- 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
Yet the whole business cut a hard groove in my mind. I found after a while that I did not really want to talk about it. I did not even want to think about it, but I could not help myself. What I had seen through the transparent bending ice seemed to be nothing less than the heart of darkness. It was not just my own death that had been down there; it was the ultimate horror, lying below all life, kept away by something so fragile that it could break at any moment. Everything we did or dreamed or hoped for had this just beneath it. …
It all happened a great many years ago, and distance puts a deceptive haze on things remembered. As I look back on my final year in the academy I seem to recall the brief spring of 1916 as a time when life was extremely pleasant and singularly uneventful. The cataract might lie just ahead, but at the moment the river was lazy, without eddies or ripples. Europe was a long way off, and the echoes from its war reached us faintly, unreal and haunting, like the cries Canada geese make when they circle over Crystal Lake in the autumn, lining up the order of flight for their southbound squadrons. It was undeniable, of course, that we would very soon leave our little campus and go to whatever was waiting for us in the outside world, but that knowledge simply added a vibrant expectancy to life. Everything imaginable was going to happen very soon, but right at the moment nothing whatever was happening; if the time of waiting was almost over, its final moments had an uncommon flavor. Although we knew that we ought to think long and hard about what we were going to do, once the spring ripened into Commencement Week and then sent us off into unguided summer, most of the time we were quite undisturbed. The present moment was like a sixmeasure rest that had been mysteriously inserted into the score just as the composition was supposed to be coming to its climax.
Naturally, when I try to recall that time I remember hardly anything specific. I remember the spring sunlight lying on the campus, and the little academy buildings taking on dignity and looking as if they were going to be there forever—which, alas, they were not; I remember the band practice, and the orchestra practice, and the long, aimless walks we took on Sundays, tramping off the last vestiges of childhood, seeing things for the last time without realizing that it was the last time, unaware that once you leave youth behind, you see everything with different eyes and thereby make the world itself different. We would go across country to the power dam on the Betsie River, or along the shore of Crystal Lake to the outlet; and sometimes we went down the long hill to Beulah and then crossed the low ground to go up Eden Hill, a big shoulder of land that defined the horizon to the east … Eden Hill and Beulah Land, named by godly settlers for the Paradise where the human race got into the world and the Paradise it will enter when it goes out of it; or so people believed, although we lived then in the present moment and asked for no Paradise beyond what we had then and there.
From the summit of Eden Hill you could look far to the north and west, across the Platte Lakes to the limitless blue plain of Lake Michigan, with Sleeping Bear crouched, watchful, in the distance and the Manitou Islands on the skyline. Beyond the green wooded country to the east, hidden by the rolling easy ridges, was the little lumber town of Honor, and if we felt like making a really long walk out of it we could go on over to Honor, walk around the mill and its piled logs—they were still carving up some last allotment of first-growth wood there, although most of the county’s mills were stilled—and then we could tramp the long miles home by way of Champion’s Hill. This was a plateau which had been named half a century earlier by some Civil War veterans who made farms there; they had served in Sherman’s corps in the Vicksburg campaign and something about the shape of this land reminded them of a great battlefield in that campaign and so they had put this Mississippi name in the heart of northern Michigan as a reminder of what they had seen and done. And we youngsters walked across it, all unthinking, on our way home to Sunday night supper.
Spring is a short haul in our part of Michigan, and we were kept fairly busy once the snow was gone making preparation for the exercises that would attend our graduation, which would be a great moment. For all that it was so small, Benzonia Academy crowded Commencement Week as full of events as the State University itself; and the graduating class was so small—just eleven of us, when fully mustered—that everybody had something to do. Which reminds me that by ancient custom, running back fully five years, the graduating class was supposed to present a play as the final event of its academic life. Our class elected to do something called “Peg o’ My Heart,” and of course nobody in the class had a vestige of acting ability, but somehow we got through the thing alive.