Fishing in Public

by “Tackle Box” Billy Kelley
by “Tackle Box” Billy Kelley

Remember the Portland

Hey folks. Enjoying your Maine winter, I expect. Not as bad as some I care to remember, but still bad enough, of course.

My usual pet peeve: no one will take care of their sidewalks. It’s an automobile life we live, sad to say for us pedestrians. Really pisses me off. I see poor elderly folks trying to make it down the sidewalks. You know, I’ve had an idea about this. Hire a couple of constables who just go around and write tickets to all these inconsiderate bastards. If they do their job correctly we’ll make a mint, which’d be very fortunate ’bout now.

These goddamn landlords make me puke. They go out at night to their house in the suburbs not giving a second thought to us poor folks forced to walk in scary traffic to save breaking our bones. Ought to be ashamed of themselves.

When winter’s over, what do the constables do? I’ll tell you: Give every single one of those sidewalk bike-riders a nice fat ticket too. Believe me, they’d really fork in the dough. Not a day goes by when I do my regular shopping trip uptown and I’m not dodging a bicycle coming down the walk at me as fast as they can go — and it’s definitely no emergency. I got it figured out. They are fucking cowards. They’re scared to ride on the pavement where they’re supposed to be.

So this column really has nothing to do with the condition of sidewalks. I just sort of get carried away sometimes when I see stuff that truly pisses me off. Please excuse me — I’ve been at it with my Doc trying to get my prescription redone, and I been coming off a bad case of extreme bronchitis.

Actually what I want to discuss is one of the worst disasters on the ocean you’ve never heard of — partly because it’s somewhat ancient history, partly because, countin’ all the disasters at sea that have happened, as they say on Broadway, it’s doesn’t exactly get top billing. It happened in late November back in 1898, and was a lot smaller than, say, the Lusitania and other boats sunk around WWI.

It was the steamship Portland, a true catastrophe. Perhaps as many as 192 people died. Why “perhaps”? There was only one roster of passengers, and that was aboard the ship! Brilliant. So for all we know there could have been more — stowaways, one-trip deckhands.

One of the oddest things about the sinking of the Portland was they couldn’t find it for about a hundred years. How they knew it sank was the ice-cream cartons washed up on shore. Another reason it took so long to find was the ship’s clock washed up on shore and it read eight o’clock, so they naturally assumed it went down at eight at night, which they used for bearing where she’d be at that time. Then finally some scientist from the Science Channel figured out it meant 8 a.m., and presto, they found it!

Then they tried to fathom how and why she sank. She was making her regular run from Boston to Portland. There were a couple problems. Number one, the captain decided to ignore the weather report of a big storm. But it wasn’t all the captain’s fault. The Portland was what was known as a side-wheel paddle steamer — a paddle on both sides. What happened was the current during the storm actually lifted one paddle right out of the water, which capsized the whole boat.

Now imagine, if you will: below-zero wind chill, no life boats, no life preservers, and you’re going into a cold — icy cold — ocean. Can you imagine anything worse? The only ones happy about this were the animal scavengers that probably had a banquet on the poor floaters. In total, they believe this storm killed over 400 people. It also sank over 150 other boats and ships. Seeing that the SS Portland was the worst disaster of the storm, they named it the Portland Gale.

Since then, rules have changed. No more side-wheel paddle boats on the ocean. Captains strictly obey weather reports. And two sets of manifests — one to stay on shore so they at least know how many people went down with the ship.

Now, you scuba explorers, don’t go hunting for the Portland. It’s been declared off-limits (like most wrecks are). When the divers found it they held a funeral service for the passengers and crew.

I know I always try to include humor in my columns, but you can understand there was nothing to laugh about in this tragedy. The sea can be so goddamn powerful. Now I got to go touch up my sidewalk. Remember when they had random boxes of sand for folks’ convenience? I wish they still did. Maybe next column we’ll see about some humor, OK?