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The Pirate Story

First hear this: we are pirates, and as always, from the days when wind first filled a handmade sail made from jute coffee sacks unto these latter days when it is all pleasure yachts and jet skis, we are proud of it. So, it is not the word to which we object. We are pirates. But there is so much in the general picture to which we do take offense.

There is too much loose talk about what we actually do as pirates. We conduct our business, most of it, on the open sea (we donít call it the bounding main), and that is part of why we are misunderstood. Have any of the historians been along for the ride when we interact with other vessels? The answer is no. But these folks, who have never even been on a ship of any size in the harbor, let alone on the high glassy waters of a real sea, feel free to write these godawful accounts of pirates this and pirates that. Swashbucklers! Buccaneers! Then they slap a picture of that insane looking criminal caricature on the front cover, waving a sword which looks more to me like a snow shovel than anything Iíve held in my hands, and publish the thing so that the American public can be exposed to the most wrongheaded view of pirates imaginable.

Let me try today to rectify this crazy picture. Piracy, first of all, is business. People put it down as violence or some kind of evil entertainment, which it is not. We are business people and our methods and our problems are those shared by most hardworking men and women in this country. So this is what we do. We venture out onto the uncertain waters of the worldís oceans and do business. We meet new people. A lot of this involves cold calls. We come across a vessel and they donít know us. Personally. They recognize the franchise flag, which we do run up the flagpole. We merge and we acquire. Like all entrepreneurs, weíre out to make a killing, but we rarely have to. We board our target vessel, explain our business to the client, because information is key in all commerce today.

In such negotiations we suggest our clients transfer their cargo to our hold. It is a good deal for everyone, a definition of the win-win scenario. We are able to procure their two tons of necessaries and luxuries, and they are able to stay alive, stay afloat, essentially live to quibble another day.

So, given that, can you imagine us conducting such an interaction wearing that ridiculous hat or a hook, stabbing around on a peg, and all this with one eye covered?

To be portrayed this way, frankly and simply, offends and hurts us. Do you see? We donít wear that hat. Nobody wears that hat. A lot of times the material weíre acquiring from our clients has been carefully stowed below decks, and most of these upscale summer holiday yachts have small passageways which are tightly fitted, and that hat would get absolutely in the way.

We donít say shiver me timbers and we donít say shiver your timbers. We donít say shiver anybodyís freaking timbers. We lay out our plan and when it is completed and stowed securely in our hold, we say thank you very much. Who doesnít do that? No one is raised on the yardarm and no one walks the plank. We donít have a plank. Why would we carry around a plank? We have the center leaf from long oak mess table we sometimes bring topside if our negotiations get difficult or thorny, and yes, weíve had some clients walk this. But they donít walk very far, and it is not an extended or particularly unpleasant ceremony. But when we finish and the last item is transferred onto our ship, we say thank you. Do you ever hear about pirates saying thank you? I donít. I donít see thank you very much in any of these Harvard educated historians big book of lies about the pirates. Iíll just say this: when you write your book, put thank you in there.

And the peg leg. Letís consider that. Look at me closely; let me turn around. Does anybody see a peg leg? No? What about a big wooden leg about this long protruding from my rolled up trousers, something with which I could pin a flounder to the floor? So, if I may be so bold: whatís that about? Let me tell you. There was one guy. Thatís right, some of us knew him. It was one guy and his name wasnít Peg Leg Pete or Peg Leg Fred or Peg Leg Matthew Mark Luke or John. His name wasnít Peg Leg Anything. His name was Anthony Ingram, and he did have trouble with his leg, more that trouble really, got it infected from a tennis blister, several years ago, twenty, after the Captainís Open on Madagascar, and he had too much of the Chardonnay at the reception and he fell asleep without getting it treated. And he lost the leg, most of it, and he did wear a temporary device for a few years around the Indian Ocean and the Venezuelan Basin. Thatís all it takes: bingo! Weíre all stumping around the decks like Thumper and Bumper. It is not fair and it is not accurate. You should see Anthony Ingram today. He walks without a limp, and he still plays in the annual Caribbean Senior Doubles every year on St. Barts.

In all my years doing business in the way of a pirate, I have only met one soul who wore that hat, had the eye patch and ever said, Aye, Matey. Iíve sailed the Seven Seas (of which there are really twelve if you count them by their true character), and Iíve boarded vessels at every longitude with the two dozen crews who have worked with me, (more than a hundred men and women), and Iíve only seen that stupid hat once. It was a hat youíd remember. Regan Peterson, one of the best female pirates to have ever worked with us, wore it.

Telling her story might help.

Regan was really something. I mean, she wanted to be all of it. At the end, she had the hat, a big black tricorner with a lavender ostrich plume, a silk eye patch which she wore as an accessory, she said, because her eyes were perfectly fine, twelve tattoos, and for the last year she had Ensign Happiness, a blue Brazilian Parrot who could actually say, Aye, Matey, and Avast! Ensign Happiness wore an eye patch too. He was a good bird to have in a tough negotiation.

Regan Peterson and I joined at the same time. I had been in Baltimore seeing my uncle about a job in his auto body shop; this was a long time ago. It was more of a junkyard, really, where people came to get parts of the two hundred wrecks my uncle had piled up. I was there an hour and we both knew it wasnít for me. My uncle took me out to the pub and told me to go back to school. It was a tough time for me; who knows what they want to do with their life? I knew I wasnít going back to school, and I knew I wasnít going to climb around in death cars with a wrench removing carburetors. So, I was confused and stayed on after my uncle went home, having a few more beers than I should have.

Anyway, about midnight thereís a ruckus and in comes a dozen blond girls, not all blond, but young and shiny like that, especially in this dive, where there isnít a barstool without a crust of grease around the edge and the bar is unfinished plywood. Itís a Greek thing, sorority rush, and the pledges each have to get matchbooks from every pub along the waterfront. Well, the only matchbook theyíre going to get from the Anchor Chain is that generic white one in a box by the register, the only thing printed on that is going to be the thumbprint of the criminal who hands it to them. They donít care, these girls. Theyíre oohing and laughing, and I mean, it is kind of fun to watch. Theyíre idiots, but better to look at than the four guys passed out around the room. In five minutes theyíre gone, and in the new sharper silence created when they leave, I can hear a noise I guess has been there all along: the ocean. I can hear the water lapping at the harbor wall, which is right outside. It was a moment I remember, because in ten minutes my life went that way forever.

What happened was this. First, a girl comes back into the bar and looks around. Sheís been in the head, and her friends have left without her. She shrugs at me and calls to the bartender, SetĎem up! Drinks all around! Then she sits down with me with a grin I would see a thousand times in the years to come, and she says, Iíve always wanted to say that But before the bartender can even lift his head from the bar, six guys enter the front door and swoop us up, relatively gently, and out around a corner weíre in a dinghy. It was confusing. A moment later we were on the solid deck of the Jolly Merger, and that fine ship was already moving out to sea. It was the first time I ever heard the snapping of the big sheets as they gathered the small breezes.

That was a long time ago. The two of us were bound and gagged until morning. By then the Jolly Merger had cleared harbor and the coastline of America was a faint illusion, and then it was gone. When they brought the two of us up on deck, I was still a little apprehensive. But the girl got right into it, laughing with the men, pushing and hauling with them, and finally sitting on the rail and cutting her khakis off at the knee and slipping the rope theyíd used to bind her through the belt loop and cinching a knot in it. Before the day was over, she was right at home. Even down in the galley where I started my life as a pirate, cleaning dishes and pouring coffee and rum, I could hear her voice every five minutes as she called out the new vocabulary she was learning: mizzenmast! Starboard! Crowís nest! After saying each one, sheíd add, Aye, matey! and laugh. I heard her say, Iíve always wanted to say that. I kept my head down and did what I was told, afraid that when they found out she was ridiculing them, theyíd think I was too.

But by that first night, she had a blue tattoo on her shoulder, the grinning jolly roger, and a purple scarf wrapped around her head, tightly with all her hair in it. She sat in her bunk and admired her new boots, a big pair of black brogans with a folded stovepipe. They were crazy, yet she looked at them as if they carried all her magic. When sheíd pulled them off and swung her legs into the small bunk, she lay down and looked across at me. I hadnít moved and my eyes were open the width of a playing card. Iíd been in bed half an hour not moving, just feeling the Jolly Merger work the ocean. I could feel sleep in each trough our ship assumed. Regan Peterson was looking at me from her tiny pillow in her tiny bunk. My eyes were closed. She was grinning. Isnít this wonderful, she said.

Well, Iím not going to tell the whole story, our history, just that we stayed on and prospered. I worked my way up through the ranks, and I liked all the work, and I liked my colleagues. Our captain was a man named Jason Nelson, a man who wore tortoise shell glasses and sweater vests. He was a calm, pipe-smoking gentleman who assumed a philosophical posture toward piracy, and looked more like a professor than any pirate the popular press has created. Captain Nelson liked my earnestness and I advanced. There was no question that once I had boarded another vessel and dealt with our clients and their cargo, that negotiation was my forte. I have a direct, though not unpleasant manner, which is highly effective with nervous and uncertain folks. Iím relatively well groomed, and I donít carry a visible weapon. I learned these things from the Captain. Our clients were glad to see me, and they come right up and start asking questions: Whatís going on here? Who are you? What are you doing? Things like that, basic things for which I have the answer.

Regan and I advanced together and we became friends. That phrase, became friends, is thrown about these days like confetti at a wedding (of which there are way too many), and its meaning is as thin as river fog, but friends on a ship are something necessary and steady. She went at piracy with the kind of energy and verve you donít see twice. She learned the ship and its every part faster than I did, serving double watches, and getting to know the crew and their assignments. She was a bright thing on the Jolly Merger. Regan wanted to work with me in inter-ship negotiation, but she was a touch wrong for it, too chatty, and she stimulated the delicate meetings with our clients too much. Our clients flirted with her, breaking the mood I was trying to create. She eventually joined one of our three person batteries and ran the biggest cannon; she also coordinated our holds and was responsible for fresh cargo rotation.

One September as we rode at anchor in Nickelhook bay, which is where we always went to regroup and do our accounting, I saved her life. Weíd made a last acquisition with Captain Nelson before he retired to Bermuda, where he still takes tea every afternoon on the porch of the Ivory Orchid, and weíd sailed hard and were resting. Regan Peterson always ran a diving contest, which all the pirates enjoyed, and after a beautiful two and a half from the stern rail, she did not come up. Well, I knew what she was doing, and I dropped off the other side and found her snagged in the tiller, which she tried to swim under to come up on the other side of the ship. Her stupid belt rope was cinched into the tiller hinge tighter than a wet knot, which it was, and I looked into Reganís worried face in the blue water and cut the rope with my knife. We blew bubbles to the surface. On deck she put her head against my shoulder for half a second, grinned thinly, and said, Thank you, Captain.

You understand she was an unusual person, and bore an unusual personal beauty, which we all acknowledged. But listen closely: do not imagine the two of us sitting on deck in the moonlight chatting as the big wheel of stars turned overhead. The entire ship asleep below decks on a bright night as we whispered and dreamed and parted the purple seas. It didnít happen. As tender as it might have been and as lonely as I was, it had no place in the workplace, and a pirateís lot, as even the bad bookwriters know, is a pirateís lot, and I accepted mine.

As for Regan, she bought herself that bird, a giant blue parrot on our one stop in Brazil, and she taught it several phrases. She named it Ensign Happiness, another of her little jokes, and late at night sometimes when I steered the Jolly Merger through our oceans, I could hear them talking.

What happened to us finally, happened to us aboard the Yuppie Days off the coast of Venezuela. We could see it was a prime pleasure yacht, and the bright brass trim blinked brightly from half a mile. She was riding low, which we loved to see, meaning she was newly stocked and ripe and ready for successful interaction with the Friendly Merger. We came along side and greeted the half dozen occupants of the craft. Our flag was up, the Jolly Roger, big as life, but for some reason they still werenít aware of the nature of our visit. I stepped over and shook hands all around; American women love to shake hands. They were three couples and made a handsome crew; the menís wristwatches alone were worth a fortune, but we never, ever as pirates took personal effects from our clients. Business is business, and we kept it that way. We were all standing there in the tender mid-morning sunlight on this yacht, which was perhaps the prettiest jewel of a boat Iíd ever boarded, and I could see the questions on their faces. I mean, they didnít understand what we were up to. One of the handsome women, her auburn hair shining like money, looked at us expectantly the way you anticipate having won the sweepstakes. At this juncture, I always begin a quiet explanation of what would transpire over the next three hours, that weíd be taking all their stores, except those they needed to get back to port; in effect: their plans have changed.

Before I could even begin this discussion, there was a noise behind me and in a red and black blur, Regan, sweet Regan, flew by my head, swinging on one of the mast ropes, and she dropped to the deck in the middle of our little uncomfortable circle. She was in full regalia, the floppy boots, the pantaloons, the billowing ruby shirt, the black satin eye patch, and behind her in the air, her idiotic tricorner hat which had been blown off her head, and Ensign Happiness, the blue parrot, sweeping behind her in the air like some minor demon from the jungle. I saw it all as the anathema of standard business practice, and I saw it correctly as a threat to the natural order of things and their procession today. And now, Regan had done her stunt, the kind of theatrics I should have anticipated, and she was moaning lightly, holding her hip where she had evidently cut herself falling on her redundant oversized saber.

My god, one of the handsome women said. Theyíre pirates!

Regan was crying now. She looked at me and I knelt and gave her my kerchief and I held her in my arms for the first time, and I realized how long I had wanted to do it. At this point I saw one of the men backing up from our circle and moving into the unmistakable posture of someone on the telephone, and I lay Regan down and I went to him. One of the women was screaming now, which undermines the quality of the meeting in a hurry. Many of my crew had boarded and were mingling uncomfortably with our clients. One of the gentleman was invoking legal terms, which is many times the case. There is nothing so pathetic, really, in the civilized world than a man or a woman invoking their lawyer or any of his wondrous abilities. Meanwhile the man with the telephone was ardent about making his call, and I had to terminate that attempt. As I tell so many of our customers, it is rude to make a call in a meeting (as well as in a movie or restaurant) and it really spoils the focus. Mr. Telephone, however, wasnít going to take this information passively, and he stuck me above the eye with his little toy telephone. One of my officers witnessed this event, and his reaction, plus the woman screaming, several sudden movements by our clients, the appearance of our injured angel Regan there on the deck, and the man declaiming a litany of legal terms, led to the rest. The scuffle. It was not a sea battle, but it was an unpleasant little conflict.

We on the Jolly Merger only resort to restraining our clients during cargo transfers in rare circumstances. We take no pleasure from carrying boxes of the worldís finest goods past the pained faces of our clients as they stand and moan bound to the masts, rails, and hatches. It takes the little joy right out of one of the central pleasures of being a pirate. Most often, the people we encounter, when they understand the nature of our meeting, go below decks and wait until we cast off. Here on the Yuppie Days, a beautiful yacht which I now hated, we did tie up these three handsome couples, and we did empty their hold of half a ton of sumptuary delights, including thirty two cases of Perrier and four of Dom Perignon

I am not proud of the way I conducted the matter. The sight of Regan bleeding on the deck had influenced me, that is I was angry, and anger has no place in any deal. I instructed my crew to take all the linen on the ship, pillows and such, and every fork, knife and spoon from the galley. I led our clients, bound as they were before me, to believe that I was certainly planning to sink the Yuppie Days, and I described in rich and effulgent detail what it would look like down there nestling into the sandy bottom. Oh, I behaved badly. I described to them how far the smoke would travel if I burned their silly boat and how sweet that smoke would smell to the vacationers on St. Thomas which was ninety miles westward. Do you see. I was a bully.

Iíd never done such a thing before, delivered gruesome speeches with animated hand gestures, and I gave myself to the moment too fully. My own crew watched me warily as they marched by with crates and boxes. I was on fire, and I knew by the way each glance at the wounded Regan Peterson inflamed me that I had developed and concealed for these years powerful feelings for her, feelings that would certainly be the end of me as a pirate. Love has no place in such a world; I had known that from the beginning. Captain Nelson had told me all about it. Love has as much place in a pirateís life as that insane floppy hat, or the stupid boots or ludicrous eye patch.

Ultimately, I got hold of myself, and when my crew was all aboard the Jolly Merger, I stepped back on the yacht and untied my unfortunate clients, apologizing to each and giving them back some sheets and silverware. I told them which way to strike for land. The apology is always important, but it was my lowest moment as a pirate.

We sailed south hard to the hidden bay at Nickelhook, which had been our plan, but I could see my men watching me, giving me a wider berth. Iíd behaved in a less than professional manner, and we all knew it. It was a sober two days, quiet and apprehensive, hardly the tone you want on a pirate vessel. Riding anchor in the glowing teal waters of Nickelhook, where weíd spent so many fine full hours together counting our blessings and pallets of dry goods, and planning our coming campaigns, things were different for us all. We fell to making necessary repairs, polishing our brass and mending the sails; many of the crew swam and slept upon the beach, and we had meals, long groaning boards of fresh fruit and fish, and the filet mignons fresh from the Yuppie Days, and barrels of wine and sparkling water. Regan did not appear and when I sent the doctor to see her, he reported her wound was infected and he had cleaned and treated it, sewing seven stitches to close the wound which was on the bottom of her right hip. But there was something else, he told me, a tattoo. There was a tattoo there, close to the place, a mark only he and the person who inscribed it had seen. What is it, I asked him. It is your initials done in Old English, he said.

Finally, one morning Regan Peterson asked to speak to me, in private, and we took the smallest of our day boats and pulled the oars a quarter mile to the second island in Nickelhook Bay, five acres of rock, palm jungle, and sand. She was in her pirate getup, the coat, the hat, the patch, the boots. Ensign Happiness stood on her shoulder like a sentry. His great orange beak twitched when he heard the wild parrots calling. Regan herself looked healthy again, a faint grin riding her face, as it always did.

On the island we opened our lunch kit and spread it in the grassy shade. Youíre a good captain, she started. We were drinking light rum tonics and spreading Dutch cheese on crackers from Portugal. And I know that life on the Jolly Merger will be amazing. You are so good at what you do. She toasted me and we drank. But, she said, climbing to her knees to speak to me, Iím not right for this, and Iíve known it for a long time, and . . . I tried to interrupt her then, but she put her hand on my shoulder and held forth. And what I did the other day, it ruined the whole deal. Iím not good at it. Ultimately, and Iíve thought it out. Iím not a good pirate. Look at me. Here she held her arms out in display. Itís all wrong.

I can still hear those words and I wish every dreamer who wants to draw a picture of a pirate or write a little pirate story could hear them and watch what Regan Peterson did next.

She pulled the monstrous hat from her pretty head and peeled her eye patch off, stuffing it inside. She removed the coat and pulled her boots, with some difficulty from her lovely feet. Quickly she pulled the billowy red satin shirt over her head, and the girl who sat before me in her bikini top and dungarees looked like a sophomore at Pepperdine. All of this transformation had Ensign Happiness confused. He didnít know where to stand. Can I borrow your knife one more time, Regan Peterson asked me. When I handed it to her, she turned deftly and clipped the birdís minor tendon under each wing and took his eye patch. This had the effect of surprising him and he stood very still and very tall now opening his wings, both of his eyes open to his new home.

When she handed back the blade, Regan said. Can you drop me in Charleston when we go by there next month? I have to resign as a pirate. While she was speaking she was scooping a hole in the sand between us deeper and deeper. The big blue bird had backed to the edge of the jungle. Regan laid her pirate regalia into the hole, hat and all, and she buried it there and patted the spot triple. The she grinned at me and drew an X over the place.

I know what youíre going to say, I told her.

Then I wonít have to say it, she said, lifting her glass again to me. After a moment, we heard a bird call and turned to find the ensign gone. I know the Doctor told you about my tattoo, she said. I had that done in Guadeloupe when we stopped right after that time under the Merger when you saved my rear. I meant it as a tribute. You saved it and thereby had some claim.

She looked this old pirate in the eye, and I said what a pirate says. I put my glass down and stood up and brushed the sand from myself, and I nodded at her in that island sunlight, and I said, I renounce the claim.

Three weeks later the Jolly Merger stopped for two hours off Fort Sumter and let off one of our crew. She was a good pirate and we wish her well on the mainland. Said she was going to go on the stage and Iíll bet she does. She buried the hat, the eye patch, all of it, and now I want the rest of you to do the same. Weíre pirates, by god, and we deserve better.

Printed in the Spring/Summer 2000 issue of CLR

Ron Carlson Ron Carlson

Ron Carlson is a professor of creative writing at Arizona State University. His latest collection of stories is The Hotel Eden and his new novel, The Speed of Light, will be published later this year.

You can find Ron Carlson on the web at:
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—  Weber Studies 1991 Interview

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