The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Esther Rice Battenfeld
I’ve done a lot of crazy things in my life from my mother’s point of view. Still, she wasn’t prepared for my sotto voce announcement last spring that I was going to seek a job as porter on a Great Lakes freighter, carrying coal up to the head of the Lakes and hauling iron ore back down to the steel mills.
“Give up a perfectly good career to -to wash dishes in a galley, and – and everything like that ?” She meant scrub bathrooms and their appurtenances.
“Just because when you were born your grandfather wired home from the Soo what your name should be is no reason you have to dedicate your life to the Great Lakes!”
In a way I was dedicated to the Lakes. But it really wasn’t going to be my fault if I were forced to run away from home to sail our Midwestern inland seas. The blame would fall on grandpa, who at ninetyeight drank his whiskey from a soup bowl and held title as the oldest retired master in the entire Great Lakes region from Sackett’s Harbor, New York, to Duluth, Minnesota. At times this must have amazed United States Steel, who, I imagine, hadn’t counted on paying him a retirement pension for so many years.
Grandpa raised me on the lore of the Lakes, spinning a net of wanderlust around my spirit until I was trapped by a mesh of nautichosis. I used to consider having my malady psychoanalyzed away, only I feared no substituted neurosis would prove half so exciting.
Back in grammar school, one of my teachers, who merely wanted me to learn to read the hands of the clock correctly instead of guessing, reached for her wig when I revealed to the class that fifteen degrees of longitude equals one hour of time. Arithmetic was never dull if I could side-track the pupils into listening to one of my lectures with blackboard illustrations on the secret of boxing a compass or how to lose a day in the Pacific or the Atlantic. I often got confused, but nobody in 2-B knew the difference.
Later I absorbed the rules of navigation from grandpa along with lessons on just-less-than-cheating checkers and cribbage. More years passed, and I joined a yacht club, religiously entering my small sailing craft every Sunday morning in the club races. Still later I was admitted to practice in federal court as a proctor in admiralty. But because I’d been born a granddaughter instead of a grandson I couldn’t be a sailor. Then one day I discovered there was a chance – I mean, to be a sailor. A few freighters on the Lakes carried women in their galleys!
Immediately I turned over my legal files to the law firm partners, and hurried to the Marine Hospital for a lung x-ray and Wassermann test so that the Coast Guard would certify to my eligibility as a food handler. Now, I thought, I was ready to sign on a crew’s list the same as any old tar.
Among lake freighting circles it is well known that porters classify as itinerant labor. They are more or less picked up down in the local bowery, often work a few trips, maybe just one trip or a half-trip, then pay off or simply jump ship without their salary. So it goes all season. But my case required three interviews by appointment with the vessel personnel manager and another interview with the cook aboard the boat, which being without cargo was sitting high in the water. I wanted to believe that I was climbing right into heaven to reach the deck of my dream-boat, but I looked down at my soot-coated gloves and realized I was still in the flats alongside Cleveland’s muddy Cuyahoga River.
For these interviews I didn’t know whether to play the peasant with a babushka tied around my head or dress like officer material in a pressed navy blue suit and crisp white blouse, so I varied the motif from meeting to meeting. Unluckily for me, my Uncle Ed had to be the master of one of the company’s boats -the only company hiring women. I learned that he had advised Mr. Vessel Personnel Manager I had been a teacher, a fashion model, even a defeated candidate for the state senate. To off-set this distorted impression of my portering potential, fast-talk became necessary on how I’d only taught a year and never suffered with mal-de-mer. From my haggard expression, Mr. V. P. Manager must have gained assurance that my fashion modeling days were over and there was not a chance I’d corrupt a single crew member, for finally (I’m sure only after a meeting of the “board”) I was ordered to report to work Easter Monday at 7:00 A.M.
Due to boiler trouble, we remained alongside the dock for a whole week, but nothing mattered, since I’d be sailing soon. Every evening at 7:30 P.M., after having polished the chromiumed and stainless steel galley for the last time that day, I taxied home, sat in a nice, warm tub of water to ease muscular wear and tear, and called out to my mother through a crack in the bathroom door how wonderful it was to be a sailor. You could have all you wanted to eat and no responsibility. (I never mentioned – even to myself – that two porters already had quit that season during fit-out. One had broken her arm placing a new mattress on a top bunk!) Well, the bunks were all mattresses now; and all I had to do was watch out for flying knives! The cook, I’d observed, had the temperament of an artiste. When he began the ceremony of baking bread, a hush fell upon the galley. Nobody dared to speak, not even rattle a dish. I knew it counted as a crime for an officer to strike a man. That should even include with a frying pan. But it would do little good to seek punishment of the offender once my skull was split. I’d just have to remember what grandpa said about self-preservation being the first law of nature, and be on constant guard.
My nightly bath gave me courage; and I’d taxi back to Suicide Bend, crawl into my bunk with even my heels aching, and contemplate the cab company as the holder of most of my day’s earnings. For some reason, though, I still wouldn’t have changed places with the president of that cab company.
The night cook had the bottom bunk in the small cabin which we shared and which we couldn’t both fit into at the same time unless one of us remained prostrate on her bunk (which position we dropped into with exhaustion most of our “off” hours anyway). So there was no problem there.
From the beginning, however, I felt the curiosity of the three other women on board. Somebody had found out and broadcast that my Uncle Ed was my Uncle Ed. Besides, I took at least one shower a day and my uniforms were always clean, although I couldn’t take them home but had to wash and iron them myself when we were on the run. Those other three women, being old at the game, probably were laying bets on how long I could keep this up. When my hands, down in the sink regions, turned to raw beef, looks were exchanged. When my hands healed and I stayed on, I was aware of my colleagues’ surprise. I even stayed on after the cook threw a box of soap chips at me with such force that it hit my chest and bounced up to split my lip. I really had only myself to blame, for I had barged into the galley in the middle of the bread-making ceremony (Russian rye and raisin) to ask for those soap chips. The life agreed with me. I wrote to grandpa every night and each week when we got down to Cleveland to unload our ore, I’d have time to run home for an hour or so if I weren’t on duty. Regardless of how they complained, my family was pleased with the new glow of health and the hippage I was acquiring.
I was seeing my Great Lakes as a sailor – just like grandpa had, if I discounted the fact that I was some 600 feet aft of the pilot house. Sometimes, while gooey in the galley constructing elaborate banana splits, I could only glance now and then through a “dead-head” to note our rapid descent from Lake Superior as we locked down through the Soo. Then again, against military regulations, only half dressed, I would open my cabin door a few inches to snap an unpermitted colored photograph of Sault Ste. Marie. Up at the head of the Lakes, if I weren’t submerged in the lower depths of the ice box, complete in buttoned-up refrigerator coat, struggling to hang up a half a cow without hanging myself by the sleeve, I might climb down onto the bum boat which had tied up beside us and have a Coke.
In my ‘off’ hours, I washed and ironed clothes, and read by the light of a twenty-five watt bulb, cramped up in my top bunk. Frequently I read Alice In Wonderland to maintain the proper perspective; the ceiling above my bunk hung not with webs, but with the strands of my hair tom out by splintered plywood when I turned over in my sleep.
My colored slides, a documentary account from fit-out and our first trip to Duluth through the ice, were mounting. Here was another set of pictures to add to my trail-gazing collection, which I planned to enjoy from my rocking chair someday in the old folks’ home. I had enough pictures to remind me of my sailor days on fresh water. I had enough – period.
I was so fat from our impeccable cuisine that I’d soon need a derrick to hoist me ashore. Still, my weight wasn’t my chief problem. Once I returned to a world of worry and responsibility it would melt away. But could I ever cast off the sea hag personality I was acquiring in this galley? Everything from spearing peas to swearing was just like second nature!
If it was within the cook’s power to keep me aboard when we were in or near Cleveland, he did so. I always returned too happy after a visit home. But then there came the time when we went up to Duluth with a load of coal, which would necessitate our being in port for a day or longer because several boats were ahead of us. I reported for duty that morning to discover that both the second cook and the other porter, who lived in the vicinity, were hurrying ashore to a full day of freedom. Furthermore, in addition to the usual routine of all the chores which would be left for me, there was dirty laundry to count, piles of clean linen to put away, cases of groceries to stow, and a bride and groom as passengers on board who had nothing better to do than play a game of who could think up more extra services to telephone back to the galley department for! This morning I wasn’t singing in the galley, as was my custom. My repertoire might vary from “The Old Rugged Cross” clear through to “Jealousy,” but I usually sang. Today I couldn’t.
The cook commanded a performance. I informed him that my contract didn’t require me to sing. I don’t know whether he was angry because he had given two of his staff a free day or because this time I wasn’t accepting his unfairness with a smile on my lips and a song in my heart.
The extra work I would have done, but when he demanded, “Smile and be happy in this galley,” I slammed a tray of dishes down on the counter, stalked right up forward to the captain’s quarters with a blazing cigarette dangling from the corner of my mouth, and asked for my pay! Then I threw my uniforms overboard, and took a plane to Cleveland. I had to fly to be home in time to celebrate grandpa’s birthday.
About the Author: Miss Battenfeld, whose diversified talents are indicated in her story, is the donor of the Captain Frank Rice Collection and an ardent Lakes lover.