The crawl we assumed up the narrow, cold channel caused the diesel fuel to back up over us stinging our eyes and tasting like bad scotch. The oily smell was only comforting because it meant we were still underway, not dead in the water; that even though the pistons were only erratically striking we were still headed for port.
I thought about my crew and the legions of men before them. These sons of farmers, running away from the monotony of fields, brought words like “plowing” through the waves and “planting” one’s feet on deck. The “trough” of a wave was as familiar to them as the “silo” of a steam ship. The hitches and square knots of farm life served them well on board.
These were young men handily accustomed to long hours and inclement weather. They had known since boyhood to take care with their tools and how to jerry rig machinery. They ate well when food was on the table and knew how to drop off to sleep quickly to make the most of short nights. They traded rolling hills for choppy water, dust for wind blown spray, and manure for engine grease. They accepted the wave’s slap on the bow as proxy for nighttime’s singing tree frogs, cricket’s chirp and the worried barking of dogs. Clear, cast iron farm bell clangs were replaced with long, throaty fog horn blasts. They had escaped the fallow of the fields to work the lakes and it was cathartic.
Earth’s boulders line the shore / Cause the raucous waves to crash /
Boys who traveled no further than the next town, who put in their miles behind a horse drawn plow or on a tractor seat making tedious parallel rows of turned earth, left the farms of Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin to journey from port to port. While knots measured speed on oceans, the farm boys judged distance by miles, so to accommodate them calculations on the