11 years a stranger

In Salem, Halloween is not just a day. It’s a month-long celebration of the macabre, the dark and the spooky. Tourists — a quarter of a million of them — flood in from around the globe to our fair city in search of the carnival atmosphere, the creative costuming, the history and, perhaps, a little fright.  As this picture attests, the festivities are reaching their pitch today right outside our office windows:


Halloween crowds gathering on Essex Street. Photo by Whitney Van Dyke.

Of course, everyone has a different definition of what is scary — the goblin under the bed, the spider in the woodpile, perilous heights, mysterious disease, terrible misfortune. Inside PEM’s East India Marine Hall, there is a wholly unassuming object whose story has its own brand of quiet terror.

calendar stick_image_study

James Drown’s Calendar Stick — a simple piece of wood carved with notches — may be one of the most humble objects in the collection but, as Dan Finamore, PEM’s curator of maritime art and history, explains:

“It represents an experience that is so graphically horrible that it’s hard for people to conceive.”

In 1803, Rhode Island native James Drown was shipwrecked and left for dead on Tristan Da Cunha island, a remote speck in the South Atlantic.


Finamore goes on to explain:

“The only thing that he had with him was the club that he’d taken ashore with which to kill seals. So he transforms his weapon into a representation of himself, marking each day with a notch. Thinking I am all alone here, no one will come to save me, no one will even know that I died here. Staring up at the sky, out at the sea. Living in a purgatory that is neither civilization or death … just in this transient zone forever.”

Haunting, no? And timeless. On a recent jaunt to the movie theater it struck me that the story of PEM’s Calendar Stick even shares parallels with the box office hit, Gravity. Like James Drown, the root of the protagonist’s suffering is more existential than physical. Sandra Bullock’s character doesn’t reel from space aliens but, rather, from the expanse and the prospect of nothingness. The fear of the self being obliterated and forgotten, the universe churning on without so much of a notice.


But all good yarns have redemption and don’t go spinning out forever. James Drown made 173 notches on his calendar stick before being rescued. It took him a full 11 years to make his passage back to New England and when he returned his wife, who had presumed him dead, had remarried and his life was unrecognizable. As for Gravity — I won’t give away any spoilers —  but it’s safe to say that themes of existential crisis, rebirth and trying to get home again are ever present.


Tomorrow, the seasonal Halloween shops will be shuttered, the decorations will come down and the witch hats will be stowed for another year. Consider visiting the Calendar Stick one of these days and dare yourself to stare down the abyss. You’ll be glad you did.

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