Friday, August 11, 2006

Whaling Days


As a little child growing up in the old whaling port of New Bedford, Massachusettes it was a Saturday morning ritual to take the bus downtown with my mother, do some shopping at at both specialty shops and Star Store, the local department store, visit the five and ten, have lunch either at a downtown restaurant or the lunch counter at Browne's Drug Store, and then go to the library before visiting the beauty parlor to get her hair done. There was no television to distract a bored child in the beauty parlor so books were my salvation.

The New Bedford Public Library was an imposing granite structure a block north of the main shopping street downtown. Like many public buildings there it was largely constructed with donated money from people who'd grown extremely wealthy in the whaling industry. Today's stark and sterile public buildings don't have the quality of construction and materials, and they lack the multitude of sculptures and oil paintings that gave these places such a feeling of warmth and hominess. On the lower floor was the childrens' room, a place of wonder filled with books both old and new. As I got a bit older I was especially interested in a series of volumes consisting of bound copies of the magazine The Boy Mechanic from the 1930's, full of interesting ideas and step by step instructions on building everything imaginable.

In front of the library was this bronze statue of a harpooner in the bow of a whaleboat, posed to thrust his harpoon. The back and base of granite was inscribed "A Dead Whale Or A Stove Boat". I was confused by the term "stove", always picturing the one in the kitchen in my mind's eye. It was only when I was maybe nine or ten when I realized it also meant "crushed", and referred to what would happen to the boat if the whale managed to slap the boat with his great tail.

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