Friday, November 11, 2005

We Are Holding Our Own

Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. A tragedy made especially famous by Gordon Lightfoot’s song The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald which is, in my opinion, one of the greatest shipwreck songs ever written. It has long been a favorite among my friends and we are known to start singing it loudly and badly when we are drinking (and sometimes when we are not drinking). It is odd that such a song about such a tragedy can become such symbol of close bonding but it just goes to show you that sometimes good can come of bad sometimes.

And yet, even though I have mostly good associations with Lightfoot’s song, I never forget about the event that inspired it. The sinking of a good ship and the loss of 29 lives. Sometimes I don’t think that people who have never been to the Great Lakes don’t understand the significance of the event. They don’t really realize that lake freighters aren’t small little boats. They are behemoths and giants. They are typically much larger than their ocean going sisters and the Edmund Fitzgerald was the biggest and best of them all. Lightfoot wasn’t exaggerating when he called her “The pride of the American Side” It takes a lot to sink a boat like that.

I used to live in Sault Ste Marie which is on the far eastern edge of Whitefish Bay. Because I was always intrigued by the song, I decided to drive up to Whitefish point one November morning when the forecast was for a storm. I remember standing there on the beach looking westward over Lake Superior. The waves were crashing and the wind was picking up. The sky was the most beautiful shade of dark grey and it reminded me of the color of a pair of eyes belonging to a man I loved. Snow flurries were being whipped around with the wind like little swirling mini-tornados. They looked like ghosts or spirits. It was cold with the kind of cold that grabs you by the bones and shakes you until you can hardly breathe. And the wind roars and the lake churns and it is then, just then, when one really gets what is meant by “Superior sings in the rooms of her icewater mansion”

I could barely stand it to be on that beach looking at the awesome beauty of Lake Superior gripped in the fury of a November storm. It was uncomfortable and brutal. It was then that I thought of the sailors out on the lake that day. Of how I might be uncomfortable but I was safe and had firm land under my feet and a warm house to go back to. I found myself sitting home later with my radio on and Gordon Lightfoot’s voice in the air. I was glad to be there.

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Gordon Lightfoot

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down,
of the big lake they call Gitchigumi
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
when the skies of November turn gloomy
With a load of iron ore, 26,000 tons more
than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
That good ship and true 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 feeling?

The wind in the wires made a tattletale sound,
and a wave tumbled over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too,
'twas the Witch of November come stealing
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait,
when the gales of November came slashing

When afternoon came, it was freezing rain,
in the face of a hurricane west wind
When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck,
saying, "Fellas, it's too rough to feed ya"
At seven p.m., the main hatchway caved in, he said,
"Fellas, it's been good to know ya"
The captain wired in he had water coming in,
and the good ship and crew was in peril
And later that night, when its lights went out of sight,
came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Does anyone know where the love of God goes
when the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers 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 icewater mansion
Old Michigan steams like a young man's dreams,
the isles 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
at the Maritime Sailors' Cathedral
The church bell chimed till it rang 29 times,
for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down,
of the big lake they call Gitchigumi


Anonymous said...

That must be why my hubby just loaded my ipod with Gordon lightfoot... I asked him, "What's up, did he just die or something?"
Great blog Lynne.

Anonymous said...

must be "songs that inspire me" post day.
This was beautiful.
"The sky was the most beautiful shade of dark grey and it reminded me of the color of a pair of eyes belonging to a man I loved."
This line made my tears spring to my eyes. its funny how things like that still catch me off guard.