Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Gales of November

The wind in the wires made a tattletale sound
And a wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the Captain did, too,
T'was the witch of November come stealing.
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald - Gordon Lightfoot.

I've been fascinated by the old sailing ships for years, because of one that's been a part of my memory since childhood, one that fueled my fascination with the archaeology of disaster.. A hundred years come and gone, yet the skeletal remains of that beautiful seagoing vessel still linger in a shallow grave, attesting to the passing parade of time and the long ago era of the sailing ship.

The 3 a.m. hour of October 25, 1906 was like many an Oregon night, dark, windy and cold. The 278 foot long Liverpool sailing ship, fashioned of steel plates on an iron frame, was laboring toward the mouth of the Columbia River on its way to Portland, Oregon. But its 25 crew and 2 stowaways, who were likely seriously reconsidering their decision, weren't destined to make it there.

Thick mists obscured the beacons of the light houses and the Columbia River light ship. There, Captain H. Lawrence made the stalwart decision to stand, to await a Pilot. A heavy southwest wind was brewing into strength and the sail was shortened. Yet before the dawn flashed true from the east, the skipper found his ship caught in a churning mass of breakers and a fast rising northwest wind.

Crunching over the bottom of the Clatsop Spit, the shock sent the mizzen top hamper crashing to the deck. The good men of the Peter Iredale scattered like buckshot. The ocean again slapped them in rage. More sections of the masts, rigging, blocks and tackle, thundered to the deck. Men scrambled to save her, to save themselves, amidst the tangle of wreckage, but soon the fated ship had run aground, breaking off it's top spars, the heavy rain squalls and gale force winds from the west pushing them ashore. The Captain ordered them to abandon the ship and fired rockets into the air to summon help.

The lifesaving station at Point Adams responded, sending a team of men to rescue the crew. It was a dangerous task, but the lifesavers managed to bring them safety to shore and shelter at nearby Fort Stevens. The maritime inquiry absolved the master and his mates in any wrong action in the loss of the ship, and there were hopes for salvage. The hull was, for the most part, intact undamaged and there was thought as to towing the vessel, stern first, into deepening water.

For a few more weeks, the shipmaster stood hopefully by, praying that the Peter Iredale would be restored, a pilots sheer love of his ship, but salvage operations were soon abandoned. The ship, now listing starboard like a wounded bird, half embedded in the sands, was abandoned, paid off by the insurance underwriters and remaining simply a visage of loss on the landscape that claimed it. Nature being, as usual, the superior foe. Captain Lawrence was commended by the British Naval Court for his actions to save his men, and his ship and he was remembered as well for his toast to the once proud vessel as he left her. The red-bearded Captain smartly saluted, and hoisting a bottle of whisky said "May God Bless you, and may your bones bleach in the sands."

The wreck languished for years, though a popular site for out of state tourists, and didn't make the news again until World War II, when a Japanese submarine off the Oregon coast logged some enemy shells directly over her remains, landing in the empty fields behind. The very next day the Army strung rolls of barbed-wire from Point Adams south, to thwart a would-be enemy invasion, entwined through the wreck where they remained until the end of the War.

My Mom spent some time around the Portland and Oregon coastal area, before she married and we used to rent a little place there for holidays, on the beach south of the wreck of the Peter Iredale lay. As many times as we went back to visit, the wreck was as constant as the tide for me, each year, like my own life, presenting something new and undiscovered. In some years it was almost buried in the sand, and then the next, it would venture out boldly so that we could climb on its rusted hull and hunt for hermit crags in pools at its feet, digging among its remains for artifacts and buried treasure.
What about it fascinated me so? Still does. Archaeology, from Late Latin archaeologia (antiquarian lore) and the Greek archaiologia, as stated in the dictionary to be - " the scientific study of material remains (as fossil relics, artifacts, and monuments) of past human life and activities".

So for me this wreck is archaeology in the sense of touching, physically touching, past lives, past hardships. Yet its more than that, it's the wellspring of memories, of my generation and the one behind, and its lure comes from the comfort of continuity, the blending of the past with our future. For me it is the lure of a rust-hued countenance of a ghost ship. Lighthouses have been built and abandoned, wars won, battles lost, two generations have lived and died, yet the wreck of the Peter Iredale lives on. I've climbed around it, waiting for it to speak to me. Except it would tell us nothing but that someone was there, someone with courage and spirit and adventure in their soul. Someone who would risk all to tend to their ship, to their comrades. A message that we can not fail to understand, for it is our message, it is what we as pilots of the air or the ocean, as explorers of a nation, uncover each day.

There has been many a night when I'd been on a recreational sailing vessel on that same river, on that same coastline. I was not the master, simply one of the totally amateur mates, trying to learn my duties (which was keeping a running tally of how much beer we had left). Yet on those nights, when the others were sleeping and I was up late, on deck with a mug of hot tea, I'd think back to the crew of the Peter Iredale and what they were doing before nature picked them as its play toy.

They were likely gathered cheerily like we had been, eating and drinking, tending to their chores, sharing the resemblance of familiar duties. They were no different than the scholars turned sailors I was spending my weekend with. On the deck, holding a mug of hot tea, that knowledge came to me like the cool night breeze, yet it also brought to me the warmth, the comfort that I felt in my hands. When we look at the past, at people, events, when we study them, it is not so much that we wish to reconstruct their lives for the dead, but for the living. Our lives. This moment.

I still dig in the past, in the sun bleached remains of my day to day work or simply the earth. Digging in Dad's garden, getting out the last of the remaining carrots when, digging deep, I unearthed a tiny plastic soldier, and that tiny battered warrior, recreated a flood of memory of childhood days when my younger brother and I played for world dominion out in the back yard. The touch of its small battered form brings back the scent of the earth in our back yard, the shade of the apple tree that sheltered us, the warmth of the sun. Was this little figurine simply a forgotten toy or was he buried in some forgotten childhood military honor? Like anything long lost, he spoke to me of a demand for remembrance. Of recognition for the role he served.

We are all archaeologists of life. Coming back to my own home late the other night, when I'd only been away for a few days, I opened up the place, exploring its contents as if I was discovering it after a hundred years. For it is indeed the past. A receipt for dinner with a friend, a couple of stray kernels of popcorn that escaped the flame, rolling around on the floor like ball bearings, a homemade calendar on the refrigerator marking days of history of their own. Outside, some ancient wood, carved by hands long since stilled, a Japanese float, off of a net that floated three thousand miles to be tossed up by the Peter Iredale and snatched up by a little redheaded girl. It is my home and like any true home it always holds within its walls the artifacts of those it believes will return to it.

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed,
In the Maritime Sailors' Cathedral.

The church bell chimed till it rang twenty-nine times

For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

It makes us human, these artifacts of our past, these shifting layers of sand, shifting layers of history. We sort through the remains of our life, as we look, eyes squinting into the glare, west into a sunset that also glinted through the rusty hull of a shipwreck. Bit by bit, like us all, it imperceptibly succumbs to the ravages of time. It struggles to keep from being washed away and forgotten. Remember us. Remember me, in this place, time, a large and once tideless rock reduced to small grains trickling through my hands, from century to century, hours and minutes, miles and footsteps

When the divers finally managed to bring the bell of the Edmund Fitzgerand to the surface it  is said that it rang. The purest sounding bell you can think of, and immediately after a kaleidoscope of butterflies swarmed the ship and family members. This cloud of butterflies, miles from shore, when the bell broke the surface, one last gesture of the earth's absolution

From not so far away, here tonight,  I hear the faint tolling of a bell. From the bones of a sailing ship to my own life, the span of distance is small.


  1. Perhaps before bed tonight, a toast, with some tasty bourbon, to absent comrades on this 240th Marine Corps birthday, and for those who go down to the sea in ships...

  2. Went to college in Duluth, camped on the shore of Whitefish Bay, saw the Bell at the museum on the point (after driving through Paradise-look it up), and watched the Soo locks work. Superior is cold, even in summer, and I can't think of anything that would cause me to sail out of sight of shore on her.

  3. We camped at the mouth of the Two Heart River and drove over to Whitefish Pointe Museum. It seemed the radio station was incessantly playing "The Wreck..." wherever we drove.
    And it was summer, not the anniversary.
    Superior is cold enough in summer that my kids didn't want to swim in it long.
    I can only think of how cold that water was as the Fitzgerald sank.
    The Fitzgerald was built in River Rouge, a few miles from here, on the Detroit River.
    It's sister ship, the William Clay Ford was scrapped and it's bridge was placed attached to the Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle in Detroit and faces Windsor with a marine radio playing in the background.
    If you are ever in or near Detroit, I heartily recommend a visit.
    Such a beautiful exposition with so much maritime history displayed.
    Heck, I may blog it now.

  4. I am a Michigander. I was a Freshman in highschool when the Edmund Fitz. sunk. I remember it quite well. We had just finished football season. Horrible winter storms were blowing. It was so windy we could not even snowmobile, due to visability. I was awaiting my first deer hunt.
    It was the first real song I learned to play on the guitar. Easy, and yet beautiful, in a sad sort of way.

  5. Lovely post. I too have done archeology, partly because an archeologist lived with our family for a time. His thesis mentions my family and the role they played in helping him. He talked about the material culture of the eighteenth century people he studied. I've dug at Fort Orange, Crown Point, the LaGrange Homestead and Livingston Manor. If I weren't settled down, I'd share the poem I wrote about doing that digging. I was trained as a ten year old how to do sophisticated field archeology. Our friend found Fort Orange and salvaged it before they put in 787. It was something to go to a dig after school and on weekends. The dirt had a kind of smell. I also got to work for New York State doing archeology. If I weren't ready to close this off, I'd share a poem I wrote about this.

  6. I can never hear "The Wreck" too often. There is something about the beat, the words, the voice of Gordon Lightfoot that causes a visceral reaction. Plus, I am old enough to remember.


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