Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Book

Some years ago, I tried my hand at fiction. I developed a character named Joe Nighthawk and told a story about a time later in his life. A life he spent working on the docks and ore boats out of the Great Lake Superior city of Duluth, Minnesota. In some ways, it is modeled after my own experiences, but not in every sense. As fiction will allow, I took liberties with the truth and intertwined my own life, feelings and existence into the life of the character I tried to create.

I'm not sure where I'll go with this or if it will ever be a completed work, but I'll continue writing, when the mood strikes, on this project and the legacy of my real life that I plan on leaving for my Grandchildren.

This is the prelude, the beginning, Chapter 1

The Adventures of Joe Nighthawk

Chapter One

He had been home from the war for a few weeks now. A friend told him he could get unemployment compensation after discharge from the Army,

“Yeah, the Army was payin’ you, right? Then they let you out of the Army and let you go home, right? Okay, so now you had a job, being in the Army, and now your unemployed! Man, go apply for the money, It’s like eighty five bucks a week for six months!” he said.

So he did it, and was reaping the benefits while he tried to straighten his head. He literally was on the battlefield one day and in a big bird headed for home the next. Within three days, just 72 short hours of a lifetime, he was in his home town, back in the world, and not a clue as to what to do or what his next step would be.

Being home from the Army was a good thing. That’s all a soldier fighting in a war in a strange land far far away ever desires is to be home again. For Joe Nighthawk it was no different. The time he spent in Vietnam seemed like it would never end. When he returned, he found that most of his friends were gone. Either they were in the service and in Vietnam like he had been, or had moved away, gone off to college or had gotten married. Others were just gone, maybe they died in that war. He didn’t have a lot of close friends from his high school days as it was, but did know his neighborhood and made notice of who was still there and who was gone since the time he left two years prior. Now, the familiarity of the neighborhood was gone too. He felt a little like a foreigner.

He was given a uniform to travel home with. All civilian clothes he had were lost, and nothing left at his parents home fit him anymore, maybe a shirt or two. He had a few bucks that Uncle Sam gave him, his last paycheck, and he spent most of that drinking and playing poker on the long trip home. With the little he had left he bought a pair of jeans. Now he was broke and had applied for a biweekly check from unemployment. Pocket money if nothing else. He was staying at his folks place while he got on his feet and got a job.

But the main thing was that now he was home. He was walking the streets of the city where he grew up. A city that bought and paid for its heritage with the sweat of labor. A city at the far Western edge of the Great Lake Superior, Duluth, MN.

A shipping port, the largest on the largest of the Great Lakes. Chicago and Detroit were over 500 miles away on Lake Michigan, the next lake down from Superior. Grain was shipped through here from the Dakotas, Coal, Portland cement and the rich iron ore found in the Mesabi Range. Ocean going vessels came and went here. But it was the big ships, the Lakers, as they were called, the long ore boats with holds as big as two football fields, that carried the resources away and were the backbone of the economy.

The girl he left behind was gone. She left him with a ‘Dear John’ while he was in Nam. He had a couple of gals he was writing to, but found out they were doing their patriotic duty and being kind and friendly to the GI’s overseas. His old haunts had changed, or he had changed. He knew right away that the war would do that to a man, change them. He learned that quickly, when he stepped foot on the ground in Vietnam. He was edgy, unsettled, and being broke and alone didn’t help any. Night after night at this bar or that proved to him that his best friend was anyone seated next to him hammering down the sauce with beer chasers.

“Welcome home to America”, he thought, as he belted another bourbon and sipped the beer a little to wash it down. He’d already been in this place for an hour. His eyes were adjusted to the darkness. He focused on the wooden bar and the nicks and scratches and dents and thought to himself that a hell of a lot of whiskey had passed across that slab of wood. He was sure that it had seen its share of blood as well.

That night, after the bars were closed, he went to an all night dive and changed from the hard stuff to coffee. He picked up a paper and looked through the classifieds. The Help Wanted section wasn’t full of jobs, and he had seen most of them before in other feeble attempts at seeking employment. He’d take a gander anyway and read down the columns.

Before he was drafted, he worked along the waterfront. He never had a real job as he was only eighteen when the Army sent him his notice. Now, out of the Army, fresh from the American war in Vietnam, no college or special training. He had been in the infantry. He was a leader of men, but who would buy that crap from a twenty one year old with no work experience.

No, labor is what he sought. Labor is what he could do right now. The government had a program where he could go to school and make something of himself, but he had to get a grub steak now, get out of his parents home and venture into the world. It would take time and he would need more than unemployment compensation as income.

He saw the ad for dock workers at a loading facility along Duluth’s waterfront. The next morning, he shaved, cleaned up and rid himself of the stink of the bar room and applied for a job.

“Hello, I’m here to apply for the dock worker position.” he said.

“Yes, fill out this application, do you have a pen?” the receptionist said as she handed him the form and pointed to a cup of pens sitting on her desk.

Joe Nighthawk sat down and filled in the blanks. It was a short form. The longer apps had the experience sections and more space to write about references and previous employers. The short form needed to know if you were breathing and capable of servile labor. He was able-bodied, he was thinking when he handed the completed application back to the receptionist.

She told him that the applications would be accepted until tomorrow, then a manager would look at them and call anyone that they would be interested in. Joe headed out the door, feeling that another dead end while looking for a job in a tight market was futile. He was pleasantly surprised when the next day, he was called and hired. He’d be on the bottom rung, but he would have a job.

Joe was a strong young man. His body made hard over the past year of being a soldier. Plenty of walking and exercise, a diet low in fat. The effects of the drinking had been absorbed by his youth at this point. His muscles rippled and his stomach was flat. At nearly six feet tall he looked formidable. The leather jacket he wore, the one handed down from his step father, fit neatly and the elastic around the waist set his profile to angular.

It took labor to accomplish the task of loading and unloading these behemoth ships. People with grit and a strong back. Folks tuned in to the weather that could take the punishing cold of winter up here in the Northland and the heat and humidity of the hot midwestern summer and everything in between.

Joe grew up here. He knew the weather. He’d seen it snow in late May and experienced the 65 degree stretch in January of 1957. He was rugged before his time spent after being drafted into the Army. Now, as a combat Veteran, he had a hardness, a patina, covering his soul. He was solid and lean. His hair and eyes were dark. He was young, but typical  for a soldier, barely 21, when he returned home.

His wartime experiences would be inside his mind. They weren’t a bad thing at first, after all, he just got home. He didn’t realize these thoughts and visions would stay with him forever when he was 21. In fact, he didn’t dwell on the past at all, as he had a future and a bottle of Jim Beam, in front of him. Gone was the youth, and so was the life of a teenager. It was time to go out and earn his own living.

He’d thought of being like his father. Not his biological father, that man disappeared a long time ago. His real dad left home when he was very young, still an infant. He was raised primarily by his mother until about age 6 or 7. That’s when his mom met this Native American fellow named Jim Nighthawk. Jim Nighthawk was his stepfather after he married his mom, and that’s who he was thinking of. An American Indian from East of Duluth who came there in the 1940’s and worked on the rails and in the iron ore mines. Joe didn’t want to be underground and he didn’t want to be away from the big lake.

Jim Nighthawk's dad, a man the young Joe called Grandpa, worked on the ore boats. He was a cook and told stories of nights out on the deck with the moonlight so bright you could read the fine print on a last will and testament. He’d follow Grandpas lead and find a job with the boats. He’d be a longshoreman to start, then, eventually earn his way aboard a ship. He’d sail the Great Lakes Fleet. He’d experience the weather right up close and personal, standing on the docks or on the deck of a ship heading outbound for Cleveland. He’d see the big cities, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Erie Pennsylvania and the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Joe had applied at a few places at first. Finding a job in 1970 was a little tough. The steel and iron ore business was changing. A newer process for the ore was being developed. The Japanese had found a way to produce high quality steel from inferior grade ore. The rich ore, taken from under the ground in Northern Minnesota, wasn’t in such demand anymore.

The industry was reeling and until they could compete on the world market, the economy of this region that relied heavily on iron ore mining was at a standstill. As the USS Steel Company’s plant closed and over 4000 people lost their jobs, unemployment was high. The bars were filled with workers who spent their time drinking as the prospect of a livelihood was bleak in their minds.

Joe was one of the lucky ones. He had his youth and strength going for him and now had a job. He worked the worst of shifts, and did the meanest sloppiest of jobs, but he was there. And working in the bowels of an ore boat, the idea of going any further down was out of the question. The only movement would be up towards the sky.

The development of Taconite changed things quickly. The iron ore tailings could be made into pellets. These pellets could be shipped in the big boats. The pellets flowed like water out of the rail cars and through large chutes into the holds of the ships. There were some jobs available, but so many unemployed. Duluth’s population was dwindling and dropped from over 115,000 to just under 85,000 in what seemed like overnight. Being young and willing was what got Joe his start.

The bars in Duluth and the Wisconsin port city of Superior were the only places that made any money for a long time. They seemed to flourish during times of plenty and of despair. They would be sitting side by side, three and four to a block, and all full of patrons drinking away the time and pain. But things looked better and ebbed and flowed. This was a time of flowing, and Joe had his job with the great lakes shipping industry.

As time went on, he had spent much of it in the bars, too. He was a seasoned man with his fists. Being young and lean meant defending yourself against those that build a challenging posture after a few cold ones. Joe seemed to be a target often, but he also targeted others when the grain spirits got the best of him. He didn’t like to hang around in this environment, but this was where the men who did the hard work went. He stood with them.

His father, the Nighthawk guy who raised him after his real father took off and left him and his mother with four children, used to drink a lot. He was recovering from alcoholism when he entered Joe’s life. He’d tell Joe about his disease, but at this stage of his own life, Joe forgot the lessons and teachings of a wiser more determined man that took Joe as his own. He was a good man and treated his mother with fairness and respect.

The elder Nighthawk would tell Joe about when he used to drink and how he’d been one of those deadbeat kind of guys. He learned the value of a loving wife and a family and honored the prospect of raising Joe and his brother and sisters as his own.

Surely Joe wasn’t an alcoholic. After all, these men here in the bar held a job and raised a family, they supported themselves and didn’t drink all day at work. Joe never saw that he had any problems with alcohol. He was just like so many others that it seemed normal to stand at the rail after a long shift on the docks.

He was single, he paid his rent in the small rented rooming house after his stint at his parent's place. The Seaway Hotel was a place where many of the transient boat hands stayed when their ship was in port. Joe had a permanent room there. It was close to the docks, walking distance. Joe didn’t own a car in those early days.

His routine would be to take a call. The foreman would call the Seaway, The message would be delivered to Joe. He’d be given the time when he’d have to report, the name of the ship that would be loading or unloading, the commodity that would be handled and a dock number. He’d get the word and prepare for his long shift with the clothing he’d need to stay comfortable and a few sandwiches to eat. He’d stop and get his thermos filled with steaming hot coffee at the 19th Street Diner, just across from the Greyhound bus terminal on Superior Street in West Duluth.

The shifts were long, some around the clock, not finished until the job was done. Then some rest, a stint at the bar, and a call to do it all over again. A hard life, but easier to digest when your young and fearless.

It was after a particularly long shift that he wandered into the Waterfront Diner, a small place that catered to the longshoreman with service and hot coffee twenty four/seven. Joe was seated at the counter with his hands wrapped around a mug of hot java. He was waiting for the breakfast he ordered. The waitress, a pretty young thing named Carol, walked by back and forth. He noticed her. He had seen her often as he frequented The Waterfront on almost a daily basis. He liked her curves coming and going and wished he could sit and chat with her instead of just sitting there and voice a few words now and then as she worked.

He had noticed her hands, the left one in particular, and that the third finger wore no ring. He wondered for a long time if she was either married and didn’t wear the ring, had been married and is now divorced, or just single and hasn’t found “Mr. Right” yet. He was hoping she was single and unattached and spoke to her when she made a brief stop at his place at the long counter and filled his mug with steaming hot coffee.

“Would you like to go out sometime?” He asked, softly, barely audible.

“What do you mean, go out?” answered Carol.

“You know, go out, see a show, have a bite to eat, together” said Joe.

Carol turned when the bell rang telling her the order was up. She kept her pace throughout the whole exchange. She had dark brown hair and wore only a little make up. She didn’t need it. Her features were bright on their own. Her lips and nose made her cute, her eyes made her beautiful. She kept herself busy, even in the wee hours at The Waterfront. She had heard so many quips, smart remarks and come-ons from the male audience that made up the clientele of the diner that she was immune to most of it. When Joe had spoken to her out of profile and asked her out, she didn’t respond immediately to his request.

After serving him his plate of ham and eggs and waiting on half a dozen other early morning breakfast eaters, she walked back in front of Joe and while filling his mug with more hot brew said, “Sure, I’d like that, I’d like to go see a show.”

Joe smiled and gulped down the mouthful of hash browns he had in his mouth. He started to speak and she was gone, vanished down to the far end of the counter, setting up a place for a customer and asking if he’d like some coffee.

1 comment:

Mel said...

Well, he's a smart fella for the most part. Do whatcha gotta do to get to where ya wanna be......and he's got a cute little waitress he's gonna be chasing, too!

I don't think he's going to be a boring character--not if he's got wee bits of you tossed into his character! LOL

What fun..... I remember another another story about a fella and a waitress..... Pretty sure that was here.