Sunday, March 25, 2007


When I was a 13 year old boy, I had packed my few belongings and bundled them in a large red handkerchief which I had soon after fastened to the end of a lanky birch limb. Then I set off down the train tracks, meeting gypsies and thieves whose names are now fuzzy. After countless sunsets, my journey abruptly ended when the rails greeted the gigantic blue ocean. I stared at the ocean and thought "man, this is really something," as I had only seen the blue horizon in coffee table books and postcards from my aunt and uncle's trip to Bermuda. As the ocean seemed to swell with each passing breeze, I feared my security and followed my compulsion to step backwards, until the edge of my heel clipped something sturdy and pointy. A shell! A rather cumbersome shell! In a pang of excitement, I emptied my handkerchief of clothes and loose, bleached photos of my family I'd scrounged from the scrap album, and wrapped it around Poseidon's gift. Then I skipped back down the train tracks in search of a hobo who might know a little more.
Fortunately, before dark I happened upon a shabby vagabond cooking a banged-up can of baked beans over an open flame within eye shot of the tracks. Not considering advice about not talking to strangers, I asked the drifter about the shell.
"My, my, son. That there is one of them conch shells. You don't find them too often. You better hold on to that." he told me.
"Why?" I asked. I could tell that this sorry nomad had wanted me to ask; I could see the untold story in his eyes...

That night I learned an abridged history of the conch shell, the bugle of the seashell kingdom, which I will share with you. The hobo mumbled on and on, and the following in what I can remember. I have filled in blanks were necessary.

Apparently, the conch shell has origins as far back the old testament. Although there is no mention of the conch shell in the Bible, the found Dead Sea scrolls make mention of the tribal head of the Philistines, referred to as the The Clodbumbler in the text, blowing the conch shell and allowing the low, bellow to roll over the hills and valleys to summon other Philistines from up to ten miles away. Typically, the next day (it took many hours for all the Philistines to arrive) would host the quarterly meeting of the Philistines, in which the Clodbumbler would mediate discussion concerning relevant political issues, the drafting of 13-15 year old boys for warfare, and the weighing of the tribesmens' beards.
This is the first known appearance of the conch shell in any known text. There would be no mention of the conch shell in any literature until centuries later when two archaeologists from Cambridge, England unearthed a manuscript in Rome. Apparently, Ceaser had ordered all conch shells to be turned over by citizens to the Roman Republic in exchange for a single gold coin featuring the likeness of Ceaser himself. The Roman government later speared countless civilians in their sleep, many of whom were still clutching their new coins. One feisty peasant who narrowly escaped the clutch of the Republic with conch shell in hand was a young carpenter named Jesus H Christ. Many actually believe that Jesus used the conch shell to call the lepers from the hills for a subsequent healing, and possibly cleansing. According to the manuscripts, one evening while Jesus was visiting a local tavern to repair a loose floorboard, a Nazarene barkeep seized and wielded Jesus' own conch shell as a weapon against a particularly drunk Roman guard who had begun spouting insults at his 11 year old male love slave.
The history of the conch shell until the mid 1800's has become a secretive debate between scholars. Again, there is no mention of the conch shell in any literature, song, or teachings of any kind until then. Also, there are no known renderings of the conch shell until December 29, 1863. History buffs many recognize this date as being 3 days before Lincoln gave the Emancipation Proclamation. A water color rendering of Abe Lincoln, probably the work of Lincoln's water-colorist Winston Berkley, portrays the 16th president stoic and erect atop a three stacked bails of hay. Lincoln, cheeks puffed and eyes bulging, is blowing into a rather pedestrian looking conch shell; one would expect an extravagant conch shell for a president. Another painting depicts Lincoln cradling his famous stove-pipe underneath the conch shell as he blows, most likely for optimal resonance. Mr. Berkley's dairy, currently in the US Smithsonian American History Museum, supposedly recalls the march of the Negroes from across the state, drawn by the low bellow of the conch shell reverberating through the cotton fields. I say (the diary) "supposedly recalls" the event because the Smithsonian "mistakenly" encased the diary in its air-tight display seal before scholars could rummage and record the text properly; the inch thick plastic case can not be reopened as the pages will disintegrate upon exposure to air. That's just a foot note though. After declaring freedom to the Negroes, Lincoln is said to have either given his otherwise garden-variety conch shell to a young slave boy as an unofficial apology from the US government, or buried it near his childhood home in rural Illinois.
The conch shell enjoyed a kind of renaissance in 1954 when William Golding wrote the literary achievement Lord of the Flies, about a handful of boys shipwrecked on an island. In the novel, a fat kid named Piggy finds a conch shell on the beach. The shell is later used as a means in which to call the other stranded boys to council. The shell also is revered as golden calf, if you will.
The conch shell experienced another revival in 1990 when Lord of the Flies is made into a major motion picture. The design of the original, but later rejected, poster for the movie featured a close-up of the conch shell accompanied by the tag, "Conch Me If You Can, In Theaters This Summer." A revised movie poster depicting a grossly overweight Piggy devouring an ice cream cone outside a Sonic was also scrapped. The final version of the poster was regrettably a rather silly photo of a stereotypical king bull-whipping a colony of submissive teste flies. The movie was a critic punching bag as well.
The most recent attention the conch shell has received was in June of 2006 when a local man, Gordon Steinbacher, struck a conch shell while digging a sewer in Union County, Pa. Gordon, a 34 year veteran of Brandon Textiles, apparently reported in fourth grade language to the Union County Reader that he planned to use his new tool to "round-up the hounds when I sense a-rustlin'."

At this juncture the hobo released a lengthy release of air as if he had entrusted me with the entire history of the conch shell in one breath. He then got seriously pissy as he discovered that his beans had become burnt.