Hank Erwin on the Spirit Room stage – Photo by Jan A. Bruso
I left the Merchant Marines in 2014. As I packed my bags, I was overcome with the feeling that I wouldn’t be coming back. My brain screamed and my heart pounded. Once I hit the road, I drove with such a fury that I didn’t even realize a bad snow storm had set in and the roads were getting very slick. I was snapped out of my trance when I began to slide out of control. I regained traction and looked down to see I was going about 100mph. The roads steadily worsened but I refused to stop – I couldn’t get far enough fast enough. My breath was still heavy and I sweat uncontrollably, dripping from my nose onto the tattered remains of my Carhartts. I was making an escape. A desperate escape.
I’d been trapped on the boat for years. Merchant Marines aren’t sworn into service for a specific amount of time, Merchant Marines are sworn (as I did at the Toledo headquarters in 2004) to obey their superior officers while on-board. The boat grew to dictate everything in my life. I had no control of my schedule whatsoever and I found out the hard way that requesting a date off even a year in advance didn’t ensure anything.
I’d worked my way up from deckhand to wheelsman. My favorite memory of wheeling the ship was late one night when the ice was so thick in Green Bay that it completely stopped our movement. The mate called the captain who appeared from his quarters and ordered me to give her a hard left, hard right, back and forth until a crack appeared in the ice. “Now follow that crack,” he said. The crack widened as the ship entered. It then turned and twisted in varying directions as we gained speed. With increasing heart rate, I maneuvered the ship through this small avenue as it developed in front of me. It was like a video game. The screen was the windows of this old wheelhouse, the picture illuminated by spotlights the size of my torso. One morning I wheeled the ship past Mackinac Island when the fog was so thick I couldn’t see the water from the where I stood at the helm.
I still have dreams about being back on board. Sometimes the ship’s driving through city highways at 60mph, jumping through the air from one ramp to another and fishtailing. One time I was unpacking and arguing with a shipmate as the ship moved down a conveyor belt in some sort of processing plant; I admitted to him that I was nervous. He said everyone was. Sometimes the dreams are just business as usual, except I’m on board and happy to be back. Sometimes I’m running around the deck, barefoot with rolled up jeans, the sunset blazing in the distance, the captain hollering at me to get back inside the forecastle – where it’s safer to travel into eternity.
But I wake up happy to be back on dry land; my guitar lying on the bed next to me, random papers of song lyrics strewn about, my grandma’s old suitcase bearing her maiden name on the floor, an old Fender amp sitting in front of boxes filled with copies of Hank Erwin – Million Miles. These boxes are the reason I left the boat.
My father and grandfather were Henry Erwin Nuelsen Jr. & Sr. Dad went by Hank, grandpa went by Erwin, or Er to those who knew him best. Er was an unusually intelligent man who spoke 12 languages. My grandma once told me that out of sheer stubborn curiosity (a personality trait I inherited), he sat down with a pencil and paper and used algebra to figure out how many times you’d have to shuffle a deck of cards to shuffle it back into order. He crossed the Atlantic to the US alone when he was 12 years old, two months after the Titanic sank. He had an office job in World War II which is where he met my grandmother, Maggie, a lifelong world traveler who worked in the Red Cross. I have a picture of her splitting wood with an axe, dated 1936. I would watch her split wood into her 80s.
Previously told she couldn’t have children, Maggie & Er were a bit surprised when my father was born almost nine months to the date following their wedding. Er was 47. Convinced Henry “Hank” Jr. would be a prodigy, they were again surprised when he dropped out of college his first semester and decided to become an auto mechanic. He worked at a dealership until I was two, then drove an 18 wheeler. Er died of cancer when I was seven. Maggie was shattered and cried constantly. Maggie died of cancer when I was 14. Mom told me that dad cried that day but I never saw it. Dad died of cancer when I was 19. I still cry.
My parents were both forced to take music lessons when they were kids and both hated it. So one of their first pacts of courtship included agreeing to never make their kids, should the have them, take music lessons. When I begged them for a guitar at age seven, after having my life changed by the video of “Cult of Personality,” they tried to talk me out of it but eventually caved and bought me a red Series 10, from a pawn shop in Covington, Kentucky.
25 years later my debut record release show in Austin was double booked when the club hired new management. They gave me another date and then refused to pay me when not enough people showed up.
I played another release show in my hometown in Kentucky in a beautiful venue that had been converted from an old church. An hour before showtime, over a foot of snow blanketed the rolling hills. Every other band on the bill cancelled. It took us an hour to get one mile to the venue, during which time I emotionally prepared myself to play to an audience of zero. I walked into a room packed full of old friends who had risked life and limb to support me and it was one of the greatest moments of my life.
I put my album up online and sent links with booking inquiries to thousands of venues around the country. I got a couple responses. It was enough, so I hit the road. I couldn’t afford to take a band, so I went solo and learned a lot about myself and what I was trying to do with music. I had some money set aside from the boat in case I got in a bind. Things went real good.
2015 saw me dumped, evicted, down 50 pounds, diagnosed with cancer, operated on, and back on tour by June. Having cancer and recovering from surgery was great. It was a distraction from the severe depression. I had more help and support than I knew what to do with, at first. Six months later, I was homeless, nearly depleted of the last of my savings from the freighter, and crippled with depression. I didn’t have the energy to book tours. I didn’t have the energy to sing. I wondered if this bout of cancer was just the tip of the iceberg and I was likely to go out like the rest of my family, at an even earlier age. I reflected on my life and came to the interesting conclusion that it felt extremely complete and in hindsight, I’d done some pretty awesome shit. At 34 I felt I’d made peace with mortality. I felt ready to die.
But then I didn’t die. I crash landed in a tiny town in the mountains of Northern Arizona where I had a couple good friends from years back. The whole town seemed to chip in to help me put my life back together. The next year would become my busiest up till then, second only to the year after that – this year.
I’m in the process of getting a new album together and plan to spend all of 2018 on tour. Keep in touch and I hope to see you soon!