A sea story about Watergate and January 6th – Updated

This weekend I’m thinking about Watergate, the scandal that began when some operatives burgled a Democratic office and got caught. That happened in the run-up to the 1972 election, which Nixon won hugely, in June I believe. I was fishing then, off New England, chasing offshore lobster in Lydonia Canyon out on the edge of the shelf, maybe 120 miles from Nantucket. My skipper, Sten, who passed away in 2000, was an avid reader of Doonesbury. He had a close friend, David Martin, also long gone, who had worked on Elliot Richardson’s staff back when Richardson was instrumental in establishing the Cape Cod National Seashore. Sten followed politics, sort of, which we learned in the coming two years as you will see.

I have a very vague and dim memory of reading about the break-in. The “Plumbers,” I think they were called.

We had a very tough summer, that summer, because we had switched from long lining for cod and haddock to the lobster fishery and we were making every mistake you could make, plus fighting for bottom with other lobster boats in the deep canyons off Massachusetts. However, by the fall we started to make some money, land some big trips. We had 600 traps, in 50 trap strings, out there and we would fish those traps for a week or ten days before coming in. We had a flooded lobster hold with refrigeration. In the late fall, November, we chased the lobsters up into shoal water, 30-50 fathoms, on the slope of Georges Bank, and on December 7th a Russian fleet of four boats came upon us and our gear and nearly wiped us out, towing through the traps such that we lost 500 of the 600 traps despite our best efforts to wave them away. A little 65 foot wooden longliner against 300-foot  Russian stern trawlers is no match at all.

That winter, 1972-1973, I was living in a drafty cottage in Dennis, Mass, with the remaining 100 traps stacked alongside the driveway, and while Sten chased funding for more traps I spent the winter with piles of five-eighths inch polypropylene line splicing and rigging the 50-trap “trawls” in the living room. This was a lot of splicing – splicing sections of groundline together with long splices, splicing into the line loops for the brummel hooks to attach the trawl to, splicing in the brummel hooks, and splicing the collars and loop[s and hooks for the 500 new 48 inch long lobster traps, made of plastic coated stiff wire. I’d sit in the living room with gear all over, a sharp knife, bent over, splicing.  It was a long winter, cold. This was the start of the Energy Crisis, embargoes, lines at gas stations, and pundits spoke of a coming ice age.

I watched a lot of TV, the one station I could see, a black and white flickering screen, long before cable TV let alone the web, and consequently I ended up watching all the televised Watergate hearings that winter, Sam Ervin, Butterfield, John Dean, Howard Baker, endless hours of testimony about the break in. I was watching when Butterfield (I think it was Butterfield) announced that all the meetings in the Oval Office were taped. It was a sensation, pandemonium.

That spring we went back out there with the new gear and tried to recoup our losses. The Watergate thing moved along, with stories about tapes and fights for tapes, and John Dean was accused of being a traitor to the Republican cause, and all the Republicans, to a man (they were nearly all men then) howled that the entire Watergate thing was a political witch hunt. Still, a special prosecutor was appointed in the early summer of 1973, Archibald Cox, and thus began a bitter fight over tapes and their release.

Meanwhile we fished, hard, barely hanging on. Lydionia Canyon became too crowded and we heard there were a lot of lobsters being caught up on Brown’s Bank, Canadian waters off Nova Scotia, at the same time as Sten arranged with his Nova Scotian friends (half our crew were boys from Clark’s Harbor, Nova Scotia) to rig out a longliner to harpoon swordfish, which we would take aboard at sea and bring back to the US for sale, splitting the money. Swordfish was illegal then due to a mercury scare. We ended up loading all our gear on the boat, three total round trips, and moved it to the southwest tail of Brown’s Bank. The tides were awful up there and we hid in the fog and sank the buoy lines, grappling them up to haul gear using the Loran A to find it.

Big mistake, all the way around. In the end we moved the gear back to a little unnamed canyon east of Lydonia and did OK, and through the fall made a year of it.

Labor Day weekend that summer, 1973, we were between trips to our gear (which was a 16 hour steam from the boat’s base in Hyannis, Mass) and Sten asked me and Gary, another member of the crew, if we’d help him because he had agreed that weekend to take his boat to Chatham to pick up some people and then go out to Monomoy Island to the outer beach – his friend, David Martin, the wife and grown kids of Francis Sargent, former governor of Massachusetts, and Elliot Richardson and his wife. Richardson, from Massachusetts, was the Attorney General of the United States at this time, and Gary and I knew he had been under intense pressure all summer concerning Archibald Cox, Watergate, and what to do.

We picked everyone up at Stage Harbor, Chatham – I brought the boat with Gary up from Hyannis and we met Sten there –  and motored about fifteen miles out to the end of Monomoy Island, where we anchored just offshore and rowed everyone in to the beach. It was more than a little intimidating to be right next to the Attorney General, and a former governor’s family, especially because Gary and I looked like long haired hippies, especially after the summer we’d had, and when we got to the beach everyone ate from the picnic basket and then Gary and I took off over the dunes because we both felt out of place and awkward. Elliot Richardson had brought fishing gear and he was setting up to surf cast. He’d be standing at the most eastern end of the Cape Cod mainland, miles from any houses or people, facing the Atlantic, Washington and the political fever far to the south.

Gary and I, over the dune and across the point that ended the island, hung around and then, because it was a hot sunny day and what the hell, went swimming, bare ass naked. The water was nice, even warm, and we were in the water a while. When we came out, though, a current had carried us one way and Elliot had come the other way, casting, and when we emerged there we were, streaming water and without clothes, ten feet from the Attorney General. Elliot was totally unfazed by us, polite. In fact I think he was delighted to be in such a contrast to the fevers back in DC.

“How was the swimming?” he asked us.
“Nice. How was the fishing? Catch anything?”
“That isn’t the point.” He smiled at us. We smiled back.

That fall the Watergate events heated up. Sten would, while hauling gear way offshore, tune in an AM radio so he could hear the headlines. He ran the boat out on deck on the starboard side and he could hear the radio through an open pilothouse window. I was working aft of him, emptying traps as they came from the water. Sten would yell aft to the rest of us when things happened.

“Nixon’s trying to fire Cox!”
“Richardson resigned! Ruckelshous resigned!”
“They’re calling it the Saturday night massacre!”

The following spring and summer, now two years since that 1972 break in, evidence mounted as some tapes were released, yet still the Republicans stood as a bloc against anything changing, stood as a bloc claiming this must be a witch hunt. However, once Alexander Butterfield said there were tapes, the witch hunt argument weakened.

That summer Nixon resigned, and he resigned because, eventually, the Republican Senators came to see the battle must be lost, the evidence was too overwhelming, and once the Senators turned, it was over, and Nixon was gone.

I am thinking of Watergate these days because, while the Watergate scandal was very different than the issues surrounding the January 6th attack on the Capitol, there has been one great similarity – months and months of solid Republican unity, unity in favor of their President or former President.

But, when Butterfield made the announcement there are tapes, early on, I sensed then that the character of the situation had changed materially, so now with the release of phone records and text messages, speculation must now shift to awareness and reality. It is hard to claim a political witch hunt in the face of evidence, visible to all.

It feels, right now, very much the way it felt at the end of July, 1974, when evidence became a torrent and it was abundantly clear laws had been broken. I have said to myself throughout this latest January 6th event that unless and until members of the former Presidents party accept evidence as true and significant, little can and will change. This has been especially the case even though Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger have shown great courage to pursue the truth, but them alone.

It feels, this February 9th, based first on Mitch McConnell’s statements right after the papers were released to the Committee about seeing where the investigation leads, and then the other day coming out and forcefully stating the January 6th events were an effort to overturn the election, something might be shifting. Not much has shifted so far, but a few Republicans are coming forth to back McConnell, although at this point it seems clear they are doing this mostly to protect their own backsides than because those acts that day were sedition or treason

Back in the late summer of 1974 I had no idea, standing embarrassed and naked before the U.S. Attorney General, surely facing the decision of his lifetime, that I was standing before a true and real American hero. But I was. I am lucky for that. We all are. Now, nearly a half century later, every day, it seems, more evidence comes forth – the use of burn bags to destroy records, efforts to flush papers down the toilet, call logs and notes linking together a very broad conspiracy. What is still missing, though are any heroes, men or women who will stand before the flame and speak truth.

Where are they?


When I was fishing on the East and Gulf Coasts a long time ago – actually a damn long time ago – there was a saying that wandered the docks. When boats tied up together in a port the guys working on the boats would talk to each other, on the dock or aboard boats or in the nearby barroom, catch up on scuttlebutt and gossip, tell lies. There was a phrase that floated around about some captains – actually at times more than some captains – and that phrase was, “He’s a screamer.” This meant that this person could not give an order without screaming the words, shouting, and often it seemed the case that no order was properly given unless it included at least two graphic insults.

There were of course more captains, usually many more captains, who were not screamers, they were level-headed men (and these days they include many women too) who had the crew’s respect, who rarely had to give orders because the crew knew what was expected and jumped to.

If you were lucky enough to be on a boat with a “good captain, meaning, someone who was all right to work for, this usually meant you were also on a boat that was well maintained, that carried the proper survival gear, where things usually worked, and where you made money. The crew members often became friends. I can name many boats which were based in New Bedford which had the same crew for two or three decades, they fished together, hunted deer together, and their captains, I am almost sure, were never screamers.

I worked for both types, and let me tell you, working for a screamer was dangerous, difficult, and downright scary at timers. The biggest issue was that screamers could not keep crew, they either fired those they did not like or drove the crew away, which meant that those of us who remained had to work twice as hard training the new guys every trip as well as doing the work. Boats with screamers in the wheelhouse gathered foc’sle lawyers down below, and disgruntled complainers, and laggards and bums.

I always figured the good captains remembered where they came from, how hard it was to learn the ropes, and had the good sense to admit when they didn’t know something, and were unafraid to ask. The good captains explained what was needed and gave others the respect to get it done, and in my experience if you treat someone as if they will do the job well, they usually do, whereas if you hover and pester the result is terrible.

The good captains were humble. They knew they did not know everything. They honored the weather and the force of the ocean. They supported the others around them and the others around them supported them. They went to work and brought back fish and an income, and they did it without breaking the crew.

Screamers? Never humble. Always trying to be on top, and better than. Never listen. Shout and scream and get angry easily. Have these ideas they have come up with which they declare must be true and refuse to admit they make no sense.

“Watch out for him, he’s a screamer.”

It feels, these days, the screamers gave taken over damn near everything, shouting their point of view and beliefs everywhere, insulting others, not listening, and most of all not learning or facing facts. Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone in the wheelhouse who assumed everyone on the boat was equally intent on making an income and coming home safe. That’s the case, or was, in the fishing industry, anyway.

It seems to me that the reason it feels like we have screamers everywhere – in politics, in the media, on school playgrounds – must have something to do with forgetting that we cannot have a community unless people listen and speak carefully, meaning, are humble with themselves and others. At sea, in the microcosm world that was limited to the boat, a screamer was toxic, dangerous, and inflected the entire world. In ancient times such a person was driven from the tribe, shunned, left to wander alone. Maybe we could use a little more of that now, because with all the screaming going on, people lose sight of what they don’t know, what they need too learn, and what they should be doing to keep the community strong.

Dory Men

Denny was born up Pubnico way in eighteen and ninety two,

In nineteen eleven to Boston he came, a dory man tried and true.

He fished from a dory for thirty two years till the war put an end to the trade

Moved to Chatham and fished alongshore in good weather, not much, but a living he made,

At age seventy-two he fetched up on the beach in a shack in the woods by the Bay,

Rigged gear for the fleet and cleared our bad snarls, recoiled in a tight perfect lay.

A master, was Denny, rerigging our gear, each bundle a near work of art,

With his help all that summer we landed huge trips and a half share we left in his cart.

Denny was tiny, a lone quiet man, no family he had of we knew,

We’d leave him some beer and groceries to hand in the winter when gear work was few.

Then one day next winter Denny was sick, in his shack stone cold and in pain,

To a hospital bed in Hyannis he went not far from our boat on the bay.

We’d travel to see him, kids twenty five years, he’s lost in the bed, thin and pale,

Hated that hospital food, he did, wouldn’t eat and was wasting away.

So we went to the fish store and bought us some haddock which we cooked on our boat at the dock,

Wrapped it in foil and raced to the hospital, still hot when he reached for his fork.

Oh that fish he did eat, every bit, every bite, and a smile we’d see in his eyes,

So each day we’d cook and bring him his lunch, hear his stories which Denny called lies.

Later he moved to an old people’s home in South Chatham for hospice care,

The food there was better, but Denny was failing, companionship was all he could share.

And always with Denny, those last weeks he had, three men sat with him for hours,

Old dory mates all, telling tales of the days they all shared in their youth and their power,

Harold and Peter and Edward their names, first sailing then steaming offshore,

From their dories through years of weather and waves, saw men lost in the fog evermore.

I can hear those four men, all old, one quite ill, in that pale late afternoon light,

Their memories and laughter of days now long gone when from dories they worked with such pride.

Denny came to Boston a century ago, a dory man he and his mates,

I was lucky to know him, see his art working gear, he was small but to us he was great.

His lies now all lost, the memories too, but I hold in my heart that rare sight,

Four dory men true, gathered together, keeping real their lost way of life.

Now Denny’s long gone, it’s nigh forty years since the kid in me brought gear to his shack,

And just as his memories are lost now forever mine soon will fade in the black.

When you see an old fisherman, hands like burled wood, skin pale and eyes watery and dim,

Unshaven, clothes rumpled, slumped deep in a chair, never judge there’s no glory in him,

His story not written, his memories mist, his whole way of life but a dream,

Whaler, salt banker, dory man he, now one with the unchanging sea.