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

Gloucester's Legacy of Loss

Air Date: Week of

Since its birth as the nation's first fishing port in 1623, men from Gloucester, Massachusetts, have been going down to the sea in their ships, and many have never returned. Those who keep track say more than ten thousand lives have been lost over the years in the hunt and harvest for seafood. In an encore installment of his series "Gloucester at the Crossroads," producer Sandy Tolan explains how this fishing port north of Boston has been shaped by a large sense of loss.


KNOY: It's no fish you're buyin', it's men's lives. So wrote Sir Walter Scott in his 1860 novel The Antiquary. There is a price to pay for the seafood that graces your table. The lives of 10 men just this past month, for instance, in the cold waters off the New Jersey and Massachusetts coasts. The crews of the Adriatic, the Cape Fear, and the Bethy Bob were after clams, much in demand for chowder and chum. Even in times of bountiful harvests, thousands of families have had to endure the deaths of members of their community lost at sea. Many of them live in the nation's oldest fishery, Gloucester, Massachusetts. In an encore installment of our series, Gloucester at the Crossroads, producer and Gloucester resident Sandy Tolan considers how an overriding sense of loss has shaped the lives of the people in this fishing port north of Boston.

(Gulls and fog horns)

TOLAN: When I first moved to Gloucester, I'd jog along a path at the water's edge, past the fisherman's memorial statue. Past the old wooden houses with the rooftop widow's walks. Toward the field where the British set up the first fishing camp in the colonies. Every day I'd notice people parked along the boulevard just sitting in their cars, staring out to sea. I always wondered what they were doing.

(Crashing surf)

SANFILIPO: My son is 26. He got his education. He did everything but his love is in the ocean. As we speak he is out on Georges Bank and a storm is coming.

(Surf crashes)

TOLAN: Angela Sanfilipo, born to the seventh generation of Sicilian fisher families, came to Gloucester in 1965 when she was 15.

SANFILIPO: I'm very, I'm very angry at him. I keep telling to him, you know, I don't have to worry about your father being out there any more, why do I have to worry about you? Why can't you give me some peace? Why can you fish in shore? Why can't you go do something else? So after a long day I can go to bed and not worry, you out there.


TOLAN: For 375 years Gloucester fisherman have been going to sea and never coming back. Ten thousand men, they say, sailing from a deep harbor out between 2 sheltering arms of land past a long finger of granite breakwater that absorbs the thunder of the North Atlantic. And then into rough waters to hunt for fish and go down.

GARLAND: They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters, these see the works of the Lord and His wonders in the deep. For he commandeth and raises the stormy wind...

TOLAN: In a house perched above the water's edge, Joe Garland reads from his book Down to the Sea. It begins with Psalm 107.

GARLAND: They reel to and fro and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wit's end. Then they cry onto the Lord in their trouble, and He bringeth them out of their distresses. He maketh the storm calm so that the waves thereof are still. Then are they glad because they be quiet, so He bringest them unto their desired haven.

(A grandfather clock ticks in the background)

TOLAN: A frothing Atlantic lies beyond the breakwater to our left. Spires of Gloucester on our right. The path to the open sea before us. For nearly 40 years, Joe Garland has sat amidst his ticking clocks and written it down. In his 20 books, the old reporter turned historian has recorded the history here. Since 1623, when the British first set up their camp just across the harbor, perhaps 10,000 Gloucester men have gone down to the sea. That's one fisherman lost every 13 days for 375 years. It's been like war.

GARLAND: I immediately felt a kind of a kinship with the fishermen. That evokes the kind of kinship that I had had as a soldier with my buddies.

TOLAN: Joe Garland was on the winter line in Italy in '43 in a stalemate with the Germans, trench warfare up in the mountains. Under constant shell fire, young men were going down.

GARLAND: And it was nothing that I had ever encountered or seen. You know, ordinary life that was comparable to it. Until I sort of discovered what these guys had been going through in Gloucester. So I found a strange kind of brotherhood.

TOLAN: Joe Garland has dug up old records, long-lost diaries, fishing reports, newspaper clippings. Chronicling the life here and counting up the loss. Nearly 4,000 in one 60-year stretch in the 1800s, when the schooners were built for speed, not for safety. He reads from one account in the wake of a storm 136 winters past.

GARLAND: In a single storm, on the night of February 24th, 1862, 15 Gloucester vessels and 120 men were lost, leaving 70 widows and 140 fatherless children to mourn for the loved ones who would return no more.

(The clock ticks)

GARLAND: I mean, the old sea there, there isn't a damn thing that you can do. No matter how experienced you may be, no matter how much high tech you have, no matter how many drills you've been through. When you get out there and you hit the big wave or the big storm or the big rock (the clock chimes) or you make some goddamn miscalculation and bingo, you've had it.

(Ship bells chime)

TOLAN: The core of this town, the fishing heart of it, has a kinship with the loss. I can see it carefully tended all over town, through a picture window on the third floor of Gloucester City Hall, a gaze over rooftops past the fish dealers and small boats still moored on the inner harbor. Out to the breakwater and the open sea. Above that window frame, running along either side, thousands of names are inscribed: Gloucester men who've gone down to the sea.

(Papers shuffle)

RAY: Okay, this is...

KIPPIN: Ninety-six.

RAY: Ninety-six. (A loud shuffling sound) Names of men lost in the Gloucester fisheries for the year 1896.

TOLAN: Three floors below in a basement storage vault, the names have been carefully catalogued and folded away in boxes by a squad of volunteer archivists. Mary Ray and Priscilla Kippin check their index and locate a file marked Deaths: Men Lost at Sea.

RAY: And this man's name is Sherman Williams, 30 years old, from the Fortune Gloucester off of Cape Cod. He was lost off of Cape Cod and he was born in Bona Vista, Newfoundland. Now here's another poor soul, June 16th. Anderson. He was single, lost from the schooner Henry Stanley, and back a little bit, and he was from Sweden.

(Marching drums)

RAY: It goes on and on here. And this one, 16th of March.

(Drums continue)

TOLAN: A kinship with loss. I can see it on a summer day along the boulevard. The families of the dead follow the Italian Colonial Band to the Fisherman's Memorial. It stands at the center of Gloucester, which is the edge of the sea. A man in bronze turned green with salt and time is hunched at the wheel, staring out to sea. At the base of the statue, those first words from Psalm 107.

GARLAND: They that go down to the sea in ships...

TOLAN: Today the captains, the crewmen, the fishermen's wives, the politicians can tell you the names of the boats that went down in their lifetime, and the men that were on them.

VERGA: Nineteen-forty-six, the Saint Christopher went out to sea and another father was lost. Good friend of mine, Anthony Iliacano's father was lost on that ship. Nineteen-fifty-one, the Gunrun left out of here. Nine men on board, never heard from again...

TOLAN: As a boy, Tony Verga knew these men as the fathers of his friends. As a man, State Representative Verga remembers the boys he coached in Babe Ruth baseball.

VERGA: Nineteen-sixty...

TOLAN: For these fishermen, the last view of Gloucester was the breakwater, the church spires, and the man at the wheel on the boulevard.

VERGA: This boulevard stands with its arms outstretched, bidding goodbye to those who sail out of this harbor and wishing them welcome home on their return. In the evening, my friends, these lamps will all be lit. They stand like candles. They've become vigils to those who went to sea, to those who were lost at sea. In the evening when you pass by here, perhaps you'll say a little silent prayer for those lost at sea, for their widows and their children, and those who will continue to do business in great depths.

CRUCURU: The last time we saw Nick, it was so strange because, um, this was a Gloucester boat and he had never taken out this boat before. And we drove down to the state fish pier to drop him off at this Italian Gold. And Nicholas said to me something he has never said before to me, "Mom, can we wait for the boat to go out fishing?" So I said okay, so we waited for the Italian Gold to go out the fish pier way. And then we went down the boulevard and we watched it go out the harbor. It was so strange that we had never done that before.

TOLAN: Two days later Donna Crucuru's husband Nick was missing at sea. Their daughter Carla was 20. Nicholas was 7. The Italian Gold went down in a storm off Cape Cod. There was no body, no wake. It was months before Donna could say he was gone.

CRUCURU: I never expected to be a 47-year-old widow. This isn't the way my life was supposed to go. Nicky died on Labor Day 1994. And I could remember -- and believe it or not, I found it really hard even going out in public for a long time. It was terrible. Really, it was terrible. And my little boy going to school, he had just started -- Nicky died on Monday and the first day of school was like Wednesday and he was going to be a first grader. And the Coast Guard was still looking for Nick and stuff. It was like, oh my God.

TOLAN: In Gloucester it's always been this way.

(The clock ticks)

GARLAND: (Quoting) "Eighteen-seventy-nine. A cloud of sorrow hangs over our city. Fourteen of the fishing feet with their precious lives remain unaccounted for since the gale of February 20th. Eyes are watching for the return of the absent Georges men. There are sad forebodings as the hours glide by. Which only God and aching hearts will ever know of. It is terrible. The very thought of the probable loss which foreshadows this community is well nigh overwhelming, and it is the theme on every tongue, the all- engrossing thought of our people." It's a sad thing. The American Dream has always been the joy and discovery and energy and activism and optimism are what have knit our society together and have brought it power and expansion and so on. But I reckon in a more profound way, loss is a more enduring kind of a social cement.

(Organ music)

TOLAN: If your history and character is defined by loss, how does that shape you? What is bad about that legacy for Gloucester? What is good? What just is? I take these questions to Father Jim O'Driscoll, Catholic priest at St. Anne's church in the heart of the town.

O'DRISCOLL: There's a sharing in the facing of grief. This bond of loss is also a bond of hope, because death isn't the end.

TOLAN: For the believer, says Father O'Driscoll, faith lets you see life on Earth as the prelude to the great opera. But others, a psychologist, a poet, a social historian, all tell me they see in Gloucester a deeply traumatized community. And for some of its people the pains of loss pierce the bonds of faith.

O'DRISCOLL: Some people, the way to deal with this is not to deal with this. So people get into alcohol, into drugs, various other things. If the reality of death is just too much, then some people will try to anaesthetize themselves.

TOLAN: Gloucester's rates of alcohol and drug abuse are a lot higher than the average. Heroin is a long-standing problem here. Gloucester families tend to deal with these problems on their own. The community is an island, literally, made so by early settlers who cut a channel through the isthmus. The fishing heart of the town huddles in an arc around the harbor, finding strength among its own.

O'DRISCOLL: When nature seems to turn on you, people need to cling to each other. When we're confronted with the fragility of life we can either try to run from it or face it and live through it. And plunge into life more fully, and build very, very strong family ties. I've seen in Gloucester a very intense concern of people one for the other. Facing death can do that, and I see this often in Gloucester, a great resiliency of people.

SANFILIPO: I think it's made us strong, very strong people. And strong in both ways, good ways and bad ways.

TOLAN: It seems Angela Sanfilipo was born to be president of the Fishermen's Wives Association. At 5 years old in Sicily, she was running errands, bringing food and messages to the men on the docks. When the men would hoist a boat by rope to drydock, little Angela would slip underneath with the pieces of wood to hold it in place. Now, some 40 years later, she's just returned from India and the International Congress of the Fishing Peoples of the World. Sicilians, she says, have their own way of responding to the loss.

SANFILIPO: It's within our culture that we are very expressive in moments of pain, in moments of loss and celebration. But the true, true feelings, the true anger, the true anguish, it's in silence. We're supposed to accept it and be strong.

TOLAN: But the loss Angela deals with every day now is of another kind. Now, the fish are lost. As the fish stocks decline and the Federal Government imposes new and tougher restrictions, men are selling their boats back to the government and signing up for computer classes.

SANFILIPO: That is just as painful, because we are losing a way of life. We are losing who we are, our identity. So we are mourning for many things. Mourning for the people that we've lost, mourning for what we're losing, which is what we are all about. Many times, when nobody sees me, and I'm hoping they'll never know (cries) and see the empty arms, nobody sees the tears.

TOLAN: In the last few years, Angela tells me, the Sicilian families of Gloucester are praying a lot more, asking Jesus to multiply the fish again.

SANFILIPO: We can only do it with divine intervention.

(Gulls, fog horns)

TOLAN: Praying harder and then celebrating harder each year at the Fiesta of the Patron Saint, St. Peter, the fisherman who walked with Jesus. And even mourning harder, making more public the pain of loss.

MAN: My honor, to be asked to say a few words today as the son of a fisherman lost at sea. Thirty-five years ago, on the eve of my second birthday, my father's fishing vessel, the St. Stephen, exploded and sank off Cape Cod. Three men were lost at sea...

TOLAN: They revived this memorial last August after years of absence. One fisherman told me people needed this. Fishing is going down in this town now; we needed something to be recognized. And so, they are remembered as men lost at sea.

MAN: I'm sure that the men who left this port never realized the heritage that they were creating. They sacrificed their entire lives for us, and when they die in such a way, we grieve for many things. What these men also left behind were some amazing spouses. Women that led lives above parents and went without the companionship that most people can count on. I'd like us all to thank the widows and all the fishermen's spouses for their courage. And I'd especially want to public thank my mother (cries) for all her -- for persevering all these years and never letting us think of ourselves as victims. She gave us everything we could, and I owe everything I am to her.

MAN 2: And now all that wish to, that would like to cast flowers upon the waters, please follow Mayor Toby on behalf of the city, Joe and Carla.

(Ambient voices)

TOLAN: A 10-year-old blond-haired boy, Nicholas Crucuru, walks to the rail with his mother Donna and sister Carla. They cast their flowers upon the sea. Then an older man and his wife and another child and a young woman and on and on, tossing yellow bouquets and bunches of roses and wildflowers.

(A chorus singing)

WOMAN: Here we go, Dad, Austin W.

TOLAN: The wind is up, there is a ripple on the waves, the tide is going out, and the flowers drift out Gloucester Harbor, toward the breakwater and the open sea beyond.

(Chorus continues)

MAN: (Crying) Here you go, Daddy.

WOMAN: Here you go, Jimmy.

TOLAN: For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan in Gloucester, Massachusetts.



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