By Jim Bates
The huge iron ore freighter was thirty miles out when Jerry Jorgenson saw on the horizon, barely visible, a tiny spec. He used his binoculars to watch as the ship slowly made its way toward where he was standing, close to the shipping canal between Lake Superior and the Port of Duluth. They say that death and taxes were what you could always count on. Well, to that you could add the Mesabi Miner, thought Jerry, as he watched the huge vessel’s slow but steady progress. The freighter had been carrying iron ore back and forth, across the great lakes, for seventy-three years, Jerry’s entire life. It was as dependable as the day was long, was how he looked at it.
It took nearly two hours for the ship to make the journey, and as it approached the entrance to the canal it began slowing down, making ready to leave the lake. By now, Jerry was surrounded by a boisterous crowd of men, women, and children from all walks of life. Everyone was excited, and the festive atmosphere blended in perfectly with the bright sun and warm sand and raucous seagulls. The huge vessel was so close he could almost reach out and touch its riveted steel immensity: one-thousand feet long, one-hundred feet wide, and over fifty feet deep. It was fully laden with nearly eighty-thousand tons of iron ore, and it gave him a thrill beyond words to be standing so close to it.
The wheel house was seventy-five feet above the water. Unexpectedly, a figure appeared at the small window, leaned out, and saluted good-naturedly to those gathered below. It was the captain. The crowd called out and waved back excitedly. Not Jerry. He wasn’t what you’d call a demonstrative person by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, he watched closely as the captain doffed his cap, expecting to see a grizzled and weathered seaman. But that’s not what he got. He did a double take, and then had to raise his binoculars to make sure his eyes weren’t deceiving him. They weren’t. It wasn’t a man who was doffing a cap and commanding his beloved freighter. It was a woman. And, even more remarkable, she wasn’t even very old.
Then the captain shook her head and set free long tresses of blond Scandinavian hair that shone in the sun like the finest imported silk. Her tanned face broke into a big smile as she gave the jovial crowd an impish wink and waved enthusiastically to them.
He was aghast. She’s going to smash that ship, that’s what she’s going to do, Jerry thought to himself. I’ll bet my pension check that she’s going to sink the Mesabi Miner to the bottom of the canal. Then they’ll be sorry. Everybody knows that only men have the knowledge and skills necessary to make it through that narrow passageway and into the port beyond. He folded his arms tightly across his chest in a huff, as if challenging her to fail. Then he watched and waited, expecting the worst.
If the young captain could sense Jerry’s skepticism, she didn’t let on. Undaunted, she turned seriously to the task at hand and, like thread through a needle’s eye, she cool-handedly guided Jerry’s beloved iron ore freighter through the narrow canal into the safe harbor beyond, completing the Mesabi Miner’s journey by tooting it’s horn three times. The crowd erupted as one and began wildly cheering. Not Jerry. He turned away, the roar in his ears almost too much to bear.
In his haste to get away, Jerry barged into a little girl wearing a Minnesota Twins baseball hat. She couldn’t have been more than ten. She hit the ground hard. Her hands splayed out in front of her. Jerry winced but she didn’t cry as he anticipated. Instead, she dusted herself off and simply said, “Careful, mister.” He was reminded then of his own granddaughter: bold and brazen, she was already captain of the hockey team. The girl’s team, but still, she’d taken them to the top of the league. Stopping to help the girl up and give his apologies, he thought then that maybe he’d been wrong about this whole thing.
“That lady captain actually did a good job,” he said to the girl. “She steered the freighter through the shipping canal, way better than I could have, anyway.”
The girl was smiling now.
“Yeah, she really was pretty good,” Jerry continued. Then he straightened up tall. Having made what was for him a momentous decision, he turned and gave the departing vessel
a snappy salute. Then he begrudgingly joined in with the crowd and began applauding.