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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Perfect Story

Air Date: Week of

"The Perfect Storm", the movie based on Sebastian Junger's novel about the deaths of six Gloucester, Massachusetts fishermen, opens nation-wide on June 30th. In another installment of our series, "Gloucester at the Crossroads," Sandy Tolan reports as the city braces for an expected tourist boom in the wake of all the Hollywood hype, some old and painful memories are coming to the surface.


CURWOOD: Later this month, the Perfect Storm. Sebastian Junger's tale of six fishermen from Gloucester, Massachusetts, who were lost at sea in 1991, is ready for its big screen premiere. Many in Gloucester are anxious about the public display of such private pain. But the city has also been hit hard by strict federal regulations and closed fishing grounds. So, some hope a tourist wave in the wake of the Hollywood storm could help refloat the town's economy. As part of our continuing series, "Gloucester at the Crossroads," Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan has this profile of a town in waiting.


MAN: That's a little slippery.

MAN 2: Thank you.

(Rain, thunder; milling voices)

TOLAN: I suppose it's only fitting, yet still pretty weird, that the moment I arrive on board the old fishing schooner for the Chamber of Commerce party to kick off the perfect weekend, we're hit by a huge storm.

(People yell amidst the rain and thunder)

MAN: Please go below decks!

TOLAN: The skies open up and the rain pours down. Sideways rain out of nowhere. Winds whip about and pry at the canopy. People scramble below deck.

DILLON: ... insisting we go below, but I'm not going below. I'm from Oklahoma, so we don't have many boats.

TOLAN: Near the fish hole, I run into a neighbor of mine, Leslie Dillon. Like everyone else at this gathering, Leslie's making the most of Gloucester's 15 minutes in the spotlight.

DILLON: I'm here because I've written a show about my time as a stand-in on the movie The Perfect Storm. It's called Me and George, about me and George Clooney. It's a show about fantasy, aging, love.

TOLAN: The Perfect Storm and its leading man gave my playwright friend material she'll perform on stage at City Hall for a few weeks this summer. But as she went to the set and talked with fishermen day after day, something else happened. She began to connect with the town, and its deepest identity, in a way she never expected.

DILLON: It was really fascinating to see them playing extras on this movie about the death of other fishermen. I mean, it was a very strange kind of world within a world. It's like just a minute, let's look at the lives that are bringing these fish to your table and what kind of struggles they go through. You know, in some ways the fishermen are like kind of the last cowboys (laughs).

TOLAN: If we on shore feel more empathy now with the fishing life, and I think we do, a lot of us also see the movie as a way to cash in. The story of six of these cowboys of the sea and their demise is now splashed up and down Main Street.

WORTHLEY: My name is Jeff Worthley. I'm the tourist manager for the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce. We are on Main Street, Gloucester, Massachusetts, and we're looking at the real Gloucester.

TOLAN: Well, kind of. This is Gloucester, but the once-over it's getting makes downtown look a bit like a theme park. Local merchants are competing for the best Perfect Storm window. Most display the marquee Perfect Storm poster, with the doomed Andrea Gale about to be swallowed by a massive wave.

WORTHLEY: Very dark and very dreary and pretty frightening, actually. The winner of the competition will get free tickets to the movie premiere. Here's another one at The Cormorant. You see, you get some photos and some books and some fishing gear and nets, and buoys and such.

(Music plays from a speaker)

TOLAN: With the fishing industry down, merchants are eager for a tourist hit from the movie. For some this is, to say the least, in bad taste.

HARMON: It seems quite a few people have lost sight of the fact that when the Andrea Gale met its demise with all hands, they left behind family and friends who don't feel it's party time at the expense of loved ones.

TOLAN: Steven Harmon lost friends on the Andrea Gale. He sent this letter to the Gloucester Times.

HARMON: What's even more appalling is the amount of people crawling out of the woodwork to make a quick buck. My wife and I will be attending the premiere, but we won't be mingling, rubbing elbows or tipping champagne. We'll be holding a box of Kleenex because we lost friends, and feelings of sorrow never go away. Enjoy your party.

TOLAN: Beyond Main Street, workers buff the scuffed edges of this working harbor. Stacey Boulevard, known for its Fisherman's Memorial, its sweeping view of Gloucester Harbor, and also its ragged, weedy lawn littered with cigarette butts and dog poop, awaits the unrolling of tons of new sod just in time for the premiere. The town adorns a flashy necktie hastily knotted over a work shirt, hoping the tie will hide the grit underneath. City tourism officials have even given etiquette workshops urging us to be extra nice to visitors this year. For if there's one thing people here do seem worried about, it's that the gritty image, especially that of the seedy waterfront bar called The Crow's Nest, will come to define the community for the millions who see the movie.

(Creaking wood on water)

ALEXANIAN: I know most of the large fishing families in Gloucester. And I don't think, not one of them has been in The Crow's Nest, ever.

TOLAN: My friend Newbar Alexanian has lived in Gloucester for 30 years. An international photographer, he's chronicled the town and its fishing families since the 70s.

ALEXANIAN: So here we are in the perfect boat, the perfect ride on the perfect evening. Trying to catch the perfect fish. On the eve of The Perfect Storm, that would be the movie.

(A reel lets out)

TOLAN: We're fishing for striped bass on the flat silver water of the Essex River. It's quiet. No storm in sight. Actually, after a few casts, my line gets hopelessly tangled. I'm having better luck holding a microphone. I ask Newbar about The Crow's Nest and the image of Gloucester Sebastian Junger's story conveys.

ALEXANIAN: Let me catch this fish first. (The reel lets out.) This book, and definitely this movie, is going to put it on the map, kind of representing Gloucester, which is not really true. I mean, it's okay, because it's a good story and it's a true story. But it's not Gloucester. Gloucester is about fishing families that came from Sicily, mostly. And the grandfathers came, started fishing, made enough money to buy a boat. Their sons got old enough, they bought another boat and another boat. None of those people have ever been to The Crow's Nest or even been in The Perfect Storm.

TOLAN: Author Sebastian Junger didn't set out to tell the more familiar story of Gloucester: the Sicilian family boat trawling for ground fish day after day, year after year. Junger's subjects, the Irish-Anglo guys who died in The Perfect Storm, are high-rolling swordfishermen going for a big payoff. Taking a risk by staying out in weather many Sicilian fishermen might have avoided.

(The reel lets out)

TOLAN: Yet in bad weather, the bonds of risk and fear make distinctions of style, ethnicity, and fish preference meaningless.

LENA: And the St. Christopher go down like that.

MASSERI: The St. Christopher was rammed by a steamliner in the fog.

LENA: Everybody lost at sea.

BERTOLINO: My mother's father.

LENA: Your father's father was --

BERTOLINO: My mother's father.

LENA: Yeah, the same boat.


LENA: When he was getting on the same boat, I guess, and he got stuck and he died.

TOLAN: On a bright Saturday morning my friend and colleague Vinci Bertolino, daughter and granddaughter of Sicilian fishermen, invites me to her Aunt Lena's home. Carlo Masseri was walking his dog in the neighborhood and joins us. We sit at the kitchen table talking about decades-worth of storms and the pain they brought.

MASSERI: Which brings it home to all of us, it was life. We were fishermen.

TOLAN: But now, Vinci says something's happened to those stoic old Sicilians.

BERTOLINO: I think the book is now opening up something that they've held inside for a long, long time.

MASSERI: We can bring it home to our lives.

LENA: Right.

BERTOLINO: When I was growing up, my dad never spoke of anything that happened on that vessel. Never -- I mean, you know, perhaps not to worry his family or to let them know how really scared they were, or whatever. Now that the book is out, the fishermen are now saying, well this is what happened to me.

MASSERI: Positively. The book may have brought some of it out, and when you start talking about hundred-foot seas and all hands lost. Because we've had a lot of those things happening.

TOLAN: And now at the table on a breezy Saturday, Carlo lets out a story he kept from his family for decades.

MASSERI: We were steaming home to the southwest, and I felt a strange feeling in the bunk. And I got up and I looked. Out there is dark. And I'm telling you, I was almost frightened to see what I saw out there. The seas were getting big, and the wind was just howling, really howling.

TOLAN: Carlo put the boat to windward. He shouted to his crew: Lash everything down.

MASSERI: That's about that time we all start to say prayers.

TOLAN: The boat took a lurch, way over to the starboard side.

MASSERI: ... and the next thing I know is, another sea picked her up and threw her, actually threw her, down. You talk about prayers. I'll never, ever forget that. Dear Lord, I said, please let her come back. Let her come back. And slowly, she was shivering, she slowly, slowly, slowly came back. And when she finally straightened up a little bit, I ran up in the porterhouse, put all the lights on, and she is level, from rail to rail. You can just imagine. And if one more sea, so help me, had come, I knew we were gone.

JUNGER: My name is Sebastian Junger. I'm the author of The Perfect Storm...

TOLAN: We sit at the waterfront, near the homes where the Irish and the Portuguese and then the Sicilian fisher families have lived for 100 years. I tell Sebastian what I've been hearing. The stories are flowing now, out of old fishermen like Carlo.

JUNGER: It's very nice to hear that. I didn't know that. I mean, I could see how that would work, but it hadn't occurred to me that that would happen. One of the things that's most sort of gratifying to me is that it seems to have made people realize that these stories have value. And that people outside of Gloucester appreciate them, or for that matter inside Gloucester.

TOLAN: Gloucester has been fishing for 375 years. Over that time, perhaps 10,000 men have been lost and countless stories told. Captains Courageous, the Rudyard Kipling novel and Spencer Tracy movie, was one. And now, The Perfect Storm, it seems, will define our town for the world, for a while.

JUNGER: And I'm going to hand you over to Joe, now. Please give him a fine welcome. Thank you.

TOLAN: A couple weeks before the movie opens, Junger is back in town for some pre-Storm Hollywood publicity. In introducing Joe Garland, the young storyteller bows to Gloucester, and to the storytellers she's held in her grip for centuries.

JOE: It was January of 1883. His dory mate's name was Tom Welsh, who was a Newfoundlander. A storm came up, a blizzard came up. Snow, sleet, everything. They got separated from their schooner...

TOLAN: For our most revered storyteller, Joe Garland, the storm around the storm is something to watch. Joe is author of a dozen books about Gloucester on the wind and sea, including perhaps its most compelling tale about legendary Captain Howard Blackburn.

JOE: He was 65 miles, 60, 65 miles from land. And the only way he's going to get to land was to row the dory.

TOLAN: Joe, who conceived Long Voyager before Sebastian Junger was born, now sees his book being re-released 37 years later in the wake of The Perfect Storm. But Joe knows this storm, too, will pass. And Gloucester, trying to protect its working harbor in the midst of a changing economy, will still be facing its future.

JOE: I'm far more concerned about the effect of modern times. I mean, I'm far more concerned about, for one thing, the tremendous wealth out there, the money that's coming into town. People are coming into town who have made their multi-millions. Young people coming in, finding a fine old house, just tearing it down no matter how great a house it is. Just tearing it down so that they can spend their money to build something new. I think we're going to weather this storm here in Gloucester. I mean, I know damn well we're going to weather the storm in Gloucester. We're going to weather The Perfect Storm.

(Raging waves)

TOLAN: For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.



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