Deck Hand: Life on Freighters of the Great Lakes, by Nelson “Mickey” Haydamacker, with Alan D. Millar. University of Michigan Press, 118 pages, color and black and white photos, softcover, $22.95.
So much of maritime history is the stories of great captains, visionary leaders, or risk-taking entrepreneurs. Of course, most of the actual work was done by people below them on the hierarchy from officers down to deck hands. As it turns out, even the lowliest mariners have great yarns to tell, and that’s the case with Nelson “Mickey” Haydamacker, who began his working life as a deck “ape” on Great Lakes bulk carriers in the early 1960s. With writer Alan D. Millar, Haydamacker has shared his early adventures in a new memoir, Deck Hand: Life on Freighters of the Great Lakes. It’s an immensely likeable story told as if Mickey were sharing a beer with you in one of the dives he visited in many lake ports.
In 1962, Haydamacker was an 18-year-old kid anxious to make his way in the world. Following the lead of relatives, Haydamacker applied for a job with the Ohio-based Interlake Steamship Company, one of the largest operators of taconite ore and coal carriers on the Great Lakes. Haydamacker vividly describes his trepidation and excitement as he boards the Elton Hoyt 2nd in Ashtabula. The young man had barely traveled outside his home town of Algonac, Mich., on the St. Clair River. He’s soon put to work fitting out the Hoyt for the upcoming season.
As the new man, he gets the worst jobs, starting with painting the exterior of the Hoyt the classic fire engine red of the ore freighter. He also explains “soogeying,” a term so obscure that it’s hard to find in dictionaries. It means scrubbing and cleaning the ship so that it’s spotless, and the work is never-ending. Haydamacker accepts the job good-naturedly–he doesn’t admit to much grumbling–and eventually he’s rewarded with a promotion to “deckwatch” by his second season. The new job has new responsibilities aboard a new ship, but the reader gets the sense that this intelligent fellow is getting a bit bored.
After two years, five ships, one serious mishap, and numerous visits to ports from Taconite Harbor, Minn., to Tonawonda, N.Y., Haydamacker decides that another career path, law enforcement, is more to his taste. He soon joins the Michigan State Police. But the two years aboard the ore boats adds critical lessons to his early years, and his memories are a fine addition to the big picture of life as a Great Lakes mariner.