Guest post: A stroll down memory lane with the Queen of the Lakes

>Take a stroll down memory lane with Coast Guard Reservist John Masson, a PA1 assigned to the Ninth District Public Affairs Office, on his recent visit to the decommissioned Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw, now moored in Mackinaw City, Mich.

Here are his thoughts on the old Queen of the Great Lakes:

“Jake and Elwood, the two giant diesel locomotive engines that once kept my temporary berthing area at a comfortable 120-degree simmer, are right where they’ve always been on board the now decommissioned CGC Mackinaw.

Fortunately for visitors, the two enormous denizens of Engine Room Two are much cooler customers than they were when they were responsible for generating the electric power needed to propel the old icebreaker, WAGB-83, through the frozen expanses of the Great Lakes.

They’re also a lot quieter. For once I didn’t have to select a pair of foam earplugs from the handy bin before scampering down the ladder into the cavernous space they share. And the siren that blared before they “lit off” – which always seemed to happen at about 0300, approximately six inches below my bunk in the First Class berthing area – remained silent during my entire visit.

Because these days Jake and Elwood make less noise than even their blues-belting Chicago namesakes.

The spotless appearance of the two Fairbanks-Morse diesels is one reason many of the roughly 16,000 visitors who roamed last year through the decommissioned Mackinaw, now a museum in the quintessential tourist town of the same name, could be forgiven for believing that the quirky old Queen of the Great Lakes is ready to cast off her lines and sail again.

The ship’s Watch, Quarter and Station Bill remains tacked to the bulletin board off the mess deck, beneath the ladder leading up to the bridge. The names are still familiar to me more than three years after Mackinaw was decommissioned in a solemn ceremony in her homeport of Cheboygan, about thirty miles down the road.

The crowded berthing areas, where most of the ship’s enlisted compliment slept, are still tightly packed. The areas are a little tidier now that exposure suits, hard hats and float coats don’t take up every square inch of available hook space.

Even the captain’s stateroom — where then-Cmdr. Joe McGuiness, the Mackinaw’s last commanding officer, signed the ship over to the museum organization that now takes care of her — hasn’t changed much. A large part of the space is railed off, museum-style, but it’s still huge – reputedly the largest stateroom in the Coast Guard.

It was particularly discombobulating when I heard from around a corner the distinctive voice of Chief Sorenson, the food service boss, explaining how the ships cooks were able to make sure the crew ate – and ate well – no matter what the weather.

I was just about ready to say hi to the guy, but when I came around the corner I saw it was just a museum display, a video loop playing endlessly on a TV in the galley, a sort of ghost.

It was reflective, like the deserted yet still-furnished berthing areas, of generations of life lived in the 290 feet between stem and stern.

I was never a member of the Mackinaw’s crew. Like some reservists (and even more Auxiliarists) I popped in for such special occasions as the Coast Guard Festival in Grand Haven, or the Spring Breakout in frozen Lake Superior, or the annual Christmas Tree Ship cruise that delivers Northern Michigan fir trees to Chicago’s needy – a mission the new Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw continues to this day.

As it turns out, most of the Auxiliarists on board were far more useful than I. At least one was qualified as a master helmsman, stood as many watches as anyone, and helped train junior crewmembers on the bridge. Many others seemed to know almost as much about the ship as the regular crew and helped conduct tens of thousands of tours at every Great Lakes port.

Because people always came out for the Mackinaw. They responded to her majestic lines and her brute power in ways I’ve only seen duplicated on board one other classic Coast Guard vessel: the Eagle.

Me, I lugged my cameras and my notebooks through just about every space in that ship, documenting the remarkable staying power of a vessel that was, by the time of her retirement, three times as old as most of her crew.

I took a lot of pictures, but when I walked down the brow for the last time, on a cool, clear day in 2006 when the gleaming red ship was finally retired, I took home much more than just my images and notes.

I took home an almost tangible appreciation for the generations of vanished Coasties who preceded me, tending with creativity and panache to a ship whose age made her more high-maintenance every year.

Walking through her again this weekend, I guess I felt a bit ghostly myself.

More information about the decommissioned Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw – now officially known as the Icebreaker Mackinaw Maritime Museum – is available at http://www.themackinaw.org/.”

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