Cordova Chronicles: The ‘gam’ is on

Keeping an old fisherman’s term handy for Scrabble games during social distancing

Scrabble was invented in 1938 by American architect Alfred Butts. Originally it was called Lexico. Butts decided on the frequency and value of letters by analyzing the front page of the New York Times. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/for The Cordova Times

Spelling and grammar are not my strong suit. Just ask former Cordova second grade teacher Barb Cave, who finally, upon prodding, mentioned the countless errors in my book “Time and Tide”.

Misuse of “maize” for “maze” (a maize of sloughs) and “its” for “it’s” (its a beautiful morning) were particularly galling, with my reliance upon spell check proving futile in relationship to context.

What brought this to mind was a recent phone conversation between my wife and daughter, who were discussing exchanging board games to pass time during coronavirus self-distancing and voluntary quarantines.

Our daughter must have mentioned Scrabble, for I just happened to overhear my wife, a former third grade teacher, reply, “No, I think I’ll keep that. I can beat your Dad at that.”

Ah, the truth shall set you free. Evidently my spelling level is somewhere between second and third grade.

Yet I can’t wait to spread out the classic board and draw my seven letters. Beguiling three-letter words are my strength, and I have a beauty tucked away for just the right moment, when the normally six-point word “gam” just happens to fit on Triple Word Score.

“Gam”, pronounced to rhyme with “jam,” will surely be challenged by my opponent, and it will be poetry in motion to explain its meaning. (Notice I got the “its” right!)

I first ran across the term in Nathan Philbrick’s classic “In the Heart of the Sea”, a spellbinding account of the tragedy of the whaling ship Essex in the Pacific in 1820.

Played on a Scrabble Triple Word square, the word ‘gam’ would garner 18 points. The world’s top scoring single move ever goes to ‘caziques’ (a type of oriole), with 392 points. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/for The Cordova Times

This National Book Award winner describes “an event as mythic in the nineteenth century as the sinking of the Titanic in the twentieth,” and centers around the ship being rammed and sunk by an angry sperm whale.

The plot sounds familiar, does it not?

The word “gam” appears early in the book. It was common practice among captains of sailing ships on voyages of one or more years to holler information across the distance between them using brass megaphones as they passed as closely as possible.

Sailing ships, you see, cannot be stopped as easily as modern propeller-driven craft.

Of course, the seafaring “gaming” tradition continues. It is especially common among Alaska seine-boat captains awaiting their turns to make sets.

My all-time favorite occurred in the late ’60s, when, as a crew member with Olaf Gildnes, I watched he and venerate Prince William Sound seiner Larry Lytle “gam” in a heavy downpour.

Both stood topside on open bridges. Lytle wore a full-length heavy black Helly-Hanson raincoat, but never once in his life a hat. It was early in the morning, and Lytle was handed up a paper plate of French toast.

He proceeded to eat the whole stack without missing a beat in the conversation, as water poured off his brow to mix in with the syrup.

Before he was finished, the plate had disintegrated, and he was holding the last piece in his hand, chewing and gaming simultaneously.

Ah, those were the good old days. And not the conditions of recent new days.

Yet despite the imposition of a six-foot self-distance rule due to the corona pandemic, one still sees gaming between skippers, often right on Main Street or particularly near the boat harbor.

Captains maneuver their vessels (pickups) parallel to each other, roll down the windows, and leisurely gam until another craft comes up astern.

Recently, the weather has been nice, allowing people to get out for fresh air, which is allowed under the coronavirus mandates.

Personally, I can’t wait until another rainy southeaster blows in, so homebound, I can casually suggest to my wife we try a game of Scrabble. 

And win the game with a gam.