Oyster Heaven

I see faces everywhere. First I find the eyes and then a mouth. A nose and ears are fine but not essential to establish a face with character and emotion. I find them in rumpled fabric, on countertops, in rusted metal, as clouds in the sky. The floors of some subway cars in New York drive me crazy. So many strange little mugs there. Like gangs of tourists agog. When I was in exile on the Connecticut coast I found my best faces in oyster shells. Unlike clams, where as if you've seen one you've pretty much seen them all, oyster shells are unique. So textural, the shell exterior is like the age of the Earth, the interior so smooth your thumb must violate it again and again. It's not only the flesh of the oyster that's erotic. It's not only their pearls that are provocative. Of course I'm not the one who must shuck them for minimum wage or less. 

Following are faces I found in oyster shells of folks who were lost at sea but now rest in peace in a little cove I call Oyster Heaven.

The Gloucester Fishermen 

1623 to Present

To the left is the result of a stoop that started my obsession with oyster shells. At first I called him Slapsie, as in Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom, a long gone light-heavy weight boxer and comedic film actor once loved by all. But as the project developed and as I found more shells with likenesses of people lost at sea, it became obvious the topic should be introduced by a symbol representative of both the romance and terror inherent of being on the high seas. To that end there is nowhere else in America that has lost so many of its citizens to the sea as Gloucester, Massachusetts.

To the people of Gloucester perfect storms are nothing new. During the winter of 1852 fifteen vessels were lost with their entire crews, representing one hundred and thirty-eight fishermen, causing seventy widows and forty-seven orphans. In 1879 two hundred and twenty-nine fishermen and twenty-nine vessels were lost during a single storm.

"They That Go Down to the Sea In Ships" is the inscription on the pedestal on which the iconic New England fisherman stands behind the helm as he looks out on the harbor at Gloucester and the mighty North Atlantic beyond, his face framed by his oilskin hat, his bearing and his gaze not unlike the face I found in the shell I pulled from a gentle surf.

Lulu Mae Johnson

1877 - 1918

Lulu Mae had come from Alabama, arriving in Dawson City just before the turn of the century as a member of a dance troupe or on the arm of a trumpet player. No one knows for sure. Easy on the eyes it wasn't long before she found an admirer and a job at his dance hall, the Flora Dora on Front street. Murray S. Eads was a handsome hell of a fellow from Kentucky who'd quickly become the most successful businessman in town offering what the miners wanted most after gold. Soon Murray and Lulu were a team, she managing the ladies in the rooms upstairs, he the action at the tables on the main floor. With success came money and with money came respectability. But by 1918 the couple had outgrown Dawson and had decided to move on.

In those days the only civilized way to depart the Yukon was on the steamer Princess Sophia which plied the waters of the rugged Canadian coast from Skagway to Vancouver. After a twenty year run Murray and Lulu's lucky streak finally ended with the ships final voyage, the Princess sinking during a blizzard, all souls aboard lost to the icy Pacific, including a Mr. and Mrs. Eads, the likely inspiration for poet Robert Service's Dangerous Dan McGrew and His Lady Known as Lou.  

Captain Ahab

"Towards thee I roll, thou all destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! And since neither can be mine, let me tow to pieces while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus I give up my spear." 

Francis Millet

1848 - 1912

Frank was a well-known American artist. A bohemian in his youth he'd become a highly respected gentleman long before he boarded the Titanic with his partner, Archibald Butt. The two men were last seen on deck, Frank whistling Alexander's Ragtime Band, as he and Archie made sure no lifeboat cast off with a man on board and a woman still on the ship's deck. Honorable as that was, it was rumored he and Mr. Butt were members of a gang of first class passengers who, as the water rushed in, locked the gates to the lower class travelers trying to escape steerage. True or false he was not without icy cynicism, evident from the dispatch he'd sent the day before the iceberg was encountered.

"Queer lot of people on the ship. There are a number of obnoxious, ostentatious American women, the scourge of any place they infest and worse on shipboard than anywhere." He also observed a number of passengers that brought their pets with them. "Many of them carry tiny dogs, and lead husbands around like pet lambs."

To be more specific regarding Titanic pets, there were a dozen dogs on board, three that survive the sinking. There were no cats known to be on board but there were several birds, none of which survived. Memorialized on the following shell are two possible victims: a black cockatoo and a Pekingese pup.

Israel Hands

A villain in Robert Lewis Stevenson's Treasure Island, Hands in killed by Jim Hawkins in self-defense as Hands closes in on Jim, a dagger gritted between what teeth he has left. "One more step, Mr. Hands," said Jim, "And I'll blow your brains out! Dead men don't bite, you know," Jim added with a chuckle.

The Wreak of the General Slocum

June 15, 1904

Until September 11, 2001 the worst disaster in New York City history occurred on a sun-kissed day in June when the paddle-wheel steamship, General Slocum, caught fire shortly after leaving its berth at East Third Street. On board were nearly fourteen-hundred passengers, mostly women and children, nearly all members of Saint Marks Lutheran Church in what is now the East Village.

A quarter hour into the cruise, just as the boat was passing Blackwells Island, a fire started below deck, likely from a discard cigar or cigarette. Unreported until it was a raging inferno, the flames spread quickly, the vessel burning to the waterline in less than thirty minutes.

As a result of neglect, incompetence and cowardliness, everything that might have gone wrong, did. The crew had never received instructions for an emergency. The fire hoses were rotten. The life jackets fell apart, their cork having turned to dust. Even the lifeboats were rusted in place, unable to be launched.

By the time the General Slocum sank in shallow water just off the Bronx, one thousand and twenty-one people had perished. Just three hundred and twenty-one survived. Remarkably, only five of a crew of forty died. The captain was seen abandoning his ship for a passing tugboat, jumping to safety with other crew members, his jacket still neatly pressed.

Commander Lionel Crabb

1909 -1956

Not to be confused with the American athlete and actor, Buster Crabbe, Lionel Crabb was a British naval commander who was an accomplished frogman, at times an operative for the British intelligence agency MI6, and thought by many to have been the model for Ian Fleming's James Bond.

In April 1956 Commander Crabb and a man named Smith checked into the Sally Port Hotel in Plymouth, England where the Soviet warship was berthed that had carried Nikita Khruschev to Britain for talks with Anthony Eden. Several days later Crabb was seen leaving the hotel alone and was not seen again for more than a year when a body, missing the head and hands, was found floating in Chinchester Bay and eventually identified as the missing agent. What happened to Commander Crabb is as open to speculation as life after death or in outer space. Obviously, the presence of the Russian warship in a British port is what brought Buster to town. But what happened from there on remains, after more than half a century, anybody's guess, the mystery generating so many fascinating hypotheses it would take many novels and films to do them all justice.

Shigenori Nishikaichi and Saburo Oshii

1919 - 1941

Whereas both pilots flew Mitsubishi Zeros as part of the second wave attack on the morning of December 7, 1941, and where as both were casualties of that engagement, their deaths could not have been more dissimilar. 

In the skies somewhere over Kaua'i, immediately following the attack, the two randezvoused, both planes disabled to the extent neither had a chance of returning to his carrier. Ishii indicated he'd informed his command that he intended to return to Oahu and crash his fighter on a target undamaged during the initial attacks. Nishikaichi countered, suggesting they force-land on the tiny island of Ni'ihau, the most westerly of the chain. Ishii objected, arguing the island was surely inhabited and likely occupied by the American military, reminding the senior pilot their orders were not to be captured under any circumstances. Nishikaichi did not agree and as he turned his aircraft toward Ni'ihau he was amazed to see Ishii not bank for a heading for Oahu but suddenly turn his nose down, his destination the ocean below. 

Crash landing on Ni'ihau, Nishikaichi survived for six days. How and why he survived and how he met his fate is a story far to complex to be told here. I will say only that the hysteria leading to the internment of more than one hundred thousand Japanese-Americans is no more condonable now, but certainly more understandable. Oh, and that's Saburo not Shigenori's likeness in the shell above.

Life Boat

As soon as I picked up this shell I saw Red Grange. But when I googled him I learned the closest the Galloping Ghost ever got to being lost at sea was passing away peacefully in Lake Wales, Florida at the ripe old age of 87. But I remembered something he'd muttered into the microphone during a game he was announcing, something about the movie Lifeboat, how it was his favorite movie—or was it his least favorite movie? I remember the broadcast since I'd recently seen the film for the first time and as an eleven-year-old found it confusing, probably because it was not the typical studio fluff churned out during World War II.

In Lifeboat the bad guy is a German, as usual; a submarine captain played by Walter Slezak who winds up in the lifeboat of the ship he'd sunk, who as it turns out, is the only one capable of saving the others. Of course he does that only to serve his best interests, manipulating the others, hoarding the water supply, withholding information, then while the others are sleeping, killing Gus Smith, the simple but loveable seaman played by Bendix, who'd discovered his real identity. In time the others realize the truth as well and in a revengeful frenzy, murder the murderer, putting themselves in even greater risk. I suppose the fellow in the shell can be either the German or Gus. Either way it's a stretch, but one I'm comfortable making since the photo is one of my favorites of the series. 

Black Beard 

1680 - 1718

Privateer and pirate, master of Queen Anne's Revenge, Captain Edward Teach died in battle just off the Carolina coast on November 22, 1718. Rare among his breed, Teach would rather negotiate the peaceful surrender of your valuables than to be forced to run you through with his cutlass, keel-haul you to a bloody pulp, hang you from a yardarm, shoot you in a particularly sensitive spot, or otherwise cause you exaggerated pain for extended periods of time.

Theodore Cole

1913 - 1937

Slippery Ted Cole did not live long enough to know it but he became a Depression Era icon, not unlike his more famous brethren Pretty Boy Floyd, Clyde Barrow and Machine Gun Kelly. A native of Oklahoma there wasn't a prison nor a jailhouse in the state that could hold the sly and elusive kid from Seminole. Convicted of bank robbery and kidnapping he was sentenced to first Levenworth then Alcatraz, the new escape proof federal pen sitting in the middle of San Francisco Bay. There Ted cooled his heels for a couple years before coming up with a plan for escape he thought would work and hooking up with a partner he knew he could trust.

On December 16, 1937, he and Ralph Roe disappeared from their jobs in a shop situated at the quietest corner of the institution and were never seen again — except by a fellow con who witnessed their attempt then kept his mouth shut while the press made the two fugitives media stars. The truth was as the authorities claimed—they never had a chance, especially on the day and time they chose to make their break: an exceptionally high tide ebbing to create a current of nearly ten miles per hour; the extremely cold water temperature; the location on the north shore of the island where the undertow was at its worst. Sure enough, according to the jail bird when he finally started singing the duo was not in the water for more than a couple minutes when they suddenly vanished, the killer undertow ending their great escape. 

Jane Maria Eliza Cazneau

1807 - 1878

The Woman Who Would Be Queen, Cazneau was more than anything else an enthusiastic, unapologetic American imperialist who may have coined the phrase: Manifest Destiny. She was an outspoken and hugely influential columnist and journalist, an adventurer in the Texas frontier where she befriended Indian chiefs as she had presidents in Washington. She was a supporter of the annexation of many of the islands in the Caribbean and not only Mexico but all of Central America, encouraging William Walker's foray into Nicaragua.

Jane Maria Eliza Cazneau supported the continuation of slavery but opposed southern secession. She was an unofficial diplomat, a political gadfly, a lobbyist, an A-list party guest and the misstress of Aaron Burr. According to Senator Thomas Hart Benton, Jane had a masculine stomach for war and politics. She was lost at sea in a storm off Cape Hatteras during a return trip to Jamaica, her home in self-imposed exile. 

Kemal Reis

1451 - 1511

Kemal, along with his nephew Piri Reis, were the most famous of the so-called Barbary Pirates who operated in the Mediterranean Sea for four centuries. In fact, they were more than just pirates but naval commanders of the Ottoman Empire, their buccaneering actually free-lance privateering while in collusion with various potentates from Egypt to Morocco. While the European Nation were inclined to avoid any unpleasentness by paying tribute, the newly independent United States led by Thomas Jefferson decided to break tradition and put an end to it once and for all, Tom becoming the first Chief Executive to send in the Marines, in the case of the Barbary Pirates, to the shores of Tripoli.

Almost three hundred years before the Marines made the Mediterranean safe for free commerce, while escorting ships carrying supplies for a war with the Portugal, Kemal Reis and his entire fleet was lost in a storm somewhere among the Greek Isles. 

Boat People

In 1957 when Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier came to power in Haiti instituting his vicious dictatorship, so began the modern exodus from that beleaguered nation. Since then upwards of a million emigrants have left their homes to settle in North America, though many hundreds of them have died at sea in their quest for a better life.

But there was an earlier exodus now mostly lost to the foggy ruins of time. Beginning with the slave rebellion that led ultimately to the Haitain revolution, many free blacks and mulattos who were essentially Haiti's middle class fled retribution from the former slave victors. While many fled to Central America, for most New Orleans was their promised land. But although the city became richer as a result of their presence, there was unfortunately very little documentation of their perilous journey north.

Yet it's not so hard to imagine a woman by the name of Josephine Leveau, a mambo, or voodoo priestess, who as a free and educated person of color, prospered from her relationship with the French colonialists. Then forced to leave her homeland aboard a flimsy craft, one might also imagine her little boat disappearing into the vortex of a great hurricane sweeping across the Gulf of Mexico, leaving Madame Laveau so close yet so far and New Orleans a little less rich by her absence. 

Pliny the Elder

23AD - 79AD

One of the greatest of all Romans, Gaius Plinius Secundus, better known as Pliny the Elder, was an author and naturalist, a philosopher, as well as a naval commander of the Roman Empire, and a personal friend of Emperor Vespasian. As head of the navy Pliny was stationed in Misenum, across the Bay of Naples from Pompeii when Vesuvius blew its top. While readying a fleet of oar-driven galleys for rescue operations he received a request for help from a very dear friend. With the wind at his back Pliny chose not to respond to the request with one of the galleys but to set sail across the bay in a much faster cutter, in so doing likely sealing his fate.

No one could say for sure how he died. Unable to make the return trip against the strong winds that had brought the vessel there so quickly, the cutter floundered near shore before—under an unrelenting shower of rock and ash—she was finally abandoned by her crew.

Three days later Pliny's body was found on the beach buried in ash not far from where his cutter had sunk. Though it is possible he was left there to die by his crew, at risk because of Pliny's age and portliness, it is more likely his death came from a prolonged inhalation of toxic air, like many of the victims of that catastrophe.

John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy

1960 1966 - 1999

Stalked relentlessly by the media, preoccupied with his failing magazine, riding out a stormy stretch of his fairytale marriage to his lovely wife Carolyn, stressed further that day by the tardiness of her sister, John Junior was hardly in a frame of mind to make unanticipated life and death decisions that July evening in 1999.

It was dusk before they were finally airborne. But John Jr. had limited experience flying solo after dark and was incapable of flying using only instruments. Even though he hadn't filed a flight plan nor did he have the radio set to the proper frequency, and even though the visibility was impaired by haze masking the moonlight and obscuring the horizon, they would have very likely enjoyed a routine flight if they had simply followed the lights along the coast to Buzzard Bay where Kennedy would have seen the lights of Martha's vineyard ten miles off to his right.

So to save fifteen minutes, John Jr. chose to veer from the coast, venturing out over the invisible ocean with no horizon line nor light from the moon or land to guide him, no instruments he could read, and of what he knew of flight, little chance to make landfall on a little island in a huge ocean. It was if he'd pulled a black bag over his head just for the hell of it.

When their bodies were found on the ocean floor, all were thought to have died instantly, as if hitting a wall at top speed, evidence Kennedy had no idea at the moment of impact if they were headed toward the Vineyard, to the stars above, or to the ocean below. 

Using Format