The Rouge River. Stretching over 100 miles from midstate Michigan down to the Detroit River, it divides the two towns of Delray and River Rouge. To reside in this area of Metro Detroit, one would have to be stuck there, or really want to live there. Back in the 70’s when this story took place, this was not a tourist friendly town. I can’t imagine it being any different today.
I had the honors of attending high school in River Rouge between 1974 and 1975. How my father and I ended up here is another story. How little I knew of the dramatic change my life was about to take. in 1975 I turned 16 years old. It was in this small rural town when my career as a Seaman started. Life in the Rouge was anything but easy, and I was none the happier to join the seamens’ union and start a new life on the water. So, it came to no surprise to me when in 1979 I was an oiler on an oar boat pulling into the Rouge River to dump a load of coal. As I walked down West Jefferson Avenue looking for a tavern to drink in, I thought of the many memories of my high school days. As much as I wanted to, this is one town I could never forget.
It was a typical winter. As the snow melted it mixed with the dust from the local steel mill and turned into a murky grey slush. The chilling wind would cut through anything I wore. I didn’t care. The climate was all to familiar to me. All I needed was to change my blood type to Budweiser, and the night would slip by smoothly. There I was, 20 years old.
On top of the world, or rather standing at the bank of the river with my shipmate and four 12 packs of beer. There was no pier and the boat was tied up at least 50 feet from the river bank. We got ashore by means of a skiff, which we would row ashore in. The skiff was made fast to the boat, so it wouldn’t get away. The oar carriers on the Great Lakes were called boats among the sailors because the had flat bottoms. Although history would dictate otherwise, we just called them boats to distinguish them from ocean going ships.
I gazed at the “boat” as I thought how nice it will be to get inside my warm cabin and get a little shut eye before my watch. In the skiff we went and brought it abreast of the Sharon. Yes, the Sharon. That was her name. She was a real beauty. Originally a T2 tanker built around the 50’s or earlier, with a triple expansion turbo electric drive. Converted to an oar carrier sometime in the 70’s, the cargo pump room was converted into the ballast pump room. My timeline may be off, but her history didn’t matter much. I was glad to be a crew member. As we rowed the skiff alongside I told my ship mate to climb up the jacobs ladder and lower the grocery basket so we can get the beer on board. Only two 12 packs would fit inside of the basket.
As I waited for the basket to be lowered back down, I stood up. Big mistake. Trying to balance the skiff while holding a 12 pack in each arm and being drunk at the same time is a very bad combination. As I lost my balance the skiff capsized sending me into the freezing cold river along with the two 12 packs. The only choice I had was to let go of the beer and get to that jacobs ladder. Up the ladder I went and strait to my cabin to get out of those wet clothes. I was livid, but not about getting wet. I was mad about loosing the beer.
I actually went back out on deck to go back ashore and get more beer. The deck watch told me that he never in his life seen anyone get up the jacobs ladder so fast. I laughed and thought to myself that this town wasn’t finished with me yet. Needless to say, I changed my mind about going back ashore that night. We left the next morning, and I never looked back on River Rouge.