October 15 — I was listening to one of my favorite songs from my adolescence, the eerie, haunting “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” I think I’ve always assumed Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 tune was about a shipwreck that had happened long ago, but today I decided to find out more. To my surprise, two of the best sites dedicated to the Fitzgerald have been developed by young people who weren’t yet born in 1975, which I learned is the year in which the Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior, killing all 29 members of her crew.
The first site, S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald Online, has information about the ship, the crew, and the wreck. The second site, 3D Edmund Fitzgerald, features 3D drawings, meticulously detailed and with documentation where details are missing, for example, the hole for the ladder to the crow’s nest. I give these kids a lot of credit for their thoughtful interest in an event that is minor in the scheme of history and that most remember primarily because of Lightfoot’s tribute. Both sites are well done and worth bookmarking.
I won’t get into the details of the Edmund Fitzgerald or the wreck — just visit S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald Online. What the tragedy of the Edmund Fitzgerald reminds me of, though, is what all of us too often forget — the work of those who keep us comfortable and in comfort. The Fitzgerald was carrying iron ore in her hold for the auto industry. Who mined the ore? Who loaded the Fitzgerald? Who would have unloaded her? Who would have hauled the ore to the plant? Who would have processed it? People — people who risk their lives so that we can have heat, food, necessities, comforts, and conveniences. People who may like danger and risk and who are often fatalistic about it. People who work on farms, in mines, in processing plants, in rail yards, in dockyards — and on freighters. How many farmers killed or maimed, miners buried, rail men crushed, how many injured, amputations a testament to the risks of the machine age? How easy it is not to think of the essential work we’ve never seen or experienced, like that performed by stagehands behind the scenes at a theatrical production.
The men of the Edmund Fitzgerald experienced bitter cold, howling winds, and crashing waves — and the knowledge of wrecks that “the gales of November remembered” — November, one of the stormiest and deadliest months for shipping on the Great Lakes.
Today marks the 30th anniversary of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and the deaths of all her hands. No one knows what caused the wreck itself. But we do know a great deal about her crew. For the most part, they were seasoned seamen, as well as family men. One had survived Iwo Jima, while another pursued a passion for learning cooking and baking. A couple, including the captain, were looking forward to retirement. They were ordinary men who knew they could die on the job but probably never expected to, or to be memorialized in one of the decade’s hit singles — or online.
When you take a look around you, at your food, at your clothes, at your appliances, at your furniture, at virtually everything you own, remember the men of the Edmund Fitzgerald — and everyone else who, sight unseen, keeps you warm, fed, clothed, and comfortable. They deserve to be recognized for all they are willing to do — and all they are willing to risk.
On this 30th anniversary, take a moment to think about the men who died and their families, and all who die or are injured performing their work.