- by Carol Standish
Charles N. Bamforth began keeping a personal journal in 1915. He was then a twenty year old cadet on the Massachusetts Nautical Training Ship, Ranger. Later, as a merchant captain, his profession required a written record—but that requirement never detered him from also keeping personal journals in equally fastidious detail. The writing habit became life-long. Iron Jaw - A Skipper Tells His Story (Dorrance Publishing Co., Inc., 436pp, $22) is a compilation of Bamforth’s 60 years of record-keeping—on the high seas as well as on the domestic front—edited by his sons, Charles and Richard.
Born in 1895 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Bamforth’s father soon lost his job as carpenter’s helper and the family moved to Lincoln to be closer to the support of both sets of grandparents. Bamforth’s was a “working childhood.” Before and after school he cut and hauled wood, maintained the family garden, helped with home improvements and repairs, cared for six younger siblings, drove other people’s draft animals and walked everywhere. He also worked out whenever work was offered. The youngster was accomplished in the ways of rural survival in a social stratum just above poverty well before he was ten. He quit school in the ninth grade to work full time to help support his mother and siblings, taking odd jobs as he found them. Leaving home at sixteen he apprenticed to a prosperous market gardener in Concord, sending his wages to his family in Lincoln.
After two years in Concord, he concluded with characteristically clear-headed practicality, “[T]he longer I worked on Wheeler’s farm, studying and reading about the agriculture business, the more I realized that there were very few advancement opportunities for me. Without capital or good land to inherit, I was on the wrong track. I could have married into the Wheeler family, and I was not altogether dissuaded from this possibility. However, I decided that I should get into a field in which I could advance on my ability alone.” Bamforth proceeded to do just that, over the course of his extraordinary career in the Merchant Marine Service. “Iron Jaw’s” chin may have been physically pronounced, but he earned his nick name through decisive action, tireless energy and prodigious ability.
Working his way through the levels from quartermaster to captain, Bamforth sailed the globe for 60 years. His first trip to the west coast was around the horn because the Panama Canal had yet to be built. His first ships were coal burning steamers. “At daybreak I took star sights and worked out a fix, then shoveled about five tons of coal, bathed, ate breakfast and read.”
In World War I he plied the Atlantic loaded with supplies for Europe.(Interspersed in the wartime chronology are insertions of “war news,” primarily maritime encounters with the enemy.) Labor union struggles added tension to the years between the wars and Bamforth, though loyal to his employer always kept a cool head. Occasionally, he got it battered. In World War II, his merchant ship was torpedoed and sank. He and his crew, (and his ship’s papers) spent five days in three lifeboats off the coast of Africa. Later in the war, Bamforth served in the south Pacific in the navy Seabees. He was born to “can do.” More labor “troubles” beset the shipping industry after the war—inspiring accounts of working with crews who spoke no English.
Bamforth was a master problem solver. Among the many innovative approaches he developed in his work was his technique of spring-lining huge cargo vessels out from docks and other tight spaces (in the absence of tugs—for whatever reason).
In combination with his professional records, his private journals provide a remarkable detailed social history of the time—most of the 20th century. In both U.S. and foreign ports, he reports his “recreational” activities with the same mariner’s eagle eye. He socializes, shops, takes in the sights—from operas to amusement parks, goes to movies (providing the titles and names) and baseball games, “Babe Ruth got his usual home run.” The personal side of the book is a keenly and energetic eye-witness document of the life of an ordinary citizen in tumultuous times, dispassionate but oddly ardent.
He is never, ever idle, anywhere. At home in Swampscott, Massachusetts, he makes home repairs, paints his own and neighbor’s houses, shellacs the floors, builds furniture, cooks, cleans (at home and on board) puts up preserves, goes to school meetings, talks to Rotary, joins the Masons, and sails the little boat he builds for his young sons (who are petrified) and studies and studies to learn the new ship—or the latest equipment—or get the next license.
Toward the end of his life, while he continues to do all of the above, he works as a harbor pilot, builds a bomb shelter, which he turns into a wine cellar (to store the wine he has made but never drinks) and begins to organize his reams of journals with the help of his oldest son.
A man of his times whose values were expressed by the life he chose to lead, Bamforth comes across as loyal and tenacious, decent and practical and above all, earnest in all his endeavors. It may even be that he wrote his journals as a way to keep an account of himself—to make sure he did his best, that he did not waste a minute of his life. Like most in his generation he felt that providing financial security for his family in violent social and economic upheaval required unstinting effort, unwavering focus. To his further credit the Captain also managed to squeeze in quite a bit of fun along the way.
In fact, the jam-packed pace of Bamforth’s life has produced a page-turner. That he lived in extraordinary times, is extra.