Once, a gent who had a funny accent, funny glasses, and a lot of degrees asked me to name all of the nations of North America.
I recognized the trap and said, “How do you want me to name the four? North to south, east to west? Or alphabetically? Alphabetically, it is Canada, France, Mexico and the United States.” I, too, knew about the two tiny islands in the St Lawrence Seaway named St Pierre and Miquelon, two tiny French islands.
The next thing I did was lie to this man. I said, “I looked at a map once,” distracting our conversation away from the families I knew as a youth.
Technically not my family. My family blended with other families. We shared each other’s houses and lent each other strength. These people were uncles, cousins, aunts, and grandparents to me. In this non-sanguine manner I was part of the X family. Today, amongst my mother’s closest friends is a woman with the last name of X. These connections go back a generation or two.
With that, the family histories twine.
On North Haven, we’d sit telling stories of the day: the Vietnam War, the prices of everything going up, the state of modern education. Stories of grandparents, uncles, and generations eddy in the current of conversations. Nobody ever sits a child down to tell the full story of how all the little episodes of our lives connect. A child hears partial information. At forty-two, I am unable construct the truth. I don’t know it. Just once in a great while, I offer an offbeat answer such as, “The easiest way sink and then retrieve cargo is to weight a buoyant cargo with a water-soluble solid such as salts. The cargo will sink for a few hours and reappear.”
I asked my father once, “What is a rumrunner?” His answer, and given we were playing in Penobscot Bay on a very fast boat, was, “There are boats that were used to transport liquor to the United States during a period of time when the government decided to outlaw liquor. People used boats like these to run north. Then, when they ran south back to the United State, they’d be faster and more agile then any of the revenue boats that patrolled around here.”
“Daddy, where did they get the liquor from?”
The best of them ran up to two tiny islands near Labrador, about eight-hundred miles from here. These islands are part of France. France made sure that the people of these islands kept the French culture. They shipped in French bread, French wine, French brandy, snails, and truffle mushrooms. Steam ships came from France loaded with French products. Every day there were boats filled with wines, brandy, and whisky direct from France.
Then the people here ran out east around Cape Sable Light and headed to St. Pierre and Miquelon. In a day or so after leaving Penobscot Bay, they’d arrive in France, where there were no laws restricting the sale of liquor. Three days after leaving home, they’d be back in US waters along the eastern seaboard with a boat full of contraband.
“Wasn’t this illegal?” I asked my father.
“It was a stupid law. And it made a lot of people very rich.”
Here on this island off the coast of Maine sits their secret. In the boathouse remains one hint of how a fortune that lasted three generations was built.
A fishing boat can sail from Maine east, make a small turn north, and slip into France. Some returned from a voyage taking cod from the sea and made profit on liquor. With the niches of this coast, the profiteer can always beat the authorities.
The best definition my father could have given for a rumrunner wasn’t a fast boat, but a smuggler of liquor during the Prohibition. As I read back on this family X, I see that they were originally from Salem and Ipswich, Massachusetts. Back in their roots are the great sea captains of the Old China Trade, which had something to do with opium, ginseng, and Spanish gold bullion. Smuggling and trade are cleaved by a line that moves with the times. It is the humble boat that binds the two.
During the Marblehead-Halifax yacht race, we loaded the bilge of our boat with Budweiser Beer. This was in the 1980s, and the great beers of today just were not available to us. Once in Halifax, we opened our boat and swapped Bud for Keefe and Schooner at the rate of two to one. We returned to the US with very good Canadian beer, beer we could not get in the US. Today, this is legal (I think).
date: july 2007 (ish)