Monday, December 31, 2012


As a kid, I thought Morris Butcher was just about the best thing since sliced bread. For me, he was a pint-size superhero, an indestructible, unflappable outdoorsman who knew just about everything there was to know about anything that really mattered: how to build and maintain a log cabin, how to caulk a wooden fishing boat, how to gather, saw and split firewood, what kind of bait was best for which kind of fish, where a walleye or northern pike was apt to be hanging out, how to put the bait on a fishhook so it didn’t come off, how deep to set your bobber and how many weights to put on your leader, where the best berries could be found in the woods, which snakes were poisonous and which were harmless, how to stalk just about any kind of animal imaginable in the forest, and how to handle whitecaps without capsizing when a storm caught you in the middle of the lake. He fixed his own car and boat motors, knew how to keep the blade of his pocketknife razor keen and wasn’t afraid of any man alive. He was my hero. I mean, Grandpa Murel was a hero of sorts too, and so was my dad, but they were human heroes. Morris, on the other hand, was a kind of Northern Michigander god! And the Buckeye Rustic Resort on Lake Manistee was his Olympus.
So when we arrived at the lake for our week of vacation in July or August each year, my mother had to remind me repeatedly, from the moment my feet alighted from the car on the sand, that I was not to pester Morris. He had work to do, she said, and didn’t need me under foot all day long. She knew that, otherwise, the first thing I would do when we got there was run around looking for the poor man and stick to him like a postage stamp from then on. Instead, seeking to get around my mother’s order while still “obeying” it, I would just try to remain ubiquitous, just happeningto be where Morris was as often as possible.
I tried to be ubiquitous. Wherever Morris was likely
to be, I was there.
My grandfather didn’t share my slavish admiration for the leathery, gold-toothed, corncob pipe-smoking Morris. Don’t get me wrong, they had been friends for as long as anybody could remember, but had such a close relationship, and were both so cantankerous, that just knowing each other so well meant nothing was beyond being an issue for argument. What they likedabout each other went without saying. But what irritated them was a matter of perpetual and boisterous public debate. So when my Grandpa Murel would say, for instance, that my bobber was set too high or too low and I would answer that Morris had told me it was “just right”, Murel would growl, “Aw, he’s full o’ hooey! Don’t listen to that ol’coot if you wanna know how to fish. Why, he couldn’t catch a fish if it jumped into the darn boat with him!”
And if Morris handed me his bait bucket and told me to go wade along the shore and seine myself some minnows because I was never going to catch anything but bluegill with my nightcrawlers, and I responded that Grandpa Murel had said earthworms were the best bait there was, Morris would squint one steely blue eye, glaring at me with the other one wide open through his steel-rimmed glasses, bite down hard on the stump of his Missouri Meerschaum, and hiss, “Ya sure as hell aren’t gonna catch anything listening to thatol’ windbag. Last time Mairel ate fish was at your dad’s sandwich shop and he sure as tootin’ didn’t catch it there, unless they threw it at ‘im! Why, the only way that man ever killed a fish was by talkin’ it to death.”
For some inexplicable reason, Morris always called Grandpa Murel “Mairel”.
“Why’s Morris call Grandpa ‘Mairel’,” I asked my mother once.
“Oh, Morris is always getting people’s names wrong,”she answered, since she was busy making a pie with blackberries she and Grandma Alice had picked, and so, was opting for the short explanation. “But don’t you dare correct him, hear?”
For my part, however, I never heard Morris get anybody else’s name wrong, just Grandpa’s. Well, except for the story my father liked to tell, about when Morris was new at the insurance firm where he and my grandfather had worked together as salesmen, and Murel was out with him cold-calling to show him the ropes, and they stopped at the home of a widow called Mrs. Korspetre. Murel made the introductions: “Mrs. Korspetre, Mr. Butcher; Morris, this is Mrs. Korspetre.” So then my grandfather stood back and let his apprentice agent go into his spiel: “Now, this here is our top of the line policy, Mrs. Horsepeter,” says Morris, at which point the very proper widow lady interrupted him to chide, “Tsk, tsk, tsk, no-no, Mr. Butcher, the name is Korse-petre!” And, known as Morris was for his wry sense of humor, I don’t think that particular faux pas was very accidental either, since it cracked him and Murel up every time they recalled it for years afterward. So I kind of have a feeling he mispronounced Murel’s name just to annoyhim, knowing, as I’m sure he did, that my grandfather was sensitive about his name to start with. His mother, my Great-Grandma Maude, had named him Herman Murel. He absolutely detested the name Herman, so more by process of elimination than choice, he had accepted what he considered the lesser of two evils—and, according to my dad, spent a lot of time “beating the tar” out of kids in school who taunted him by calling him Muriel. Anyhow, by the time I got to know Morris, Murel (Mairel) had probably grown tired of correcting his former workmate and just ignored the mispronunciation.
As stereotypes go, Murel Newland couldn’t deny the Scottish blood that ran in his veins. “Thrift”,in him, went far beyond art or science and verged on obsession. He was the sort of compulsive skinflint who, as my mother used to say, was capable of driving fifty miles to get to a store where he could save a nickel on a can of beans. On any occasion that required reaching for one’s wallet, you would have thought his hip pocket was also inhabited by an angry wolverine, judging by his reluctance to shove a hand in there. (For instance, when he decided his faded maroon Studebaker would fetch a better sale price if he could give it a cheap paint job before putting it on the market, I accompanied him early one Sunday morning to the Municipal Garage in our town, where, behind closed doors, he slipped a twenty-dollar bill to a couple of city workers and drove home some hours later in a butter yellow Studebaker, carefully spray-painted with a judicious mix of white and yellow center-line enamel).
Lake Manistee (Photo by Thomas Harvey)

In the stormy relationship between Morris and Murel, there were, then, a few incidents that were notorious landmarks, all of which involved Grandpa’s “giving things of Morris’s a try”before actually investing in them himself—incidents which seemed, in all fairness, to prove Morris’s irritability with Murel warranted. Like the Jitterbug Incident, for example. That happened once when Murel, Morris, my dad and I were all out fishing together (I must have been about seven or eight at the time and was sharing a seat with my father in stern of one of the roomy wooden fishing boats that the Buckeye Rustic Resort afforded to its guests). It was late in the day and the fishing had been less than inspired that afternoon. The only one who had caught anything other than a few small bluegill and pumpkin seed sunfish was, of course, Morris, who, shortly before the sun sank close to the horizon, had snaked in a nice-sized pike. Whitie (my Dad) and I were just enjoying the day on the lake and were pretty satisfied at having caught a couple of bluegills each. Murel, however, was sullen and livid with envy. So he started badgering Morris out of spite.
“Hey, Butcher,” he said, “lemme see that feesh.”
“Come on, why not?”
“No, Mairel, I’m not lettin’ you see it till we get on dry land, because I know how gol-darn clumsy you are and damned if you won’t let it slip out of your hands and back into the lake.”
“Well, that’s a helluva bad attitude for a friend to take.”
“Hey Whitie,” Morris said to my father, talking over Murel’s head as if he weren’t there, “can’t you get your ol’ man to shut the hell up before he scares all the fish away?”
“Don’t look at me,”Dad said and gazed at his bobber while slowly drawing on a Pall Mall.
“Okay, Morris,” Murel tried again, “if you ain’t showin’ me the feesh, then lemme have a look at the lure you used.”
“How do you know I used a lure?”
“Cause I saw it when you put it on.”
“Then you’ve seen it.”
“Wassat a Red Devil?”
“Mairel, if ya saw it, ya know damn well it was.”
“Got another one, there, Morris? Never feeshed with a Red Devil. I’d like to try ‘er out. May wanna buy one myself.”
“You’re gonna tell me that in that big box full o’ tackle ya got there, ya ain’t got another lure?”
“That ain’t what I said, Mairel. I said I didn’t have another Red Devil.”
“So you do have some other lures in there, then?”
“I’ve got a brand new Jitterbug, and, before you ask, no, you can’t use it.”
“Well, what the samhill there, Butcher? Why so stingy?”
“Because I know you Mairel and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let you lose my new Jitterbug before I even have a chance to use it myself.”
Lose it? When did I ever lose a lure?”
“Don’t ask. And...don’t ask!”
But Murel was a born door-to-door salesman, and once he had his proverbial foot in the door, there was no shutting him up. He just kept on and on until he finally made the sale. So finally Morris’s resistance wore thin and when, for the umpteenth time, Murel said, “Come on, Butcher, it’s only gonna be for a few minutes, the sun’s about to set. What’s it gonna hurt to let me give ‘er a spin?” the other angler finally broke down.
“Aw, all right, Newland,” Morris sighed, “christ a’mighty, man, anything to get you to shut the hell up for a while!” And with that, he ceremoniously handed my grandfather the new lure in its little box, as if it were the finest and most delicate piece of jewelry, or some coveted medal of honor.
Murel excitedly thumbed open the box and extracted the lure, quickly tying it onto his line and preparing to cast.
“You did that awful quick, Mairel,” Morris said, sounding worried. “You, sure you got that on there tight? Did you use a lure knot?”
“Oh stop your frettin’, Butcher, you sound like an ol’ woman.”
“You just don’t worry about how I sound and pay attention to what you’re doin’ with my lure, Mairel.”
So then my grandfather, who had always considered himself an expert spin-caster, took up a professional stance in the middle of the boat, feet spread, soundly planted for balance, and, rod aloft, brought his right arm back to two o’clock and with a mighty snap to ten, let fly. In the last split-second before the cast, I saw Morris’s shiny new Jitterbug glittering there in mid-air, in the oblique last light before sunset, and followed it as it sailed out over lake Manistee, Murel’s reel singing, and landed with a distant plop nearly a hundred yards away.
Morris—in fact, all of us except Murel—sat there stunned, watching the circle of ripples spread from the remote point of impact.
“Did you see that cast?” Murel cried. “What a cast!”
“Cast my ass, Mairel!” Morris exclaimed. “You just threw my goddamn Jitterbug into the middle of the lake!”
“Like heck I did,”Murel defended himself. “You just can’t stand it that I can cast like that.”
“Aw, reel it in, you numbskull. There ain’t nothin’ on the end o’ that line but leader and weights. You are the most de-struc-tive man I’ve ever met. That is the last time I let you talk me into lending you any gear.”
But it wasn’t. Numerous times, and year after year, Murel would give pieces of Morris’s fishing gear “a try”.Other lures would end up at the bottom of the lake, as would a brand new outboard motor that Murel forgot to secure properly before “going for a little spin.” And every year, by the end of our week at Lake Manistee, those two grumpy old men were barely speaking to each other.
But when it finally came time for them to say good-bye, it was always a poignant moment, one in which it was clear to anybody with eyes and a heart, despite their stoic demeanor, that there was a lot more that united these two old friends than lures and boats and motors. Only death could come between them permanently, and there came a time in which they both realized it would be coming sooner than later.

Sunday, December 9, 2012


For my father, the real vacation never started until he’d had his swim. On the trip up to Lake Manistee in Kalkaska County, Michigan, he was always still tense and accelerated, pushing himself, driving straight through as if it were a duty with a life or death deadline to keep. There were minimal stops, but only when he couldn’t stand us nagging him anymore. Had he been alone, they would only have been pit stops to gas up. For him it was all about “getting there”.
 The Swim, however, was a sacred ritual, and it was as if God and Nature knew how badly he needed it, because I can’t remember a single year on which it rained, even if it had been raining all the way up, on the first morning after our arrival at the Buckeye Rustic Resort.
The Buckeye Rustic Resort 
I refer to it as The Swim, because it was, indeed, unique. He wasn’t nicknamed Whitie for nothing and he detested any activity that meant exposing his skin to the sun for long periods of time. He was so blonde and so red-complected that he burned like a moth in a candle flame whenever he dared take off his shirt outdoors for more than a few short minutes in summer. In the privacy of his own home, his “lounge wear” consisted of boxer shorts and a t-shirt (or just boxer shorts if the weather was hot). But outdoors, he was always fully dressed in long trousers and shirt (short-sleeved if he could avoid the sun, but long-sleeved if not), since back then there were no sun blocks, and Coppertone only served to butter him up for frying. So The Swim, for him, was just that: a single, ritual swim in Lake Manistee each year when we went for our also almost ritual week there.
Oddly enough, however, Whitie was an incredibly strong swimmer. As a boy, he had been somewhat put off by certain activities because of his extremely poor eyesight—the fault, everyone said, of a bad and ill-cured case of what was known back then as “old fashioned” measles. He wore thick spectacles from a very young age. But he later learned to make his peace with the glasses and became as rough and ready a lad as any other in his rugged neighborhood in the South End of the highly industrial town of Lima, Ohio. His older brother, Red (Bob to his family), was the toughest guy on the block in their two-fisted South Lima neighborhood and wherever Red went, Whitie followed—and glasses be damned. But poor sight was a hurdle he had to overcome and his mother always said that it was what had also made him such a highly strung, hyperactive little boy.
Official poster for the
1933 Chicago World's Fair
by Weimer Pursell
“The only thing that calmed him down when he was a little kid was to sit on the back steps and play his harmonica,” my Grandma Alice used to recall. “And he got so he was pretty darned good at it.” So good, in fact, that in 1933, when he was eleven years old, he traveled with a harmonica band called The Harmonicats to Illinois, where they played at the Chicago World’s Fair (A Century of Progress 1833-1933).
Swimming—like baseball, football and streetfighting—was something he learned with and from Red (who would later test some of these skills as a World War II Navy frogman, and as an instructor for the predecessors to the élite Navy SEALs). Red’s methods were less than orthodox but seemed, in the end, to work. When their mother asked Red and the boys’ Uncle Dale (my grandfather’s younger brother) to teach little brother Norman to swim, Dale drove the two boys out to a pond he knew. The three of them walked out to the end of a wooden boat dock and as little Norman stood there awaiting instructions, Red and Dale (who was never noted for his maturity or responsibility) snatched him up and heaved him into the drink. As he hit the water, he heard big brother Red shout the instructions he had been awaiting: “Sink or swim, Normie!”  Lesson One was over.  
When he complained to his uncle that he might have drowned, Dale just laughed, took his pricey green-wrapper cigar out of his mouth and said, “Hell, Norman, I can’t swim a stroke, but I knew Bobby could pull you out. Stop whining, you’re fine!”
Despite this less than auspicious beginning, however, Whitie took to swimming like a Labrador retriever and mostly learned by imitating his big brother. That was how he started swimming at Long’s Quarry, for instance.   Long’s was a scary-looking, steep-sided, worked-out stone quarry that had long since filled with water. The water was said to be eighty feet deep—deep enough to be a dark greenish-blue, anyway—and its cubicle shape meant that there, you really did sink or swim. Nobody who didn’t know how to swim and swim well had any business being there. Similarly, if they didn’t know how to dive, they had no business diving at Long’s either, since the “diving board” was a tall tower off of which the best high-divers in the area practiced their most daring stunts, with no pesky lifeguards to give them any grief.  
Big brother Red would later
apply some of those skills as
a Navy frogman during WWII
There, Whitie got some of the worst sunburns—but also did some of the best swimming—of his life, just trying to keep up with Red. And it was there too that he discovered that the more you stayed underwater, the less you burned, and quickly became a really powerful underwater swimmer. Later, during his first year in the Army, before he was shipped overseas to fight the Nazis, he did his company proud by winning a trophy for underwater endurance swimming: At the time, from a standing dive, he could swim the entire length of an Olympic-size pool and return nearly the whole way under water, without ever coming up for air. Needless to say, he wasn’t just good at holding his breath, he was also right fast.
So anyway, like I say, for Whitie, vacation only really started with The Swim—a long swim...
Like much of the rest of Michigan the rolling drumlins and valleys around Kalkaska with their crystalline streams and lakes were formed by ancient glaciers and remained as pristine witnesses to another age. Manistee was no exception: a breathtaking dimple gouged in the wild landscape by the painstaking creative process of glaciation. I would stand there on the shore watching as my father prepared for his ritual in the chill of Michigan morning. He was half-afraid, I think, that I might follow him, so he would give me a duty.
“Now, you watch my stuff for a little bit so nobody takes it,” he would say.
I would look around at the unpopulated surroundings as if to ask, “Who?” But he would say, “Make sure, now, okay?” and I would nod and look down at his trousers, t-shirt and socks neatly folded on top of his Florsheim oxfords. My mother wasn’t there, of course, because he never wanted to alarm her. She couldn’t swim and worried herself sick every time he pulled this stunt. But it was bigger than he was—something he promised himself all year. So he would slip out while she and my grandmother were still washing the breakfast dishes, and my grandfather was still busy with his morning preparations that included—former barber that he was—carefully shaving with a straight razor.

I didn't want to miss a single second of lake time.
I, on the other hand, was out of the cabin as early as I was allowed, because I didn’t want to miss a second of lake time, and was, then, an unavoidable witness to Whitie’s Swim. It was a rite, a sort of cleansing of mind and body, ablutions for the soul. All year long he worked day after day in the restaurant—twelve, fourteen hours or more, always on his feet, always under stress, always worried and harassed. All year long he smoked his non-filter Pall Malls and his R.G. Dunn cigars. He did no regular exercise, didn’t have a hobby, didn’t have a sport. His work was his workout, he said, and you almost would have thought it was true by looking at him, because he always remained at the same trim “fighting weight”, a middleweight with Popeye forearms and biceps as hard and round as baseballs, his belly flat and legs powerful just from never sitting down. Nor was there any training for the Manistee ritual: He never visited the Y in nearby Lima, Ohio back home, never went to the municipal pool, never swam in any of the local lakes in Ohio either. And yet, when he arrived in Kalkaska County, Michigan and stood on the shore of Lake Manistee, he seemed to be gripped by an irresistible urge.
And so the rite began. I watched as he gingerly made his way into the clear, silvery-blue waters near the boat ramp, wincing a little at the cold and at the pebbles that challenged his tender, unaccustomed feet, wading in until the lake lapped at the bottoms of his trunks, before diving in head-first in a quick, determined plunge. And then, with the natural grace and physical resistance that characterized him, he would start to swim, pulling easily through the water, barely making a wake, until he was parallel with a floating dock that marked the usual limit for swimmers. It was then that he began to show his real prowess, by diving repeatedly and swimming incredibly long stretches under water.
With each dive of my father’s, I would hold my own breath to see how long I could stand it, which proportionally heightened my concern for his safety because long after I had turned purple and had to gasp for air like a docked fish, he would go on and on until I worried that he had surely drowned. But then, way further out than I could have guessed, I would see his head bob to the surface and he would swim for a bit in a perfect crawl, before drawing another deep breath and submerging once more, until, finally, he was way too far out in the lake for me to see him any longer.
Then, I would sit down cross-legged in the sand to wait by his clothes. From the other shore, I would hear the faint sound of a bugle play breakfast chow call at Camp Tanuga and kept trying to imagine Whitie arriving there, maybe even being greeted by the campers as if he had just crossed the English Channel. And as I worried, I kept trying to imagine that scene, Whitie triumphant, rather than drowned.
Whitie and Danny.

In my head, I would hear his words when I would say, “Sure looks like a long way to the other side, Daddy,” and he would answer, “Naw, not more than a quarter-mile, maybe half...Your ol’ man can do that easy, Danny.”
And eventually, Reba Mae would worry about the silence and come down to the beach to ask a rhetorical question (since she already knew the answer): “Where’s your dad?” And in response, I would point to the wide open waters. Then we would be two there worried on the beach—I, sitting cross-legged next to the property in my charge, silently praying over and over for the owner’s safe return, and she, wringing her hands by the water’s edge, gazing into the distance, trying to see Whitie’s head bob up somewhere on the horizon.
And finally it would, like that of a distant whale, coming up, blowing and breathing, and again going under for an agonizingly long time, before popping up again, ever closer to the shore. Once we could see him well and relax a little, my mother would dash up to the cabin for a towel. And then she’d be there receiving him at the water’s edge, saying, “Norm, you idiot! You don’t do a lick of exercise all year and then you have to do a marathon swim. Just look at you! You’re blue! You must be frozen!”
And he would answer, “Aw now, Mother, no cause for alarm. I could swim this in my sleep,” as she wrapped the towel around him. “Come on up to the cabin and get warmed up, you big idiot!”
“You go ahead, honey. I’ll be up in a second. I’m going to stay here with Danny a minute and dry off.” Then as Mom left and walked back up toward the cabin, shaking her head, he would ruffle my head and put on his shirt, before sitting down on his towel. He would shake his pack of Pall Malls and book of matches out of his shoe, tap one from the pack and light up. And then we would just sit there for a few minutes watching the water.
“Was it cold?” I’d ask.
“Only at first, then you get used to it.”
Whitie’s ritual was over then. It was as if he were a new man. And vacation had officially begun for all of us.
(To be continued)

Sunday, December 2, 2012


When I was a little boy, from the time I was about four until I was twelve, Michigan was a name that plunged me into instant joyful reverie. It was the place and the dream I longed for. I wanted to awake one morning to find that I was there and that it was to be my life from then on. Anywhere that I saw water with the blue sky and white clouds reflected in it—even in large puddles after a sudden summer downpour—the word that came to mind was Michigan and it never failed to fill me with an instant sense of yearning.
Michigan, to my mind, wasn’t a vast state with some of the major, smoke-laden industrial towns of the American North. It was, rather, whispering pine and birch forests, crystalline lakes, sandy dirt roads, cold mornings and warm lingering afternoons with Technicolor sunsets. It was a land of tawny deer and multi-colored snakes, of herons and cranes, of pumpkin seed sunfish, bass and bluegill, of perch, walleye, and the great northern pike.  It was the smell of pine pitch and wood smoke, the scent of twenty coats of dark varnish on log cabins in the afternoon sun. It was a place far from where my father was often worried sick, a place we went just for fun, a place where I felt there was nothing to interfere with our happiness. Michigan, for me, was synonymous with bliss, and Michigan was also synonymous with Lake Manistee and the surrounding area.

I should clarify that when I speak of Manistee, I’m not talking about the better-known lake in the county of the same name that opens onto that great freshwater sea that is Lake Michigan, the Manistee that has been so poisoned by years of heavy industry on its shores—logging, paper pulp mills, salt-mining, steel foundries, etc.—that consumption restrictions have been long in force for the different species of fish that still manage to survive there. No, I’m referring to the 860-acre inland lake located over a hundred miles further north, in Kalkaska County, which, when I was a boy, was about as close as you could get to the wilds.

From the time I first saw Lake Manistee and its dense and dazzling wilds, I thought of myself as being part of it, as being from rural Ohio, but also as being from Michigan—that Michigan, the one of my dreams. That landscape was mine. It belonged to me by right of enduring love and loyalty to it. And indeed, some of my most lasting memories are of the precious few vacations my family spent there.

Nor was it as if we ever “summered there”. At the time, my father and two of his brothers owned a family restaurant in my hometown and for the twenty-five years that he remained in that business, Dad never felt as if he could take any more than a week off each year. A week your “regulars” might stand for. Shut down for two, and you’d lose half of them to the competition. That was his logic. I despaired that the time we spent at Lake Manistee was so short, and counted “the days left” on my fingers each night before I fell asleep in the cabin, with a pinewood and birch fire still crackling in the potbellied stove, junebugs buzzing against the screens and the drowsy murmur of the adults still playing five hundred rum at the kitchen table. But then again, perhaps it was how limited the time was that made it all the more precious to me.

Grumpy Old Men. Most years we went with my Grandpa Murel and Grandma Alice. That was how we started going in the first place. Grandpa had been a life insurance salesman for many years, but I think the occupation he cared most about in his life was fishing (or “feeshing”, as he referred to it). His insurance debit was partly located in the area around Russells Point and Lakeview, both towns built on the shores of Indian Lake (originally known as the Lewistown Reservoir), in Logan County, Ohio. So he never went to work without rod, reel and tackle in the trunk of his car. Murel was one of the company’s top salesmen in the area, but he was also a cantankerous, quick-tempered and rebellious man, who had never let anybody tell him how to live his life or do his job. So it wasn’t at all unusual for him, in the middle of a workday, to stop for a little while to see “if the feesh was a-bitin’.” Also in his trunk were other essentials for the well-prepared angler: a see-through plastic mac in case of rain (when the crappies bit best), a battered and stained everyday greenish felt hat, a galvanized catch bucket with a lid (in case he got lucky), a pair of rubber galoshes to protect his fancy two-tone shoes, a square boat cushion to sit on so that he didn’t get the seat of his suit trousers dirty, and an old plaid woodsman’s jacket with worn-slick suede elbow patches to protect his white shirt and replace his suit coat, which he would leave in the car while he tested the waters at places with such enticing names as Sassafras, O’Connor’s Point, Turkeyfoot, Blackhawk and King’s Landing. Everyone knew him over there and he could fish just about wherever he liked undisturbed—unless it was by a Fish and Game warden, since he never was convinced of the need to buy a fishing license.

Now, for a while, Murel had a workmate at the Western and Southern Insurance Company who was even more enthusiastic about angling than he was. The man’s name was Morris Butcher, and Morris and Murel spent a great deal of their time together talking (vociferously debating, actually, since never were there two friends more like Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon in Grumpy Old Men than Morris and Murel) about the best methods for catching a wide variety of freshwater fish.

Morris was a wiry, leathery, piercing-eyed, corncob pipe-smoking man, with a sardonic gold-toothed grin, who looked like anything but a life insurance salesman. And clearly, that wasn’t what he was cut out to be. It was simply a job where a savvy judge of character, which he was, could make the money he needed to do what his heart really desired. Anyway, there came a time before he reached retirement age when Morris reckoned he’d had enough of pounding a debit trying to sell life insurance and decided he wasn’t waiting any longer to start doing what he’d always wanted to do: live on a lake and fish whenever the spirit moved him. So he bought a nice piece of land on a lake he’d discovered in Kalkaska County, Michigan, and, with the sweat off of his brow, built a summer resort there—the Buckeye Rustic Resort, on the shores of Lake Manistee. It was on Morris’s invitation that Murel had first decided to try the fishing on Lake Manistee and found he loved the place—plus, thrifty Scot that he was, the discount he always managed to wheedle out of his friend couldn’t have hurt his decision to go there year after year. Then one year he talked second son Norman (Normie, as my mother called him, Whitie to his childhood friends) into going, and a fleeting family tradition was born.

Getting There. My excitement would crescendo to an almost unbearable pitch in the days leading up to our Michigan vacations. It was always well into summer, late July or early August at least, before we could get away and the waiting was agonizing after the first year we went and I could picture Manistee in my mind. It was always there, like Shangri-La, beckoning me in the mist of memory. I remember my unmitigated sorrow and disappointment the year Dad announced that we wouldn’t be going anywhere on vacation because the restaurant needed painting and remodeling and there would be no time or money for going to the lake. They would close down for ten days and use the time and money entirely for reinvestment in the business. I was devastated.
The years we did go, I started savoring Michigan before we ever left the house, watching my older sister Darla neatly lay out the clothes she wanted to take, following my mother, Reba Mae, from room to room as she retrieved the suitcases—with their wood frames, tan fabric covering and brown leather and brass trim—from the spare closet and started to fill them, and getting together my own sparse fishing gear (the first years, no more than a section of a bamboo cane pole, a bit of line and a yellow and white cork bobber that my grandfather had given me).  Murel equipped us all since Dad always said he was “no fisherman so why buy a rod and reel,” but he would go out in a boat and drown a worm or two while in Michigan just to appease his father. However, he was such an obsessive over-achiever that if the fish started biting, it could be pitch black out, so that you could no longer see your cork in the water, and Normie wouldn’t say die until his father forcibly grabbed the oars and rowed us back to shore. And since one was as competitive as the other, that usually didn’t happen until we were chilled to the bone and half-eaten by mosquitoes.

For the trip up from Ohio, we would steal away like thieves in the dark of night, at three or four o’clock. Though the trip back then, on two-lane roads through towns and cities, took all day, Dad had a theory about “making time” that hinged on pre-dawn departure. Which was okay by me, since The Night Before Michigan might just as well have been The Night Before Christmas: There was no way I was going to go to sleep and maybe be forgotten and left behind. But Darla sometimes had to be wrapped in a blanket and carried to the car once everything else was packed because she flat refused to get up so early.

I particularly remember a trip when we left in the middle of a fierce electrical storm. It added to the excitement since I could feel Reba Mae’s tension even from the back of the car. She was always game for a trip—though, if she’d had her druthers, it wouldn’t have been to a log cabin in Michigan and it wouldn’t have been with her father- and mother-in-law—but she had an innate dread of wind and thunderstorms. Knowing this, Dad kidded her as he drove by saying things like, “It’s raining cats and dogs, Honey!” or, “If this keeps up we’re gonna need oars!” or, “Damn! Did you see that lightning? It’s rainin’ pitchforks!”

That was the first time I’d heard this last expression and it stuck—rather like a pitchfork—in my brain. It was cozy in the backseat, wrapped in an old Army blanket, Darla slumped on the other side of the car fast asleep under what was known then as an “Indian blanket”. (The first couple of years it was just she and I, then came our little brother Dennis—whom we called Jimmy—who traveled between us in back, or up front on our mother’s lap). And now I had this new image of some angry god hurling trident-like pitchforks at us from on high. But here in our car, we were immune. Dad wasn’t scared. He knew we were untouchable. He wouldn’t let anything happen to us. He deftly maneuvered us through the world’s dangers. So while Reba Mae fretted up front and chewed her Juicy Fruit to keep calm, I raised my half-closed eyes to the bottom of the window and, in a semi-dream state, watching the flashes of lightning over the cornfields, trying to imagine them as fiery-blue tridents that were barely missing our speeding supercar and grounding themselves out around us, rendered harmless by our special powers.

Dad underscored that image since for him, trips were serious business with numerous performance factors to be taken into account: the “time you made”, “what kind of mileage you got”, and “what you spent on the road” before you ever got where you were going. So stops were minimal, speeds were as steady as possible and gasoline was only purchased where it “wasn’t high as hell” (a penny or two more a gallon was enough to qualify, so that we were often dangerously close to the Empty peg before he would give in and stop). This meant that by the last leg of that long, stressful trip in the midst of a tri-state storm, he began to resemble a mad Captain Ahab, lashed to the wheel, indefatigable and invincible, forging on despite mutinous calls for stops to pee, to eat something, to, for-godsake-get-a-cup-of-coffee-at-least-Normie.
Northern Pike, our Moby Dick
Being There. And then, like magic, the landscape began to change as we headed into the north on the Peninsula. The pitch was rolling, the air turning cool, the late afternoon sky clearing with dark storm clouds now shredded and blown out against a clean azure field. The berms turned sandy. Oaks and maples gave way to yellow birches and trembling aspens contrasting with the deep green of pines and hemlock. Log and varnished wood structures along the road replaced sawn and painted lumber and brick houses that were the norm back home. There was an outback look to everything so different from the regimented tidiness of Ohio farming communities, an individualism that rendered one house or store completely different from another and each with amusing accessories everywhere: toy windmills and pinwheels, colorful birdbaths, a plethora of garden gnomes and painted plaster stable boys, wind chimes of metal, glass and bamboo, shacky stands along the road selling watermelon, wild cherries and berries, Indian souvenirs and live bait and tackle. And then...nothing. Nothing but hills, forest and the road stretching like a ribbon before us, already drying in a stiff breeze.  I rolled down the window part way and breathed Michigan—that crisp northern air on which you could smell the clear water of a thousand lakes and streams.

After what seemed (to me) like an eternity, we left the narrow two-lane pavement and hissed almost silently along a narrower still sand road, now packed and firm from the rain. And finally, we came abreast of the red-shingled cottage where Morris and his wife, Ines (which everyone pronounced aye′-ness), made their home, and turned into the Buckeye Rustic Resort on the opposite side of the road.

The car had barely come to a stop when I was already out and running down to the edge of Lake Manistee, with my mother’s words of warning about not getting too close to the water on my own, lost on the wind behind me. The air was chilly from the storm and the crystal clear water was freezing cold. But shivering in the late afternoon air after the warmth of the car, I kicked off my Redball Jets, rolled off my socks and waded in just over my ankles. Smiling to myself, I gazed down at my little-boy feet through the clear water against the tawny sand and round greenish lake stones and heaved a sigh of relief. I was at home again, in Lake Manistee.                      

(to be continued)