Interpretations of Oceanic Culture in a Post-Hawaiian-Shirt World: Prologue
Captain’s Log on Tuesday, June 24, 1997. We’ve seem to have found our anchorage approaching the sandy beaches of southwest Florida, and I’ll tell you that it’s quite the break from the usual rocky shores of Baja that we were used to. Our mighty vessel, known as the USS Conchcore, tossed its anchor onto the shores just off the Bay of Postmodern Appeal (quite the strange name, but Floridians aren’t known for being normal) after this trip. On our decade-long voyage, we’ve taken a healthy supply of catches from the perception of nautical lifestyle before us: Music, journalistic writings, old timber covered in algae, hornpipes covered in spit, you name it. ’Tis a tumultuous living we’ve been going at for long: Long enough to create legends. Aye, it’s true, you can’t retell exactly what we’ve seen: . We set sail in the warm summer of 1962, ten years after I was still just a bum making their living selling landscape paintings as a highwayman. Back then, I sold those paintings originally for only $25 a piece, and each would usually be sold on the same day they were made: It was good money, but it wasn’t luxury. Eventually, you’d have confident customers purposefully driving slower than average to catch a glimpse of your station.
That was my way of life: I made gorgeous paintings depicting the raw emotion of what being a sailor would mean in the new world after centuries of settlement. Florida felt like the center where every American ship would go towards to update their coordinates and track their shipments: It felt like the nautical center of the New World, and I wanted to represent those feelings through my landscape work. The giggling merlins and dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico seemed as exotic as aliens yet as welcoming as old friends, at least that’s how they’d look on all the maps of America. That was my way of living until one fateful day in the opposing winter of 1952 when I walked into the Palace Saloon and two regally dressed men were near the pool tables. Upon a closer look, it was a sergeant, and if there’s a sergeant within any bar, you know there either here to kill a dangerous man, or they’re here for unlucky recruits. I didn’t have any blood on my hands, and I wasn’t cringing in pain to look like a horrific weakling, so I was eligible for only one of their targets. Naturally, I wasn’t interested in anyone who had offers that distracted from my artistic career: I was just there to get a drink and it’s back to the highway life.
However, my luck wasn’t feeling connected to my circumstances that day, and out of all the scrawny men I was positioned next to, a recruiting sergeant found me as someone who’d like to volunteer in the military, specifically the navy. Now I knew why they were here: I was perplexed because I thought they stopped recruiting strange fishermen into the American army since the turn of the 20th century, but I guess our standards have dipped in and out of precedent. He stood in front of me with a wide grin on his face and a posture that only explained his duty rather than his approachability. He lended out a straightened hand and said, “My Johnny, you’re a fine, young man. Not even a day out at sea and you already look battleworn. Would you possibly be interested in joining an organization that’d get you out of that roadside life and into the real world?” I was alarmed. Firstly, how did he know my name? This was the question I rushed to first, and he swiftly responded saying “Why, who doesn’t know your name? My daughter has several of your paintings in her home, and she wouldn’t stop telling me about these impressive men who’d stand by the highway painting the world as it went by.”
To not make this story longer than it has to be, this sergeant managed to convince me into signing up for the American navy, and I was stationed just off Tampa Bay, not even to see combat (which I was quite thankful for). For most of my involvement, I was a landsman who was in charge of making sure that everything got on the military boats before they set sail. There weren’t any wooden ancients you’d see a couple of decades prior in harbors: They were beginning to look like metal titans somehow remaining afloat in the ocean. But, for the little time I was out at sea, I wasn’t particularly interested in my duties of defending American waters like I swore to do in the contract. I was instead concerned with my original focus: The natural beauty presented to me in the Florida Peninsula. After all, after the years of naval training, I was still a roadside painter, only I was now sketching in the notebooks they issued us, and I couldn’t sell them until after my service was done. But, I could confidently say that I was more of a nautical artist than I was a marine.
Usually, you hear nautical and artist in the same sentence and you think of a pansy who collects seashells and arranges them in neat, air-tight displays. While that was true for when I first started, it transcended into a fiery passion whenever a storm cleared way and revealed its beautiful, swampy scenery to me once again. It reminded me about how I once wanted to be a sailor: Man, that was foolish. Of course, the naturality can only entertain you by itself for so long until it’s developed, and developed it was. You’d have the usual beach houses, the overdone harbors, the lighthouses, and it was a basic refurbish of what was already there put crudely. During this time, I noticed that there was a unique structure to be demanded from newer sailors. Of course, I always knew that their architectural needs diverged from those living on the mainland, but I didn’t know the great implications of it: Was it more than just living next to the roaring waters, compromising around such a lifestyle? Clearly, there had to be more to this appreciation than the preppy and soulless anchor designs that’d decorate any kid’s birthday party (they used to be way more authentic). The desensitization towards the organic overwhelmed me and caused me to develop another unhealthy interest in the artificial naturality: Architecture.
As I kept working at the docks, these questions kept wandering in my mind and would take up most of my brain while I was on scouting duty. Eventually, I was kicked out of the navy for slacking off and excessive drinking because I thought it cured seasickness, but I was thankful for this. Sure, I may have been put back into a state of poverty where I had to paint my life away, but I preferred it way more than being a dockman. The little experience I had out at sea stuck with me, and it ate away at me to the point where I was more interested in painting seascapes than the swampy marshlands I was used to depicting. A familiar customer asked me why the sudden change in subject, but I could only reply with what sounded like prophetic claptrap. Contrary to what you may have assumed, my profits actually increased.
This insatiable need to study and articulate the mighty sea of both the Atlantic to the east and the Gulf to the west was made me give in and pursue what I thought was something only done before the turn of the century: Become a docksman, but this time be self-manageable while doing so. Conveniently, it was a roughly similar location to where I positioned during my time in navy: Near Tampa Bay. ’Twas there that I built a fine shiphouse, one that’d make the tastes of the men before me quite happy, and maybe some of my shipmen: They had an odd thing for the appeal of progressive weaponry though. Anyways, I lived in that modest shiphouse for four years: It wasn’t the beached cruise ships you could see up in Ontario. No, I built a house big enough to store my boat and a closet long enough to hold my seascapes.
Obviously, the house only served as a refuge for the long periods of time in which I’d take that rickety old boat, go out to sea, and embrace the griminess of it. The stained wood of harbor went along with me, and the salty wood was deep in my nostrils. During my more frequent stops out at sea, I noticed more pale and skinny bodies walk along the beaches, and they had brought these long, wooden boards with them. I had no idea what they were doing with the boards, until they started riding the waves with them. I was blown away; they must’ve been fancy things introduced on television, but I never saw them in a day of my life. Curious, I approached a scraggy man and he told me that they’re called “surfboards” and that they were meant for a sport calling “surfing.” It was originally invented by Polynesian peoples, and that the sport transferred over here originally from California back at the turn of the century.
He told me that surfing was the craze of this year, and I couldn’t believe him. He was getting tired of me asking incessant questions, so he rapidly told me he needed to attend a memorial service out at sea, and he ran into the shore to presumably do whatever “surfing” is. Well, I would just say, but he kicked a seashell at me with his the heel of his foot, unaware that he bonked me in the face with hermetic life. Comedically and disgustingly, the mollusk showed its and one wandering eye outwards and it scurried away from me as if I were a threat. I looked around stumped, but then I noticed the shaggy man left behind one of those surfboards, and it had an almost casual and gentlemanly design to it. I noticed strange floral patterns within it that seemed to beckon towards me every time I pulled my head away from them. So, when they were busy doing their surfing ritual, I stole that board. I wanted to learn more about this object, and I rationalized it by saying that, if they stole it from the Polynesians, then I can steal it from them.
At home, the board spoke to me. At first, I thought this was the guilt from stealing another man’s property, but it was far deeper than that. Deep as a trench, it contained solemn words about traveling to the source of all that I’ve surrounded my life with. At least, that’s what I could remember from the restless nights it caused. After a couple of days, I finally gave it and I didn’t return the board back to whom I stole it from; I listened to it instead. First things first: I knew my home had to reflect what the board was demanding from me. It taught me to deliberately surround myself with the “essence of the ocean” that I’ve been neglecting for so long according to it. Now, I went insane during the hours I spent on highways, but even this was getting me to question my notions.
Soon, my house became an architectural oddity. As I worked on the watercolor rendering, that I made to outline the redesign, I realized the architecture perfectly married my love of creativity and technical skill. The patterns started becoming more reflective of something alien to me, but I only knew now what the board commanded of me. ’Twas at this point I wondered that this was a buildup to something greater than me: Something calling me from a far away land to do their bidding. At this point, the memories of being a roadside painter remained in my mind, but they had to be put to aside to tend to the voices that damned board caused. It was at this point that, I swear, the same mollusk from earlier came into my redesigned boathouse and demanded my domestication.
Of course, it couldn’t speak such a thing to me, but it wouldn’t leave no matter how much I walked away from it or tried to toss it back into the sea. I was considering just killing it when it got to be too annoying, but that damned board again told me that it was asking my companionship (or domestication, I couldn’t remember). So, it became my first unofficial crew member: At last, I had a crew that consisted of more than just me. I’d say that it was all I dreamed of whenever I daydreamed as a dockman, but I thought nature didn’t provide the adequate room for more people on my side.
For weeks on end, that was my life: I’d wake up, search for more objects on the beach to contribute to my insatiable desire to appease the words coming from the board I stole, and it was all in the name of filling some insatiable need to become closer to the ocean. I thought that this was gonna be the peak of my life after all I’ve been through: A roadside landscape painter, a dockman working for the American navy, and now a crazy man on the beach. Part of me thinks that all of these things were collectivizing the knowledge I’ve obtained and repurposing it for the board. At the same time, I began to finally understand what I was creating with these seashells, rocks, and tacky mounted fish: It was a shrine (I thought).
That was it, or at least what I thought was it. Dozens of seascapes surrounded my abode and I felt a lifeforce enter me: I knew that whatever ancestral spirits lied on the Florida coast were certainly interested in possessing my ripe body (still, I thought I was not scrawny enough). Regardless, this was what I was reluctantly willing to embrace. I mean, it’s not like I could escape it: The mollusk and the board would likely follow me in some sort of possessive way. One day however, a fisherman came back from an honest day’s work and his net was filled with cod. Within that net, I noticed a peculiar object sticking out of it, and I knew it was inanimate because it wasn’t wiggling around like the other fish. It was a particularly warm morning, and the sun shone perfectly onto the protruding object’s shininess: Like it was luring me to take it and add it onto the inanimate crew of things that weren’t mine.
Almost as if my footsteps were no longer my own, I was beginning to approach that fisherman and his net with the intention of asking to look through his catch. To any sane person, they’d know he’d immediately reject any offer like that. But I had a plan… that was completely foiled by the fact that said object just fell out of his net without me needing to coerce a fisherman into rummaging through his fish. There ain’t no room for mystery in my life, and you’re starting to run outta room yourself, so I’ll remove any tension. What fell out of his net was a glass bottle that clearly contained something. I rushed to grab it and attempted to open it immediately: I was getting weird looks all around. But then a cartoonish trail appeared in front of me and I knew, right there and then, that this was a part of the larger chain of command that damned board was putting me on. Quickly, I returned back to my boathouse while leaving a trail of desperate, sandy footprints. As I rushed in, the board spoke to me once again through its feint yet incessant call.
It said to me, in possibly the most brief I’ve ever heard it, to give the bottle to my pet mollusk. I followed suite, and the slimy bastard popped open the cork immediately and out came the scroll within it. I grabbed it, and the paper felt extraordinarily heavy, as if it was made of some steel compound. I had no idea why I was able to handle it as normally as I was before, but maybe exposing it to oxygen did something. As my arms were feeling tired from holding it for so long, I plopped it my hammock and I could feel the wood of the supports splinter. It was at this point the scroll unfolded itself.
Naturally, I had to gaze upon it, and if I didn’t, the influence of the board probably would’ve made me look anyways. What was there was text and it said, “Old Billy Riley was a dancing master, Old Billy Riley’s master of a drogher, and Old Billy Riley has a nice young daughter!” From the knowledge I maintained from my experience as a dockman, I could recognize that writing as from an old sea shanty, specifically Billy Riley, which had no clear origin except from Stan Hugill. From this, I felt a profound disappointment: I mean, my expectations weren’t too high anyways, as the trope of a bottle containing a map to buried treasure is such a tired trope, but still.
Remaining disappointed, I turned my back and I contemplated just how authentic this calling was and wondering if I was just prophesying my own insanity. I was wondering if I was just extremely internalizing the guilt I felt from taking that shaggy man’s beautiful board, and if I made friends with a mollusk all for nothing. It was my most twilight hour until the scroll began to glow and bubble like a hot cauldron. And from it unleashed something I could only describe in the same legends that’d soon await me out at sea.
Arising from the bubbles was a long, serpentine creature that irradiated with glistening scales and interweaved around the constructions of my beachhouse with such intensity that it created a wide glow from inside of it. The sandy wood beneath my feet could be felt tearing away in texture as it floated eternally around my calves. As for myself, I could only keep staring at what I thought was what death looked like. The serpent let down after making its way around the entirety of my small abode, and it looked at me with its piercingly scalene pupils. It’s nostrils were in flux with its hard, pounding breathing that now reverberated through my house since it was wrapped in it.
There was an instinctual urge within it that it’d start talking to me, however I expected it to only recite the lyrics to the shanty I read. More positively, it spoke to me in a voice that sounded like someone fiddled with the whammy stick on an guitar for too long. Forgive me: As much as I’d love to tell you what this creature spoke to me, I can’t reveal the words of what it said, for it told me that I’d be blinded with madness for the rest of my natural existence if I were to do so. However, it did give some loopholes in its proposal, so I thought that was quite generous. One of the loopholes was that I’d be able to tell you what it called itself, and that was the Golden Eel.
Due to ambiguous language, I can technically state what I did because of what the Golden Eel told me, but I can’t state what it told me to do directly. What happened, because of what the scaly bastard told me, was that I took all of my seascapes and went back to rehashing some of my old ways. By that, I mean I went to go and sell them at the same place I was recruited: Palace Saloon. Now, I immediately looked towards the board’s approval before I did such a thing. After all, I’ve built up a nice decor in that beachhouse that was heavily relied on those seascapes to build itself, so I wasn’t too ready to sell them for what the Eel had in store for me. The board didn’t say anything, and the Eel took a tasty bite out of it. After the sense of relief I felt from finally seeing my commander destroyed, I rushed to my senses and sold off those seascapes as quickly as I could.
When I arrived back at Palace Saloon, none of the usual attendees were there, at least not the ones I was used to. Instead, it was a completely new set of scrawny white boys, but they were no longer my set of scrawny white boys. From there, I set up a makeshift stand out of the used mugs, and I began propping them up and speaking like those auctioneers would. “Going once, going twice: This real classic from ’57: It was painted by, um, James Gibson.” Admittedly, I had no idea what I was doing, but the days I was in auction houses (from when they were selling my work) taught me a couple of things. Initially, I wasn’t getting any buyers, until a regally dressed man came up to me. This man looked familiar to me, but I couldn’t quite make him out.
He came up and told me that he was interested in buying the currently displayed painting. He said he’d pay a good $70 for it if I was willing to take that. Because he was closer, I gave him another look and I noticed very familiar badges and an even more familiar uniform. This was the man who recruited me into the American navy years ago. I gulped at the realization, and my masquerade as a makeshift auctioneer fell apart. At this point, I was stumbling with my words attempting to say “going once, going twice” and all I could see was his increasingly furrow look towards me. Eventually, he said “You seem to have some trouble with your words. [Is] this the first time you received a customer here?” I sternly told him no, but then I felt my lower leg tickle.
As it turns out, there was something wiggling inside my pantaloons, and don’t let your mind get into any gutters, for I found out the origin when that slimy bastard came up my shirt collar. Its wandering little eye was staring at me as if it was a puppy dog, and I could only express disgust that it came along with me. Swiftly, I attempted communicating with it as if it understood me, and I told it that it could stay in my pockets if it promised not to cause any commotion. Hastily, I return back to attempting auctioning, and that recruiting sergeant strikes me up with something I thought I’d never hear from him. He told me that he was greatly interested in my work and was willing to buy my entire stock.
Surely, he wasn’t sane when he said this: I think his old cohort convinced him into doing such, but it couldn’t have been him! But again, he said “Yep, I’ll take everything you got. My daughter goes mad for these types of portraits: She had an entire collection of them from those highwaymen around four years ago.” All of the sudden, that slimy bastard pinched me on my flesh and sent me into a state that looked as if I was dancing the days away. The sergeant went along with the act and he assumed this was all a part of my advertising campaign. Quite so, he was never a man to feel a sea creature bite at your innards.
The transactions went through and what arrived near my house the following morning was a hauling truck to take every seascape I’ve drawn over my journey to get closer to the ocean. The total was an… amount which I still wish to not disclose (and the Golden Eel isn’t guiding me on that decision, trust me); just know that it was enough. As the sergeant was waving his cap towards me as the truck was taking off, I was struck with the sudden realization of what I did: I went on a quest to “get closer to the ocean” by painting its natural beauty, and I ended up selling every portrait I made of its said beauty. I would’ve broken down, sobbed, and ran after the truck to get my stuff back, but then the Golden Eel came rushing out of my house and…
Appearing to pierce through my chest bloodlessly, it turned around its head, cackling its spinal bones, and beamed a message into my head. No, it didn’t speak to me this time, so under contract rules, I’m allowed to tell you what message was beamed into my head. The next thing I knew, it told me to take the profits I made and use them to build together a motley crew of rookie sailors to travel across the country to the shores of Baja, and from there, take the voyage to Hawaii. Little did I know, there was more to this plan than I thought, but the Eel was saving that information for later. But now, all was good, for I had a purpose that’d drive me out of this godforsaken state.
And that’s where I must stop telling my story. But don’t worry, for it’ll continue the further we travel and the deeper we go. Join me on my journey with my slimy bastard for a companion, and the guidance of the scaly bastard over us. Well, you’re not gonna join me, as you’ll be picking up after my trail. What you can do is pretend like you were part of the journey they whole time, which is appreciated in the long run. Regardless, I can’t promise any promises of booty (both kinds), as I can only promise something particular to me, and it’s familiar to what I’ve been aspiring to this entire time. The sea sponges will speak to me, the surfers will attempt to outrun me, the deep-sea divers will attempt to lock me up, the lighthouses will attempt to lead me astray, the island mirages will distract me, the candy-bars will be closed for repairs, the horrors of the deep won’t be so scary anymore, and the Mollusk will surely speak to me of the trinity.
Unfortunately, we can no longer back and fill because even the cultural tides aren’t with us anymore: They’ve moved onto horizons after our sailing was done. But avast, we persist throughout a form that very few analyze at the level that’d bring about new insights. My ship has been destroyed all all that might remain of me, my voyage, and my crew are the words you see before you now in this journal (that you likely stole too). Before you turn the page, know that I can’t answer if I ever got closer to the vagueness of the ocean. What I did get closer to was a rather unusual case that we know more about the ocean than we like to claim. However, I still can’t reveal the words of the Golden Eel.