It has been a strange weekend, fabulous, interesting, maudlin, magnificent and informative. Sometimes, even though you already know something you still need to have it explained to you. A tiger’s claw education: though we’d like to fault the tiger, we cannot in good conscience blame the swift and remorseless animal.
In 1925, a new ore ship was added to the Cleveland – Cliffs Iron Company line plying the Great Lakes hauling, coal, iron ore or grain. She was 618-feet long and 62-feet across. She carried the wealth of a nation and her nickname was “The ship that built Cleveland,” because of her frequent deliveries of iron ore to Cleveland steel mills. Her keel was laid in Ecorse, Michigan. And as I walked her decks I read from her nameplates. Johnson Winch Company, New York, New York; her electrical power supplied by a Caterpillar Diesel Engine, Chicago, Illinois mated to a General Electric generator, Cleveland, Ohio. She had the first automated boiler system on the Great Lakes supplied by Bailey controls of Cleveland, Ohio.
In 1941, the Mather led a flotilla of ships to Duluth Minnesota to break ice and return with a cargo of badly needed iron ore destined for America’s war plants. Her crew risked their lives in frozen dangerous waters because the country asked them to take the risk. Her crew of 30 had good jobs and a strong union to protect them.
The work was hard dirty and thankless, hot in the summer and frozen in the winter and the William G. Mather plied the Great Lakes for over fifty-five years. Her cooks serving the crew sit down meals on china plates. Meals served with salads and with pie with ice cream for desert. As I walked her decks it occurred to me that two generations of American men had lived their lives her decks. These workmen who made the 3:00AM deliveries in Detroit, Buffalo or Toledo.
She impressed me most with her Americanism; she was all American from stem to stern, American built, American owned and American sailed. She was stout and well constructed with a handmade sign scrawled on the door in the tool room with a magic marker. “Don’t mess up this tool room, OR ELSE.” I could see the grousing boiler chief writing this on the back of the door. Not a company bulletin or a TPS report but a message from an American to other Americans. As I left the Mather, I was somewhat sad, because she was wonderful and welcoming. Just think, there was work for a 600-foot ore freighter for fifty five years and now she was a museum, a relic for our children to try and understand an America which they would never, ever, ever, be able to fathom.
Eight-and-a-half tons of steel molded by American hands into a cargo ship. A ship built without a single foreign made part, every nut and bolt, every piece of her fabricated by American hands and installed with American workmanship.
We wandered past the plastic guitars outside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame headed for the USS Codfish, a gato class WWII submarine that is also a museum. This was a WWII high-tech weapon of war. She was the equivalent of today’s stealth bomber. She was loaded from stem to stern with high tech weaponry manufactured in places like Connecticut, New York and Philadelphia. She achieved what the German Kriegsmarine only dreamed of doing. She swept the seas of Japanese vessels.
As we followed the tour we entered the rear torpedo room and there sat a 90-year old veteran who had served as a motorman on the Codfish, and in his honor they cranked the ships engines. In less than five minutes and with just a few minor adjustments they started up the 70-year old Cleveland-built General Motors diesel engines. The thought of spending 74 days on a standard patrol inside a tiny iron box would drive me right over the edge. Yet this man did it, he was depth charged and he lost shipmates but he did what was expected of him.
The crew was served the best food in the Navy, because they deserved it. His ship was air conditioned because his government thought it necessary. He served his time aboard her right in the enemy’s backyard, facing death each day but she was an American ship, every bolt and every weld American and the only foreign label you can find aboard her are the flags of the enemy vessels she sank.
At the war’s conclusion, her sailors left the service eligible for a full college education, gratis, from a grateful nation. But was it that simple? The GI Bill was a jobs program. If all 12 million men under arms were to join the workforce at the same time we might have ended up back at 1932. Instead, government-offered education delaying their entry into the workforce by four years. These soldiers, sailors and airmen became chemists, engineers and doctors. They earned higher salaries and paid higher taxes and they didn’t complain because government had kept its bargain with its people. Those without degrees, worked in the steel mills, or they loaded the ore boats and worked the docks. They were fishermen or office workers who earned a decent living.
I had a lunch date with a very nice lady and for a blind date she was definitely all that and a slice of pie. Only, it very quickly became apparent that we were from different worlds. She was from the world of new cars and $25 lunches and I was from the world of food stamps and the broke ass poor. Several times she referred to my “lifestyle” and both times I corrected her. “This isn’t a life style,” I explained. “I didn’t ask for this.”
“Do you keep a home in Atlanta?” I was torn, as no man wants to meet a nice lady and explain, “I’m broke ass poor.” Our meeting ended soon thereafter, and I don’t blame her. She was looking for full stockings and presents under the tree, not some rough character from the wrong side of the tracks. We were as different as race horses and humming birds. Strange isn’t it, I could listen to her problems and empathize, but my problems only horrified her.
But I am the SS William G. Mather, I am an American. I am the USS Codfish and I can do any job I’m offered. Yet I am tied off to the dock and laid up as a curiosity. This isn’t a lifestyle, it is a punishment, from a government which no longer keeps its promises. It is purgatory from which there is no escape.
There was a time three years ago when this purgatory began when I just wanted to just curl up and die. A time when I thought this was all about me. Then I found my true calling, to explain this purgatory and this existence to anyone who will listen but more and more, there are two kinds of Americans. The Americans who are waiting for Santa Claus and the Americans who know Santa ain’t coming. From my experiences this weekend, I take great pride in my people and great pride in myself because no matter what, I won’t quit. I’ll continue until I die or until this plague is lifted from us. If that means I shall spend my days alone, I shall be alone.
If that means I’ll spend my days broke ass poor, I’ll be broke ass poor. Those of you who understand living the Santa less universe understand. Those of you who don’t understand, never will; some things are bigger than our egos or our feelings. Some things are bigger than our desires and even our lives. Some things need to be said, shouted from the rooftops, recorded for posterity and this is one of those events. The story of a people debased, impoverished and robbed. The story of children without a future and a story of those who have plenty who say, it sucks to be you.
It has always seemed strange to me…The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.
– John Steinbeck
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