Ode to the Eagle

Fri, 07/21/2017 - 8:00am
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plane roars by, seemingly outside my window, and I think of open windows and the sounds of summer they gift us, airborne engines as well as chirping birds. It’s a nice moment, before I remember that, of course, there is more air traffic in the summer. As there are more people, strangers, among us.

A few years ago someone wearing a shirt with the words “Coast Guard” lettered on it said he was not affiliated with that service. I asked, nonetheless, if he knew where the Eagle was that summer. As if to prove he truly was a civilian he replied that he had no idea. He was quite convincing, I’m not sure he knew what that bird-named thing about which I was inquiring was, much less its location, which made me wonder how he happened upon that shirt in the first place . . . 

A day later I learned the Eagle was in Newport, so close and yet so far away.

The Eagle is, of course, a 295-foot sailing barque, a grand square-rigged ship built in the 1936 in the Hamburg shipyard, commissioned the Horst Wessel, and used by Nazi Germany for cadet training. Taken as a prize of war, it was sailed by Coast Guardsmen back to New London in 1946. It was rechristened and given the name used by five previous vessels dating back to 1792, only two years after the establishment of Alexander Hamilton’s Revenue Cutter Service from which today’s Coast Guard grew. 

It has been said that the ship that became the Eagle was launched in the twilight of the age of sail, although it was, at most, astronomical twilight, when the sun is between 12 and 18 degrees below the horizon and does not contribute to the illumination of the sky. Sail had, as a practical matter, already gone off into the sunset.

The vessel looks like a tall ship sailed out of history, excepting the orange slash across its bow, but its design and construction embody centuries of development, a thing of pure beauty pulled from the evil ruins of Nazi Germany. It is steel hulled, with decks of teak beneath a half acre of sail, and six miles of rigging.

The Eagle is among the boats that draw too much water to come safely into the Great Salt Pond, but it has been, it used to be, anchored off both the west and east beaches, a grand sight breaking through the early mist of a summer morning. 

Its homeport is at the Coast Guard Academy in New London but I learned of it not from offshore sightings — or peering through the rails of the great arcing bridge over the Thames River — but from a short film, the sort that used to be shown before the movies. I have no recollection of the main feature, I was little and probably fell asleep, but I do remember sitting in the Empire with my parents watching cadets scamper throughout the rigging of the Eagle. The Coast Guard was a very real presence on Block Island; the station at the mouth of the New Harbor and the Southeast Lighthouse were manned and the North Light was empty but not abandoned.

There may have been history recounted but I remember only the visuals; it was decades later before I learned of the origins of the magnificent white ship. 

Neither did I then begin to comprehend the complexity that is the Coast Guard, created when the Revenue Cutter and Life Saving Service were merged in 1915, expanded when given the Lighthouse Bureau in 1939, drawing under its umbrella all agencies involved in navigable water, the whole shifted to Transportation in 1967, then Homeland Security in the early 21st century. The Coast Guard, always underfunded, shifted in and out of the Navy as war comes and goes, sent out on the search and rescue missions in the worst of weather, has the singular glory of stewardship of the only square-rigger in active United States government service.

Nothing as grand as the Eagle, a single mast rose high above the Old Harbor, visible from the sidewalks encircling the oddly named Fountain Square, catching the glow of the setting sun.

The moments of summer we remember in the growing dark of November and December and the (sometimes) deepening cold of January and February are not of crazy traffic and energy sapping heat and humidity that usually comes this week preceding the Harbor Church Fair — the morning of Saturday, July 22. (Be there!) It is not the dust on the Mansion Road, where I am always swimming against the tide, encountering several cars coming in when I am leaving in the morning, and more departing the beach when I am returning in late afternoon. It is not the the doors that will not close, or once closed, easily open, or the feeling that nothing is ever quite dry.

It is nights of illusive light, when the brown mast of a not so interesting vessel and the gray granite of the long east wall of the Old Harbor both glow, not merely illuminated but turned to gold, and the white trim on the rambling church on the hill above the town, and the mansard of the post office building, shine with an unearthly light. 

There is a lull as the sun sets, a quiet on the streets that extends out to the water, silver reflecting the aqua sky, laced by boats, both high-speed and traditional ferries, a favorite summer seascape.  

Day’s end still comes slowly in mid-summer, with the alchemy that turns a yacht’s mast and a town’s breakwater to shimmering gold under salmon clouds ribboned over brightly turquoise heavens. 

The boats land and quickly settle for the night, more lighted than they were an hour earlier, sitting quietly at the dock, empty and pretty, in wait for a rapidly approaching new day of summer.