Remembering Black Sunday in Duluth


As waves threatened to overtop the pier walls and wind whipped the words from people’s mouths, an intimate ceremony was held earlier this week in Duluth’s Canal Park. The gathering marked 50 years since three brothers and a Coast Guardsman who was trying to find them were swept off the pier during a late April blow. (For more details, please read my earlier post.)


Ron Prei (left) and Tom Mackay.

Tom Mackay, a friend of the Coast Guardsman, organized the Black Sunday event. It was simple – no microphones, no chairs – just a bunch of people who wanted to remember. We stood on the North Pier near the shore and the Marine Museum, where the plaque for Guardsman Culbertson rests. It’s not far from the gates put up after the drownings to discourage people from walking the piers during bad weather.

Mackay talked about why he feels it’s important to remember the events of that night long ago. He talked about his friend who died. He talked about the power of the lake. He painted a picture of young lives cut short.

Mackay laid four flowers next to the plaque as he does every year on April 30 – one for each death, and then invited Ron Prei, another Coast Guardsman who was part of the rescue attempt, to talk. The soft-spoken Prei’s words were lost to the wind, but in a TV news interview, he described the harrowing conditions of that night and how he’ll never forget.

DSC04055The Halvorson brothers were my cousins – first cousins once removed, or something like that. I was too young when the tragedy happened to remember them, but I remember the effect it had on my family, and the Halvorson family. Later, when we would visit the Halvorson home for dinner, there was the sense of the missing brothers – a blackness that hung in the background and was not overtly acknowledged – at least not when I was around. A certain liveliness was missing. Those feelings were quickly overshadowed by the exuberance of the family’s four other children and the warmth of conversation.

It was good to be part of this public recognition for the boys, the man, and the force that is the lake.

Afterwards, the crowd dispersed, hunched against the cold wind. And we remembered.



The Lake, it is Said, Never Gives up her Dead

Black Sunday

The original newspaper article about “Black Sunday’ as it is known locally. Darn paper got the twin’s names mixed up.

Fifty years ago on this day, I remember by mother and sister crying. I was seated at the dining room table and they were in the living room across the way sobbing their hearts out. I was so young, I didn’t understand what was happening. I only knew this wasn’t usual behavior for them. It scared me.

Eventually they came over and tried to explain. They said three of our cousins had drowned in Lake Superior – 17-year-old Eric, and 16-year-old twins Art and Nate. A Coast Guardsman who was trying to save them also drowned. A wind storm had whipped up the waves on the lake and the boys had driven down to the pier in the evening after a church youth group gathering to watch the power of the lake.

Whose idea was it to try and make it to the lighthouse at the end of the pier? As my family tells it, a common game among teenagers at the time was to run on the pier wall, racing the waves from light post to light post until making it to the end. Then you had to make it back. It was a local rite of passage.

According to witnesses, two of the brothers made it to the lighthouse. The third brother, close behind, lost his footing and was swept off the pier. The other two turned back to save him, but soon they were lost from sight in the frigid water.

I guess it doesn’t matter whose idea it was to race the waves. The brothers can’t tell us, and their bodies were never found.

In response to a call for volunteers to search for the boys that night, three Coast Guardsmen tethered themselves together with rope and made their way to the end of the pier. Finding nothing but wind and furious waves, they were making their way back when one of them, Edgar Culbertson, was washed over the side by a wave. The other two could not save him. I assume he was still attached to the rope and by the time they got to shore, Culbertson was drowned.

In commemoration of my cousins and the men who tried to rescue them, a ceremony was held today at the pier. Since I am the only member of my family left in town, I attended to represent. I’ll write more about that in my next post.

An Ancestral Trip to Afton, Minnesota


Stone Oak Farm, built by my great-grandfather.

Last weekend, I meandered to the charming river town of Afton, Minn. My reasons were double: to sell my books at a local fair and to visit the home my Scottish great-grandfather built when he immigrated there.

You may recall my trip to Scotland this summer and all the fun I had finding ancestral homes and castles. After I returned to the U.S., I realized there was at least one ancestral home here that I had never seen. I knew it was in Afton, so when an opportunity arose to sell my novels at Afton Art in the Park with another author, I jumped on it.

afton-trip-019I never met my great-grandfather. He was long gone from this Earth by the time I was born. I barely even remember his daughter, who was my grandmother. Even so, I feel a kinship for that side of the family and for that part of my genetic makeup.

Before I left on my trip, I contacted the home’s current owner. She was more than willing to meet with me, and was enthused about learning more family history about the man who built her home.

Afton is located in eastern Minnesota along the St. Croix River. The nearest town of note is Stillwater, a popular tourist destination. As I turned off the freeway and onto the country roads, the clean smell of the air was the first thing that struck me. It smelled . . . well, green.

afton-trip-008Nearing Afton, the rolling green hills and pastures reminded me of the land around Kelso, where my great-grandfather was from. Combine that with the river (which Kelso also has), and it makes perfect sense why he chose to settle in a place that must have reminded him of his homeland.

I found the house down a long driveway, set atop a small hill and surrounded by oak trees and cornfields. The house is built of locally quarried stone, with walls over two feet thick. The owner said it used to be called Echo Valley, but she renamed it Stone Oak Farm because she thought that fit better.

The original home, an imposing square two-story structure, is still intact. But subsequent owners have enhanced and modernized it by adding a garage, entry room, and a back addition that has a laundry room, office, bathroom, rec room and a massage room. The original ice house sits off to one side in the yard.

The deep window wells and original wooden floors speak of another era. The transom door provides an imposing entrance, that’s more just for show now since the owners use the door to the new entry room instead.

afton-trip-013I walked through the home with reverence, feeling the weight of history and time in the stones, the scuffed stairway, and the huge trees outside the windows. It was obvious the current owner loves the house and has treated it very well.

I asked her if there are any ghosts in the home. She described some mysterious pranks that involved clothes being strewn about, an exercise ball rolling down a hall and around a coffee table of its own accord, and a weeping bouquet of dried flowers. However, the owner thinks it’s one of her relatives haunting the place, not mine.

I left feeling like my family’s ancestral home was in good hands. After spending a night in the quaint and historical Afton House Inn, my book sale the next day went very well. I’m glad I made the trip! If you ever get the chance, you should check out Afton.


Mary Queen of Scots and Kelso Luck: Adventures in Scotland, Part 10


Mary Queen of Scots’ death mask.

Just to forewarn you – this is a long entry. I made the most of my last full day in Scotland. Have a cup of tea and enjoy the read! I’ve highlighted important names to remember for this story to make sense.

My last day in Kelso began with a short drive to the Mary Queen of Scots Visitor Centre in Jedburgh – on the advice of one of my blogging acquaintances. (Thank you James of “Walking with a Smacked Pentax!”)

The approach to the center is through a narrow alleyway, so the building doesn’t look all that impressive (especially for a former queen to have stayed there) until you walk around to the front, where you can see its stately tower. Having watched a public television series on the queen when I was young, I was interested to learn more and to refresh my memory.


The Mary Queen of Scots Visitor Centre

Entrance to the center is free, although the written guide costs a few pence. Mary (whose French name is Marie) stayed there for about a year. She almost died there, too, after a trip to visit her secret lover, and encountering bad weather and falling into a bog on her way back to Jedburgh. It was the last place in Scotland she was to live before becoming Queen Elizabeth’s prisoner in England for eighteen years.

Her sad and devious story is laid out clearly in the various rooms. Walking among the artifacts – a buckle, a shoe with a broken heel, a lock of her strawberry blonde hair – I couldn’t help but feel sympathetic toward this woman whose life started out with so much promise, only to disintegrate after marrying the wrong man and trusting people she shouldn’t have.

By the time I reached the room that features her final letter, addressed to her brother-in-law King Henry III, my heart was heavy and quiet. Mean old Queen Elizabeth wouldn’t even allow Mary the comfort of her own chaplain in her final hours. And then I came upon her death mask on display. It was common practice to take a cast of the face of beheaded prisoners. Mary really was beautiful.


The drive back to Kelso allowed me enough time to shake off the sadness. After all, I had a mission to fulfill: I was going to try and find two homes associated with my great-great-great grandmother. Her name was Margaret Gray. She was the mother of Susan Gray, who married William Dick (my great-great grandfather) who worked at Floors Castle.

My mother and/or aunts had requested a report on Margaret from the Scots Ancestry Research Society in the early 1990s. They found that she was listed in the 1841 census as being widowed, 75 years old, and living in a house with her son-in-law and his young daughter. There is no wife listed in the report. One could assume that perhaps the wife died and that Margaret was helping with the child.

The house had a name and location, which, to protect the privacy of the people currently living there, I am not going to divulge. Let’s just call it Pinnacle Cottage. When I was still at home in the U.S. before my trip, I had wondered if a house important enough to have its own name might still be there. I did some Google searches and found a house in the right location.

Graham, the super-helpful host at my B&B, the Bellevue Guest House, also took a look at the name of the house and pointed me in the same direction.

In that same census, another Margaret Gray is listed as being younger (60 years old) and working as a servant in another named house not far from Pinnacle Cottage. Let’s call it Forest Lodge. Could it be that Margaret lived in Pinnacle Cottage and worked in Forest Lodge? (Maybe the lodge owners didn’t know her real age or didn’t want to admit to making a seventy-five-year-old work for them.) Or maybe Margaret lived in Pinnacle Cottage and one of her daughters named Margaret (who she must have had when she was 15 years old!) worked at the lodge. In any event, it seems likely there was some kind of connection.

I was also able to find the lodge with Google, and Graham again pointed me in the same direction. Forest Lodge was within easy walking distance from Pinnacle Cottage.

As I drove back into Kelso, I did so from the Pinnacle Hill direction and parked across a bridge from the hill. I figured I could find the cottage more easily by walking than driving. I crossed the bridge into a neighborhood full of houses, which soon thinned as the area became more wooded. I came to a house with a driveway gate and a sign that had the owner’s last name and “Pinnacle Hill” on it. Not exactly “Pinnacle Cottage,” but close. I walked down the road a bit farther to see if there were any other houses. As I did, I passed another gate where I caught a glimpse of the Pinnacle Hill house through the trees. It was low-slung and covered in white stucco with blue and yellow trim around its many windows.

No other houses stood beyond it – just a natural area with a trail. So I walked back. As I stood near the gate and took a photo of what I could see of the house, I heard the clip of hedge trimmers. I called out a “hullo” and was met by the gardener. (How lucky was that?)

I told him my quest and asked him if he thought this house had been around since 1841. He said he’d ask the owner – an elderly gentleman who was a retired doctor. He went inside to ask and came out with the explanation that the doctor was in his nineties and wasn’t open to having company (actually, he said the doctor liked to hang out naked most of the time, and I laughed and said I wanted to do that when I got old, too) BUT he thought this could be the right house.

Cool. I asked the gardener if it would be all right if I came into the yard to take photos of the house. He said that would be fine, and opened the gate to let me in. The house and yard were well-kept and it looked like another small house was attached behind it. A mother-in-law’s cottage, perhaps??

As I was raising my camera for a shot, I glimpsed a figure that looked like an old man in one of the far windows . When he saw that I saw him, he scuttled from view. (He had clothes on!)

The gardener and I chatted a while longer, then I was off to find Forest Lodge. I continued down the road, past the nature trail and to a sign for the town of “Forest.” I followed the sign and eventually came to a house with an impressive gate and a gatehouse. The name on the gate was “Forest House.” Not exactly Forest Lodge, but it would do.

016Another sign on the gate said PRIVATE in big letters. Hmmm. How brave was I? Apparently, I was medium-brave. I knocked on the gatehouse, but nobody answered. I decided to walk down the long driveway to at least see if I could view the house from a distance and take a photo. But as I walked upon the smooth blacktop, past the immaculately groomed flowers and towering trees, I started to lose my nerve. My nerve fled farther upon seeing a beautiful dapple grey horse gazing at me placidly from over a fence. These people were equestrians. Just how much money did they have? I stopped behind a trimmed tree for a moment and the rest of my nerve fled.

I turned and walked back down the driveway toward the road. As I approached the gatehouse, I saw a car parked by it. But nerveless me couldn’t bring myself to knock on the door again. I reached the road and started back toward my car. As I walked, the sky darkened and rain threatened, matching my mood.

026It wasn’t long before I noticed a woman walking a dog in a field. I could see her through the thin hedgerow and it looked like she came from the gatehouse. I gave my bravery a kick in the pants and told myself I HAD to talk to her. So I did. The sun came out and the sky brightened. She said she was the mother of the woman who lived in the gatehouse. She just happened to visit to walk her daughter’s dog. (How lucky was that?)

I told her of my quest and hesitancy to invade privacy, and she encouraged me to ignore the PRIVATE sign and walk to the house. She said the owner was really nice and wouldn’t mind. It did seem silly to come so far and not try harder to see the house, so I followed her advice.

As I walked down the fancy driveway, more horses came into view and yet more spectacular shrubbery. Then I saw a gardener at work across the yard. He didn’t seem to notice me, so I continued on to the house. What a house! It was a big grey castle-like structure with green climbing vines and roses covering the front. I walked past the two marble dogs guarding the door and rang the bell.


Nobody answered. However, a side door opened and a youngish blonde lady stepped out. I thought she looked too young to be the owner, but I gave her my spiel and asked her if she thought this could be the right place. She did. As we talked further and I showed her the census report, I discovered she was indeed the mistress of the house. And yes, she was very nice. I asked her if I could take some photos and she readily agreed. However, she stayed outside with the gardener the whole time. I don’t blame her.

Mission accomplished and copious thanks given, I walked back to the road, ready for my next quest, which was finding the gravestone of William Dick. I happened upon the gatehouse lady’s mother coming up the road, returning from her dog walk. She asked how my visit to the house went and I relayed the happy news.

Then I told her of my next quest and she showed me on my map exactly where the cemetery was. In fact, it was right near where I parked my car. (How lucky was that?)

Purpose clear, I walked down the road and across the bridge. The cemetery gate was open. I had a crude map my mother had drawn of the grave’s location. After a bit of looking, and concluding my mother must have been drunk when she drew the map, I found my great-great grandfather’s gravestone.

I was so happy, I took a selfie at the grave. The stone was in good shape, although moss was growing over the top and beginning to cover the words. I scraped it off and as I did so, the stone vibrated beneath my hands. It sort of freaked me out until I discovered the stone was a bit loose in its setting. That’s just how the gravestones were. I touched some others and the same sensation ensued. Nothing supernatural. Darn.

Feeling fortunate and lucky, I hoofed it back to my car and to Bellevue Guest House.


Bellevue Guest House, Kelso.

I would be remiss if I didn’t put in a plug for the guest house – Graham and his wife were super nice and helpful to me, the food was great (you can even order haggis for breakfast!) and the beds are comfortable. If you’re ever in Kelso, give it a try.

My luck was short-lived, however. My next post will detail the adventure I had catching my flight home the next day.



Floors Castle and Crying During Movies: Adventures in Scotland, Part 9


Floors Castle, Kelso, Scotland

My story about Floors Castle starts, not in Kelso, but a few months ago back on my couch in the U.S. (Yes, I’m doing it again – starting a story about Kelso someplace else.) This was before I knew about the newspaper story detailing my ancestor Isabella’s childhood in the castle and before I was convinced of my family’s ties to the castle.

I knew of rumors of the ties, so I was digging through the castle’s website when I noticed a movie had been filmed at Floors Castle, called “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” (1983).

I actually saw this movie when it came out since I am something of a Tarzan fan. (I watched way too many Johnny Weismuller Tarzan shows after school while growing up.) Plus, if you’ve read my novels, you know I have a thing for animal/human communication. But the movie was rather fuzzy in my brain since I saw it so long ago.

I decided to buy the movie for a look at the castle in preparation for my trip. When I eventually watched it (sitting on my couch), I recalled why it got panned orginally. Much of the first part of the movie features Tarzan (Christopher Lambert) grunting at apes. The critics didn’t like the lack of dialog, but hey, what are you going to do? It’s a movie about apes! Nonetheless, the movie did end up receiving three Academy Award nominations. It didn’t win any, though.

The last half of the movie is set in Scotland at Floors. My dear blogging audience, because I have no pride left, I will share my reaction to the movie with you. In short, I bawled like a baby. When the castle first appears in the opening credits and the duke and his doomed son (Tarzan’s father) race toward it on horseback, tears were coursing down my face and I didn’t know why. It’s not usual for me to burst into spontaneous copious tears at movies. I’m more of a leaky-tear-wipe-away person. And the castle scenes weren’t particularly emotional, either.

But once the movie was over, I realized the tears were from an overwhelming feeling that my ancestors loved the place and their time there.

A few months later, I found the newspaper story about how my great-great grandfather worked at the castle for over fifty years, and I decided that maybe I wasn’t so crazy after all. I mean, why would he work somewhere so long if he didn’t at least like the place and the people in it?


The castle gate.

My Bed and Breakfast was close enough that I could walk to Floors Castle. When I reached the gate, I asked the attendant if walkers got a reduced entrance fee, but she wasn’t buying it. 🙂

I meandered up the castle driveway with some trepidation. After all, if a movie could affect me so strongly, I wasn’t sure how I would react to seeing the real thing. This was after a search for my great-great grandfather’s gravestone at the Kelso Abbey that morning, which proved unfruitful. But I was told of another cemetery in town that I hoped to check on my next, and last day in Kelso.

058The driveway was long and lined with tall trees and rhododendrons. It wound through fields and afforded views of the castle and the River Tweed in the distance. Set on a hill above the river, the castle appears to grow directly out of the lawn. I knew from my research that, in addition to the castle tour, Floors features a gift shop and two cafes (one with an outdoor terrace), plus a walled garden. It was still early in the day and I wasn’t hungry, so I planned to tour the castle first and eat later.

Built in 1721 for the First Duke of Roxburghe, Floors Castle is still home to the Roxburghe family and the Tenth Duke of Roxburghe. It is the largest inhabited castle in Scotland but parts of it are open to the public.

As I approached, I became confused about where to enter for the castle tour. It seemed as if the signs were pointing to the castle’s front door. Surely that couldn’t be right. Tourists entering through the impressive massive intimidatingly wealthy front door? What if I was mistaken and I walked in the front door and everyone turned to look at me in horror?


The front door. Intimidating, much?

I decided it was safer to enter the gift shop around the side of the castle first. I browsed the Floors Castle Christmas ornaments, Floors Castle honey, and Floors Castle dish towels, then asked the clerk where the entrance for the castle tours was. “The front door,” she said.

When I explained I couldn’t believe they’d let tourists in the front door she just laughed and said, “Of course, why not?”

Buoyed by newfound certainty, I walked to the front door. I did not get yelled at as I entered. Instead, the docent gave introductory remarks to the small group of us gathered in the entry, then he set us loose upon the castle. The tour is self-guided, although docents are in some of the rooms to answer questions and to ensure that nobody walks off with a priceless vase.

I wandered amid the tapestries, paintings and porcelain. There was even a room full of stuffed birds. Apparently one or two of the dukes were ornithologically inclined. One of the duchesses collected a few Matisse paintings. When I got to the dining room (which was originally a billiards room) I encountered a particularly friendly and knowledgeable docent named David.


The dining room where David and I talked. Image courtesy of Floors Castle.

I told him about my ancestral connections to the castle, and he was intrigued. He had a list of dates when the various dukes reigned, and we figured out my great-great grandfather must have worked for the sixth and seventh dukes of Roxburghe. David said a lot of building was going on during the reign of the sixth duke and that perhaps my grandfather was instrumental in it. The castle isn’t the only business on the estate, there’s also forests, fields, horses, wind farms and the like. It’s a huge operation.

086We also got to talking about the Tarzan movie. He told me he was in the movie – he played a cleric. He said the rainy scenes at the castle were shot with the help of the local fire department up on the roof, spraying “rain” with their hoses. He also mentioned that the film directors were sticklers for historical accuracy. All the television antennas on the roof had to be hidden during the day, and were put back out in the evening so the residents could watch TV.

David promised to look into some things for me. I gave him my card. As yet, I haven’t heard anything from him, but who knows? So, although I didn’t get to totally “vindicate” my ancestors’ role with the castle estate office, at least David knows about him, and my family, and all of you!


My bird friend.

By now I was hungry. Thankful that I didn’t burst into tears during my castle tour, I made my way to the terrace café. I sat outside and indulged my sweet tooth in chocolate eclairs and meringues. A friendly (and hungry) bird kept me company – reminiscent of the Kelso Welcome Swan.

Sated and peaceful, I toured the walled gardens. But I must confess the flowers that truly impressed me were rhododendrons growing in the forest on the trail to the gardens (see photo below). After another visit to the gift shop to buy mementos, it was time to go.


As I left the castle and walked down the drive, I couldn’t help but stop and turn back to look longingly at the castle several times. It was like the ancestors inside me didn’t want to leave just yet. I indulged them for a while, but then it was time for the next adventure.

Kelso Ancestor Quest: Adventures in Scotland, Part 7

Springfield Ancestor Quest 013

“Main Street,” Springfield, MN

My trip to Kelso starts, not in Scotland, but in the small southwestern Minnesota town of Springfield. That’s where my mother (from whom I get my Scottish blood) was born, and the museum there is home to a set of family scrapbooks she put together.

A few weeks before my Scottish trip, I visited the Springfield Museum on a quest. You see, one of my ancestors — my great-great grandfather William Dick — was rumored to have worked for Floors Castle in Kelso. He was the lead carpenter (or “joiner”). But when my parents and aunt visited Kelso in the late 1970s, they were told by the castle estate office that they had no record he worked there.


My Scottish great-great grandparents, Susan and William Dick.

As a journalist, I know that could mean a lot of things. It could mean the records were lost. It could mean no records were kept so far back (the mid-1800s) or it could mean nobody looked very hard for the records.

While tooling through the family genealogy book one day (months before my trip), I noticed mention of a newspaper article about William Dick working at the castle. The note said the article was in the family scrapbooks.

The castle, on its website, says it is interested in historical information about the people who worked there, so I thought a visit to the museum was in order to find records to prove that my great-great-grandfather worked there.

I also noticed in the genealogy and census records that at least one of their ten children, Isabella, was born on the castle property in 1842. Why would she be born there if my ancestors had no connections to the castle?

Since it’s a good chunk of a drive from Duluth to Springfield, my oldest son kindly offered to join me in the quest. This was also a good chance for him to learn more about his family history since he had never been to Springfield.

We took off one afternoon with tents in tow — planning to camp in the Springfield City Campground overnight so that we could get to the museum in the morning. The museum wasn’t actually open on the day we planned to visit, but I had made prior arrangements with the museum director to meet us there.

Springfield Ancestor Quest 017

Very helpful Springfield Museum Director Carole Young with some of my family’s scrapbooks.

We met the director, Carole Young, as planned. She had the scrapbooks waiting for us, spread out on a table. It didn’t take us long to find the newspaper article in question since my dear organized mother had indexed the scrapbooks by family name.

There it was, a story from the Spirit Lake Beacon, a newspaper in Iowa. It was dated 1913 and had the title, “Scenes and Reminiscences of a Spirit Lake Lady Reared Among the Royalty of England and Scotland.” It was an interview with Isabella (the one born at the castle) and the story featured her memories of life growing up in a grand house on the castle grounds. Her father was the head state carpenter at the castle, holding the position for “upwards of fifty years” until he retired.

Their house was apparently near a cricket field and castle visitors, such as Queen Victoria and the Prince and Princess of Wales would drive down from the castle to their house to watch the games. The article says “rooms were prepared especially for them” by Isabella’s mother and the children. During these visits, Isabella said, “We children were always on our best behavior and willing to do little things to make it pleasant for the visitors,” who often stayed three or four days at a time. Isabella also met famous composers and pastors. She and her siblings were sometimes called on to “make up the required number” for a cricket game, and Isabella was proud that they could play the game well.

Eventually, Isabella, a widow with children, left the U.K. and came to America to marry a childhood neighbor who lived in Illinois. They later settled in Minnesota and then Iowa. Her brother, Francis, came to America also, settling in Minnesota. He was my great-grandfather.

Viola! Proof that William Dick worked at the castle! Unfortunately, there was no way to photocopy the article from the scrapbook, so my son and I took scans and photos with our cell phones. However, they didn’t turn out so well. Once I returned home, I searched for a digital copy of the story. I couldn’t find it in the Spirit Lake newspaper database, but I was able to find the same story in The Des Moines Register, which had published it a week later. Score!

I sent the story and a photo of William Dick and his wife to the castle. I had also emailed the castle previously, but did not receive a reply to either attempt.

Harrummph. Whatever. It was proof enough for me. And the quest was a good bonding experience for me and my son. I realize there’s almost nothing more boring than reading about someone else’s ancestors, but I hope this story wasn’t too painful.

Next posting: Kelso — for real this time!

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My Dad & Barnacle Bill


My dad repairing a vehicle in our driveway, 1951.

One of my fondest memories of my father — who is ninety-seven and has been having a rough go of it lately — involves the ballad of Barnacle Bill, a song popular in the 1930s.

Picture me as a child of five, knocking on the bathroom door. My father is inside, shaving or whatever. He answers my knock, singing in falsetto:

“Who’s that knocking at my door? Who’s that knocking at my door? Who’s that knocking at my door? (Cried the fair young maiden).”

Of course, I’d tell him it was me and that I had to go to the bathroom . . . BAD. Like all children who would rather play than go pee, I’d leave it until the last moment.

He’d answer by continuing to sing, this time in a gravelly male voice:

“It’s only me from over the sea
(Said Barnacle Bill the Sailor).
I’m all lit up like a Christmas tree
(Said Barnacle Bill the Sailor).
I’ll sail the seas until I croak.
I’ll fight and swear and drink and smoke,
But I can’t swim a bloody stroke
(Said Barnacle Bill the Sailor).”

By this time, I’d plead again for him to let me in, and he’d reply in falsetto:

“I’ll come down and let you in,
I’ll come down and let you in,
I’ll come down and let you in,
(Cried the fair young maiden).”

Sometimes he’d let me in. But if he needed more time to finish, he’d draw out the torture by singing the last verse:

Fancy Pants

My dad in his knickers (right) with his father outside their home in central Minnesota. I call this photo “fancy pants.” It must have been taken in the 1930s, during the time the Barnacle Bill song was on the radio.

“Well hurry before I bust in the door
(Said Barnacle Bill the Sailor).
I’ll rare and tear and rant and roar
(Said Barnacle Bill the Sailor).
I’ll spin you yarns and tell you lies
I’ll drink your wine and eat your pies
I’ll kiss your cheeks and black your eyes
(Said Barnacle Bill the Sailor).”

Finally, he’d open the door to find me doing the ‘I have to go pee’ dance in the hallway.

Even though this ritual was rather cruel, hearing my father imitate the male and female voices was fascinating. It was sort of scary, too, like there was a stranger (or two) in the bathroom. And some of the words were rather violent. But I was the youngest of four, so no doubt, my father needed some type of delay or coping mechanism for these interruptions from his children.

In looking up the lyrics for this song on the Internet, I learned my father was singing the tame version. His rendition was made popular by Hoagy Carmichael and his orchestra on the radio (including Benny Goodman on clarinet and Tommy Dorsey on trombone). Other adaptations are much “saucier,” and longer.

All I can say is thank goodness my dad sang the short and sweet version to me or there would have been a puddle in the hallway.