A good lesson indeed.
In my youth (for me, that is from birth to age 55), I used to assume everyone was just like me. Since the only experience I had ever had as a person was as me, how was I supposed to think otherwise?
This, of course, caused issues in my life. I think the fact that I have so few friends to this day is because I held them to a higher standard than they themselves wanted to achieve. It could be argued that I did this was some of my exes. It wasn’t my ego at work; I could see the potential in them they couldn’t see. I thought if I could help them reach that potential, they would meet some kind of goal that was eluding them, whether it was being smarter, more creative, or as I have come to learn more recently, a better pirate.
The lesson became very apparent at a recent reunion of the Seattle Seafair Pirates. Many years ago, 40 to be precise, I was brought into this magical world. It was 1982 and in Seattle and its environs, the Seafair Pirates were the rock stars of their day. They could get away with things that to this day some people won’t believe. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about these antics, I mean, I wrote a book on that part of my life. But we could carouse, womanize, drink, drive drunk, fire sawed-off shotguns in downtown streets, and trash a hotel room or two (or three). Everyone ate it up.
Times have changed, of course. And I have too, it seems. I thought the reunion would be a lot of fun. My old pirate buddies are dying off by the day and the number of times we will spend together is rapidly dwindling.
I showed up early at The Ballard Elks. The pirates were upstairs, and I was down in the member’s quarters with my fellow Elks. As the time neared for the formal part of the reunion meetup, I found I couldn’t go into the room. It’s not that I wasn’t welcomed. I had been invited. But suddenly it felt as if I were attending a reunion for the Class of 2022 when I was in the Class of 1982, and from a different school. Though we claimed a similar origin, I had nothing in common with the guys assembled in the room, reliving a past glory they themselves never experienced firsthand. This isn’t to fault them mind you. Time marches on and people and experiences come and go.
Over the last few days, I have been counting pirates as I go to sleep. It’s a lot like counting sheep but there’s a lot more facial hair. As I did this, it occurred to me why I am so different in this world, the pirate world that is.
Forty years into it, my persona has continued to build on that period from 1982 to 1990 when we drank, cavorted and paraded as a band of pirates. Those 56 guys were my brothers (two of them really were brothers) and I was in the halcyon days of the group without even knowing it.
As a 24 year old, I got to learn from the same guys who started the group in 1949 and those who came along during the crazy days when Seafair handed the pirates a big check every year to run around town and party like there was no tomorrow. I was harvesting a gold mine of knowledge about how to do improvisation, perform, run parades and serve as goodwill ambassadors. In short, I was learning to live life as a pirate, both in gear and out.
My teachers had hundreds of years of experience. In those short eight years before I went off on my own in the famed mutiny, I went on hundreds of voyages with these characters; many of them were playing pirate a decade before I was even born. What would become my best friend to this day, Bobby Smyth, was Captain in 1971 of the Seafair Pirates. I was 13 years old.
It was like going to a music school and the instructors were Beethoven, Gerswhin and Jimi Hendrix. These guys were the rock stars of their time and I got the honor of being a young sponge, soaking up everything I could.
I paid back all this education, mind you. I was a singer. We’d hit a bar, I’d sing with my band or alone, and the patrons and bar owner would buy us round after round to keep us there. We were always late to the next place, in part because I have 80 or so songs in my head.
For 40 years, I have been able to keep their lessons alive and add a few of my own. That night at the Elks, I did what I always do. I brought my guitar in with me, sat it down on the table, and waited for someone to ask me if I could play that thing. At that moment, the Entertainment Light went on in my head, and like a jukebox stuck on random play, I sang whatever came to mind.
The next day, I remembered the comment from a former crewmate. She asked one time if the rest of the crew was just supposed to be window dressing or band groupies while the band and I did our thing.
I would reply, just entertain the crowd. Mingle, talk to them, make them laugh. Some could; others didn’t have a clue. Eventually, they would all sit down at a table and talk among themselves. It wasn’t their fault at all that they couldn’t do what I do. I learned from the best through osmosis (and alcohol). Hell, there are days when I still don’t sit down for hours because we used make fun of those pirates who were just holding up the bar or appeared to be supper clubbers, showing up for the freebies but not really earning their keep.
Most of those ol’ salts are gone now. There are few of us left from those days, and even fewer still pirating.
As I read the names on my list of 56 pirates who taught me so much, I think back to this magical time when I was still trying to grow up ever so slightly and all these old farts became my friends and crewmates. I wish others could have seen so many of them in action, from Weaver Dial who always had the right gimmick in his seabag to Bourbon Jack. Jack and Curly had the sixth sense to find all the best happy hours in town minutes after arriving, and more importantly, would get us invited to some premium places to play pirate, from Rosellini’s 410 to the Bull & Finch (the real Cheers) where, instruments in hand, we walked right by the block-long line of tourists waiting an hour or more to get in. We ended upstairs, singing songs to the owner’s mother. It turned out to be her birthday.
Thanks to all of you. And my apologies to those who I thought should be just like me, knowing now that we all have our own journeys, our unique talents and stories to share around the table.
But please don’t judge me if I smile at you, say “it’s good to see you” and quickly move off to sing another song, catch myself in a net or drive my terrifying inflatable shark on an RC car down the road. It’s what I know. It’s who I am. And I owe it to those who came before me to share the same magic.
Just north of the Emerald City, amazed by how lucky I have been to live the life I’ve had. So far…
My Taskmasters (1982 – 1990)
“Plywood” Bill Johnston
Art “The Chief” Karelsen
Bill “Taylor” Englehart
“Bourbon” Jack Langeloh
Dave “Dogmeat” Speckels
Ellard “Black Bart” Bartlett
Nick Nichols (Kinler)
Richard “Bulldog” Eberhardt