- Historic Sites
Last Of Four Installments A Michigan Boyhood
A FAMOUS HISTORIAN RECALLS THE COUNTRY WHERE HE GREW UP
August 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 5
In their final years the G.A.R. men quietly faded away. Their story had been told and retold, affectionate tolerance was beginning to take the place of respectful awe, and in Europe there was a new war that by its sheer incomprehensible magnitude seemed to dwarf that earlier war we knew so well. One by one the old men went up to that sun-swept hilltop to sleep beneath the lilacs, and as they departed we began to lose more than we knew we were losing. For these old soldiers, simply by existing, had unfailingly expressed the faith we lived by; not merely a faith learned in church, but something that shaped us as we grew up. We could hardly have put it into words, and it would not have occurred to us to try, but we oriented our lives to it and if disorientation lay ahead of us it would come very hard. It was a faith in the continuity of human experience, in the progress of the nation toward an ideal, in the ability of men to come triumphantly through any challenge. That faith lived, and we lived by it.
The school year began late in September, and it always seemed to me that then the town came to life. The youngsters returned from the distant outside world, and our own world was complete again. There were old friends to be greeted, and new faces to be learned; there were not very many in either group, because the school after all was extremely small, but a pattern that seemed as timeless as the march of the seasons was resumed. The clanging of the academy bell, morning and evening, marked the familiar rhythm. It had always been like this—a decade and a half can be “always,” to a teen-ager—and it would go on like this forever.
Yet there was an odd quality to that fall of 1915, when I began my final year in the academy. It was as if I stood aside, now and then, and watched the scene of which I was a part. The scene itself was permanent (as I supposed) but I myself was a transient, and suddenly I began to realize it. Boyhood was gone and youth itself would soon be over, and full manhood lay not far ahead. I was both impatient and reluctant. The eggshell was about to break, and although I wanted this to happen I was not sure that I was quite ready for it. It seemed important to get the last bit of flavor out of each moment, if only for the reason that nothing like this was ever going to happen again.
We had an acute sense of the impermanence of the present, and a haunting understanding that we were living for a time in a strange borderland between the real and the unreal, without enough knowledge of the country to tell one from the other. The daily routine, in study hall and classroom, was real enough, certainly; but so was the great flood of moonlight that sometimes lay on the countryside at night, turning the plain gravel road south into a white highway that wound through enchanted meadows across hills that might not be there at all when daylight returned. The reality of daily routine was going to vanish in a little while, and then it would be no more tangible than the neverland that bordered the moonlit roadway. Would memory be any more reliable than imagination? When both are forever out of reach, does what you once were count for more than what you once thought you might be? We live in dreams, and while we can we might as well make them pleasant ones.
Mostly they were. Yet there was something about our north country (or maybe it was something about me) that issued disquieting warnings now and then. There was the great emptiness off to the north, thousands of miles of it, with the cold tang of the ice age in the air; to the south was the land of the Mound Builders, whose best efforts produced nothing more than unobtrusive little scars on the earth; and all about us were the bleak acres of stumps, the dying towns, and the desolate farms that were being given up, discards in a game where most of the players had lost. Now and again these things demanded thought.
There was for instance one January morning that winter when Lewis Stoneman and I went sailing on skates. I do not know whether anyone does that nowadays, but it was quite a thing at the time and we had read about it in some magazine. You took thin strips of wood and made an oblong frame, about four feet long by three feet wide, added a couple of cross braces for stiffening and for handholds, and covered the frame with a piece of discarded bed sheet cut to size. Then you went to the ice, put on your skates, held the frame in front of you, and let the wind take charge. I talked about this with Lewis, who was a student at the academy and was for some reason known as Yutch, and it sounded like fun. We built the frames in the basement of Father’s house, talked Mother into giving us a frayed old sheet, tacked pieces of it to the wood, got our skates, and one Saturday went down to Crystal Lake to see about it.