Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sir Martin Frobisher and the sink plunger

The dogs were rather miffed at me for having neglected to include one single picture of them in my last post.  So to make amends, and without kow-towing too much to their egos, I agreed to reveal in this post the origin of Frobe's name.

Sir Martin Frobisher was an endearing sort of chap, for an Elizabethan.   He cut his sailing teeth, as it were, trashing French cargo ships in the English Channel—"privateering," he and Her Majesty called it:  we would know it as piracy.

Call it what you may, the prestige of piracy is notoriously short-lived.  Surely, Martin mused, there must be something more enduring to which to attach the Frobisher handle than a yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum. He listened carefully to the after-dinner chatter of his nautical chums, and heard a note of disgruntlement.  Specifically, they were not gruntled about having to go all the way round the southernmost tip of South America to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.  Time-consuming, and the weather round Cape Horn was almost guaranteed to be desperate. There must be a better way.

Our hero had found his mission:  discover a sea route through the Arctic islands north of Canada, and thereby attain immortality.

He got as far as Baffin Island, landed in the bay that to this day bears his name, and seemed all set to discover the Northwest Passage . . . but hang on a jiffy, what's this . . . here in this chunk of black rock . . . it looks like . . .  GOLD!

Great was the excitement as he hastily sailed back to England, dismissed the concerns of the naysayers (who refused to believe it was gold, and outnumbered the yaysayers by three to one,) and talked some credulous investors into funding a second voyage from which he returned with 200 tons of ore.  Never one to be left out of a good thing, Queen Elizabeth insisted on a third, even more ambitious venture, which yielded no less than 1350 tons of . . . well, that was the problem.

What exactly was the stuff?

Alas, to Martin's acute embarrassment, it proved to be nothing more than iron pyrite, good only for surfacing roads. Some wag trenchantly observed, "Only a fool would think this to be gold!" and Martin had found his place in history—as the man who put the "fool" in fool's gold.  Elizabeth knighted him, possibly to save face. He might still be a fool, but now he was SIR Martin Frobisher, Fool to Her Most Sovereign . . . etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

The connection with a sink plunger may not be crystal clear; allow me to make it so.

I am sitting in the tub with my brother; our combined ages are barely into double digits.  Egged on by my brother, I am making rude noises with the sink plunger on the side of the tub, just above the waterline.  The wall above the tub has just been replastered, and painted a shiny turquoise green. The surface is invitingly smooth and glossy.

 What noise will the sink plunger make on the wall? Squish it on . . . pull . . .  that's funny, nothing's . . . OH! A perfectly round chunk of wall plops into the water.  Refusing to believe that this flimsy piece of rubber can wreak such havoc, I do it again.  Same result. And again . . .

To this day, I can recall my outraged disbelief as I watched chunk after chunk of our bathroom  wall plop into the tub.  I can also recall my mother's outraged disbelief as she asked that most difficult of questions: Why did you keep on doing it?

I like to think that Sir Martin was asked the same question. Perhaps he stuttered something like
 If gold is so highly valued, surely this that glisters so like it must be worth something? Maybe he importuned his detractors, I see it now, the true gold was on the other side of the bay. One more voyage and I'll have the real thing, by the ton. May I interest you in this 'golden' investment opportunity?

Alas, he had no success: he faded into oblivion, where he died in 1594His name endures, however, in a desolate, barely inhabitable, Arctic bay.  And now in Frobe, an oversize Great Dane, who assures me he has no seafaring ambitions whatsoever.

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