Monday, January 23, 2012

Anchors Away

Captain Johnston Blakely

I am partner to a mystery.  

This month in my essay "The Vizio," I included a paragraph on the town of Olyphant, Pennsylvania and the hugh iron anchor that rests within a few feet of the village welcome sign.  Although I have searched the web and scoured the town streets from West Lackawanna to Lafayette, I have yet to get a precise answer on the origin of this unique and completely out-of-place, shipyard artifact. 

Some residents claim it is a conductor of extraterrestrial forces rumored to hold Olyphant in their grip; a magnetized directional device tuned into the constellation Orion.  Some suggest it is a key piece in a covert map leading to a hidden energy portal the town fathers discovered long ago; a vortex into a fourth dimensional tunnel connected to the great pyramids of Egypt with a vast treasure concealed within its depths.  (I remind the reader, winters are long and hard in these parts!) 

With renewed interest I contacted the Lackawanna County Historical Society.  The director wrote back and explained that this huge, multi-ton anchor was from the American sloop-of-war, Wasp, a fighting frigate commanded by young Johnston Blakely during the War of 1812.  Its close proximity to the Welcome To Olyphant billboard is just coincidence.  Confusing though it may be, the anchor actually belongs to the adjacent Borough of Blakely, named in honor of the valiant naval Captain.   

I was raised in the Mid-west and so have little first hand knowledge of seafaring vessels. Still, from what I've read about sailing ships of the early 19th century, they were pretty cramped, stinky shells of canvas and board.  The Goliath-size anchor in Olyphant (excuse me, Blakely) seems a tad too big for a wood hulled boat from that era.  So I started digging into the archives to see if this Blakely fella could really have had a ship that packed an anchor of that size.  What I discovered was a larger than life military hero.   

Johnston Blakely was a handsome, self-made man, well on his way to becoming an attorney at the University of North Carolina when the income-generating merchant houses he had inherited from his father burned to the ground.  Uninsured, the young gentleman's fortune was wiped out in the blink of an eye.  Instead of accepting a loan from Edward Jones, his foster father and North Carolina's Solicitor General, Blakely opted for a commission as a mid-shipman in the fledgling US Navy.  He spent the first six years of his new career boating about the Mediterranean Sea, honing his maritime skills and perfecting his tan. The incoming administration then slashed the Navy's budget and Johnston was forced to sail home.   A few lean, uneventful years followed during which our young talent was forced to seek work aboard some putrid smelling, rat-infested merchant ships. Then, in 1808, the tide of fortune again reversed and mid-shipman Johnston Blakely was promoted to Lieutenant.

Within three years Blakely was granted the command of the USS Enterprise (yes, the namesake of Captain Kirk's starship) and then the War of 1812 broke out.  Straight away this first generation Irish-American started kicking some serious English butt.  After he captured, looted and burned his first English merchant vessel, he was posted to Newburyport, Massachusetts to oversee the construction of his own commerce raider, the 509 ton, eighteen gun, one hundred twenty-three man sloop, Wasp.   As soon as it hit the waves, Blakely spred sail for New York City and there took himself a bride, the well groomed, strikingly endowed Miss Anne Hoope.  After a lovely spring ceremony and intimate good-bye, the young officer returned to his ship. On May 1, 1814 Johnston put out of New York Harbor smiling, completely unaware that he was leaving behind not one, but two new Blakelys.
Wasp and her crew reached the English Channel in fine time and bagged their first "prize" by June 2nd.  Within four weeks, four more unarmed British merchant ships were captured and burned, then on the 28th of the month Blakely met up with the the Royal Navy's HMS Reindeer.  At close quarters, cannons blazing, the two vessels locked in combat.  The American commander, blue-blood a-boil and a picture of fair Anne over his heart, quickly out maneuvered and out gunned the British warship, leaving its floundering hulk ablaze. A benevolent conquerer, Johnston took on survivors and set sail for France to secure repairs.  But Lt. Blakely's appetite for victory was not so easily sated.  Wasp soon engaged and sunk two more vessels before reaching the dry docks of L'Orient on the French coast. 

By the end of August, Wasp was back in the water and Johnston pointed her bow toward his old stomping grounds, the Straits of Gibraltar.  Like a shark among schools of grouper, the Wasp gobbled up the enemy then swung north again for the English Channel, where it lay waste to the eighteen cannon HMS Avon.   Although news traveled slowly across the dark and stormy waters of the North Atlantic, word of Lieutenant Blakely's incredible success reached the United States by the fall.  His swashbuckling heroics were applauded in every seaside hamlet in America, bringing a blush to young Anne's cheeks, who in her sixth month of pregnancy, had grown plump and remarkably voluptuous.  The stirring press accounts the Lieutenant received also provided a much needed boost to the country's moral, off setting losses like Washington DC, which had been burned to the ground by British invaders.   A special session of Congress presently convened and the husband of Mrs Anne Blakely was promptly promoted to Captain.    

Unfortunately, Captain Johnston Blakely never actually received his commission.  Somewhere southwest of the famous wine producing island of Madeira, Wasp vanished.  No war ship ever claimed her as bounty and when she was last sighted by the Swedish crew of the Adonis, the Wasp was under sail and making good headway west, a trail of empty casks adrift behind her.  (only joking, no casks)  

So I says to myself:

"Self, that anchor in Blakely can't possible be from the Wasp; not unless she slipped into town through that energy portal in Olyphant.   No, I think its far more likely ship, crew and anchor are at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and the Blakely keepsake is from some other ship."

Back to the research I go.  I shoot off another note to Mary Ann Moran-Savakinus, the director of the Lackawanna County Historical Society and explain what I've discovered about the fate of Wasp.  Her return email is a humble apology.

"I fell for the same thing so many local residents do when talking about the anchor and its connection to Capt. Blakely and the Wasp. The anchor is not from the Wasp, but from the USS WASP, a WW II Destroyer named for Blakely.  It was dedicated in the mid 1950's. Sorry for any confusion."

Again I start wondering.   Who would have gone out of their way to snag this anchor from a WWII destroyer and pack mule it in here to this hawkin' black lung spit of a town?

So I look up the history of the USS WASP.  Well actually, I try to look up the history of the USS Wasp, but my Wikipedia won't work.  The internet server Google has gone political.  In order to help bring attention to a bill currently before the Senate concerning internet regulation, the owners have shut down their free on-line encyclopedia for 24 hours.  (Damn... and I had already signed the petition calling for no censorship).  Anyway, I find an alternative web site about the aircraft carrierUSS WASP.  It describes a ship that served in the Pacific up until 1942, when it was  torpedoed by the Japanese. One hundred and ninety sailors were killed in the explosions and the fire that followed forced the evacuation of the rest of the crew.  

So I'm thinking:  Torpedoed?  Burning?  South Pacific?  Dead and evacuated sailors?  Davy Jone's Locker?  THE OLYPHANT ENERGY PORTAL?

At the bottom of the web-page there is an email address for the reunion committee of the USS WASP.  I'm doing the mental math and I'm thinking; 

"How many sailors are booking reunion tickets to this shindig?  Its 2012 for Christ sake, the USS WASP sank seventy years ago.  That would make an 18 year old sailor 88 years young today."  

Flagging in planes on the WASP
Then my mind begins to wander. I can hear a Jimmy Dorsey swing tune, the horns punching out the lead lines as white-haired sailors toss skinny little grandmas between their legs and then whisk them over their heads as they jitter-bug and fox-trot their hearts out.  Tomorrow these boys will have Hell to pay, but tonight, high on Pfizer and Lily products, its "Damn those torpedoes, full speed ahead!!  

Yeah, that has got to be one kickin' reunion I'm thinking, provided of course, there is anyone still kickin' who has memory enough to remember the date and directions of how to get there.  So I post an email, but it is returned to my inbox with a notice of flawed address.  I scan the web site again and come up with a name and phone number:  Bob Smith.  Odd, its the same name as my old buddy who passed away a few years back.  We interned his ashes in the Potter family plot above my farm house.  A synchronistic event?   Okay, best see what this Bob has to say.

It turns out I am calling Indianapolis, Indiana and low and behold Bob picks up.  His voice is as weak and crackly as if I was calling through a telephone line stung in 1942.  I introduce myself and then launch into an abbreviated history of the mysterious Blakely anchor.   I can tell he's having a hard time following my rather bizarre tale, so I skip right to the point and ask: 

"So  did your ship sink or did they haul it back to the States?"

"Well after they hit us with them three torpedoes," he said, in a heavily accented southern Indiana voice, "she listed off to the starboard and the anchor started pulling her hard over.  She was on fire but they got us off.  Next day the Navy flew over and bombed her.  At least that's what I was told.  You know, so the Japs couldn't get her."

"You don't suppose anybody grabbed the anchor before they sent her south?"  I asked.

"Well there were two anchors actually.  But no, I can't see how anyone would have grabbed one of them before they sunk her. Hold on would yah?  Let me get my son.  He's a little sharper about these things than I am."

The USS WASP burning
So Doug got on the phone, and I re-ran my Olyphant, Blakely, War of 1812, anchor story.  He listened and said he couldn't imagine it was an anchor from the aircraft carrier, but that he would ask some other history buffs familiar with the ship.  He then referred me to a You Tube film that had been made about the carrier and how she sank.  

"I don't much care for that YouTube.  Usually just a bunch of nonsense on it.  But the video that fellow made is really good. I think you'd like it."  Doug then asked me for my email address and invited me to the next reunion of the USS WASP scheduled for Indianapolis, Indiana in 2013. (This year it is in Sante Fe, NM).  

"Wow" I said, "there sure can't be a whole lot of sailors still around who were on that ship."

"No, you're right about that.  My dad was the youngest man on board and he is eighty-seven this year.  My mom and he have been married for sixty-seven years.  She's out having her hair done tonight.  I'm glad they're living with me.   Dad is more like a brother really.  You gotta honor your parents.  I drive for a living.  I end up going through Scranton sometimes. Maybe I'll give you a call and we can go look at that anchor together.  I like to say nobody I know is a stranger, so I'm not shy."

I told him I thought that would be a great and that I would also love to be included on the mailing list for the reunion.   Then in answer to how I got interested in the anchor, I told him about the essay I had written.  I included the irony of having parked behind a truck with a "Tin-can sailor" bumper sticker on it.  I described how I discovered the ol' boy up on the roof, Navy hat pushed back on his forehead, tarring leaks on the adjacent building during a mid-January thaw. Synchronicity indeed.

So I am still no closer to the answer of where the Borough of Blakely anchor originated, but like a good mystery, I've discovered a whole lot of very interesting dead-ends!  Stick with me, we're bound to get to the bottom of this as sure as the first two WASP's got to the bottom of the sea. 

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