Tuesday, 14 June 2011

A Life on the River As told to Gregory Zimmerman

A Life on the River
As told to Gregory Zimmerman

Mose was a bit worried. Christmas season 1941 was coming up and he had just been laid off by the Army Corps of Engineers. He was 21 now and would have made a career of the Corps, but it wasn’t going to work out that way for him.

He had gained great experience on the river with the Corps, including working the river ice survey by skates. Skating the river provides a real close-up view. He knew the river well before that job, and even better now. And he knew his way around boats.

Growing up in downtown Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, he was never far from the river. The odd jobs he worked as a kid included helping out on the US/Canada ferry. (Other odd jobs included helping at Callahan’s grocery store and even earning some commissions by connecting visitors to the Sault with boarding houses they could stay in. His dad had an unusual odd-job related to the river as well, working as an extra in the 1922 silent film “The Rapids,” filmed here in the Sault and featuring a very new-to-movies Mary Astor.)

That afternoon, Mose was up on the second floor of the federal building, looking into enlisting in the Navy. The sign posted on the board stated that would require a trip to Green Bay. That was a disappointment. A trip to Green Bay wasn’t going to work out at that time. Walking down the hall, he was approached by a man who asked it he’d like to work on the Favorite.

Mose knew the Favorite, just as everyone in town did. It was a heavy wrecking tug, one of the biggest around. It wasn’t the first tug to be called the Favorite, in fact it was the fourth, all pronounced with the long i. Its predecessor had an illustrious career working the river but had been sent off to distant duties. This slightly smaller Favorite had also earned a strong reputation for its muscle on the lakes.

Mose spent a year on the Favorite, including time as wheelman. The work was all across the Great Lakes, freeing grounded freighters, salvage operations, even light duty ice breaking. Mose got additional boat experience, including taking evasive maneuvers. During one particular night-time storm in south Lake Michigan, a breakwall appeared unexpectedly, visible only by the lightning illuminating the skies (this was pre-radar). Mose took her hard to starboard and prevented an collision with the breakwall.

The experience wheeling in the Great Lakes paid off. Mose ended up in the Coast Guard, in an LCI flotilla, in action in Africa and the landings at Sicily and Salerno. But before they could help invade Sicily and Italy, the flotilla had to get across the Atlantic. An LCI (Landing Craft Infantry) was designed for landing troops and equipment on the beach, not to cross the ocean. They were rather short ships to make an Atlantic crossing at only 158 feet long with a 23 foot beam, and with a flat bottom. They crossed the ocean in convoy, protected by larger, more heavily armed ships.

During one big storm in the Atlantic , some confusion cropped up about the exact location of all the other ships in the convoy. Mose was wheeling an LCI when he saw the boat immediately ahead looming closer. Another hard to starboard maneuver prevented a collision with the other boat. Mose served with the flotilla in Africa, Italy and England where the flotilla began to prepare for the landing in Normandy. Mose got to come home before Normandy and returned home (on the Queen Mary) safely.

Back from the war, the river continued to figure large in Mose’s everyday life in the Sault. Fire fighting became his career but his avocation was the river and woods. An avid fisherman (and hunter -- Mose also stewards an excellent 80-acre parcel he re-forested, the now 35-year old spruces provides great habitat.)

Mose knowledge of the river continued to expand as he spent hours and hours from the upper river to Drummond in his own boat and while ice fishing, often with Billie, his wife of 50+ years who has her stories about the river (such as having to run an extra set of keys down to Munuscong when something happened to Mose’s set).

Even back when others saw the river as a handy place to discharge waste, Mose saw it as a place worth protecting. He has seen slag dumped directly in the river, poorly treated waste water discharged into the river, and seemingly small actions such as people tossing garbage over the side of a boat. None of it makes any sense to him.

He speaks out against pollution, not in formal hearings, but among his friends and acquaintances. He has been involved in some organized efforts; he worked with Michigan United Conservation Clubs, helping collect petitions for the original Michigan bottle bill. When the Binational Public Advisory Council for the St. Marys River started in the late 1980s, he attended the first few meetings, but found the discussions a bit too drawn out. He viewed his part as being on the river, and talking it up in informal settings. He let others hash out the policies and procedures.

Mose still maintains his 16’ fishing boat, but at 91 doesn’t get out as much as he’d like to. He’s glad to see that the river is cleaner, but sees that we still have a lot of work to do, much of which involves changing people’s and governments’ opinions and habits.

We newcomers working on the St. Marys River cleanup recognize that we’re building on the attachment to the river of the previous generations of river residents. Not all of us can talk about spending a life on the river but we’re trying to keep it in good shape for those who can and so that future generations will be able to.

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