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Our Un-Constitutional Summer

Two times Boston took back Ironsides, but
we're big enough to bury the hatchet

Click here or on photo for more Old Ironsides

Ironsides key chain When Senator Ted Kennedy's grampa "Honey Fitz" finagled the USS Constitution out of Portsmouth Harbor in 1897 and back to Boston, one local sailor, distraught over the loss of "Old Ironsides," seized the departing ship and tried to hold her back. For his heroic effort, the anonymous seaman received a sprained wrist and a two sentence report in a long defunct Portsmouth newspaper.

With the US Navy's official cancellation of the historic ship's fourth visit to the Piscataqua this summer, it may feel like we've lost her again. A lot of people logged a lot of hours in the prep. Shred the 20,000 boarding tickets. Cancel the 30 buses. Send back the Port-o-potties. Nix the 6,000 barbecued chickens and ditch the 2,500 dignitaries. No need to board 781 crew members and friends. Channel 9 was planning live TV coverage of the event with seven cameras. A local sculptor was forging souvenir plates in solid pewter. A Maine film crew sunk thousands into a planned documentary. Heck, we created an entire frigate web site. (click for Old Ironsides homepage)

It was going to be an exciting few days, not just for us, but for the nation. Believe it or not, the most popular tourist activity in America today is visiting historic sites. That's a brand new fact. Tourists used to prefer the beach, eating out, going to state parks. Now history is numero uno. Seeing Ironsides on the move again had all the patriotic pathos of watching Lady Liberty step off her pedestal and wade up the Mighty Piscataqua.

But it ain't gonna happen, kids. My secret maritime contact "Deep Boat" was wrong, though he said just yesterday, "Don't give up the ship." I'm giving it up all the same. People around here have been taking the News with great dignity, I believe. We're crushed, of course, but no one Wants a tourism bonanza if it means endangering a single reconstructed timber of "Old Ironsides".

So far, the only unkind words I've heard have been attributed to Sen. Kennedy who, according to the Boston Globe, said the ship had "been saved once again." The reference to his grandfather is clear to me. Old John Fitzgerald was fond of saying that, without his 1897 intervention, Old Ironsides would have been "at the bottom of Portsmouth Harbor." The senator forgets that, after the Constitution had outlived its use even as a training vessel, that it was kept afloat and on active duty here as a "receiving" ship for incoming sailors. The Senator forgets that when Ironsides was towed to Charlestown, it rotted there for another 20 years, was again targeted for scrap by the Navy, and finally rescued only with a nation-wide fund-raiser. He forgets that Portsmouth Harbor was the first port of call for the restored ship's 76-port "Thank You Tour" from 1931 to 1933.

Let's face it, Boston sometimes treats Portsmouth the way Portsmouth sometimes treats Gonic, and nobody wins those territorial skirmishes. Charlestown is Ironsides authentic "berth" place fair and square. Caught up in Constitution hysteria, I visited the floating shrine a few weeks back in Massachusetts. The USS Constitution Museum there is brilliantly put together and worth the easy visit just over the Tobin Bridge. Going aboard the often-rebuilt wooden war ship still gives me goosebumps.

So to assuage our well-controlled grief,
here are three healing Suggestions:

I've got a friend with a lobster boat who thinks, if we muffle the old diesel, he can sidle into Charlestown Harbor, snip a few cables, tie onto Ironsides, and tow her up here quietly in time to pull his morning pots. He wants gas money and six cases of beer.

Few people know that when we rebuilt Ironsides at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in the 19th century, there was plenty of left over white oak, the hard wood that repelled those cannon balls and earned the ship her name. The wood has been seasoning there in a salt water pool, I'm told, for over a century now. For a few million bucks, we have the talent to build our own look-alike USS Constitution and park it here permanently. Since the Charlestown ship has been rebuilt at least twice since the timbers were stored here, we'd technically have the oldest boat. Wouldn't that curdle Teddy's chowder?

Why not hold an annual Portsmouth Day in Charlestown? I mean, really make a party of it. We'll charter a flotilla of buses, bring our own local microbrew and a bunch of good local rock bands. The military types can make a few speeches. The history types can catch a slide show at the Visitor's Center. The structural engineers can take each other's measure while the rest of us take tours and kick back in the park there.

Are you with me? Somebody get a pen and let the Brahmins know we're coming, and ready to spend a few solid Granite State dollars down Southie for a change. It will be a great way to mend fences and, if Any Beantowners are willing, we'll hike them over to Breed's Hill (not Bunker Hill) monument next door and explain how New Hampshire troops saved the day back during the Revolution. We'll remind them that some pilfered British gunpowder came from our earlier raid on the fort here in New Castle. It could be very enlightening.

For those who have been sending condolence notices via fax, phone and e-mail, don't bother. We'll be fine here this summer without the extra terawatts of media coverage, the traffic jams and the cavalcade of fried dough wagons. I'm happy for the opportunity to study up on the world's most famous ship and the 20 years she spent in town.

I hadn't known, for example, that Ironsides was among the first six ships created for the original US Navy at six federal shipyards, including Portsmouth Yard. We built the sister ship USS Congress. I didn't know our local hero Tobias Lear had negotiated the famous Treaty of Tripoli (hum the "Marines Hymn" here) on the Constitution, or that Isaac Hull, commander of the shipyard in Kittery was the same Isaac Hull, commander of Old Ironsides in the War of 1812. I didn't know that the oldest pictures in the archives of the US Navy show Ironsides in dry-dock here in 1858. I didn't know how many local ship builders had been instrumental in the Boston rebuilding as well.

I didn't know a lot of things about my own back yard until "Old Ironsides" almost came back to town.

© 1998 SeacoastNH.com
J. Dennis Robinson

Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.

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