A Mutiny, a Wheel of Cheese and a Shipwreck: The Great Thanksgiving Listen
Updated: Nov 1, 2020
I'm trying to remember the name of a Star Trek episode. I'm not a big science fiction fan, but I remember one featuring a civilization desperate for new stories. The Star Trek crew had stopped by their planet for a reason that escapes me now (Maybe a vacation? Even the Captain probably needed a change of pace now and then).
The inhabitants of the planet had a storytelling culture. All well and good, until they began to tire of the same stories and were looking for original material. The Star Trek crew brought those new stories, and at first, all went well. Then, I seem to remember the inhabitants began to use more and more extreme measures to keep the crew from leaving with their stories until they'd told them all.
Stories have always fascinated people, and cultures and families pass down lore from generation to generation. Fortunately, we don't have to use desperate measures to hear new stories. All it takes is asking a question when families gather for the holidays.
Family Stories Month
November is family stories month. When families get together for Thanksgiving, it's a great time to gather more stories, especially from older generations. This year, families may see each other only on Zoom, but that means everyone gets to hear and record the story all over the country.
I've always loved this story told in my own family. It's about why my great-grandfather participated in a mutiny, took a wheel of cheese and finally found himself shipwrecked. Oh, first he traveled by horseback from Maine to California. There, he decided he'd make more money with a sawmill than a gold pan. He returned to Maine to get married to his sweetheart and get ready for adventure. Here is what happened next:
The clipper ship carrying young Amasa Saunders and his sawmill equipment made a dangerous voyage around Cape Horn.
Planning to establish his sawmill in Oregon, he'd paid for passage on one of the tall ships.
Thinking it would be safer, he asked his bride, Flavia Jane, to cross at Panama instead of taking the voyage around the Cape. They agreed meet in San Francisco.
He'd expected many of the troubles of the voyage, but not what happened when the ship neared the waters of the United States. That's when he encountered greed.
The captain began holding back more and more of the provisions—food the passengers had paid for when the ship set sail. For an exorbitant price, the captain planned to sell the food and supplies he'd hoarded after reaching San Francisco.
A bold and restless entrepreneur, Amasa Saunders decided not to let that outrage pass. He led a mutiny, and the passengers raided the food supplies held by the captain (who seemed to be quite an entrepreneur himself).
Each passenger took custody of some of their rightful provisions. What did my great-grandfather liberate from the captain's plan for wealth? He took a wheel of cheese back to his quarters.
My dad told me many of the details about Amasa, but it was my aunt who added the story about the cheese. I found myself laughing, since everyone in my family—with Saunders blood—has had a particular fondness for this wonderful food throughout the generations.
I like to think how much Great-Grandfather savored that cheese, perhaps made even more delicious by the liberating action he'd taken.
Sharing the Stories
I'd have missed knowing about my great-grandfather's adventures if I hadn't listened to my family's stories.
This Thanksgiving, during Family Stories Month, a nonprofit oral history organization is sponsoring "The Great Thanksgiving Listen."
StoryCorps has asked young people to record their grandparents' or elders' stories when families gather for Thanksgiving Day.
Using the free StoryCorps app, anyone can record the life story of a loved one. Then, they can upload the conversation to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
What Happened Next: The Shipwreck
My great-grandfather never made it to Oregon. He was shipwrecked off the California coast near Point Arena. In fact, his name is still part of the story there, since Saunders Reef is named for him in that area.
Amasa and Flavia Jane decided to stay and establish a sawmill in Point Arena. Years later, my family got a chance to tour the house where Amasa and Flavia Jane lived. I still remember the old wind-up telephone on the wall, complete with adjustable mouthpiece,
Amasa's restless feet did cause them to move on from Point Arena. They traveled down to southern California where Amasa built another sawmill in the Idyllwild area. He also established a ranch in Mexico and went on a cattle drive back to the United States.
Quite a colorful life for a young man who saw all the possibilities of the old-growth forests at the start of his career. Perhaps it is fitting that Saunders Reef is now a State Marine Conservation Area. Unlike his grandfather, my dad was a long-time conservationist and led many hikes for the Sierra Club.
Dad always loved cheese, though.
This Thanksgiving, even on Zoom, take time to listen to the stories.
Linda Borromeo has always enjoyed discovering stories and mysteries hidden in history. In her novel, Mystery Shores, two young girls must fight against a threat from the past—a threat endangering their future.