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Book Review: Down at the Docks by Rory Nugent

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Writing a book about the docks requires gaining the trust of the people – dockworkers, fisherman, and sailors. In an industry that doesn’t work well with government oversight and meddling, the author must become an insider. As an experienced sailor and resident of New Bedford, Rory knows the people and their stories.

Nugent introduces us to the inhabitants of New Bedford, Massachusetts. They have needed to retool themselves several times throughout history to meet the changing fishing and manufacturing conditions. Their fortunes have ebbed and flowed with the economy.

The port started as a center for the whaling industry, and the streets were paved with gold. After the whaling industry faltered, the town shifted to manufacturing. Goods from the port flowed across the seas to other population centers. However, fishing has always been the backbone of the economy.

Today, the fishing grounds have been depleted, and government regulates the industry. Large corporations have replaced the individual, self-owned fishing boats, and the town’s economy is faltering.

New Bedford is a working town. The boats berthed at her docks are working boats, not yachts and weekend sailors. The seas off her shores have provided her people a livelihood for centuries. Nugent provides us a glimpse of these lives by telling us six tales of her inhabitants.

Ports and docks mean the unloading and the distribution of goods. In the northeast that means teamsters and longshoreman. Any good book about the docks will need to include a chapter on the unions, the Mafia, and getting things done. In Down at the Docks, Nugent tells us about Mr. Pink, the facilitator.

Mr. Pink was the man that knew everyone, and made sure things got done. In many instances, he was the lubrication between the government, the workers, and the mob. Even the CIA was not above using Mr. Pink to advance their nefarious insurrection schemes in Africa during the Cold War.

Nugent provides a history of New Bedford that offers a glimpse of a growing and prosperous United States without reading like someone’s dissertation. He uses stories of Mr. Pink to inform us about the fishing industry and harbor life from the 1950s through the 1970s.

He shows us how changes in the transportation industry and the refrigeration industry changed the availability of fresh fish across America and the world.

The reader certainly doesn’t want to miss Nugent’s non-traditional discussion of the whaling industry in America. The tale begins with “Pearl, the city’s leading lady of swag” trying to sell him a piece of whalebone scrimshaw, carved into a sexual device. Her significant other, Char, runs the local lesbian bar.

Pearl introduces us to the story of Secretary Ricker, “Dino Dyke, the last from the old herd on the hill.” The old herd being the Petticoat Society. Prior to running the important-export business around 1900, the Petticoat Society ran the whaling industry in New Bedford. This history won’t appear in any schoolbook.

Sailors are superstitious by nature. The story of Mr. Jinx, Hake, exemplifies that fact. In addition to surviving many shipwrecks, Hake has served on ships from New Bedford to Alaska, and currently he is experiencing harder times than normal. The local ship captains perceive him as bad luck.

Nugent uses Hake’s story to provide the reader a glimpse of the difficult life faced by a modern day sailor. By middle age, they are worn-out, tired and have difficulty getting a job. Ship’s crews seldom have medical benefits and retirement plans. However, they do it willing for the lure of the sea, and the mythical freedom of a sailor.

In Down at the Docks, Nugent shows us the line of legality sailors and ship’s captains navigate around. They view this line as a wide grey area, rather than black and white. Smuggling, salvaging, and stretching catch limits are all in a day’s work for most of them, but few of them have a sense of fiscal responsibility. Live for today is their motto.

Down at the Docks was a slow starter, but grew in momentum. Nugent packs historical facts into the yarns, but keeps them interesting. He shows a side view of Americana that few have seen, but the harbor life helped shape the country and remains important. Unfortunately, even the fishing industry in the United States is being outsourced today.

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About Bruce G. Smith

I'm a part time writer with a few articles published here and there. In addition to writing, I'm into nature and architectural photography.