He was short, that’s for sure. I’m not a tall man, but I was a head taller than Mike. That’s all I knew about Mr. Mike. He was not very tall. He was a rather small man.
For the longest time, Mike and I would pass each other on our daily walks. We’d say “hi” as we passed each other on the path. Sometimes we’d even comment on the weather… “It’s a beautiful day.” “It’s a hot one today!” “Looks like it’s going to rain…” Just short observations – pleasantries really. Small talk, if you will.
I must have passed Mike a thousand times over the years. We both walked a lot and we both walked around the same time. Funny — we didn’t know each other – we didn’t even know where the other lived.
We were just passers-by on the walking trails, exchanging brief pleasantries, and light small talk.
Then one day it occurred to me maybe it would be nice to introduce myself to Mike – the whose path I crossed so many times on my daily walks. But, I’m a procrastinator. The idea in my head sounded much better than the situational reality.
Winter, spring, summer, and fall,
I passed Mr. Mike but didn’t know him at all.
So many times I meant to keep the promise I made to myself and introduce myself to Mike, but I never did.
Days passed. Weeks passed. Months passed. Years passed. Mike and I passed each other — “It’s going to rain.” “Looks like it, doesn’t it?” “Snowstorm coming!” “Yep… I heard that… just what we need!” “Such a beautiful day today, isn’t it?” “Sure is!”
We must have spoken more than a thousand words without even taking the time to get to know each other.
A few months ago, I finally kept my promise to myself. I introduced myself to Mike. His name was Mike Denim and he lived less than a half a mile from me in my neighborhood. We were walkers but we were also neighbors without knowing it.
We started walking together every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Mike didn’t walk as fast or as far as me, so on those days, I would plan on slowing my pace so Mike could keep up with me. And after I walked with him back to his house, I would continue walking for a couple more miles at my regular pace.
I got to know Mike well during our walks together. I started calling him Mr. Mike. I learned that he was 79 and lived alone. His wife died from cancer six years ago. He had a daughter and a son, seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
Mr. Mike was a retired Great Lakes freighter pilot – a captain – during his working years. He retired fourteen years ago. He missed the excitement and the boredom of traversing the Great Lakes on calm and warm summer days.
He regaled me with stories of stormy voyages on the Great Lakes, of encroaching ice as the Great Lake Shipping season ended every autumn – and of leftover ice floes that posed danger even into April. And with a look of leftover fear in his eyes, he told me blood-chilling stories of November gales that nearly ripped many a mighty ship apart.
Sometimes while he regaled me with stories of his life upon The Lakes, I would good-naturedly tease him by signing a verse from “The Wreck of Edmond Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot.
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early
The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
With a crew and good captain well seasoned
Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland…
I always ended with “Cleveland” since Mr. Mike and I live less than an hour away from Ohio’s largest city on Lake Erie.
Whenever I sang of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee, Mr. Mike would almost always start telling me of his endless tales of all the shipwrecks and all the souls lost to the savage roiling waters of Lake Superior.
He told me with wild eyes of the many nights he spent plying Lake Superior’s capricious soul as he captained freighters through twenty-five foot (7.6 meters) waves that tossed those ships around like toy boats in a bathtub.
When he was not regaling me with stories of his days upon the Great Lakes, we often spoke of our kids and grandkids and great-grandkids. We spent a lot of time small-talking too. His favorite foods were coconut shrimp and lamb chops with mint jelly. We spoke of our respective childhoods and how we never wore seatbelts or bicycle helmets and survived anyway. We both yearned for the times when life seemed simpler and we both wondered if it really was.
Last week, Mister Mike didn’t show up for our walk on Thursday. He didn’t answer his phone. When he didn’t show up on Saturday, I walked to his house. His daughter, whom I had never met, answered the door.
Mister Mike had a stroke and died last Wednesday – he would have been 80 next month. I cried and told Laurie, his daughter, I was sorry to hear of his passing and that I will miss my friend who I called Mr. Mike.
I wish now I would have introduced myself to Mr. Mike sooner. I would have really loved to have had more time and more walks with Mr. Mike.
Mr. Mike is sailing the Eternal Sea now, and I will think of him often. And whenever I think of Mr. Mike now I think of the Naval Hymn…
“…Eternal Father strong to save
Whose arm has bound the restless wave,
Who bids the mighty ocean deep
It’s own appointed limits keep,
O hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in Peril on the sea…”
And while I’ll be walking alone again — I will never forget my friend, Mr. Mike.