Do you think of yourself as a Midwesterner? A Northerner? If you live in Chicago, author Ted McClelland would call you a Great Laker. McClelland spent last summer driving around the Great Lakes — a 9,600-mile trip that took him as far west as Duluth, Minnesota, and as far east as Kingston, Ontario — to research his upcoming book, The Third Coast, which looks at the Lakes as a distinct region of North America, with its own culture and common interests. Gapers Block is pleased to present a series of excerpts from the book over the next several months.
Rogers City, Michigan
When I walked into the International Sports Bar out of the hard blue late summer afternoon, the room was in the static lull between late lunch and happy hour. The barkeep, a potbellied man whose reading glasses rested on his paunch, was stocking a cooler. The keno screen was flashing numbers no one had bet on. And two old men were sitting at the end of the bar, trying to make their Miller High Lifes last until suppertime.
I walked up to the bar and introduced myself.
"I heard about this place from a guy named Jeremiah Grockan, in Cleveland," I said. "I met him when I visited the Calumet. He said a lot of sailors come here."
"Jeremiah Grockan," the barkeep returned, in a wary, nasal drawl. "Yeaaaah. He comes in here."
It's always awkward invading a small-town bar. Here, every face that came through the door belonged to a Rogers City local or a Great Lakes sailor, right off the boat. So I was twice a stranger.
"I'm writing a book on the Great Lakes, and I'd like to talk to some sailors," I said.
"You wanna talk to some sailors?" the barkeep repeated. He gazed at the old men. "This guy sailed for 40 years. Talk to him. Hey, Art!"
I don't know if there's a freshwater term for "old salt," but if there were, Art Gapczynski would fit it. Eighty years had snatched off most of his hair, so he made do with a ball cap cocked on his scalp. Art's son Mike, the captain of the Arthur M. Anderson, owned the International. Art just drank here. We each ordered a beer — there was an hour or two to kill yet — and Art told me sea stories. He'd been born and raised in Rogers City, but the boats took him away before he was old enough to vote, drink or marry.
"As a kid, during The War, I worked on the fish tugs, and I always looked at them big ships," he said. "When I was in the ninth grade, they were looking for sailors. They came by the school."
Art went to St. Ignace for his sailing card, and the Michigan Limestone Company, which owned the boats that carried calcite from the quarry, put him to work as a porter. Some guys last a month on the boats. Art was the opposite: that was as long as he could stay on land. In ten years, he was a head chef.
"I coulda had a job with my father-in-law," he said. "He was an electrician. He offered me bulldozers, building I-75. I didn't want to get off the lake. I worked in the quarry nine days. I got tired of eatin' dust. When I started sailing, there was no vacations. We started fittin' out March 15, we didn't get back 'til December 15. When I was home, I had housework. I had ten children. The most I could take was 30 days. I loved that life. It was a good life."
His son Mike was the same. Mike was a "hawspipe": he'd worked his way up from deckhand to captain. In Rogers City, that's upper class. The captains are the only ones in town pulling down six figures. While Mike sailed, his wife Pam ran the kitchen.
It took an hour for Art to reach the bottom of his beer can, and the end of his career — he was, he said proudly, the patriarch of a family with 282 years on the Lakes. Another son was captain of the John G. Munson. A grandson was a deckhand. When Art was done, Pam dealt out snapshots of her husband's boat.
"He's supposed to be in about 8:30 tomorrow," she said. "My sister tells me I have the best of both worlds because my husband's never home."
There were eight boats coming in that weekend, Pam said. She kept track of all the shipping schedules. If I hung around, there would be plenty of sailors in and out. So I ate supper at the bar, and sure enough, around seven o'clock, the crew of the Canadian freighter Algorail began filling the stools. The first to sit down was Alex Mackenzie. Alex had 29 hours left on a three-month tour, and he was in such a hurry to close the gap between his mouth and a glass of beer that he'd called a taxi from the boat. Right away, he ordered a tall stein and began tippling. Alex was getting off at Windsor, the following midnight, and he couldn't wait to sit at home in Niagara Falls with a refrigerator full of Molson.
"When I get off the boat, I just want to be by myself for a few days," he said. "When you're on the boat, you're surrounded by people 24-7. If you've got a roommate, you've got no privacy."
"What about your wife?" I asked.
"Oh, I had two of those. Now I've got Irene. She's my good friend. I've got my place, she's got her place, and it all works out great."
I'd been in Ontario the weekend before, so I traded Alex a loonie and a toonie for two dollar bills. I fed them to the jukebox and punched in Bob Seger and Kid Rock. Alex followed me, playing Eric Clapton's "Bell Bottom Blues" and the Beatles' "Long and Winding Road."
"I know my music," he said. "I just got that new John Hiatt album. You like him? He's a poet."
We talked about music, and then we talked politics. Canadians love to talk politics, especially American politics. Blue-collar Canucks who would be total rednecks in the U.S. sound as left-wing as the editors of the Nation.
"You know," he said, "not everyone is born with the same amount of brains, so you've gotta have laws to make sure the smart guys take advantage of the people who aren't so smart. Here in the States, it's dog eat dog."
"But one of the reasons you're able to have all those social programs is that we're paying the freight to defend this continent," I pointed out. Alex couldn't dispute that. But he could shift the blame south.
"Fair enough," he said, ducking his head for emphasis. "Fair enough. But no one's making you do that."
Kurt Friedrich, the Algorail's electrician, came in from the library across the street, where he'd been checking his e-mail. Kurt kept a bicycle on board for trips into town, and he leaned it up against the International. No one was going to steal it in Rogers City.
"Rogers City is one of the friendliest towns for sailors," he said. "In the big cities, like Chicago or Milwaukee, sailors get absorbed. The best sailor bars are in small places like Ashtabula or Conneaut."
A bald, broad-faced German, Kurt had been sailing since 1978, when a shipping company executive picked him up as he was thumbing a ride from Thunder Bay to Duluth, and offered him a job. Kurt lived on the other side of the lake, but as a Teuton, he didn't understand the U.S.-Canadian rivalry. He couldn't see much difference between the two Anglo nations.
"This whole Great Lakes," he said, "the language is the same, it's the same people. Ontario, Michigan. I don't know why there's a border. It's just a nuisance."
The last to arrive were Gilbert and Wanda. They'd walked the mile-and-a-half from the dock. Both were in their twenties, and both spoke about the boats with the pained weariness you always hear from young sailors who have not yet resigned themselves to life on the Lakes.
"I can last two more years," moaned Wanda, who worked in the galley. She was sipping a screwdriver through a straw. "You see the same ports over and over again."
"That's why I'm switching to deep water," Gilbert said. "I'm going back to school."
They went off to shoot pool, at one of the tables beneath the Big Ten banners. Kurt turned to watch until they were out of earshot.
"A lot of people say they are going to quit, but they stay because of the money," he said. "I had a friend who quit sailing. Once he was back on land, he decided that being on the boats was a waste of life."
Right then, I felt like I belonged in the International Sports Bar, sailor or no. It was September 15. I'd been traveling around the Lakes for three months, on a trip was supposed to have lasted exactly that long. I should have been home in Chicago that very night. Instead, I was sitting on a barstool hundreds of miles away, looking for conversation and companionship among strangers.
The Algorail was sailing at midnight. At 11 o'clock, I offered the crew a ride back to the ship. We stopped in at Greka's, a scruffy sailor bar in a gray frame house on a back block, and then I piloted toward the lights of the ship. Suspended above the water, they formed a fallen constellation.
"I wish I could take you down to our ship," Kurt had said, before we left Greka's. "It used to be so easy, but since September 11, there's so much security."
I was driving, and he was pedaling, so we passed each other after I'd dropped his shipmates at the gate.
"Send me some pictures from the ship!" I shouted.
"Yes!" he said. "You have my e-mail. Keep in touch!"
The Anderson got into Rogers City around noon the next day. When I went into the International for lunch, its owner was standing behind the bar.
"Are you Mike?" I asked.
"Captain Mike," he corrected.
Even on the beach, Mike Gapczynski insisted on his rank. Captain Mike showed me a picture of his bar's predecessor, the old International Hotel. The flat-fronted inn and tavern had been built in 1887, and Mike's mother-in-law owned it when it burned 110 years later. Mike and Pam rebuilt it as a 21st Century sports bar. (I'd heard a complaint about that from a local in Greka's: "The International used to be better before it burned down, but then they made it all nice.") Sailors came in because they knew they could cash a check, borrow a twenty, or catch a ride to the dock if they failed to coordinate their drinking to their boat's departure time.
"We even helped a sailor who got thrown in the slammer," Captain Mike said. "I bought his bus ticket to Duluth, so he could meet his boat. I got him something to eat, I gave him a blanket."
Captain Mike had an errand to run — time on land was always short — so he left me with Rodney Halterman, a 30-year sailor.
"There's a bar like this in every port on the Great Lakes," Rodney told me. "The Flatiron Café in Cleveland, Mugshots in Toledo, the Brass Rail in Superior. I could go around the Great Lakes and borrow $100 in any of the towns I go to. I always see people I know. It's like I got a lot of hometowns."
Rodney's real hometown was Haslett, which is a suburb of Lansing, my hometown. When I told him where I was from, he asked if I had ever heard of Kuerbitz Drive.
"I used to live on Kuerbitz Drive," I said. "When I was in kindergarten."
"Did you know a Lynn Cummings?"
"Yes! She was the neighborhood hippie. She went to Woodstock. She had a mean dog who always wore a muzzle."
"Yeah, well she's my wife. She was a hermit when I met her. She was living a cabin in the U.P. It works great. We're both pretty independent. I won't see her the whole time from July 15 to January 1. I'm working six months straight."
So there was one degree of separation between us. In a portside bar, that's close enough for a long afternoon chat.
1. Sheboygan & Manitowoc County, Wisconsin
2. Marquette, Michigan
3. Mackinac Island, Michigan
4. Grand Marais, Minnesota
5. Pays Plat First Nations Reserve, Ontario, Canada
6. Isle Royale, Michigan
7. Rogers City, Michigan
8. Toronto, Canada
9. Hamilton, Ontario
10. Hamburg, New York
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