Hard Times And Good Times
By Jack A. Eckert
A sea story about a sudden transfer and a mid-winter move to the CGC MACKINAW and how our fledgling family survived it. This is not a story about the MACKINAW.
In the summer of 1955 I mutualled from Pilot Island to Milwaukee Breakwater Light Station, an ideal transfer because I was from that area. Randy was born a few months later in September and we owed big time for him. Those were the days when we got free dental care from the mobile dental unit but had to pay for our babies. There were NO family health benefits. With my meager EN3 pay, a small quarters allowance, plus $77.10 a month subsistence money received because I was on duty at the lighthouse, we were at the break-even point with our finances only because I was able to divert $50.00 of the subsistence allowance to cover our food.
Out of the clear blue in January 1956 I received a phone call on the light advising of my transfer to the MACKINAW.
This was my first transfer with a wife and new baby and came at a difficult time—it was the middle of the winter. We had little notice to leave and a lot personal arrangements to make rapidly. I managed to get five days leave to go along with the two travel days, which helped.
The older couple we rented from took mercy and didn't stick us with a short notice penalty for moving. The movers came and took everything but a couple of suitcases. We had to give away our German Shepherd dog, breaking my wife's heart. We cleaned up the empty apartment, left and spent the rest of the day at my parent's house.
We didn't have a very good car, a ‘52 Ford, and were concerned about driving the upper peninsula to St. Ignace and the ferry to Mackinaw City, so we opted to take the car ferry from Milwaukee to Ludington. We drove aboard the City of Midland just before 11:00 p.m., settled down on the benches in the main cabin, and waited for time to pass as we crossed Lake Michigan. The trip was a rough ride, even for a large car ferry, but we made it without incident; we arrived tired and sleepy at six in the morning and drove off of the boat, heading to Cheboygan by following the road map as best as we could. Forty miles out of Ludington the radiator boiled over. I filled it and we proceeded on. Twenty-five miles later it happened again. Somehow we limped into Cheboygan by noon and looked around the city for a place to stay. By pure luck we found Mrs. Johnson's boarding house on Dresser Street. Rent was $5.00 per night. The room was rather small, but it had a big, comfortable clean bed in it. We bought groceries only for Joana and Randy. My plan was to report in and eat on the ship until we got squared away, financially and otherwise.
Upon reporting, I found we were to sail in two days. Fortunately it was for just a short trip. Joana took it rather stoically and went about searching for a place for us to live. As luck would have it she found half of an old side by side duplex a few doors from the boarding house. The rent was more than we were used to paying, but we took it anyway.
We figured the furniture would be in Cheboygan by the time the ship got back and we could move in. It took twelve days to arrive. Somehow the movers sent it to Texas and lost it.
Meanwhile, we continued to live at Mrs. Johnson's. The ship was scheduled to be in port until mid-March, so there was no worry. After the furniture finally arrived and with the apartment a mess from unpacking, the ship was ordered out to go to Midland, Ontario, Canada in Georgian Bay to break out their harbor.
When the ship got back Joana had the apartment in good shape, and we enjoyed our first home-cooked meal together in several weeks. I didn't have the heart to tell her that we had pork chops for lunch on the ship. Hers were better.
Cheboygan in the winter is a cold place and does not suffer for lack of snow. A space heater on the street floor was supposed to heat the bedrooms upstairs—but it didn't. We used a hide-a-bed and placed the baby's crib in the living room with us, where we lived until the weather warmed up enough in June to move upstairs. The heating bill was more than the rent!
Hard times had hit the city. The paper mill was shut down and the only work going on in the area was the building of the Mackinaw Bridge, 20 miles away at Mackinaw City, and few if any of the townsmen worked on it. The main cash transfusion to the city was the Ice Breaker MACKINAW with it's 130 man payroll. There was some friction between the ship and the city.
The baby got sick while the ship was out and Joana asked Mrs. Johnson if she knew of a Doctor that would see him on credit. Credit for a junior MACKINAW crewman or his family was unheard of then. It was cash for everything. She called Dr. George, who agreed to look at Randy with a hope of being paid in the future. When we left the city we made darn sure that the good doctor was properly thanked and paid in full.
The "Great White Mother" sailed for the ice-breaking season of about six weeks while Joana spent a lot of time at the public library and at church. We had just barely begun to get ourselves acquainted socially. When we returned from ice breaking, we set about living our lives in a city with no television—the only entertainment being bars. We couldn't afford them.
There were a number of young couples on the ship in our age range we socialized with. A big night was playing cards and when someone would bake a cake to go with the coffee and talk. Sometimes we would turn on our $35.00 second hand TV and watch the scan lines. Once we saw a shadow with some sort of talking heard through the static. We were starved for entertainment here and may have missed the golden years of TV. When summer eventually arrived, our entertainment expanded to include car rides and picnics, augmenting our card parties. Unfortunately the ship was in less than half the time.
In those days the crew was paid in cash every two weeks—on the first and the fifteenth. Several times the ship came into the river and put a boat and crew over the side to deliver the cash to the waiting dependants. As soon as the boat was retrieved we turned around and went back out. I often wondered in those days whether the cash was to keep our loved ones from starving or to satisfy the local businessmen.
A change of command in the summer brought the only captain the locals ever disliked. It seems that in all those years Cheboygan was the temporary homeport of the MACKINAW. The new captain wanted to move to Mackinaw City where the docking facilities were better—maybe he didn't like parking a white ship behind a coal pile. The bridge was near completion and the ferry boat docks there much better and soon would become available for use. Needless to say the towns people were not only mad at the skipper but at us too.
In late August the ship went to Cleveland to the shipyard for a dockside availability. A friend offered the use of his apartment while we were there as he and his wife were going to be away.
Joana started to come down with a few friends along for company in the old ‘52 Ford. The car traveled less than a hundred miles and blew the engine. I waited and waited, then called home and found out about the disaster. I took leave, hitch-hiked to the place of the breakdown, found it would cost several hundred dollars, and told the mechanic to go ahead with the work. I proceeded to Cheboygan by thumb and went the next day to every bank and finance company in town to borrow the money and was turned down flat.
On to plan two.
I rode my thumb to Waukesha, went to the bank that had my car loan, borrowed the money without a problem, went to a Braves game with my mother, sent the money to Joana and asked her to make arrangements to get the car and drive it to Cheboygan to await my arrival. I then hitch-hiked to Cleveland to go back to work on the ship.
Late Summer turned into Fall and Joana had an altercation with the neighbor lady who lived in the other side of the house. Generally it was a clash between Hillbilly and Polish cultures. She found a nice place above Johnny's Bar on Main Street. We gave notice and moved. It seems that Mrs. Johnson's husband worked at the bar and knew of the availability of the apartment.
This was the most organized move we ever had. Joana and Anna Brimacomb packed everything up in the morning. Her boyfriend Don Wright, a yeoman on the ship, and I borrowed a pickup truck and began moving things from the one place to another about 2 p.m. With the two women packing and unpacking and the two of us lugging, we were moved in and were sitting down to dinner by 7:30 p.m. That was a heck of a move as we had to get everything up a steep set of stairs.
What a nice, clean, and airy apartment it was. It had been newly redecorated and you would never know you were above a bar. This was a real step up in living accommodations for us—even though the place was smaller, it was more than adequate. From that point on we had a lot more company—everybody liked the place.
I was promoted to EN2 that summer. The promotion logjam was broken at last and the extra dollars helped.
One of the things we often did in those days when we had no money was go down to the ship at night and watch movies on the messdeck. The berth deck would be full of babies sleeping while we enjoyed ourselves. The uniforms required rule was relaxed then and we could come down in civvies if we were on liberty. Often Joana and Randy would come down when I had the duty providing I didn't have the 8-12 watch.
As Thanksgiving neared, all dependants were invited to the ship for dinner. Nobody bought food for home. The day before Thanksgiving we were bowling in our Mackinaw league at the local bowling alley when a member of the duty section in undress blues came in and went directly to the Captain, who then asked for our attention. The District, he told us, was sending us on a SAR mission a couple of hundred miles away and we were sailing in three hours. Our dependants didn't get Thanksgiving dinner, and ours didn't taste too good either. We didn't even find what we had been sent out for.
Just before Christmas the ship went up to the Soo to close the locks. On the way back we stopped at Detour Island. A work crew with axes and saws went ashore and cut down 70 or 80 Christmas trees, which we brought back to Cheboygan. One of those trees found it's way to our living room. I had the duty on Christmas Eve so EN3 Don Schwartz helped Joana put it up and trim it. We had Christmas Dinner at home.
On New Years Eve day several of us were kicking around the idea of having a party somewhere. Naturally it was, "Jack, why not at your place?" I called Joana and she said OK. It was to start at 9 p.m., it was a BYO, and several guys said they would bring food. By 7 p.m. a few couples showed up and we set up for the party, decorating the place, clearing the floor for dancing and so forth. Somebody brought a good record player and many records. A ship's cook showed up with a cooked ham and a cooked turkey, and food came from all over. Singles and couples began showing up at 9. The lights were lowered and the dancing began. There was booze but no one got out of line. The food was good and plentiful and everybody enjoyed themselves. Even a couple of the young ship's officers showed up.
That was the best party we ever had at any place we lived in all of the years we have been married. At midnight we got Randy up to be "1957 coming in" and one of the older guys played "1956 going out." It worked out great. We had more life that year above the bar than they had downstairs within it. They were very accommodating when we sent down for more ice cubes.
During my time on the MACKINAW I ran the Ship’s Exchange, which paid $25.00 per month. I saved everything I earned and eventually bought my wife a used washer and dryer. These would be needed in the future when more babies were expected to arrive. To that point in time she used a scrub board and the bathtub.
Life in the Coast Guard can be hard at times—there were good years and bad years. In the early years of our marriage there was no support structure. You were expected to go and do what you were ordered to do and the families would have to make do as best as they could.
Joana and I struggled when we were first married because of low pay, difficult duty, poor housing, a lack of medical benefits until the late 1950's, packing up and moving on short notice to start all over again in a different place away from family and friends, working on Cutters whose time between overhaul periods became more and more frequent, with the loss of liberty that was the lot of a snipe until the work was completed.
There is an old saying that "If it doesn’t kill you, it will strengthen you." Joana and I would not trade those hungry years for anything.
Return to the Coast Guard Stories Page