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Herman Going Under

Danielle LaVaque-Manty

Everybody knows about the Edmund Fitzgerald. Gordon Lightfoot wrote a song about it, for one thing. Plus, it only happened thirty years ago. The big boat was on her way to Detroit, and then a storm came up, and now she and her crew are at the bottom of Lake Superior under five-hundred and thirty feet of water. Twenty-nine dead. Herman measured how far five-hundred and thirty feet is, once, though he won’t get to the Edmund Fitzgerald for years. He’s making models of every wrecked ship he can find specs on, trying to do it in chronological order. Only Great Lakes ships, though. First was the Griffin, in 1769. Almost nobody knows about the Griffin. He built that when he was eight. He’s twelve now and has done seventeen more. Sometime his mother encourages him because she wants him to get in the Guinness Book of World Records. Other times she says maybe he should get counseling.

Five-hundred and thirty feet is all the way down his block and the next block and half the block after that. He used his father’s old tape measure to mark it out. The tape measure is only twenty-five feet long, so he had to put a rock on one end and stretch it out and put another rock at the stopping place and go back to pick up the first rock and do this twenty-one times plus five feet. That is almost all the way to Joey’s house. That is an amazing amount of water.

When he’s old enough, Herman is going to study underwater archaeology. His mother doesn’t know there is such a thing, and he doesn’t plan to tell her, because she likes to think he’s going to outgrow this shipwreck thing. But he’s going to learn how to dive, discover sunken ships, and excavate them. The first one he’ll find is the Griffin.

Another thing his mother doesn’t know, because his father made him promise not to tell, is that his father saw the Griffin once before he died. She left Green Bay in 1679, stuffed with furs, heading for Niagara, and nobody ever saw her again. Some people see her ghost on foggy nights, though. Like his father.

Herman knows all the theories: she was overloaded when she left the trading post, riding too low in the water, and went down in a storm; or, she was ambushed and burned by Indians who wanted to scare the French traders off; or, her crew mutinied, stole the furs, and scuttled her.

It doesn’t matter that much how it happened. Just like it doesn’t matter that much that the Coast Guard couldn’t figure out exactly why his father’s Sunfish capsized on a calm afternoon in July.

He knows he might not be the one to find the Griffin. Somebody else might find her first. Or maybe nobody will, ever. But it’s a place to start.

Sometimes, it overwhelms him, how many ships there are down there. How many drowned men.

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Danielle LaVaque-Manty will complete an MFA in fiction writing at The Ohio State University in June '06. She reviews small press books for NewPages.com.

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