Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: Christopher Johnson

            “Hey, Smith, yer T-shirt looks pink!” Larry Cuccinelli said, spitting out a laugh that hovered somewhere between playful and malevolent. He poked Paul in the shoulder. Paul was sitting next to him in the galley of the Oscar R. Pendleton, a flat, 650-foot-long lake carrier that transported iron ore from Duluth, Minnesota, to the voracious steel mills of Gary, Chicago, Lorain, and Cleveland, and other industrial cities on the southern shores of the Great Lakes.

Paul had been a deckhand for all of two weeks. He was eating his mid-day dinner, and he was surrounded by the other deckhands. Larry. Jim Buzhardt, who was 26 years old and had just gotten out of the Marines and a tour in Vietnam and who everyone called Buzz. Ernie Lundgren, a lifer with a face of leather and a jaw that jutted out like a slab of concrete and a nose bent like a clothes hook. And Frank Antonelli, the bosun, who was in charge of everything pertaining to the care and upkeep of the Pendleton.

Paul felt his face blaze with embarrassment.

“Yeah,” Buzz said, “I saw the same damn thing, Paul! Your T-shirt has a beautiful pink glow to it—very very becoming, I must say.” Their laughter careened around the galley and bounced off the steel bulkheads.

“Well,” Paul said, shrinking further into embarrassment, “you see, it’s like this. Yesterday I went to the engine room to use the washing machine, and I was gonna do my underwear. But without thinking, I also threw in my dirty red sweatshirt. Well, I look in the machine and see that the water’s turning red from that damn sweatshirt, and I pull all the whites out, but it was too late—they were already pink!”

The other four of them howled at the dumb, inexperienced, naïve, stupid, sheltered college kid who knew all about calculus but didn’t know nothin’ about doin’ no laundry.

“And your BVDs—are they all pink, too, eh?” asked Larry. Paul sheepishly stood up and pulled the tops of his jeans down an inch or two so they could see the beautiful pink tinge of his undershorts. “Very very pretty, kid,” Larry laughed with devilish glee. They all got up to leave the galley and march back out onto the deck. On the way, Frank slapped Paul so hard on the back that Paul almost spat out his last bite of roast beef.

“Well, kid,” Frank said, “you’ll never do that again!”

“Yes,” Buzz added. “One of life’s important lessons.”

The five men traipsed out onto the deck, where they continued the never-ending task of caring for and protecting the ship by chipping, sanding, and painting. They were in the middle of Lake Michigan, steaming north toward the Soo Locks and Lake Superior and Duluth. The incandescent sky spread above them like a clear blue umbrella. The breeze from the forward movement of the ship slapped their faces.

Paul was nineteen years old. He was from a Chicago suburb, and his father was the port agent for the U.S. Steel fleet and had placed him into the job, as he placed many other college students while the regular crews of various ships rotated in taking their summer vacations. Two weeks before, his father had dropped him off on the docks at Gary, hugged him, and sent him off into Real Life. Paul was a babe in the woods. He shaved his peach fuzz beard a mere three times a week. He was a virgin. When he heard the tales of his more experienced peers, he flushed with envy. He rattled in his brand-new work shoes as he stepped through the hatch that led from the galley to the deck of the Pendleton. His buddies at home were selling shoes and working at McDonald’s, and he was stuck in this new and strange and alien world.

His first week had been a whirlwind. He painted. He chipped. He learned to tie knots. He learned very quickly to say yes sir instead of yeah. He learned that if he tied a knot wrong, he had to tie it again. He learned to coil ropes properly. He learned to position himself firmly in the bosun’s chair and fly through the air and drop onto the dock at Duluth. There he handled the cables, placing the eye of a cable on a mooring as Frank handled the winch and slowly tightened the cable and pulled the Pendleton up and down the dock like a humongous beetle. When the ship was in place, a chute opened and let loose tons of iron ore from the Mesabi range into the hold of the ship.

The four deckhands shared two bunk beds crammed into a single cabin on the aft end of the Pendleton. As the bosun, Frank had his own cabin up toward the bow. Off watch, they played table tennis and poker, watched baseball games on TV, or just slung the bull.

Paul gradually learned the unique personalities of the men he bunked with. Larry was in his forties, with a round face and a round body and a Cheshire-cat smile. His left hand and forearm were deformed, his hand tiny, his forearm as thin as a baby’s. He’d worked for years on the boats, and he’d learned to compensate. Those years of compensation had strengthened the muscles of his right hand and arm. When he’d shaken Paul’s hand, he’d squeezed it until Paul winced. Larry handled the cables with aplomb, using his right hand to grab the cable and his misshapen left hand to guide the eye of the cable over the mooring.

In those close quarters, the men couldn’t help knowing each other’s business. Larry’s business was dirty books. That was his “hobby,” you might say. He opened his locker, and it was filled from floor to top with literature from the wrong side of town. He bought the books on the bumboat, which was a small vessel that came along the ship when they were docked and sold everything from Coke to cigarettes to the dirty books of which Larry was so enamored. Paul read a few. They were not Lady Chatterley’s Lover­—works of literature with flimsy clothing.

Then there was Buzz–Jim Buzhardt. He was Paul’s bunkmate. He had the upper bunk, and Paul inhabited the lower bunk. He’d done a tour of duty with the U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam, which was gearing up toward the disaster it would soon become. This was 1967. Now he was working to save money to go to college. Buzz wore an ultra-neat crew cut and a tattoo on his muscular left bicep that displayed the insignia of the Marines. Like Lake Michigan during its calm interludes between storms, his quiet manner sat atop a steely intensity. Buzz introduced Paul to the poems of Robert W. Service, the British-Canadian poet who wrote about the Yukon and the dreams lost and found among the gold mines of the North Country.

            The fourth deckhand was Ernie Lundgren. Ernie had eyes like a falcon’s and a mouth that sank down at the corners into a perpetual look of displeasure. He’d worked on the lakes since the 1930s—since the Great Depression. He’d always been a deckhand and would always be a deckhand, even in heaven. He trained his eyes on those blocks of paint that were starting to fade and scab, and he attacked them with amazing ferocity. The important thing was to chip away the old paint on the deck of the Pendleton so that the deckhands could give the ship a fresh new coat of paint to protect it from the unceasing elements. Paul sometimes wondered how much paint the Pendleton absorbed in a year. It must have been hundreds of buckets—maybe even thousands! He wondered if Ernie were married. It was impossible to know. Ernie almost never talked.

            Frank Bruno was the bosun—their boss. Frank’s skin was ridged and soil-brown and beaten into submission by the sun and the rain and the snow. His belly was large and firm, his arms thick and beefy. On the second day after they left Gary on their way to Duluth, the men had been painting a portion of the deck with the distinctive red-brown color of the U.S. Steel fleet. Frank had stared down at Paul as he applied the paint with the care and precision that his father had taught him. “Nice work,” Frank had finally said, “but not much of it. You ain’t Picasso or Rembrandt. Let’s pick up the pace!” Paul had gotten the message.

            One night, Larry, Buzz, Ernie, and he played poker. One of Paul’s suitcases served as the table on which they played. The game moved rapidly. If Paul was slow to state his bet, the three older men yelled at him to hurry the hell up! Larry and Buzz each had a small flask of whiskey that they sucked on, even though alcohol was strictly prohibited on board and was cause for immediate termination if it came to the attention of one of the officers. Larry and Ernie smoked, and soon the smoke formed a thick, claustrophobic cloud. Buzz and Paul coughed and waved the smoke out of their faces. The three men played hurriedly, obsessively, desperately.

            The ante was a dollar. As the evening unrolled, Buzz won and Larry lost. After a couple of hours, Buzz was up a hundred dollars or more, and Larry was down the same amount. With each losing hand, Larry groaned. He cursed his cards. He looked at Paul’s small pile of winnings—about twenty bucks. He shook his head at how a dumb, stupid, naïve college kid could be outplaying him.

When it was Larry’s deal, he used his good right hand and his malformed left hand to shuffle dexterously and deal rapidly. He smoked Camel after Camel. Unfiltered. He wiped the sweat that rolled down his forehead like drops of acid. “Crap!” he exclaimed after losing yet another hand. He slammed his cards down on the suitcase. He looked at the others, his eyes yellow.

            By the third hour of the game, the atmosphere turned poisonous. Larry and Buzz were on the verge of unruly drunkeness. The cloud of cigarette smoke hung over the four of them like a stink bomb. After each loss, Larry threw down his cards. Beads of sweat dripped into his eyes. Ernie said they should quit. Larry said, “No goddam way, not till I get my money back!”

            After one more loss, Larry slammed his cards on the suitcase so hard that it made Paul jump. Larry looked at the neat pile of singles and fives and tens gathered like succulent sheep in front of Buzz. He stared at Buzz with evil eyes. Suddenly he shouted at Buzz, “Yer cheatin’! Yer dealin’ from the bottom!”       

“I’m not cheating, and you’re drunk out of your mind!” Buzz said. Paul could see Buzz tighten his fists.

“Yera bastard!” Larry shouted. Suddenly he reached out and grasped the front of Buzz’s shirt. “Give me my goddam money back!”

“Shove it up your ass!” Buzz said. He squirmed out of Larry’s grasp and pulled his fist back and glared at Larry. “You’re so damn drunk you don’t know what you’re saying.”

Larry got up and started to lunge at Buzz.

Ernie shot out his arm and pushed Larry back into his chair. He shoved his face up close to Larry’s and said in a low voice, “He ain’t cheating. The fact is–you’re drunk! Get ahold of yourself, for God’s sake!” Larry stared through the prism of alcohol at Ernie. Paul could see that he was afraid of Ernie. Larry turned away from Ernie and stared at the bunk next to where he was sitting. Ernie said,  “Go out on deck and cool off for God’s sake.” He looked at Buzz and Paul. “This game is officially over.”

Buzz shook his head and loosened up his fists. “What a jerk,” he murmured.

Larry tottered out of the cabin and slammed the door. “He’ll cool off,” Ernie said. “I better go out there and make sure he don’t fall overboard or some damn thing.”

The next day, the deckhands were painting. They were always painting. Larry and Buzz refused to work together. After one day of their refusal to work together, Frank came into the deckhands’ cabin and motioned to both of them to follow him. After about half an hour, they both returned. For the rest of the evening, they didn’t look at each other. They didn’t talk to each other. Larry slammed his curtain shut and read his dirty books. Buzz rambled out on deck and smoked and stared at the encroaching nightfall.

The next day, Frank told Larry and Buzz to work together on painting the smokestack. Larry held the ladder while Buzz climbed up and painted. They didn’t exchange a word. Not a word. But gradually they got the job done—painted the entire lower half of the smokestack until it gleamed under the sun. They did the job, all for the care and feeding of the Pendleton.

One night, soon after the poker game, Paul saw Buzz alone out on deck. The sun was sinking in a blaze of glory toward the horizon in the west and lighting up the sky with bands of purple and red and orange that streamed across the sky. Buzz leaned against the cable that ran the length of the ship. Paul walked up to him. Buzz nodded at the sinking sun and the blazing sky and said, “She’s a beauty, isn’t she?”

They leaned together on the cable, each with one leg up on the bottom cable. Buzz turned to Paul and surreptitiously slipped a flask out of his front pocket and offered it to him. “Here,” he said. “Have a snort.” As furtively as possible, Paul put the flask to his lips and drank. The whiskey burned its way down his throat and threw flames into his belly. He coughed. He looked at Buzz and said, “Larry sure was a jerk that night—the poker night.”

Buzz snaked a snort of his own out of the flask and looked at the blazing orange and red ribbons that dragooned across the sky. “Oh,” he said, “these things happen. He just had too much to drink. He’s not a bad guy. Frank did the right thing to make us work together after that happened. You can’t let things like that fester. It’s not good for the sake of the ship if you let things fester like that. That’s what makes Frank a good boss. He knows what he’s doing.”

Paul looked at Buzz. He envied Buzz’s self-assurance, his air that he knew exactly what was what. Buzz looked at Paul and said, “Kid, you’re coming along, you know. You probably don’t even know it, but you’ve learned a lot of stuff out here that’ll do you good.” Paul knew it was true. He’d been on the Pendleton for a month now, and he’d started to absorb the ways of the ship. It was more than painting or handling cables. It was learning secrets about the way things worked, the ways people worked. He’d learned to take soundings, or measure the amount of water in the tanks of the ship. He’d learned to handle the thick, heavy hoses efficiently when they were cleaning the hold after the Hulett shovels at Gary had scooped up the iron ore and transported it to the steel mills. “I hated it the first few weeks,” Paul said, “but now I kind of like it. I like Frank and Ernie. I’ve even gotten used to Larry.”

“Him and his dirty books,” Buzz said with a chuckle. He shook his head. “You know, a guy like that–with that hand of his, you know–he’s done all right. He’s had to deal with a lot of stuff in his life. That night of the poker, I was ready to knock him on his ass. That was wrong. I lost my cool, mostly because I had a little too much out of this here flask. I lost my cool, and I shouldn’t have done that. I was mad at myself after that. That is the big thing they drive into you when you first get in the Marines—don’t lose your cool.”

Buzz paused. “I don’t exactly feel sorry for the man. Another thing I learned in the Marines is that it doesn’t do any good to feel sorry for other people. But I know it’s been tough for him over the years. You’ll notice that he doesn’t have too many buddies out here on this boat.” He paused. “That’s what I’ve noticed out here,” he continued. “A lot of these sailors—they don’t really have buddies, even though they work and live together all the time.”

“I noticed that, too,” Paul said. He paused and then asked, “Are you going to stay on the boats?”

“Hell no. I’m saving every nickel I can out here. I’ve got the G.I. Bill, so the government will pay for me to go to school. I’m going to go to the University of Minnesota, and I’m going to major in business. And then I’m going to start a business of some kind. I don’t know what it’ll be, but I know that’s what I’ll do. I was only eighteen when I signed up for the Marines, and the only thing I wanted was to get away from home and make something of myself. I didn’t have a plan when I went into the Marines. But gradually I learned. I learned that I’m not especially in love with taking orders. I want to run things. You know, I could start a painting business or something about computers—they’re going to be big. But whatever it is, I’m gonna learn everything I can about running a business. I’m gonna be like a sponge.”

Paul stared at Buzz. He’d never heard anyone be so definite, so confident. Buzz’s dream was like a tree in a forest that you could wrap your arms around.  The dream surrounded Buzz and somehow made him more real. Paul stared at Buzz and felt himself so unformed, so directionless.

“So what do you think about that, eh?” Buzz grinned. “I’m a man with a plan. And if that doesn’t turn out–well, I’ll think of something else to do!” They laughed together and took swigs from Buzz’s handy flask and threw their laughs overboard into the surrounding waters.

That evening, after supper, Paul walked onto the deck of the Pendleton. To the east, he could see, miles away, a stretch of sand, yellow-white against the still-blue sky. This, he would later learn, was Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan. The dunes were 300 feet high, but from this distance of many miles, it was a tiny strip. The Pendleton moved inexorably north, and the dune slowly slipped into the distance. It had been there, and now it was disappearing. The crew was being propelled forward, and in the meantime, the earth was spinning on its axis.

            The next morning, Frank took Paul aside and said he wanted to talk to him before they started work that day. Paul stared at Frank, who wore the years in deep crevasses that crawled across his face. Frank’s skin had absorbed the rays of the sun and transmogrified them into thick, tough leather. Behind Frank’s rough and weathered exterior, though, his eyes were steady. He looked at Paul and said, “Young feller, do you have a radio?”

            “Yes, sir.”

            “Does it get a strong signal?”

            Paul nodded.

            “Well, every morning, I want you to turn on that radio and get the sporting news and the regular news, and I want you to pour a cup of fresh coffee and bring it to me and give me as good a rundown on the day’s news as you can.” This would mean carrying Frank’s coffee the length of the ship to Frank’s cabin toward the bow. “Do you think you can handle that, young feller?”

            Paul nodded. The next morning, he did as Frank had asked. He listened to the radio, ate breakfast, poured a cup of coffee for Frank, transported it to him.

            When Paul opened the door to Frank’s cabin, it was like entering a home away from home. Frank had curtains over the porthole that looked out onto Lake Michigan. He had a matching bedspread. On his dresser stood neatly arranged photographs of a woman and a young man and young woman—Frank’s wife and children, Paul assumed. Frank was sitting in an easy chair in the corner of the cabin when Paul entered. He handed Frank the cup of coffee. Frank said, “Thank you, young feller. Set yourself down.” He sat on a metal chair in front of Frank’s small desk. “So do you like it out here on the lakes?” Frank asked.

            “I hated it at first. It was so confusing–so overwhelming.”

            “That’s good. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.” Frank paused. “I saw you looking at those pictures. Those are my wife, Margaret, and my two children, Frank Jr., and Annette.” He looked at Paul. “Now tell me about the baseball yesterday.” Paul knew that Frank was from Minnesota, so he reported that the Twins had beaten the White Sox.

            Frank said, “Well, that’s all fine and good. The Twins are loaded. They have Killebrew and Allison—all these strong guys who can hit the ball a mile. But can they turn a double play? Winning—it’s all in the details. You know what I like about baseball, young feller? It’s pointless. That’s the beauty of it! You have all these wonderful athletes, and you have the beautiful shape of the baseball diamond. It has a magical geometry. And there’s no point to it all! If you win, you don’t inherit a million dollars. If you lose, the world don’t come to an end. There’s no point to it! That’s what makes it beautiful!”

            Frank paused for a moment and looked closely at Paul. “You know,” he said, “I seen something in you. Yer gonna be a good worker, but yer mind wanders. You need to learn to keep yer head in the game, like a ballplayer needs to learn to do.” Paul nodded. He knew what Frank meant. Frank said. “Keep yer eyes open. Yer workin’ on the most precious bodies of water on the earth—the Great Lakes. After yer watch, take a moment to step out on deck and admire their beauty.” He mused for a moment. “And another thing. Yer gonna be criticized out here. I’m gonna criticize you. But don’t take it to heart. We’re just tryin’ to make you better at yer job. It’s all about makin’ the ship work better and takin’ care of the ship so she is seaworthy for a long time far into the future.”

            Frank stared at Paul. “Cuz you see, it’s us against the elements out here. The elements are all tryin’ and strainin’ to destroy this here ship. During a storm—and yer sure to encounter one out here sooner or later—well, I believe in God, but during one of the fearsome storms that come up, especially on Lake Superior, God ain’t gonna protect us, that’s for sure. We gotta do it ourselves. Yer on yer own out here during a storm. So like I said, you gotta keep yer head in the game.” He paused. “Now, do you have any questions for me?”

            “Yes, sir,” Paul said. “How long have you been sailing out here on the lakes?”

            “Well, I started when I was nineteen years old. I was just out of high school. But then there was World War II, and I served in the U.S. Navy for the duration. I got out of the service in 1946, and I decided to go back on the lake steamers, and I been here ever since. Twenty-two, twenty-three years, I guess, if you add it all up.” He paused. “Well, listen,” he said. “I’m all talked out for one day. So let’s get out there and paint this goddam tub!”

More weeks passed, and then it was Paul’s last trip, at the end of which he would leave the Pendleton and return to school. They had left Duluth behind and were well into Lake Superior when Frank called the deckhands together and said, “Bad weather report. It’s gonna blow.” To the northeast, the clouds were accumulating and obliterating the sun, and the waves were beginning to rise up in anger. Frank had warned Paul that he would experience a good blow at least once before he left the Pendleton, and this was going to be it.

Normally, when the deckhands tightened the battens that held the hatches in place, they tightened only every other one. But now the four of them went back on deck and secured every batten to make sure that the hatches didn’t slide out of place. That was the greatest danger to the ship–that the terrible forces of the storm would move the hatches and allow water into the hold.

            They finished securing the battens. Frank told them to clear any coiled ropes, stray chippers, or paint brushes off the deck. The waves began to leap at the ship, and Paul could feel the vessel start to rock back and forth. Frank told Paul to go to the deckhands’ cabin and make sure nothing was left loose. Paul grabbed his radio and some other paraphernalia off the dresser and shoved it into one of the drawers. He removed toothpaste and toothbrushes and other toiletries from the head and shoved them into the drawers of the dresser. He closed and secured the porthole.

            He climbed into his bunk. He could hear the gathering anger of the lake, feel the Pendleton rocking back and forth, back and forth. He lay in his bunk, waiting, while the other three more experienced deckhands helped Frank secure anything else on the ship that needed securing. He heard the roar of the waves and the attack of lightning and thunder and the scream of the wind as it pelted the Pendleton. The Pendleton was rolling—five degrees, then ten degrees–tipping inexorably from side to side. He felt bile began to build in his stomach. The other deckhands came in and stripped off their rain gear and retreated to their bunks. Buzz said, “It‘s gonna be hell out there!”

            The bile gathered in his belly. He closed his eyes and felt the rolling of the ship and his bunk rising and falling like a chaotic baby’s carriage. He felt the acidic bile churning in his lower intestine. “Oh, my God,” he whimpered. He clutched his pillow as he felt the ship roll back and forth. He felt the bile moving toward his esophagus. “Oh my God, oh my God,” he moaned. The wind attacked the vessel, and the waves rolled the Pendleton back and forth, back and forth, and the bile worked its way up through his esophagus. He clamped his eyes shut and grasped the metal undergirding of his bunk bed. He felt the bile enter his throat as the ship careened back and forth.

Suddenly he catapulted himself out of the bunk and half-raced and half-crawled to the head as he felt himself thrown back and forth by the force of the rolling ship. He slammed open the toilet and let loose, coughing, sputtering. He wiped his mouth, tasted the horrendous acidic taste, stood up just enough to be able to look into the mirror. He was ghostly pale—alabaster white—as white as a corpse. Frank had been right—there was no God during a storm on Lake Superior.

            He half-ran, half-fell back into his bunk. At the same time, Buzz leaped out of his bunk and opened up the porthole just enough to see out. Over Buzz’s shoulder, Paul could see the angry, roiling waves of Lake Superior. The porthole descended as the Pendleton rolled deeper toward the waters. The waves were angry, attacking. Paul knew that the waves were crashing and washing over the bow of the ship. He got up. Ernie screamed at him, “Get back into yer bunk right away!” Ernie yelled at Buzz, “Close that goddam porthole, for Christ’s sake!” Buzz slammed it shut.

            Back in his bunk, Paul was exhausted. He picked the bits from around his mouth and wiped them away with the bandanna in his rear pocket. The ship continued to roll. Tears sprouted in his eyes. Would this never end? He heard the angry gods pummel the Pendleton, slamming it, rocking it back and forth, attacking the steel hull. The gods were angry that the Pendleton had ventured into their territory. They were relentless and without mercy. Poseidon roiled the waves with his mighty hands and tossed the waves over the ship. Would the ship crack in two? Paul sank into fear and felt the bile build up once more in his belly. It was the worst moment of his entire life, and it was never-ending. He staggered to the head again, released again, looked again at his face in the mirror. It was dead-white. Tears crept down his cheeks. He stumbled back to his bunk, clutched his pillow, fought against the bile. There was nothing left in his belly.

            Gradually, he felt the Pendleton roll a little less, the force of the waves begin to abate, the howl of the wind grow a little less fierce. He clutched his pillow. Disregarding what Ernie had said, Buzz leaped out of his bunk and opened the porthole a crack and looked out onto the angry lake. It was marginally less angry. The rolling was less steep, less sickening. A touch of light punctuated the clouds. The ship kept rolling, but less severely. Paul clutched his pillow, fought the bile building up in his belly yet again. He turned away so that the others would not see him huddling in his bunk. He didn’t want them to see him. He sniffled and clutched his pillow. The ship rolled, but not so severely. The wind roared outside, but less angrily. Poseidon had settled down. He wasn’t so angry any more. The others arose from their bunks.

Buzz grabbed Paul. “The worst is over,” he said. “Put your rain gear on. Let’s see what the damage is.” They walked down the interior hallway of the aft cabin to the hatch that led out onto the deck. The ship still rolled, but now that Paul was on his feet, the rolling didn’t seem to affect him so much. Lake Superior was settling down, the rolling less pronounced. They looked out, and they could see the bow of the Pendleton cut its way through the thick, gray waves. The Pendleton battled its way forward, and it was winning. The hatches protecting the hold had not budged. The battens had stayed secure. The work they had done was good. Water had not seeped into the hold. Buzz put his hand on Paul’s shoulder and said, “Fun, eh?”

Larry patted Paul on the shoulder and said, “Look at it this way, kid. You lost five ugly pounds.” Paul managed a pathetic chuckle.

As the lake settled down, Paul retreated to the deckhands’ cabin, threw himself onto his bunk. Almost immediately, he fell asleep. He slept through the night as the Pendleton made it way to the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie.

The next morning, Buzz grabbed Paul’s big toe and shook it until he woke up. “Time to go to work!” he said. “We’ll be going through the Soo pretty quick.” They walked out onto the deck, and Frank propelled Buzz and him onto the dock on the bosun’s chair. They threw the eye of each cable over a mooring and watched as the ship was slowly lowered to bring it to the level of St. Marys River, which would lead into Lake Huron.

Overlooking the locks was an observation deck, filled with spectators. Paul regarded them. He remembered when he had made his first trip through the locks, and he had desperately wished that he’d been among the spectators watching the men on the Pendleton do their work. In three months, things had changed. He was part of the crew of the Pendleton. He felt apart from those spectators. The world of the Pendleton had absorbed him in those three months. He was an integral part of the ship. He knew that in two more days, he would be leaving the ship, and he felt bittersweet. The things that had happened, the men he had lived with and worked with for three months—they had become part of who he was. He felt himself different in some way that he could not articulate but that felt as real and solid as the deck of the Pendleton. This thing—sailing—had gotten into his bones in some mysterious way. The ways of the ship had infiltrated his psyche. He felt different from the spectators now–part of a separate world that had slowly accepted him and changed him. He’d become part of something larger than himself—the mission to care for the Pendleton and preserve and protect it.

Two days later, the Pendleton drew near Gary, where the giant Hulett shovels would dig the iron ore out of the bowels of the ship and dump it into railroad cars that would transport the ore to the insatiable steel mills. He ate his breakfast and, for the last time, transported a cup of coffee to Frank. Frank was waiting for me. He said, “So, it’s your last day on the Pendleton. You’re abandoning us to our fates, eh?” Frank grinned at Paul. Paul happened to look at the three photographs on Frank’s dresser. “Do you remember their names?” Frank asked.

“Yes, sir,” Paul answered. “Margaret, your wife. Your daughter, Annette. Your son, Frank Jr. What do your kids do now, Frank?”

“Oh, they have their own lives, as kids have a habit of doing. Annette is married and has two children, and she teaches third grade in a small town in western Minnesota. Frank, Jr., works for an engineering firm in Minneapolis.” Frank lifted himself from his easy chair and walked over to the dresser and picked up each photograph and looked at it. The crevasses that crisscrossed his face looked deeper than ever, and his eyes were hooded by the accumulated years. He looked at Paul and shook his head ever so slightly. He said, “I missed things when they were growing up. I made it to their graduations and weddings and all the important stuff. But being out here, I missed the day-to-day stuff—wiping their noses, playing ball, that kind of thing. Margaret basically raised them.” Paul looked at Frank—at the deep lines in his leathery skin and the aging eyes. “In many ways, it’s a good life,” Frank murmured. He paused. “But it can be a lonely life.”

For the last time, Paul rode the Pendleton into Gary. Each of the men he had worked with that summer—Frank and Buzz and Larry and Ernie—shook his hand and wished him the best. Larry said, “You done a good job this summer, kid.”  Paul felt more strongly than he had ever felt that something bound him to each of these four men.

He descended the ladder and stood on the dock and looked up at the enormous Hulett shovels unload ore from the Pendleton. The operator, sitting in a cab above the shovel, catapulted the shovel forward on a track until the shovel stood directly over one of the open hatches. He released the shovel, sent it plunging into the hold, and Paul heard the shovel close, grasping hundreds of pounds of iron ore. The operator raised the shovel and drove backwards and released the ore into a waiting freight car. Paul turned, and the cab was waiting to carry him into Gary and the South Shore Railroad station, where he would catch a train for Chicago. As he rode in the cab through the fantastic chaos of the steel mill, the memories of the summer burned into him–memories so powerful that they sank into his bones and muscles and pounded through his veins.


Christopher Johnson is a writer based in the Chicago area. He’s done a lot of different stuff in his life. He has been a merchant seaman, a high school English teacher, a corporate communications writer, a textbook editor, an educational consultant, and a freelance writer. He’s published short stories, articles, and essays in The Progressive, Snowy Egret, Earth Island Journal, Chicago Wilderness, American Forests, Chicago Life, Across the Margin, Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Literary Yard, Scarlet Leaf Review, Spillwords Press, Fiction on the Web, Sweet Tree Review, and other journals and magazines. In 2006, the University of New Hampshire Press published his first book, This Grand and Magnificent Place: The Wilderness Heritage of the White Mountains. His second book, which he co-authored with a prominent New Hampshire forester named David Govatski, was Forests for the People: The Story of America’s Eastern National Forests, published by Island Press in 2013.

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