The Smell of Oil-Dipped Corks and Linen Twine


Alton Norton


Written while the author was a student at Manistique High School, Manistique, Mich., class of 1910.


My father stuck his head in our back bed room doorway and called softly, so as not to awaken mother and the girls in the side chamber, or my bedmate, brother Perry.

"Come on, Alton, time to get going." But in the darkness of the room I was fully dressed, for I never overslept on Saturday mornings when I was permitted to go with father on the fish tug Alice C.

It was a calm September morning, cool and crisp, and Lake Michigan's surface was smooth in the morning twilight as we walked together down to the dock and aboard the tug, where the kerosene lantern in the engine room showed Uncle Charle's kind face and a steam gauge registering seventy-five pounds of steam -enough to get started with.

Few words were spoken. A couple of boxes of crushed ice were slid over the stern, Jim Cull cast off the mooring lines, a saturated squeak of the engine room signal whistle and we were under way. A few minutes later the tug was rounding the old slab-piled breakwater which then protected the modest harbor of Manistique, and soon the fishermen were tucked away in their bunks in the forecastle where Billy Burns was kindling his galley stove with some slab bark and a piece of greasy waste.

Bill LaFond's face was lighted up with a reddish glow as he stoked the flat fire box of the leg boiler with several arm loads of slab wood. Moist blotches of steam from the high pressure exhaust blew against my face as I gazed in the distance at a sea gull, only visible where the under sides of its rhythmically flapping wings met the brightening sky to the eastward.


Bird @

The Bird 2: a typical steam tug of the era.


My orders were to keep out of the way until we were clear of the harbor, then I looked into the lee door of the pilot house to see if I'd be invited in. "Come on, Alton, get up here on the stool. The course is Southeast by East, one-quarter East. Keep her bow on the nose, now."

How I liked to hear that call! Father generally sat on the cushion seat reading some magazine, but this morning he stood close behind me, lighting his egg-shaped imitation mearschaum at short intervals. Frequent clearing of his noatrils by short snorts made me realize that the corners of his handle bar mustache were twitching on the alternate port and starboard corners of his mouth in unison with this high pressure breathing, and I sensed that something was on his mind. We were alone, the tug was rolling gently in a low ground swell, the sun was rising clear right out of the lake, and the open hatch over the boiler kept the pilot house cozy with the lee door open. I checked my steering, but it seemed satisfactory so I said nothing.

An extra snort and a clearing of his throat and I knew I was about to be told something. "You stayed beyond your permission to that dance last night."

"Yes, father, but I was on the property committee and had to help close up."

More silence, then - "If you don't behave right when you're out with the girls I'll thrash you within an inch of your life."

This needed no answer, and I gave none. I feared my father, but I worshipped him with an undying devotion. The ice was broken a little later when Billy Burns, the cook, came in to the pilot house with his clean white apron an and Dad said to me, "Go wash yourself now and get below for breakfast." Billy took the wheel while I scooped a bucket of ice cold Lake Michigan from over the rail and father and I shared a cake of Grandfather's tar soap and blew our morning ablutions. Orders were always to avoid the community towel, but I did have sense enough to slip aft to the engine room and use Uncle Charlie's comb and chain on my hair, for he'd be sure to remind me of my appearance when I arrived at the table. Billy LaFond gave me a wink and a smile as he oiled the cross head from the steep pair of steps, and I ran forward to the galley hatch where the smell of ham and fried potatoes met me on the stairway.

Father, Uncle Charlie and Danny Malloy were already seated. I slid forward where the table narrows down and big Frank Hazen, Monty Malloy and Jimmy Cull moved in behind me. Uncle Charlie saw my necktie drag across the plate, and when I loaded it with food he remarked how careless I was to eat from a plate that had been so dirtied. Knowing how particular he was about everything, this remark didn't bother me.

Danny Malloy, whose physical skill I secretly envied, gulped the last of his coffee. "Lote, I understand Alton is going steady now. Seems to have a shine for red hair." Father's mustache took another twist as his false teeth clicked through a tough piece of gristle on his slice of ham. Curly-headed Monty grinned until his becoming scar grew more pronounced, and said, "Cap, he ought to get himself a girl from Beaver Island; they grow them nice over there." His cousin Dan and Jimmy Cull, also Beaver Islanders, heartily agreed with, but old Frank Hazen, always taking my side, wiped his mustache and chimed in slowly. "Alton don't want any moss backs like them, Monty. I was talking to Bald Bill up at Paddy's saloon the other night and he said he knew his wife was from Beaver Island the very first night he met her because she had red underwear on." Everybody laughed but Uncle Charlie and father and red-faced me.

Dan slipped up to relieve Billy Burns at the wheel while father finished breakfast, and during the remainder of the meal I took some more kidding from Billy. Both he and Uncle Charlie thought my "red head friend" was all right - but I was awful, awful young.



The crew soon dispersed and I returned to the pilot house and got my seat on the stool again. Danny, the gaffer, went for'd and oiled the lifting engine, donned his oilskins and leaned over the rail scanning the horizons immediately in our path. He looked back at the pilot house window and beckoned for me. Excusing myself, I went to him and he handed me a suit of oilskins, five sizes too large, it seems. The lifter engine was idling the condensation out of its arteries.

"Is the buoy in sight yet, Dan?" I asked him.

"Yes, old Captain Long Chin has hit her on the nose again.

"Must live right, I guess." The nickname of "Long Chin", never applied within earshot of father, was more appropriate than I was willing to admit - but the tug was circling now to bring the lay of the nets in the right direction. Danny gaffed the cedar pole and soon the buoy line and the bridle hove aboard and the lead and cork lines began trailing their precious twine over the shining roller. I took my permitted station in the bow, where I could watch the nets before they came to the surface.

It was a beautiful morning - a clear sky, a fresh westerly breeze, and accompanying swells that gave the tug the right amount of rolling and pitching to add zest to the occasion. To the Eastward and close by was High Island, where we moored one night the following year, played ball with the Indians - and I wrote a letter on birch bark to present to my Titian acquaintance. To the Southwest was Gull Island and directly Southeast of us, jutting its blue length along the horizon beyond that island, Was Big Beaver, where Dan and Monty and little Jimmy Cull came from. Cocky, rough living, as Irish as Paddy's pig, they were the best fishermen on the Lakes, and well they knew it.



I watched the first run of fish, saw Danny gaff many a whitefish in mid air as it slipped from the gill net and watched Uncle Charlie answer his call when one got away; for a long gaff hook was always in readiness outside the engine room door. I admired Danny's quick actions but father evidently thought otherwise, for he lowered the pilot house window and called to Dan to slow down the lifter, that he was tearing the twine too much. Dan closed the throttle a little, spit some Peerless juice to leeward, and said nothing.

In a few minutes, amidst a lot of action, he sneaked the throttle open a little more and soon the nets were rolling in again at top speed. The next thing I knew, father was tearing out of the pilot house and grabbed Dan by the collar with his ham sized hands and straightened him up off the rail. "You do as I tell you or I'll throw you overboard!" The throttle valve eased down and stayed that way, and Danny spewed another quart of tobacco juice over the rail, winked at me, but was as red around the ears as I imagine I was. I slipped aft to pass a cord of slabs below to Bill LaFond to ease the embarrassment. Bill had seen the display from the fire room door and so had Uncle Charlie. Bill hollered up from the fire room floor plates, "Looks like the Long Disciple is mad this morning." "Long Disciple" was another name for father brought about by his reputation for not being a swearing man.

(Editor's note:some of the text is missing here.)

This chore finished, I slipped into the engine room and seated myself by Uncle Charlie. Bill had also come up out of the fire room. "Can I handle the engine awhile?" I asked my favorite uncle.

"Sure, move over here - be sure you keep her off center."

Bill LaFond goaded me with, "Be careful how you answer those whistles, the Long Disciple got out of the wrong side of the bed this morning."

Uncle Charlie laughed, "Not 'Long Disciple', Bill, its 'Long Desap." And of course we all three laughed for that was as near to it as Benny Mastau, the cook on the fish tug "Burger" could get when he heard the appelation for the first time. Benny, a middle-aged French Canadian with plenty of Pottawotomi mixed in, stuck his head in the Alice C.'s engine room one day in the harbor and shouted, "Hello, Doc, what you got there?" Uncle Charlie said it was aluminum paint that Lote had brought down to try out. "The Long Desap, eh? Fishermen's Unyums, Unyum overalls, and now it's Unyum paint! Dab her up, Doc, but she'll never beat the "Burger". Uncle Charlie laughed but changed this touchy subject by asking Ben what he was cooking for supper. "Pea soup, Doc, come on over! Them lil' white beans make good pea soup."

But as I sat there in the engine room pulling the throttle, reversing the engine in answer to father's signals, I was with two of my best friends who had known me since I was born. It was Uncle Charlie who had coaxed father to stop that time at St. Martin's Island, on our way back from drydocking at Sturgeon Bay; and it was Billy LaFond whom swam ashore to steal a lonely skiff when the tug's life-boat proved too leaky. Uncle Charlie and father had taken Perry and me through the deserted little settlement and the weed-choked graveyard. Yes, I was always welcomed in the engine room of the Alice C.

Feeling by now that the tension was off up forward, I sauntered toward the lifting machine and slid into position to try my hand at boxing the next round of nets. This put me close to Danny where he straddled the rail. How he longed to open that throttle and haul them in faster than I could take them away! - but that wouldn't happen today.



By eleven o'clock the nets were lifted, and I judged we got fifteen hundred pounds of whitefish besides a couple boxes of large trout. The tug tore off towards High Island, father made a couple of soundings and the orders were passed to set the buoy at twenty-five fathoms. Nine boxes of dry nets came first, which were set at full speed. Being left-handed, they never allowed me to handle the leads for fear of tangling, but I could throw the linseed dipped corks and loved to do it. This operation consumed little time, then the slower process of setting the wet nets was begun; a signal also for Billy Burns to ring his "hash hammer and start the rounds at dinner.

Uncle Charlie, Jimmy Cull, Monty Malloy and I went below. There was more talk about Beaver Island, red-headed girls and so forth, but Uncle Charlie started in with, "Ever hear of the King of the Beavers, Alt?"

Before I had time to confess that I hadn't, a lively argument was under way and father arrived in the midst of it. His presence seemed to temper them a bit, but I deduced that a Mormon zealot had formed a colony and had himself crowned as King of all the Earth some years before father or any of the rest present were born. Seems they said his name was Strang, James Strang, and the island town of St. James was named after him.

"The Irish fixed 'em, though," chimed in Monty, "all the fishermen for miles around joined in to do the job, including men from Manistique, Seul Choix, Epoufette, and even Poverty and Summer Island."



"King" James Strang, leader of the breakaway Mormon colony
on Lake Michigan's Beaver Island, 1848-1856


I had never heard of this colony or its expulsion by these wild-eyed Irish fishermen, but I had often heard the words 'Mormon" or "Latter Day Saints" used rather slurringly in connection with comments about my relatives who came to St. Martin's and their previous pilgrimage to the Holy Land, subjects which were absolutely taboo in father's presence and seldom discussed with Aunt Alice or Aunt Luly. I guess I was too young at the time to be curious about the reasons why. But nothing mattered in the minds of Monty and Jimmy so long as the Irish win. They hurried the rest of their meal to spell off their mates so they too could come to dinner.

Father preceded me out of the galley, and I went aft and watched Danny spread a box of nets. Monty was spinning, Dan was spreading, calling "with the sun", and Monty would give the box a half turn as directed to take the twist out of the nets. Then it was "agin the sun" and a half turn the other way, etc., all confusing to me. When I took my turn at spreading a box as it sailed out over the fantail, they had to do their own "with and agin" for it kept me busy clearing the twine from the corks, leaving no seconds to observe which way the lines were twisted. They were patient with me and seemed to be willing for me to try and help. The local gossip really flew here in the after house. They were out of earshot of the Captain, who during this operation took his soundings, laid and recorded (at least, in his head) the run and directions of the gang of nets. The operation of setting wet nets was quiet also, and all hands could easily hear each other. Uncle Charlie watched out the aft engine room window to adjust the speed or to reverse the engine if a bad tangle developed, and a spare hand, generally the fireman, stood by to help shift net boxes while the other two fishermen were forward gutting the fish.

Here they said to me the things they wouldn't say in front of father. Here, perhaps, I answered as I would not in his presence, but this crew of fishermen, rough as they were, would have kicked me out of any saloon in town for my own good and because of their respect for Dan and Uncle Doc.

The last box was run, father called the buoy at thirty fathoms, Danny made a couple of lightning hitches, threw the bridle overboard, hollered "Brailo" and slid the buoy into the churning wake as the tug turned on her heels and headed for home. I passed the last of the slab wood below to Bill LaFond, then hurried to my favorite post at the steering wheel. Without looking up from his jotting some kind of data in a notebook, father called out to me, "Let her go Northwest three-quarter West until you pick up the saw dust burners at the mill."

Activity aft had ceased, but all hands were now finishing the cleaningof the fish and soon the deck hose was being dragged past the pilot house as they washed everything clean and through the scuppers. Frank Hazen and Monty went below and Jimmy Cull came in to the pilot house followed by Danny Malloy, who winked at me as he removed his sweater. He stood and fixed his eyes on father's license frame over the big steering wheel and without turning around to address me in particular he read, "Loveatus Norton", then paused and said, "Loveatus - L-O-V-E-A-T-U-S. That would be a damn good name if they had left out the A and the T." I heard a snort, but out of the corner of my eye I saw that the mustache twitch was accompanied with a smile. "Come on, Dan, get that cribbage board out and let's see how good you are." Father liked Danny, the most capable fisherman in the Coffey fleet.



It was always my ambition to be able to sneak the tug in through the Breakwater while they were still engrossed in their game, but without even looking up Dad knew when to stop and take the piloting job away from me. After unloading, we went to the slab dock where I helped put the next day's fuel aboard, then when we returned to the fish dock finished reeling a half of a box of nets for Frank Hazen so he could get started on his last one. The walk home with father was, as usual, devoid of any conversation.



Manistique Harbor today


After the regular Saturday night supper of baked brown beans and gravy and brown bread, I retired to the dining room table where some warmth from the sitting room stove came through the door, and dug out my school lessons to clean up the work for Monday. Perry was out somewhere, Alice was over to Casey's and Ethel was entertaining herself quietly in the side bed room. Father had his endless array of reading material at hand while Marm (my grandmother Leighton) vigorously plied her tatting, mumbling an excuse for a tune between her munching lips. Mother sat near the stove rocking in her long arcs, trying to carry on a conversation between Dad and Marm.

"That Professor Hanson and his wife ought to be hung for keeping those high school kids out so late to a dance. I don't know what this world is coming to." Marm, always ready to take up the cudgels in my behalf, blurted out, "G'd Lawd, Millie, give the young folks a chance." A heavy clearing of the nostrils was audible, but no further remarks.

The kerosene lamp cast an insufficient light, the dining room table seemed to roll a little, like Billy Burns' galley, my eyelids needed propping with toothpicks, and the History assignment merged into oblivion. In another few minutes I was in bed, thinking, in those brief seconds before youth falls asleep, that tomorrow night I'd sing in the choir with my auburn-haired friend and maybe take her home.


The ALICE C. Crew:

Captain: Lote Norton

Engineer: Charlie Townsell

Fireman: William LaFond

Cook: William Burns

Deck Hands: Dan Mallory, Monty Mallory, James Cull, Frank Hazen