Saturday, October 21, 2017

THE WRECK OF THE ISLANDMAGEE


 

At around 5:00 o'clock on the afternoon of October 26, 1953, the merchant ship, Islandmagee set sail from the port of Birkhill, Scotland bound for the Port of Leith, also in Scotland. Her cargo that day was approximately 200 tons of wet sand. As often happens in the North Sea, a storm gale came up that quickly turned into a force 9 storm. Onboard the ship was a crew of 6. One of those men was my grandfather, James Rendall.

That fall, my father had made the long trip by ship from his home in Leith, Scotland to attend college at what is now Prairie College in Three Hills, AB, Canada. Taking the train from Edinburgh, Scotland to South Hampton, England he set sail on an Italian liner across the Atlantic, landing in Montreal, QC. Having been at sea for 6 days he then made his way by train another 5 days over the 2200 miles to the little town in the middle of the prairies. The setting could not have been any more different from the culture and topography that he had left behind. Enrolling that fall, he took to his studies with vigor and quickly became one of the top students to have attended the school.

In November of 1976, I was 15 years old. One particular day I was glued to my little AM radio, as I often was, surfing the airwaves for anything that would catch my ear. The haunting strains of an electric guitar, a steel guitar and an acoustic 12 string guitar soared across the airwaves. After the distinctive introduction was over the iconic voice of Gordon Lightfoot began to sing . . . "The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down . . ."  ~ I was hooked! I had never heard anything that remotely sounded like this and as the song unfolded I realized that it was a "story song". It told the tragic tale of the bulk carrier, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald that sank in Lake Superior hauling iron ore from Duluth, MN to Detroit. MI on November 10, 1975. 29 men lost their lives that night in the awful storm. When launched on June 7, 1958, she was the largest ship on North America's Great Lakes and she remains the largest to have sunk there. While Gordon certainly took some artistic license in the telling of those events, he captured the essence of the horror in a very real way. When he sings at the end of the song, "The church bell chimed till it rang twenty-nine times", you can almost feel the hushed reverence and solemnity that surely was present that day.

As I often did when I made a new discovery and was excited about something, I went to find my Dad. I told him that I had just discovered a new song on the radio I thought he would like and I would play it for him the next time it came on. I knew Dad loved ships and the sea and I thought this would be right down his alley. Always trying to support my endeavors, Dad said that would be just fine and to let him know when the song played again.

A couple of hours later the song came on and I rushed upstairs from my little basement studio / shop to find Dad sitting in his chair. He was probably studying or marking papers, his normal activity on any given evening in our home. Turning up the song I looked at Dad expectantly for his affirmation of what a truly great song this was, and what great taste I had! Dad began to look agitated, even irritated as the song played on. Now the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald did not follow the typical pop formula of a 3 minute song. It actually clocked in at 6 minutes and 40 seconds. As we sat in the living room for those long painful minutes, the atmosphere grew more and more awkward. Finally the song came to an end and Dad said, in maybe the most serious tone of voice I had ever heard him speak, "Son, NEVER play me that song again!" I was shocked and confused. Was the song too rock 'n roll? Was there an offensive lyric that I hadn't caught? Then, to my youthful, naive self the light went on. It finally computed and I felt absolutely horrible.

You see, on that fateful day of October 26, 1953 the Islandmagee took on water and sank, taking with her the entire crew including my Dad's father and my grandfather, gone at the age of 52. There was compelling evidence that at least some of the crew had made it into one of the life boats, but it sank as well. In what the papers referred to as a "double tragedy", the rescue ship that was dispatched to the scene after being alerted by rocket flares and calls of mayday on the radio, also went down into the dark abyss. All but one of her crew perished as well. A court inquiry held in February of 1955 found, and I quote; "The Court is therefore of the opinion that the evidence does not disclose that the casualty to "Islandmagee" was caused, or contributed to, by the fault or default of any person or persons." In simple terms, it was down to mother nature or as the insurance companies like to call it, "an act of God", and that night in the North Sea, she was a harsh mistress.

The next day, October 27th, Dad received a telegram from his older brother Gavin with the cryptic message, "Father, lost at sea ~ Gavin". Dad had no money to make his way back to Scotland for the funeral and to be with his family as he had spent every penny he had to emigrate to Canada to attend school. In many ways he grieved alone. He had just turned 20 years old in August.

In today's vernacular, psychologists and counselors use the term "trigger", a word used to describe sensations, images or experiences that trigger a traumatic memory. This term is often used in relation to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), of which there is an increasing awareness. In 1976 I had never heard of the word "trigger" other than my experiences with target shooting or in reference to the palomino horse ridden by Roy Rogers in the movies. It was not until the song had ended and Dad had made his proclamation that I finally realized what had happened. Growing up, Dad hardly ever spoke about his father and the pain of his loss. He had found ways to cope. The song and it's graphic retelling of the tragedy of the Edmund Fitzgerald was just way too close to home. Twenty three years later, the event was still raw.

Now while I might be forgiven for my lack of sensitivity, given my age and naiveté, I realized then, maybe for the first time, something of the pain Dad carried from losing his father at such a young age. It was something he rarely talked about. I had no intention of hurting my father, I just hadn't connected the dots.

I learned an important lesson that day, one I have always tried to keep in the back of my mind. Miller Williams sums it up nicely in these words, “Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don't want it. What appears bad manners, an ill temper or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone." 


                                             Salvaged ship's bell from the Islandmaggee



THE WRECK OF THE EDMUND FITZGERALD

Gordon Lightfoot

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 crew 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 every man knew, as the captain did too,
T'was 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 to feed ya
At seven pm a main hatchway caved in, he said
Fellas, it's been 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 his 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 searches all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay
If they'd put fifteen more miles behind her
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 till 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


The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
Lyrics © Moose Music Ltd. / Early Morning Music Ltd.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9vST6hVRj2A

www.prairieboy.com

© 2017 Stephen J. Rendall ~ All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

LIFE LESSONS WITH A PRAIRIE BOY 1

For many, many years the sidewalk on the south side of my father's house in Canada has been slowly sinking, tipping towards the house to the tune of about 5 inches. The result, of course, is that when it rains that entire side of the house becomes a trough and in a heavy rain it becomes a river. Over the years there have been problems with water working its way into the basement.

I solicited a couple of quotes from two local concrete companies and both came in at similar prices. About 12 thousand dollars to jack hammer and remove the old sidewalk, prep the soil, form and pour a new sidewalk as well as a swale drain running the entire length of the property.

One serious factor is that the distance between my Dad's house and the neighbor's fence and trees is too narrow to allow any equipment, such as a small bobcat, to be brought in to assist with the work, so all of the work needs to be done by hand.

My Scottish blood was taken aback at the quotes and I said to myself, "How hard can it possibly be? I'll get my brother, set aside a couple of days, rent the necessary tools, remove the old sidewalk, build and pour the new one and, as my friend Kevin would say, "Bob's your Uncle!" Turns out I may have been just a tad optimistic and like so many things in life, everything is not always as it appears.

My brother and I rose bright and early as to be able to get a good start on the day. 9 a.m. is bright and early for someone who has been in the music business their whole life. We got ourselves down to the local rental shop, explained what we were doing and left with an electric jackhammer, several large bits and an assurance that it would probably do the job just fine. The gentleman did mention that if it wasn't adequate, we could return it and procure a much larger and more powerful one.

Returning to the house we were eager to get right to work. With plenty of water and cokes on hand for energy and hydration we donned our hearing protection. The crew consisted of my brother Dave on jack hammer and yours truly as grunt labor and supervisor. With a roar the machine came to life and Dave began to direct it towards one end of the sidewalk. Ratty tat tat went the machine and the sidewalk began to shake and slowly break up in large chunks and I said to myself, "See, I knew it, this is a piece of cake. We'll be finished this by noon, just in time for lunch and a good afternoon nap." I began to fill the wheelbarrow with the chunks and take them out to the road and load them into the waiting truck.

No sooner had I left with my first load than Dave called me over to show me something. There appeared to be a second sidewalk under the first. Not only that but it  was a solid 8 inches thick! Now we had problems! The machine we had rented hardly put a dent in the second sidewalk although it seemed to be doing an adequate job on the first one. After a quick committee meeting we decided to remove the first sidewalk that day, rent the bigger machine the next and tackle the second sidewalk.

Morning work started early again at 9 the next day. We went back to the rental store and returned with a heavy, pull behind diesel compressor and jack hammer complete with 100 feet of hose and bits. Firing that baby up, we had no sooner gotten started when Dave pointed out something to me.

There was a 3rd sidewalk!

Evidently at some point, after the first 8 inch sidewalk had sunk, someone had poured a 2 inch sidewalk on top of that to try and fix the problem. Then at some later time, a 4 inch sidewalk was poured on top of that. So all in all, we were dealing with 14 inches of concrete. A friend, who had removed a sidewalk some years earlier and had also found an additional sidewalk, estimated that there was a minimum of 9 tons of concrete in total that we were trying to break up and remove.

Of course in the bigger picture we were now dealing with having to bring in at least a foot of clay, packing and tamping that, then bringing in road crush rock to put on top of that. All this before we could start building the forms, place the rebar and tie the whole lot into the foundation of the house and finally pouring new concrete so that this would never happen again . . . at least in our lifetime.

This struck me a lot like life. So many times in relationships, business and matters as straightforward as maintaining our vehicles and homes, if we simply try and patch the problem without getting down to the root issue, often matters just get worse. The band aid solution only gives temporary relief. Efforts at half baked measures only go so far, making the many layers of the onion even harder to peel off.

Dad always told us, "If something is worth doing, it's worth doing right." Clearly this advice had not been heeded as none of the three sidewalks had ever been properly tied into the foundation with rebar. There was no adequate soil preparation and a long list of other items that should have been taken care of from the get go. These would have ensured that the job was really done right and would have not added much cost to the overall project.


Well, at least we know what we will be doing for the next day . . . and the next day . . . and the next day . . . actually, check back with us in September!

Because as Dad always told us, "Don't start something unless you can finish it."

Oh yes, and now I understand why those quotes were so high . . . and they didn't even know about sidewalks 2 and 3!

Friday, April 3, 2015

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Wednesday, May 8, 2013