- Historic Sites
A Michigan Boyhood
SECOND OF FOUR INSTALLMENTS A FAMOUS HISTORIAN RECALLS THE COUNTRY WHERE HE GREW UP
April 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 3
For all the coming and going by water, the lake was quiet. The day of the outboard motor had not yet arrived, and all of the powerboats on this lake were displacement hulls, not planing craft; there was no loud whining of high-speed engines, and the painful processes of evolution had not yet brought forth the water skier. People went from cottage to town and back by boat because that was the only way to do it, and it was pleasant to go loafing along on that clear lake with the peaceful hills all around it. Nobody was in any hurry, and nobody could have gone fast if he had been in a hurry. Instead of detracting from the general peace, the powerboats somehow emphasized it.
The fishing on Crystal Lake was good if you liked perch, as everybody did. We never bought minnows; it was much simpler to dig in the back yard and get enough angle worms to fill a tin can. With these, with ten-cent hand lines, and with one of Terp’s rowboats, we were all set, and an hour’s fishing usually brought in a dozen or more fair-sized perch. These fish were docile; they hooked themselves readily and came to the boat without much fuss, and later when they were fried in cornmeal, they were as good to eat as any fish that ever swam. We had a theory, and for all I know it may have been correct, that the clear cold water of this lake gave the perch’s flesh an extra firmness and flavor. We scorned all fish that came from muddy waters, although that did not keep us from going to the Betsie River in March to catch suckers; the Betsie was muddy then with the spring run-off water, and the sucker is barely edible under any circumstances, but it was the first fish in action in early spring and we used to go out and catch suckers just as if they were worth getting.
Autumn provided a breathing spell. People did not play baseball in the fall, football had not yet been introduced, it was too chilly to go swimming, and things were more or less disorganized. For the first few weeks getting adjusted to school kept our minds occupied; after school, and on Saturdays, it was fun to wander off to somebody’s orchard and eat apples. The unwritten rule was that it was all right to pick up windfalls, because they were usually too bruised to stand shipment; but it was wrong to pick apples from the trees, and since there always were plenty of windfalls, we observed the rule faithfully.
The older boys were less law-abiding, and after dark they liked to go out and steal watermelons. This did not really seem like stealing—not to the town’s young bloods, who spoke of it as “cooning,” although the farmers were bitter about it, and Mr. Mills now and then denounced the evil from the pulpit. Most of the farmers met this threat by putting croton oil in a few melons—nice big melons, usually, conveniently close to the fence, just the ones prowling boys would be most likely to take. The process was simple: cut out a small plug, put in the croton oil, replace the plug, and no one could tell the difference until shortly after he had eaten the melon. It was of course important for the farmer to keep the doped fruit off the market. Croton oil is a powerful cathartic, with explosive, hair-trigger qualities, and it struck without warning; the boy who had eaten a doped melon was apt to lose both his dignity and the contents of his colon, willy-nilly, while he was walking home. No one to whom this happened ever did any more cooning, and in the long run the stealing of melons was kept within bounds.
In some ways winter was the most exciting season of all, especially during the first few weeks. After that it began to seem endless, and by the middle of February we began to feel as if we had been frozen in forever, but just at first it was fun. We did not do as much skating as might be supposed, because the unbroken ice on Crystal Lake usually was covered with a foot or two of snow, but we could sometimes clear the surface of a convenient millpond, and a January thaw followed by a hard freeze might make the lake serviceable. A couple of miles to the east of us an electric light company had dammed the Betsie River to provide current for the surrounding villages, and the flooded valley above the dam often provided good skating. That was an eerie place to go. Trees killed by the rising waters stuck their dead tips through the ice, and to skate there just at dusk was like skating through a haunted forest. Once we got around the bend from the dam, we might have been a thousand miles from anywhere, with nothing in sight but the ghostly gray dead trees, and no sound except for the ring of skates on ice. It was a little frightening, especially so because there were air holes around some of the trees, although I do not remember that anybody ever came to grief there; anyway, it was good to be on the way back to town again, with skates slung over the shoulder and the mind full of the warmth and the good supper that would be waiting when we got home.