Spring is a time for new beginnings. Dana and Michael moved into her family’s summer cottage on Cape Cod. He sound tested the shells he purchased at Tom’s Shell Shack in his spare time. Great Horned Owls answered the hooting sounds he made with the Muffin Shell. Loons cried back to the sounds of the Turban Shell. Ospreys listened attentively to the small clam shell whistles and Mourning Doves flew toward the sounds he made using the Great Screw Shell.
The song of the Mourning Dove has been described as plaintive. I suppose that’s because 20 million or so are shot and killed each year by hunters, just in the United States alone. But the State of Massachusetts protected the bird in 1902, and they were (and still are) plentiful on Cape Cod. This was fortunate. Michael chose the Screw Shell to experiment with first because there was always a Mourning Dove around, willing to answer his calls.
He reasoned that the Screw Shell ought to behave like a flute, if a pitch hole could be drilled through the shell. He wanted to imitate the simple two note song of the Mourning Dove, so he used an old electric carpenters drill to drill one small pitch hole through the shell. It took a long time, but it worked. The pitch changed and he was better able to imitate the song of the Mourning Dove.
But he had only purchased one Screw Shell while in Florida. He needed more to continue his experiments. He drove to Provincetown and entered the only shell shop on the Cape.
They drove a crooked road on their way back to Massachusetts and their new life together. Most of Michael’s family had moved to Florida years ago and were spread out across the state. They stopped in Orlando to visit with his elderly father and two of his sisters before turning north to visit Dana’s relatives.
Dana’s Aunt Mary lived in St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest continuously settled (by Europeans) city in the United States. She was one of Dana’s many aunts, on her mother’s side of the family. Mary was expecting them. She was almost ninety years old and still played golf with her friends every week.
Michael valued close family relationships and enjoyed getting to know Dana’s Aunt Mary. His Great Aunt Mary, whom he loved very much as a child, was like a grandmother to him. While the two women visited he repaired a leak in the refrigerator and fixed a few other things around her home.
Dana and Michael explored St. Augustine after saying goodbye to Aunt Mary. Tom’s Shell Shack, on A1A, immediately attracted his attention. Giant clam shells, bleached shark jaws, varnished puffed up blow fish hanging from the rafters and weathered pallets laden with conch shells littered the entrance way into the slightly fishy smelling interior.
The bespectacled store owner, Tom, greeted them with a nod from behind the check out counter and resumed working at his computer. Natural light filtered through the long and dusty store front picture windows. Row after row of shells and nautical bric-a-brac filled the shop from floor to ceiling.
Michael wondered if he should ask Tom for permission to sound test shells, but decided not to. He asked Dana to shield him from the anti-theft cameras, as he discretely discovered which shells made the best sounds. They found a dozen shells that met with his approval. He paid Tom for the shells and they happily left the shop, for completely different reasons, I’m sure, and headed North to New England and Spring.
Dana and Michael got up early each morning during the Baton Rouge Currach Building Project. But this day was different. It was the morning after the project. Instead of the familiar sights and sounds of the boat building workshop, the two barefoot explorers walked out of the hotel and onto the soft white sands of Perdido Key to greet the new day.
The sky was just beginning to turn pink when Dana announced she was going to meditate. Michael had learned to accommodate her sudden meditative urges. But this morning he felt annoyed. He wanted to explore the beach and watch the sun come up with her. She wanted to sit on the sand, with her eyes closed and meditate. And that’s exactly what she did.
Michael walked along the shoreline feeling a bit forlorn. He looked back at Dana as the first rays of sunlight revealed two bottle-nose dolphins swimming inside a clear green breaker, right in front of her. He yelled at her to open her eyes, but the breeze blew his shouts away.
The two dolphins either heard his shouts or saw him jumping and waving his arms. The next moment they were right in front of him. He reached down, picked up a small clam shell, held it between his thumbs the way Jonathan had taught him to do with an acorn cap, and sent an extremely loud, high-pitched whistle out to the dolphins. To his surprise and delight, they whistled back.
After a minute or so the two dolphins swam away. Michael, however, continued to whistle with different clam shells he found on the beach. Maybe the dolphins would return? As he scanned the surf he began to wonder what other types of shells the skill would work with, and what other kinds of animals might respond to their sounds.
Dana stood up and waved at him. He ran to her, like a kid with a new toy, and yelled “Listen to this!” He made an ear ringing whistle sound with a small clam shell. Dana winced and covered her ears with her hands. She tried to make a whistle sound with the clam shell, but couldn’t get it to work. Then it was time for breakfast.
Michael thought a lot about the two dolphins appearing in front of Dana that morning. He knew that dolphin sensibilities are different than humans. If the dolphins hadn’t appeared, he never would have picked up a small clam shell and discovered it can be used as a whistle. All of his future discoveries, concerning the relationships between seashell spirals and music, began with this one event. And he never got angry with Dana again, whenever she needed or wanted to meditate.
The Celtic Society of Louisiana threw a mighty party for the members of the Baton Rouge Currach Building Project. It began New Year’s Day and ended St. Patrick’s Day night.
Project members included Pat, a master boat builder from Ireland (yellow shirt); Mike, his assistant, who was also from Ireland (white shirt); Dana, project videographer and photographer; Michael, Pat and Mike’s apprentice and project scribe (brown checkered shirt) and all the members of the Celtic Society of Louisiana, who gave stellar meaning to the phrase “Southern Hospitality”.
Whirlwinds of Celtic Society activities surrounded the builders 24/7 such as: Mardis Gras preparations and events; daily culinary extravaganzas showcasing the finest in Louisiana cuisine; weekly bag pipe lessons; athletic demonstrations; charity events; band practice; Gaelic language classes; poker games and Irish Wolf Hound training sessions.
The ‘boys’, as Pat and Mike were affectionately called by Celtic Society members, built five, 23′ long, three seat racing currachs (pronounced ‘cur rocks’) and four, 25′ long, four seat racing naomhogs (pronounced ‘knee volgs’), following strict North American Currach Association (NACA) guidelines. The boats were to be used in NACA races by their new owners upon completion.
A seemingly endless parade of visitors offered heartfelt support and encouragement to the team of builders, as they handily transformed tons of raw materials into nine elegant and graceful Irish racing canoes. They worked from seven in the morning until ten or eleven each night, for seventy five consecutive days. In addition to building the boats, they also made 71 oars. Each craft carries an extra oar, in case one breaks during a race.
By the end of the project the team was exhausted. Michael bought Dana a five dollar raffle ticket at the St. Patrick’s Day farewell party for Pat and Mike. She won the grand prize: a four day-three night vacation for two at a five star resort on Perdido Key, Florida. The next morning, amid tears of thanks and gratitude for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the team disbanded. Pat and Mike flew home to Ireland. Dana and Michael drove to Florida and checked into the seaside resort for a well deserved rest.
Michael’s job ended abruptly within a week after returning to Pennsylvania. He telephoned Mike in Massachusetts. Mike gave him Johnny’s number after a short conversation about his quest to find a boat builder willing to teach him how to build a traditional Irish canoe.
Johnny said he was too old to build currachs anymore. However, Johnny knew an Irishman in New Orleans that was organizing a currach building project scheduled to begin in early January, or in about three months. He gave Michael Danny’s number and wished him luck.
Danny was a very busy person. He owned a pub in the French Quarter of New Orleans, had numerous side businesses and performed regularly as a musician in venues throughout the South and other parts of the world. He was bringing one of Ireland’s top master boat builder to New Orleans to build a fleet of authentic Irish racing canoes.
Michael left many messages on Danny’s answering machine. They played phone tag as time ticked away. Near the end of October Michael decided to take matters into his own hands. He drove to New Orleans and sat in Danny’s pub for two days until Danny walked up to him and said in an Irish brogue, “Hi. I’m Danny O’Flaherty. Please come with me to my office. We can talk there in private.”
By the end of their hour long conversation Danny telephoned Pat in Ireland. They spoke together in Gaelic. Danny asked Pat if Michael could be his assistant to help speed the project along. They anticipated the project would take approximately two months to build nine traditional Irish racing canoes. Pat agreed. He would need all the help he could get.
Danny asked Michael if he would kindly make a documentary movie of the project and write a currach building manual, in return for the privilege of learning the ancient craft. He explained that the tradition of currach building was in danger of being lost in Ireland. Modern boaters wanted faster vehicles, made in factories, out of fiberglass, epoxy and metal.
He gladly agreed to the conditions. Danny told him the project would begin January 3rd, in Baton Rouge, at the headquarters of the Celtic Society of Louisiana. He gave Michael contact numbers and said he’d call Steve, the Society’s president, and let him know to expect him. Michael was prepared to live in a tent for two months, if necessary.
Michael knew how to sketch, write and use basic carpentry tools. He also knew that Dana was a skilled photographer and wanted to be a videographer. He didn’t know if she would be able to join him on this adventure, but he hoped so. He called her that evening.