- 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
We were in luck. The lake had frozen late, that winter, and although the countryside was covered with snow there was little or none on the ice, which was smooth and clear as plate glass. Skating conditions were perfect, the sun was bright, the bare ice was like polished steel, and there was a brisk wind from the east—which was fine, because we were at the eastern end of the lake and the open ice stretched away to the west for more than eight miles. We put on our skating shoes, knotted the laces of our regular shoes together and hung them about our necks, got out on the frozen lake, held the sails in front of us, and took off.
The wind really was rather strong, blowing steadily and without gusts, and it filled our sails and took us down the lake at what seemed a fabulous speed. We had never moved so fast on skates before—had not imagined that it was possible to move so fast—and it was all completely effortless. All we had to do was stand erect, hold on to our sails, and glide away; it was like being a hawk, soaring effortlessly above the length of a ridge on an updraft of air, and it felt more like flying than anything that ever happened to me, later on in life, in an airplane.
Neither one of us knew anything at all about sailing. To tack, or even to go on a broad reach, was entirely beyond us; we had to go where the wind blew us, and that was that, and now and then I was uneasily aware that skating back against the wind, by sheer leg power, was going to be hard. However, there would be time enough to worry about that later. For the moment it was enough to soar along like thistledown, carried by the wind. The whole world had been made for our enjoyment. The sky was unstained blue, with little white clouds dropping shadows now and then to race along with us, the hills that rimmed the lake were white with snow, gray and blue with bare tree trunks, clear gold in places where the wind had blown the snow away from sandy bluffs, the sun was a friendly weight on our shoulders, the wind was blowing harder and we were going faster than ever, and there was hardly a sound anywhere. I do not believe I have ever felt more completely in tune with the universe than I felt that morning on Crystal Lake. It was friendly. All of its secrets were good.
Then, quite suddenly, came awakening. We had ridden the wind for six miles or more, and we were within about two miles of the western end of the lake; and we realized that not far ahead of us there was a broad stretch of sparkling, dazzling blue running from shore to shore, flecked with picturesque whitecaps—open water. It was beautiful, but it carried the threat of sudden death. The lake had not been entirely frozen, after all. Its west end was clear, and at the rate we were going we would reach the end of ice in a very short time. The lake was a good hundred feet deep there, the water was about one degree warmer than the ice itself, and the nearest land—wholly uninhabited in the dead of winter—was a mile away. Two boys dropped into that would never get out alive.
There was also a change in the ice beneath us. It was transparent, and the water below was black as a starless midnight; the ice had become thin, it was flexible, sagging a little under our weight, giving out ominous creakings and crackling sounds, and only the fact that we kept moving saved us from breaking through. It was high time, in short, for us to get off that lake.
Yutch saw it at the same moment I did. We both pointed, and yelled, and then we made a ninety-degree turn to the left and headed for the southern shore. If we had known how to use our sails properly the wind would have taken us there, but we knew nothing about that. All we could think of was to skate for the shore with all speed, and those sails were just in the way. We dropped them incontinently, and we never saw them again, and we made a grotesque race of it for safety, half skating and half running. We came at last to the packed floe ice over the shallows, galloped clumsily across it, reached the snow-covered beach, and collapsed on a log to catch our breath and to talk in awed tones about our escape.
We got home, eventually, somewhere along toward dusk. We at first thought we would skate back, but the wind was dead against us and skating into it seemed likely to be harder than walking along the shore; and besides we had had all of the lake we wanted for that day. We put on our other shoes and plodded cross-country through the snow, three miles to Frankfort, at which place, the afternoon train having left, we got a liverystable rig to take us to Benzonia. (I am not sure Father altogether appreciated having to pay the liveryman the required two dollars; he earned his dollars the hard way, and he never had very many of them. However, he paid up without a whimper.) We got home in time for supper—we ate that evening at Mother’s table, and not in the academy dining hall—and when we were warm and full and rested we found that we had a great tale to tell, and told it, leaving my parents no doubt wondering just how much youthful exaggeration the tale contained. Actually, we had not so much as got our feet wet, and our escape had not been quite as narrow as we believed, but we had had an authentic glimpse over the rim and we did not like what we had seen; although, now that it was all over, it was fun to talk about it.