by Donald F. Jones
This second weekend of November is a beautiful one here in the Great Lakes region. Although we've already had a couple of frosts on the ground and most of the leaves have fallen from the trees, we''ve had a beautiful autumn, with sunny, bright blue skies and temperatures flirting with 65°F / 18°C. The calm waters of the lakes are reflecting the sapphire blue of the clear skies, and the beaches are still full of walkers and fishermen.
But exactly 39 years ago this weekend
....it was a very different story...
The Edmund Fitzgerald was the largest ship on the Great Lakes when she was launched. 729 ft / 222 m long and 75 ft / 23 m wide, she had a propeller 20 ft / 6 m in diameter.
15,000 people had attended her launch in that summer of 1958, but the superstitious among the attendees were troubled. The tradition of christening a ship by breaking a champagne bottle on her bow took three swings, and the launch was further delayed when the shipyard workers couldn't remove the keel blocks. When she finally slid into the waters of the Detroit River, she crashed into a dock on the opposite shore.
On November 8th, 1975, a winter storm was brewing in the Great Plains and moving NE toward the Great Lakes. The next afternoon the National Weather Service issued a gale warning for Lake Superior and that evening upgraded it to a winter storm warning.
The Edmund Fitzgerald had left Superior, Wisconsin on the 9th, loaded with 26,00 tons of taconite. Late that night, with conditions deteriorating rapidly, the captains of the Fitz and the Arthur M Anderson several miles behind her decided to change course to seek the shelter of the Canadian coastline and eventually the protection of Whitefish Bay.
As conditions worsened, screaming winds of hurricane force topped 72 mph / 115 kph and monstrous waves reached as high as the top of the ship...35 ft / 10 m. Captain McSorley radioed that the Fitz "had a bad list, had lost both radars, and was taking heavy seas over the deck" in one of the worst seas he had ever been in. McSorely was a seasoned sailor of the Great Lakes with 44 years of experience. At 7pm, the Anderson had the Fitz on her radar and radioed the Fitz to ask how they were doing, and McSorley responded "We are holding our own." Minutes later the Fitzgerald suddenly and completely disappeared from Anderson's radar.
"According to a legend of the Chippewa tribe, the lake they once called Gitche Gumee 'never gives up her dead.'" (Great Lakes: The Cruelest Month, James R. Gaines with Jon Lowell in Detroit, ©1975 Newsweek Magazine)
.....Thus began the Newsweek article in the issue of November 24, 1975.
That lead and the news magazine's dry story inspired Gordon Lightfoot to write one of the greatest "story songs" ever.
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
of the big lake they called "Gitche Gumee."
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
when the skies of November turn gloomy.
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty,
that good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
when the "Gales of November" came early.
The ship was the pride of the American side
coming back from some mill in Wisconsin.
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
with a crew and good captain well seasoned,
concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
when they left fully loaded for Cleveland.
And later that night when the ship's bell rang,
could it be the north wind they'd been feelin'?
The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
and a wave broke over the railing.
And ev'ry man knew, as the captain did too
'twas the witch of November come stealin'.
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
when the Gales of November came slashin'.
When afternoon came it was freezin' rain
in the face of a hurricane west wind.
When suppertime came the old cook came on deck sayin'.
"Fellas, it's too rough t'feed ya."
At seven P.M. a main hatchway caved in; he said,
"Fellas, it's bin good t'know ya!"
The captain wired in he had water comin' in
and the good ship and crew was in peril.
And later that night when 'is lights went outta sight
came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Does any one know where the love of God goes
when the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay
if they'd put fifteen more miles behind 'er.
They might have split up or they might have capsized;
they may have broke deep and took water.
And all that remains is the faces and the names
of the wives and the sons and the daughters.
Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
in the rooms of her ice-water mansion.
Old Michigan steams like a young man's dreams;
the islands and bays are for sportsmen.
And farther below Lake Ontario
takes in what Lake Erie can send her,
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
with the Gales of November remembered.
In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed,
in the "Maritime Sailors' Cathedral."
The church bell chimed 'til it rang twenty-nine times
for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
of the big lake they call "Gitche Gumee."
"Superior," they said, "never gives up her dead
when the gales of November come early."
©1976 by Gordon Lightfoot
Captain McSorley and half of the crew were residents of Ohio, 4 of them from here in the county I live in.
The ship was to be docked for the winter in Cleveland.
They were headed home.
Long ago, in an old stone chapel far, far, .....no wait, it stands right over there on the BWU campus, about 5 blocks from where I sit..... a lonely bearded flooring guy married a beautiful young lady. One of that lady’s charms, among many, was her family...a huge Irish-Catholic throng based primarily in the western suburbs of Cleveland. In the three years we dated, I got to know well her mom & dad, her three sisters and three brothers and their big dumb Afghan hound, and even many of their neighbors. And it wasn’t long before I was invited to meet Gramma K, the matriarch of the family.
Gramma K was pure Irish to the core, a little old lady with a strong jaw and twinkling eyes, who had a photo of the Pope over the couch, an old picture of President Kennedy (“The bloody philanderer!”) and his wife Jackie (“Ahh the poor thing!”) still hanging over the tv, and the lilting brogue of Westport, County Mayo, that was so pleasing to American ears.
Gramma had come to America as a very young lady through Ellis Island during the depression, and somehow ended up in Cleveland, working as a maid on the John D Rockefeller estate called Forest Hill, 700 rolling and green acres with a sweeping view of Cleveland and Lake Erie, in East Cleveland and Cleveland Heights. There she met a young man, Mr Rockefeller's chauffeur, who had also recently emmigrated to the States from Ireland, and to make a long story short, they eventually married.
Gramma and Grandpa K had seven children, and most of those also had housefulls of kids. One of those is who surely caught my eye.
Not long after we started dating, we were invited over to Gramma’s for tea. When we got there, along with Gram at the table were 4 or 5 aunts...apparently they were the “investigating committee” brought in to check me out. I was offered tea -- I come from a family of coffee drinkers, we didn’t have tea in our house growing up, I don’t like tea -- but I took a cup. As everyone stared, I took a nice long gulp and tried not to wince. There was a moment of silence, and one finally said, “You drink it black??”
Much later in the evening, after one of the aunts made us both blush by proclaiming about M that “she’s surely a fertile one, she is”, Gramma offered me a beer. Being a hot summer evening, I accepted, and she reached down to the little space between the fridge and the wall, and produced a warm bottle of beer from the floor. The aunts must have seen my face, because after the laughing stopped, Gramma told me that that was the way it was drunk in the old country when she was a girl, because there was no refrigeration. She told me that her daddy would send her into town with an empty metal bucket to take to the pub to be filled with beer, which she then carried back home, where it sat on the table. To this day, many of the men in that family drink their beer warm, but forever after, Gramma always kept one bottle of beer hidden away in the far back of the fridge just for when I’d pop in to say hello, and she’d always produce it with a great flourish and a huge laugh.
The extended family was a grand group. Every married couple had multiple children of their own, many enough to field a freckle-faced softball team, and Christmas Eve and the annual summer family picnic drew chattering hordes of aunts & uncles, nieces and nephews, cousins by the dozens, sisters and brothers and babies and nuns and now & then a priest or two. Attendance could easily top 100. Get there early, or park many blocks away.
And I was enthusiastically welcomed into this grand family with open arms and hugs by the score. Everybody called me Jonesy, and the kids called me Uncle Jonesy, one niece mispronouncing it as Apple Jonesy. (On our wedding day, at the back of the chapel as the organ started the processional, moments away from becoming my father-in-law, her dad turned to me and whispered, “Hey Jonesy....What the hell IS your first name?”)
And they wore their Irish heritage out in the open. I loved everything about it...the music, the accents, the slang, the history, the stories, the weddings, the legends. I felt a connection to these people and their heritage. I mined Gramma for her stories. I attended Celtic festivals and sought out Irish bands.
And then, a shock.
About ten years ago, I discovered that I had been adopted. As you would imagine, it took a while to get used to the idea...the magnitude of it, but after a few months of thinking and reading and some rather necessary counseling, I joined Adoption Network Cleveland, a support group that works with adoptees, birth parents, and those wishing to adopt. I was curious as to where and who I came from, and why. With ANC's assistance and encouragement, we spent several months searching, and finally came up with results. (Long story, but for another time.) One important bit of info concerned my actual heritage. Over the years, I had been told I was Slovenian on my Dad’s side, German on my Mom’s, and at times Welsh because, well, a famous singer of the time was Welsh.... no, not Grace Jones.....Tom Jones.
But my original birth certificate, and the documentation I got from the adoption agency that had handled my case a half-century earlier, revealed that I was actually Irish on my birth-mother’s side, and English and American Indian (possibly Cherokee) on my birth-father’s side.
Suddenly it all connected! I loved all things Irish because... well, I was Irish! And it so happens I've always had an interest in the English and Native Americans as well.
I cherish my Irish heritage. You can find me at the huge Dublin Irish Festival near Columbus Ohio almost every August. 100,000+ people spread across over 30 acres of shady rolling parkland, enjoying Irish food and drink, and Celtic dance and music of every type at eight stages. I love it.
I come from a very small family, and have only a few living relatives left. Unfortunately, I lost most of my “other” family in the divorce and the aftermath. I tried not to, but I guess it was sort of inevitable. I miss the weddings, the picnics, the birthdays, Christmas Eve, the babies, even the wakes. After Gramma K died, a lot of the get-togethers began to fade, and some ended. Many of the younger families have scattered to other states, some have also, like us, divorced, and some of the older ones have died. I saw the gang twice shortly after the divorce 7+ years ago.... I was invited to the 75th birthday celebration of an uncle, and months later I attended the funeral of one of everyone’s favorite aunts. In spite of the sadness of that occasion, it was so moving to be greeted and embraced by so many of the people who had accepted me into that huge family 25 years earlier.
So I'm a "rescue". And it's a good thing. The original birth records indicate that I came into the world in rather grim circumstances, and the fact that the Joneses - My REAL Mom & Dad - picked me out of a crowded orphanage, made a bigger difference in my life than anything that has - or could ever - happen since. Everything that I am has rippled out from that very moment.
St Patrick’s Day is special to me, now more than ever. Not for the parade, or the green beer, or the corned beef and cabbage. It’s important to me because it’s an annual and personal celebration of the connection between me and my heritage. A heritage I always wished I had, and which I discovered that I had all along.
A grand lady.
Gramma K at her 75th birthday party, 1994.
This is the time of year I dread, musically speaking. I'm already pretty tired of most Christmas music after all these decades anyway, and it seems like you can't ever get away from it anymore. Starting sometime on the afternoon of Thanksgiving, every music station on the radio dial is popping one in about every 10 minutes...whether it's classic rock, oldies, country, urban, or foreign language. On non-music stations, it plays in the background of every commercial. Christmas music is playing throughout the grocery store, the drug store, the card shop, the tire shop, and the building supplies store. It's playing in the restroom at the restaurant, coming right out of the pumps at the gas station, and blaring from the loudspeakers high on the light poles at the auto dealer. (Hint: Hearing "Santa Baby" for the sixth time today from the car lot across the street doesn't actually give me the urge to spontaneously buy a new ride. True story.)
There are a few songs I still don't mind hearing (maybe three or four times after December 10th lol), but I'm pretty ambivalent about most of them, I dislike quite of few of them, and I have a simmering hatred of one.
I could probably still live a satisfying life if I didn't hear "Twelve Days of Christmas" ever again. Or "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" by Springsteen. Or "Santa Baby" by anybody. Either one of John Lennon's holiday disasters makes me need a barf bag...supersized. Mannheim Steamroller is running out of steam. "Grandma/Reindeer" & "Hippopotamus/Christmas" should be punishable by hard prison time. The "Christmas Shoes" can go "Jingle Bell Rock"in Around The Christmas Tree" at somebody else's "Home for the Holidays."
But the worst... the most miserable... the song that defined "drone" long before it meant an aircraft... the song that seems to have only a few notes, all of them wrong... the song that makes no kind of no sense of no kind... the song that has caused war, famine, pestilence, and plagues for untold centuries back through the corridors of time to even before the dinosaurs... the song that makes aliens from other galaxies think that it would be better to just annihilate us and put us out of our obvious misery... the song known in some remote, yet-undiscovered tribes as The Suicide Song...... "The Little Drummer Boy."
I almost tried to like the new version out this year by Pentatonix--beautiful harmonies, nice looking guys, gorgeous young lady--but I got over it well before the one minute mark. This song is too horrible to even use to torture our worst enemies. I mean, we do claim to be civilized, don't we?. Oh well, they seemed like good kids. I hope they can recover from this.
What's your least favorite song of the season?
Today is Father’s Day. I can’t believe this, but Dad died 16 years ago this spring. He wasn’t ready to leave us yet, but 60 years of smoking two packs @ day, while working with products containing asbestos, as well as running into burning, smoky buildings and breathing who-knows-what, outran him to the finish line.
Dad was a slightly built 5’10, and I doubt if he ever weighed more than 140 lbs, but he was one of the strongest guys I knew. He was on the ship’s boxing team while serving aboard the battleship USS Wisconsin during WWII, and after the war, he played baseball on local tavern teams a few nights a week in the summer, and bowled a few nights a week the rest of the year. He continued to bowl well into his 60s, and was known for his strange and wild throw of the ball, which involved a lot of flailing, plus the language the sailor never forgot.
That strange style may have been enhanced in part by the quantities of alcohol he could ingest. He drank more beer than he should have, and I suppose we could have called him an alcoholic at many points in his life. Not to his face though. That would not have ended well. HE never saw a problem with it.
The beer gave him an arrogant sense of courage sometimes. He’d often stop after a long hard dusty day at work for a couple of fishbowls at one of his favorite pubs (he had several, depending on where he’d been working... The Coral Reef if the job had been to the east, Sportsman’s Tavern if he’d been working to the south, Gig & Ed’s if he was coming in from the west, his VFW post if he was up toward the city.) [A fishbowl was a huge stemmed mug that probably held at least 24 oz of beer – “Don’t worry, I’m just having a few...”]. One hot afternoon in the late 1960s he was on his way home after cooling down his pipes, when suddenly someone opened the car door and jumped into the passenger seat, pointed a gun at his head, and told him to hit the gas. He did...but only for a couple of blocks. While still driving, he suddenly turned and knocked the gun out of the guy’s hand into the back of the station wagon, reached over and slugged him in the jaw, locked up the brakes, and was duking it out with the guy in the front seat when the police, responding to the alarm, showed up and surrounded the car. Turns out the guy had just robbed a store at gunpoint, and bolted the scene and jumped into the first vehicle he saw passing by—Dad’s. The cops held Dad (now a suspected getaway driver) and the bad guy at gunpoint, cuffed them both, and hauled them off to jail. Everything was finally cleard up in a few hours by witnesses and even the amateurish perp, but the cops held Dad for a few more hours anyway because they figured he was still too drunk to be driving. But they did make him a few pots of coffee, and the told him he did good when they finally let him go home later in the evening.
Dad had trouble saying the word “love”. I never heard him say it to me or my sister, or even to my Mom. I don’t think I ever saw them hold hands. But his love was obvious in his actions, and after he retired and they moved far away and we didn’t see each other much anymore, he would write awkwardly in a Christmas or birthday card about how proud he was of me and his family. And around the holidays in late 1996, when he was already past the beginning of the end, enduring painful treatments that he said were as bad as the illness, I spent several days and nights with him in his hospital room, and as we talked about life, and our lives, the feeling of love was thick and almost tangible. We talked about things we never had before, some from long long ago, and I saw deep love in his tired eyes. More than once, he’d suddenly wake up in the middle of the night and ask, “You still here?” I’d quietly answer him that yeah, I was still there. He’d say “Ok, good...”, sigh, and drift back to sleep.
I still think about him every day. He started taking me to work with him during summer breaks when I was around 12, and by the time I graduated high school, I had a fully functioning career already in progress, and I’m still at it nearly a half century later. He kept me on the straight and narrow (I never picked up his smoking or drinking habits), and he taught me to never be afraid of honest hard work. He used to say, “If you have the time to do the job, you have the time to do it right. What you DON’T have time for is going back and fixing your mistakes.” He worked two jobs at least six days @ week so we could live in a nice home in a nice suburb and have nice things. And still he carved out time to be a Boy Scout leader, take care of the house and yard, and take us on a couple of great camping vacations around the US and Canada every summer. He helped me buy my first car by promising to pay for half of whatever car I wanted, but I had to save up for the entire other half, plus enough to pay for fuel and insurance. I only managed to save enough for half of a used, canary yellow ’65 Corvair that summer, but I was one of the only kids to have ANY car to start 11th grade.
I just looked through my albums, and I can’t find any pics of just him and me together. If pictures were to be taken, it was his camera and by God he was gonna be the one to take them so they’d be taken right. So he doesn’t appear in many photos.
Yeah, he had his vices and demons, but he was a hard worker, a craftsman at this trade, a great provider, and a damn good man. Still miss the guy.
Did a little off-roading on my bike this week. About a 15 minute pedal from home, I visited the site of an old railroad bridge which was abandoned in the early 1920s with the growing popularity of automobiles. On this quiet section of the Rocky River, I discovered a momma Canada goose, and I started taking some photos. At one point, she stood up revealing 4 or 5 big eggs. She gently moved them around with her beak for about 90 seconds or so, and then very very gently sat back down.
I stood and watched her for almost an hour, and she repeated the procedure about every 20 minutes or so. For a while, another goose, presumably the daddy, patrolled the water around the old abutments. I was probably about 15 feet from her, but she never seemed alarmed, and actually seemed to ignore me.
Looking toward the sunrise through my frosty front door this morning.
(That's his right foot on the rope. His right hand is above him out of the photo.
Orangutans have two opposable thumbs and two opposable big toes.)
-- at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo