Tuesday, January 29, 2013


Whitie in the days of the "brown shoe" Army.
Stuffed away at the back of the hall closet, when I was a boy, behind sewing baskets, extra pillows and shoeboxes full of old pictures and letters, there was a rather ominous-looking box. It was square, fashioned out of wood covered was scuffed and worn black leather and it had a little tarnished silver latch on it. The box was heavy for its size—perhaps eight inches by eight inches by four or five inches deep—because of all the treasures it held. It was one of those things I liked to sneak out of the closet on rainy Sunday mornings when I couldn’t go out. I had done this so many times that what was in there was no real mystery to me, and yet, each time I opened it, a thrill rushed through me because everything that the box contained was exotic and fraught with a sensation of darkness and danger, even if, on the surface, those contents posed no threat. Rather, it was as if an atmosphere had been permanently enclosed in that small box, one of fear and dread, an atmosphere of war.
The box was lined with wine red satin now sullied and faded with age and as you lifted the little latch and opened the top, it emitted a smell that was at once musty and metallic. Inside were, mostly, coins: German coins, French coins, Belgian coins, British coins, Italian coins of World War II vintage. But mixed in with the coins were a few other things as well: a long forgotten US Army Good Conduct medal and ribbon, a set of dog tags bearing my father’s name, serial number and other vital information—next of kin, an address to which to send personal effects should that have become necessary, etc., since bodies were usually not shipped home during World War II, but were buried by Quartermaster Grave Registration Companies in designated battleground cemeteries when hostile fire was finally suppressed—and several oval-shaped black metal Nazi insignias with the swastikas of the Third Reich in relief on them. These, I presumed, had been taken from German uniforms, which begged the question of whether the former wearers had been dead when my father procured the badges, and if so, how they had gotten that way. The only other items in there were two rings, one silver, the other a bronze alloy of some kind. The silver one was the larger of the two and had the insignia of the Seventh Army engraved on it (an A in the form of a stile with seven steps on each side), and the other one was engraved with the name Mae (my mother’s middle name and the one my father called her by when they were first going together). The rings, my father told us, were made for him by a French Algerian blacksmith with whom my father worked when he was first sent overseas as a soldier during World War II. The skilled artisan, who was working for the Allies repairing damaged vehicles, had beaten and molded both from English coins. 
One was a Nazi parade-knife-bayonet
I longed for there to be more in that little box, some item I had overlooked umpteen times before. I wanted more evidence of that time in my father’s life, but nothing new ever appeared. The contents were always the same.

The other was too awesome to mess with.
There was something else, however, something more exciting, but way higher up in the closet where I wasn’t supposed to reach, and I had been specifically forbidden to do so: namely, two bayonets, one German and the other Italian. These, I was only allowed to see if my father agreed to show them to me, which he seldom did. But sometimes when I was left alone in the house, when my father was at work, my sister off with friends, my mother off shopping, and my little brother in her custody, I would break the rules, climb up on a chair and get those awful blades down for a private look at them. Both were stowed in blackened steel scabbards, but there the resemblance ended. The German one was relatively short with a typically black hilt. It was not the longer Nazi battlefield bayonet, but what was known as a parade knife-bayonet, and was about the size of a standard hunting knife, but was dual-edged and came to a razor-sharp point, obviously made for thrusting and gutting. The sound of the well-tempered steel sliding from the metal scabbard was chilling and once, the shiny stainless blade, still smelling of aging gun oil, was out, I couldn’t resist practicing a few thrusts and parries with it in front of the full-length mirror in my parents’ bedroom. The other bayonet, however, was too awesome to mess with. Heavy as a club and more than twice the length of the German parade knife, its hilt was of waxed hardwood and its blade and tip, dangerously keen. This was a weapon made for running an enemy through in close-quarter combat. It was for storming trenches and last ditch hand to hand fighting, and far too scary to do more than slide it carefully from the scabbard, hear the ring of the blade as it broke free and then slide it back in, before putting both blades carefully back, exactly where I had found them.
This was the secret world of Sergeant Whitie, the only visible evidence we had of it, like broken artifacts exhumed by an archeologist, scattered remnants of a jigsaw puzzle of whose full picture one could now only catch fleeting glimpses, a world in which our father lived alone and that he shared with no one. This was a place where Whitie lived without family, a place to which we, his offspring, had no access, a world in which we probably wouldn’t have known him had we bumped into him in our worst nightmares. And, I suspect it was a world even our mother had no real knowledge of, or cared to have.
Back then the United States turned out a different class of men. They were taught to hide their sensitivity, to bury pain and sadness deep inside. If it surfaced, it signified instability, unhealthy weakness, insanity. You lived with your experiences. You didn’t let them dominate you and you certainly didn’t share them. You did your duty and tried to come back alive, and if you did, you immediately got on with new duties as a civilian and let the past take care of the past. If the war ended and you came back alive, you had done your duty, been luckier than a lot of other guys, and should sleep well. Anything you had to do in order to achieve that was between you, your comrades and the enemy and there was a kind of omerta pact that went with this: with your buddies, it was a tacit and fraternal understanding, while in the case of the enemy, dead men told no tales. If you had come home, they probably hadn’t.
There was a time when I thought I knew something about Sgt. Whitie, when I actually thought the few fragmented bits and pieces he would talk about were the whole story. But what I knew, I would later realize, was the little packet of anecdotes he had mentally anthologized as his “war experiences” for whenever anybody who hadn’t been there asked him about those four formative years of his life, when, like so many men of his generation, he went from being a mere boy to being a hardened combat veteran formed in the worst war in history.
His older brother Red had joined the Navy before the United States ever entered the war. Whitie admired Red and, at the same time, always competed, as a boy, to live up to or surpass the standards of toughness and courage his big brother set. And they were no easy standards to match. So at age nineteen, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and President Roosevelt declared the United States at war, Whitie was among some of the first boys to try and enlist. But the thick corrective lenses he had worn from a very young age turned out to be more of an obstacle than he ever could have imagined. He was, he felt, more than able-bodied, but when he tried to get into the Marines he was rejected out of hand because of his sight (something that left him with a contemptuous loathing of Marines ever after). The same thing happened when he sought Navy recruitment. Finally, he tried the Army, where he was declared 4-F (unfit for enlisted armed service). Anger over this stuck with him all his life and whenever any wise guy dared make some reference to his glasses—“Hey, where’d ya get the specs, Coca-Cola?” or, “What’re you lookin’ at four-eyes?”, etc.—Whitie’s answer was always the same: Slowly removing his spectacles, he’d say, “I only wear these for seein’, and I won’t have to see much to whip your ass.”
Her first name was Reba, but he called her Mae.

So anyhow, resigned to his fate, young Whitie decided that if he wasn’t going to be permitted to join this war, then he could at least take advantage of the growing shortage of male labor in vital wartime industries in his native Ohio. Long story short, after a brief time doing grunt work in the industrial press rooms of Goodyear and Westinghouse, this last corporation felt he was too smart to waste and made him a factory-floor inspector. Now, with this good job and prospects for advancement, he was even working up the courage to ask his girl, Reba Mae, to marry him. But just when he was about to, he received a draft notice from the United States Army!
The rejection he had felt when he was turned down by all of the branches of service had been a terrible blow, but this turn of events added insult to injury: He hadn’t been “good enough” to join, but now the government was going to force him to go.
Whitie was incensed, and the feeling wasn’t quick to go away. He held that grudge all through the early part of his service and proved a rebellious handful for his first superiors. A natural sportsman who was quick, graceful and light, the physical training involved in basic combat instruction was easy enough for him and even with his poor eyesight, he was able to qualify at the rifle range. But his disciplinary problems exasperated his trainers. He was defiant and angry most of the time and often flatly refused to carry out orders that he considered “chickenshit”. To try and instill some kind of military discipline in him, the drill instructors put him on kitchen police or guard duty as often as they could, and once he was through with his basic training, they assigned him to the sergeant in charge of the officers’ mess as a kind of all-purpose busboy and waiter. Whitie reluctantly did the job for only a brief time before he’d had enough. Back in the kitchen with the mess sergeant and his crew one evening, the bell that signaled that the officers wanted something jangled once, twice, three times without Whitie’s moving a muscle. The mess sergeant barked, “Hey you! Can’t you hear the damn bell? Get your ass up there! The captain’s ringin’ for ya!”
“Ya wanna know what they want?” Whitie asked. “Then go ask ‘em yourself ya suckass!”
The mess sergeant was dumbfounded. Who could be so stupid? This crazy white-headed idiot was on his way to a court martial for sure! So the sergeant marched up the stairs to the officers’ mess to tell the company commander what had happened. Shortly, the commander, a Captain Anderson, came down to the kitchen. Whitie figured he was going to be placed under arrest and marched to the stockade. Funny thing was, by this point, he didn’t really give a damn.
Instead, however, Captain Anderson said, “Follow me, son,” and led him outside behind the officers’ mess. Whitie was ready for anything. If Anderson threw a punch at him, he didn’t care one way or the other. He was swinging back, even if it meant getting court martialed for striking an officer. But once they were outside, in the cool evening air, the officer took a pack of Luckies out of his tunic pocket, said, “At ease, son,” offered a cigarette to Whitie and took one himself, then offered the private the flame from his Zippo before lighting his own smoke. Like Whitie, Captain Anderson wasn’t a career soldier. Back in the world, he had been a high school history  teacher. He was an “old man”, in his thirties. He had joined up early, gone to officers candidate school and his age, wisdom and education, as well as a dearth of qualified company grade officers because of the massive call-up, meant that he had been able to advance quickly on his own  merit from second lieutenant to first and from first lieutenant to captain and company commander. He was good with men and the Army knew it. He seemed to want to give the same kind of chance to this obviously angry young man.
“What seems to be the trouble son?” Captain Anderson asked, and his manner was so laid back and fatherly that Whitie opened up and told him everything, how he had been rejected by all of the services, how bad that had made him feel, how he’d gotten a good job where he felt like he was worthwhile, how he had planned on proposing to his girlfriend and how he had then been drafted. He told the captain how angry that had made him. He said he felt like a leper—not good enough to enlist but fine to be just another body. He felt as if his patriotic verve in volunteering to fight for his country had been rejected, felt, in fact, like an outcast, just because he wore glasses. He was pissed off and unwilling to take any more chickenshit from anybody.
“So tell me, son, what would you like to do?”
“Something worthwhile, learn a skill, mean something, as long as I’m here,” he said with the passion of youth.
“Well, you’re still going to have to obey orders, son,” the captain said, “but you seem like a smart lad, and you’ve sure got moxie, I’ll give you that. So don’t worry, we’re going to see if we can’t maybe find you something more interesting to do.”
To be continued... 



Sunday, January 13, 2013


Lake Manistee, where I wanted to be. (Photo by Thomas Harvey)
A week each summer was such a short time to be in northern Michigan, especially when I would gladly have stayed all summer long. And I wanted to cram all of the living I could into those seven days.

Though we may have balked a bit a first
because we didn't want to miss out on lake time
my sister, brother and I would turn ecstatic
once we got to our side-trip destinations.  
Still, I was in two minds about our side trips—always the same ones, one to Traverse City, and the other to the Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes—since both involved a lengthy are-we-there-yet car ride that took up precious early morning and late afternoon time at Lake Manistee, where I could have been fishing or swimming or enjoying the woods or running around trying to find my backwoods idol and Buckeye Rustic Resort owner Morris Butcher. But once we got to our destinations, my sister Darla and I (and later our little brother Jim, when he grew old enough to join the fun) would turn suddenly ecstatic. These excursions generally came about mid-week, one after the other. In Traverse City, we usually lunched at a sandwich shop of my thrifty father and even thriftier grandfather’s choosing. But for the dunes, my mother and grandmother would get up early and pack a picnic, which never lacked a large supply of pressed ham and cheese sandwiches on Wonder Bread liberally slathered with delicious butter, potato chips, potato salad, a thermos of coffee and another of Kool-Aid (grape, if I had anything to say about it) and some homemade cookies (usually peanut butter or chocolate chip).
Traverse City wasn't more than 17,000 people, but seemed like a big exotic
port city to us.
Traverse City. Although the population of Traverse City couldn’t have been more than sixteen or seventeen thousand back then, it seemed to us, who came from a small Ohio farm town, like some bustling exotic port city, especially since we were usually there about the time of the yearly Cherry Festival when the city came alive with thousands of visitors. Traverse City is known as the cherry capital of the United States and at that time of the year, it was always peopled—in addition to the very “Middle-America” local population and American tourists—with colorfully dressed, Spanish-speaking migrant workers, whom my Grandma Alice referred to as “Gypsies” (even referring to the language they spoke as “Gypsy”, so that for years afterward, whenever I heard Spanish spoken or heard the word Gypsy, I immediately imagined the migrants I had seen year after year in Michigan).

Grand Traverse Bay. (Photo by Joel Dinda)
Traverse City took its name from the eighteenth-century French trappers and explorers who called the long voyage across the mouth of the huge bay on which the city would later be built “la grande traverse” (the long crossing). The first settlers in the area, then, referred to the body of water—separated by a peninsula from the vast freshwater sea of Lake Michigan—as Grand Traverse Bay. And the village that they would erect on its shores in the mid-nineteenth century would eventually be known as Grand Traverse City, later shortened simply to Traverse City.
Traverse City coastline, seen from the Bay.
It began, humbly enough, as the enterprise of a ship’s captain from Illinois named Boardman, who bought land at the mouth of a river where it flowed into the western branch of the bay and founded a sawmill there, obviously with the idea of shipping lumber on the great lakes. He gave his surname to the river on which settlers were to build their homes, attracted by the sawmill and the excellent surrounding land. Besides being the cherry capital, the area has long had abundant other farming and is a major Midwestern vineyard region as well.
Captain Boardman would later sell his sawmill to the progressive partners of Hannah, Lay and Company. The firm invested strongly in the lumber operation and it was around and fueled by that business, in the 1850s, that Traverse City began to grow.
The city grew from humble origin on the
Boardman River.
For us, it was just a pleasant outing, walking around the city, buying tiny souvenirs, saltwater taffy and baskets of shiny red and scrumptious black cherries—some of which we were allowed to eat as we walked (“but not too many, because they’ll make your belly ache”), and the rest of which were saved for making pies back at the cabin. We gaped at the stunning views of the bay, with its turquoise strip of water in the shallows along the shore that sharply contrasted with the navy blue of the sudden drop-off.
Drop-off! That word on my father’s lips had a mesmerizing effect on me.  When you swam in a place like that, he warned, you wanted to swim parallel and stick close to the shoreline, in the “green” waters, because it got deep “right now” at the drop-off.  The sound of the word conjured up images of lost ships and deep-sea monsters, of dark places the sun couldn’t penetrate and of hidden whirlpools that would suck you down to unknown depths from which there was no return. As I got a little older, I sometimes imagined mermaids with the dark, pretty faces, flashing eyes, long dark tresses and pierced ears of the “Gypsy” girls I’d seen in the port, saw them take me by the hand and lure me to the drop-off where I would gladly follow them, at the risk of mortal peril, because their beauty was so irresistible. The colors of the water kindled my imagination and filled me with wonder since it was hard to believe that something so Technicolor-beautiful could exist in nature.
Thirty years afterward I would wonder if Grand Traverse Bay had ever really been as spectacular as it had looked to me as a small boy. Probably not, I figured, because nothing is as big, as awesome, as indescribably wonderful when we grow older as it was back then, is it? But on going there on a whim when I was already past forty, I proved myself wrong. The contrasting turquoise and navy blue waters of Grand Traverse seemed just as incredible then as when I was nine or ten. I couldn’t help thinking it must surely be one of the most beautiful bays in the world.
Aboard "The City of Petosky": Reba Mae, Grandma Alice, Whitie,
Darla and Danny.
Only once did we vary from the dual-destination Traverse City/Sand Dunes side trip and go on a different kind of adventure: a Mackinac Island ferry boat voyage on Lake Huron. The great Mackinac Bridge—the world’s third longest suspension bridge, which today links Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas—was still on lead engineer David B. Steinman’s drawing board at the time, so ferries were the only way to get across the Straits of Mackinac between the non-contiguous peninsulas, if you didn’t want to drive all the way around. So a fleet of nine ferries was constructed with a total capacity of nine thousand vehicles per day, which signified major progress in northern Michigan land communications. But we just went for the ride.
The lake journey was part of one of our earliest Michigan trips. I must have been three or four at most. But I still recall the strange, scary sensation of our driving the cars on board the boat, and then the exhilaration of standing on the nodding deck, the breeze in our hair, the sky so blue and clear and the spray of the waves misting our faces. I also recall an old man with very long, very white and carefully parted and combed hair and a face like a leather mask, who held aloft pieces of bread in his gnarly fingers for the lake gulls that, amid their excited screeching, would swoop down and deftly snatch the offered treat from the man’s hand. It was a beautiful day and it remains in my memory as a real adventure, as exciting as any trans-Atlantic voyage.
Vintage souvenir postcard from the Sleeping Bear Dunes.
The Sand Dunes. Before the days of the white man, before the times of written history, the Annishnaabeg people told the story of a great forest fire on the sunset side of the great freshwater sea that they called meicigama. It was so intense and extensive that many animals perished. But a mother bear was determined that she and her two cubs would survive. She pushed her cubs into the great waters and the three of them began to swim toward the shore of the rising sun. But the way was long and arduous, and though the mother bear called to her young as she herself struggled to make the great crossing, the exhausted cubs lagged ever further behind.

Photo by Kerry Kelly.
Eventually, the mother bear arrived on the opposite shore, and there, looked anxiously back hoping to see her babies right behind her. After a while, she climbed up onto one of the high bluffs beyond the shoreline, and there settled down to wait and watch, but her cubs were nowhere to be seen. Still, she waited, never giving up hope, and finally, she slept, a sleep so deep that nothing could awaken her. And so, there rose a wind, that gently began to cover her with a blanket of sand until the land took on her shape and paid homage to her love, determination and bravery. And witnessing all of this, the Great Spirit paid tribute also to her cubs, causing two islands to rise from the great waters of meicigama.
This was how the region’s Native Americans (dubbed Chippewa by the French) explained the formation of the Sleeping Bear Dunes and the Lake Michigan islands of North and South Manitou, which, since 1970, have formed part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Park. 
Photo by Kerry Kelly.
Back when we used to go there, it wasn’t yet a Federal park, nor was it yet the huge natural tourist attraction it is today—even more so after being declared Good Morning America’s 2011 pick as the “Most Beautiful Place in America.” It was never crowded, but there were always people there who knew the area and never missed a chance to go and enjoy a day of climbing and the magnificent views to which you were treated once you reached the summit. Back then too, you could still make out the bear where she slept under a grassy knoll overlooking Lake Michigan (a landmark that, so I’m told, has since eroded to almost unrecognizable remnants of the natural effigy). The “infrastructure” was pretty much limited to a parking lot and a wooden building where souvenirs were sold. Everything else was the incredible natural beauty of the dunes towering more than 400 feet above us and inviting us to explore them.
You climbed the dunes barefoot, digging in with your toes, the sun-kissed sand scorching the soles of your feet. Dad, Mom, Grandpa and Grandma, my brother, sister and I, all of us, were suddenly children on the dunes, laughing and panting and scrambling as we made the strenuous climb. We kids would always climb to the top two or three times over, just for the pleasure of the descent—a descent that was sheer abandon, since these were mountains of sand unbroken by rocks, or other obstacles, so that getting back down was a simple matter of throwing yourself off of the top and rolling, sliding, tumbling back down to the bottom.  But on the last ascent, we would linger in the desert-like dream world of sand and razor-sharp grasses at the top, taking in the awesome landscape below with its peacock blue inland lakes and the huge, horizon-less, deep-blue expanse of meicigama (the big waters).
I never can recall a drive back to Manistee from the Dunes. After such an amazing and exhausting day, we kids always fell fast asleep in the backseat of the car and stayed that way until we once again turned in at the Buckeye Rustic Resort.
The Post-Side-Trip Side Trip.  It was after just such a day, when I was, perhaps eight or nine that we arrived back at the resort an hour or so before sundown. I didn’t wake up until Dad pulled the car in next to our cabin. I was sleepy and grumpy and my hair, ears and clothes were full of scratchy sand. I dawdled outside the cabin for a while, dumping sand from my pockets and picking it out of my ears, vaguely depressed that the following day would be our last full one at Lake Manistee.
But just then Morris Butcher pulled up in his dusty, battered Ford station wagon. The tailgate was open and the backend was loaded with garbage cans into which he had been depositing refuse from the different cabins. Seeing me standing there, he took his ever present corncob pipe from his mouth and spontaneously asked, “How’d you like to come with me to the dump and see the deer?”
“Deer?” I asked.
“Yep. That’s where they hang out this time o’ the day.”
I nodded and smiled enthusiastically.
“Well, all right, Danny, then go quick and tell your mom. Tell ‘er we’ll be right back...maybe an hour.”
I started to go, but he stopped me: “But listen up now, son, whatever you do, don’t tell your granddad! Why, hell, if Mairel goes along, the way he runs his mouth, there won’t be a deer for miles around. Scare ‘em off just like he scares all the fish!”
I ran and asked my mother if I could please (please, please, please, please!) go, and since it was Morris I was going with, she finally acquiesced. So off I went, sitting up front with Morris, on the bench seat of his station wagon.
After a short drive on the main dirt road, we turned left onto a much narrower one—more a track than a road and so hidden in the underbrush and forest that you would never have seen the turnoff if you didn’t know where to look. We wended our way back through the birch and pine forest, made magical by the slant of the waning sunlight that filtered through the trees and highlighted this bit or that of foliage while casting the surrounding areas into penumbral gloom. The Ford pitched and jostled over the rutted, unkempt lane, the garbage pails clunking and clanking in the rear, until we finally pulled to a stop beside a large, open garbage tip. The smell of rotting fish heads, innards and other organic debris was overpowering. I held my nose, a gesture that drew a chuckle from Morris. When he’d finished emptying his pails and stowing them back in the station wagon, he took his Missouri Meerschaum from his mouth, tapped the tobacco out of it against his heel and shoved it into the hip pocket of his well-worn dungarees.
“Okay, Danny,” he said, “from here on, we go on foot, and quiet as Indians, okay?”
Morris led and I followed, trying to show just how quiet I could be and attempting to walk, as I’d been assured Indians walked, with one foot placed straight in front of the other. We negotiated a path so faint that I’d never have seen it without this old woodsman as my guide. At one point, Morris turned to me and placed a finger to his lips to indicate complete silence. Then he histrionically shoved his short, thick index finger into his mouth to wet it, held it up, pointed in the direction the wind was blowing and then indicated, with that same finger, the opposite direction. We were going to head upwind, his hand signals were saying.
We hiked briefly along a short ridge. Through the trees, I could see the sunset reflected in an irregularly shaped lagoon, the edges of which meandered in and out of the forest and were lined with dead trees that had rotted at the roots over the course of a hundred flood seasons but remained dramatically upright, colored stark grayish white, like bleached bones. Finally, we came to a kind of blind,    crudely erected using tree boughs and brush, that afforded a clear view of the lagoon shore, and there we hunkered down to wait.
“Where are they?” I asked in a barely audible whispered.
Again, Morris touched a finger to his lips and pointed in the direction of the lagoon. As if on cue, a family of white-tailed deer made their cautious way down out of the woods to the edge of the water to drink: first an old stag that stood alert, head raised, sniffing the air and twitching his long, mule-like ears, massive antlers spotlighted in the sun’s last rays. Then with a snort he seemed to let the others know the coast was clear, and along they came too, a younger buck with less elaborate antlers, a young doe and a little fawn. Warily, they waded a few steps into the shallows, stretched their long necks downward and began to drink.  
It was a magical moment, an almost religious experience of communion with nature, in which we had faded into the surroundings and were thus privileged to share this intimate day’s-end moment with these stunning creatures. It was a Michigan experience that would remain with me forever, a place to go in my mind whenever all else failed to convince me that life was beautiful.