Monday, April 30, 2007

Phil, the Fitz and the Lake Shore

The ship Philip R. Clarke, part of the Great Lakes Fleet arrived in post at Ashland, Wisconsin on Friday, April 27, 2007 with a load of lumpcoal destined for for Xcel Energy power generating plant. The coal was out of Toledo. The ship will head for Two Harbors, Minnesota after unloading in Ashland, to pick up a load of taconite ore bound for Detroit, Michigan.

We don’t get many ships in port here any more. I don’t remember a one last season. The year before that, I think I saw one deliver coal. The water level is very low, the lowest in 80 years. A full twelve inches lower than last year. The Corps of Engineers claim that this will continue until September and even then, a rise of only 1-3 inches is expected.

The cause of the low water is drought. Dry conditions in the area. Many inland lakes are also at lower than normal water levels. Boating this seaon will be a nightmare for many. Those that make their living relying on water use may suffer economically. Boats may not be able to dock, swimmers won’t have safe beaches and in some cases, no beaches, on the Great Lake Superior and many other inland lakes here in Northern Wisconsin.

When I returned from doctors appointments in Duluth early Friday afternoon, the ship was just coming into the port. They are quite large, the Philip Clark is over 760 feet long. But when it was made in the 1950’s, it was only 647 feet in length. They cut it open and added a 220 foot section at Frazer Ship Yards in Superior. Now, at 767 feet, it is a very large vessel to be getting into Ashland. And although loaded with coal on this latest delivery here, it was not a full load as the draft of the ship, fully loaded, would have made it impossible to maneuver with the Water level of the lake at this historic low.

This ship was built as an order of three such ships made by the American Ship Building Company for the Pittsburg Steamship Company. One of the others was the Arthur M. Anderson. The Anderson was the ship that followed the Edmund Fitzgerald the night when the famous Gales of November brought her down and the lives of 29 crewmembers were lost, November 10, 1975.

So, who was Philip R. Clarke, and why did they name the ship after him?

One night in 1994, when I lived in Duluth, MN, we saw that the Arthur M. Anderson would be coming into port around midnight. It was a late season arrival and the weather was cold by the lake shore. We bundled up and stood there and watched the lights come from the distance towards the harbor entrance. As we stood there and the giant ore boat slipped quietly past us into the harbor, we felt an eery surreal feeling as we knew the story of the Anderson and it’s history of the last people to hear Captain McSorely of the Edmund Fitzgerald say, “We are holding our own”. The Anderson followed the "Fitz" and had her in sight up until its fateful end, 15 miles short of Whitefish Bay, Michigan.

I know a woman who lost her Father in that shipwreck. The 'old cook' that Gordon Lightfoot mentions in his fabled song might be Allen G. Kalmon who was a steward/2nd cook aboard. His daughter is an artist and lives in Ashland and she is a good friend of mine. I think it be hard enough to lose your Dad. But harder still to have the anniversary remembered in the region every year, not to mention the haunting song made famous by Lightfoot.

While I haven’t lived right on the shore of the Great Lakes, as I do now, for quite some time, I was born in their shadow and have lived near them all my life. Born in Chicago and the Great Lake Michigan. Living in Two Harbors, Grand Marais and Duluth, Minnesota over the years, and close enough to be influenced by Lake Superior from a standpoint of weather and energy.

I remember once wanting a glimpse of a NorEaster storm. We went to the shore near Duluth and donned every bit of cold weather gear we had. We tried to look at the waves, but they were not to be seen from the literally blinding sideways falling snow and sleet. the wind taking our breath away and the impossible task of getting any closer to the lake for fear of a rogue wave taking us to the depths and certain death.

Although I don’t read as much as I could or sometimes think I should, I have made my way through many a ships log, fact finding investigation, non-fiction story and/or fictionalized version about the Edmund Fitzgerald and other great lakes ships and ship wrecks. Web sites abound about the Great Lakes and the toll of ships taken as the ocean vessel Captains will tell you that they’d much rather ply their trade on the ocean than on Superior.

In 2004, we attended the launch of the United States Coast Guard Cutter Alder at the Manitowoc Shipyards on the Menominee River in extreme Northeastern Wisconsin. This was quite the experience. Up close and personal with the ship as it lay in it’s crib, then watching it slide sideways into the river to start it’s service, replacing the Sundew, an older cutter harbored in Duluth. If you ever get a chance to watch a large ship be christened, do it.

I guess watching that ship come into harbor in Ashland moved me as I thought of a former life or of a bygone era on the Great Lakes. Less than 50 ships remain from a fleet of over 350 in the 1950’s. A theme of my fictional writing is set on the waterfronts of the great lakes and includes a longshoreman, Joe Nighthawk, as the main character. A few chapters have been written. Some day I'll share them.

The lake changes everyday. Its color changes with the color of the sky. Its surface with the strength and direction or lack of the wind. The wrinkles change from the gulls and ducks flying across the waters and the pods of waterfowl dotted around in sight. The energy flows as the big lake cleanses itself of unwanted debris, the waves pushing old logs to the shore and scouring rocks into round edged nuggets.

Go to the water. Stand by its shore. Enjoy the pictures of the Philip R. Clarke.

That puff of black smoke is from the bow thruster used to get the ship exactly where they want it. Like parallel parking in downtown New York.

The Philip R. Clarke coming into port.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Warrior

This is a repost of something I wrote some time ago. In my mind, it deserves repeating, for the message comes from my heart and tells a great deal about what happens to many who are called to war.
Please bear with me and allow me this time and space.

The Warrior

Veterans are Warriors, men and women who are trained to kill, for society. Men and women who have taken the life of another human being. Even those Veterans that did not see action in the form of combat signed up or were drafted and followed orders. They would have given their life if asked. They would kill if they thought, at any brief moment in the throes of war, that they had to.

All soldiers, no matter what their military occupation is, are taught how to go to combat before learning any other skill or specialty. In basic training, these killing skills are taught to every soldier. Killing is the soldier warrior's job. The warrior is somehow stripped of the belief that life is too sacred to erase; then they are taught the details of exactly how to kill people. With a weapon, with their hands.

They are forced to practice it over and over and over and over until it is automatic, regardless of how scared they may be. Even if their hearts are pounding or if they are scared senseless, these warriors can still load, fire, and erase the life of the human being identified as the enemy. They kill, if not for themselves, for the soldier next to them who is a trained killer like them. A Brother or Sister, and for the society that has required their services as a killer.

Everyone who is trained to kill has lost something of themself and must find a way to control the imbalance that results. The military calls that control "self-discipline." Without it we would have millions of Timothy McVeigh's eliminating their perceived enemies with the lethal skills that they were trained for. These skills given to them with the approval of the rest of society. The military does not want nor allow this same “self discipline” to weigh in during the wartime activity.

We demand the warrior be disciplined and control themselves but when they return we treat them terribly. For those who have taken a life in a war and dealt with death, this discipline is a life-long struggle that is never truly resolved. They see the dead and relive the killings in their dreams. The soldier who kills another soldier comes home and one day realizes that there is a family somewhere in the world—in its own home—lacking a cherished family member. There are children who no longer have a father, mother or brother—women without their husbands and husbands without wives. No chance to fulfil the dream of growing old together.

That soldier who took a life may look at their own children when they get home, perhaps even years later, hug that child, and think about another child whose daddy or mommy they killed. How easy it would be for his or her child to be the parentless one! That soldier, trying to become a human being again, will not know what to say to anyone on this earth about this feeling. They will wonder if anybody understands what they are feeling—if anyone can. They may be able to share this feeling only with another Veteran, yet feel ashamed at reminding that Veteran of what he or she is also struggling to deal with. Worried that if he or she talks about it, they might be judged as bragging.

The real warrior is abandoned into silence. They fall upon the discipline that was introduced in them but they fall alone. Many Veterans forever fight this never-resolved battle.

Listen to the Vietnam War Veterans; listen to how they were received when they returned to this country. Listen to the Gulf War Vets that must fend for themselves as the very government that asks them to lay down their bodies vote down funding for proper and substantial treatment of their wounds.

In the case of the returning Vietnam Veterans, some were spat upon. Others had to withstand an onslaught of name calling that included things like baby killer and murderer. Society does not know this agent of death that is a warrior; it does not possess the skills nor the knowledge to reintegrate these people into society. Society asked them to kill on its behalf, but does little to return the warrior to a rightful place as a caring, compassionate member of a family and community.

Can the community do anything to help with this return to so-called normal society? The Warrior Veteran needs to be brought back into the Circle of Life. How can they find spiritual peace and understanding from the community? Only if the circle of their community is a healing circle.

Does the community ever rent a room, invite the Veterans, feed and honor them and listen to their stories of the atrocities of war or the horrors of being the deliverer of death to another by accident or for survival? When do they hear about arms blown off a man who walked down a road not knowing mines were there? Who will listen to the warrior's scramble for words that describe an incoming napalm strike on a village? Who hears the break in their voices?

These things happened. The blood and destruction has been seen by the Veteran. The community must acknowledge the sacrifice their Veteran was willing to give. Society and the community can not know and understand or postulate a reason for what has happened, for that same society and community allowed the war either by electing people into office or by sitting by and watching war upon war unfold without lifting a finger to stop it.

Who will sit and listen to the stories of these Veterans? Will the people of the community come forward and listen or will the Veteran be doomed to the darkness of a house where no one visits? Will the people lean down to say hello to the Veteran whose legs are missing because they were blown off in a battle, or will they cross the street in avoidance?

Many Veterans that seem like they are of sound body suffer with the intrusive thoughts of having to experience death first hand and in many cases, by their own hand. They are also in darkness. A Veteran struggling with his thoughts as he tries to understand PTSD is forever and constantly bombarded by shame, guilt, depression, anger, confusion and lonliness.

This Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is grossly misunderstood by most people. Some even say things like, “Get a life” or “Get over it.” when they hear of a Veteran that gets disability for the loss of control of his own life from the struggles with PTSD.

A warrior is a hunter with death and blood on their hands and real horror to relive in their dreams. They are the ignored and too often the wounded walking suicide-to-be. They are the men and women with visions that they cannot, but want to, leave behind. They constantly try to be sorry for their actions but fail because the destruction of their own heart will not allow it. The blackness is there, forever.

The Warrior accepts the inevitable truth that they will live and die lonely as they struggle to be understood.

Think of these things the next time you see a Veteran. And remember, those who the Warrior fought because they were told they were the enemy are Warriors too. They and their families will suffer the same as “our side”. They also have PTSD. The Mothers and Fathers of those also cry at the loss of a loved one. Brothers and Sisters, Grandmothers and Grandfathers will miss them. We are all on the same side as far as issues with our Warriors.

The Native American communities have been stepping forward for many many years. They welcome back their Warriors. They have ceremonies and honoring Pow Wow’s for the Veterans. They are not glad there is war. But they realize this. The Veteran, drafted or enlisted, whether a regular Army soldier or a National Guard member who was deployed into war, was following orders because they took an oath. They were all willing to sacrifice their own life if need be. They accepted the pain and suffering that happens to them as a Warrior from witnessing the death and destruction firsthand. This is what is honored in the Veteran. Honor the Warrior, not the war.

After Vietnam, society had much confusion about the war. Let us not make the same errors in the way we treat our Veterans that are returning from the Persian Gulf. Let us make ammends to ALL Veterans from ALL eras, combat and non-combat.

Honor the dead. Heal the wounded. Work for peace and end all war.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Lessons From Nature

As it was a blustery day in April, I wrote this story about one important lesson that was taught to me by Nature. I finished the story and went and sat down and looked out at the snow blowing past my window. I saw a flash of something and grabbed the binoculars that I keep handy. I spotted a large Golden Eagle in a tree outside the cabin. I grabbed the camera and shot this picture. It is a little out of focus for two main reasons. The windows need cleaning here at the cabin, and the snow was blowing so hard, it obscurred the view of the Eagle. I believe this sighting to be a great gift. Not many see these Golden Eagles around here.
Maybe it has a message for me, or for you.

Today is April 3rd and the weather outside is like a January day here in the Northland. We have the howling wind, dropping temperatures, snow mixed with rain right now, but in a few hours, it will be all snow. There is already a good two inch coating of slush on everything.

I guess I shouldn’t complain. In fact, moisture is needed badly. Lake levels are down and fields are in dire need of moisture for the upcoming growing season. We didn’t have any precipitation before February this year. Besides, complaining doesn’t change anything. Mother nature will do what it must do. It just gets to be April and there are many signs of Spring and the warmer season ahead and here we are putting it on hold while this latest storm blows through.

There is a lot to be said for nature and what it does. A spiritual teaching every time nature does anything that it does. Every wind that blows, from any direction, cannot be controlled. The rain or moisture in any form, falling from the sky. The clouds, or lack of the clouds that make a day gray or make it bright with sun. All these things, even the daylight and darkness are out of our control all together.

At a ceremony a few years ago, I was in charge of the sacred fire. This fire must be kept lit and burning for the entire time the ceremony is happening, no matter what the weather or circumstances. To allow the fire to extinguish by neglect is a bad thing to do. The fire is a sacred gift, it must be honored. No trash like cigarette butts get thrown into the fire. You don’t burn paper plates in this fire. You don’t burn anything but wood, the spirits of the Tree Nation, and heat the rocks, the Grand Mothers and Grand Father in this Sacred Fire.

I started the fire and had a pile of fire wood nearby. I had all the resources to keep the fire burning. I would take over after dinner, around 6:00 PM and stay up all night, then sleep a bit as others took my place. I spent many of my waking hours sitting by the fire even when I was not tending it, but to keep the embers alive and a flame burning was my ultimate responsibility.

One the third day, the wind started blowing out of the West. It was blowing hard and steady all day. Cooling, really, as we sat around on a 40 acre field in Northwest Minnesota in the hot July sun. As the day wore on, the wind kept up its fury and revved up and blew harder and harder as the day went on. By evening, it was a gale. Off to the west we saw flashes of lightning.

It looked as if a storm was definitely coming our way. It was cloudy. Flashes of lightning and then we heard the Thunderbeings coming from the west towards us. The sky darkened and the wind blew harder. The lightning and thunder. I was prepared. As the fire keeper, I had a plan. I would use longer whole round logs and place them over the flames when the rain started. This would shield the fire from the rain and keep it alive and burning below the logs. I had plenty of these placed aside, ready to pile them onto the flames.

The Thunderbeings bring a message. They sound mean with their loud claps. They make some people afraid. But as you learn to reliaze that these beings bring the wisdom from the west to the people, and they bring the cooling nourishing rains, the water, which is the life blood of the Sacred Earth Mother to us, we learn to know them and not be afraid.

The wind persevered, then the lightning and thunder was right upon us. The rain started and came hard when it started. I piled up the logs as planned and the rain poured. Lightning struck close by and actually started a fire in a pile of brush a couple of hundred yards away in an adjoining field. I tossed more large rounds on the fire to shield the flame from the rain.

The rain came down and I was drenched. I was wet down to the band of my underwear. there wasn’t a spot anywhere on my body that wasn’t wet. I knew it would stop at some point. I didn’t worry about being wet myself, but my flame was getting smaller and smaller and the logs I piled up over the fire were not keeping it shielded as I had hoped.

Then, the fire pit itself started to fill with water and the fire started to go out as the water poured onto the hot coals at the bottom of the pit. I had a butt can nearby and I dumped out the cigarette ends and started to bail the fire pit. I bailed , on my hands and knees. Still the rain came hard in torrents. Lightning and thunder this whole time striking all around me. I was wet through and through. The fire was going out as I tried desperately to bail the water out of the fire pit and keep the flames covered and protected from the falling torrential rain.

As I was on my hands and knees, bailing water and getting no where, a thought came to me. I thought that I can’t do it. I can’t win this battle. I don’t have what it takes to be in control of this fire and keep it burning. I have been beaten. Mother Nature and the forces of the natural world had beaten me. I realized I was no match for anything and that I don’t control anything.

As soon as this thought raced through my mind, the rain stopped. The lightning and thunder moved on past us on its journey Eastward. I was still on my hands and knees and although I saw no sign of a fire or an ember or even so much as a hot coal, I bailed, soaking wet.

I was there on my hands and knees, still, looking into my soul and wondering what had just happened to me. People in the tents camped all around me started to come out of their dwellings. Most of them were carrying their wet pillows and sleeping bags and drenched clothes. Some had to fix their tent poles that had blown over. Still others were cold and wet and wanted to come and attempt to warm up and dry out. I watched them come towards me and I was sad as I had let them down. There was no fire left burning to warm the people and dry the things that each relied upon to keep them comfortable through the night.

As they approached, I watched them. My eyes were cast downwards as I couldn’t face them in my moment of failure. But I noticed when I did look up from time to time that there was a bright light cast upon their faces. As they came towards me, they opened their arms and held their garments and sleeping bags out to this glow.

The fire had taken off. It was blazing. Bright and fiery kicking upwards towards the sky. Warm. It had come alive of its own will. People began to pat me on the back and they were saying to me that I was a great fire keeper and how no one could have kept that fire going in that gale, but I had done it. I was a hero. The people were drying out their things. They were warming up. They were sharing community in the middle of the night by the light and heat of a great fire in the middle of a field in extreme northern Minnesota. A fire that I had nothing whatsoever to do with.

I told them my story. I explained that I was not in control and that as soon as I realized that I didn’t control anything, any where, anytime, that’s when the rain stopped. That’s when the Creator allowed the fire to come back. The Creator gave us this fire after a lesson had been learned, after one of us realized something that was to be a turning point in their life.

We don’t control anything. When someone gets me mad, I don’t control what that person said or did. When the natural world does what it will do, we cannot do anything about it. We can’t control anything. Even our own path that we walk is determined by another force. It is none of my business what you think of me. Itr is not my concern that someone holds a different belief than I.

I learned that lesson that Summer night. I was taught something valuable and remembered it. I try to get the point across to others in hopes that they will realize it and their lives will be easier and they will not be bothered by things because they are not in control.

Last week, when I was in tough shape mentally, I forgot my lesson. I forget that it wasn’t me that said anything or did anything. It was me who dealt with things without remembering that I don’t control them. Realize this and live somewhat in peace. There are other things to learn and remember. This lesson was given to me. Take what you need and leave the rest.

This is a picture out the front window of the cabin. You can't see the movement of the trees in the wind, and you can't really see the snowflakes, but the lake is obscurred by the blinding snow not 100 yards in the distance. Enjoy the Spring.