Childhood Moments on the Bob-Lo Boat

Eight a.m., downtown Detroit is still cool, the sun dances across the river in a glistening spectacle. My feet cross over the metal gangplank making the familiar clanking sound as they step into another world, the world of the Bob-Lo Boats. The ship is quiet, the seagulls do the most talking and the gentle breezes lift the aroma of the river across the open deck. I move tiredly over the deck which is still moist from the midnight hosing, the boat is beginning to stir, buffet help coming on to set up for the day, deckhands slowly moving through the morning's chores, coffee cups in hand. I head up the stairs to the second deck, passing a deckhand polishing the brass rails to a spit shine.

I wait for my partner and we unlock the souvenir stand and survey what will be our domain for the next fifteen hours. We work every other day and there is a friendly rivalry between the two shifts so inevitably the mornings commentary focuses on the disorganization and lack of capability on the part of the other shift. Having said our peace, we begin to prepare for the onslaught of eager pleasure seekers.

The year is 1974 and there is a gas shortage, as a result we are running at full capacity, which for the Ste. Claire means twenty-four hundred passengers, though many days it feels like twice that many. Next, the setting up of the stand, organizing existing merchandise, putting away new stock from the dock, and preparing the best we could for what most likely would be a very hectic day. This accomplished, I would go and have something to eat and do a bit of socializing. There was a rule on the boat that was against the buffet help fraternizing with the sailors but this rule was without exception ignored. The ship was a miniature society and there was just something about the water, cruising the river, the long balmy summer days and the fragrance of the air. Rare was the person who departed the pier on Labor Day without having had at least one passionate shipboard romance.

Having finished my morning routine, I would move to the port side of the ferry and watch the area called the cage full up with passengers. Suddenly the gate would burst open and the tranquility of the morning would banish. People would scatter in all directions, carrying coolers, pushing baby strollers, kids on their backs and others in tow. At this point the public was not yet too interested in us, they would simply give us that "I'll be back look." Of utmost importance was claiming their own ideal vantage point and settling in for the ninety-minute trek to the island. On the busiest days there were often shortages of chairs, and we were even made cash offers for the two we kept in the stand. We never sold them, but we did learn to hide them.

The ride downriver was usually calm with a moderate amount of business, folks generally didn't get frenzied until later in the afternoon. Landing at Bob-Lo the multitudes would disembark, leaving the boat peaceful though soiled. This was my favorite run of the day, the return was often time devoid of passengers, thus it was a time we devoted to ourselves. First lunch in the galley, where the buffet help had their own table. Officers, deckhands and engine workers also had their own tables, there being a definite system of hierarchy in place, but it didn't matter, the food was appetizing and I was not rushed. After lunch I often assisted the deckhands in the cleaning of the boat. They had ninety minutes to fold twenty four hundred chairs and sweep enormous amounts of debris off the decks. This help given was never a form of great benevolence as the the assist was given only to a sailor that I was interested in spending time with after the cleanup. My other activity of choice was sleeping, done on one of the two couches that were near the souvenir stand. The hum of the engines and the steady rocking motion always put me to sleep within moments.

Back at the dock we again prepare for another run. The second trip was usually smaller but due to the gas shortage the count was growing daily. The ten-minute whistle blows and I exhale, waiting for round two, the pounding of the feet, the clack of wooden chairs snapping open, and we're in business again. One long blast of the whistle, we turn out into the river and head to that small Canadian island at the mouth of Lake Erie. We dock and try to get ready for the assault of the "mad" shoppers. This is now the last chance souvenir stand and people who have put off buying are now anxious to purchase a memento of their excursion. The fence swings open and the crowd is like a mob and they are headed straight for us. We had one or two extra reinforcements to help us through this rush. People were ofter six deep and ready to do some serious buying. I recall customers at the back shouting out what they wanted, flinging their money up and me tossing the purchase back to them. During this time we also had to do down to dinner, so one of us would squeeze out the door, navigate our way through the tight throng to the first deck, go down into the galley and gulp a full course dinner in about five minutes and dash back upstairs. The crowd wouldn't dissipate until we were half unloaded.

We would than collapse for a few minutes and inevitably question our own soundness in returning to this job season after season. It's hard to put into words but the occupation of riding this pleasure cruiser all summer really gets into your blood. I've often thought I'd have liked to have been a sailor but my life took my in another direction. We than prepared for the next trip of the day, which was also the final one. Had this been the weekend, we would have had two more trips, rounding out the day to a feet numbing eighteen hours. This would be the slowest voyage of the day, few children, mainly adults looking to relax, reflect and enjoy the scenery. This also enabled us to regain some of our strength for the return to Detroit.

Working so many hours, you went through many changes and would have to constantly regroup to keep your energy spread out in order to have the perseverance to contend with a diverse, continuously changing, large group of people. These passengers were at day's end, tired, hot, sometimes grumpy, and a bit frazzled themselves. Eight p.m., docked, unloaded and an hour layover at Bob-Lo. One of us from the stand is allowed to go on the island, sometimes we would beg or bribe someone to watch the stand so that we could go together. Play time and we took full advantage of it. We sprint down the dock, ride a few rides if we can get on, eat french fries smothered in ketchup and vinegar and maybe cotton candy. We don't know any of the island workers, they live in another world and it's hard to imagine running amusement rides all day, maybe they felt the same about working on a steamship. We are a bit guarded with each other, two entirely different species.

Finally we race back up the pier, spring over the gangplank and up the stairs. My stamina is returning, as the end of the day is in sight. We reopen the stand the the loading begins. Slowly the passengers embark, there is no hurrying, only very weary folks shuffling to the decks and chairs. Wrinkled, sunburned, exhausted and ready to collapse. The final journey of the day is subdued, children lay limp in their parent's arms, people unconcerned with the lack of chairs simply flop on the floor or sit on the coolers, desiring only to get home. The peacefulness of the evening is broken only by the music drifting back from the dance floor.

This was the most visually stunning time of the day, the sky darkens and meets the river in one unbroken line of sapphire blue, cut only by the gliding steamer, leaving in it's wake a path of ruffles and lace.

We were supposed to stay open until we reached the Ambassador Bridge, but we bent the rules and closed when we could see the bridge. After several summers of river cruising our vision improved immensely and we could see the bridge from phenomenal distances. We than closed the curtains and clamped the boards on the glass counter so no one could enter at night and help themselves. Occasionally someone would knock on the door and ask to please buy one more trinket and our last sale would be made stooped by the half door. Next, we would count the money, bag it and wait for the purser to pick it up.

We are now finished, one us pulls the door shut and holds it while the other turns the key and locks it. We carry our chairs to the front of the boat, sit down and put our feet up on the railing. The city lights come closer and closer, freedom awaits us, it doesn't get any better than this, we smile and breathe a sigh of relief. By this time we have the bow of the ship to ourselves, the passengers are crowded on the stairs and first deck waiting to go ashore. The boat docks, ties up and changes currents, momentary darkness and a scream goes out from the crowd, just as it does every night. Lastly the gangplank comes down with a crash and the unloading begins. I am one of the last ones to disembark. I plod down the gangplank and think of sleeping for a very long time. Tomorrow will most likely be spent resting and recuperating in preparation for another demanding day on the river.

Sadly the Bob-Lo boats no longer make this familiar summer journey, the S.S. Ste. Claire and her sister the S.S. Columbia made their final run in September 1991, but no one who ever experienced this unique tradition will ever forget these elegant river queens. I'll never forget and in my heart's imagination they will forever be steaming on the Detroit River.

August 2007

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