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"Shorts, Outtakes and Rants"

Most weeks I write a column for my paper; occasionally my daughter writes one. Usually they're focused at local issues, but every now and then I come up with one that I think Spearfish Lake Tales readers would find interesting, so I post them on the Spearfish Lake Tales Message Board. Since I've been neglecting "Shorts, Outtakes and Rants" recently, I decided to repost a few of them here, like this one. I hope you enjoy it! -- Wes

The Eagle of the Sea

August 25, 2012

The USS Constitution, the world's oldest warship still in commission, got to sail for seventeen minutes on Sunday, the first time it had been under sail in thirteen years.

Naturally, the Navy is pretty careful with this treasured relic, now over two hundred years old, so it was stirring to see it under sail again. The War of 1812 is a long time ago, of course, and there weren't many bright spots in it -- but other than the Battles of Lake Erie and New Orleans, the Constitution, otherwise known as "Old Ironsides" was involved with most of the high spots.

Back in the 1830s, this famous ship was getting to be pretty run down, and there was talk of scrapping it. However, even back then there were people that respected the past. There was a law student who wrote poetry for fun who took affront to the plan and wrote a poem, the first verse of which goes:

Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!

Long has it waved on high,

And many an eye has danced to see

That banner in the sky;

Beneath it rung the battle shout,

And burst the cannon's roar;--

The meteor of the ocean air

Shall sweep the clouds no more.

The poem was picked up and reprinted all over the country. It was the main force in saving the ship, and made the career of one of our nation's most respected poets, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. Without him, the harpies of the shore would surely have plucked the eagle of the sea.

If I recall correctly, during the Civil War the Constitution was moved from Annapolis to New York for obvious reasons. It wasn't until about 1878 that the Navy decided to move the ship back to Annapolis. At the age of then about eighty, it was decided it wasn't safe for the ship to be out by itself, so it was decided to have it towed back. A scratch crew was pulled together to ride the ship during the tow.

Unfortunately, the tug selected for the tow was aged and asthmatic itself. Off the coast of New Jersey, it could barely make headway with the tow, so the captain of the tug signaled the Constitution, asking if it could put on a little sail to make things go easier. Old Ironsides broke out a few sails, but shortly afterward the dissatisfied tugboat captain still wasn't making much progress, so he asked the ship to break out a few more sails, and of course, the captain of the Constitution did.

They still weren't making a lot of progress, so a third time the tugboat captain asked if the old relic could help out. The captain of the Constitution replied in the affirmative. He dropped the towline altogether, and sailed past the tugboat breaking out every sail they could find on board. They beat the tug to Annapolis by four days.

She may have been a relic out of the past, extremely aged for a ship in those days, but the Constitution was still the eagle of the sea.

I read this story in a magazine many years ago and am not sure I remember all the details, but that was, if I recall correctly, the last time the Constitution was out on its own.

The ship was moved to Boston many years later; most years it's just turned around once each year to equalize weathering. But on its two hundredth birthday, they took it out for a short sail around Boston Harbor in celebration, and Sunday they took it out again to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of the ship's legendary victory over the British frigate HMS Guerriere.

Those who watched it -- or saw a story about it on TV -- could not have helped but be thrilled to see the ship under sail once again. Our thanks to Oliver Wendell Holmes for doing his part in making it possible.

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