View Full Version : St. Elmo

06-02-2008, 06:49 PM
Here's a bit of fluff from my archives, and maybe you will find a chuckle or two therein.

St. Elmo

I'm in need of a four letter word to fill in '56 Down', and the clue is 'St. Elmo's ____' and
I'm sitting on empty. St. Elmo is a total stranger to me, and so is his ____. The only reason I
ask Uncle Avery for help is that he's the only one around. If there is a Cub Scout or a Jehovah's
Witness or a guy selling cook-ware, I would ask them first, but today there's only Uncle Avery.
It is not the sort of thing he figures to know much about, being concerned with saints, but I ask
him anyway. I have to speak through the racing form to do it, and nobody is more surprised than
me when he gives the correct answer, without even looking up.
"Fire," says Uncle Avery, and it fits like a mitten.
"Thanks," I say. "What is St. Elmo's fire, anyway?", and he surprises me some more with
an explanation about how it is a sort of lightning that can be seen dancing around the upper
rigging of ships, especially sailing ships, in certain weather conditions. Then he goes on to say
it's also the name of a horse on which he bets the rent many years ago, at a track called Tanforan.
When I ask if the horse comes in for him, he says not hardly, and the last he hears, St. Elmo's
Fire is still out there somewhere. Probably he came in so late, says Uncle Avery, he had to take
off his horseshoes and tiptoe in. Not only that, but he says that he wrote off the money even
before they popped the gate. When the jockey went to the post carrying a ham poboy and a Nehi
Cola, Uncle Avery could tell he didn't expect to get back in anything like a minute and 42
I still can't see him, because he still has the racing form in front of his face. As they say,
some people never know when to quit, and I'm talking about me. Instead of going back to my
puzzle, I ask him how he comes to bet the rent money on such a dog of a horse, and now the
scratch sheet comes down and the explanation begins. I am thinking maybe thirty seconds, you
know, but that's not the way it turns out. I've passed up my last chance to get my finger back in
the hole in the dike.
It seems that Uncle Avery is vacationing at that time with a young lady who is engaged to
marry a sailor, and she is quite certain that a horse with a name like that will be a lucky pick for
her, as St. Elmo is the patron saint of all the sailors, including the one she intends to marry.
Before I can ask him how the young lady comes to be vacationing with him, under those
circumstances, he clears that up, too, although not all that much. As near as I can make out,
betrothals are suspended for individuals who are out in the ocean on a ship, due to the possibility
that they may fall over the side and drown or something before reaching the altar. In other
words, this young lady did not feel obliged to stand on the dock and wait.
By this time he's on a roll, and he begins to tell me how St. Elmo becomes the patron
saint of the sailors in the first place. I might say, at this point, that Uncle Avery is a great
authority on things that are very difficult to verify, such as this story about St. Elmo. He starts by
saying that the events in this tale represent one of the darkest chapters in the history of the
church, and that there are not all that many people who are aware of just what happened back
then. I'll buy that.
It was during the administration of Pope Morris the First, which was a very long time ago.
I don't recall that he mentions the exact year. Patron saints were becoming quite popular and all
the groups of working people wanted one of their own, and for a while it was a serious drain on
the supply of available saints. The brick masons had one, and the pastry cooks, and the grave
diggers and the money lenders, etc. It was the custom to adopt a saint who was more or less in
the same line of work when he or she was alive. They picked out a day of the year to honor their
patron saint, and it was the saint's duty to sort of keep a watchful eye on them and look after their
spiritual affairs and general well-being. It was a neat arrangement that worked out nicely for all
Except the sailors. They wanted a patron saint, too, and very likely needed one more than
some of the others, but they were having a tough time finding a saint with a nautical background
and who had not yet been adopted. They were not only unable to find a saint who had ever been
a sailor, but they couldn't even find a sailor who seemed likely to ever become a saint. You can
make of that whatever you like, but that's the way it was. Somebody suggested that they might
make do with a stevedore or a fisherman off the river, but that was voted down by a good margin.
They wanted a sailor. So, finally they appealed to Pope Morris the First in a letter submitted
through the local priest requesting soonest response and with all due respect.
Now, the letter didn't really take Morris by surprise, because after all, this was the sort of
thing he did for a living, wasn't it? But before long it began to come to him that this might really
be a tough nut - much worse than he expected. He hardly knew any sailors at all, and this was
mostly to his credit because the sailors of that day were a pretty scruffy lot whose moral
character, if any, wouldn't score all that high on a scale of one to ten. Not only that, but he didn't
figure to meet many sailors if he kept hanging out in the churches. He couldn't come up with a
single one, dead or alive, who could pass the test to become a saint. No doubt they are better
today, but I can't say just how much. Anyway, Morris was not too excited about notifying the
mariners that they were out of luck, and he was going through the dossiers a second time when
he picked up on a third-hand rumor off a merchant vessel passing through, and the word was that
a very popular sailor named Elmo had gone down on the Messina ferry on a Tuesday night in
March, during some very heavy weather. It's not much, said Morris the First, but it'll have to do.
Normally, he would check out the details very carefully in such a matter, but communication was
very slow in those days, and the sailors were waiting. Maybe he was feeling lucky, but he
decided to take a shot with what he had. At the time, there was no doubt in his mind that Elmo
had been sent to him by the Almighty. So, he had the required paperwork knocked out without
any delay, and before you could say 'ahoy', Elmo was canonized and turned over to the men
before the mast, who were quite grateful for Morris' attention to their request.
The sailors didn't fool around any, at least in this matter. They went to the best sculptor
in the area, and made a deal to have a large statue of St. Elmo carved out and mounted on a
pedestal overlooking the bay at Palermo. They gave him a handful of lira as a down payment,
and told him to get after it. Nobody knew what Elmo had looked like when he was alive, but the
sculptor guaranteed that he would be very handsome, indeed, by the time he got to the beach at
Morris the First, for his part, was quite pleased with the entire business, but not for long.
He couldn't shake the feeling that he really should know a little more about St. Elmo, so he called
in a discreet Assistant Pope and sent him off to Messina to sort of fill in the gaps in the file.
Being as there were no Greyhound busses at that time, Uncle Avery says it is likely that the trip
was made on a jackass, and in view of the news he was bearing when he got back, it would have
been fitting. What he had to report didn't brighten up Morris' day at all.
First of all, said his agent, the Messina ferry is not a marine vessel, by any stretch of the
imagination, and secondly, Elmo is not dead. He is alive and well, and still going down several
nights a week, in all kinds of weather, as he has for a good many years. The only piece of the
original rumor that had checked out was the part about Elmo being a very popular guy.
Morris had goofed, no mistake about it, but we should give him his due. He went straight
to the seamen's committee and laid out the whole thing for them. It shook them pretty good at
first, as you might expect, but after talking it over they decided that the only thing to do was put a
lid on it and never mention it again, and that suited Morris just fine. They swept it under the rug
and all present took a vow of silence and they adjourned the meeting, and that was the end of it.
It's likely that Elmo the sailor lived to a ripe old age without ever knowing that he was St. Elmo.
The sailors never told him, you can bet on that, and neither the pope.
There was one other little matter to deal with before closing the case, and that was the
statue of St. Elmo. A couple of the seafaring men went around to see the sculptor again and told
him the deal was off and not to ask any questions. Over and out, said the chiseler, but I'm forced
to admit that your down payment is gone. I spent it. Never mind, said the sailors, we hope you
had a good time, and now let's forget it. And they went back to town.
But the sculptor, being a man of some pride, couldn't forget it. He sat down with a
crayola and a piece of papyrus and calculated how much of the statue he owed them for the
amount they had paid him, and the bottom line was that they had bought a large pair of holy feet,
and he set out to deliver what he had been paid for. But he was also something of a gonoph, and
instead of making the feet out of stone, as he should, he made them out of basic clay and fired
them in his oven and set them on the pedestal which was already waiting at the edge of the water
in Palermo, figuring it was not likely that any of his customers would ever visit the shrine.
It might surprise you to learn that even after all this, St. Elmo didn't fall into complete
disfavor with the sailors. He was the only saint they had - still is, for that matter - and he had a
number of things in common with at least some of them. It may be different today, but during
the administration of Pope Morris the First, the sailors were said to have some habits that have
never come to light in the stories about Sinbad. It may be that he will be the patron saint of
sailors forever. Neither the Church nor the Maritime Union figures to ever reopen the matter.
It will not surprise you, however, to hear that the beginning of his statue didn't endure
very long. Every high tide washed away a bit of it, and today nothing is left but the pedestal,
which can still be seen on a clear day. Somebody has attached a brass plate with an inscription in
Italian. Or maybe Latin. It is something about those with feet of clay not being true saints, after
all, but that would be a whole nother story, says Uncle Avery.

06-02-2008, 07:18 PM
Great Story...thanks!!!!

06-03-2008, 06:16 AM
I posted this thing with 'cut and paste', and somehow it got all chopped up as you see it. What's up with that? Any suggestions? I'm not really computer literate - maybe you have noticed.