Archive:  Year 4 - May 6th, 2009 "Regarding Pirates"


Pirates are back.


And not in the Walt Disney, ‘you can find a skull and crossbones on every coffee mug and pencil topper in town’ kind of way.  But in the ‘hack, slash, attack, steal and murder’ kind of way.  Pirates have reappeared in full force in recent months, and they’re causing quite an international stir.  


I have mixed feelings about the sudden resurgence of a population of outlaws that I have always held in the highest and most romantic regard.  Anyone who knows me even moderately well is aware of my love affair with pirates.  I researched them extensively in college, I have the jolly roger flag both tattooed on my back, and flying above my house… I dressed as one for my senior prom and (almost) had a pirate wedding. 


I won’t deny the fact that one of the reasons I love piracy is because of the rose-colored movie version of them that Erroll Flynn, Gene Kelley, and Johnny Depp have given life to. Specifically, when I was about 6, my sisters and I fell in love with a movie called “The Pirate Movie” – an 80’s musical spoof film of the opera, “The Pirates of Penzance”.  It starred Christy McNicol and Christopher Atkins and some will tell you it is a terrible film… And it may be.  But at the time, it was bigger, better and FAR more influential than E.T. or Jaws combined.  As a result of my, and my sisters’, deep and abiding love for this movie, pirates quickly became the touchstone of most of our stories and games.  We ‘arrrrr’ed at each other, two sticks were always swords, and we stood on the bow of every canoe and fishing boat as if we were going into battle.  


Years later, when I was studying history at the University of Minnesota, I spent a lot of time focused specifically on the golden age of piracy (1650 -1750).  It was the first time I learned about who the pirates really were and how they lived and operated.   I was shocked to find that the reality of them is even more captivating than the fantasy.  


Characters like Mary Read and Anne Bonny – two women who fought with Calico Jack Rackham – and made a point of showing a man they were women right before they killed them.  Or Black Beard, an alias for man named Edward Teach – who many believe was a school teacher before he turned to piracy.  I spent a lot of time reading about Captain Grace O’Malley (yes, Grace the dog’s namesake) the Irish pirate who once risked capture in order to have a meeting with Queen Elizabeth.  She came, she said, “woman-to-woman”, to plead for the release of her son who was in an English prison.  In an uncharacteristic move, the Queen obliged and mother and son left town together.  Witnesses later said that The Queen had remarked that, like O’Malley, she was aware how hard it was to be a woman in a man’s job.  


The stories and drama and magic in the real life history of the pirates does not appear to end…


Which is certainly NOT to say that pirates were good.  They were a force of tremendous harm and violence in the world for over a hundred years... But, they lived life at an exhilarating high-velocity that always catches humanity’s attention – like cowboys, and 1930’s gangsters.  They go where they want, they do what they want, they take what they want – and all of us, in some way, wish our lives were more like that.  They are compelling for exactly and precisely the same reasons that they are dangerous – like motorcycles and fireworks.


These thoughts and more were running through my head as I was in the process of what has become a Spring tradition – attaching the Jolly Roger to the railing of the fly bridge.  It flies, wind or rain, until the boat is wrapped again in the Fall.  As I was attaching the last zip line to the flag, I saw a fellow boater suddenly look away awkwardly when I caught her eye – not the usual smile and wave.  And it occurred to me – was this suddenly inappropriate in light of the recent pirate attacks in Somalia?


No doubt, piracy – like most things - loses it’s luster when it’s up close and in your decade.   Like the ‘adorable teddy bear’ in your camp site.  However, before I could even pause in what I was doing, I pulled the tie tight – and verified that the flag could fly without obstruction.  Because while I am well aware that much of America has recently decided that a pirate flag signified all things culturally amusing and non-threatening, that has never been the spirit in which I have flown it.  It has always been with a firm understanding of the dark side that is behind the lump that raises in you throat – be it at the sight of a well-choreographed sword fight, or from seeing a speedboat racing toward your cruise liner with machine gun.  


I would, in fact, find it tremendously ironic if the modern pirates were to take over one of the ships in the Disney Cruise line.  An assault rifle carrying Somali pirate versus Jack Sparrow?  See how that ‘parlay’ brain-child works now, Ms. Knightly… Mwah, ha, ha! 


At the same time, I don’t think that anyone can convincingly defend piracy… for long.  It is, at it’s heart, a primitive act that denies the transcendent human qualities of empathy and logic.  It’s often a last resort on the part of desperate rogues who have few, if any, other viable means of income; and it is always a horribly disruptive force in commerce and international relationships.  


Piracy is no good.


Which does no more to alter my feelings about the concept of piracy, than a surgeon general’s warning does to keep a person from smoking cigars. 


And thank heavens.


Next Post: May 19th, 2009 "Taking the Plunge"

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