Saturday, July 7, 2012


 by Leighton Gage
Author of the Inspector Mario Silva novels

We all have our family stories, don’t we?

Here’s one of mine, one that always reminds me how close I came never to writing any books. In fact, how close I came to never having lived at all.
My grandfather was the youngest of seven children.
When he was four, his mother succumbed to diphtheria.
Before he was ten, four of his siblings died of other diseases.
When he was fourteen, his father, a master mariner, who’d spent most of his working life on the sea, tripped on some corn stubble, fell face-down into a puddle and drowned in his own back yard.
My grandfather’s brother, twenty-two years older, became his legal guardian. But they didn’t get along. So granddad soon followed the family tradition and went to sea.

He taught himself geometry, taught himself navigation, took and passed his master’s papers for both sail and steam.

In June of 1903, aboard the Andrew Nebbinger, a five-masted schooner bound from Valparaiso to New York by way of Cape Horn, the captain’s appendix burst – and he died of septicemia. My grandfather, then serving as his first mate, took over the ship. It was his first command. He was twenty-one years old.

In the course of the next fifteen years, he had many adventures, survived two shipwrecks and also being blown-up by high explosive when a German submarine fired on his vessel.
But he never married.
One day, in early January of 1918, with the First World War still raging in Europe, he and his best friend, Billy Butler, arranged to meet for a drink at a bar in Boston.
Captain Butler was scheduled to set sail for Cape Town in the morning, and my grandfather, for Bermuda, three days later.
Both ran into heavy weather. My grandfather’s survival was touch and go. By the time the storm abated, he’d lost two of his masts and been blown halfway to Africa. And then his ship was becalmed.
Captain Butler, driven to another part of the North Atlantic by the same storm, put into Bermuda for repairs, went ashore and checked into the New Windsor Hotel, then a favorite of seafaring men. And each morning, when he’d come down for breakfast, he’d ask the girl behind the desk, an eighteen-year-old who’d just begun working there, if there was news of my grandfather’s ship.

Most sailing vessels, in those days, didn’t carry radios. Three weeks went by without a word. 

Captain Butler left Bermuda convinced that he’d lost a friend. But he hadn’t. The very next day, my grandfather sailed into Hamilton Harbor and checked into the same hotel.
The following morning, the girl saw his name on the register, screwed up her courage and knocked on granddad’s door to tell him how concerned his friend had been.
I have before me a yellowed clipping from Bermuda’s Royal Gazette, the only daily newspaper on the island, published continuously since 1828.
It’s dated Tuesday, February 26, 1918.
The headline reads: ROMANCE OF THE SEA.
The sub-head reads Wedding followed by Honeymoon on Husband's Vessel.

In the body of the article, readers are informed that a wedding took place at St. John’s Church, Pembroke, on February the 22nd, 1918, at 7:30 PM with “the Ven. the Archdeacon officiating” and that it was followed by a supper at the Royal Windsor Hotel, “provided by Mr. A. M. Moore”.
The hotel is long gone.
The church is not.

These days it looks like this. 

The eighteen-year old was my grandmother. I can’t get at any of my photos of her at the moment, but she was quite beautiful.
The vessel was my grandfather’s. They continued to live aboard ship until their first two children were born. Some of my mother’s earliest memories were of the sounds of a tall ship – the creaks of wood and rope, the wash of water against the deck and hull.
And Billy Butler?

After sailing out of Hamilton Harbor, his ship was lost at sea.

No trace of him, or his vessel, was ever found.

How’s that for fate?


Leighton Gage writes the highly-acclaimed Chief Inspector Mario Silva series, crime novels set in Brazil. His latest is A Vine in the Blood

You can visit him on the web at: and read his blog at


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

What a wonderful story, Leighton. That butterfly that changes the course of history must have been hovering benignly over your grandparents.

Sheila Connolly said...

What an amazing story, and how delightful that it has been passed down to you with so much detail.

jenny milchman said...

It's difficult to get our heads around how much had to align in order for us to be...right here. Thanks for sharing this story, and that wonderful photo, Leighton.

Danielle and kids said...

A story so fragile, it wouldn't have been realistic when made up. Your daughter and all of your soon to be five grandchildren thank you for posting this!

lil Gluckstern said...

Wonderful, and very moving story. i get chills thinking about what these men faced, let alone the medical problems that are so routine today. Thank you for the post, and I'm glad you're here.

Sandra Parshall said...

I love this story. Thanks for sharing it on our blog, Leighton. You started me thinking, and I realized I probably wouldn't be here if my grandfather's first wife and first child hadn't died in a horse and buggy accident around 100 years ago. He married again, and his second wife was my grandmother.

Theresa de Valence said...

A great story!

Leighton Gage said...

Thanks to All for the kind words. My wife has been after me for years to write this one down. And I've always resisted. I didn't think anyone outside of the family would be interested.
As usual, I was wrong and she was right.
And, Sandy, I loved your contribution.
The ancient Greeks pondered often about fate.
These days, few of us do.
Just one more thing, I think, we could learn from the ancient Greeks.

Lenny Kleinfeld said...

FADO, indeed, and romance on an oceanic scale. A wonderful tale. And one that suggests its time for you to write down all the family anecdotes you're certain are of no interest to anyone who doesn't sit at your table every Thanksgiving.