The Constitution

'A deckload of passengers'

By wonderful chance, I was invited aboard the USS Constitution for its annual tug-powered turnaround. This is ostensibly an utterly mundane exercise, meant to assure the even weathering of the wooden hull, but it has become an occasion for a party, involving a fireboat escort, 17-gun salutes, and an impressive number of admirals and other VIP’s, along with enlisted personnel, civilian workers, and assorted fans of square-riggers, history, and all things nautical.
This year marks the 220th anniversary of the vessel’s launch. That, plus the fact that the vessel has been undergoing restoration in drydock for the past two years, made for an extra-lively party. Here are some impressions of the day:
Amidships, I learn, from a fighter pilot, that ticks do not climb trees; they only get as far up as bushes. And tick-borne illnesses – of which there are hundreds besides Lyme Disease – are frequently misdiagnosed as multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue.
By the foremast, a passenger holds forth on the technical requirements for producing gluten-free beer, including how many parts per million can be present without passing the threshold for celiac disease.
There’s an actual purser aboard, with actual purser’s “slops,” only instead of the garments that his predecessors provided for the crew, this purser has boxes of coins, T-shirts, flags, and other memorabilia for sale to visitors. I obtained a flag, which one of the crew helped me to hoist, strike, and fold, as a keepsake. Yes, I now possess a U.S. flag that was flown, for about 5 seconds, from the mizzen of the U.S. Constitution, under way.
A former captain describes how his daughter was christened in the ship’s bell. They took the bell down, inverted it, filled it with water, and held the ceremony back by the wheel. Apparently this is a common practice.
Officers discuss the effects on the human body of the sounds of 40mm cartridges of the Constitution’s signal cannons, vs the 45mm cartridges of the guns at Fort Point and the Boston Coast Guard base. There really is a difference: the report from the smaller shell is definitely loud – ear plugs were handed out to all aboard – and you can feel it as well as hear it; but the 45’s, even at some distance, have a notable concussive effect that is almost like a physical blow.
Jose Hernandez-Juviel, who describes himself as the Constitution’s first Cuban rigger, raised 7 mice in the topmast and t’gallant rigging during the refit. No, he was not a foster parent for rodents; mice are fattened portions on some stays, that act as stops for sliding eyes, for reasons of obscure antique rigging architectural design.
One of the volunteers speaks of making leather cartridge bags by hand, while seated in front of his TV. Volunteers are very much a part of the ship, providing support at the museum as well as aboard. Some of them participate in an historical reenactment group, as uniformed and suitably armed members of an 1812 honor guard.
Bruce, one of the shipwrights, speaks of the challenge of making a 25-foot-long cutwater during the recent rebuild. For those of you unfamiliar with this term, it is the outer curve of the stem of a ship. On the Constitution it is not only massive, but fantastically complicated to make, and tricky to install (this involved throughbolts 12ft long).
Bruce’s buddy Tom talks about the strenuous delight of replacing over 3,400 pieces of copper sheathing below the waterline.
John, another shipwright, points out a heart he recently made for one end of the main lower stay, from a block of lignum vitae about 18” x 12” x 12”. It is nowadays very difficult to find blocks of this wood of any dimension, but the Navy has stockpiles of it, probably because they also use it for shaft bearings in nuclear submarines.
And Billy Rudek, who invited me for the event, talked about how planks in need of bending should be steamed for one hour per inch of thickness, so for the 7” thick(!) planks, they started steaming the moment they got to work, and then ran with the 40-foot-long pieces to the bending jig, to get them formed before it was time to go home.
One of the enlisted crew (aka docent’s mates), while leading a tour, said that the vessel’s masts were raked aft in order better to bear the force of the wind from astern. I have heard similarly bizarre and unfounded proclamations from other crewmembers, and am not really sure if they are just messing with people, or their instructors are not well-informed on some topics, but I do know that many of the crew are genuinely enthusiastic about the ship, and their enthusiasm is infectious.
There were many more conversations that I heard snatches of while drifting around the deck, involving climate, anthem-kneeling, traffic jams, college tuition, restaurants, a funeral, home prices, computer programs, health care, horses, promotions, etc., and of course I heard only a tiny fraction of the conversations going on amongst this deck-load of passengers. This was a microcosm of our society, a sampling of a free people who, for various reasons, ended up celebrating together the birthday of a beautiful/archaic artifact. As I am opposed in principle to needless violence, you might suppose that I would be conflicted about such attention being paid to a warship. But consider: this vessel, even if it had working cannons, would be utterly useless in a modern naval battle. It is not, I think, primarily a symbol of military might, but of integrity, liberty, and community. It is as though the furious destructive force that it was made for has largely distilled away, leaving behind the grace and artisanship and elegant engineering that previously were at best secondary considerations. It has come to represent, not our power, but our aspirations.
There are several definitions for the word “constitution.” Here is my favorite: The structure, composition, physical makeup, or nature of something, i.e., the constitution of society.