A Michigan Boyhood


This happened before I was born, and the circumstances were a bit special, not likely to be duplicated on any passenger craft, but it was something to remember. Uncle John was Mother’s older brother, and he was sailing on some freighter, and the story in our family went as follows: his boat was in harbor at St. Ignace, up at the straits, taking on a load of pig iron, and a howling autumn gale was coming in from the southwest, but the captain fancied himself as a dauntless sea dog and elected to put out into it, regardless. Furthermore, the captain was drunk, and he cast off his mooring lines and went out to sea without bothering to close the cargo hatches—time enough for that, once they got clear of the land. Unfortunately there was not time enough. The big waves swept solid water in over the decks, the water poured down the open hatches, and the ship sank like a stone, taking the wooden-headed captain, Uncle John, and all but one member of the crew down with her. The man who escaped floated ashore on a wooden hatch cover. According to one version, his hair turned white because of this terrible experience, and according to another, he became insane, although I never could understand how he could tell his story if he had lost his wits. But whatever the truth about the survivor may have been, it was undeniable that the steamer had sunk and that Uncle John had gone down with it, and the story remained at the bottom of my mind, along with all the bookish tales about losses at sea, to stir fitfully whenever we boarded a steamboat. Lake Michigan was beautiful, but like those starry winter nights, there was a subtle understood menace somewhere in the offing.

However, none of this made me lose any sleep. Once the steamer got out into the lake my fears vanished; the boat was too real, too solid, too much a part of the established order of things, and the officers and crew were too matter-of-fact and active to leave room for worry. If bad things did happen on the big lake they obviously were not going to happen on this trip. There was nothing to do but relax and enjoy it. I do not remember that these boats gave us the feeling of luxury that seemed to go with Pullman sleepers and railroad dining cars, but they were always comfortable and the staterooms were undeniably snug and inviting. Also there were things to see. If we were coasting along the Michigan shore there was the endless line of sand bluffs, all white and shining when the late afternoon sun touched them, and out to seaward one could almost always see a freighter trailing a plume of lazy smoke. These freighters were often spoken of as “lower lakers”; they were long, low in the water, pilothouse and officers’ cabin in the bow, smokestack and cabins for lesser folk at the stern, with several hundred feet of open deck in between, and they got their name because they carried bulk freight to and from the lower lake ports like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo. They were not fast, and seen from a distance they did not seem to be moving at all, and I used to wonder how anyone could stand it to go on boats that moved so slowly. When I grew up I spent a summer as a deck hand on a lower laker and learned that that leisurely progress was one of the best things about them. Besides, they were not quite as leisurely as they looked; they lost precious little time in port.

Some of the things you could see from a Great Lakes steamer were not really there; now and then you skirted the enchanted isles, although as far as I know no one ever actually went ashore on any of them, and nobody ever talked about it because there was no sense in getting a name as a romantic. But there were moments … One time we took a car ferry from Frankfort to go to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, whence by shuttle train we could reach some town where we could board a Soo Line express for Minneapolis, and we sailed at midnight or a little later. We had to get up early because this crossing of the lake took less than six hours, and I got out on deck just at dawn and looked west at the Wisconsin shore, seven or eight miles away. We were passing the town of Two Rivers, a small manufacturing and shipping center, and the sunlight came up behind us, reached over us, and touched this unremarkable place with a magical light. The factory chimneys became slim golden pillars against the western sky, the little buildings were all transfigured, and suddenly this was a seaport in the land of fable, the place everybody sailed for but never reached, unattainable, existing only at the moment of dawn. Roads no doubt led from it to the Land of Oz, or to the Island Vale of Avalon, but you could never get there; you could only remember what it looked like. One of the ship’s officers came along the deck, saw me staring, and stopped to take a look himself. Then he turned to me, grinned, and said, “Pretty, isn’t it?”

With the perils that might arise on the seas, or on the steel-bound rights of way through the stumpy plains, the boat and train crews were well qualified to deal. However, they could see no farther into the misty nowhere of changing times than any of the rest of us could see, and what they and we looked upon as an established order of things was in fact subject to constant alteration. Nothing that we considered fixed was really settled. We lived by the best light the past could give us, but we were going to live in the future, and the proper guiding lights were veiled by something impenetrable. We might understand it when it came—or, for that matter, we might not—but we could neither foresee it nor influence it. We were at the mercy of a series of accidents that had already happened.