No different than train wrecks, plane crashes and car accidents, ships sink. In each of these mishaps lives are lost. Sometimes the crew and passengers meet violent deaths. Next Tuesday marks the 40th anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a freighter that went down in Lake Superior. Most, if not all, who read these lines have likely heard about this tragic event thanks to the six minute song recorded a year later by the Canadian songwriter/artist Gordon Lightfoot. Yet, thousands of ships have sunk in the Great Lakes. As a matter of fact, the Edmund Fitzgerald went down a mere 17 miles from Whitefish Point in an area known as the Graveyard of the Great Lakes. The Edmund Fitzgerald was one of 240 ships that helped give that area its infamous moniker. Other than the magazine article entitled “The Cruelest Month of All”, which influenced Mr. Lightfoot to write and record this elegy, what chords does this song strike, aside from the lyrics?
Humans have an innate need to seek to explain that which is inexplicable. Instead of accepting the harsh truth that “we may never know”, we come up with theories of what might have happened. Close to a decade prior to the mysterious end of the Edmund Fitzgerald, an Israeli submarine — the Dakkar — carrying sixty-nine sailors disappeared in 1968. In the Dakkar case, as well, there has been no shortage of theories and explanations as to what might have happened. And so, based on news reports, Mr. Lightfoot offers the following: “they might have split up or they might have capsized; they may have broke (sic) deep and took water”.
As ironic as it may seem, even though they seek to explain that which is beyond them, when all is said and done people really do not care about facts. It matters little to the listener of the song that the ship was headed to Detroit and not to Cleveland. Nor is it of any importance that the regular cook called in sick so that the cook on board was a last minute substitute. Furthermore, whether old or young, there is no indication that the cook ever said “it’s too rough to feed ya” or “it’s been good to know ya”. Yet, the very same disbelievers who refuse to accept that we might never know what really happened seem to have no problem at all accepting the communications of the cook.
Meaning no disrespect to the twenty-nine on the Edmund Fitzgerald who perished, the best way to immortalize an event is to put it to music. That’s why the Exodus from Egypt is such a great success as we recount it year after year at the Passover Seder. If we were to take away the “oldies but goodies” such as Mah Nishtanah, Dayyeinu and Chad Gadya, the Seder experience would become so tasteless and dry that even the matzoh would seem juicy and flavorful in comparison. Recounting shipwrecks is no different. Despite the size of the Edmund Fitzgerald, it is quite possible that any number of shipwrecks on the Great Lakes or elsewhere were far more dramatic and tragic. Because of the talents of Gordon Lightfoot, however, one might very well be led to believe that the Edmund Fitzgerald was the only ship ever to have sunk on Lake Superior.
Come next Tuesday, you can be sure that I’ll make it a point to listen to The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. And when I do, I won’t be thinking about explaining the inexplicable or about correcting incorrect details of the song or about the power of immortalizing through music. I’ll be too busy wiping the tears from my eyes thinking about the Church Bell ringing 29 times at the Maritime Sailors Cathedral.
Actually it was the Mariners Church of Detroit. And the bell rang 30 times.