The Scrimshaw Collector

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If the youthful Kennedy dreamed of risking death at the bow of a whaleboat armed with a harpoon, he may well have compared that dream with reality as he steered his PT boat through enemy waters in the Pacific during the Second World War. Both the harpooner and the PT skipper risked sudden and violent death as they stalked their quarry. Both fulfilled the Ernest Hemingway definition of courage—grace under pressure—that Kennedy quoted in his Profiles in Courage . The link between these two roles is revealed in one particular piece in the Kennedy scrimshaw collection. The whales’ teeth are mounted on a single wooden platform. One tooth is engraved simply, “PT 109.” The other is inscribed with the battle cry of the whalers—“A dead whale or a stove boat.” During the war Skipper Kennedy, of course, survived “a stove boat” with considerable grace.