John Delach

On The Outside Looking In

Prince Christian Sound, Greenland: July 13, 2010

An excerpt from my vacation log: “Voyage of the Vikings: July17 to August 5”.

I had awakened early in anticipation of the possibility of experiencing a unique crossing through a Greenland sound. Unfortunately, the early morning fog won’t quit. Unless it cooperates, my hope will be dashed, I wait for the MV Maasdam captain’s first  briefing of the day. Shortly after nine, Captain James Russell-Dunford’s booming voice announces:

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. It’s been quite a night and a rather long one for me. I have only just returned to the bridge having been relieved so I could get a bit of rest. One of our passengers, an eighty-four-year-old man took ill late last night and our doctor determined that he had to be evacuated. We returned to Qaqortoq (Greenland) arriving at 3 am where we lowered him by tender and he was taken to the local hospital with his wife and their baggage. The crew did a superb job and we were on our way back to sea by 3:30. Hopefully, he will be fine and I’ll be able to report his status.

We have made good time and will be approaching an entrance to the (Prince William) sound in a half-hour. Helicopter observations report that the sound is ice-free, but we’ll have to see if the fog persists when we reach the entrance before I can commit to a passage.

I return to my book continuing to sit looking out over the bow from the Crow’s Nest, an observation area above the ships bridge that looks over the bow giving me a panoramic view of what lies ahead of the ship.

When the electronic gong signals another announcement, I look up and there in the distance breaking through the mist directly in front of the ship is a mountain at least 2,000 or 3,000 feet high. “Where did that come from?” I remark to the woman in the next seat.

I rise to leave as the captain announces we were going to start a passage. “I may have to turn around if conditions deteriorate, but right now I am satisfied with visibility and ice conditions.”

Back in our cabin, I put on rain pants over my jeans, a wind breaker, wool vest raincoat and a Tilley’s rain hat and off I go to the bow. I stay only long enough to photograph our entrance into the straits. I move to the stern out of the wind and away from the crowds. Here I stay for the entire passage except for lunch in the Lido and a camera battery change. The rain is heavy and cold but, not only do I survive it, more importantly so does my camera. Whenever possible, I shoot from positions shielded by bulkheads and over hangs that protect my Nikon, and when necessary, I use one of the many cloth napkins I expropriated to keep my camera dry when I have to expose it to the elements.  

What a passage; the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever witnessed. It may have been better had the sun been out, certainly far more pleasant and colorful, but the low clouds and mist add drama that, in my opinion, trump color. Mountains rise to heights in excess of 4,000 feet closing in to the ship as close as 500 feet on either side. At times, layers of clouds wrap around the rock faces, clinging to the sides obscuring them, but allowing crags and peaks to poke through.

Other times, the drab gray, brown and green formations rise free of the mist. Countless waterfalls drain pockets of ice and snow while seven different glaciers descend down the mountains, one directly into the sound. Icebergs of all sizes, shapes and colors drift by. The captain’s enthusiasm grows as we continue and, at some point he silently decides we will complete the journey including a side-trip to a lone Inuit village that clings to a rocky landing in the sound.

Approximately 150 men, women and children inhabit Aappilattoq, ( APE-il

-at- tog) an isolated hamlet of rectangular pre=fabricated houses all with exteriors in bright colors perched precariously on flat rocks  at a junction of two canyons. The inhabitants’ fish for sustenance and hunt seal to make a living. The captain steers Maasdam past the village into a wide basin where we make a 180 degree turn to continue our east – west passage through the second canyon.

The ships horn bellows as we complete the turn calling out fishing skiffs from the village. Four appear, a single man in the first, two men in the second, six in the third including at least three children and three in the last. The boats are all similar, white open skiffs with huge outboards. Two of the drivers stand steering by means of long handles attached to the motors. They wave and take photographs of us as we wave and take photos of them.

Before lunch, Mary Ann brings me a welcome cup of the thick Dutch pea soup being served on several decks. It is so good that I have more with lunch.

I return to the stern for the remainder of our passage. We leave the sound just after 4 pm.

I stand down from my self-imposed watch. I need dry clothes and a nap. Even so, I’m pleased to discover that I took over 250 photos over the seven hours that I spent on deck. My first edit reduces this number to 127. Eventually, I reduce the number to under 100.

 What a fabulous day! For sure, my best ever, better even than transiting the Panama Canal. This passage was a hoot and a half. 

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down

Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee

The lake it is said, never gives up her dead

When the skies of November turn gloomy

Gordon Lightfoot: “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”. 

At 7:20 on the evening of November 10, 1975, The Laker, Arthur M. Anderson lost the radar profile of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The Big Fitz had disappeared beneath those waves generated by the hurricane like storm that enraged Lake Superior. Nineteen-minutes later, Captain Bernie Cooper, the Anderson’s skipper contacted the Coast Guard on Channel 16, the emergency distress frequency. The operator treated his call as non-essential and asked him to call back on Channel 12 to keep Channel 16 free for distress calls.

Cooper couldn’t contact the Coast Guard again on Channel 12 until fifteen minutes later at 7:54 pm. In the meantime, Cooper was able to contact an ocean-going ship, Nanfri, whose captain confirmed that Big Fritz had also disappeared from their radar.

True, the Coast Guard was slow to respond, but the storm had crippled the USCG Station, taking out masts, communications and radar at the same time that they were inundated with distress calls. It wasn’t until 10:30 that the USCG accepted the ugly truth that the largest boat in history of sinkings on the Great Lakes had been lost.

The Coast Guard requested that all commercial vessels in or near Whitefish Bay commence a search for the Big Fitz or any survivors. They also dispatched a helicopter and a fixed wing aircraft. Once daylight returned, all the searchers found were lifeboats, rafts and other debris that belonged to the Big Fitz.

It wasn’t until November 14th, that a US Navy aircraft equipped with a scanner designed to detect magnetic anomalies located the wreck about seventeen miles from the entrance to Whitefish Bay. The wreck was resting in 530 feet of water.

The following spring, the Navy surveyed the wreck of the Big Fitz using an unmanned submersible. Between May 20 and May28, The CURV III found the ship’s remains lying in two pieces. The ship had split almost in half. The forward section starting at the bow measured 276 feet in length and rested upright, while the 253-foot stern section bottomed at a 50-degree angle.

The evidence suggests strongly that the Big Fitz split in half. But why? All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t give a definite cause of loss. All we have is hypotheses as to why The Big Fitz was lost with all hands.

They might of split up or they might have capsized

They might have broke deep and took water

And all that remains is the faces and the names

Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.

Mariners Church in Detroit

 In a musty old hall in Detroit, they prayed in the maritime sailors’ cathedral. The church bells chimed twenty-nine times for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The original wooden church was built in 1841 on land bequeathed to the Anglican Church of North America  to serve the spiritual needs of Great Lakes mariners. The completion of the Erie Canal transformed how goods and passengers could travel between the mid-west and New York City and the entire Northeast. The current edifice, a Gothic Revival stone church, replaced the original structure in 1849.

The church was a stop on the Underground Railroad assisting fugitive slaves to cross the border into Canada and freedom.

In 1955, the church was saved from being demolished by George Stark, a reporter with the Detroit News who led a crusade to raise enough funds to move the church 880 feet away from its site condemned for an urban renewal project.

The story of these men and their ship may have slipped into history had not Gordon Lightfoot memorialized them in his haunting ballad. The Mariners’ Church has an annual service to recall the 30,000 men and women lost across the Great Lakes. It is not a coincidence that this service is held on the Sunday in November closest to the 10th.

In 2020, the 45th Anniversary of the sinking, Reverend Jeffrey M Hubbard, the church rector noted: “It’s stuck in the memories of folks in Michigan, and the Great Lakes. (They) are so integrally connected to our area. Hearing the story of the brave men who lost their lives resonates with the people.”

Near the end of the service, a performer sang a rendition of The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The Last Watch ceremony followed and the Steeple’s bell chimed thirty times, twenty-nine for each of the crew who lost their lives to Superior’s gales of November and one for the Edmund Fitzgerald.

My interpretation.     

SS Edmund Fitzgerald

Part One

Gordon Lightfoot’s  poignant and profound poetry fills his lyrics of The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Lines like: The lake it is said never gives up her dead when the skies of November turn gloomy.

The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was named after the president of its owner, Northwestern Mutual Life. Ordered in 1957, she was an investment for that life insurance company. When completed in 1958, the “Fitz,” was the largest ore carrier operating on the Great Lakes, a distinction the ship would carry until 1971. This US flag laker had several other nicknames, Mighty Fitz, Big Fitz, Pride of the American Side, Toledo Express. And regrettably, Titanic of the Great Lakes. Northwestern signed a 25-year contract with Oglebay Norton, a major lakes carrier to operate this lake boat. The operator designated the Big Fitz as the flagship of their American fleet.

The Big Fitz left Superior, Wisconsin at 2:35 pm on November 9, 1975 with a full load of treated iron ore called taconite. The ship sailed under the command of Captain Ernest M. McSorley with  a crew of 29. These twenty-nine consisted of the captain, three mates, five engineers, three oilers a cook, a wiper, two maintenance men, three watchmen, three deckhands, three wheelmen, two porters, a cadet and a steward. They ranged in age from 20, (watchman, Karl A. Peckol), to 63, Captain McSorley. Their route  would take them across Lake Superior to Detroit, through the Soo Locks to a steel mill on Zug Island.

Capt. McSorley decided to join the laker, Arthur M Anderson captained by Bernie Cooper in an informal convoy of mutual protection. The National Weather Service (NWS) predicted that a storm would pass just south of Lake Superior by 7 am on November 10th.

The wind in the wires a tattle-tale sound and a wave broke over the railing. And every man knew and the captain did too t’was the witch of November came stealin.

Another laker, SS Wilfred Sykes, loaded opposite the Big Fitz. Its captain, Dudley J. Paquette, didn’t trust the NSW forecast and predicted a major storm was coming. He decided to take a more circuitous route across the lake staying closer to the shelter of its north shore. By radio, they learned that the Big Fitz and the Anderson’s masters had decided to make their runs out in the middle of Superior.

At 7 pm the NWS altered its forecast issuing gale warnings for the entire lake. The two lakers altered course northward seeking that same shelter of the north coast before the storm struck at one am on November 10. The Fitz and the Anderson  reported winds of 60 mph and waves 10 feet high. At about the same time, Capt. Paquette of the Sykes heard Capt. Mc Sorley tell the Anderson that he had hit a rough patch and “You are walking away from us… I can’t stay with you.”

Despite that transmission and the NWS’s early morning update upgrading wind speed to neat hurricane speeds of 58 mph, McSorley had a change of heart and his faster laker pulled ahead of the Anderson around 3:00 am. About the same time, it began to snow. A half-hour later, McSorley radioed the Anderson that the Big Fitz was taking on water through two vent covers blown away by the wind and the high seas. The Big Fitz had developed a list, but, fortunately, two of the ships six bilge pumps were up to the task of controlling the flooding.

The storm compounded the Big Fitz’s dilemma. Both radars were blown away so the captain slowed his boat so the Anderson could get close enough to guide the now blind giant. With the Big Fitz in peril, McSorley chose to head for the shelter of Whitefish Bay on the Canadian side. He used the radio to ask for help from other ships in the area about the condition of navigation aids leading to this possible shelter.

Captain Cedric Woodward of the laker, Avafors, communicated with McSorley between 5:00 and 5:30 pm. Woodward later testified that he overheard McSorley say: “Don’t allow nobody on deck.” McSorley also told Woodard, “I have a ‘bad list.’ I have lost both radars, and am taking heavy seas over the deck in one of the worst seas I’ve ever been in.”

Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves from minutes to hours?

By late afternoon, the Arthur M. Anderson sustained wind speeds as high as 67 MPH and wave heights of 25 feet. At 6 pm, this lake boat suffered through wind gusts of between 81 and 86 MPH and rogue waves of 35 feet.

At 7:10 pm, Capt Cooper radioed the Big Fitz and asked McSorley, how he was doing? McSorley replied: “We are holding our own.”

These were the last words ever heard from the Edmund Fitzgerald. No distress signal was received. Ten-minutes later, the Anderson lost both radio and radar contact with the Big Fitz. The big laker was gone.

And all that remains is the faces and the names of the wives and the sons and the daughters.

To be continued.    

Wyckoff Heights Hospital

I first wrote this piece in 2002 and included it in my 2011 anthology, The Big Orange Dog and Other Stories, that pre-dated my blog.

In the last quarter of the Twentieth Century, Wyckcoff Heights Hospital grew to become a medical center occupying a complete city block. It came to serve a broad area of northern Brooklyn including Bushwick, Williamsburg and Greenpoint and Ridgewood and Glendale in Queens. The center has six different and distinct buildings built between 1903 and 1985.

Stone steps led to the long closed main entrance to the original building. A stone arch framed the old entrance  with the hospital’s original name  carved into this stone: The German-American Hospital. That  name reflected the nationality of the people who developed Bushwick, Brooklyn and Ridgewood, Queens at the turn of the Nineteen Century when these neglected areas developed into the new neighborhoods as rapid transit in the form of the Myrtle Avenue Elevated subway opened providing service to Downtown Brooklyn and Manhattan.

The hospital’s name was changed to Wyckoff Heights during World War I as part of the frenzy of anti-German sentiment once we entered the conflict. This same sentiment led to a local street, Hamburg Avenue, being renamed, Wilson Avenue and calling sauerkraut, victory cabbage as the brutality and carnage of The Great War became apparent.

These neighborhoods remained basically German until after the 1930s when Italians joined the mix. Blacks started arriving during World War II displaced from the south by the invention of the automatic cotton picker and the promise of jobs in the war effort. In 1948, Puerto Ricans started to arrive via Trans Caribbean Airlines’ surplus Army Air Force C-54s that provided cheap transportation to New York. The Italians retreated north out of Bushwick and into Ridgewood victims of fear and prejudice against these new residents.

Wyckoff Heights also set its sights north ignoring these newcomers in favor of its historic population. At least it did in the 1950s and 1960s. The black and Hispanic people utilized Bushwick Hospital and other small neighborhood facilities until they were closed when the City of New York consolidated their operations into a new giant, Woodhull Hospital, located at the junction of Broadway (Brooklyn) and Flushing Avenue.

But Woodhull quickly developed a terrible reputation. Then, as the violence of the 1970s escalated and Bushwick was consumed by acts of arson, residents demanded that ambulances responding to their emergencies, take them to Wyckoff Heights. As the German and Italian population aged, or moved away, Wyckoff Heights became a curious mixture of elderly European widows being treated for illnesses brought on by old age lying on gurneys in an over-crowded emergency room, side-by-side with young black and Hispanic men who had been shot, stabbed or who had OD’ed.

I found myself drawn to this scene on several occasions as I responded to my mother’s emergencies. When I arrived for my last visit, I found her in a bed squeezed into the Emergency Room right next to a young man who was cuffed on his ankle to his bed.

Fortunately, a semi-private room became available the next day freeing her from this nightmare. When she was well enough, I begged her that whenever she felt the need to go to a hospital, that she contacted me first so I could arrange for an ambulance to take her to St. Francis Hospital in Port Washington. She agreed and I never returned to Wyckoff Heights again.

But, as I left that night, I passed a security guard occupied by an inebriated man attempting to enter the hospital. The guard was telling him, “You cannot come in, you are drunk. Come back when you are sober.”

Over my shoulder, I heard the drunk respond, “Sure, but by then visiting hours will be over.”

I smiled in spite of myself as I walked out the door.   

Annoying Unsolicited Incoming Calls (UIC)

How we react to UIC, Unsolicited Incoming Calls, is mainly a function of our mood when we realize that, once again, we are a victim. More times than not, we just hang-up. If  our mood is ugly, we may curse the caller and then hang up. Sometimes we get into a verbal brawl with the caller. I have found these incidents disappointing and sometimes depressing. I try to avoid them and I usually succeed.

Rarely, but it does happen, I find myself to be at the top of my game when I become caught on the receiving end of an UIC. It is those rare times that my response blows the caller away.

 My best reaction to an UCI was with a woman who I guessed was a Millennium with a Southeastern Asian “sing-song” accent.

“Hello, my name is Kim. I’m alerting you so you know your computer has been infected.”

“Hi, Kim, you must be mistaken. Are you sure you called the right number?”

“Yes, of course, we have been monitoring your device and we have found an infection.”

“Kim, I don’t think so. Exactly what device are you talking about?”

“Your PC, you know, your computer.”

“No, no, no; you have the wrong person, I don’t own a computer.”

“That’s impossible, we have been monitoring your computer and it has been corrupted.?”

“Kim, please understand, I don’t have and I have never had a computer. I don’t believe in computers.

“I don’t understand, how do you communicate on the internet?”

“I use a rosary.”

“What?”

“A rosary. It’s simple, but very effective. You take it, hold it in your hands and move your hands along it to find what you are looking for.”

Thoroughly confused, Kim was resorting to grunts and groans that mirrored her defeat. So, I ended her misery by advising her: “Google the rosary. Buy one, they’re inexpensive and you will find them to be superior to PCs, but maybe not Apple”

Victorious, I hung-up.

I wish more of my encounters with UIC were that satisfying, but most of the time, anger, indifference or fatigue cause me to react like a jerk. I hate acting like a jerk!

My second UIC triumph happened just this summer. This UIC came on my cell phone while I was driving to my local drug store here in Port Washington. When I pressed: Answer, the caller automatically went right to my Blue Tooth speaker. The dude’s voice was without accent. I surmised he was an Anglo. He took off into his pitch without any prompt. My half-listening brain surmised that it was for time shares.

Without thinking, my personal light bulb illuminated inside my head giving me the premise for my counter attack. By now he had gone on for at least fifteen seconds without me saying a word: 

“Stop right there!” I commanded. “I haven’t heard a word you were saying. Look, man, I know you’re trying to make a sale, but I’m going through a difficult time in my life. I’ve decided to transition from being a man to a woman and do you really think I care about what you are trying to sell?

The caller went silent but I could tell he was still there. Knowing he was on the ropes, I went for the kill shot and continued: “Since I have you on the phone, let me ask you a question, what do you think of the name, Denise?

He hung up.

Game, set and match.

On The Outside Looking Jn will not publish next week and will return on September 7, 2022   

Taking the No. 7 Subway to Citi Field

Last November, the Mets acquired a 33-year-old free agent, Mark Canha, who had spent most of his nine-year career with the Oakland Athletics. Mark signed a two-year contract worth $26.5 million.

In mid-July, Newsday published a piece about Canha with the title, “Canha is enjoying the ride.” Written by, sportswriter, Tim Healy, this scribe took us on a game day subway ride with Canha from his apartment on the Upper Side of Manhattan to Citi Field.

Canha explained that he and his wife, Marci, are city people and commuting from Times Square to Willets Point on the No. 7 Flushing Line was, “Practical, it’s cheap, it’s pretty reliable. It drops me off right at the stadium. Why not? It’s New York. I fell like that’s what you do.”

Healy, the author did admit that Canha’s subway adventures were not an-every game choice, but he did make his way by subway to one of the Yankees games.

As I read Healy’s piece, I had a light bulb moment of how far a baseball player riding New York transit had evolved. Canha rode the subway for fun.

Once upon a time, players rode out of necessity. What follows is the last instance of one MLB ball player making that long and lonely ride for the last time.

I wrote about this in the following  piece with the title, “Choo Choo Coleman, R.I.P,” in 2016:

Several Metropolitan daily newspapers reported the death of Clarence (Choo Choo) Coleman on August 16. The New York Times reported his age as either 78 or 80. Their obituary included two quotes by Roger Angell about Choo Choo: “He handles out side curve balls like a man fighting bees.” And a second referring to his speed on the bases: “This is an attribute that is about as essential to catchers as neat handwriting.”

Their obituary included the following story about Choo Choo (who called everyone “Bub.”) “Perhaps the best-known anecdote about Coleman is one that, in later years, he said never happened, though Ralph Kiner, the former slugger and broadcaster, assured The New York Times that it had. In 1962, Kiner interviewed Coleman (on his post-game show, Kiner’s Korner) and asked, ‘What’s your wife’s name and what’s she like?’ Coleman replied, ‘Her name is Mrs. Coleman – and she likes me, Bub.”

Choo Choo also had the curious distinction of being the only baseball player I ever encountered when I was young. It happened in the spring of 1966. I left Shea Stadium with my friends, Bill and Jimmy about an hour after a game ended, We had successfully made our way into the private Diamond Club for a couple of beers before we departed for Manhattan. I wrote about it in 2005 as part of a piece called “Shea Stadium Nights:”

Since the baseball game ended early on a Friday night in May, Manhattan beckoned to us. Being city kids, cars weren’t a factor so we climbed the Willets Point-Shea Stadium elevated station to catch the No. 7 train bound for Times Square. As we waited for the train to arrive, we noticed a fellow standing against the station’s wall. Jimmy looked at him several times before deciding to take the chance that he recognized this man. Jimmy walked away from Bill and me to speak to him. Instinctively, we quieted to hear their exchange. Jimmy looked at him and said, “You’re Choo Choo Coleman.”

Coleman looked back at Jimmy and said, “Bub, that’s cool, people don’t usually recognize me.”

We all asked for his autograph. He had been the Mets’ best catcher during 1962 and 1963, their first two seasons. We’d all seen him play at the Polo Grounds. Labeled, “a defensive catcher,” his hitting left much to be desired. Clarence, “Choo Choo” Coleman played in 55 games in 1962 hitting .250 and 106 games in 1963 hitting .178. The following year, he was farmed out to a minor league team and he did not make it back to the Mets until the 1966.

We said good-bye when the train arrived. We talked about how strange it was that a baseball player had no alternative but to take the subway alone.

The next day, the Mets cut Choo Choo. His come-back had only lasted six games before we met him and that subway ride was his last trip home from the Show. Sad, but that’s where a .188 average will take a defensive player.

R.I.P. Choo Choo

Captain Joseph Hazelwood

On the morning of Saturday, July 23rd, I received the following message from my buddy, Geoff Jones: “You will probably want to see the story about the late Capt. Joseph Hazelwood.”

Geoff’s message found me sitting on the back porch of our house in Marlow, New Hampshire enjoying my breakfast. I took a sip of coffee, then lowered my cup and murmured “You poor S.O.B., I hope you are at peace.“ I opened the lead story in a maritime daily blog known as, gCaptain Daily, whose headline read: “Captain Joseph Hazelwood, Former Master of the Exxon Valdez, Passes Away”

Mike Schuler, the author put the captain’s age as 75 and noted that he died on Friday, July 22nd   Hazelwood was born on September 24, 1946, one of the first Baby-Boomers.

Geoff’s understatement that he thought I’d probably want to see this notice, made me smile. My career at Marsh & McLennan and in the marine insurance market was defined by the disaster that began in Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989. The Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of Alaskan crude oil causing one of the worst environmental disasters that impacted over a thousand miles of shoreline devastating the virgin shoreline and millions of creatures that swim in the sea and fly in the air. The only good news was no human lives were lost.

Curiously, we were also in residence in our Marlow house when the Valdez stranded on that Good Friday. I still recall receiving a call from Mike Kern, an insurer with whom my team had placed a portion of the Exxon program. “Am I screwed?” he lamented.

“I don’t think so, Mike. The biggest spill to date cost $100 million and you sit excess of $600 million.” Satisfied, he hung up to enjoy his Easter weekend. Little did we know that the enormous clean-up costs, the resultant reparations, claims by the fishing industry, the people of Alaska, the state of Alaska, Uncle Sam and all of the lawyers and others would result in Exxon going through that $600 million like the Accela goes through Metuchen, New Jersey.

Capt. Hazelwood was treated like a rented mule in the press. Big bad Exxon quit on him in a New York minute. He lived in Huntington, NY and, when he arrived back home, a despicable District Judge compared Joe to Hitler and set a punitive bail treating him as a flight risk. He was accused and convicted in the newspapers, not just the rags, but also The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, of having been inebriated while navigating his charge, the Exxon Valdez, outward bound from the port of Valdez to the open sea.

The only people and institutions that stood by Hazelwood were his SUNY Maritime, his Alma- Marta and his classmates who had become maritime lawyers and came to his defense.

You may ask, “Why should I believe the tale you are telling?” The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Since I had to spend eight years of my career as the primary witness for Exxon in their dispute with their insurers, I developed a unique insider’s understanding of what transpired that fateful night on the bridge of the Exxon Valdez.

Once the captain maneuvered the tanker into the outbound shipping channel leading to the Gulf of Alaska, he received communications from the Coast Guard advising him that there was ice calved from a local glacier in that channel. In response, he asked the USCG if he could cross over inro the incoming channel that was free of ice?

The USCG confirmed that channel was free of incoming traffic so the Exxon Valdez could make passage there.

Paper work was then, as it is now a great burden for ships’ captains. Hazelwood had to bring his own log up-to-date documenting the Exxon Valdez’s departure, so he turned over the watch to the third mate with specific instructions when to move into the incoming lane, how long to stay and when to return to the outgoing lane.

The next significant thing Captain Hazelwood experienced while working in his cabin was that the tanker had stranded on Bligh Ridge…and so it goes. Hazelwood immediately called Coast Guard to report the accident.

Blame fell on Hazelwood and to Sperry, makers of the navigation system.

Perhaps human error? During my long ordeal, gathering evidence, discovery and multiple depositions, I heard several times from different sources that there was another explanation. It seemed that the third mate, male, and the helmsman, female, had a thing going that may have caused them to take their eyes off the road and the Sperry navigating machine.

When asked about this years later in a CNN interview, Captain Hazelwood replied, “If you want to find the real story, it’s easily available.”

As far as I know, he never expanded on this. Joe was a real man. He was the captain; the safe navigation of the ship was his. He sucked it up, took responsibility for being in command and took the real story to his grave.

Curiously, not one single newspaper carried his obituary. Perhaps that’s a blessing?

RIP Captain Joseph Hazelwood, you paid your dues.          

OBX 2021 and 2022

Dear readers, I realized that at some point in writing my two OBX pieces, I would need to explain my relationship with the beach and the ocean. I have always hated the beach, but, as a kid, I found joy body surfing in the Atlantic Ocean. Most Sundays in July and August, Mom and I would attend the 7:30 Mass at St. Aloysius R.C. Church, rush home after mass and pack up for our ride to the beaches in Far Rockaway. My Aunt Mildred would pick-us-up in her 1950 Dodge. I would occupy the back seat with my cousin, Patty, two-years younger than me.

One quarter admitted us to a municipal parking lot with access to the beach so long as we arrived before 10 am. We hauled our stuff over the boardwalk, back onto the sand and toward the surf. We planted the umbrella and established our beach domain with wooden folding chairs and blankets. I attacked the surf ASAP where I lived most of the day. The surf is where I learned to swim on my own and ride the waves on my belly…glory days.

My memory of that time plus the continued love of a beach vacation by my family motivated me to first go to the Outer Banks in 2019. We celebrated Mary Ann’s 75th in 2020 at the house called Run-A-Way Bay, liked it so much that we renewed this house in Duck for 2021 and 2022.

As for me; I hate the sun, the sand, bathing suits, and lately, the surf. But still, I find the sound of the mighty Atlantic crashing against the shore irresistible, and I sit on the deck in the shade as I listen to the surf and smell the ocean as I recall those long-ago days in Far Rockaway.

Run-A-Way Bay fit us like a glove. The second floor featured an inside dining room and an outside picnic table that was perfect for the eleven of us. An unexpected extra was access to a full-size swimming pool about one-quarter of a mile from the house. Part of a separate resort called, Sanderling, apparently, our rental included the use of their facilities. The pool provided all the access to swimming that I needed.

We again avoided crowds and eating in restaurants during both our 2021 and 2022 stays. Mary Ann and I made one exception in 2021 when we ate on an outdoor patio one night.

Drew announced that he would not wear shoes during that stay and he kept this commitment. His closest call came when we went to Five Guys for take-out. No shoes, no service, but I delivered his burger and fries to the car.

What the hell, we renewed Run-A-Way Bay, for 2022.  Another great beach vacation despite a troubled extended weather system that parked itself along the coast from Key West to the Carolinas. It produced daily forecasts of doom and gloom, but, lucky us, the awful weather never made it as far north as Duck.

Late in the summer of 2021, Mary Ann and I came across a clearance sale of beach paraphernalia at an Ocean Job Lot store in Newport, NH. A open sided gazebo caught our eyes that came with four weights (price extra) to keep it steady in moderate wind. Fortunately, its dimensions fit into our SUV and we brought it down to Duck where it became one of the hits of our vacation. It survived to make the return trip north.

Drew had just graduated college and a new job kept him from joining us. It became clear that this would be our last OBX vacation. At our arrival pizza dinner, I announced that I would take as many who would come to Kitty Hawk to see the Wright Brothers memorial, exhibits and the museum. In the end, Cace, Marlowe, Tom and Mary Ann signed on.

As Cace and I walked through the exhibits we came across a photo box that showed the images  of famous American aviators and astronauts. The screen in the center changed the images every ten-seconds, but on either side, there were permanent images. On the right side, Orville and Wilber Wright. On the left, a color photo of Sally Ride.

My 15-year-old grandson looked down at me and asked: “Why is her photo on display instead of Neal Armstrong’s?”

“Cace, she was the first American woman astronaut to go into space.”

“C’mon Grandpa, Armstrong was the first person, ever, to walk on the moon!”

Point made.

I rewarded Cace, myself and all of us for their loyalty in joining me to see Kitty Hawk by having  take-out lunches from a nearby Five Guys.

Early on Saturday morning we joined the seemingly endless convoy of vacationers making their way back to the mainline. Between traffic and needed senior stops, we made it home in just under twelve hours.

Once again, we broke even. Back home in Connecticut, Jodie texted Mary Ann: “My favorite vacations, ever. I wish I could spend all summer on that beach.

Four OBX Beach Vacations

Part One: 2019-2020

As I approached the 75th Anniversary of my birth that I’d have to face on February 22, 2019, I decided that I wanted to do something different than have a pitiful party. I decided to sponsor a special vacation for our family, a week on North Carolina’s Outer Banks (OBX).

 Mary Ann and I had visited this unique treasure once before, for two nights in early May of 2000. We were on our first retirement journey, a car trip down the Atlantic Coast from Ocean City, Maryland to Savannah, Georgia.  We stayed in a small motel in Kitty Hawk and visited the site of Wright Brothers first flight and the dunes in Kill Devil Hills.

This time I wanted to rent a house. I had only two criteria’s, it had to be big enough to accommodate our three families comfortably and it had to be up against the dunes with direct access to the beach. The second, an extravagance, was most important to me. Beth found our house in Nags Head and booked it from Saturday, July 13 to Saturday, July 20.

We crossed the Bridge over Currituck Sound in a monsoon, rain so intense that we could only stay on the roadway by watching the tail lights of the car in front of us. We loved the house. Mary Ann and I enjoyed a view of the ocean from our third story nest, especially a mid-week hurricane that passed us harmlessly about 75 miles out to sea. No rain, mild wind, but an angry Atlantic churned up by its passing. Cace shared our large sleeping quarters as he was the odd-man out with his two older cousins, brothers Drew and Matt.

Mary Ann and I took Cace, Marlowe and Samantha south to Hatteras to see the National Seashore, the lighthouse and to have lunch. Our house was a, “A seven iron shot away from Jennettes Pier,” as Michael put it. We ate at a restaurant located on the pier several times. When Matt wore a tank top to our first meal, that turned out to be a “Howdy Doody don’t do,” a waiter gave him a tee bearing the name of the restaurant; all was well.

We had a great time  and, in the words my old colleague from Chicago, Jim Hagalow, “We broke even, everybody was still talking to each other.  

Mary Ann decided that we would repeat our vacation in 2020 to celebrate her 75th birthday, but when we called the rental office, an agent explained that our house was already taken. She offered us an alternative week, but we weren’t prepared to act.

Our two children and their spouses informed us that they wished to return in 2020 earlier in July, preferably the week of Independence Day. The 4th would fall on a Saturday, so this became our proposed arrival day. Beth, heroically once again turned to the task of finding us a vacation house. Again, success, Beth found a big house behind the dunes in the town of Duck, about 18 miles north of Nags Head. The exterior and interior photographs looked swell and I signed the contract. Again, I declined to buy hurricane insurance, but, in the fall of 2019, we were all clueless how COVID would play havoc with our very sense of being. (Memo to file: Did we even know what a pandemic was in the summer of 2019?)

True, OBX was not on our radar when the virus blindsided us in March of 2020, separated us from each other by quarantine and condemned us to listen and watch daily doom and gloom during our lock down. As we flipped the calendar from March to April and then from April to May, I could see glimpses of blue sky, despite the gloom and doom.

OBX is a major mid-Atlantic tourist destination and as Memorial Day began to draw closer and closer, I tracked, the pronouncements of the local North Carolina medical authorities. Sure enough, they lifted obstacles, restrictions and prohibitions; OBX was opened to outsiders -OBX  returned to business as usual…Hallelujah…” Let us rejoice and be glad!”

Silly me, everybody in our family, from the youngest to me were monitoring the same thing: “Please God, make this happen.”

Still, we knew we had to set rules, F..king rules. We had to shop every day, but we avoided restaurants at all costs. We did get take-outs, but we also relied on meals we brought from home.

I do believe that COVID did reduce the volume of traffic we encountered heading south on the Delmarva Peninsula. Perhaps, the ocean resorts in Delaware and Maryland were more restrictive, though I doubt it. We did well until we crossed the bridge over the sound. Instead of continuing south on that four-lane highway south to Nags Head, our GPS directed us onto a

two-lane road, north to Duck.

We were last to arrive. But, of course, they are young and we are old and we must deal with issues they have yet to encounter. On this day, we got lucky. The traffic that locked them in for over an hour melted away allowing us to join them at the house in a timely manner.

We brought Sicilian pizza, for dinner. Dinner was so much more than pizza. It was an affirmation, a thanksgiving and a celebration of survival, a renewal and, most importantly, a reunion of family. We were free of COVID, Thank GOD, Thank GOD of COVID, at last.

(To be continued…)  

Of Fish and Foul

This piece was written by a friend of mine, Brian Davidson. I edited it and thought up the title. His piece reflects the man he was. We lost Brian to cancer in 2016.

            George, the owner of the sporting goods store handed me my new annual Alaskan fishing license. “Where are you from?”

            “Houston,” I replied. “I got a job with a contractor to settle insurance claims so I’ll be up here for thirty-days at a time for six to nine months. I don’t read much, hate television and I don’t want to spend my free time in bars so I figured I’d try fishing”

            “Well, you picked a good time to start fishing for pink salmon. They start to run in May and you can fish as late as you like because it doesn’t get dark until about 2 a.m. I’ll help you pick out the kind of equipment and clothing you’re going to need.”

            George selected a rod and reel, a net, tackle box, wading boots, thermal socks, and long johns. “Why do I need thermal socks and long underwear in June?”

            “The water temperature in Prince William Sound does not get out of the thirties. You’ll be happy to be wearing them when you wade out into the sound. If you don’t have a sweater or light gloves, you should buy them too.”

            I figured he knew what he was talking about so I kept quiet as my pile kept rising on his counter. When he finished counting and totaling my purchases, he reached behind the counter and opened a wooden box and placed an odd-looking fishing lure in the palm of his hand. A big silver spoon with a big red plastic diamond shaped thingy glued to it, it looked like something that your grandmother used to wear on her chest to church on Sunday.

            “This is the best lure for catching pink salmon. It’s called it a pixie. If I were you, I’d guard it with my life. I’m running out of them and I don’t know when I’ll get new ones in stock.”

            I asked him how many I could have and he agreed to sell me six for six dollars each. I started asking him about places to fish, but he stopped me and called over an Eskimo guy hanging around the store. “Hey, Billy, come tell this guy where to fish.”

            Billy and I got to talking and he agreed to meet me at a camp-ground located on the shoreline the next night. We seemed to hit it off and became regular fishing buddies. Also, it didn’t take long for me to realize just how valuable Billy was to me. The first thing I noticed that night was that when I cast my pixie out into the water, it kept going down and down and down. I asked Billy what was going on.

            “After about ten feet, the bottom drops 500 to 600 feet. If you wander out too far and take the plunge, you’ll have about five minutes left to live.”

I became a good angler catching five to ten fish each night which I cut loose or gave to people staying in the camp-ground who gathered to watch the master fisherman. I usually traded the fish for a cold beer and a relaxing chat with these tourists and retirees in their trailers, campers and RVs. The fishing alleviated my boredom from the seemingly endless task of settling claims. I only regretted losing my pixies which made me feel badly as my supply dwindled.

            One night while fishing with Billy, I cast out my next to last pixie. It didn’t hit the water and my rod started to jerk away from me pulling skyward. “What the hell…,” I shouted as I looked up. To my astonishment, I realized that I had hooked a sea gull on its butt. People on the bank shouted at me to cut the line, but all I could think of was my six- dollar pixie attached to a bird that was maneuvering like an out-of-control kite. Up and down, it flew screeching like all hell as we continued our struggle. I had to let out line fearing that the tension would break it and the gull would make off with my pixie. Finally, it went straight up then came crashing down onto the bank to the oohs and ahs of the crowd who were watching the show.

            I ran out of the water, grabbed onto this pecking and clawing creature who continued to screech for its mother. In desperation, the gull threw up a regurgitated fish onto my boot, but I managed to get a firm grip on its mangy butt to retrieve my pixie. As I stood up, I heard loud and clear, “They’re not very good to eat.”

            Rather embarrassed, I yanked my pixie out of its butt, released the gull who flew away and gave each and every one of my admirers a very low bow.

On the Outside Looking in will not publish next week and will return on July 27, 2022