Summer Dreaming: Michigan’s U.P.

My front yard is covered in snow, but I’m daydreaming about summer trips to the Upper Peninsula today…

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Keeping the Edmund Fitzgerald Alive for a New Generation

Edmund Fitzgerald

“Edmund Fitzgerald, 1971, 3 of 4 (restored)” by Greenmars. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Edmund_Fitzgerald,_1971,_3_of_4_(restored).jpg#/media/File:Edmund_Fitzgerald,_1971,_3_of_4_(restored).jpg

Today is a special day in my household. Today’s date, November 10, has been marked on the calendar with big red letters reading “FITZ.” We started the morning by listening to Gordon Lightfoot’s song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” and my seven- and five-year-old sons are eager to get home from school this evening so they can put on the Edmund Fitzgerald play they created. At some point today, we’ll read through the countless articles written about the Fitz (especially the great series from the Toledo Blade) and watch the video footage we’ve all seen many times before.

For those who aren’t aware, today marks the 40th anniversary of the sinking of the S. S. Edmund Fitzgerald, November 10, 1975, a tragedy in Michigan history. Around the state and throughout the Great Lakes region, commemorations are being held to honor the 29 sailors who disappeared into Lake Superior. At the Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point tonight at 7,

they’ll ring the bell of the Edmund Fitzgerald 30 times, once for every man killed when the great ship went down and once more for all sailors lost at sea.

My family wasn’t personally touched by the tragedy. We lost no relatives the night the Fitz disappeared beneath the waves. However, we spend our summers along Lake Superior, in particular, along a section known as Michigan’s shipwreck coast. My sons have grown up not just hearing about the great ships traveling the Great Lakes, but they’ve seen them with their own eyes. They’ve walked along the beach and touched the bones of old ships washed onto the shore. They’ve been to the museum at Whitefish Point and studied the bell retrieved in 1995 from the Fitz. My seven-year-old son has studied the museum displays and read so many books he even argues with others about his theories about what caused the Fitz to sink.

Edmund Fitzgerald CostumeSpeaking of my seven-year-old, this year, when we asked him what he wanted to be for Halloween, he took no time answering. He wanted to be the S. S. Edmund Fitzgerald. I shouldn’t have been surprised because he has a fascination with Great Lakes shipwrecks like the L.R. Doty, the Iosco, the Olive Jeanette, and others. It’s the loss of the Fitz, however, that has made history come alive for him in a way no textbook ever could.

Tonight, when we finish watching the play the boys have created, we’ll sit in front of the computer at 7 pm and watch the live stream of the Shipwreck Museum’s Edmund Fitzgerald Memorial on Fox32. We’ll mourn those lost on the Great Lakes, and we’ll ensure they will be remembered by a new generation.

An Opportunity to Remember: The Loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Since I’ve been writing a novel that takes place in the shadow of Lake Superior in the years between 1975 and 1995, it seems only fitting that I commemorate the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald today, the 39th anniversary of the ship’s loss. This is a solemn day for Michiganders, as we remember the many who have lost their lives on our lakes throughout the years.

If you’re in the Detroit area, the Detroit Free Press has announced a commemoration for tonight:

The evening’s activities are to begin with a lantern vigil at the Edmund Fitzgerald anchor, followed by a performance by Great Lakes balladeer Lee Murdock and an honor guard escort of a memorial wreath to the Detroit River for receipt by a flotilla of Great Lakes vessels.

Edmund Fitzgerald
Photo from Detroit Free Press, November 10, 2014
My novel is not about the Fitz itself, but not coincidentally the action begins on the same night the great ship disappeared from radar. As a Michigan resident and someone who has seen many of these giant ships traverse the Great Lakes, it’s hard for me not to be affected by the thought that such a large ship could sink below the water so easily. That idea haunts me–and surfaces in interesting ways in my writing.
Surprisingly, even though this was considered one of the worst maritime losses in Great Lakes history, few people remember much about the Edmund Fitzgerald these days. No such disasters have occurred on the Great Lakes in my lifetime, so many people find it hard to believe that the waters of the Great Lakes could have produced enough force to take the lives of somewhere between 25 and 30,000 people over recorded history.
Tragedies like the loss of the S.S. Fitzgerald affect the collective memory of a region (thanks to Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 ballad, maybe even a country in the case of the Fitz) but are sadly often lost to time. After a generation or two, few remember the events of that night that seemed so terrible except for family members and history buffs.
Perhaps that fading from our collective memories is the greatest loss of all. Perhaps that is why I write, bringing the events and people of the past into sharper focus for readers. Today, I will remember the men who died on November 10, 1975, in the icy waters of Lake Superior–and the many others who have also perished in service on the Great Lakes.
What moments in your regional history do you consider important to commemorate? What will you keep alive through your writing?