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)

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