In the 18th Century, mariners reported a fish called the Bennett Fish, which was large–some six feet in length–and found in African waters. It had a red snout and tail, yellow fins and purple lice-infected scales streaked with orange. English observers, buccaneers all of them, who preyed on the Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese fleets, were known to call out “Gorden Bennett” whenever they saw this fish–a surface feeder–near their ships.
Through time, there have been various explanations for the first word in the expression, as, for example, something like, “Goddamn, another one of those Bennett fish!” Or, shortened, simply “Gorden Bennett!”
Now none of this would carry much importance if it were not for the fact that we Bennetts–a family inclined for generations to keep at least one foot in Depression’s puddle–are more than happy to accept anything that can give our lives meaning.
Over the centuries, family scholars have tried to get to the bottom of the matter. There were not too many of these. They were persons literate to the point of being able to write–an affliction the rest of the family considered akin to mental imbalance. My father, one of these literati, thought he had better know more about his own name if he intended to give it to the brown-eyed beauty who had accepted his kisses and agreed to marry him. On August 13, 1952, he went to the Boston Public Library and thumbed to “benn” in the Oxford English Dictionary. There, between the thin pages, he found a scribbled page, in thick pencil, perhaps inadvertently left behind by an earlier discredited family scholar.
He lifted the paper out, pushed the heavy Oxford to one said, and began to read. Harry Butler Bennett, the writing claimed, had gone to sea with the British navy in 1779. He fell into the pernicious habit of cannabis consumption, a activity he learned from an Africa lover–a woman of such ill repute that he had nearly married her. Subsequently, he had visions–one of them from the top main cross stays of the thirty-two-gun HMS Intrepid.
In this vision, he described a fish with pink snout and tail, yellow fins, purple scales infested with fleas or lice–he claimed he could see clearly from eighty feet above the water–and with orange streaks along its sides.
Since the Dutch fleet was not far off in the moonlit sea–the object of a sneak English attack–and since that plan was going to be ruined by Harry’s rantings from the top gallant, the captain ordered marines to climb up into the rigging and slit Harry’s throat–an order the captain punctuated, it is said, with the words “God damn Bennett!”
The two marines had just reached Harry eighty feet up and, while chatting agreeably with him, were reaching back to unsheathe their knives, when “Goddamn,”sometimes remembered as “Gorden” Bennett, pointed down at the water.
What the two marine assassins, then the whole ship, then the whole English and Dutch fleet plainly saw was a vast shoal of great fish swimming along beneath their keels, in pinks, yellows, purples and golds– colors illumed by the fish’s own long phosphorescent wake. All of which came to be called the Gorden Bennett Event, and the end of a horrendous English-Dutch war, before it even began–for which a whole generation of potential widows, in their nightly prayers, gave life-long thanks–and confirmation of the existence of the now extinct phenomenon of the Bennett Fish, the discovery of which has brought so much honor to our name and lifted us out of depression forever.