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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Old Man Hickson

Morgue files photo
Old Man Hickson is known to all who live anywhere near Bay City. He has fished the Saginaw Bay his entire life. As a young boy his father took him to the best and most productive fishing holes in all of the Great Lakes. His parents had settled in the Bay City area when Mr. Hickson discovered the fishing season was longer and the ice fishing was excellent on the Bay. Arnie was only 3 years old when his family moved to the area and his first trip out on the beautiful smooth waters of the Bay were very shortly after. 

All these years later, some sixty plus he guessed, he still felt the same excitement as he boarded a ship to take his crew out for what they always expected to be a full load of whatever Great Lakes fish were in season or hitting the baits.

Walleye salmon is a popular fish with all the area restaurants and the commercial clients he had long ago signed with, are always looking for his salmon. He seems to get the biggest and most desirable of all the fishermen on the Bay. His crew has been nearly unchanged for 20 years. Only Bert had to be replaced. Bert died a year ago of a massive heart attack only a few hours after one of the most successful trips of the season. They came to dock with a full load and the price was high; a combination that made every captain grin for days. Every member of the crew would get a nice bonus and all had attended the funeral. Bert's wife used the bonus to pay final expenses on her husband of 55 years. Fishermen don't get a pension or a retirement plan, they fish until they die, for the most part.

Arnie makes pretty good money on the Bay and his boat is well maintained. His men are well paid and most are friends away from the boat. The wives all know each other and because some trips are several days long, keep in touch with each other and make sure no one is in need. It is more like extended family than co-workers and spouses.

Today the trip would be day one of what would most likely become a three or maybe four day trip because the fish they were seeking were several miles out into Lake Huron north of the Bay itself. Sturgeon is the subject and the need for the commercial client and the bigger the catch, the bigger the paychecks all around.

Readying the ship for launch, the crew all performing their tasks as assigned. Little talk going on because this is a critical part of any trip. Every part of the ship is checked for any possible problems and the galley is stocked and checked for any oversights. The marine store is on the dock for last minute purchases and today it appears, none are needed. The cook is happy with his stock and securing all the odds and ends for travel. He works hours for each meal and then the clean up and the next meal until the final snack around 10 p.m. Then it's lights out in the kitchen and O'Malley retires to his bunk for a well deserved night of dreams.

Old Man Hickson is the captain, the oldest member of the crew and there is never a doubt who is in charge. He is the last one on board and the last one off when they return. Today he seemed a bit heavy of heart. The usual smile and wave to each friend he passed on the way to his post, missing. He simple boarded the ship and walked straight away to his cabin. He pulled the log and entered the days information. The time of departure, the weather, the crew (each by name) and his own name and title. Closing the log he heaved a huge sigh and lifted his substantial weight from his arm chair and headed to the engine room for a quick check from the engineer.

All is well and they pull away, the captain steering in his usual careful and methodical way from the dock and through the harbor to the open Bay heading north to the area of Huron where the sturgeon awaits. Leaving his wife of 47 years a couple of hours ago was difficult. She had gotten a diagnosis from her doctor yesterday which had sent them both into a spin. Arnie is an old man at 67, too old to be leaving his bride the day after such news. She should not be alone and he should not be running this voyage. They should be sitting together and holding hands and talking and planning and praying. Arnie drops his head slightly as he hits the open water and prays for his wife.

"Dear God in Heaven, if you have not already done it, could you please relieve my wife of her pain and anxiety. Would you mind giving me the words she needs? I am so afraid. Oh God, give me strength, please for my wife. I must be strong for her. Amen." He felt relieved and tried to imagine her just feeling relief, too.
Fighting cancer would be a long and lonely road with her husband on the Bay or the Lake all the time.He wondered with a great deal of seriousness if this might be the time to retire and hire a new captain. First Mate Martin would do a fine job. He felt, at this moment every minute of his 67 years.

Retirement. But who would take care of Bert's widow? He wouldn't have enough money for their needs and the widow's needs as well. He had been sending her a check weekly since Bert's passing. He had to. There was no one else.

Day 3. Log entry...The trip ends today. We have a full load. We have enough ice to get back with fresh fish and the weather is holding. Headed in about 2 p.m. ETA 8 p.m.  No incidents. No injuries. Calm seas. Troubled heart. Capt. Hickson.
Docked 8:35 p.m. Truck loaded by 9:00 p.m. and crew dismissed. Captain leaving ship secured at 10:00 p.m.  Capt. Hickson

He walked home. Home to his bride and decisions and discussions. Home for hugs and the security she was waiting to share. They were equally in need.

Old Man Hickson was known as a tough old bird by all who had met him. Only Old Lady Hickson knew the man beneath. The soft, loving man. He walked to her side after every trip. This time, for the first time in these 47 years, she was not on the dock. He had to walk home alone to find her. Sadness overwhelmed him as he walked the four blocks alone.

Opening the front door to the darkness he quietly walked to their bedroom and there she was. Covered to her neck, eyes closed, face lovely as the day he met her. He went to the shower and then straight to the bed to lie next to her and feel her near him.

She didn't stir. She didn't open her eyes. He laid his hand on her face with the most gentle touch. His heart stopped. She was cold. Very cold. He spoke her name. Louder, he spoke again and again and the tears rolled down his face and his voice faded to nothing. He held her and rocked her and cried. She was gone. He was alone and she had died alone. The strength he prayed for had not come, yet. He learned later that night that she had died on day 2 of the trip. The cancer had been far more advanced than the doctor had supposed and had caused her heart, her kidneys and her liver to shut down. Mrs. Martin had spoken with her last on day 2 of the voyage around noon. She was sleepy, she told Mrs. Martin and would be fine. No one had called her on day 3 because all were preparing for their men to return and thought she was just sleepy, but fine. She had apparently slipped away without trauma. The doctor explained to him that she most likely passed in her sleep.

Old Man Hickson had aged years in the week following her death and he relived that 3 day trip every day for months. Why had he gone? She needed him. He had gone. She couldn't fight without him. He wasn't sure how to live without her. Wasn't at all sure he wanted to. The crew had taken the ship out twice without him. He didn't want to go. He didn't ever want to go again. His right hand man, the First Mate, Martin, had taken over, as he knew he would, without a hitch. Arnie, well, nothing would ever be without a hitch for him.

It's been 5 years since she passed and this recent picture shows one of the few smiles he has given since. The reason? Arnie just returned to the ship. He is taking his crew out onto the Bay for a 1 day trip for salmon. There will not be any over nights for this crew again. The cost, Arnie has declared, is just too high. One can never regain lost time with your loved ones. Five years of grieving had taught him this.



  1. I adore the story but wonder if he learned the wrong lesson. They had a full a wonderful life together. She died peacefully. Though not by her side, he was in her heart because...she let him go. She could have asked him to stay but instead let him go. A peasceful death is blessing. Loss is not peaceful. I wish Old man Hickson will find the joy in knowing, she waited there patiently for him to get home and she is waiting still in another better place.

    1. There is that ending also. I could have gone many ways, but I needed him to grieve basically alone for a period and that seemed to be a way his crew could benefit from him learning THIS lesson.
      Thanks for all your thoughts...they are valid and insightful.

  2. Such a sad tale.

  3. Very sad and we should always treasure time with friends.

  4. Wow, Jo! Such a powerful story in so few words. Great work.

    1. Thank you Miss KAT. I appreciate your glowing remarks! :-)

  5. What a great story with a great life lesson. Thanks for sharing!

  6. I love this story, Jo, and especially the sense of community among the fishermen and their families. The passing of a loved one leaves a tear in the fabric of one's life that can never be repaired, and yet, as you so aptly point out, there is still happiness.

  7. This is sad. It reminds me how my dad chose to be on the road when he knew my mom only had 2 weeks to live. He knew, and he went anyways. Perhaps being on the boat was the only way he could cope and knew there was nothing he could do.


    1. I sometimes think it is denial. If I stay, it will end. If I do what I always do, life will go on as it always does. I don't know. Thanks.

  8. You certainly did the picture prompt proud Jo. Liked the dual portrayal of the larger community of fisherman as well as the smaller, more intimate picture of couples/family life and how they intertwined. Nice work.

    1. Thank you, Amy. It was an interesting picture and immediately brought me to the Old Man and the Sea sculpture. I knew he was a fisherman and the story told itself.


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