Bearing Witness,

by Rita Leydon ©1997
 

Rita in Swedish costume on Kalmar Nyckel shipOh, what a grand day! A bit on the cool side for late September. Atmosphere so dense and humid I can feel it brushing against my flushed cheeks as I move through it. A low canopy hangs protectively over Wilmington, shielding the shipyard from the sun—an extension of mercy on the well wishing throng which has come to bear witness. The throng, several thousand strong, I’m sure, has each and every one arisen early this day. Calendars marked long before—launch Kalmar Nyckel, 8 a.m. Holding the day in reserve. Time out from routine. A date with the tides. Our various private births, deaths and marriages are pivotal milestones, to be sure, but these commonplace events don’t hold a candle to the unique communal observance unfolding under the heavens on this particular Sunday. Those present can feel in the very marrow of their bones that this is a once-in-a-lifetime expression of collective creative human willfulness. A magnificent point of unity around which all our various immigrant woes and triumphs can circumambulate. A just cause for pause and celebration.

Present and partaking are gentle kinsmen from many walks of life. The polished, dignified and well-heeled. The rough, coarse and weatherbeaten. Visionary dreamers. Shoulders-to-the-grindstone toilers. Silent admirers. Loud and raucous boasters. Generous philanthropists and pocket change contributors. Politicians, musicians, dancers and musketeers. Old Salts and stow-away wannabees. Pirates, captains, Hook and Peter Pan.

A singleminded focus permeates the crowd—the fitting observance of a launch, the giving to the waters, of a thoroughly new wooden three masted tall ship, the Kalmar Nyckel. A launch such as this one may have been relatively commonplace in the 1600s, but in our high tech, wired and impersonal 1990s it is decidedly an infrequent occurrence. Serious ships are no longer handmade like this one. Serious ships do not sport gilded carvings of lions, dolphins and such around their periphery. Serious ships are not built by zealous keepers of the flame . . . or are they? Here, in this place, the citizens took it upon themselves to build a ship, explore a sliver of their history in the form of one sea worthy three masted wooden vessel. This seemingly impossible task came to fruition by creative and imaginative problem solving. Kalmar Nyckel was built largely by skilled volunteers under the direction of a Master Shipbuilder. Today, Kalmar Nyckel is a tangible reality. Silent testimony to the power of hunger and big dreams. She is a very serious ship.

I got up at five. Dressed in my Vadsbo costume—Vadsbo is a parish in northeastern Västergötland in Sweden. Long black woolen skirt, front protected by a handwoven cotton apron in pale colors, a crisp full-sleeved white linen blouse, and a sky blue tight fitting embroidered vest with scalloped petals encircling the waist. Just right. Then I braided my hair extra nicely. Ready to go. The original Kalmar Nyckel brought the first Swedish settlers to North America in 1638 and is the inspiration for today’s full size recreation. She was a Swedish Lady and I am a Swedish girl. As such, I choose to honor this occasion by dressing appropriately. I will be Rita, the Wandering Troubadour. My musical companion is my nyckelharpa—keyed fiddle—whose familial roots reach 500 years into the depths of Sweden’s past. Like Kalmar Nyckel, the nyckelharpa is currently basking in the glow of rediscovery and adulation. Both nyckels—“nyckel” means “key”—are connections which represent and exemplify something that was and is grand and wonderful in our collective Swedish and human history. Ship and instrument are in a state of ascension. Resurrected and found to be alive with much to contribute. Anachronisms no longer.

With nyckelharpa hanging around my neck and pausing to play a tune every few paces, I find, to my delight, that I can wander anywhere I please. Obstacles fall away as I approach. Crowds part to embrace me. Smiling faces turn in my direction. “What is that?” “Such a lovely sound!” “My Mormor played nyckelharpa—I haven’t heard the sound of it since I was a little girl in Skåne.” “Oh, please don’t stop!” I am an ambassador, a representative of my culture and musical traditions. This is my gift to the ship. My way of honoring Kalmar Nyckel and those who caused her to become a reality. Some mistakenly think I am part of the official agenda. I am not. This is simply my way of being here. Sharing my heritage. Surely the original Lady ferried a few humble troubadours in her day. Sailors are notoriously fond of music. Something about the sea and its rhythms.

There are standing areas and sitting areas at the shipyards this day. The sitting areas are of varying degrees of specialness, related to monetary sacrifice as well as political level, I suspect. Red velvet ropes attempt to organize various VIPs. I consider myself a VIP. Aren’t we all? My attire and purposeful demeanor are my ticket of admittance. Powerful stuff. I look as if I belong—and therefore, I do.

The patient Lady has been freshly repositioned and rigged in preparation for her launch today. The protective and utilitarian scaffolding that enveloped her during construction is gone. She is fully exposed and quite vulnerable, wearing only a fresh coat of paint. Like a silk chemise, the paint hides nothing, yet upholds the Lady’s dignity all the while flaunting her unmistakable allure. She is exquisite in form and line. A sensuous and voluptuous feast for all our admiring eyes. Kalmar Nyckel is ready. A monstrously large winch attached to an enormous yellow bulldozer is poised to ease the Lady into her bath. Last minute details are tended to by folks scurrying here and there. Touching up paint. Straightening the soloist’s garment before she officially glides onto the stage and into the adoring gaze of her public. We want perfection. First impressions are important. Speeches are spoken. Words tripped over. Orations full of consonants and vowels drift like snow over our expectant faces. The ship’s godmother bestows gifts. An ominous sky kindly retains the rain drops it longs to shed. The tides rise on cue.

I am on the outer tip of a small promontory on the upstream side of the ship, beyond the velvet ropes. I can almost reach out and touch Kalmar Nyckel. Milling about me are members of the Coryell Militia. They are part of the program—the cannon crew. Period dressed enthusiasts who ignite black powder with delicious pomp and circumstance any chance they get. Gentlemen as well as ladies. Delightful folks, I discover, residing in Bucks County, just like me. Black powder is explosively serious stuff. All unnecessary bodies are meticulously cleared away prior to detonation. Quivering in my boots I witness the expulsion of one hapless soul after another, fully expecting to be next. Top Gun, a severe, yet dignified gent with puffed out chest studded with rows of shiny brass buttons, a black beat up old tri-cornered hat crowning his probably bald head, strides purposefully over to me, looks down a long nose at the damsel with the funny instrument and foreign period dress. Eyeing me coldly he gruffly declares “You can stay.” Thus, summarily spared expulsion, I stay in the garden and witness the historic launch amongst the brave Militia and a contingent of fearsome Vikings huddled by their long boat. I am, in reality, Hilde the Viking Troubadour. What’s one more Viking?

Rita playing nyckelharpa at Kalmar Nyckel ship

The much anticipated moment of release is silent but for an audible collective inhalation, the hushed sound of moving air as all available oxygen in Wilmington is momentarily engaged. Kalmar Nyckel elegantly slips into the water and doesn’t disappoint. On her deck are scores of able bodies, her creators, her builders, her near and dear. Each one with a personal tale of attachment and devotion to a wooden ship built in Delaware in the 1990s. We, the witnesses, hold our breath for the duration of the easement, then thunderously exhale with relief and exultation at the safe passage of our Lady’s first leg. The crazed dream of a few lone visionaries in the tiny First State has blossomed and become this glorious ship. The distance between dream and reality covered by true grit and common passion.

The Christina River is abuzz with leisure craft vying for close proximity to the action. Coast Guard keeps all comers at bay. Zealous keepers of the invisible line around the Star Attraction. A fire fighting boat displays its prowess by blasting all eight hoses skyward simultaneously—a veritable birthday cake of sparkles. Kalmar Nyckel is well pleased. She smiles.

What do I care about this boat? What is she to me, a lover of undulating landscapes and firm foundations? As an American, born in Sweden, this boat is a solid piece of my heritage. I too, have felt the pangs of uprooting and the agony of relocation. I too, have suffered the joys and attendant sorrows of yearning for and forging a meaningful relationship with the land of my origins. I admire and respect the vision, courage, brave dignity, perseverance and sacrifice that went into the creation of this fine vessel. My respect is larger than flag waving Swedish sentimentality, for the endeavor is truly one of human effort propelled by pristine passion. Symbolic of embers that smolder in hearts of men and women desiring to improve their lives-be it the 1630s or the 1990s. My sympathetic strings resonate. I marvel at the eloquent craftsmanship she inspired then and now. The blistered, calloused hands that willed her into being. It is in my nature to gravitate towards extreme acts of passion. Kalmar Nyckel is an extreme expression of passion. She causes my breast to swell with pride at simply being a member of the human race.

Kalmar Nyckel is a grand ship. A tall ship. Not quite finished yet, but she will be within a year. Her dream is to sail the North Atlantic to Sweden salty swell by salty swell, nautical measure by nautical measure, propelled only by the winds and currents that choose to bestow blessings on her effort. A maiden voyage extraordinary in the 1990s, yet commonplace only a few centuries ago. I harbor a budding fantasy, a germinating seed dream. So new that I'm neither familiar nor comfortable with it. Haven’t tried it on for size more than once or twice. A foggy free form flirtation titillating my inner recesses. An apparition of immodest proportions. The very idea frightens me as it thrills me. I desire to be among the hands on board. I desire to know and feel such a journey. I desire to know how big the ocean is. Wave by wave, whitecap by whitecap. Surely there is room for me and my nyckelharpa.

 

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