New Blogger! Meet Ben, the Maritime Man [Real Pirates]

Our Real Pirates exhibition opens Friday! It’s the first exhibition of an authentic pirate shipwreck – ever. I got a chance to check it out this morning, and it’s pretty amazing – everything from real pirates’ booty to a walk-through recreation of The Whydah, a slave ship that was captured by pirates before sinking in 1717.

There’s a ton to explore in the exhibit, and so I’m super-excited to introduce you to our newest blogger! Ben, Assistant Director of the Houston Maritime Museum, is going to be sharing his knowledge of ships – a fairly essential piece of the pirate lifestyle –  with us throughout the run of the xhibition here on the blog. We asked him to tell us a little about himself – check back Friday for his first post!

Tell us a little bit about your background.  Since you work at the Houston Maritime Museum, I’m assuming you like ships.

Well , it all started with a summer internship that I did on board the Battleship Texas.  I worked alongside their then curator Susan Smyer and loved every minute of it.  At that point, I decided that if I wanted to work in museums, I would need to further my education.  My wife and I then traveled all the way up to windswept Lubbock,  Texas where I attended Texas Tech University for two years to get a Master’s degree in History with a minor in Museum Science.

After that, I worked as an Educational and Maintenance Assistant at Varner Hogg Plantation and as the Educational Assistant and  Bookstore Manager at the Brazoria County Historical Museum.  I loved both jobs immensely.  For me, the most rewarding aspect of working in the museum field is bringing science, and history to life for kids of all ages and letting them experience the past, as well as learning in general in fun, hands-on ways.

This year,  I landed my dream job at the Houston Maritime Museum and I have been enjoying it ever since.  Honestly, I enjoy learning about maritime history in general,  but pirates just happen to be the icing on the cake.  I think the reason I like maritime history so much is because I grew up in Baytown near the Ship Channel, so I was never far from the water and large boats.  That combined  with my many visits to maritime museums like the Battleship Texas and the Nimitz Museum just made me feel right at home in the field.

Learn more about the Real Pirates
exhibition on the exhibit web site!

What is the most fascinating thing on display at the Maritime Museum?

Everyone has their favorites, but I would have to say that the model we have of the Chinese Junk is my personal favorite at the moment.  Although it is a fairly unassuming model, once you get into the history of some of the people that sailed the Junks, their stories are pretty amazing.  I actually wrote a blog about a Mrs. Cheng (coming soon!) who was arguably one of the most successful pirates east or west to ever live.  The story has everything from awkward family drama to murder and mayhem on the high seas.  I don’t want to give away too much here,  so you will have to read my blogs to get the whole scoop.

What do you hope people will learn from your upcoming posts on the HMNS blog?

I hope that everyone who reads our blogs will become  interested enough in maritime history that they will want to visit our museum and learn more about both the maritime industry and the history that surrounds it.

People tend to think of pirates from a very specific time period.  Is there a broader context?

Absolutely!  There have been pirates as long as there have been boats.  Really, when you boil it all down, piracy is just robbery on water.  Piracy can be something as mundane as a fisherman stealing another fisherman’s catch for the day or something as extreme as the raids of Blackbeard and others like him.  In reality piracy was not limited to just the Caribbean (which movies such as the one Johnny Depp stars in might lead you to believe).  The Far East sometimes had incredibly powerful pirate navies that defeated the national navies that were sent to kill or capture them.

Who is your favorite pirate?

Don’t tell my wife, but I still have a crush on Mrs. Cheng even though she’s some 200 years older than me.   I think we could make it work.  She has one of the most exciting and well-documented female pirate stories on record, but again, I don’t want to give too much away.

Book List: The forecast calls for reading

From Jurassic Park to A Brief History of Time, some of the best and most influential books ever written are science-based. Long before students get to Steven Hawking, however, books about science teach them to explore the world around them and inspire a curiosity that lasts a lifetime.

To encourage this spirit of discovery, HMNS provides monthly book lists on various science topics on our web site. Nonfiction and science-based fiction options are provided at three levels: 2nd grade and below; 3rd – 6th grade; and 7th grade and higher. In January, watch out for the weather and explore the science of meteorology. The forecast for our young readers is Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. Older kids can discover How Weather Works and ride along with Storm Tracker and Night of the Twisters. Choose a book from this month’s list to get inside nature’s fiercest storm as well as the most peaceful calm – and see what makes it all happen.

Susan, the museum’s Director of Youth Education Sales and a former librabrian, puts these lists together each month. She’ll share her inspirations for each month’s topic here; January’s topic: weather.

Galveston sunrise
Galveston, in calmer times.
Creative Commons License photo credit: millicent_bystander

Many books that feature the weather are nonfiction, but one notable exception is Devil Storm by Theresa Nelson. Although Devil’s Storm is the story of the Galveston hurricane of 1900, it is particularly appropriate for those of us in the Houston-Galveston area that experienced the destruction of Hurricane Ike last September.

Theresa Nelson is another author I am proud to call my friend. The second oldest of 11 children, Theresa grew up in Beaumont. Even as a child she wrote plays for her brothers and sisters—as the playwright she could always give herself the best parts!

During her freshman year at St. Thomas University in Houston, Theresa met Kevin Cooney and says she fell in love with him because he made her laugh. Kevin, an actor, and Theresa have three grown sons and three grandchildren. I first met Theresa fourteen years ago when she visited the middle school where I was the librarian to talk to the students. From the time she walked in the door, I felt that we had known each other forever. I have not seen Theresa for several years, but if she popped in today we would take up exactly where we left off.

Theresa talked to the students about the importance of writing about what you know. She showed them spiral notebooks where she wrote down this and that—words and ideas that would later become parts of a book. Students were just as drawn to Theresa as the teachers were because of her genuine enthusiasm for just about everything.

When she talked about Devil Storm, Theresa told the students that the book is the result of stories her mother told. The Nelson family would vacation on Bolivar Peninsula each year, and inevitably it would rain. Can you imagine trying to entertain 11 children indoors before the days of cable TV and video games? Storytelling was the answer, and so Tom the Tramp entered Theresa’s life.

Devil Storm is the story of the Richard Carroll family, who lived and farmed watermelons on Bolivar Peninsula in 1900. In addition to Richard and Lillie Carroll, the family consisted of Walter, 13, Alice, 9 and baby Emily, 1. Another brother, William, died of “the summer sickness” just before Emily’s birth.

Moonlight over Rice Lake
Creative Commons License photo credit: Derek Purdy

One summer night, Alice convinced Walter to walk to the Gulf to see the magical moonwater, and their lives changed when they spotted a campfire on the beach. Soon afterwards the children learned that Tom the Tramp had returned.

Tom, a former slave, was rumored to be the son of the pirate Jean Lafitte. He carried a shovel and an old “sackful of secrets”. Tom told the children he had been born in the middle of a “herrycane—Devil storm outa the Gulf,” and he would die when the Devil makes “another herrycane” that will carry everyone off.

As the story progressed you learn about life on Bolivar in 1900. In early September, Richard Carroll – not knowing a storm was coming – took a load of watermelons to Galveston. His plan was to spend the night with relatives before returning to Bolivar the next day. The next morning, however, he learned that until the current storm passed he would be unable to return home.

Lillie and her children were trying to ride out the storm in their house when Tom showed up and warned them “Ain’t nothing’ gonna be alive where we’re standin’ this time tomorrow….” Lillie, however, refused to leave, so Tom headed for High Island, the highest point on Bolivar Peninsula. As he walked through the storm Tom thought of losing his own family, and decided to make another attempt at saving the Carrolls.
Will the Carrolls agree to leave their home? If so, where will a mother, three children and a dog go in the middle of a storm?

Trolley Stop at Pier 21
Destruction following Hurricane Ike.
Creative Commons License photo credit: P/UL

As I reread Devil Storm, I was reminded of the pictures of the Bolivar Peninsula following Hurricane Ike, and the story had an even bigger impact than the first time I read it. Luckily, as bad as Ike was, the loss of life did not rival the 6,000 lost in the hurricane of 1900.

At the conclusion of the book don’t miss the Author’s Note about the real Tom the Tramp, buried in a family plot in Beaumont with this inscription:


He alone is great
who by an act heroic
renders a real service

Theresa’s other award-winning books are The 25 Cent Miracle, The Beggars’ Ride, And One For All, Earthshine, The Empress of Elsewhere and Ruby Electric. You will learn more about Theresa at: