BAR HARBOR — For a while, when he was still a young man, Philip Corson, who passed earlier this summer, tried to resist the lure of the ocean – a siren call that had been answered by generations of his forebears who fished and lobstered the waters off Mount Desert Island. As much as Phil loved the sea, another passion was engines – big engines, little engines, anything with moveable parts that he could tinker with, make work, make work better or go faster.
So after he served his stint in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, where he saw action, he took a job as a mechanic with General Motors in Hartford, Conn. On weekends, he raced his souped-up car at the local drag track. Phil stayed at this just long enough to meet and fall for a local girl named Carroll Luty, whom he married Feb. 10, 1957, and then brought home to Maine.
The couple settled in Bar Harbor, where Phil – finally submitting to his seafaring destiny – went fishing and Carroll helped him run a little lobster pound down on West Street called Travelin’ Lobster. They also started a family, eventually raising six children.
As those children grew, they had to learn the skills and chores that kept both their father’s boat and the family afloat.
“We spent a lot of hours scraping, cleaning and painting the XL 5 (named for a television rocket ship) – and a lot of hours learning how to peg lobster claws and pick crabs for the pound,” says his daughter, Lisa Albee.
Eventually, his boys would join their dad fishing. His son, Kevin Corson, recalls a particularly harrowing afternoon, when he was about 14, hand-lining for halibut in rough seas.
“The waves were crashing over the deck,” he recalls. “And every time we went into a trough, it looked like we were going to go straight under. But my dad, seeing the worried look on my face, said ‘don’t worry, chucklehead, the XL 5 is a sturdy boat and a submarine, too! We’ll be fine.’ And we were.” Kevin says his father’s brand of humor and encouragement helped him through some rough times throughout his life, including his training for the Green Berets and recovering from a gunshot wound he received in combat.
On weekends, the Corson family would go out camping to one of the islands in Frenchman Bay, where some of the kids would set up their pup tents on shore and others, on the bow of the XL 5, where their father would nail the tent corners into the deck.
“On the Fourth of July,” Lisa recalls, “all the Bar Harbor fishermen – the Parsons, Seaveys, Coughs, Johnsons – about a dozen of them, and their families, would meet for breakfast at the Strout’s in DeGregoire Park, then rendezvous at the Pot and Kettle Club pier to gear up for the trip out to Ironbound or Thrum Cap, where we’d have a real clambake, with the clams, lobster and corn all cooked in a bed of seaweed in a pit.”
Her brother Kevin says this strong bond the local fishermen shared extended way beyond the good times and the celebrations.
“If anyone radioed for help, not one or two, but five or six boats would show up to offer help,” he says. Most often, his dad would be at the head of the pack, bellowing out instructions with the voice that earned him the nickname “Bull.”
As much as “Bull” Corson liked to talk, he also knew how to listen, Kevin says. “He once told me that the best way to learn how to become a good fisherman was to go sit with a bunch of old-timers and keep your mouth shut.”
In a profession fraught with danger, in the 1980’s, Phil had a particularly close call one February afternoon when he was working with Harbor Master Ed Monat on moorings in the harbor. Reaching down to pick up a mooring, Phil went overboard into the icy water. Although he was a good swimmer, his oilskins and the heavy new red wool sweater his wife had knit him for Christmas soaked with water and dragged him down. Still he was able to make it back to the XL 5 and cling to the boat gunwale and bellow for help. “He was on the lee side with the boat bearing down on him,” recalls Ed. It took some maneuvering to get the big man back on board, and he says Phil was thoroughly hypothermic by the time he managed to haul him over the stern. “Typically, he refused to go to the hospital,” Ed says, “and just drove home like a bat out of hell to get dry clothes.”
His daughter Lisa says both her parents were so hard-working she can’t recall them ever taking a vacation. However, she says, they knew how to play hard, too, enjoying social occasions with their many friends, and they were regular attendees at the Way Back Balls. She says it was a real treat for the kids to wait at the bottom of the stairs to see their parents come down, all dressed up for the ball.
Most evenings, though, her dad could be found in his recliner knitting bait bags and trap heads while watching MASH or some other show on TV.
“Our living room always had a slight smell of burned plastic from his sealing off the ends with a flame,” she says.
When Carroll died in 1998, it was a huge blow for Phil. His daughter says for a while, her dad was pretty depressed. And then he bought a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. She says his lust for life was reawakened by weekend outings to Portland and other destinations with his biker buddies, Whitey and Carol Griffin, Pearly Fogg, and Wayne Gray.
Two years ago, Phil suffered a heart attack and a year later, he had to retire from lobstering, passing on the family legacy to his son, Philip, and grandson, Nick.
While his death was unexpected, his children are grateful their father always will be remembered as a strong and vital presence in their lives and the life of the community.