A Michigan Boyhood


Playing scrub was fun, but it was even more fun to watch our elders in a real game. If the high school team, or the academy team, or best of all the town team, played some team from out of town, it was most exciting. There were no stands, and the spectators stood along the foul lines, and we small boys roamed up and down in front of them, shrilling out our comments on the opposing players. It was considered highly effective to scream, when one of the opposition took a cut at a pitch and missed, “Swings like a rusty gate on a stormy night!” And we had other catch phrases; if the rival pitcher seemed to be (altering, we would start chanting “Take me out! Take me out! Take me out!” We must have made unholy nuisances out of ourselves. Looking back, I wonder that the grown-ups did not drive us away.

There was one time when we were shut up. Our town team was playing a team from Frankfort, which was the metropolis of our county, a busy little seaport and sawmill city eight or nine miles to the west of Benzonia; because it was three times the size of our town, it had three times as many young men able to play baseball, and its team was usually stronger than ours. So one day the Frankfort team was beating our team, and we realized that the Frankfort catcher was a very black Negro. Black people were scarce. There were none in Benzonia, and not many anywhere in the county, but here was one and we got on him at once. “Chocolate Drop! Chocolate Drop!” we yelled. “You can’t play ball, Chocolate Drop! ” A small boy who stumbles on what he considers a good phrase can go on shouting it all day, and so it would have been with us, except that after an inning or so the captain of the Frankfort team, a white man, came over and asked us if we would please stop yelling Chocolate Drop. It hurt the black boy’s feelings, he was a good boy and everybody liked him, the color of his skin was not his fault, and wouldn’t we please be quiet about it. Trying to rattle an opposing player was all right, but making personal remarks that actually hurt his feelings was not decent or fair. We immediately shut up and stayed shut up, because we were ashamed of ourselves.

Absorbing though it was, baseball more or less lapsed in midsummer. The academy boys had all gone home, the high school boys mostly had summer jobs, and anyway the unshaded diamond got uncomfortably warm under the sun of July and August. Besides, the juvenile element had another interest then—Crystal Lake, which lay just half a mile north of our town and some two hundred feet below it. Then as now, this lake offered as fine a hot-weather playground as anyone could ask.

Crystal Lake is a noble body of water, eight miles long by two or three miles wide, its axis running from southeast to northwest. It was properly named, because it is so clear that you can count pebbles on the bottom where it is twenty feet deep. It is surrounded by low green hills, and when the sun is out its color is a breathtaking, incredible, picture-postcard blue; spring-fed, it is deep and cold, and only the hardiest would care to swim in it at any time except midsummer, but when the weather is warm, to go into this water is like dipping into the fountain of youth. A nice beach runs all the way around it, stony here and there but mostly white sand, and that beach exists because the good people of Benzonia made a profound miscalculation back in 1873.

The lake drains into the Betsie River through a sparkling little outlet whose stream is about six feet wide and eight inches deep. This outlet—that is the only name it ever had—wanders aimlessly through the flat lands for a mile or so and then goes into the Betsie, which is more of a river but still an unhurried, modest affair full of sandbars, with occasional islets covered with alders. It occurred to someone in Benzonia, in 1873, that if the outlet were just straightened a bit and relieved of some of its underbrush, and if the ground where the little stream left the lake were cut away, the rush of water from the lake would scour out a deep channel in the outlet and the river all the way to Frankfort harbor. Then steamboats could come up into Crystal Lake and the lumber in the surrounding territory could be moved to market.

So a man who said he was a surveyor went to work. He reported that the plan was perfectly sound. The level of Crystal Lake was only a few feet above the level of Lake Michigan; and once the temporary cascade had done its work, a few touches here and there would perfect the waterway. A corporation was formed, money was raised, men with shovels and horse-drawn scrapers were put to work, and one fine day the barrier was cut through and the waters of Crystal Lake were turned loose.

The result was spectacular. The water went out like the Yukon breaking through an ice jam, the roar of it heard in Benzonia three miles away. The surveyor had miscalculated; instead of being just a few feet above the level of Lake Michigan, Crystal Lake was a good thirty feet above it, and the flood went out in a destroying torrent. It did not scour out any channel; it simply flooded the whole river valley, killing livestock, destroying roads, and bringing farmers to the point of revolt. One man was drowned; another, a Baptist minister making his rounds by horse and buggy, lost his horse and barely saved his own life. (People remarked afterward that he was a spirited advocate of total immersion and so probably did not mind what happened to him.)