Off to See the Island
OK, I’ve been promising to tell you something about me and how I got to GSI. Here’s the scoop:
I graduated from Eastern Maine University — Go Emus! — determined to get the hell out of Maine. I had studied journalism, learning all about nut grafs and ledes and other mundane basics, but I hadn’t yet done any real reporting beyond the artificial exercises set up by my professors. I was ready to take my canvas knapsack, stuff it full of notebooks and pens, a field recorder and extra batteries, a laptop, some bug spray, a jar of peanuts, and a water bottle, and head off to some far-off, exotic place, where I would mingle with natives, connive my way into extraordinary access to presidents, prime ministers, and tribal chiefs, and ask blunt questions. I would send back fascinating dispatches about simmering civil wars, hideous leprosy outbreaks, and baffling serial killers who creep around the shadows at night. True vision is sharpened by solitude and struggle. I’d wrestle with the fever of malaria, the chills of sleeping sickness, and the occasional blackened skin of frostbite. My editors would deposit money into my account back home, but I wouldn’t care — instead, I’d send them frantic emails and telegrams begging them to send me small-caliber handguns, hypodermic needles, and a priest’s frock, but to label the box “Humanitarian Aid.” Stories would circulate about me back home; they’d involve assaults by large carnivorous animals, romantic trysts with stunning native women, and frequent declarations of my death.
That was the plan, anyway. I sent resumes and cocky cover letters to Rolling Stone, National Geographic, the Associated Press, Playboy, and a host of other places — not to mention The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Miami Herald — and heard back from precisely none of them. Now, Eastern Maine University’s journalism program is not exactly the best in the world, falling somewhere between the excellence of Indiana University’s School of Journalism and the skill-splitting boredom of my fifth-grade grammar drills, so maybe it shouldn’t have surprised me that the New Yorker wasn’t organizing some office space for me. But still, I thought someone might have tossed me an internship or something. Turns out, the only thing I could get was this gig with the Eastport Sun.
So the plan has changed, but only slightly. Now I’m going to cover the exotic, the tawdry, and the sensational on Grand Seal Island, and then I’ll use those clips to get a great job this fall. Just watch — I’ll be hiking the Andes by next summer, writing a ten-part series for Outside magazine.
Meanwhile, I packed my canvas knapsack and caught the ferry from Eastport to GSI. The ferry was a floating slab of rust called the Darlene May. I figure the name refers to your odds of reaching your destination: If the wind is gentle, and the current is just right, and the hull isn’t bumped by seals or cod, and no one walks on the deck in heavy boots — Darlene may just get you to Grand Seal Island.
The Darlene — we’re on a first-name basis, you know — remains in one piece only because of the magnetic attraction of iron oxide. Without magnetism, congealed grease, and undoubtedly some sort of spiritual cohesion, this floating tetanus slick would certainly dissolve and send passengers and crew down to sleep with the squid.
It’s worse on board. There is a big deck for cars, although mostly it’s filled with smog and the kind of small truck that wants to be an eighteen-wheeler when it grows up. Above that is the deck for people, who are treated better than the trucks only because they aren’t strapped down.
You have two choices for where to spend the two-hour trip to GSI. You can stand outside, where the wind will blow cold fog right through to your intestines and where the seagulls are so bored with pooping on the handrails that they will turn their undivided attention toward a game of hit-the-tourist’s-eyebrows.
Or you can sit in the bar. I call it “the bar” only because the two people who work there call it that, too. Their names are Wallace and Carol — Wallace mixes the drinks, and Carol shuffles between the bar and the eight tables set up around the room. Wallace and Carol make the Galapagos tortoises looks young and sprightly.
For food, the bar serves popcorn and deep-fried cod tongues. The drink menu at the bar is equally modest: coffee or rum. (Or if you’re feeling really wild, coffee and rum — although Carol will look at you disapprovingly if you attempt anything that zany.) The rum is a special kind that is made in the Caribbean and sold only in Newfoundland (go figure). It’s called Screech, and it combines a strong flavor with a strong kick. There’s an old Newfie tradition that has oozed its way into the bar on the Darlene May. You’re supposed to drink Screech in such volume and with such speed that you find yourself willing to kiss a live codfish on the lips. There’s a sign about it behind the bar. Anyone who kisses the cod gets a free drink. Always game for adventure, I downed three glasses of the stuff — Wallace doesn’t bother with measuring devices, and the levels in the glasses varied widely — and then demanded that they bring on the cod.
What a letdown. On the Darlene May, Wallace and Carol don’t have the facilities necessary for the care and feeding of a live cod, so they dredged a salted, dried cod fillet out of the ice bin — that’s the same ice Wallace was putting into the glasses of rum — and Carol held it out for me to kiss. Withered, tough, salty, and cold, but hey—I’ve had worse kisses in my life.
Well, after two hours of chugging Screech and kissing cod, I felt the ferry slow down. We had reached Grand Seal Island.
The ferry docked in the harbor, on the north side, which is where the town of Grand Seal Island is. We arrived at about six in the evening, and I was a bit woozy from the rum and the waves and the cod tongues and the cod kisses. Waiting for me on the dock, standing in a yellow slicker that half-glowed in the fog, was Cory Coffin, the grand matriarch of Grand Seal Island.
I was officially on assignment as a correspondent in a war zone.
—Donovan Graham, “The Shadowless Writer”
Comment—PolSci206: Hi. We’re Nancy Thorpe’s Political Science class—PolSci 206, “Introduction to International Relations”—at Lake Superior College in Thunder Bay, Ontario. We were wondering whether anyone knew whether U.S. ships ever tried to intercept vessels carrying liquor to Canada during Prohibition? Thanks for your help.
Comment—Orson Van Dyke: Actually, the Screech brand of rum has been shipped from the Caribbean to Newfoundland for several centuries, primarily through illegal channels. In Canada, as in the United States, it fell to the revenue agents to interdict and try to collect the taxes owed by confiscating the ships, dumping the cargo, and selling everything to the highest bidder.
Comment—BillFromMaine: Did Canada even have a Prohibition?
Comment—George Reynolds: Helllooo? The guy talks about drinking so much rum he’s willing to kiss a salted codfish on the lips, and all you can talk about is the shipment of alcohol through international waters? I mean, really—he KISSED a codfish. That’s the part I want to know more about. Just how far did this date go?
Comment—MapleLeaf249—We sure as shooting went through Prohibition, just like the U.S. Why do you bloody Americans think everything happens only to you?
Read previous blog entries in the Island Wars story by clicking here.