—Joe Follansbee, The Fyddeye Guides
The colorful tale of a deckhand's life on Great Lakes ore-boats
I would watch them glide by as we bounced around on the choppy waters of the St. Clair River while fishing for pickerel from the Mickey II in the 1950s. The massive giants glided through the blue-green water, some surprisingly quiet considering their immense size and power. Others you could hear for miles as their old steam engines kerchunged a steady, deep cadence. Several stories tall and more than two football fields long, these graceful giants passed our tiny, wave-tossed boat carrying the basic resources that fed the great industrial Midwest and grain that helped feed the world. The Mickey II was the boat my father built and named after me, Nelson "Mickey" Haydamacker, who loved to fish for pickerel with his dad on the river. As the ships passed I would wonder where they had come from and where they were going. What were the men doing as the ship sailed down the river? What was the boat carrying: iron ore, coal, limestone, grain? Was one of my uncles on board? My dad could answer some of my questions but not all.
We lived in Algonac, Michigan, a little river town located at the south end of the St. Clair River. The river connects Lake Huron with the much smaller Lake St. Clair, which by Great Lakes standards is just a pond tucked between Lake Huron and Lake Erie. The Detroit River completes the passage by connecting Lake St. Clair with Lake Erie. It always seemed to me that Lake St. Clair was a Great Lake. I couldn't see Canada when I stood on the shore the way I could see it from the shore of the St. Clair River. If you couldn't see the other side that made for a mighty big lake. Dad said it was a big lake but not a Great Lake, and he got out the atlas so I could see the relative size of the lakes that surround the state of Michigan.
Algonac's main street shadowed the river, and our "downtown" was only several blocks long with businesses on either side of the road. Most were small, locally owned stores such as the hardware stores Gunniss's and Wallace's, located three doors from each other. Most of the businesses on the river side of the street had docks so people could shop by boat in the summertime. At the Standard gas station you could gas up your car out front on the street side or your boat at the dock on the river behind the station. Dulac's five-and-ten, between the Kroger and the A & P, was across the street from the Flanagan's Bar and Grill. Sometimes, if we got out a little early from a Saturday evening movie at the Algonac Theater, we'd sit on the stoop of Gunniss's Hardware in hopes of seeing a fight at Flanagan's. On rare occasion our vigil was rewarded, and we would see a Michigan State Police blue goose roll into town and pull up in front of the bar. Two big troopers would get out, towering over their blue 1952 Ford, in their creased blue uniforms, pausing to put on their hats before going into Flanagan's. Soon they would come out, each trooper firmly grasping one of the handcuffed brawlers, guiding them into the backseat of the patrol car. Sometimes the combatants would be loud and obnoxious, which was what we hoped to see, but the troopers were clearly in control of where they were going if not of what they were saying. Those towering men in their blue uniforms cut impressive figures in the eyes of a young boy. I believe that was when I first became interested in becoming a state trooper.
A large percentage of my youth was spent fishing. It was a good time to be a boy growing up in a small river town. My buddies and I would bike to First Bridge and fish for perch or rock bass in the canal that emptied into the river. Dad and I fished off the dock behind Al Robbins's little mom-and-pop grocery store or up at the city park. As I grew older we spent a lot of time pickerel fishing from the Mickey II, a small wooden boat Dad made, with a little one-lung inboard motor. The fishing was fantastic at times, and knowing the right spots we could catch our limit without too much work.
Algonac was rich with sailors as were the other towns along the St. Clair River: Marine City, St. Clair, Marysville, and Port Huron. I grew up hearing stories about the captains, engineers, wheelsmen, and others that lived in and around our little town. Watching the freighters go by was a daily occurrence, so it was natural for me to look to the freighters for work when in the early spring of 1962 a strike at the Chris-Craft boat plant put me among the unemployed. In a way it was a relief. I hated working at Chris-Craft. As a hull framer I worked on a scaffold assembling 56-foot cruisers. I did not like the drudgery of doing the same task day in and day out, nor did I like being confined to the plant all day. We were not allowed to leave the scaffold until the whistle blew for our coffee break. By the time we climbed down and walked to the other side of the plant half of the ten minute break was over. We had time for only a couple of puffs on a cigarette and a swallow of coffee before the break was over. Permission had to be sought before you could go to the bathroom, and while in the stall it was not unusual for a supervisor to look over the transom to be sure you weren't smoking. Because of the highly flammable nature of the inventory in the plant, the company was very strict about where you could smoke. The experience convinced me that I did not want to spend my life working in a factory, so the strike was a good excuse to find another line of work.
Although I had worked at the plant for only a couple of months before the strike, I had already begun looking for another job. My ambition was to become a trooper with the Michigan State Police, but there was a minimum age requirement of 21. Since I was only 18 I had to put that dream on hold. In the meantime sailing the Great Lakes looked like a natural alternative.
I had written the Interlake Steamship Company, the line my uncles worked for, to inquire about a job as a deckhand on their freighters but had not received a reply. I was out of work about a month and getting desperate when I received a telegram from Interlake telling me to report to the A & B Docks of the Ashtabula and Buffalo Dock Company at Ashtabula, Ohio, on April 6, 1962, to fit out the Elton Hoyt 2nd. If I passed the physical I had a job, but there was still a problem. I had no money.
Dad worked many years at Chris-Craft, but he did not make a lot of money and he spent a considerable number of years repaying a debt created by the illness of my baby sister. She died of leukemia after a prolonged illness during which thousands of dollars in medical bills were incurred, and there was no medical insurance to cover them. Even though he had offers of help from the Michigan Children's Aid Foundation, Dad paid the bills out of his own pocket. He was a man of great pride, especially when it came to accepting help from others. This from a man who spent countless hours helping others through his work as a volunteer fireman, his many acts of kindness, and his community activities, including the annual Goodfellows newspaper sale and Christmas drives for the needy. When he was offered the money, he told the men from the foundation thank-you but keep it and use it to help another child. As a result he kept his dignity and honor but never accumulated many worldly goods. I don't believe he ever regretted the choice.
So I was broke, and my folks were in no position to help me out financially. Somehow I had to come up with some money for work clothes and the fare to Ashtabula. I had inherited some of Dad's pride, and it was with great reluctance that I went to an aunt for help. Gertrude Nickel was my mother's sister and my godmother. Her husband, John, was an engineer with Interlake. Aunt Gert generously lent me 50 dollars with the firm understanding that I would repay it out of my first paycheck.
At six o'clock on Sunday morning, April 5, Mom and Dad drove me to the bus station to catch a bus to Detroit where I would transfer to another bus to Toledo. My stomach was doing backflips. I had lived away from home for about four months while attending junior college in Port Huron, but that was only 30 miles from home. For all practical purposes this would be my first time away from home. I tried not to let my apprehension show, but I expect it was evident I was very nervous. The folks saw me on the bus, and my life as a sailor began.
Besides my seabag and footlocker, I had a sandwich and a couple of candy bars in a paper sack and just enough money to cover my fares. The trip took forever as the bus stopped at every burg and crossroad between Detroit and Toledo. In Toledo I took a cab to the railroad station where I caught the train to Ashtabula. This train, too, stopped every few miles. I arrived at the Ashtabula station around midnight, eighteen hours after leaving Algonac. I was one tired, hungry, and miserable sailor-to-be.
The Ashtabula train station was a dark little wooden shack that looked as tired as I felt. One corner of the platform sagged from wood rot, and a broken gutter rattled in the cold night wind. I was the only passenger to get off the train, and there was not another soul at the station, just me, a somewhat frightened 18-year-old kid from Algonac wondering what he had gotten himself into. Scribbled on the wall near the pay phone was the number of a cab company, so I called and was told a cab would be out in about fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes in a strange and deserted train station can be a long time, but I had no choice but to wait.
When the cab arrived I threw my bags in the trunk and got into the car.
"Where to, son?" the cabby asked.
I showed him my orders.
"Sailor, eh?" he grunted.
"Yep, sailor" I replied.
"Sailor," I thought. That was the first time somebody had actually called me a sailor, and my chest swelled a little at the thought.
The cab left me at the gate of the A & B Docks. When I paid the fare I had 50 cents left in my pocket. Fifty cents left out of the 50 dollars my aunt had lent me. Had I given that cabby a tip I would have been broke again.
If I thought the train station was intimidating, it was nothing compared to what I was about to experience. I showed my telegram and identification to the attendant at the guardhouse. He opened the gate and told me where the Elton Hoyt 2nd was tied up. Being on these docks in the middle of a cold spring night was one of the eeriest things I've ever experienced. The A & B Docks was a big weed-covered yard with various buildings scattered here and there. Acres of long earthen berms stretched out into the cold blackness of the night. The canals created by these peninsulas are where the ships were laid up for the winter. I could make out the dark outlines of huge piles of ore and strange skeletal contraptions towering over everything. I was to learn that these were various types of loading and unloading machines. Railroad tracks crisscrossed the yard and ran out onto the berms. This was not an inviting place even in broad daylight. The ships were enormous. Throw in the dark of night with a chill wind and the first time walking into such a place can be downright frightening. Weak tin-shaded lights swayed in the chill breeze, bouncing dark shadows every which way. Suddenly the light would shift and the bow of a ship, puffed up like a monster, would loom out of the shadows, towering over me. The walk through this cold, empty place was one of anxious fear mixed with excitement, but an overwhelming desire to be at home enveloped me with an icy chill.
With a great deal of trepidation, I made my way to the Hoyt, following the paved road that led away from the gate. After stumbling over several sets of railroad tracks I came to a gravel road, which ran out to the pier the guard had told me to look for. The dull light reflected off ice-covered mud puddles, which pocked the crude road.
When ships are docked for the winter the ballast tanks are pumped out, and without any cargo in their holds they ride very high in the water. The fence rail that runs along the side of the deck of a ship can be 20 feet or more above the dock. The bow will ride even higher because it is built up to fend off waves the boat may encounter in heavy weather. I found the Hoyt, all 698 feet of her, tied up bow first, but there was no visible means of boarding her so I had to walk the pier looking for a way to board. Very little light spilled over from the ship's deck, which loomed some 25 feet above me. To my left the dark shape of railroad ore cars sat on the tracks I had just crossed. At the far end of the boat I found a tall wooden ladder stretching up to the deck. There was a line hanging next to the ladder, so I tied my seabag to the line, climbed the ladder, and pulled the seabag up to the deck. Then I climbed back down the ladder and repeated the process with my footlocker.
Up on the deck the bitter wind cut through my clothing, chilling me to the bone. The deck of the ship was cold painted steel with a wide pathway down the port and starboard sides. Down the center of the deck there were giant hatches, about 12 feet wide by 40 feet long, covered by mammoth steel lids, which ran from one side of the boat to the other except for the pathway on either side. They were laid out one after another the whole length of the deck. There were cabins at either end of the boat. The cabins at the aft end, where I had climbed the ladder, were topped by a large smokestack painted black with a wide international orange band running around its girth. Forward was another set of cabins that I knew was topped by the pilothouse. Of course, there was no one around. It was the middle of the night.
I knew I was with the Deck Department and that it was located in the forward cabins, so I walked the full length of the ship with my gear. I opened a doorway into the forward cabin, stepped into a companionway, dropped my gear, and sat down on the deck. I figured I would spend the night in the companionway and be ready for work in the morning.
All of a sudden the door to one of the cabins opened and out came a rugged-looking middle-aged man. He stood about 5'10?, solidly built and well weathered, with dark hair liberally sprinkled with gray.
He said to me, "Whatcha doin' here?"
"I work here," I answered.
"Oh," he said. "That's good. What's yur name?"
I told him, and he said, "Oh ya, yu're a new deckhand. I'm Second Mate Frank Gable, Buffalo, New York. Do ya know where yu're supposed to bunk?"
"Nope, no idea."
"Come on, follow me," he replied.
He took me below to the next deck, called the main deck, where there were four rooms. Each room was designed to accommodate two men. He told me to pick out any room I wanted. I opened a door-one room was as good as the next-and threw my gear on a bunk. The room was small with a bunk on each side, a wardrobe immediately to the right, and a dresser against the far bulkhead. To the left of the dresser a door led to a head with a shower.
Frank asked me when I'd had my last meal, and I replied, "Six o'-clock this morning."
"Hungry, I bet," he said.
"Yep" was my very short answer. Truth was I was not only hungry but also tired, intimidated, and apprehensive. I didn't know what to expect from this man or the next day when I would go to work.
He took me aft, which meant I traversed the length of the deck, some 500 feet, for a third time. The boat seemed to be getting longer. He took me to the galley and said, "This is called the night lunch. You can have whatever ya want. How 'bout I make ya some bacon and eggs?"
He started up the griddle. "How many eggs ya want?"
"I could eat three or four." I answered.
"Okay. Bacon or sausage?"
"A little of both." I continued to answer in short sentences.
They had all kinds of stuff for night lunches in a large horizontal refrigerator. Leftovers and extra food were set in there so the crewmen could help themselves during the night when the galley crew wasn't working. There were the makings for any kind of sandwich imaginable, Jell-O and other salads, mashed and whole potatoes, vegetables, several kinds of meat you could throw on the grill, and all the fixings for breakfast. I had never seen so much food, and it was there for the taking, just help yourself.
Excerpted from DECKHAND by Nelson "Mickey" Haydamacker Alan D. Millar Copyright © 2009 by Nelson Haydamacker. Excerpted by permission.
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