Above all things in heaven or on earth, John LePere loved his brother. It was a love born the moment he watched Billy slide from between their mother’s legs in the tiny house built in the shadow of Purgatory Ridge.
His father was dead by then, killed several months earlier while pulling in his fishing nets off Shovel Point. The rudder of his small vessel snapped during a sudden squall and the boat foundered on a shoal two hundred yards from shore. His father didn’t drown-a life vest kept him afloat in the high waves. It was hypothermia that killed him, the icy water of Lake Superior. Eight-year-old John LePere didn’t understand death exactly. Nor did he have time to grieve much, for his mother’s deep grief drove her nearly mad. She retreated into solitude and refused to leave the house at all. After that, it fell to young John LePere to hold things together.
He was alone with his mother when she went into labor. He begged her to let him get someone to help. She screamed at him, ordering him to stay. For weeks afterward, his arm carried the bruises where she gripped him during her contractions. He was scared, more scared even than when the sheriff’s men had showed up bringing the news about his father. But his fear melted when he saw the purple body that was Billy squeezed from his mother’s womb.
He laid the baby on his mother’s sweaty bosom, covered them both with a clean sheet, and walked to Beaver Bay two miles north to get help.
His story appeared in the Duluth News-Tribune. They called him a hero. An Indian hero. People who didn’t know them figured his mother must have been drunk.
He raised Billy. He taught his brother how to fish, how to throw a baseball and a football, how to fight when he was taunted about his crazy mother or his Indian heritage. As much as he could, he took the blows of life and protected Billy. Even as he suffered, he thanked God for allowing him to be the shield.
After high school, John LePere was hired as a hand on a Great Lakes ore carrier. His job took him away from Purgatory Cove for long periods, and he was concerned. His mother earned a meager living as a cook in a diner on the north shore highway, but she was a distracted woman who required the care of both boys to keep her together. John hated the thought of this burden falling to Billy alone. But the money LePere earned-most of which he sent home-was good, and as it turned out, Billy did just fine. Whenever LePere returned from a passage, he found the house on the shore of Lake Superior well kept. Billy made repairs when necessary, made sure the refrigerator was stocked, got his mother to work every day on time and home safely. He seemed to grow up quickly, different in many ways from his older brother. He was like their mother, slender and tall, with dark straight hair and dark eyes. He had an easy smile. LePere, on the other hand, was stocky and strong and given to an earnest silence, more like the voyageurs who were his father’s ancestors.
For five years, LePere worked the ore boat plying the waters of the Great Lakes, and for five years, things seemed fine. Then one morning Billy found their mother floating in the cold water of Purgatory Cove. Whether she’d got there by accident or by choice was never determined, but Billy took it hard. Although her death released her youngest son in one way, it bound him in others-to grief and guilt and remorse. When LePere saw Billy sliding toward the darkness that had swallowed their mother, he invited him aboard the Alfred M. Teasdale for the last passage of the season, a run from Buffalo to Duluth. He hoped the open water and the slow crawl under a late fall sky would bring Billy around.
The Teasdale entered Lake Superior via the locks at Sault Ste. Marie under clear skies. Since leaving Buffalo, the great ore boat had encountered only good weather. This was rare for November on the Great Lakes, and John LePere, as he went about his duties as a mate, watched the horizon carefully. The Teasdale, oldest of the boats in the Fitzgerald Shipping Company’s ore fleet, was carrying her final cargo. Once she’d been unloaded in Duluth, the crew would sail her back to Detroit to be cut into scrap. LePere, whose responsibility it was to monitor the holds for leakage, knew the end was long overdue.
On the afternoon of November 16, the Teasdale rounded the Keweenaw Peninsula, that iron-rich finger of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. She was making twelve knots against a mild headwind. Within an hour, the barometer began to plunge and the wind to rise. Dark came early, hastened by a bank of charcoalcolored clouds that seemed to materialize out of the lake itself and that quickly ate the sky. The temperature dropped twenty degrees. Bow spray began to freeze on the railings, and the decks were awash in icy slush. Captain Gus Hawley came to the pilothouse to confer with Art Bowdecker, the wheelsman. In her long service, the Teasdale had weathered many Great Lakes gales, and Hawley, captain during the last fifteen years of that service, was not greatly concerned. They were less than ten hours out of Duluth, and Bowdecker was the best wheelsman in the fleet. Captain Hawley gave the order to proceed on course, and he returned to his cabin.
At eight bells, John LePere completed his watch in the pilothouse with Bowdecker and first mate Orin Grange. Billy was there, too, taking in the talk of the men, getting a lesson from Bowdecker on guiding the huge boat through rough seas. The bow leaped and plummeted, disappearing for long moments under twelve-foot waves. Along with the bow spray, snow spattered the windows of the pilothouse, making it difficult to see anything. LePere could tell his brother was scared. He himself had never been through a storm as bad as this, but the other two men were old hands. They’d seen plenty of rough seas. If they were concerned at all, they didn’t show it. As he left his watch, LePere offered to go down to the galley and bring back coffee for them all.
The cold November wind tore at LePere as soon as he stepped outside. He shielded his eyes with his hand and looked aft. The Teasdale was 603 feet from bow to stern. She was carrying a partial cargo, 221 tons of bituminous coal. On a calm day, she was a sight moving across the water, a mammoth creature of ungainly grace, ruler of her domain. As he watched the huge waves slam against her sides and flood her deck, LePere knew her greatness was an illusion. After he’d made coffee in the galley, he timed his return up the ladder to the pilothouse so that he wouldn’t be soaked by the spray of the breaking waves. Even so, water hit him in the face-but it was not the cold spray of the lake. He realized with alarm that the wind was so strong it created a vacuum as it passed over the spout of the pot and was sucking the hot coffee out.
In the pilothouse, the men were laughing.
“I’m going below,” John LePere told his brother. “You coming?”
“Ah, let ‘im stay,” Bowdecker said. “A few more hours and we’re in Duluth. He’s good company, John.”
LePere could see his brother was flattered. He nodded to Bowdecker. “Just don’t tell him about the Erie whorehouse, okay?”
Bowdecker smiled, and a gold tooth glinted in the light. “Too late. Already have. You go on and get some sleep. We’ll take good care of Billy.”
LePere went to the cabin he shared that voyage with his brother and crawled into bed. He read from a book, The Old Man and the Sea. He liked it because it was about a regular guy, a guy who knew big water and was trying to stay true to a few things. The pitching of the boat made it difficult to follow the lines of print, so he didn’t read long. After only a few minutes, he closed his eyes and fell asleep, knowing that when he woke, they would be anchored outside Duluth harbor waiting for permission to enter.
He had no idea how much time had passed when he was awakened by a great boom that ran through the ship. After that came a scream of metal, long, like an animal in pain. The ship jolted, and he was thrown from his bunk. Sparks flew from the striker of the bell as the general alarm sounded. In darkness, he flipped the light switch in his cabin, but the light would not come on.
“Billy!” he called.
His brother didn’t answer.
LePere stumbled across the tiny cabin and grabbed frantically for the life jacket in the rack over his bunk and then for Billy’s. He snatched his peacoat from its hook and headed up top. He remembered Bowdecker’s promise-We’ll take good care of Billy-and he held to that as he stumbled into the companionway and toward the ladder. When he reached the spar deck, he saw that although the rest of the ship was completely dark, the stern was still brightly lit. That gave him hope-until he realized what was actually happening. The center of the Teasdale had begun to lift, like a playing card being folded in the middle. As he watched, the inch-thick steel decking started to rip from starboard to port, and the sound of its rending drowned out even the howl of the wind. Sparks shot into the night like fireworks and great clouds of gray steam erupted. LePere gaped in horror as the Teasdale broke in half.
“Billy!” he cried and rushed up the ladder to the darkened pilothouse.
Orin Grange was at the radio, speaking frantically, trying vainly to send a message on a dead set. LePere grabbed his shoulder.
Grange shrugged off his hand. LePere grabbed him and spun him around. “Where’s Billy, damn it?”
“He went aft with Bowdecker,” Grange hollered, then turned back to the radio.
LePere headed toward the lighted stern. He passed a group of men gathered at the pontoon raft between hatches two and three. The captain was among them.
“Where are you going, LePere?” Captain Hawley cried out to him.
“My brother. He’s somewhere aft.”
“You can’t get there now.” Hawley grasped his arm. “Get into the raft, man.”
LePere pulled free and ran on.
As he approached the place where the deck had split, he stopped abruptly in terror. The severed stern of the Teasdale was rising up, driven forward by the propeller that was still turning. For a moment, LePere was sure the whole aft end would ride up onto the deck where he stood and crush him. He could see the open sections of the severed cargo hold lit by lights, full of fire and swirling clouds of steam. It was like looking through the doorway to hell. He had a moment of perfect calm, sure he was about to die, and he saw, or thought he saw, silhouetted in one of the lighted windows aft, the shape of Billy standing all alone.
Then the stern veered to starboard. As LePere watched, it passed him slowly and headed off into the night and the storm like an animal crawling off to die.
“Billy!” he cried out in vain. “Billy! God, Billy!”
He teetered at the brink of a section of ship that was tipping, preparing to slide into the deep. Hands pulled him back, and he found himself with half a dozen other men struggling to climb aboard the life raft. He moved in a daze, his feet slipping on the sharp angle of the tilting deck. Like all rafts on the older carriers, the pontoon raft on the Teasdale was too heavy to be manually launched. It was designed to float free of the deck as the ship sank beneath it. However, as the bow rose, pointing ever skyward, the raft suddenly broke loose, tumbled down the deck, and hit the water. A moment later, so did John LePere.
The icy water took his breath away, squeezed him mercilessly so that his whole body cramped at once. A wave lifted him and slammed him against the tilted hull. He managed to push off the metal and he sliced into the next wave, swimming hard away from the sinking bow section. When he lifted his head, he found that he was only a few yards from the raft. Skip Jurgenson, another of the Teasdale’s wheelsmen, leaned over the side and extended his hand. LePere fought against the waves. His fingers touched the raft. Jurgenson grasped the collar of his peacoat and helped him aboard. LePere fell against the prone form of another shipmate, Pete Swanson, a coal passer, who lay nearly motionless in the center of the raft. Swanson’s duties were in the engine room and his quarters were aft where Billy had gone. LePere grabbed him and screamed over the wind and the crash of water.
“Where’s my brother? Did you see my brother?”
Swanson was shaking violently, his face ghostly white. Although his lips formed words, no sound seemed to come forth. LePere bent close to his lips.
“I blew it,” Swanson said hoarsely. “I blew it.”
“What about Billy?” LePere shouted into his ear.
Swanson stared blankly, as if he didn’t see LePere at all, and repeated only those three words—“I blew it”—over and over again.
Jurgenson, who’d been hollering into the dark for other shipmates, quit and dropped in a dejected heap next to LePere. “I didn’t see nobody else,” he said. “Not one blessed soul.”
The storm pushed the raft far from the bow of the Teasdale. LePere and Jurgenson watched the last of the ore boat sink in a huge bloom of dark water. Then John LePere lay down and wept, crying “Billy” over and over again as he held to that tiny raft in the middle of the big lake his ancestors called Kitchigami.