First the Fireworks
On July 3 -- after watching a small group of friends consume 18 pounds of hamburger, a storehouse of ribs, several Costco-sized flats of fowl, 4 yards of links, no less than 15 bowls of pasta, potato, and vegetable salad, a pond of margaritas, and copious cases of beer -- I follow the dwindling remnants of the mobile-and-conscious to the front stoop (actually, the neighbor's front stoop), where a bag of illicit pyrotechnics emerges from the trunk of a stolidly American car. With casual aplomb, bottle rockets skim past cars and land on rooftops of newly developed loft spaces; Roman candles, gripped in drink-bewildered hands, are pointed at friends and loved ones with fuses still burning; sidewinders skitter just past legs and tires before exploding in the street. Gina Messa twirls in the center of the broad sidewalk, clutching a string of small exploding firecrackers. Her fingers are burnt only a little, and she grins with perfect white teeth as she waves her stinging fingers in the cooling night air, sitting on the step beside me. She is clearly excited. Her breath is rapid and shallow, and her eyes, framed by short, even bangs, are as wide and watchful as a child in summer who has just trapped and released a grass snake.
"I'm a pretty normal girl," says Messa, watching closely as a lighter is set to another fuse, "but I love blowing things up. I love fireworks."
We all do. We can hardly help it. It's in our blood.
"During the War for Independence, the colonies fought the British Navy, which was, at that time, the largest in the world," says Capt. Steve Peckham aboard the tallship Pilgrim of Newport. "That's the equivalent of Ethiopia taking on the U.S. Navy, today." The crowd murmurs appreciatively, squinting in the blinding glare of the morning sun reflecting off the bay.
"We beat them by outsmarting them," continues Peckham, a thin, wiry, weather-tanned man with a trim beard and a pale blue shirt that reads, "When men were iron and ships were made of wood."
"We outsmarted them with small, maneuverable ships like this."
The Pilgrim is a gorgeous, 114-foot topsail schooner built by master shipwright Dennis Holland to resemble a privateer vessel used during the Revolutionary War to capture enemy crafts and cargo. While Holland was obsessed enough with building the ship to move his family aboard, so he could rent their home to get money for lumber, he never sailed the craft.
"Captains don't know how to build ships," says Peckham, "and shipbuilders don't know how to sail ships." The Pilgrim's current owner, Wade Hall, serves as Peckham's deckhand. After the holiday, he and the rest of the crew -- first mate (and captain's wife) Carol Peckham, second mate Antonio Weise, deckmate Dan Wollenstein, and gunner Gary Harper -- and 10 young teens from a transitional program sponsored in the San Diego area will race seven other tallships on the open sea, from San Francisco to Long Beach. Covering the journey is Tom Steinbeck, son of John Steinbeck; as usual, Tom has the look of a brigadier on safari. (Ten years earlier, in a small bar in winter Massachusetts, Steinbeck and I waged a drinking campaign of fuzzy but monumental proportions. Steinbeck says he's happy to see us both alive; his face suggests surprise might be the more suitable adjective.)
But just now, there are battles to be waged.
"Let's go blast some holes in the Hawaiian Chieftain," says Capt. Peckham, fixing his steely gaze on the bay. A large portion of the 60 guests aboard are put to work hoisting the mainsail with a feebly intoned, "Heave! Ho!" Two volunteers are asked to man the wheel, and we head out for open water, where the official state tallship Californian and the locally moored Hawaiian lie in wait, still rankling from the previous day's conflict.
"I can't help it if our cannoneer loads faster than anybody else on the water," says Peckham with false modesty. "I can't help it that the Californian is state-funded, and they just run out of ammo sometimes." Other tales of antagonism unfold: Bras hung from figureheads, potted trees tied to masts, floating food fights, general mocking. We have stepped on board, into a war zone. Wollenstein, sporting a shaved head and two hooped earrings, scrutinizes a map with crowlike attention; Weise, with his wild hair and bare feet, runs from bow to stern checking and securing lines; Peckham states precise, stern orders in a voice that rarely strains: "Four spokes left," "Full right," "Two spokes left." Within moments the helmsmen are exhausted and asking for relief.
"This isn't a cruise," says the impassive captain. A tremendous tanker crosses our path with a warning bellow and a wake that drenches the deck. When it passes, the enemy ships are in sight. "Clear middeck!" shouts Peckham as Harper -- in a black tunic and red bandanna -- readies the cannons. "Fire!" A loud explosion and a trail of smoke denotes the line of fire: a solid hit on the Hawaiian's port bow. The smell of gunpowder hangs in the air. A little girl wrinkles her nose, but claps as the Pilgrim erupts with applause. The Hawaiian maneuvers, trying to land a broadside hit, but her guns are silent: Her flint stock is out. "Reload! Fire!" The morning is shattered by another thunderous crack. The Hawaiian takes a second hit and the crowd is ecstatic.