- 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
I remember practically nothing about the performance except that I was the leading man and, as such, was called upon by the script to kiss the leading woman, who was a most attractive classmate, just as the final curtain came down. Miss Ellis, who was directing the performance, made it clear that it would not be necessary or even permissible actually to kiss the girl; I could lay my hands gently upon her shoulders and incline my head slowly, and the curtain then would descend rapidly and action could be broken off with no casualties. I do recall that when the great night came and this portentous moment arrived we discarded Miss Ellis’ instructions completely. I walked the girl home afterward so bedazzled by all that had happened that I was unable to muster the nerve to try to kiss her again. I think this puzzled her slightly, although I do not believe that she felt that she had missed anything much. Now that I think of it, she was the only member of the class I ever did kiss, it took what amounted to a convulsion of nature to bring that about, and there was no repeat performance. I suppose I was born for other things.
Fittingly enough, the class play was presented after all of the actors and actresses had ceased to be students at the academy. We were graduates, possessed of diplomas, the formal commencement exercises having taken place that morning, and technically we were out in the world on our own. I suppose I never would have kissed the leading lady if I had not realized that as a graduate I was no longer bound by Miss Ellis’ instructions forbidding bodily contact. The commencement exercises had been painfully dignified, and whatever they may have meant to the audience I myself felt that they had been highly edifying. When I finally left the church, holding my rolled-up diploma like a field marshal’s baton, I was full of high resolves and conscious rectitude, and I looked upon life from a loftier plane than I have ever occupied since.
This was all most impressive, and I recall the mood that possessed me as an odd blend of exaltation and humility; I knew so much, and I knew so little, and the world which I was about to enter did seem to be exceedingly complicated and unknowable. But above everything else it looked exciting. My time at the railway junction was ending, the morning limited was coming in and I was about to get aboard, and although I had no idea where it was finally going to take me I at least knew that everything was going to be very different from this time forward. The big adventure was beginning, even though I started it, I must admit, by walking down the hill to Beulah and going to work as a waiter-on-tables in the summer hotel there.
If I was marching forth to high adventure then, I had to begin by marking time. I was going to go to college; that had been determined long ago, and by virtue of a little money saved, more money borrowed, and arrangements to work for board and room once college was reached, everything was all set. But I could not go to college until the middle of September and this was only the middle of June, to spend the summer in idleness was inadmissible, and inasmuch as the job at the hotel would permit me to sleep at home while the hotel provided me with three meals every day, I could save almost every penny the waiter’s job would bring in. So—down the hill, into the kitchen, on with the white coat and apron, and this is how you carry a loaded tray through a crowded dining room without dropping things on people’s heads.
It all was most anticlimactic, no doubt, but it did not exactly seem so at the time. I was beginning to be independent, and although the independence was more apparent than real I was at least out of the house from dawn until dusk. If you have never been in control of any fragment of your life, to gain control even over a small part of it can be a heady experience; and to start off on the mile walk at daybreak, swinging down the hill before the town was awake, admiring Crystal Lake and the hills around it as the early light touched them, breathing the air that, essentially, had come drifting all the way down from northern Canada without once touching anything that would defile it, and to reflect while you were doing this that your boyhood at last was over and that every stride was carrying you nearer to man’s estate—well, this was a moving and rewarding experience, even if it was totally undramatic. Life does not always need to be spectacular in order to be exciting.
We worked fairly hard. We were supposed to check in at six in the morning, and although there was a slack hour or two in midmorning and two or three hours that could be taken off in the afternoon we were not through for the day until eight at night, and when the dining room was full—as it usually was, in the middle of the summer—the work was fairly hard. However, it could have been much worse. There was a sort of dormitory, back of the hotel, for such waiters as did not live at home, and in the afternoon we could all go in there, change to bathing suits, and then walk down the lawn to Crystal Lake and take a swim, which was enough to make up for any sort of drudgery. Now and then, on the beach, we would encounter young women who were guests at the hotel, and we could lounge and chat with them, and accompany them into the water, just as if we were not waiters at all.