Transitions - Chapter 1
© Copyright 2018 by Doug Sherr
The Triumph fired on the first kick. It’s a little sad when an English motorcycle is one of the more reliable things in life. When the bike was warmed up I still didn’t take off. The next twenty minutes would be a delightful ride down Chicago’s waterfront, but waiting for me was a windowless office and laboratory. At age twenty-six, I felt like that little kid on a perfect day who wants to play hooky; who just wants to play. I turned off the bike and went in the house to call the boss and skip a day. When he answered, I blurted out that I wanted to quit. Frank Iwatsuki was a brilliant engineer and a fine man.
He said, “Oh, that’s good Douglas, because you’re a terrible engineer. You should be an artist or poet or something.”
He said it would be a good day to just ride the bike and think about things. I believe he realized that I wasn’t just quitting a job, but quitting a life. I took Frank’s advice. I remember the ride as impressions: the lake blue and friendly, lazy puffs of clouds drifting east, the winding roads of Wisconsin’s moraine country, the deer that moved out of heavy timber and just looked at me instead of leaping onto the road in an act of murder/suicide. I was that little kid playing hooky. I didn’t think about things as Frank suggested, I just felt. I felt free. I did realize that I hadn’t felt unfettered in years—perhaps ever. The ride was a drink of cool water on a hot, desert day.
When I called a few days later we negotiated a deal: I didn’t have to come in immediately to clear up my stuff and the Illinois Institute of Technology Research Institute would pay me a month’s salary as severance. In the strange way of think tanks, they didn’t want me to quit so it was decided that I would retire; they even offered to throw a party for me—we went to a Chinatown restaurant and they gave me an umbrella as a retirement gift. I strapped it to the Triumph and rode off.
When your past life is over you need a quiet time—a pause to ease away from what was––before you can charge into what will be. A few months later after a time trying to adjust to my new life I was sitting on a lifeguard stand on Oak Street beach watching Lake Michigan run through a twilight spectrum. My old life was certainly over: my beautiful wife had left, my partner had snatched away my half of our company, and I had quit my aerospace engineering job. Frank said I should be a poet or something. Or something. What I didn’t want to do was something new, in the old way. Along with many people in the1960s, I wanted a new way.
In a small blast of insight I realized that I couldn’t move on because I was living in my past; I was a victim of my history. The memories of mistakes, glories, all the little cruelties were dimming the now I was living in. I jumped down from the stand, walked the few blocks back to my house, lit a fire in the living room fireplace, opened a bottle of wine, and grabbed the desk drawer that held my history: pictures, letters, notes of affection and goodbye. The power of these reminders is that time doesn’t embarrass them. What was true then is true now, but the reality has changed. If we understood time, we might not be so easily disappointed in the turns and twists of life.
Instead of fighting the images and words I savored each letter and picture, sipped the wine, and delivered each piece to the playful fingers of transformation. The flames waved back and forth creating the usual phantasms in the heap of glowing coals as the wine was doing roughly the same inside of me. As the last of the wine and the last bit of paper was consumed I felt washed clean. I felt free. It was time to craft a new life.
For a year or so I had wanted to learn about the sea and ships and even though Lake Michigan is an amazing body of water there didn’t seem to be an easy way of getting the knowledge that I wanted. I had been driving small powerboats since I was a kid and I’d taken sailing lessons and had sailed a bit on the lake, but I wanted real knowledge. In Chicago when you’re not sure what to do next you go to a bar. The next day I went to Melvin’s Bar and Grill and, as chance would have it, met a guy who was about to ship out on an oar boat, a bulk-carrier on the Great Lakes. These were the ships that carried iron ore from Minnesota and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the steel mills of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. For some reason they are called boats even though they are big impressive ships.
Getting a job on a ship was a classic case of “Catch 22”: you couldn’t get a job without a U.S. Coast Guard ticket and you couldn’t get a ticket without a job. This guy knew the loophole. The Great Lakes service stops in the winter and the crew is laid off. Merchant seamen drift to where the jobs are and sometimes, even late in the summer, there might not be enough men to fully crew the ships. When that happens, the ship’s agent will give just about anyone who can stumble in the door a slip of paper agreeing to hire when a CG permit is presented. Present that agreement to the Coast Guard office and they issue a temporary permit. Take that permit to the union hall, pay your dues, go back to the agent, and you have a job. A few weeks later you get a “Z” card and you’re a real seaman. That sounded like a good idea to me and I really didn’t have anything else to do so I loaded up a bag with some clothes, some books, and a knife and went to the agent’s office. After three hours and twenty bucks in cab rides, I walked up the gangway of the Richard V. Lindabury as an Ordinary Seaman.
The Lindabury was launched in 1923 and she obviously had not been treated gently. I had no frame of reference, but the ship looked like it would be better off in a museum. A crewman looked at me and grunted, pointing forward to the pilothouse. As I walked forward I could see a relatively new ship nearby that sparkled in the sun. I thought that had I been lucky I would have been assigned to that ship. In large block letters the name was painted across the front of the pilothouse: Edmund Fitzgerald. I found the First Mate and he signed me aboard, showed me to a cabin low down in the bow of the ship, and told me to report to the bosun.
I found him scurrying about with a look of concentrated confusion, glancing constantly at a sheet of paper with hand written notes. The real bosun was on leave and the acting bosun was a strange little man who went running off and I guessed that I was to follow him. We went through a maze of passageways and a watertight door into the chain locker. This space was divided fore and aft by a heavy steel partition. The space to port (left, looking at the bow) was filled with giant links of chain. Each link was about two feet long and weighed 200 pounds. The space to starboard (the other side) was about a third full of chain. From this pile the chain ascended and disappeared into an opening, a naval pipe. The acting bosun handed me a steel rod about 6 feet long with a hook on the end and told me to stand at the corner of the locker, balancing on the opposing steel corners which were just steel sheet about an inch thick; no safe rim or catwalk. He said they were about to raise the anchor and I had to guide each link as it came in, placing the links in a neat circle. If I screwed up, the chain might jam and all would be lost.
The chain started to rumble in and I reached out to grab the first link. It didn’t want to go into a neat circle. It wanted to swing forward and make a mess and drag me with it so that I would fall into this pit and be crushed by all the subsequent links. I didn’t have time to tell the bosun that this was ridiculous, because the next link and the link after were coming in at a steady pace. As in so many jobs of this type, you get the hang of it fairly quickly and learn little tricks that make the job easier and you wonder why you thought it was so hard in the first place.
The links were dripping with water and mud and soon I was covered in a thin layer of slime. This process went on for a long time and then, with a fair amount of space left in the locker, the chain stopped moving. I waited. The bosun had left shortly after the chain started coming in. I’d learned the hard way that in a situation like this you just wait until someone tells you what to do next. After a while, the bosun came back and said that they had forgotten to wash down the chain to clean off the mud so they were going to lower it and start again. He didn’t seem to notice that I was covered with mud. Soon, the links started coming in and they were much cleaner. At the end of this job my shoulders ached, the mud had dried and caked, and I was wondering how soon I could get off this ship and return to my life.
The motion of a ship underway is a dance: the bigger the ship, the more stately the dance. The old Lindabury was positively regal. There was only a small chop ruffling the lake, which was a good thing because there was no transition from landlubber to seaman. There was no kindly old hand to take a raw kid and show him the ropes. No one was unfriendly, but they’d done this routine thousands of times and dumb guys were always joining the crew—they either learned in a hurry or they probably got hurt and left the ship at the next port. Since the real bosun was on leave and there was no one to keep the deck hands jumping, I wandered around the ship trying to learn as much as I could.
The Lindabury was 600 feet long, 60 feet abeam (wide) and was powered by a triple-expansion, steam driven, coal-fired monster that was the pinnacle of 19th century technology. The year before I joined her, she was still stoked by hand. Sweating men, black from coal-dust (if they weren’t black to begin with) threw shovels-full of coal into the blast of the boiler firepots just as it had been done since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
Down in the vast engine room I found the Chief Stoker at his station. He was in his seventies and had a hard time moving around. He wore bib overalls and a tweed, “flat hat” like all the down-and-out characters in 1930s Depression movies. He sat on a little canvas chair and stared into a hatch in the coal chute where a conveyor belt fed coal into the new automatic stoker. Every so often the coal would hang up and he would poke at it with a steel rod about three feet long. He’d been working the ore boats for 55 years. He allowed as how the job was a little boring, but you had to take work where you could find it. He told me that he hadn’t been ashore in 20 years. During the winter lay-up season he stayed aboard as a watchman. After we talked for a while, he leaned towards me and in a hushed voice asked if I new what the hell was going on out there. He read newspapers sometimes and listened to the radio and it seemed to him like everyone was going nuts with riots and wars everywhere. I said it seemed that way to me too. He said he was happy he had a job on a ship and didn’t have to deal with it. I said that was one of the reasons I had shipped out. He nodded at me like we shared a little secret and went back to clearing the chute.
The engine room was one of those places that simply don’t translate well into a written description. The scale is too big to bring down to everyday experience. If you’ve ever seen a car or boat engine disassembled, you might have seen a connecting rod lying on a workbench. It’s the component that connects the piston, which supplies the power, to the crankshaft, that converts the power to rotary motion, so that work can get done. The con-rods in your car are about 10 inches long. The con-rods of a steam engine are not inside the engine as they are in a car––they’re exposed. The con-rods on the Lindabury were two stories high. The catwalk where the old stoker sat was at mid-level in the engine room. A story above steam rammed into the piston chambers and forced the 10-foot diameter pistons down in a majestic movement: maximum revolutions in one of these engines is 80 RPM.
The rods were connected, a story below, to the 15-ton crankshaft. Between the giant rods were walkways about two feet wide. Two men were lying on their backs in the walkways with large oiling cans squirting oil onto the lower rod bearings. They were the oilers. Near them was a man with rags wiping up any mess; he was a wiper. They were working inside the engine. I was happy to be up on the deck crew.
There wasn’t anything small in this space: the pipes, valve handles and levers, whose function I couldn’t guess, were designed for giants to manipulate. Most of the men in the engine room seemed small. It wasn’t noisy in the manner of a space with diesel engines roaring. There was a deep, almost organic sound permeating everything. The vibration in the steel catwalk was so slow you could almost feel each stoke of the engine. It was very hot. A man wearing shoulder-boards with four stripes walked up to me.
He asked, “Are you my new wiper?”
I said that I had just joined the deck department. He said it was better to work down here, especially when it got cold. I thanked him for the advice, but said that I liked being up where I could see the sky. He thought about that for a minute, nodded, and asked which watch I was on. I didn’t know. He said he would ask the mate to put me on mid-watch, midnight-to-4 am, and I could sound the tanks for him. He said it was an easy job and I could eat lunch early and do the noon-to-4 pm rounds and not have to do regular deck maintenance. That sounded good so I agreed.
As I made my way back on deck a number of crewmen were going into an outer companionway (door), so I followed along. It was the crew’s mess and dinner was being served. I slid onto a long bench, everyone nodded hello and introduced themselves. The messmate’s name was “Alligator.” Alligator wore white pants and shirt and a baker’s style hat. His voice was pure gravel. The wind had picked up and the ship was starting to roll a bit. Alligator brought out plates heaped with pork chops, potatoes, various vegetables, several different kinds of bread, pitchers of milk and juice. It was amazing. After a first helping of everything, I was eyeing the two remaining pork chops when a guy across the table started to spear them with his fork.
Alligator slapped his head and said, “Give them to the new kid there, he’s a growing boy.”
I looked at the guy and he slid the plate over to me. I was embarrassed, but I ate the chops. Gator smiled like a contented mother. When the meal was done, Alligator took me on a brief tour of the galley and showed me where the sandwich makings, all-night hot soup, and coffee were kept. He said anytime I was hungry to come in, there was always food ready.
When I walked out of the mess compartment, I found the guy who had wanted the pork chops and apologized. He said to think nothing of it. He said Gator was a great guy and I was lucky he’d taken a liking to me. He said that Gator was wanted for some indiscretions ashore, so he never left the ship. He said nobody messed with Gator. I was going to ask him if that was a pun, but I thought better of it and kept quiet. I worked my way forward and found my cabin. My cabin mate’s name was John Kennedy. He was a short, skinny man probably in his late thirties. He pointed to the forward bunk. He said new guys took that bunk. It was against a steel bulkhead that I soon learned was just the other side of the chain locker. That didn’t mean anything to me. I lay down to get some sleep and I couldn’t have been there more than a few minutes when someone grabbed me and rolled me over. It was the Second Mate.
“OK, kid, you got mid-watch; roll out, you got 5 minutes. Report to the Chief Engineer.”
Kennedy said, “Wow, you must got pull. He usually ain’t that nice and he even woke you for watch. You better get an alarm, ‘cause, he ain’t gonna do that again and you don’t wanna be late for watch.”
The way he said that, I knew I didn’t want to be late. I found the engineer’s cabin and he handed me a clipboard with rows of columns and explained how I went to these stations around the ship with pipes sticking out of the deck and how I had to take this gadget and screw it onto the pipe fitting, pump it up and read the number and write it down under the column number of the well I was at and go to the next one and do it all over again and not to waste time because the ship was sinking and it took time to calculate the pumping arrangement depending on where the most water was and did I understand all of this and get going. This was not the easy watch I had expected.
I did the round and went back to the Chief’s office. He was smoking a cigar, tipped back on the rear legs of his chair, which was pretty good considering the roll of the ship. He said I had done the round in good time and the numbers looked about right so maybe I’d do OK. He said to go to the bridge and see what they needed. When he wanted me again, he would call the bridge. On deck the night was clear and strings of lights marked the distant shore of Wisconsin. I was tired, but the newness of everything had my brain churning. I went to the galley and poured a mug of coffee. There was a ship’s phone in the galley with a row of push buttons marked out with all the receiving locations. I punched the bridge button and keyed the switch.
“This is Doug, the new deck hand. The engineer told me to see if you need anything and I’m in the galley so I thought I’d see if you wanted coffee.”
“No shit! Yah, hang on. Yah, bring a whole pot. Thanks.”
The bridge on an oar carrier, unlike almost every other cargo ship in the world, is at the bow. Modern practice in commercial ship construction puts the bridge at the stern. I climbed up to the bridge, pulled the wing door open, and walked in. A man was at the helm; I later found that he is called the Wheelsman. The First Mate was leaning against the chart table and one of the men from dinner was standing on the starboard side looking out.
“Marty, you ever hear of a deckhand bringing coffee without being told?”
“No, but not all deckhands are dumb.”
The guy on the starboard side, ”Humphed.”
“Anyway, thanks for the coffee. You shipped out before?”
“No, I want to learn how all this works and go to sea.”
“Another goddamn guy who thinks salt is big time. Look, kid, salt ain’t shit. They get on a passage and don’t do nothin for 8 to10 days maybe; or in the fuckin’ Pacific nothin for weeks except chip rust and paint. We got a major maneuver almost every day. We’re locking through at the Soo Locks or making up to a dock and loading out 14,000 tons of oar and then it’s back to the locks and down to off-load and then we pick up coal bunkers for the ship; it never fuckin stops. And we got storms. Out on the salt they get big waves, but they’re far apart. We got waves that are runnin into each other. Like gittin hit by a bunch a jabs from that Muhammid Alley. You’ll see. I mean we get paid more on the Lakes than they do on their blessed salt. How do you figure that?”
“I guess I said the wrong thing.”
“Don’t worry about it, Irv’s got a thing about saltys.”
I poured another mug of coffee for myself and eased back into a corner of the bridge. Several marine radios were mounted above the helm and around the bridge and occasionally one would squawk out some unintelligible burst of sound. There might be an answering squawk and the bridge crew might laugh or shake their heads. If the squawks were in English, I was in trouble. A radar set with its greenish marker spinning slowly clockwise was on the starboard side of a large compass that dominated the center of the bridge. The helm was a large wheel that the wheelsman would turn right and then left in a rhythm whose logic was hard to discern. He didn’t seem to be responding to any action of the boat or the lake. To port, a large chart table had a red light illuminating the working chart and below the top were several large drawers that held the whole chart inventory. The night went on peacefully. At 0400, (ships work on the 24 hour clock) I was relieved by another hand and I fell asleep fully dressed.
Kennedy shook me awake at 0730 hours for breakfast. I had left the world of eight-hour sleeps. If I got four hours of uninterrupted sleep, I felt blessed. I ate a breakfast so large that even Alligator was impressed. The acting bosun, let’s call him Fred, stood up, and in a voice that squeaked a bit, said there was work to be done. The guys at the table shifted and took a last swig of coffee.
“OK, come on you guys, let’s go.”
They glanced at each other with a “here-we-go-again” look and we followed Fred on deck. When I came aboard, I noticed a huge pile of coal on the upper deck of the after deckhouse, one story above the main deck. The after deckhouse contained the engineering officer’s cabins, the bosun’s cabin, the galley and the mess room. Our job was to shovel that pile of coal into a hopper.
Whenever the ship took on full bunkers (fuel), tons of extra coal was dumped on this upper deck and after enough coal was consumed on the voyage the deck hands would shovel it into the regular stowage area. No one explained what would happen to this pile if a storm came up before it was shoveled below. Four of us grabbed shovels and climbed to the top deck. Shoveling coal is one of those deceptive tasks of the laborer’s trade. The first shovelful feels light. You stand balanced like a boxer or tennis player, weight on the balls of your feet, with a loose body and beginning from your toes up your power swings through your hips, up your back, through your shoulders, and ends in a smooth follow-through like a golf swing. The scoop of coal flies into the mouth of the hopper and the whole thing feels good. After 15 minutes of rhythmic shoveling the simple joy has left and you’re at work. A half hour in, things are starting to ache and stubbornness keeps you going until, at some point, you reach a threshold and you know you’ll get through the job. That’s on land. Here the tons of coal were on a rolling ship. It was an interesting balancing act to work efficiently and not fall into the hopper or off of the deck. After the coal was properly stowed, we washed down the decks and it was time for a lifeboat drill.
The lifeboats were old wooden clunks that I wouldn’t want to be in on a good day; certainly not as my only option if we were sinking in some great storm with the waves running into each other. The lifeboats were suspended from davits that swung out from the upper, after-house deck, at least 60 feet above the water. The davits must be swung out in a delayed pattern, they both can’t be moved at once or they will work against each other. This machinery was old, rusted, and painted over junk. After about a half an hour of pushing, pulling, and straining everyone was in a foul mood. The Third Mate is in charge of all safety operations and he was raging. We started all over again, getting the boat out and in the water in 15 minutes. The Third wasn’t happy but he said to belay and re-stow the boats. I asked one of the crew if we were not up to standard speed.
He said, “Hell, it don’t matter, the Coast Guard says that once one of these babies starts to go, you only got 3 1/2 minutes for she’s under.”
“What do we do if she goes?”
“Hell, you’ll see, we’re gonna rig the high-line next.”
Fred led us to a steam winch, centered on the upper deck. We released the brake and manhandled a 3/4-inch diameter steel cable 400 feet to the forward superstructure. There, we hoisted the cable to a tower at the level of the bridge deck, which was about 15 feet lower than the aft tower. We made this cable fast and went back aft to tension it with the winch. Fred worked the winch and then he said to take this now taut cable and remove it to a locking clamp in front of the winch. We all looked at each other. There were hundreds of pounds of pressure on this cable.
One of the guys said, “Fred, we gotta rig a stopper, we ain’t gonna be able to hold this cable while we transfer it over to the clamp.”
“Look, we’re runnin late, just grab it; we got five guys here, we can hold it.”
“Your nuts, Fred.”
“Yah Fred and nobody here’s that dumb.”
“OK, I’ll grab it and all you guys just move the cable over.”
“Fred, it ain’t gonna work.”
“Dammit, this is the way we’re going to do it, Ralph, you release the clutch when I tell you.”
Ralph shrugged and grabbed the clutch lever. We all looked at each other and then grabbed the cable right at the winch drum. Fred was in front of us gripping the cable and he nodded his head. When the tension let go, the cable ripped from our grip and Fred flew in a graceful arc off the deck and down, landing on his back on one of the great hatches where the ore is loaded. I figured he was dead. He lay there for a minute with a surprised look on his face.
One of the crew looked at me and said, “Fred’s been an able seaman for ten years. Usually you get to be bosun after two to three years and make Third Mate after five, if you stay with it and study.” He looked at me, “You’ll make captain before he ever makes bosun.”
Fred recovered and we rigged the cable properly. I asked one of the crew what we were doing.
He said, “You know we can’t launch a lifeboat in time, so the only thing that will save us are the rafts up at the bridge, where the deck officers live.”
He had a handful of steel rings with lines about 3 feet long that had knots tied in them about every 6 inches. He opened each ring and clamped it onto the cable.
“If you’re aft when you hear the abandon ship alarm, you run up here, grab one of these lines, hang on, and slide to the forward end of the ship and kick one of the officers off a raft.”
“No, that’s how it’s done.”
“Has anyone ever done it?”
“Not that I know of.”
This was a curious world I had entered and the people who lived and worked in this world seemed suited to it. I hoped that I would fit in, get my job done, and not get hurt. It seemed like every task and every piece of machinery was designed to rip off parts of your body. I figured if I could just last a few more days and get some sleep that I would be all right
Again, just as I was relaxed in my bunk for a few hours rest, all hands were called on deck; we were entering the locks on the Saint Mary’s river between Lake Huron and Lake Superior at Sault St. Marie: Lake Superior is 21 feet higher than the lower lakes so the “Soo” locks make commerce possible for the entire lake system.
Since the beginning of human history, the last guy hired gets the shit job. In this case, since there were no lock hands to help us through, we provided the manpower. The ship enters the locks making about 3 knots (a knot is 6076 feet per hour), which is 2 knots slower than the minimum speed to maintain steerage control. The only way to effectively stop 8,000 tons of unloaded ship is to get the mooring cables ashore, get them quickly onto bollards (imagine large yellow mushrooms), and tension the cables with our steam winches.
There are no steps or ladders attached to the side of the ship. Two hands are put ashore seated on bosun’s chairs, a wooden plank with a line slung underneath that is rove (placed) through two holes at the outer ends of a 2-foot long plank. The line is seized (bound with heavy twine) together about 30 inches above the plank that forms a triangle that you sit in. The line then carries up and passes over a single block (pulley) and down on deck where two guys, who hopefully like you, haul you up and over the side of the ship and then lower you down 20 feet or so to the dock where you reach up and grab the line, pulling yourself up and pulling your feet back through the chair. Then you drop down on the dock while the ship is still moving at a fast walk. Surviving this, you have to grab a heaving line (thin line) that has a monkey’s fist (a woven knot containing a hunk of hard wood or lead) at the end. This line is heaved at you from above with great conviction by an AB (able bodied seaman). All good seamen try to knock down the guy they’re heaving the line at—it can be amusing. You haul vigorously on the heaving line to bring down the mooring line, a 2-inch diameter steel cable. The section of the cable you’re handling weighs between 150 to 200-pounds. The end of the cable has a bight (large loop) spliced into it and you take this bight, drop it over a bollard and raise both arms showing the winch operator that you are clear. He operates the winch and the ship stops.
After the lock cycles, the ship eases through the lock, so the two hands run the cables forward to new sets of bollards as the ship moves forward. When the ship is through the lock, the hands take the cables off of the last bollard and jump into the bosun’s chair and are hauled back on deck. Somehow it all went smoothly. At this point it was almost breakfast time, so we all stayed up and the day began.
Around mid-morning the wind began to pipe-up (increase in strength) and all hands were called to batten down the hatches. The Lindabury had 17 hatches, which were about 15 feet wide and 40 feet long, the long dimension sitting athwart-ships (sideways to the center-line). The hatch covers are segmented steel panels designed to slide over the next outer panel. The panels are opened and closed by rigging cables to a winch and pulling each panel open or shut in sequence. There is a 1-inch vertical gap between each panel that will take in enormous quantities of water in a storm. Practice on the lakes is to not batten the hatches until it’s blowing a Force 6 (25 knots on the Beaufort scale). Twenty-ounce canvas panels bigger than the hatch are stretched over the steel hatch covers and forced under wooden battens (2 x 4 boards) and then the battens are dogged down by steel screw clamps to hold the canvas in place. By the time the call comes to batten the hatches, it is already too late. A large piece of 20-ounce canvas in 25 knots of wind is a monster. It whips and throws the crew around like a dog shaking a stuffed toy.
Six of us grabbed a folded canvas panel and dragged it over to the first hatch.
One of the hands shouted at me, “If she starts to fly, let go!”
He said that men had been picked up and thrown off the ship by a flip of the canvas. If you went overboard into Lake Superior you were dead. After a few minutes in the 30- to- 40-degree water your fingers probably couldn’t even grasp a life ring tossed right on top of you, but since it took 5 miles to bring the ship to a dead stop to recover a man overboard they didn’t even try. We fought to keep the wind from getting under the canvas, which took on the aspect of a mischievous child trying to confound its parents pulling winter clothes over wiggling arms and legs.
We cursed and hauled and stretched the canvas over the hatch cover and, jamming a knee down to keep the canvas in place, pushed a batten into the clamps and tightened the locking screws. This didn’t happen in one clean move, but in a series of small victories pulling in an inch at a time. We were pretty well tired out after this first hatch, but we had 16 hatches to go and the wind was building to a storm. The Lindabury’s motion went from regal to a death shudder. Stubbornness kept us going. We fought our own battles and helped each other when we could. I helped the guy next to me when the batten slipped from his hand. He nodded and smiled. In this demanding world, judgment of a person’s worth is based on what work is actually done. We finished the job and shuffled back to the mess for a hot meal. I looked forward as I stepped into the mess room. I’m sorry I looked. The bow twisted off to starboard a few degrees and the stern went go to port about the same angle. The bow rose on each wave and it looked like the boat was bending in the middle. I couldn’t believe that we didn’t snap in half. Looking up at the high-line that we had rigged I hoped we would not have to test the escape theory and wondered which officer I would choose to push off the over-crowded raft. I felt that I was starting to think like a seaman. I slammed the companion door shut and dogged it down.
The talk around the table that evening was about the Daniel J. Morrell. A year and a half before, in a late November storm on Lake Huron, the Morrell broke in half and sank. It happened so quickly that the engine was still turning over and the stern half of the ship actually sailed by the foreward half before it sank. Four men made it to the foreward life raft. One man survived. Two of our crew knew men aboard the Morrell. Talk quieted down and then Alligator served fresh apple pie and ice cream for dessert.
I slipped into my bunk and wondered how long I would have to rest. Not long, it turned out. All hands were called as we were coming into Tac Harbor on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the “arrowhead” region, so-called after its shape. Here, unlike other iron-rich regions the iron is more intimately attached to the rock and has to be extracted in a complex process. The ore is mixed with water and then pulverized into mud by a Rod and Ball mill so that powerful magnets can pull out the iron particles. The water is extracted, an adhesive is added to this crushed material, and pellets, called taconite, are formed in rolling drums and hardened in a furnace. These pellets are shipped by rail to the loading terminal at Tac Harbor and loaded into the ore boats for delivery to the blast furnaces that will provide the first step in the building of railroads, cars, ships, and the rest of civilization. Rudyard Kipling wrote a little poem that sums it up:
“Gold is for the mistress,
Silver for the maid,
Copper for the craftsman,
cunning at his trade.
Good! cried the baron,
sitting in the hall, but
Cold Iron is the master of them all.”
I was up at the foreward bosun’s chair not thinking of poetry. I had done this docking maneuver once before, so I was an old hand. They swung me up, out, and down towards the dock. It was near twilight and the orange dock lights didn’t add much illumination. The dock was covered in taconite. The taconite pellets are round, about the size of marbles. I was never any good at playing marbles. I was expected to do the same routine that we had done at the Soo locks, but I was expected to do this on a dock covered with marbles. I pulled up and free of the chair, but as my feet touched the pellets they slipped on the carpet of marbles. I froze. The Second Mate yelled at me to get going, but I wasn’t about to let go of the line. I was 4 feet from the edge of the dock. The ship’s side was 6 feet out from the dock. The ship drew 28 feet (its depth below the surface). If I slipped off the dock, I would never be able to swim clear. The giant propeller would suck me in and reduce me to small parts in an instant. The Mate yelled again for me to let go.
I yelled, ”No way!”
Then I heard a scream. The deckhand aft had just fallen but managed to grab a bollard before he splashed into the water and became fish bait. I was the only guy who could prevent this 8,000-ton mass from hitting the shore and probably going quite a distance inland before it stopped.
I thought about skating. I played ice hockey when I was younger, so I took a good breath, let go of the line, and skated myself under control. The monkey fist hit me in the chest and I hauled in the heaving line as fast as I could. The mooring cable snaked down and, skating the whole time, I slipped it over the bollard and raised my arms. We were still in trouble and the Mate was working the foreward-port mooring winch right to the point of tearing things loose. I figured something would pop and I started skating to shelter under the ore-loading structure, 15 feet away. The other deckhand was climbing to his feet and falling down in a sea of marbles. With the engine at full-astern and the winch trying to pop from the deck the Lindabury finally stopped. The Mate looked over the side and waved. Later, having coffee he said that I had done a good job. I asked him how the hell they did this all the time. He said that every hand eventually figured it out and besides, all I had to do was wait until a deckhand left the ship and his replacement came aboard. Then I could relax and watch the new guy try to figure it all out.
There were peaceful times as well as exciting moments. When I could avoid Fred and his work list, I would go to the wing bridge forward and look out across the lake. The best view was when the land slipped below the horizon and nothing was around us but a circle of water. There was a tingle of the unknown about it. The charts predicted what was ahead, but you wouldn’t know until you got there. Our primary tool against this unknown was our routine. On land, there is a constant mind-jumble of past, present, and future events. On a ship this gives way to an ordered sequence of time measured to the end of your watch, the time to your next watch, or the next meal. I thought very little about that life I had led up to a few days ago. There were times though, when you knew the peace was an illusion. The first time I looked into the icy black of Lake Superior, it looked evil. It wasn’t, of course, merely implacable, but I think the disinterestedness of nature is far more frightening than any evil we may invent.
We delivered our load of ore to Lorain, Ohio and had an evening’s shore leave. I went with a couple of hands to a local seaman’s bar. When I saw the bar scene from “Star Wars” years later, I laughed, because I had been in that bar. Some of the patrons had key parts of their face or body missing. This place was so tough and seedy that you thought that maybe they were kidding. They weren’t and I kept my mouth shut and only drank enough beers to be respectable without getting drunk. I didn’t want to walk back to the ship in anything less than good shape.
I was glad I had only a couple of beers because the next morning we un-docked, before dawn, from Lorain and were bound north to the Detroit River. When I came on mid-watch we were in the Detroit River in fog so dense we couldn’t see beyond the bow. I was keeping the coffee coming to the bridge and I knew that the men on watch were a bit nervous. When I crawled into my bunk I turned my back to Kennedy, who was reading by the light in his bunk.
Just as I was drifting off to sleep, the world came crashing in. The sound of metal ripping metal screamed in our cabin. We must have run into something and Kennedy and I were in the front of the ship, about to die. I reacted in an instant. Kennedy was in stitches. He said he’d never seen anything as funny as this big guy trying to crawl through that little porthole. The fog had gotten so dense that the watch decided to stop all progress and the best way to do that is to drop both anchors at once. My bunk shared the after chain locker bulkhead. Hundreds of tons of chain went roaring and screeching out the hawseholes a few feet from my head. I was happy that I had brought so much mirth into Kennedy’s bleak life.
We made our way north up Lake Huron to get another load of ore. I had been standing my mid-watch and got to know the watch-keepers pretty well. Normally, an Ordinary Seaman is not allowed to take a “trick” at the wheel, but they said I might as well start learning now. This was a reward for my yeoman service as a coffee valet. I took the wheel, watched the compass, tried to keep the steering spar lined up, looked at the radar and did a fine job. The Mate told me to go out on the wing bridge and look aft. The ship’s wake was like a giant snake making half-mile wiggles on each side of our course. The Mate said that it was normal and because we steered the ship from the “wrong” end that a special technique was used of timing the turning of the wheel in reference to the speed through the water, the wind and the “period” of wave action. You moved the wheel right for so many seconds and then paused for so many seconds and then turned the wheel left for so many seconds (steering commands are given in left/right and not port/starboard). I asked how you would know what the timing should be. He said, experience. They left me at it for the rest of the watch and I got the snake down to about a quarter of a mile. They said that some people had done worse than me.
The next night, they again let me have a turn at the wheel. I was feeling the overconfidence of ignorance and proud of my rapid progress when I realized that I was alone on the bridge. I shouldn’t have been left alone even if I knew what I was doing. Leaving an almost landlubber on single watch was suicidal. I called for someone, but there was no answer. I was nervous, but everything was going smoothly. In a few minutes, a target showed up on the radar about 16 miles ahead. It was the bright “blip” of something big. I called out, but again there was no answer. I left the wheel to look at the chart because another blip had just popped up on the screen. On the chart, I could see a lighthouse marking the edge of a large limestone reef. By measuring the distance on the chart relative to the distance shown on the radar, the lighthouse was the first blip. The second blip was on the wrong side of the light and going into dangerous water! I screamed for help. There was no answer. I grabbed the microphone from the nearest marine radio.
“Ship approaching lighthouse, ship approaching lighthouse, you’re on the wrong side; you’re on the wrong side.”
My radio procedure was faulty, but my intentions were good. I thought I heard laughing coming through the radio speaker. Then the wing bridge doors opened and the watch came in carrying a fresh pot of coffee and a plate of cake.
It was a test. The chart on the table had been switched to an old one that didn’t show the wreck of the German freighter that had actually gone on the wrong side of the light a few years earlier. They said I did OK, but they were going to work on my radio procedure. They gave me a cup of coffee and some chocolate cake. The world is a more “correct” place now than it was then. Youngsters new to the job aren’t thrown to the wolves anymore in the safe world of simulators and programmed learning modules. I’m a little sorry for that. The old way got your attention in a far more personal way than crashing into a virtual reef on an electronic sea.
We sailed on and the whole routine was making sense to me. After our next refueling, there was the usual mess of coal dust on deck. Kennedy and I were set to washing down the decks. Kennedy was a profoundly stupid man, but we managed to be cabin mates without any trouble between us. He made a few cryptic allusions about a friend of his, which I couldn’t make sense of, but we all ramble on at times. Kennedy had the fire hose, I had the big broom, and the job was not going well. It was a simple enough task, but Kennedy kept blowing the dust in the wrong direction and then spraying the pile in front of my brush, splashing the dirty water all over me. I asked him to get it together and he splashed me again. I said something uncomplimentary and he threw the live 1-1/2-inch hose at me. The heavy bronze nozzle on the end of the hose grazed my head, slammed into the edge of a hatch and ricocheted back. I had to jump up as it streaked under me. A fire hose with pressure is a deadly reptile that keeps whipping until it does damage and then keeps on whipping. I could have been killed. The hose jammed itself in a scupper (opening to allow water to flow off deck) and I grabbed Kennedy by his crotch and neck and walked toward the rail. I was going to drop him overboard. He wasn’t moving—he didn’t want to fall from my grip. The Second Mate came running up and lightly tapped my shoulder.
He said, “It isn’t worth it.”
He was right and I put Kennedy down. The Mate looked at us and told me to take the hose. He handed Kennedy the broom and walked off. We finished the job without trouble and walked away in different directions. No one mentioned our little dance. Later that evening when I was reading in the mess room one of the hands came up and started talking.
“I would keep my eye on Kennedy, if I were you.”
“You think he’s going to try something?” I asked.
“You know who his cabin mate was awhile back?”
I shook my head, “no”.
“He was Richard Speck’s mate. They were pretty tight.”
Richard Speck had killed eight nursing students with a knife.
“You think he’s as nuts as Speck?”
“He threw a hose at you, didn’t he?”
So my cabin mate was the intimate of a mass murderer and he had reason to be irritated with me. That night I crawled into my bunk, pulled my knife from my bag, and put it under my pillow. I stared at Kennedy until it was my watch. This went on for two days. I never took my eyes from him and paid attention when I walked around the ship. The Mate switched our watches so that we weren’t sleeping at the same time, but the cabin door couldn’t be locked: Too dangerous in case of an emergency. When we made the dock in Duluth, Minnesota, the gang-plank was barely touching the shore when Kennedy came rushing down the deck dragging his sea bag.
He was shouting, “That guy’s nuts, he’s going to kill me, he’s going to kill me!”
He didn’t return when we pulled out for South Chicago. In the last few weeks of sailing I’d had more little adventures than I had in my entire life. Moving from a comfortable life in the city into this world where I had no control over the events that affected me was a major shift in perspective. The men I worked and lived with formed a tribe that I didn’t belong to, although it would be possible eventually to earn a place of respect in their circle. This purely masculine place seemingly had no concerns beyond the immediate work at hand and the bars and women that waited in Duluth or South Chicago or Lorain, Ohio. It was a simple world. At first I thought that my shipmates weren’t educated enough to have concerns for the political future of the country or the philosophical questions of freedom versus order playing out on land. But slowly the rhythm and routine of shipboard life made the events ashore seem remote and even trivial. What counted in life was standing watch and not getting hurt by all the machinery that would rip you apart if you stopped paying attention for a minute.
I told one of the crew that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep doing this. He said that there was quite a bit of shipping going to Vietnam, particularly out of New Orleans and, generally, a better class of men worked the saltys; hardly any mass murderers. Vietnam was the best service because you got a one hundred percent bonus for all your time within fifty miles of shore. Often that could be weeks of extra pay. He explained that the union had four classes of seamen: Number Four had a Z” card but no time, they never got a berth; Number Three had time on the Lakes, they could get a berth sometimes, but the secret was that ships came into New Orleans and then might go up-river to Baton Rouge to finish off-loading. It was only a day and a half up and many crewmen wanted to pay off in New Orleans and not make the run. If you stayed alert at the union hall, you could get one of these quick trips that qualified as salt time and you became a Number Two giving you a decent chance of a berth. After 6 months of salt time you were a Number One and you would always find work. I asked if my short time on the Lakes was really enough and he said yes, any Great Lakes time would work. That was all I needed to know.
and tragically a dear family member contracted a fatal disease and I
asked the Captain to give me a release from duty to return home. He
didn’t believe me, but he signed me off. When I walked down the
gangplank, I knew that my old life was over, but I had no idea what
the new one was going to be. It is impossible to know as the minutes
come roaring by that any given one can completely change your life,
but over the years I have thought of that moment on the Triumph when
it was clear that a change was needed. I didn’t anticipate that
the adventures would keep coming and would drag me all over the