Friday, November 13, 2015

Gordon Lightfoot's OTHER song about a sinking ship

The Yarmouth Castle November 13, 1965
There’s been a lot of coverage these past few days (and rightly so) about the 40th anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. There is no question as to the enormity of this song and what it did for Gordon Lightfoot’s career. But it also took what was only a moderate news story at the time and brought it into almost every living room in the United States and Canada.

Prior to writing the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Lightfoot already had numerous hits including songs like: If You Could Read My Mind, Beautiful, Sundown, Carefree Highway and many others. But what is much lesser known and even less talked about is Lightfoot’s first song about another doomed ship, the SS Yartmouth Castle, a cruise and cargo ship that sank 50 years ago today, November 13, 1965.

Lightfoot recorded five albums on the United Artists" label before signing with Warner Brothers, where his success skyrocketed in the 1970s. In his first nautically themed song, The Ballad of  Yartmouth Castle, (Sunday Concert, 1969, recorded live but never in the studio) he describes a true to life event in the same, folk-style, song structure using a repetitive melody, like he used in the song about the Fitz.  To me, the lyrics are just as haunting as those he wrote for The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald—and in some ways more haunting as the story is told. Excerpts follow:

Now the many years she's been to sea, she's seen the better times
She gives a groan of protest as they cast away her lines.
And the grumble of her engines and the rust along her spine
Tells the Castle she's too old to be sailing.

There were tales of both courage and cowardice among the crew of the SS Yarmouth Castle. Many fled the ship without helping the passengers. Others pulled passengers from the windows of their cabins and directed them to rope ladders on the side of the ship. Some crew members had to physically throw weak and panic-stricken people off the side of the ship, away from the spreading flames.  Many people broke portholes and jumped into the sea while most of the lifeboats would not operate because the lines were painted over and jammed the winches. Even the captain abandoned ship without calling for help.

There was plenty of blame to go around for the tragedy but unlike the Fitzgerald, there was no mystery surrounding it.  The absence of sprinklers in Room 610, where the fire started was a huge contributor to the disaster. It was a room that wasn’t used for passengers because it was located directly above the boiler room.  Mattresses had been stacked improperly close to the ceiling light, which started the fire. There was also too much paint on the walls, including a fresh coat that hadn’t yet dried during the last voyage creating a flammable skin on the ship, a major catalyst for the spreading fire.

All amidships, oh she's blazing now, it's spreading fore and aft
The people are a-scrambling as the fire blocks their path
The evil smoke surrounds them and they're falling in their tracks
And the captain in his lifeboat is a-leaving.

At 77 years of age, Lightfoot’s voice is noticeably weaker than it once was but the Fitzgerald ballad remains as popular as ever in his concerts and on the radio while The Ballad of Yarmouth Castle is a great tune that has faded into obscurity.  His booming, vibrato baritone voice doesn’t have the same depth it did during his peak years on the charts, but who cares? Lightfoot gave us great, meaningful music and an amazing tribute to the crew of the Fitz as the song commemorated the tragedy. Unfortunately it never hit #1 on the Billboard charts and peaked at #2. The song that kept him out of the #1? Disco Duck by Rick Dees.  Thanks a lot Rick.

The fire on the SS Yarmouth Castle was so intense the ship’s hull was glowing red and the sea water was boiling all around it. Ninety people perished in the accident, most of the survivors were picked up by a ship called Bahama Star that noticed the Yarmouth Castle slowing down and then disappearing from their radar as she burned. The ship was not required to conform to American safety regulations since it was registered under the Panamanian flag and the loss of the ship prompted new and stricter safety laws on the high seas.

The Ballad of Yarmouth Castle is an obscure gem by Lightfoot, obviously overshadowed by the success of the song about the Fitz, but his 1969 recording is still worth the listen and Lightfoot ends the ballad with this haunting description of what happened 50 years ago.

Oh the Yarmouth Castle's moaning, she's crying like a child
You can hear her if you listen above the roar so wild.
Is she crying for the ones who lie, within her molten sides or crying for herself, I'm a-wondering.

But the living soon were rescued, the ones who lived to tell
And from the Star they watched her as she died there in the swells.
Like a toy ship on a millpond she burned all through the night

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

On Grouse Hunting

Do you want to know what makes for a good day of grouse hunting? Getting up before 6 AM and hitting the road north, with one of your oldest and best friends. The miles fly by as strong, fresh, coffee ignites spirited conversations while you discuss youth, aging and the life choices you made which are spiked with both laughter and melancholy.

Hunting thunder chickens is a tough task; you don’t bait a pile and wait. You seek them out between the woods, streams, fields and shadows and rely on your most primal senses of sight and sound. If you’re lucky you get a few shots off. It you are good, you plug a few birds. But even if the best shot of the day is from your camera, it is still a great experience as mine was yesterday. 

To me, this photo illustrates a human life. It began as a seed and in its early years it grows steady and strong. The branches represent the different pathways our lives take and through this delicate cycle, the irony to me is that the oldest part of the tree provides the support to sustain the newer, always fragile life.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Tears are another expression of Love

My father, Tom Wurdock was a lot of things to a lot of people during his life. He served his country with pride as a member of the US Air Force, was a beloved teacher, community leader, poker buddy, and respected voice of reason among his community, family and peers. He was an avid outdoorsman, had a great sense of humor, had a passion for limericks and was one of the kindest and gentlest souls on this earth. He lived his life with gusto, always interested in what was going on around him and thrived on all that life offered while always putting the needs of others above his own. But all his accomplishments pale in comparison to what he excelled at the most, which was his role as loving husband, father to his three children and grandfather to his two granddaughters.  

Royal Oak was a different place when Dad grew up. He was born in the Washington Square Building in 1931 when it was the Royal Oak Hospital and had his tonsils removed while lying on the dining room table by the family doctor. He played marbles in the alley on the way to school, kept chickens in a pen at the family home on Maple Street until his mother got tired of them following her into downtown Royal Oak when she went to shop or call on friends.

He graduated from Royal Oak High School in 1949 where he played in the band, sung in the choir and played center on the football team.  He attended Albion College and worked during the summer as a route carrier for the United States Postal Service.   After graduating from Albion College he enlisted in Air Force and was stationed in Bar Harbor Maine.  After the Air Force he took advantage of the GI Bill and went back to school where he received his Masters Degree in School Administration from Michigan State University and began his teaching career at Oak Park High School in the late 50’s where he taught vocal music and later served a term as President of the Michigan Vocal Music Association.  He moved to the Waterford School District where he taught English and creative writing until retirement in 1992.

One of his greatest loves was the family vacation experience, spending the long days of summer living in a rustic log cabin, deep in the Hiawatha Forest of the Michigan's Upper Peninsula a mile from Lake Superior along with the Ronald May family.  His days were filled teaching children and grandchildren how to respect nature, throw horseshoes, bake cinnamon rolls, fly fish, stand in awe at the light show from the Aurora Borealis and enjoy a good read by kerosene lamp in front of a crackling fire.  One minute he was tuning an outboard motor and the next he was tuning the piano in the music room.  He had a passion for crossword puzzles, word games, spy novels and military history.

Recipient of the 2012 Citizen of the Year honor from the Royal Oak Chamber of Commerce, he was known to many as “Mr. Royal Oak,” a title he carried with pride, honor and a chuckle. He thrived while serving the Royal Oak community spending hours of volunteer time to the Farmer’s Market Committee, the Police Oversight Review Board, numerous committees at the First United Methodist Church and the Royal Oak Historical Society, where he served as President from 2003-2005.


Though it was hard to see his health decline over the past few years he never lost his sense of humor or kind and gentle attitude toward others. He knew he was loved by his family and his family knew they were loved by him. He respected you even if he didn’t agree with you and he will be remembered most by his ability to instantly make people feel like they mattered. He will continue to be part of the daily life of his family in memory and spirit.  

Reaching eighty four years of age was a milestone. Not everyone does it, can achieve it, nor does everyone even want to do it. Who among us would not want to live a long life you may ask? You would think that reaching a ripe, older age may a goal for everyone, but it’s not. This is because you have to work hard at it.  There’s a lot to it. . .

It’s recognizing that when you make a good choice in life, more good will follow it. It’s facing the hard decisions instead of looking for the easier ones. It means proudly serving your country, alternating late night feedings with the woman you love, fretting over money and putting your ego aside for the sake of your family and friends. It means attending a lot of concerts, sporting events and driving long distances to visit your kids. It means cutting fishing trips short to work a second job in the summer to pay the bills.  It means missing out on choice fishing opportunities as your youngest son finds himself snagged on a log and giving him your pole because you know there is only about 10 minutes of light left to fish before the rusty evening sky washes away the day. But relinquishing your rod and reel also allows you to enjoy the sunset a little longer and tuck the memory away for another day.

For Tom Wurdock, having reached 84 years of age meant he knew he sometimes had to make unpopular decisions with his family but was able to look back and still be glad he made them.  Throughout his life it was knowing things like “this is going to hurt me more than it does you,” really means you love your kids more than they’ll know. It was also watching his waist line grow and realizing that kids wear their baggy pants for reasons different than his. 

In the past year he drank more Oberweiss chocolate milk and Boston Coolers than his wife approved of but it sure beat sitting alone in a hospital bed after visiting hours were over and reflecting on life with tears because you knew not the hour or the day. He was always surrounded by someone he loved of someone who loved him.

Growing older meant discovering new things at each milestone birthday because he knew you could not change your age. But this also meant he could look back with a smile and erase any regrets that may have lingered too long. It was finding simple truths in everyday life, as confusing as it is, and knowing that it’s never too late in the afternoon to learn something new.  Aging was great, but there was also the sadness of losing your best friends one by one. It was learning about why granddaughters get tattoos and accepting the fact that you need not understand why they do it.  It was also rejoicing that you don’t have to work two jobs anymore and that senior discounts will eventually all add up over time and appreciating every bite of tasty food on your plate.

He knew aging always meant worrying about your kids and grandkids, no matter what, and trying to remind them that it will remain a constant in your life until you are no longer with them. It’s knowing in your heart that they love you and to treasure every “I love you” on the phone or in person.  It was also understanding why your kids may have a hard time as you age because they were afraid of losing you and never knew if the next “I love you” might be the last.  But when it came down to the end, he left this world surrounded by the family he loved and who loved him----there was never any question about it.

During the last few years of Tom’s life there were many changes. He took a lot of pills prescribed by his doctors to help him with various ailments. He slept more, lost some of his hearing and moved sround a little slower. But when he looked back at his life at 84 it was not so much about what time had done to him, but what he had done with his time. 

Tom Wurdock’s talents are only exceeded by his humility.  When he looked around him he saw a life well lived and a life well-loved surrounded by a world he has shaped by helping others and by confronting whatever life threw at him with courage.  And it is important to note that almost fifty nine of them were spent married to the same sweet, kind, and beautiful, tolerant, funny and loving woman; his wife Dian.

He realized the great fortune of a long marriage, has left a legacy as a father and has lived long enough to experience the joy of being a grandfather. He has generously shared himself with so many of us and it’s not just those who gather at his passing who celebrate his life.  It’s also been with an extended family, the hundreds of students he taught, the community he’s helped shape, a wide circle of friends he’s watched grow, his long-time church that’s been a symbol of faith. He will miss his poker buddies, fishing pals, email lists and so many more of you. Through them all, he has gently and quietly left his unique and indelible mark on this world.

One of his greatest loves was vacationing deep in the woods in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. This was where the family spent time every year with their best friends of 60 years, the Ronald May family, at the family cabin on Muskallonge Lake north of Newberry. They fished, played poker, preserved the beloved cabin, led the family on adventures and built things others could only dream about. Another love was the family cottage in Delavan, Wisconsin, where his building expertise was always in action and making continuous improvements on the 100+year old ancestral home. He could fix anything, knew something about everything and never met a New York Times Crossword puzzle he could not conquer.

Though it was hard to see his health decline over the past few years he never lost his sense of humor or kind and gentle attitude toward others. He knew he was loved by his family and his family knew they were loved by him. He respected you even if he didn’t agree with you and he will be remembered most by his ability to instantly make people feel like they mattered. He will continue to be part of the daily life of his family in memory and spirit.

Thomas F. Wurdock, age 84, of Royal Oak, died May 31, 2015. He was born April 3, 1931 in Royal Oak to Carl and Edith Wurdock. Mr. Wurdock served in the U. S. Air Force and was a teacher in the Oak Park and Waterford school systems. Those left to cherish his memory are his wife of 59 years, Dian (Haskell); children, Steven of Ada, Deborah (Jeff) Jablonski of Troy and Peter (Christine) of Royal Oak; granddaughters, Alaina Weathers and Lauren (Jon) Krzeszak and brother, Robert (Gloria) of Dearborn. Memorial visitation Friday 1-8 p.m. at the Kinsey-Garrett Funeral Home, 420 S. Lafayette, Royal Oak. Memorial service Saturday 11:00 a.m. at the First United Methodist Church, 320 W. Seventh St., Royal Oak. In lieu of flowers, suggested memorials include the First United Methodist Church of Royal Oak and the Royal Oak Historical Society.

Monday, January 19, 2015

January just got little easier to take.

Jim Harrison was someone I never heard of until 1998 when my friend Stewart gave me one of his books.  It was a book called “The Woman Lit by Fireflies” and it consisted of three novellas; one of which featured Harrison’s famed character Brown Dog, who I have since followed through every adventure.

When I was a kid my family often visited Grand Marais, MI, (a small town of 200 in the Upper Peninsula) each summer. As I got older and began writing for the school newspaper I always thought to myself that Grand Marais would be the perfect place for a writer to live. It is a small town on Lake Superior with almost one of everything, except a fast food joint and a bank. I had no idea that Harrison had been a fixture there for years in his wilderness camp just outside of town. When I discovered this years later I was elated and somewhat inspired to think that he had been walking in and out of the same place I began frequenting when in Grand Marais the Dunes Saloon (now Lake Superior Brewing Company).

I would ask the locals about him whenever I was there and they often say, “He was here for bird season; you just missed him.”  He sold his place several years ago and to the best of my knowledge he doesn’t go to GM much anymore.  But this doesn’t stop me from getting excited whenever a new book comes out.

His new novel is called “The Big Seven “ and in true Jim Harrison fashion, he has again proven that he is the master of modern day literature, up there with all the greats.  Often when I read his work I will come across a passage that makes me think “why do I even bother trying to write?” But inevitably, the inspiration outweighs the doubt and I am off and at it. 

I paid tribute to him in my book “Places I Hide” which came out in 2008. I will share what I wrote and the photo I took another time. But for now, the feeling of this book in my hands is like a life preserver and will help this January limp as I head into “who knows what” next month before delivering my fifth book in March. The inspiration to write is still there, sometimes I just need to be clobbered over the head with something great as a reminder.