Today, I have a story to tell.
It’s about George, the gentleman in the picture above. You may even recognize him, if you happen to be a fan of “Dirty Jobs” on the Discovery Channel. Two years ago Mike Rowe, the star of that show, came to Mackinac Island and filmed a segment on delivering the “slop” from island restaurants to the Solid Waste Handling Center. His contact was George, who drives the slop wagon every day back and forth between town and that facility.
Ted and I met George last summer after we moved into our condo. We watched him travel slowly by each day with those big containers on his horse-drawn dray (having no idea what was in them). He would also drive drays filled with hay heading for the stables down the hill, only to come back up later with a dray filled with manure heading for composting.
George is a life-long resident of the island. He and his family have lived here for generations. They reap the benefits of the tourist season, then hunker down for winters that are incredibly brutal. Being from Georgia, Ted and I tend to speak to everyone we pass on the street, or who passes us. We spoke to George several times a day for several weeks before he acknowledged us (resident islanders who have lived here forever are slow to warm to newcomers). He finally stopped one day (drawn by our dogs more than anything else, I think) and talked a minute. After that, we never saw him that he didn’t pull up on the reins and say a few words – whether about the weather, or who was coming to see us, or whether we were staying for the winter – he loved to tease Ted about that.
In the summer, there are hundreds of taxi drivers. In the winter, there is only one – George. He volunteers for it. I mean he gets paid, but he is the one who WANTS to be the only taxi driver out in weather that would make eskimos run for cover. Flying into the airport at 2 a.m. on the coldest night of the year? You call George ahead of time. He will get out of bed, bundle up, walk to the stables, hitch up two horses to the taxi, and drive them the two miles to the airport. Partying on the island for Christmas or New Year’s? One taxi – one George. Get in line and wait your turn. George is what you get, and you had better be nice about it, or the next time you call, you might be waiting in the blizzard for quite a while.
I took the picture above one day last fall when we had come back to the island in October to see the leaves. I said, “George, do you mind if I take your picture?”, and he said, “Nope.” We talked a few minutes about his being a TV celebrity, and he smiled. I said, “George, is Mike Rowe as nice in person as he seems to be?” George’s reply was, “Oh, he wanted to cut up and joke, and I just told him I had WORK to do.” If you ever see that episode, you will laugh at Mike trying to get more than one-word answers to come out of George’s mouth. “Yep” and “Nope” was about all he ever said.
When I got home and had a print made of the picture, I was pleased with how it had come out. So I mailed a copy of it to him in a Christmas card.
We take the St. Ignace newspaper in Georgia so we can keep up with what’s happening on the island during the winter. There is a Mackinac Island column every week. We were shocked to read in February that George’s son, George Jr., had died on the ice. In the winter, the Straits of Mackinac freeze over completely, and the islanders enjoy the freedom of traveling back and forth to St. Ignace over the ice on snowmobiles. The safest path is marked with Christmas trees. Sometime on that Saturday night George, Jr. started back home from St. Ignace to the island, across the ice in a snowstorm. Having been born and raised on the island, he probably didn’t think twice about doing that. But somehow he lost his way. From what they have been able to put together, he must have veered off the path, and he and his snowmobile went through thin ice. He was able to climb out of the water, but was soaked, of course, in the freezing water. He started back toward St. Ignace on foot and was found the next morning at the foot of the stairs going up to the Coast Guard station, only feet from rescue. He had frozen.
George Jr. was a Mackinac Island volunteer fireman. Ten days after his death, George and 20 volunteer firemen crossed the ice on their snowmobiles to St. Ignace and brought George Jr. home, back over the ice. They were met by the black draped Engine No. 1 fire truck, one of only three motorized vehicles on the island (the others are a police car and an ambulance), and the casket was carried by the fire truck to George’s home. The next morning, on a beautiful, clear winter day on Mackinac, the fire engine came back to the house for the casket and carried it to St. Anne’s church for the services. All the flags on the island were at half-staff that day.
We talked with George yesterday for the first time since we arrived back. He remembered us (and asked about our dogs). We told him how sorry we were. He just nodded and said “Thank you.”
George is the first real Mackinac Island “character” that I have gotten to know. I’ve heard there are many more, and I know they will all have a story. But I wanted to start with George, because to me he embodies the strength of the people of this island – his character, his integrity, his work ethic, his dedication, his loyalty, his love of family. He is one of the backbones of this island – and I am honored that he knows my name.