TWO SUMMERS AGO, in the pages of our now-defunct sister publication Eastsideweek, one of our most embittered and cynical writers decried the Seafair pirates as "swaggering, menacing toughs with their earrings and swords." His same mean-spirited article branded them a "rowdy band of buccaneers . . . [with] a fearsome reputation for drunkenness, sexual harassment, and general carousing." Jumping onto the same spiteful bandwagon, Seattle Times columnist Terry McDermott called the pirates "stupid" men "who look like what might happen when Hell's Angels get day jobs." (The pirates subsequently stormed his office to demand a retraction.)
Clearly, both of those talentless hacks were wrong about the pirates and wrong to commit their drunken vitriol to print. Accordingly, in an effort to correct the historical record during this 50th anniversary year of Seafair, we set out to find what it takes to be a member of the few, the proud—the pirates.
"The life isn't for everybody," explains Morie Lohre, an affable 18-year veteran of the pirates who was Captain Kidd—the organization's highest rank—during Seafair's 1995 festivities. "Everybody has their own talents. Some people can sing. Some people are organizers." Most of the current 40-odd pirates perform their own unique trademark "gimmick" during the Torchlight Parade (to be held this year on Saturday the 31st). For example, "I shoot fire from my fingers," he says, while others stage prerehearsed sword fights. "Some things are choreographed, others are not."
Remarkably, there are over 80 scheduled pirate appearances this summer. "The time commitment is just incredible," Lohre says. This has hurt past recruitment efforts; last year's class of some 30 applicants dwindled to a half-dozen following the mandatory "candidacy period," during which time "You're like a plebe," fetching drinks and emptying ashtrays during organizational meetings.
And what do the older, seasoned pirates do for training during the off-season? Tutor their parrots? Sharpen their cutlasses? Practice walking the plank? No, Lohre laughs, "Nothing at all." Instead, come Seafair, "When they get in costume, everything just magically falls into place."
It is most important that the aspiring swashbuckler avoid confusion with his sworn enemies, those contemptible child-friendly buffoons with their oversize shoes, painted faces, and bulbous red noses. In other words, if you can't cut it as a pirate, says Lohre, "Be a clown."
Responsible journalistic research demanded that I try to walk a few miles in the Pirates' peg legs and boots. The results of my month-long effort to immerse myself in the pirate lifestyle are reflected in the training journal excerpted here.
*June 14: I assemble my pirate wardrobe at various Capitol Hill boutiques, coming up with an ensemble that includes a tricornered hat, long boots, a frock coat, and assorted bandannas. "Costume party?" a friendly salesman asks quizzically. "No, it's for work," I reply, "and are you sure we both need to be in this changing room?" More confusion ensues over the exact meaning of "pantaloons" and whether it's horizontal or vertical stripes that make you look fat.
*June 15: Still on Capitol Hill, I visit several tattoo and piercing parlors to affect a more piratelike demeanor. Unaccountable giggling results when I ask if there are any scrimshaw-based designs or something to commemorate my having been "around the horn." (When I ask for a Jolly Roger design instead, the needle-wielding artist responds, "Who's he? Old flame?") Later, it occurs to me that pirates only wear earrings on their ears. Too late!
*June 23: After visiting many local pet shops, I finally select a compatible parrot able to learn nautical terminology while clinging to my shoulder. One week's training later, he is only able to say, "Ahoy, matey!" I resort to renting pirate movies for his benefit. Unfortunately, when Hook is checked out, I settle for Midnight Cowboy, which teaches him to exclaim, "Put me on a bus to Miami," in the exact voice of Dustin Hoffman.
*July 2: Although pleased with the parrot (whom I have named Smee), my dry-cleaning bills are out of control. Isn't there something else I can feed him besides grains?
*July 5: Fencing lessons aren't going well. "Maybe you should consider removing your eye patch," my instructor disdainfully suggests. "It seems to be affecting your balance. Also, your parrot keeps soiling the floor."
*July 8: More wind sprints on local high school track. Prosthetic peg leg is hurting my performance. Then, unleashed dog attempts to fetch it instead of nearby stick thrown by owner. Very embarrassing.
*July 10: On a training march through Cowen Park ravine wearing full pirate regalia, I am heckled mercilessly by costumed role-playing medievalists. "Check out the lame outfit!" one taunts. "What kind of loser goes out in public like that?" I hobble away as quickly as possible.
*July 12: Disaster. Smee has escaped. After posting "lost parrot" flyers all over the neighborhood, I safety-pin a birdlike Beanie Baby to my shoulder, but it just doesn't feel the same.
*July 17: The day of the official Seafair pirate landing at Alki Point. I hope to sneak in and join the group, maybe getting my picture in the papers. Unfortunately, I can't find a place to park; then, when I do, my peg leg keeps sinking into the sand, slowing my progress across the beach. Everyone has landed and left by the time I get there. Later I drown my sorrows in a bottle of rum.
*July 21: Although my prosthetic hook makes it difficult for me to grip the oars, I go on a midnight training mission at Green Lake to bury some treasure (eventually using one of the paddle boats instead). Lacking an authentic treasure chest, I use a small Coleman-style cooler filled with pennies for weight. Under a full moon, I go out to the marshy island near the Bathhouse Theater, only to find some teenagers having a kegger there. They unceremoniously throw me into the lake, despite my calling them "scurvy dogs" and threatening to hang them from the nearest yardarm. (Note to self: must develop better maritime insult repertoire.)
*July 22: My local Starbucks refuses to accept payment in either doubloons or pieces of eight. Later, two women at an adjacent table claim I am sexually harassing them with my constant references to "booty."
*July 24: More difficulties in ordering a brace of flintlock pistols at my neighborhood gun shop. Apparently there's a problem with the federal background check; I listed "brigand" under occupation and "Spanish Main" under place of residence.
*July 25: Joy! Smee has returned! But where did he learn all that filthy language? Has someone taken him to see South Park? (Oddly enough, he still sounds exactly like Dustin Hoffman.)
*July 27: Only two days to go until the Torchlight Parade. Now determined to infiltrate the ranks of official piratedom, I attempt to devise a "gimmick" of my own. After repeatedly setting my pantaloons aflame, I give up on the idea of shooting fire from any part of my body. Maybe there's still time to try juggling instead. Or a unicycle.