I love family stories and this is a great one. Especially the ending.
|Lauritz Melchior was the greatest Wagnerian tenor of his time, which was the first half of the last century. That greatness extended beyond his matchless voice and stage persona to include both an imposing personality and a considerable avoirdupois.
Melchior was Danish by birth; and thus it fell to my godfather Ingeman Olsen, himself a Dane and at that time the Danish Consul General in New Orleans, to entertain the great man on those occasions when he came to the city while touring with the Metropolitan Opera. And at six feet, four inches, Uncle Ingeman was a considerable presence in his own right. I have seen a photograph of him as a young man in the parade-dress uniform of the Danish Royal Guard, his saber at his side and wearing a bearskin shako that must have pushed his height to an impressive eight feet or so. He was known, inevitably, as the Great Dane.
It seems that Uncle Ingeman had somehow gleaned that Melchior liked to fish; and, obliged as he was to keep the man entertained, he proposed to my grandfather, a constant if not necessarily compleat angler, that he should take Melchior out to see what fishiness might be coaxed out of our local waters. More to the purpose, Grandfather’s fishing was done in fine style indeed from his very accommodating yacht, the Porte-Bonheur. And although he was himself of quite modest stature next to the two Danes, his personality partook of the same largesse; and I like to imagine a conversation among the three of them, doubtless enhanced with some fine scotch whiskey and Danish aquavit and a dense cloud of the smoke of very good cigars.
I say his yacht, although it was nominally owned and in fact maintained, fueled, crewed, and provisioned by the the diversified company of which he was President and Chairman of the Board. As far as the IRS knew, its sole purpose was to inspect the marine operations of the company. But as far as I know, it merely provided but one of the many venues of Grandfather’s considerable and varied social life; and it never inspected anything of any consequence except the fishing grounds that surround New Orleans on very nearly all sides.
The Porte-Bonheur was seventy-five feet long and displaced as many tons. She had two modest staterooms aft, the crew’s quarters and galley forward, and a spacious saloon on the main deck. At the forward end of this was the helmsman’s station with the steering wheel, five-or-so-feet in diameter, the binnacle, and the engine-room telegraph, all of gleaming brass. Hunkered down amidships was a handsome brute of a diesel engine—massive iron, painted a medium green, with more polished brass—which, when it was turned over, would send a shudder through the entire length of the little ship and whose steady throbbing was a constant presence thereafter. I remember her ploughing at her queenly seven knots through the steep seas that are cast onto the inshore sounds from the Gulf of Mexico, sending a cascade of seawater over the foredeck and into the scuppers, or anchored quietly under the lee of Cat or Ship or Horn Island. While under way in mild conditions, my favorite spot was leaning over the bow, my heels hooked under the great bower anchor, to watch the dolphins at their sport, or up on the flying bridge for the wind and the wider view. But best of all was conning the boat, standing on a steady bench so that I could see over the wheel and into the binnacle, and that under the patient and watchful attention of Captain Janssen, yet another Dane. (“You can tell how good is the skipper by how straight is the wake.”).
I am sorry to say that the particular excursion that is the actual subject of this little essay, with these three outsize personalities aboard, was long before my time; but my father, then a lad in his early teens, was among the ship’s company. And again I am sorry to say that Pop took most of the details with him to his grave, so I must conjure them for you. Thus the locale is perhaps somewhere in Chandeleur Sound, east and north of the Mississippi River outlet, inside the long barrier island that is a rookery for thousands of sea birds. Theirs, at some distance, is the only sound besides that of the wavelets slapping gently against the hull. The seascape would be as I have often seen it, a flat, nearly windless calm with daylight arising imperceptibly through the dense fog. It is a scene that, with no contrivance whatsoever, is possibly as atmospheric as any that Melchior might have experienced on stage. But however vague my father may have been about these details, there is one about which he was quite clear: he relates that he was awakened that dawn by an awesome sound he had heard neither before nor since. He climbed out of his bunk and went topside to find Lauritz Melchior, the greatest heldentenor in the world, alone on the foredeck, singing into the vast emptiness.
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