By DAN BERCK
Special to the Record-Eagle
---- — As I stood there on the pier at the locks in the Soo, I speculated what was to become of me. My hands grew cold and clammy at the realization that I would not be home for a month, and that this was a test I must pass.
What if I did not enjoy the work? I could not really just say, "It's not for me, sorry" and swim home.
As the ship glided into the lock my frenzied mind asked a thousand questions. Had I made the right decision? Would the men throw me overboard? And how could I handle being alone? I got this sinking feeling in my stomach as she tied up and began to lock down.
My body grew tense and alert, shouting at me to turn and run away, to try it again next year when I was stronger. The moment of truth was only seconds away — if I was to quit, this was the time.
Then just as quickly as these feelings of anxiety struck me, they began to subside. A strange feeling took root inside of me, and I saw the lake in a way I never had seen it before. It did not just look like a mass of water with tiny craft spotted about it, but instead a way to leave what I knew and experience the unknown, to feel adventure. This feeling started to grow inside of me, enveloping me in its a warm embrace, and I knew what had to be done.
I shouldered my sea bag and started to head toward the bow, where I figured I would be staying. I passed some of the crew, leaning against a hatch cover smoking and conversing amongst themselves. I could feel their eyes sizing me up.
"Girly boy," one man said, "Go back to Sunday school!" said another.
I turned around and said hello to one of them and he gave me the finger. I was glad that I was making friends so quickly.
Flashback to fourth period at Elk Rapids High School: I could see myself, bored and uninterested as always, agonizing that I had another year in this prison. In my free time I was juggling both a job and friends, and trying to find a comfortable balance between the two. Everything about Elk Rapids seemed routine and uninteresting to me.
Then a teacher reached out, one educator who understood my plight, and encouraged me to pursue my dreams of sailing and of learning in the real world. This was the spark I needed, and two days later I was applying for my documentation and preparing to spend my summer on the lakes.
Soon I was working 12- to 13-hour days in the summer sun, looking quite fashionable in my coveralls and respirator and having just enough strength to eat and collapse in my bunk every night.
Every once in while, equipment failures or unloading would require us to stop work early. These were treasured instances, and I would just sit up on deck, watching the waves go by and looking at the vast blue horizon that panned out before me. It was nights like those that I would attempt to strike up conversation with the crew, trying to learn all I could about what a life on the water was like. I still am amazed at what one can learn simply from talking to people who they would not normally converse with; things that never will be in a textbook or essay, but mold a man into who he is.
One of the things that I found most comforting on the ship was the routine. No matter what happened, I always knew when I was going to eat next and when I would be able to go to sleep. To a guy who resented schedules, I was surprised of this fondness.
When my job neared completion, I realized my days were numbered on the Manistee, and I would be returning to Elk Rapids. I wondered how I would feel about this little town after docking in cities like Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit, places where I did not know everyone and their parents, where one must be alert to their surroundings. I was afraid that I would hold nothing but animosity for this small corner of the world, and ache for my shipmates and adventure again.
But after a few days of cruising and swimming at the beach, I came to understand a simple truth: Elk Rapids is by no means a prison; it may be small, but the people genuinely care about one another. It may not have skyscrapers, but you can walk from the east side to the west side without getting shot.
All the hours I spent daydreaming in class had it all wrong; I pictured myself leaving and never wanting to come back, that to live here indefinitely would be torture. I certainly will go out on the water again for work and pleasure, but I think that I always will call Elk Rapids my home port.
I am proud to say that I have seen the Great Lakes, I have been in 20-foot seas, and I have watched sunsets too beautiful for words. But the most beautiful thing I ever have seen are the friends and family who greet me in this little town and still inquire about my little taste of the real world.
Dan Berck is a senior at Elk Rapids High School.