Monday, December 31, 2012

MICHIGAN DAYS 3: MORRIS AND MUREL

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.”
“No.”
“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.”
“Nope.”
“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.

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