|USS Baltimore flying the "Homeward Bounder" from the|
foremast from Three Years Behind the Guns.
For Thanksgiving 2017, here is an excerpt from the excellent memoir of US navy life near the turn of the 20th century, Three Years Behind the Guns. In this passage, we catch a glimpse of how landsman John B. Tisdale spent his first holidays abroad aboard USS Olympia. There is a tinge of melancholy to his words as he and his fellows watch the joyous departure of their companion, USS Baltimore, from Yokohama, flying the "homeward bounder."
While reading, we should spare a prayer for our good and honorable service men who are spending this Thanksgiving encamped in hostile lands. May all of them be protected by the hand of Almighty God and brought safely home to their loved ones in America.
All night long, unceasingly, in feathery flakes the snow had fallen. At daybreak I should have thought the magic of the night had transplanted us to the Arctic, only there was the undeniable outline of the sacred mountain. It seemed that the old volcano had belched in the night, for the white of his crest had run down over his sides even to the water edge, while on the shore not a red tile remained. The steps of the hettabas and the roofs of our turrets were alike upholstered in ermine. From sky to sea it was one great undulating drift of snow. Specks of emerald breaking through told where the dwarf pines were buried, while streaks of crimson and gold pricked out the outline of temple and towers. I had never thought to realize the beauty of Bret Harte's snow picture in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"—I cannot write about it; but I have seen snow.
The crisp air is invigorating, but the shoveling of snow from the decks has a tendency to take the poetry out of things, and I am bothered about the poor naked devils who live on the water. How is a handful of charcoal burning in a tea cup going to keep them from freezing to death?
"When Music, heavenly maid, was young," she took no more joy into early Greece than the brass band that came with other belongings of a flagship, to us from the Baltimore. It plays twice a day, and in the evening it is a full orchestra, to whose strains we while away the dog watch in waltz, hornpipe, or cake walk, as the tune invites.
Last Thursday, November 28, was Thanksgiving. We had turkey on board and behaved like the Americans that we are.
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Yesterday, the Baltimore signaled to us for permission to get under way. Granted the bo's'n piped, "A-l-l h-a-n-d-s on deck to cheer ship!" From the captain and the bandmaster, down we came. The Jackies on both ships stood on the rails or went into the rigging. From the main truck of the Baltimore streamed a "homeward bounder." It is a pennant two hundred and fifty feet long. At its tip a bladder is attached to keep it afloat when it dips to the sea. The homeward bounder has its superstitions too sacred to write, but it is the talisman that will carry the ship through wind and storm until "Safe, safe, at last, the harbor passed," she will anchor in San Francisco Bay.
I do not quite retain the picture, for "Auld Lang Syne" from the quarter deck sounded so startlingly new to me that everything else became subdued to my wondering where and when I had ever heard it before. But my memory could muster nothing but my first night in a little white alcove, where I cried myself to sleep after mother had left me at Tyler Hall, and when the last note of the blessed song climbed the masts and the Baltimore rode alongside, the band struck up "Home Sweet Home." It was a signal for every man on the Baltimore. Their cheering drowned every other sound, while, from excess of joy, they swung their caps and threw them overboard. It was said that the bay was blue with them. I do not know. There was a mist came in just then, that made everything uncertain except that the men of the Baltimore were going home, while we are anchored here for three long, long years.If you enjoy antique seafaring lore with a sense of humor, order a copy of Three Years Behind the Guns. It's a fun, entertaining read for powder monkeys and old sea dogs alike.