Of MGs Wooden Ships and Broken Promises

Perhaps the best advice I ever got in my life came from my Uncle Ed.

“Don’t buy that MG”.

Now I’ll be the first to admit. She wasn’t much to look at. She needed a bit of bodywork and the rag top had a couple of patches.

But she was fun to drive.

Of course he had owned a number of MGs and other exotic cars himself. Basically……. He knew of whence he spoke.

I never heard an “I told you so”.

When I would share with him my latest tale of some repair I needed or upgrade I decided to make he would nod his head and say:

“That’s the price of being a sport” and “If you own a sports car you better be ready to get your hands dirty.”

See he wasn’t trying to discourage me. He was helping me.

He was helping me to learn an important lesson.

A lesson about commitment.

An MG like any sports car is not something you own. A sports car is a promise you make.

Among the “sports” I knew who owned similar cars many would complain about how crappy the cars were. How their generic middle of the road sedan was so much more reliable.

They failed to understand that a sports car – like life – will demand much from you.

If you are not ready to learn all the quirks. The ins and outs.

How to set the choke. How to tune a side draft carburetor. How to use the clutch and not burn it out. When she needs time to warm up and time to cool down.

In short – If you are not ready to love the car don’t buy it.

You gotta be ready to get your hands dirty.

You have to show respect.

You have to keep your promise.

Right about now you are asking yourself “What has this got to do with wooden ships?”

Growing up on Cape Cod I was surrounded by boats of every kind. It has been rightly said that “A boat is a hole in the water into which one pours money.”

A wood boat more so. Another important life lesson I learned – this time from a friend.

My best friend from high school had a wooden sailboat. A nice seventeen foot shoal draft sloop. It was easy for the two of us to handle it and on a smooth day we could even sail from the Cape to the Vineyard.

Before he got that boat I had been one of those that thought that fiberglass was the way to go. Easy maintenance was the mantra of the glass boat crowd. Like with my MG many boat owners had tried wood and found it too much work.

What Jim taught me about wood boats is that they are only an excess of work if you put it off. You need to clean it up after each sail. You need to set aside time to scrape the hull on a regular basis. You need to polish the brass – not because it looks good but because it protects from corrosion.

A wooden boat is a promise you make.

A wooden ship……… Much more so.

Now not so very long ago I worked aboard a wooden ship.

Mayflower II

By the time I joined her crew she wasn’t much to look at. She needed work on the hull and decks. There were more than a few patches.

But she was fun to be around.

Now for those who may not know of her a little history is in order.

Mayflower II is a recreation of a late 16th or early 17th century English cargo ship. She is a representation of the type of ship that brought the Pilgrims to the New World.

She was built in the 1950s as a gift to the American people from the people of Great Britain to commemorate our partnership during World War II.

On her completion a volunteer crew sailed her from Plymouth England to Plymouth Massachusetts arriving in June of 1957.

She was the dream of Warwick Charlton. A very colorful fellow himself. He could easily have been the model for a quirky side character in an Ian Fleming novel. He might have been since he and Fleming almost certainly crossed paths at some point.

He had been a member of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s staff during the World War II. It is said he helped to shape Monty’s image from being a stuffy career officer to something a bit more approachable.

At the end of the war he was sailing back to England aboard an American transport. This was the proverbial slow boat from China.

There were some things he did not care for about American Navy ships. For one the U.S. Navy runs dry ships. Charlton enjoyed splicing the main brace. Charlton also enjoyed playing poker – a man after my own heart – while Bridge was the preferred game in the ward room of the ship.

It didn’t take long for him to figure out that American sailors like sailors throughout history managed to stow a little contraband aboard and that the enlisted men played poker. Spending time with the enlisted men it gave him a much greater appreciation for the American people.

He also availed himself of the ship’s library.

So begins our story.

One of the books in the library was “Of Plymouth Plantation” by William Bradford. One of the few first hand accounts we have of the beginnings of Plymouth Colony.

That is where a germ of an idea began to grow.

Build a full size functional recreation of the ship that carried the Pilgrims to the new world.

More than that. To then sail this ship across the Atlantic and present it as a gift to the people of America.

He wrote of this in his book “The Second Mayflower Adventure”. A must read for anyone who is interested in this story.

There were many hurdles  to overcome. To many to go into here but perhaps the most important was; Who to entrust his dream to?

Mayflower II was not the first attempt to recreate a historic ship.  There had been many others for various celebrations in the past.

Most of those were forgotten as time passed and left to rot.

Warwick did not want his Mayflower to suffer such a fate. He needed to find someone – someplace that would love his Mayflower as much as he did.

Almost by chance he learned of a place in Plymouth Massachusetts. A place called Plimoth Plantation.

Plimoth Plantation was the dream of Harry Hornblower. Harry had a love of history and archaeology.

He wanted to tell the story of the Pilgrims and their early years in New England. He wanted to create an environment where visitors would be immersed in the experience.

He created what today we call a Living History Museum.

And he had a set of blueprints to build a recreation of Mayflower.

After a transatlantic phone call and a trip to Massachusetts the deal was struck.

Warwick returned to England with a set of blueprints and a promise. The promise that Mayflower II would be loved and cared for. That she would never suffer the fate of so many other ships that were cast aside like last year’s fashion.

This came to mind when I opened my morning paper some time back to see an article about the efforts to save Mayflower II. How fundraising goals had fallen short of expectations. That the need was made more urgent by the discovery of Wharf Borer larvae in the wood of the ship.

How urgent help was needed to save the National Treasure called Mayflower II.

So how could this National Treasure get to this point?

How could Charlton and Hornblower be so easily forgotten? How could their legacy be pushed aside?

Both were men of vision. After reading “The Second Mayflower Adventure”  I came to the conclusion that these were men who if you told them it can’t be done they would only take that as a challenge.

Impossible? Charlton and Hornblower didn’t know the meaning of the word.

Charlton was told that it would be impossible to build Mayflower II. Hornblower was also told that telling the Pilgrim story in a way that was approachable to all was a pipe dream.

Both faced such obstacles with a determination rarely seen today.

The crew who sailed Mayflower II also faced the challenge in spite of the nay sayers.

When a london paper printed a story saying they had only a fifty percent chance of making it across the Atlantic they boldly formed the 50/50 club. At first open only to members of the 57 crew in later years it was opened to those who had worked aboard Mayflower II.

The courage and vision of these men would make Plimoth Plantation into one of the finest institutions of it’s kind in the world.

Plimoth Plantation would evolve from humble beginnings. From local housewives hired as hostesses wearing Hollywood Pilgrim costumes to the preeminent Living History Museum in the country.

From simply repeating the textbook version of the story to dedicated historians seeking to better all of our understanding.

From white anthropologists telling tales about the native inhabitants of North America to Native Americans representing their own story. Teaching their own history.

From legend to fact. From tales to history.

I don’t know if Hornblower would recognize Plimoth Plantation as it became but I can’t help think he would approve.

Now where do I enter this story? Not when you might think.

When Mayflower II was not yet ten years old my family moved to Kingston MA.

It took several months but finally when relatives were visiting we went to see Mayflower II and Plimoth Plantation.

To say I fell in love was an understatement.

Not so much with Plimoth Plantation ……..

But that magnificent ship.

The fact that at my age I could get aboard for free…

That was it. I would ride my bike every chance I got to go and visit Mayflower II.

I would sit in wonder as navigational tools were demonstrated.

I would gawk at the wax dummies used to represent the sailors and the pilgrims.

I would imagine myself as part of her crew.

She still had a newness to her. The years had not yet taken their toll.

She spoke to me at that young age as few things had.

I give Mayflower II much credit for my love of history.

How sad the day we moved to Cape Cod and I would no longer be able to just hop on my bike and visit Mayflower II.

I had promised my young self that I would visit her as often as I could.

Alas like many promises made by ten year olds it was not to be.

Life went on. I grew up. Went to college. Moved to San Francisco where I worked in my chosen profession – theatre. In time I gained a reputation for my New England work ethic and became department head at a prestigious small theatre in San Francisco.

Successes and failures followed. I lived through a major earthquake, two recessions and the Dot Com boom turned bust.

I learned how much could be accomplished with the right attitude.

Impossible?  You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

I learned that I had to have the back of the person working next to me if I expected them to have my back. That respect was not deserved. That it had to be earned.

I learned how to be a part of a team. In time I learned how to lead the team.

I learned it was more important to be a leader than a boss.

I learned to respect the audience. They were the reason for our being there in the first place.

I also continued my interest in the sea, history and ships. Became involved with the Living History Center. Learned to teach history through participation. Performed singing Sea Shanties, Victorian Music Hall Magic, Old West Shows and Gold Rush events.

I learned to craft leather into recreations of historic pieces. Western Holsters, Elizabethan Pouches and most things from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century.

All of this re enforced for me the importance of respecting the customer, the audience but most of all to respect those working alongside of you. 

Those who have your back.

Eventually time came time to return to New England.

9/11 had a profound effect on the city and my work. That I was getting older didn’t help.

So it was returning to New England and needing to reinvent myself a bit I was thrilled to be chosen by Plimoth Plantation to work aboard Mayflower II portraying a member of her crew.

I loved sharing the history and stories of the Pilgrims. Telling about life at sea and of the early days of New Plimoth. I was very proud to be chosen to demonstrate 17th style leather craft in the craft center.

To share with visitors what the life of a tradesmen was before industrialization.

How different seventeenth century life was. And how it was not so different.

I mostly enjoyed when our younger visitors would suddenly realize that there is more to life than apps and games.

To see eyes opened to the wonders of our past gave me hope for the future.

I also learned how poorly my Mayflower had fared over the years.

Rain would come pouring through the upper deck as we were trying to regale visitors. Pumps would need to kick in even as sun shined down on us causing more than one guest to express concern.

I would look at the outstanding skill of the men who built her. Many of whom came out of retirement to teach younger men the tools and methods. 

Men who took such pride in their work they carved names and dates into the beams and ribs in the bottom deck.

Men who left a legacy. A legacy of nearly forgotten skills being reborn. A legacy that lives in so many recreated ships that live today.

Men who when told it can’t be done responded the only way they knew how – just watch me.

The promise to love and care for Mayflower II had been broken.

The damn the torpedoes attitude of Hornblower and Charlton was missing.

Not among my coworkers. They were some of the most dedicated people I have ever known. People so dedicated that for them learning and growing was as natural as breathing.

Were it not for them nothing would work at Plimoth Plantation.

But among the decision makers. Those who call the shots.

Those in the Long Hallway.

I learned very quickly that any proposal was quickly met with cynicism and suspicion.

That the first thought from management was not why we should but why we can’t.

Instead of being encouraged to find a way I was all too often told “we don’t have the budget” or “maybe next year.”

And when next year came around it was again “maybe next year”.

When I was asked how much it would cost to make a particular item I gave an honest answer only to be met with blank stares. I’ll get back to you was almost a universal response.

It was rare that they got back to me.

Promises of work to to carry us through the winter broken. Sometimes within a matter of minutes.

Carrot and stick. More stick than carrot.

Rivalry between departments encouraged.

A pervasive us against them attitude.

Divide and conquer.

Suspicion and back stabbing were the currency by which advancement could most easily be bought.

A culture of narcissism and nepotism had taken hold.

Sycophancy held in higher esteem than creativity.

Worst of all an upper management that demanded respect from the staff that they would never return.

One manager who wishes so badly to be involved in theatre or film that he becomes a obsequious toady whenever there is a film crew on sight. Who is so envious of those who paid the price and had long careers in those fields he finds not so subtle ways to marginalize them.

Another who thinks her theatre degree and one or two years of working in a box office are equivalent to another’s decades of work in the field. Who takes it upon herself to keep a list of those who she feels don’t measure up – even if she has no direct connection to them. Who takes pride in getting those she doesn’t like fired.

Some who are so frightened for their personal fiefdom they regard talented people as a threat instead of an asset. So personally insecure they distrust anyone who has talent or skill or knowledge that they don’t have.

Never in in my life have I seen so much talent so taken for granted.

Never have I seen such valuable people so utterly abused.

Never have I seen a management so blinded by their own ego.

Is this is why Mayflower II has suffered the fate she has?

How could such a lack of imagination and over abundance of ego had taken over at Plimoth Plantation?

Why does management prefer to see workers burn out instead of nurturing them?

Why don’t they care about the institutional memory that is lost when long time staff finally decide they have had enough?

Why do they treat the Historical Interpreters as secondary to the core mission of Plimoth Plantation? 

Why do they treat workers as disposable goods?

How could they be so far down the rabbit hole?

As I noted before the can do spirit is sadly lacking. For various reasons Plimoth Plantation has been suffering financially for a number of years.

This has led to cutbacks in staffing – but curiously not in administration – to where visitors often have to seek out Pilgrims.

Many houses stand empty. Many are subjected to mischevious children. Worse vandalism and theft are not uncommon.

There is a pervasive do it on the cheap attitude that makes things much more difficult for those doing the actual work.

When I was first assigned to work in the craft center I was forced to work with what amounted to left over scraps of leather from other people’s projects. I started mid season and I knew this was to be a bit of an experiment so I plowed through and did the best I could. From all reports my work was well regarded. My supervisor even told me that hiring me was one of the best decisions she ever made.

The following year I was allowed to order supplies I needed but I had to wait until it could be determined if all other needs were met. There was no line item in the budget for leather goods. 

Frankly from what I could determine there was very little breakdown of how money was to be spent. It seemed like they just told each department “this is how much you get this year” and they were expected to complete their mission without complaint.

At the end of what would turn out to be my final year at Plimoth Plantation I was asked if I would be able to take on several substantial leather projects for different departments. I said I could if I could get the supplies to do so.

I never heard from my supervisor to submit my budget proposal. I tried time and again to catch her attention so I could inform her of my needs.

More was being asked of all of us yet less was being offered.

One former worker expressed it best. Loved the job. Hated the place.

How could this be?

Lack of vision? Lack of imagination? Fear?

All of the above? None of the above?

I can only speak to my own experience and observations.

Top management seems intimidated by the working staff. Instead of celebrating the uniqueness each person brings they seem to fear those who might know something they themselves do not.

They are intimidated by creativity that they do not possess themselves. Or perhaps they fear keeping creative people around.

Problems they can’t personally imagine a solution for get ignored.

Nearly every time the big boss spoke to staff she told us it was impossible to get donors to give money to fund staff positions. Her subtext was clear. She just didn’t think we were important enough to go to bat for.

When a house in The English Village started to collapse the she made a conscious effort to ignore the problem. Even while visiting the village the very next day she made a point of avoiding even looking at the house. At no time did she approach any of us who worked in the house to ask if we were OK or even send a memo around acknowledging the issue or expressing concern.

Instead of attacking the problems at hand she would promote grandiose ideas that further depleted our limited resources and abilities to do our jobs.

As she imposed these ideas on the rest of us conditions became worse and worse. Mayflower II became not just in need of help but in the words of some an actual hazard.

As is all too often the case inconvenience and hazard not equally shared by those above.

What can one expect from management that chooses to work from home but requires staff to remain on Mayflower II or in the Village and Homesite during a major storm? That refuses to allow an early closing when requested by on site supervisors.

More and more conditions in the village continued to deteriorate. Without enough staff to man all the houses damages and losses increased. On busy days we knew that we would look into at least one of the houses to find it utterly trashed. Ashes from the hearth would be scattered around. Tools, clothing and blankets would be found in piles on the floor and more than once missing.

It became impossible to supervise the number of visitors who came through – particularly on days with large numbers of student groups – with the declining number of staff.

Whenever we tried to address the issue the answer was the same – we don’t have the money.

Ticket sales kept declining and instead of looking at why they found a way to place blame.

More and more visitors were disappointed with what they found at Plimoth Plantation. Instead of addressing these concerns visitors comment cards were carefully edited to reflect the rose colored view upper management wanted to believe.

More and more attention and resources were shifted away from Harry Hornblower’s core mission to pet projects that were supposed to turn things around. Well in the minds of the long hallway.

In the past few years Plimoth Plantation has lost much of the talent that made it work for years. Some – like myself – were walked unceremoniously to their cars for some perceived slight and without any opportunity to defend themselves. Others seeing the writing on the wall and getting tired of taking the blame for management’s inadequacies chose to leave. Then there were those who were simply not asked to return.

In at least one case an interpreter who worked only summers on Mayflower failed to break away from the group of visitors he was speaking with to fawn over the big boss when she came aboard.

Later that day his supervisor pulled him aside to tell him what a terrible mistake he had made. That was the last summer he worked for Plimoth Plantation.

I say without reservation that the some of the people they have lost were perhaps the best on the planet at what they do. The rest were in there own way very much like Charlton and Hornblower. People who saw the impossible as just another obstacle to get past.

If you have to run through a wall then do it at top speed and leave behind a hole shaped like yourself.

The management is no longer able to do that. They can’t see the forest for the trees. 

Overwhelmed by the real problems they pile grandiose idea upon grandiose idea hoping that no one will notice the old failures for the shiny new toy.

More often than not I hear from friends about how disappointed they are with what Plimoth Plantation has become. More and more I hear from their old friends who are still at Plimoth Plantation how low moral has become.

Bake shops and pet projects are not what people come to see. They are there to meet Pilgrims not The Mad Hatter. They are there to be able to sit and talk with a Pilgrim or a Native American. They are not there to bring a loaf of bread home.

People by and large are curious and wish to learn. How many times did someone express to me or my coworkers how much they appreciated learning some little thing they never knew before. How much they admired our ability to keep in character.

What a great feeling to know that you have touched someone’s life even in a small way.

This is the biggest thing that management does not – cannot understand.

This is the rift management has created between themselves and the interpretive staff. This is the rift that management has created between themselves and the visitors.

This is the rift that comes from not listening to the people on the ground. From not caring about the people on the ground.

This is the rift that causes the kind of neglect that Mayflower II suffered.

This is why promises get broken.

This is how the legacy of men like Warwick Charlton and Harry Hornblower get brushed aside.

So today if you wish to visit Mayflower II you have to drive to Mystic CT. She sits in a drydock in the hope that she will return in time for Plymouth 400.

Not a certainty by any means.

Then again when I first joined her crew the promise had been that she would be fit to join the Parade of Sail Boston 2017.

Another promise broken.

Joseph B. Walker

Ex Interpreter

Plimoth Plantation


One comment

  1. Kathleen M. Wall · August 28, 2017

    Reblogged this on Foodways Pilgrim and commented:
    From a former Pilgrim Husband….as we still work for a contract

    Liked by 1 person

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