The things we celebrate reveal a great deal about us: who we are or who we would like to be.
This weekend is the Portuguese Festival and the Blessing of the Fleet. I have written before about the historical importance of the Portuguese in Provincetown, and there is an aspect of their character that still defines this town. Alas, like so many things, the Portuguese presence in 2021 is not what it used to be. There has been a diaspora, caused by the housing situation and the lack of employment. Even the Portuguese who remain are less Portuguese than they used to be, not as definable a group as when Mary Heaton Vorse, in Time and the Town, described them in 1942: “They are so much a part of the town that today one could not imagine Provincetown without them. Good looks, gaiety and daring are their inheritance….”
This is what naturally happens in the melting pot that is this country. But against all this, a valiant and hard-working group of women and men labor each year to focus on the Portuguese days of old.
The Blessing, too, is an artifact of a centuries-old tradition. It has been going on for decades here in town, but, where once dozens of draggers lined up to pass the wharf and be blessed, now there is a much smaller number, along with lobster boats, charter fishing and whale-watch boats, and pleasure craft of all kinds, including kayaks. There is, of course, a connection between these two things being celebrated, the Portuguese influence and the fleet being blessed: fishing quickly became a predominantly Portuguese activity.
But they were blessed against danger, these mostly Portuguese seamen, because danger has always existed when men dare to go out on the open sea. In Cape Cod, Thoreau quotes the inscription from a Truro graveyard: “Sacred to the memory of 57 citizens of Truro, who were lost in seven vessels, which foundered at sea in the memorable gale of Oct. 3d, 1841.”
Since then, hundreds of lives have been lost, as mortal men pursued their livelihoods. In my own time here there was the Patricia Marie, 1976, with seven lost (including Dickie Oldenquist, whom I knew); the Cap’n Bill, 1978, four lost; in 1984, the Victory II, three lost; and Twin Lights, 2012, with the loss of Jean Frottier.
We who live on land but delight in our proximity to the angry sea and to the men who go out into it, we who think we have some understanding of this ancient and honorable way to wrest a living — we have no clue. We absolutely cannot relate to the dangers they face daily.
I can’t talk with the dead, but in conversations with four different fishermen today, I could not get any to admit the reality of the terrors they face. One told me in one situation “I thought I was done,” but quickly followed with “it is what it is.” Another told me that “every boat has close calls,” but shrugged it off: “It’s the nature of the beast.” Another related his time in a life raft after an engine fire — his third such experience in 16 years of commercial fishing. But he “wasn’t scared.”
Mary Heaton Vorse wrote, “Men who fish for a living must have an easy courage … Men grow well in Provincetown.”
Perhaps we are all Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day, and all Mexican on Cinco de Mayo. But in a much more fundamental way, let us acknowledge the special gift of the Portuguese to our shared culture, and the meaningful heritage of fishing to the very essence of our town.