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)


Anonymous said...

Wow, I really enjoyed reading Day 1 of your Michigan Days. I now reside here in MI but not in the nothern part. I moved from Lima after teaching at Elida for 35 years. I live now in West Bloomfield which is mostly populated by Jewish, Indian and Arabs. I now know what a Caldean is, it is someone from Iran who is of Catholic faith. I mentioned to you that I have written some things about growing up in Wapakoneta and the many characters who lived in our neighborhood. I would love to get your professional opinion on some of these sometime. Thank you for your inspiration. Judie Nester Gale

Dan Newland said...

Thank you so much, Judie. I'm honored. I'd be glad to read the impressions of a fellow Wapakoneta native. I'll send you my email address via FB message.

Janie said...

I can, even now, feel your joy when leaving for the lake. That is how I feel (and my sisters also feel) about going to Clear Lake every year. We have been going for 54 years, I think. Daddy and Art Brown would golf and fish and teach us to ski and I'm so glad I have those memories. Thanks for your beautiful writing. I am always amazed at your incredible steel trap of a memory, especially since mine is more like a sieve.

Dan Newland said...

Thanks for your kind words and shared memories, Janie. It's wonderful that all of you still have that place to enjoy together and the memories of the incredible family that you've always been. Thanks too for the priviledge of having all of you as readers.

T VanSchoyck said...

Morris and Inus Butcher I absolutely adored, just because they were my maternal grandparents and because they were wonderful loving folks. As a child, the excitement of Manistee Lake and Buckeye Rustic Resort caught me up in the anticipation of our three to four day trips on each of the summer holidays. What a great desciption (in your story above) of the cabins , the crystal-clear, fridged water of that seemingly human magnetic lake, and all of wildness of the area. My life's most precious memories shall aways remain. Grandpa as the leader and all the sons and sons-in-law built the first cabin closest to the lake, and one or two more each year until the resort was built.

Dan Newland said...

Thanks so much for sharing your memories with me "T". So your mother must be Bill and JoAnn's sister (the one I never met). I have a history of relationships with the extraordinary Butchers, not only having had Morris as my childhood idol but also having been close friends in high school with Bill and Ruth Butcher's eldest son, also Bill, and therefore also became friends with sister Susan (one of the sweetest girls I ever knew) and younger brother Bob. Bill and I went on outstanding adventures together, canoeing and rock-climbing, and working as precision drill instructions together at Band Camp, and I got invited along on family adventures as well--notably, touring county fares to advertise Bill's dad's amazing ornamental welding business and the family's sideline, polished stones.
You may have noticed that this was part one of my Michigan essay. It's a four part series (click on Newer Posts at the bottom of the article to go to the next one), and I talk a great deal more about my experiences with Morris in parts 3 and 4 (as well as more about the lake in 2).
My thanks for reading my blog and for you kind comments.