Pat Hickey Column: Two Days Before The Mast–Life is Simple, If You Add Water

By Pat Hickey

June 17, 2022


You’re net ropeman now, or you’re on the move
And you’re learning all about seafaring
That’s your education, scraps of navigation
As you hunt the bonny shoals of herring—Ewan MacColl

I have always tried to live close to water. Water lured me close. As a kid living at 1755 West 75th Place, in the heart of The Highlands of Englewood, Chicago, me and my buddies played under a railroad viaduct that separated Little Flower Parish from St. Mary of Mount Carmel. There were a series of steel plants and fabricators just beyond six track lines, built over what had been swampland in Lake Township.

The viaduct was our Rachel Carson tidepool of crushed concrete and swamp ooze-ings, where crayfish darted back and away from me, Al McFarland, Larry Fischelli, Terry Smith and the Shea Brothers–Jimmy and Leo. This urban water world and the other swamp pools near Damen Avenue supplied the lure of the sea to little guys like us. We were many miles west of Rainbow Beach and Chicagoland’s terra nostra: Lake Michigan. The lake could have been lightyears away. But these fetid nature play-pools of ours also filled an ancient desire: To be near the water. To be on the water. Our moms worried about cholera and typhus. So, we opened fire hydrants as a nod to hygiene.

The lure to water is primal. Some believe it is a desire to return to the womb and the protective fluids that nourish our first nine months of life. Sounds about right.

When I left the nest to plunge into life in 1975, it was to the Kankakee River and Bishop McNamara High School where I served as a baby teacher and met my wife-to-be twenty feet above the Kankakee at Leo’s Riverside Tap.

 I worked as a bartender afternoons and nights during the summer months. My oldest child was born on the Kankakee River, at St. Mary’s Hospital. I took my family and master’s degree in English to the beautiful campus of LaLumiere School, situated on a spring-fed lake, where I fell madly in love with the State of Indiana. My son was born in LaPorte and lived on the lake out his front door.

From La Lumiere School we journeyed westward to Griffith, Indiana on the Little Calumet. My youngest was born in Munster Hospital near the Little Calumet. Sadly, my wife went home to Christ after a heroic battle with a glioblastoma brain tumor. I moved the three kids back to the land-locked south side of Chicago.

Life should be simple, but things got complicated. Life as a single parent is everything it’s cracked up to be –lousy, lonely, and at times, looney. For twenty-two years, I dried up emotionally and professionally.

But life is simple. If you add water.

When all three children were grown and independent, I sold the house in Morgan Park and moved back to my beloved Lake Michigan, to Michigan City, Indiana. I now work as a job coach for Autistic and Down Syndrome teenagers with LaPorte High School. Every day I walk to the iconic Michigan City Lighthouse and marvel at the wonders of our inland sea with its beauty and many dangers, most of them so sudden you don’t see danger it until after it grips you.

The mornings are especially beautiful in Michigan City. The sunrise over the lake is breathtaking.

This tonic sets me right for the labors involved in helping God’s most precious children, the Autistic/Downs Syndrome kids, learn to oil machine parts that have been tooled at Winn Machine, or to bag groceries at Al’s Grocery, or place delicate and delicious chocolates onto paper cups and doilies at Little Chocolates in LaPorte, Indiana.

 I find that my morning walks and meditations have increased my patience and fortitude. God is mighty good to this old sinner.

He has also put me in touch with lovely people. Captain Billy Stewart is among the greatest. I met Billy through retired Chicago firefighter and WGN stagehand Jack Joyce, one of hundreds of Chicago emigrants living in northwest Indiana. Capt. Billy is a legendary charter captain. He trains hunting dogs and pilots charter fishing boats and the Lake Michigan tour boat Emita II of Harbor Country Adventures that are based in Michigan City Harbor. Captain Billy mentioned to the Emita II’s owner that I was looking for summer work. I applied to be a deckhand but was told to train as a tour guide.

I have worked two days as a tour guide, thus far.

This is the happiest job ever. I get to conduct an exciting and entertaining tour narrative the boat: the Lake, points of interest and the history of the shoreline.

The work is far less daunting, but as important as coaching the young people in my charge during the school year. I write my own tour guide and schmooze the passengers, like the old bartender of yore.

This past Memorial Day weekend it was my honor, privilege, and pleasure to work with three United States Forest Rangers who also conduct Emita II tours.  They were all smart and witty young women who are attending Ball State University and the University of Utah. We shared information about shipwrecks and historical personalities associated with the development of the Indiana State and Indiana National Seashores. On my first solo tour I even sang two sea chanties –Haul Away Joe and Shoals of Herring.

The purr and pulse of the 250 Horsepower Diesel engine, the sun radiating off the greenish brown waters of Trail Creek, the snap and slap of the south winds sending spray and sand from Mount Baldy and his shorter brethren excited the primordial sailor in me.  I was one with Noah, Ishmael, Grace O’Malley, Columbus, Brendan the Navigator, Leif Erickson, Farragut and Captains Wolf Larson and Phillip Francis Queeg.

I was at home on the deck!

For two days this past weekend, I, a widower, a flawed single parent, a teacher, and scribbler, became a mariner gliding over the whitecaps and steelhead trout of Lake Michigan, like Sinbad. When I walked home from the harbor to my home apartment ten blocks away, my legs obeyed the swale of the sea and developed a swagger of gait that would be a credit to any deck ape.

When my old head hit the pillow waves, I was home.



Here are links to Pat Hickey’s most recent columns, on great literature for young people; and a highway uniting the nation.

Born November 8, 1952 in Englewood Hospital, Chicago Illinois, Pat Hickey attended Chicago Catholic grammar and high schools, received a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Loyola University in 1974, began teaching English and coaching sports at Bishop McNamara High School in Kankakee, IL in 1975, married Mary Cleary in 1983, received a Master of Arts in English Literature from Loyola in 1987, taught at La Lumiere School in Indiana from 1988-1994, took a position as Director of Development with Bishop Noll Institute in Hammond, IN and then Leo High School in Chicago in 1996.  His wife Mary died in 1998 and Hickey returned with his three children to Chicago’s south side. From 1998 until 2019, it became obvious that Illinois and Chicago turned like Stilton cheese on a humid countertop. In that time, he wrote a couple of books and many columns for Irish American News. When the kids became independent and vital adults, he moved to Michigan City, Indiana, where he job coaches Downs Syndrome and Autistic teens in LaPorte County.  He walks to the Michigan City Lighthouse every chance he gets.

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