what was that old captain’s nephew’s name?” and I said it in such a way that she knew, knew just as well as I did, that I knew the answer.
“Kenny, Kenny Cob, bless his soul.”