The Walls Can Talk

Do you ever get that weird feeling that the universe is trying to tell you something? That fate is giving you a gentle nudge in a specific direction for reasons you don’t understand?

If so, have I got a story for you!

If not, well, it’s entirely possible that I am the only person who has ever felt this way, but it certainly wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been delusional about things.

Let me give a little background information to set this up.

I grew up in a suburb of Kalamazoo, Michigan, but my father’s four sisters owned a cottage on the shore of Lake Michigan in the little touristy town of South Haven. I spent every summer of my childhood at that cottage and eventually ended up living in an even smaller town somewhere in between Kalamazoo and South Haven.

South Haven has always been important to me, as has the Big Lake. Lake Michigan. Mishigami, the Ojibwa word for “large lake.”

Despite my love of water, however, I was never really allowed to go out on the big lake in any boats. My aunts and Dad had some very strict rules about boating since their own brothers were killed in a tragic boating accident in 1954. Totally understandable, but understanding it didn’t do anything to stop my curiosity about boats, especially when it came to the subject of Great Lakes shipwrecks.

Stay with me here. I’ll get to my point eventually.

I first learned about the Eastland disaster when I was in college. Not only did it have connections with my little town of South Haven, it was a fascinating, horrifying tragedy that should be more famous. Everyone should know about it, but very few people actually do.

The Eastland was a steamship designed specifically to accommodate South Haven’s shallow harbor, and was launched in 1903. Its owners originally chose to name it the City of South Haven, but that name was taken by another ship launched a few months earlier.  Thus, it was renamed  the Eastland and began its nautical life shrouded in superstition because sailors believe it is bad luck to rename a ship.

After a long run of bad luck and near-misses as it changed ownership over the years, the Eastland became a passenger ship with a reputation for being unstable and prone to listing. On July 24, 1915, it lived up to its reputation by rolling over on its side while still tied to the dock in Chicago with over 2500 passengers on board.

844 of those passengers died. That’s the most lives lost in any single vessel disaster on any of the Great Lakes.  70% of the victims were aged twenty-five or younger. Twenty-two entire families were completely wiped out.

And yet …. very few people have ever heard of the Eastland. I wanted to understand why.

I’ve studied and researched the Eastland off and on over the years. Someday, I kept telling myself, I’m going to write a historical fiction set around the story of the tragedy.  But, as anyone who’s read my blog probably knows by now, I’m pretty easily distracted. For a lot of years, I didn’t write anything at all, much less any kind of fiction about the Eastland.

A few years ago, the museum in South Haven had an Eastland exhibit. I went to see it, of course. I listened to a lecture about it as well.

Cool. Totally fascinating. I got excited about it again.

Oooh, look, something shiny!

I worked front desk at a hotel in South Haven for few years. One busy summer night, I saw a couple of men lugging cameras and video equipment as they checked in with the other desk clerk. When I asked her about it later, she told me they were in town to do some interviews for a documentary they were making about “some big boat that tipped over a Chicago a long time ago.”

Holy crap.

I may or may not have broken a few rules about guest confidentiality that evening, but I ended up having a very nice chat with Chuck Coppola, who was in town to interview author Michael McCarthy about his book Ashes Under Water: The SS Eastland and the Shipwreck That Shook America. 

Mr. Coppola, by the way, is a very kind man who shared his knowledge and encouraged me to write my historical fiction. He even told me I could use his name as a reference if I ever wanted to contact Mr. McCarthy for more information. For the record, I haven’t done so yet. That’s just too scary at this point.

More shiny things happened. I wrote other books. Researched the Eastland some more but never quite figured out what story I wanted to tell about it. Moved a few times, settled into my old house, started a renovation.

Okay, this is where it gets weird.

I’ve gone through five contractors and learned a lot of strange things about my house. Found an old bamboo pole, some broken china, a dipstick, and a mummified bat inside the walls when the old lath and plaster came down. Yesterday, though, my contractor found a real treasure.

Tucked neatly inside the walls of my future office was a folded brochure for the City of South Haven and Petoskey for the summer of 1917. Two years after the Eastland disaster.

1917 was the last year the City of South Haven would sail as a passenger ship on the Great Lakes.  In April of 1918, it was purchased by the U.S. Navy.

That’s a pretty narrow window, right? The shipwreck I’ve studied so diligently over the years happened in 1915, and the flyer for its competition from 1917 somehow ended up inside the plaster walls of the house I am renovating in 2020.

What are the odds?

As I carefully looked through the old pages, the pictures and descriptions attacked my brain. That’s the only way I can describe it. By the time I went to bed last night, I knew my characters and their stories. I’ve got it. It’s in there.

I don’t want to jinx it by saying any more about it just yet. I don’t want to mess with fate, or the universe, or my 54 year-old brain that tends to forget things. I just want to write it down before I see anything shiny.

And yeah, have I got a story for you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time Flies

Your local electronics store has just started selling time machines, anywhere doors, and invisibility helmets.  You can only afford one.  Which of these do you buy, and why?

 

A time machine, of course.  No question.

I’d love to say I would be altruistic and use a time machine for the good of the world:  Save the Titanic.  Unload the Eastland before she tipped over.   Kill Hitler before he gained power.  Tell E.L. James to get out of fanfiction and write her own damn book.

You know, the kind of actions that could prevent untold human suffering.

But I’ve read enough Science Fiction to understand that altering the past like that could have terrible consequences. Besides, I think I’ve established here in my blog that I’m basically a pretty selfish person at times, so let’s just accept that I would use a time machine for my own selfish purposes.

I’d go back to Woodland Elementary and pants a little boy named Tripper.  Totally humiliate the little bastard and warn him to leave my six-year-old self alone.  While there, I might also warn Leroy Butler to stay off the monkey bars in order to avoid shattering his jaw during recess, and I’d have a nice sit-down discussion with my mother about sending me to school in home-made “Stretch-N-Sew” polyester clothes.

I’d go back and tell my high school self to stop worrying about being fat and unpopular and just enjoy herself.  I’d tell her to give up the crush on a boy named Bucky, because in thirty years he will still be with the same perky little blonde — who will still be perky and blonde (and much nicer than I ever gave her credit for).  I’d point out the skinny, geeky science nerds and hint at all of the wonderful things puberty is going to do for some of them in a few years.

I’d tell her to savor the moments with Dee, Dawn, Aaron, Dale and all the others who are going to be gone too soon.

A time machine would give me a chance to go back and tell my college-aged self that dropping out of college is the stupidest thing she will ever do in her life.  I wouldn’t tell her just how many other stupid things she is going to do, but she should know that her future will be a mess if she doesn’t get that degree.

I’d tell the young, starry-eyed bride at my wedding to dance with Dad. It’s just one song, for God’s sake.  Not for him; for her.  She needs to understand that he is a good man who did the best he could, and that he never stopped loving his daughters.  She needs to forgive him, and she needs to realize that he doesn’t have much time left.

I’d tell that same bride to keep a closer watch on her marriage and recognize when things start going bad.    Get out sooner, before they hurt each other as much.

On the subject of hurting people, I’d tell myself to name the jerky ex-boyfriend character in Her House Divided  “Lester” instead of “Randy.”  Trust me on this one.  Sorry, Randy.

I’d let the air out of all of the tires of both of our cars on June 21, 2011, so that my kids couldn’t go to Christian Fellowship that night.  Better yet, I’d make a call to the Van Buren County Road Commission a week earlier and tell them to cut down a certain half-dead maple tree on County Road 388 before it falls in a storm and hurts someone.

I’d go back and tell Doug Adams to stay off the treadmill and see a cardiologist.  Beg Kurt Vonnegut for just one more story.  Tell Jim Henson it’s not the flu; go see a doctor.

I’d tell myself to gossip less, laugh more.  Say “I love you” as much as possible, even when no one says it back.  Tell my sisters I love them, no matter what.  Both of them.  Read more books from unknown authors.  Eat less, exercise more, and don’t lose touch with old friends.  Don’t wait for the universe to drop a tree on my head to make me understand that I am loved and I matter to a lot of people.

Of course, if I did all of those things, I wouldn’t have the chance to gain wisdom from the experiences, and my present-day self wouldn’t know what to do with the time machine.  Wouldn’t have the advice and warnings to give . . . which means nothing would change.  Or everything would change. . .

I think I just understood the theory of a Moebius Strip, but only for a second.  Then it was gone and now my head hurts and I suddenly remember why I don’t write Science Fiction.

So let’s just say I would use my time machine to travel back to 1973 so I throw myself at Randolph Mantooth.  Then again, I’d be old enough to be his mother then, and I’m not sure I could pull off being a cougar.  And now my head hurts again.

Screw the electronics store.  I’ll spend my money on Toblerone and Diet Coke.

 

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