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I think it was the summer I was 12. I don’t remember precisely. It was more than 40 years ago now, at any rate. Family friends offered me the chance to go with them on vacation. They may have offered it to my immediately elder brother first, I’m not sure, but it came down to me, and I jumped at the chance. They had two kids, slightly older than me. I learned about a lot of things I had never heard of before on that vacation. The route was up from where we lived near Chicago to Milwaukee where we took a car ferry across Lake Michigan to some city on the Michigan coast, probably Muskegon. Then from there to the rest of the vacation.
I had never heard of a car ferry. Even at that age, I was a history nut with two elder brothers, the elder of whom was also into history, especially military history. I had heard of Harper’s Ferry, of course, but that rather predated automobiles. My vision of a ferry was basically a raft that was pulled across via a rope or was poled across a river. I am not sure what I thought I would see when I heard we would be taking a car ferry across Lake Michigan, but when it arrived at the dock, it was not what I expected. To my eyes, it was a ship, a big ship.
I grew up in Joliet, IL. For some reason, ocean-going vessels did not come through town much. Perhaps it was because it wasn’t on the coast. I had seen pictures of ships. I had read about them. Perhaps I had seen some at a distance on family vacations that had included stops in Florida. But the closest I had seen in Joliet were barges going up and down the Desplaines River and the I&M Canal. The river barges do not compare to a Great Lakes car ferry.
I could not tell you for certain the size of the car ferry now. It seemed like hundreds of cars drove on, but memories can grow larger with time, especially as we grow larger, such as a 12-year-old boy growing into a man. With just a little research to jog the memory, I suspect it may have been SS Spartan. If not her, it was one of her sister ships. I remember that it was part of the Chessie System with the black and gold funnel, my school colors at the time. The SS Spartan ship has a 180-automobile capacity. It was originally built as a railroad car ferry. It was amazing to me. Over four hundred feet long, nearly sixty feet in the beam. It was the largest thing I had ever been on moving under its own power.
According to the information on Spartan’s sister ship, the more direct ferry route takes four hours. It may have been four or it may have been as many as six hours with the route we took. It was most of one of our sunny summer days on that vacation.
I don’t remember whether we were able to drive onto the ship and park on it, or if they had their people do that and we walked on, although I vaguely remember that we drove on. Memories are strange things, and they do play tricks on us. They had a large area for passengers that was either called the salon or saloon. I believe it was called the saloon because I vaguely recall getting a laugh out of that, as if some bar had been transported from the Old West onto a huge car ferry on Lake Michigan.
It was cooler steaming across the lake than it had been in Milwaukee. There was a constant breeze out on the open walkways on the sides of the ship. It was much more fun out there, watching the water, seeing the ship move, seeing the foam the ship created behind it. And we had the summer sun.
There was a crew-member, perhaps he had something to do with loading and unloading the ship, but during the crossing, he spent his time out on those outer walkways creating folk art. He would take a soda or beer can and slice it up and bend the strips around to make various things. I bought a rocking chair. It wasn’t a full-sized rocking chair, of course. The bottom of the can made up the base of the seat with all the strips curled around to make the heart-shaped back and the legs going down to the rockers. He cut off the top of the can and covered it with a bit of padding and red felt to be the upholstered seat of the rocking chair. He cut the rim off the top and used it to make the rockers and attach them to the strips still attached to the bottom of the can. Then he sprayed the metal of the can gold, and put the upholstered top on as the cushioned seat. As with the size of the ferry, I can’t say for certain how long this artwork took. Watching it as he sliced and bent the metal in a manner obviously long-practiced over hundreds or thousands of crossings, it seemed mere minutes, perhaps as long as a quarter hour, and then I had a small rocking chair in my hand, a present I gave my mother as a souvenir from the trip. That’s one thing I remember for certain, and she still has it.
It’s funny how much I don’t really remember after more than forty years. It was a bright new thing for me, going on a car ferry across a lake that seemed as big as an ocean, to be out in the middle with no land visible on either side. It was something new to see the crewmember transform an empty can into a small work of art. But now I can’t remember his face. I have a vague impression of a baseball cap, perhaps green, and hands moving deftly and quickly, but the rest is lost, faded to shadows of a summer long gone when a man who had been a Michigan Congressman was President.