It has been a strange weekend, fabulous, interesting, maudlin,
magnificent and informative. Sometimes, even though you already know
something you still need to have it explained to you. A tiger's claw
education, swift and remorseless and though we feel the blame, we cannot
in good conscience blame the tiger.
In 1925, a new ore ship was added to the Cleveland -- Cliffs Iron Company
line plying the Great Lakes hauling, coal, iron ore or grain. She was
six hundred and eighteen feet long and sixty two feet across. She
carried the wealth of a nation and her nickname was "The ship that built
Cleveland," because of her frequent deliveries of iron ore to Cleveland
Her keel was laid in Ecorse, Michigan. And as I walked her decks I read
from her name plates. Johnson Winch Company, New York, New York her
electrical power supplied by a Caterpillar Diesel Engine, Chicago,
Illinois mated to a General Electric generator, Cleveland, Ohio. She had
the first automated boiler system on the Great Lakes supplied by Bailey
controls of Cleveland Ohio.
In 1941, the Mather led a flotilla of ships to Duluth Minnesota to break
ice and return with a cargo of badly needed iron ore destined for
America's war plants. Her crew risked their lives in frozen dangerous
waters because the country asked them to take the risk. Her crew of
thirty had good jobs and a strong union to protect them.
The work was hard dirty and thankless, hot in the summer and frozen in
the winter and the William G. Mather plied the Great Lakes for over
fifty five years. Her cooks serving the crew sit down meals on china
plates. Meals served with salads and with pie with ice cream for desert.
As I walked her decks it occurred to me that two generations of
American men had lived their lives her decks. These workmen who made the
three AM deliveries in Detroit, Buffalo or Toledo.
She impressed me most with her Americanism, she was all American from
stem to stern, American built, American owned and American sailed. She
was stout and well constructed with a handmade sign scrawled on the door
in the tool room with a magic marker. "Don't mess up this tool room, OR
ELSE." I could see the grousing boiler chief writing this on the back
of the door. Not a company bulletin or a TPS report but a message from
an American to other Americans.
As I left the Mather, I was somewhat sad, because she was wonderful and
welcoming. Just think, there was work for a six hundred foot ore
freighter for fifty five years and now she was a museum, a relic for our
children to try and understand an America which they would never, ever,
ever, be able to fathom. Eight and a half tons of steel molded by
American hands into a cargo ship. A ship built without a single foreign
made part, every nut and bolt, every piece of her fabricated by American
hands and installed with American workmanship.
We wandered past the plastic guitars outside the Rock and Roll Hall of
Fame headed for the USS Codfish, a gato class WW2 submarine which is
also a museum. This was a WW2 high tech weapon of war. She was the
equivalent of today's stealth bomber. She was loaded from stem to stern
with high tech weaponry manufactured in places like Connecticut, New
York and Philadelphia. She achieved what the German Kriegsmarine only
dreamed of doing. She swept the seas of Japanese vessels.
As we followed the tour we entered the rear torpedo room and there sat a
90 year old veteran who had served as a motorman on the Codfish, and in
his honor they cranked the ships engines. In less than five minutes and
with just a few minor adjustments they started up the 70 year old
Cleveland built General Motors diesel engines. The thought of spending
74 days on a standard patrol inside a tiny iron box would drive me right
over the edge. Yet this man did it, he was depth charged and he lost
ship mates but he did what was expected of him.
The crew was served the best food in the Navy, because they deserved it.
His ship was air conditioned because his government thought it
necessary. He served his time aboard her right in the enemy's backyard,
facing death each day but she was an American ship, every bolt and every
weld American and the only foreign label you can find aboard her are
the flags of the enemy vessels she sank.
At the war's conclusion, her sailors left the service eligible for a
full college education, gratis, from a grateful nation. But was it that
simple? The G.I. bill was a jobs program. If all twelve million men
under arms were to join the workforce at the same time we might have
ended up back at 1932. Instead, government offered education delaying
entry into the workforce by four years.
These soldiers, sailors and airmen became chemists, engineers and
doctors. They earned higher salaries and paid higher taxes and they
didn't complain because government had kept its bargain with its people.
Those without degrees, worked in the steel mills, or they loaded the
ore boats and worked the docks. They were fishermen or office workers
who earned a decent living.
I had a lunch date with a very nice lady and for a blind date she was
definitely all that and a slice of pie. Only, it very quickly became
apparent that we were from different worlds. She was from the world of
new cars and twenty five dollar lunches and I was from the world of food
stamps and the broke ass poor. Several times she referred to my
"lifestyle" and both times I corrected her. "This isn't a life style," I
explained, "I didn't ask for this."
"Do you keep a home in Atlanta?" I was torn, as no man wants to meet a
nice lady and explain, "I'm broke ass poor." Our meeting ended soon
after, and I don't blame her. She was looking for full stockings and
presents under the tree not some rough character from the wrong side of
the tracks. We were as different as race horses and humming birds.
Strange isn't it, I could listen to her problems and empathize, but my
problems only horrified her.
But I am the SS William G. Mather, I am an American. I am the USS
Codfish and I can do any job I'm offered. Yet I am tied off to the dock
and laid up as a curiosity. This isn't a lifestyle, it is a punishment,
from a government which no longer keeps its promises, it is purgatory
from which there is no escape.
There was a time three years ago when this purgatory began when I just
wanted to just curl up and die. A time when I thought this was all about
me. Then I found my true calling, to explain this purgatory and this
existence to anyone who will listen but more and more, there are two
kinds of Americans. The Americans who are waiting for Santa Claus and
the Americans who know Santa ain't coming. From my experiences this
weekend, I take great pride in my people and great pride in myself
because no matter what, I won't quit. I'll continue until I die or until
this plague is lifted from us.
If that means I shall spend my days alone, I shall be alone. If that
means I'll spend my days broke ass poor, I'll be broke ass poor. Those
of you, who understand living the Santa less universe, understand. Those
of you who don't understand, never will, some things are bigger than
our egos or our feelings. Some things are bigger than our desires and
even our lives. Some things need to be said, shouted from the roof tops,
recorded for posterity and this is one of those events. The story of a
people debased, impoverished and robbed. The story of children without a
future and a story of those who have plenty who say, it sucks to be
"It has always seemed strange to me...The things we admire in men,
kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling,
are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we
detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and
self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the
quality of the first they love the produce of the second."- John