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A Sailor Named “Beamish”

The name “Beamish” originated in the County Durham on coastal North West Britain (but the Irish claim it as their own). End of the summer, 1967, I was studying art at St. Johns University. I grew up in Rosedale with miles of wetlands, which we called swamps, surrounding us. They bounded Jamaica Bay directly south of our town and stretched for miles from Lawrence to Plumb Beach in Brooklyn. It included a much smaller Idlewild Airport (Now giant JFK). Before we were teenagers all those wetlands, streams and ponds that led into the bay were our own fishing and crabbing playground.

When we grew older we found another amusement on the edge of the swamps, where a cut ran to the bay. There, stood a ramshackle bar named “The Old Garry Owen”. It was graced with wooden walls stained two feet up by hurricane tides, smelled of beer, cigarettes, and mold. It was decorated in dusty nautical lamps and old pictures of boats and men who once worked the creeks and bays. My brother Chris and our friends all hung there when we didn’t have dates. It was an easy place. No “proof required”. The fact that it was an old bay and fisherman’s place didn’t bother us. We thought it had bones and was a good place to get a cheap buzz. I can tell you now, if I spent half the time I spent there studying, this piece I’m writing now would be published in the “Literary Review”.

Quite a few bay houses stood on the creeks. Crab traps, eel pots, bait bins and old boats littered the bay house yards. Folks there had chickens, goats, pigs and even a horse and they all wandered onto Brookville Blvd., which was one lane wide, potholed, often flooded and snaked through to swamps. It was a “No Man’s Land” but at least we had the crazy adventures in rough-hewn beauty before big areas of it were consumed by ugly developments and an ever-expanding JFK. What remains today is permanently protected. No one valued wetlands then, but we kids did.

Late one cold November evening, my brother Chris and I were warming stools and drinking “7 & 7’s”. A northeast wind blew hard over the swampy thatch. The draft coming through the windows added to the mood. Then a blast of cold air suddenly blew in from the opened door and a curious stranger entered. He wore an old fisherman’s cap pulled hard over greasy hair, a thick Irish sweater, old dirty jeans, and muddy shoes of worn, floppy leather. All of it was wrapped in a yellow torn, hooded, rain slick and mismatched mittens (two rights) and I had the luck of this apparition sitting down on the vacant stool to my right. I looked down and saw a crude knife and large pointed spike in a handmade leather scabbard on his belt.

“Looking at my guardian angels I see.’’

“Tools of me trade” said he, in a defined Celtic brogue.

The knife had a serious blade with a bone handle into which the words “Starboard” and “Port” had been carved and blackened like scrimshaw. The spike he explained was a “Marlin spike’’ used to work the lines on sailing vessels.

“Yes, these “angels” have guarded me for all my sea fairing days. Threatening chaps are more scared of the spike than my knife. They have both served me well.

Now buy a cold traveler a warming shot, mate? Hey, Jimmy! Pour this guy a drink on us!’

I could smell him as he extended his dirty hand and grabbed mine.

“Thank you young mates”, he said as Jimmy slid a shot down the wet bar top. Chris and I went back to our conversation when he shouts to Jimmy “Hit me another, mate”.

My brother and I looked at each other with the same expression. “This guy got one set of B—s!” But we let it go and moved to a tattered booth to escape, thinking that would be the end of him. Lucky us! It wasn’t. He just slid in next to Chris.

“Thanks for the drinks chaps. I got another beer on the way now”.

He held out his hand to shake ours saying, “Me name is Beamish, here by way of Liverpool. I’m Irish, ya know. Most of us sailor blokes and shipbuilders in Liverpool are Irish. Our fathers were the lads who built the ‘Titanic”!

“Wouldn’t brag about that one!” said my brother in his first retort of the night.

“We didn’t sink it lads” Beamish replied defensively. “A blimey English captain did!”

As Chris ordered another round of shots, Beamish became more animated. He let down his inhibitions (If he had any) to pinch our smokes as he entertained us with tales of his life. An enchanting bard t’was he.

Beamish claimed he was born in 1894 and grew up in the waning days of British coastal sloops which moved smaller cargos of coal, fish, lumber, sheep, etc., from coastal village to village. Economically, it worked well since Britain’s coastline included all of England, Whales, Scotland, and Ireland, even during “the Troubles” of the Irish Revolution. Today, only the Northern part is under Britain’s thumb. Sloops served a great purpose. The wind was free and they could access the more secluded coastal towns. As a young man of 16, he left home for Liverpool and crewed on many sloops that even took him to ports in France, Holland, Belgium and beyond.

Every time we ran into Beamish he would pinch some of our meager funds, but the tales of his life at sea fired our imaginations. He would weave tales of delivering arms to Egypt to supply Lawrence of Arabia and the Australians at Gallipoli during WW I. Our eyes would light up when he claimed he ran a sloop 12 times to Dunkirk in WW 2 to rescue British and French soldiers trapped by advancing Germans. He claimed he mounted a 50. caliber machine gun on the deck and shot down two dive-bombing German Stuka’s. Even though his drinks, ciggies and bar burgers were seriously denting our dating funds, we remained transfixed on tales of dropping off spies and French resistance leaders on dark, moonless nights along the coast of France. He even claimed he outmaneuvered a Nazi submarine’s torpedo while under sail.

Beamish was as salty as expected from a sea rover and we took it all in. Beamish drew a bar audience with his tales of his voyages, great storms at sea, crossing the Bermuda Triangle and of course, the women he met in every port. It was from his lips we first heard the sailor’s ditty “Here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women” which was repeated by Robert Shaw in “Jaws” years later. A lot of his alleged romantic experiences are not suitable for these pages but let’s just say, “He would transfix the entire bar”, earning drinks and grub which took some of the pressure off us.

Beamish would disappear for months at a time. Our wallets caught a break but we kinda missed him. Then the door would open and there he would be, looking about the same. He explained that after settling in New York, he began sailing large yachts from Maine to the Keys and Caribbean Islands and anywhere in between. After each foray, he had cash of his own and bought some rounds until his funds went dry. His “wallet” was a unique affair being a small silver liquor flask, which he adapted so the bottom came off. It kept his cash, union cards, green card and old photos of his “Mum” and dad secure inside. He would squeeze the bottom on then place it in its tight leather pouch and into his back pocket. He called it his “Safe’’!

Beamish was in and out of that bar for a couple of years then he just disappeared. We got older, more serious and went there less and less. When we did drop by on our last occasion, Jimmy said Beamish never returned. Chris and I would nostalgically talk about him over the years. We wondered why we never asked him where he lived. I guess we suspected that he had his own camp on one of the treed high ground “Hassocks” as we called them, out in the middle of the wetlands.

We grew older, had families and grandchildren. One morning we decided to visit the area after over fifty years. When we arrived, everything had changed. What was left of our extensive swamps was now a preserve. Most of our wild places were gone as well as the “Old Gary Owen”. Chris and I put on our boots and made for the biggest hassock remaining. Once we slogged there and got on dry land we sat amongst the trees and looked out over the remaining landscape counting how many bay houses were gone but we also noticed how many sea birds there were now. We felt comfort in that.

When we got up to leave, a glint of metal caught my eye. I bent down and start digging around until I pulled out an old silver flask covered with the remains of a leather cover. We sat down and carefully removed the cover and jimmied the bottom of the flask. Inside we found Beamish’s union and green card, $25 dollars, and the faded pictures he had shown us of his parents. Nothing else was around to find. Chris reburied it. It’s probably still there.

There are times when Beamish visits me and retells his stories in my dreams. His stories, true or not, told with that twinkle in his eyes, fired up my love of everything related to boats, the bays, the ocean and protecting what’s left of this rich environment. And Beamish? There are times Chris and I raise a glass to his memory and cheer, “Here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women”!

Story and Illustrations C.2020 By Mark C. Nuccio All rights reserved.

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