When I was in my early twenties, I shipped out as a deckhand on several Great Lakes ore freighters. Most of the “boats,” as they were called, measured about 600 feet in length and were built with cabins on the forward end for the captain, mates, and deck crew and after cabins on the stern for engine and galley crew. I usually planned to work for only 3 or 4 months to earn enough for my college expenses that year. Although my parents strongly encouraged my sister and brothers to pursue college, they had no money whatsoever to contribute towards books, tuition, or dorm expenses. Each of us had to pay his own way, and for us, working on the freighters was by far the most lucrative solution.
By late April or early May, we’d pester Mr. Craig down on the waterfront, the boss of the U.S. Steel warehouse who filled vacancies aboard ship. You packed your sea bag and stashed it by the front door in case he called and needed someone quickly. According to your Z-card, as an unlicensed seaman, you were eligible to work three different positions: porter in the galley, wiper in the engine room, or deckhand. Unless you wanted your name to drop to the bottom of the list, you always accepted any job that was offered.
Late one spring, I received a call to work as a temporary deckhand on the Eugene Buffington, an ancient ore boat with thirty-some hatches covered with heavy black canvas tarps. The crew referred to them as hatch farms, on which the deck crew labored intensely for every dollar. One of the deckhands was getting off for a couple weeks to catch up with some necessary dental work and to take care of some personal business. I roomed with 3 other guys in small quarters that allowed only enough room for one person at a time to dress. You had to practically tiptoe into the room at any hour of the day because somebody had always just come off watch and was sleeping.
At 4:30 a.m. one morning, the deck watch awoke the deck crew to prepare the boat for port. A spring storm with driving rain was blowing across lower Lake Michigan as we approached South Chicago. The deck crew donned their yellow rain gear, rubber boots, and leather work gloves. In the early darkness, we loosened the battens and crawled on our knees across each hatch, rolling up the heavy wet tarps. Running attached steel cables down the deck, we winched open each hatch cover. After working on 10 or 15 hatches, we were exhausted and ready for a breather, but there was no letup. We weren’t quite halfway finished. The crew swore at the miserable weather and cursed their luck, soaked to the skin from the pouring rain and the grueling workout.
By the time we reached the dock in South Chicago, I started thinking twice about this job. I wasn’t going to quit, but I prayed that the other deckhand whom I had replaced would return to his job. Sometimes they don’t. They just up and quit for no particular reason, and lucky you are summoned to speak to the First Mate in the pilot house and offered a permanent position.
After 2 1/2 weeks on the Buffington, I was thrilled to get off and soon found another decking job on the Ralph Watson, a 1938 U.S. Steel freighter with an easy-going crew. This ship, thankfully, employed a hatch crane that traveled fore and aft on a set of steel rails to remove the hatch covers, a much faster, labor-saving system. It required only about 30 minutes to complete the job. The crew’s quarters were set up for two guys per room and were nearly twice the size of the previous one. For the most part, the crew members were friendly and good-natured, especially the deckhands and bosun. That made working at all hours of the day or night and in all kinds of crappy weather so much more tolerable.
As the summer wore on, I missed my friends and family and news from home. The only links to people back home were through random calls from a port-side bar or letters in the mail. Of course, you never receive letters if you don’t take the time to write letters. I wrote 2 to 3 times every week to friends, family, and to my girlfriend in particular. At that time, we had no emails, I-phones, or personal computers for communication. That’s why it was such a thrill and honor to receive a few handwritten lines from the outside world. Letters meant everything to the crew. They sustained us and nourished us through difficult times. Of all the many deckhands sailing on the Great Lakes at that moment, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one carrying on a “paper romance” with his girlfriend. Without a weekly letter from her, I would not have lasted long out there.
Today, most people never bother writing more than a Christmas card to anyone. Instant messaging, Skype, and emails are far faster and more convenient. A few years ago, when my youngest son worked as a deckhand aboard the ore boats, I wrote him several letters, hoping he would write back. But he never did. Instead, he Facebooked me a message or sent a brief email. I even went so far as to send him aboard ship with paper, envelopes, and stamps, but finally I realized that times had drastically changed. I was too “old school,” but nevertheless, I missed it. I still value a handwritten letter and always will. When I read over a few older ones now and then, I find they’re still good company.