- 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
According to the Bible, a city that is set upon a hill cannot be hid. We used to repeat that text often, and I suppose we were a little smug and self-righteous about it; our city was built upon a hill, and if it was visible to all men it had been meant from the first to be a sign and a symbol of a better way of life, an outpost of the New Jerusalem sited in backwoods vacancy to show people the way they ought to go. To be sure, it was not exactly a city. It was in fact the tiniest of country villages, containing probably no more than 350 inhabitants, and it has grown no larger to this day. And the hill on which it was built was not really much of a hill. It was a small, flat plateau rising less than two hundred feet above the surrounding country, with a placid lake to the north, a narrow valley containing an insignificant creek to the east, and gentle slopes coming up from a broad river valley to the west and south. It was not impressive to look at, although it commanded some pleasant views and it was high enough to get a cooling breeze on all but the hottest summer days.
The name of this town was Benzonia, and when we tried to tell strangers about it we usually had trouble because most people refused to believe that there was any such word. Like the town itself, the name had been selfconsciously contrived. The story we were always told- and as far as I know it was perfectly true—had it that this name was a Greek-Latin hybrid put together by learned men who wanted a word that would mean “good air.” That was fair enough. The air was good there, and there was no harm in saying so. But most people seemed to think that the word was a corruption of something the Potawatomi Indians or the French traders had left behind them. When Americans founded towns here they usually gave them plain names, like Thompsonville, or Elberta, or Empire.
The town had been founded as an act of faith. In a two-hundred-mile radius it was probably the only town that had not been established by men who wanted to cash in on the lumber boom. All around the state the little settlements were springing up, and the reason for their existence was always the same—cut the pine trees down, float the logs down the rivers, put a sawmill at the river mouth to turn the logs into boards, load the boards on schooners or swaybacked little steamboats, ship them off to Chicago or to Buffalo, and keep it up as long as the timber lasts. Once the trees are gone, dismantle the mills and move on; and if some of the people cannot get away, they may stay on and try hardscrabble farming among the stumps. Life in lumber towns had an active present but no future to speak of. The lumber town was much like the mining camp. It was not going anywhere.
But our town was different. It was put there by men who believed that there was going to be a future, and who built for it. When they looked about them they saw people instead of trees; what was going on, as far as they were concerned, was not so much the reduction of pine logs to sawn timber as the foundation of a human society. They believed in the competence and benevolent intent of divine Providence, and with certain reservations they had faith in the men through whom the purpose of Providence was to be worked out. We were all put on earth to serve that purpose; therefore it was all-important to show everyone what that purpose was and how it could best be served. People had to be educated. They needed a light for their feet, and the light could come only from a Christian education. Benzonia was founded by people who thought that the fringe of a boundless forest was just the place to start a college. A college town it was, from its beginning in 1857, laid out and built at a time when the entire county in which it was situated contained no more than five hundred inhabitants.
The college was called Grand Traverse College, the newest and tiniest one in a struggling new state. Its assets were small, because the cash value of cut-over timberland in that part of Michigan just then was not great. If this college was to accomplish anything at all, the faith of the men who founded it had to be translated somehow into works. A great deal would depend on the spirit that moved in the breasts of the men who had brought town and college into being.
These men were intensely logical. They believed in the perfectibility of human society, and a man who held that belief must of course do what he could to bring perfection about. It was not enough to exhort people to lead a better life; you had to lead a better life yourself, and do it in such a way that all men would see it. If society was to lift itself by its bootstraps, your place to begin was with your own bootstraps. Life in a community dedicated to this belief is apt to be rather special, and it was so in our town. Growing up in Benzonia was just a little bit like growing up with the Twelve Apostles for next-door neighbors. You never could forget what you were here for.
In a way this was uncomfortable. To meet the nagging problems of this world while you are thinking about the requirements of the next one does not always come easily; nor does constant preoccupation with such matters make you popular with your neighbors. Benzonia was not well liked by the rest of the county. We were suspected of thinking ourselves better than other folk, and of having standards that were too high for any earthly use; and probably there was something in it. I remember one time a baseball team from a nearby town came over to play our team. Our team was badly beaten, and afterward I watched a wagonload of out-of-town fans start off on the homeward trip. These people were jubilant, and a woman sitting beside the driver called out gaily: “We came here to see Benzony get trimmed, and by Jolly they did get trimmed.” This was bad to hear. There was malice in it; furthermore, the woman had said “by Jolly,” which was simply a thin disguise for “by Golly.” No one knew just what “Golly” was a euphemism for, but it clearly was some sort of profanity, and no woman in Benzonia would have used the word. It appeared that the children of darkness had triumphed over the sons of light.
For our part, we returned the favor. We were, I suppose, annoyingly conscious that we were the sons of light, and now and then we were disturbed because the children of darkness seemed to be in the majority. I remember once when there was some sort of county election: local option, I suppose, in which the voters were asked to say whether the sale of alcoholic liquors should be prohibited. Benzonia supported the measure, but most of the rest of the county opposed it, and in the election Benzonia was roundly beaten. A few days afterward a citizen met my father on the street and asked him how he felt about the way the election had gone.
“I feel like Lazarus,” said Father.
“Like Lazarus,” Father repeated. “According to the Bible, Lazarus was licked by dogs.”
So much for the opposition.
Preoccupation with the requirements of the next world not only makes popularity hard to come by but also fails to fit one for the things that are going to happen in this one. Our little community was never quite able to make a go of Grand Traverse College, although some progress was made, to be sure. A few years after instruction was first offered in someone’s living room, a two-story frame building was put up, containing a chapel, a study hall, and several recitation rooms; but after no more than five years of use, this building took fire one night and was utterly destroyed. In my boyhood there was a legend about this: some unregenerate students, it was said, had hidden in this building after dark, when it was untenanted, to indulge in the forbidden vice of smoking, and had clumsily set the place on fire. There was a moral lesson in this. We were against smoking, not so much because it wasbadforthe health as because it was morally wrong, and it seemed only natural that erring young men, guided into self-indulgence by the devil, should burn down a college. I do not know whether there was a shred of truth in this tale, but the college did have to start over again.
It did this by taking over a three-story frame building on the eastern edge of the campus. This building was known as East Hall, and for a couple of decades it was the entire college plant. To it, each year, came a handful of young people seeking an education; to them, each year, the college gave the best it had to offer, which obviously was not very good. The general level of instruction probably was about equal to that of an ordinary small-town high school. Year in and year out, the college had virtually no money at all, and the trustees and settlers had to scratch hard to keep the modest bills paid. The place was dreadfully isolated; I don’t suppose there is a town between Canada and Mexico, today, that is as far away from everything as Benzonia was in the seventies and eighties. There was no railroad within many miles, in the long winters steamboat service on Lake Michigan was either nonexistent or extremely erratic, and communication with the outer world depended entirely on a stagecoach line from Manistee, thirty miles to the south, to Traverse City, thirty miles to the northeast.
Hardly anyone beyond the range of that stagecoach had ever heard of Grand Traverse College. Most of the students left after a year or two and went off to become schoolteachers in western Michigan lumber towns, and in a way the little college justified its existence by giving them all the training they ever got. But the output was thin and the outlook was dark. The good people who had founded the college tried hard, but they had little to show for their efforts.
The country around Grand Traverse, later changed to Benzonia, College never grew up. It passed from lusty adolescence to an uneasy senility. When the lumber was gone—and although everybody said that the supply was inexhaustible, it was gone before most people realized it —there was nothing much to take its place. The soil that had supported the forest was too thin and sandy for good farming. There was a narrow belt along the west shore, running close to Lake Michigan through a dozen counties, where cherry and apple and peach orchards could do well; and some of the sand hills would grow potatoes nicely, although the latter fact did not help much because so many people raised potatoes that the bottom fell out of the market. So just when the college seemed to be establishing itself, the conditions under which it could survive began to deteriorate. All up and down western Michigan the population started to decline. The towns and villages began to learn what boarded-up stores looked like, and the hills and broad valleys were dotted with abandoned farms whose owners had cut their losses and gone south, letting collapsing buildings and weedy fields go to the state by means of the next sheriff’s sale.
So there was less money than before. There were fewer people to support a college, and despite those promising pledges, they had less to support it with; and there were fewer young people to go to it if it stayed in operation. By the end of the 1890’s the sands had run out. Benzonia College could exist no longer. The trustees met to consider the situation. They could tell a dead end when they saw one; they could also reflect on the fact that for all of the fine talk about a college this institution had never really offered anything much better than preparatory-school training. The next step was inevitable: the college was voted out of existence, and in its place there was a preparatory school, Benzonia Academy, inheriting the two college buildings, such money as the college had, and its underpaid faculty. (Inheriting also, for what they might be worth, the hopes, the dreams, and the selfless dedication that had underwritten thirtyodd years of failure.) This change from college to academy took place in the year 1900.
As the new century got under way the academy fell into its stride. It must be understood of course that it in no faintest way resembled the great preparatory schools of the East. It had no money to speak of and scant prospect of getting any; its faculty was largely home grown, and no one ever acquired any prestige by enrolling in its ranks. As I was entering my teens, someone gave me various books written by one Ralph Henry Barbour, describing life at the New England prep schools, with lavish emphasis on football, baseball, and a glamourous country-club existence; and it was clear to me that he was not talking about Benzonia Academy. At times I used to wish that our school could be bigger, richer, more distinguished, and above all things free of girls—our academy was coeducational, and Mr. Barbour’s schools definitely were not. Matters became even worse when I read that English classic, Tom Brown’s Schooldays . The effort to transpose Rugby into the key that prevailed at Benzonia gave me mental indigestion. In the end I accepted the fact that we were not in the least like the eastern prep school or the English public school. We were just different, and there was no use pretending otherwise.
It did not matter very much, because our town was offbeat from the beginning. Between them, the town and the school represented a cultural lag, although we had never heard of such a thing. Our life was adjusted to something that had been seen in the nation’s youth, before the Civil War; I suppose one reason why that war has always seemed so real to me is that in a sense I grew up before it happened. We were out-of-date without knowing it. The country was moving out from under us before we realized that anything in particular had changed. Just when a wholly materialistic culture was becoming dominant, we were shaping our lives according to the requirements of the culture it was displacing.
The object lesson was right under our noses if we had known what it meant. In the year 1909 old East Hall burned down, and the academy somehow found the money for a new building. This was to be a modest affair but slightly more pretentious than anything the school had owned before, with brick veneer laid on a wooden frame. As the excavation was being dug, the contractor announced that the needed lumber had arrived—several boxcar loads of the best-grade Georgia pine, hauled uphill from the freight station to the building site by wagon. Georgia pine—imported by a builder in the heart of the Michigan white-pine country! The foundations of the society that established and wanted to use our town and school had disappeared. We were preparing ourselves, and the young men and women who came to study with us, for a world that was no longer there.
If we were in a cultural lag, we were still representative of the nation as a whole—a nation that lived in the shadow of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln but was painfully trying to adjust itself to the new era of applied technology, which creates its own demands as it goes along. Our Michigan forests vanished in little more than half a century, partly because the country needed lumber but even more because it had developed new ways to fell trees, move them to the mills, transform them into boards, and get the boards to market. Because it could do these things faster, it had to do them faster. The maddening thing about a technological improvement is that it must be used to the limit. Natural resources have to be treated as expendable. New devices have to be used at full capacity; new processes have to be tuned up, perfected, developed until they can be replaced by something better. Our Founding Fathers had seen constant improvement as the basic law of life, and the blind force that dominated the new society agreed with them. The difference was that the Fathers thought the improvement must take place in people, while the new power believed that it should take place in machines. Where the machines would take the people who worked so untiringly to improve them is still an open question.
At any rate, the years passed slowly, and we had nothing to do but taste the special flavor of each day. In the spring the south wind carried the scent of apple blossoms and lilacs, and the summer was warm, timeless, and peaceful, with clear water for swimming, and fish to be caught. Autumn was somewhat sad, because it was a reminder that even a friendly changeless world had to show a different face now and then. Yet the flaming maple leaves glowed through the October haze with an implicit promise that in the end everything would be all right; and even though the winter was long and cold, it offered coasting and skiing and skating, and its white fields glittered under the sunlight and caught the glint of the big stars at night. There was nothing to do but grow up, and we could take our time about it.
Part of this attitude came no doubt because we lived in a hopeful middle-class society that was adrift in a quiet backwater, seemingly removed from the current of change that swept down the mainstream. Knowing very little about the outside world, we accepted it without questioning it; we understood that a good many things were wrong with it, but it was easy to suppose that they were being worked out. I used to hear grown-ups repeat that timeworn, stupendously false sentence of reassurance: Whatever is, is right. I have not heard anyone say that for more than half a century, and it is certain that no one will ever say it again, so that it is hard now to believe that any sensible adult ever felt that way; yet it passed for distilled wisdom at that time. When I was about twelve years old, I had a private suspicion that the world might actually come to an end in my lifetime. Why not? The big wrongs were all being righted, the world was steadily getting better, and it probably would not be long before all of the necessary reforms had been made; then the universe, the fullness of God’s time having arrived, would be rolled up like a scroll, and as the revival hymn said, time would be no more. It figured.
It may of course be true that only a quite backward child would have had such a daydream. Yet it was characteristic of my time and place. Our town was a tiny fragment of the American whole, sliced off for the microscope, showing in an enlarged form the inner characteristics of the larger society; and my boyhood in turn was a slice of the town, with its quaint fundamentals greatly magnified. On the eve of the terrible century of mass slaughter and wholesale collapse, of concentration camps and bombing raids, of cities gone to ruin and race relations grown desperate and poisonous, of the general collapse of all accepted values and the unendurable terror of the age of nuclear fission—on the very eve of all of this, it was possible, even inevitable, for many people to be optimistic. The world was about to take off its mask, and our worst nightmares did not warn us what we were going to see.
So childhood then mirrored a peace of mind that is not to be found today. But it also mirrored something else—the simple fact that in our town there was always plenty of room for children to play. We had all outdoors at our disposal. All we needed was a trace of imagination, and every child has that. The place to exercise the imagination lay all about us.
In 1909 our family moved into Mills Cottage, which the academy had built after East Hall burned down; it was the girls’ dormitory and the central dining hall, and it provided living quarters for the principal of the academy, who was my father. When I went out of the back door of this building, I was less than one hundred yards away from what I could easily imagine to be the deep woods—second-growth timber, half a century old or more, its beeches and maples tall and robust enough to give any small boy the feeling that he had gone far into the untracked wilderness. The equipment needed for a venture of this kind was of the simplest. Take an old broomstick, and to one end nail a slim triangle of wood, suitably whittled; you then have a Kentucky rifle, as good as anything Daniel Boone had; and if you can get a fragment of an abandoned cigar box and cut out something vaguely resembling a trigger and hammer, and fasten it loosely to the breech of this weapon with a brad, so much the better. All you have to do is crook your finger and say “Bang! ” loudly, and you have killed a moose, or a grizzly bear, or a redskin.
If you preferred to be an Indian, the same shooting iron would serve. There were enough dead sticks lying around in the wood lot to build a wigwam, and if the wigwam was not weatherproof and was so small that you had to huddle in a cramping squat when you got inside of it, that did not matter; when it rained you went back in the house anyway, and besides the wigwam was just part of the stage setting. As an Indian, of course, you were never shot by Daniel Boone; instead, you shot him, and with a wooden knife whittled out of any stray piece of a packing box you could dash in and lift his scalp. You could not have a real campfire. The woods floor was carpeted with dead leaves, drv and ready to burn, and nobody who grew up in the lumber country needed to be warned about the danger of starting a forest fire. But a campfire was not really necessary.
A pal sometimes joined me in this game, and we found that it was best if we were both on the same side—that is, each of us was an Indian, or each was a frontiersman, and our foes were wholly imaginary. Splitting up and hunting each other usually led to arguments about who had really shot whom, and the game was likely to break up in a row. Also, it was easier to scalp a victim who did not really exist than it was to scalp a living, active small boy. He was apt to complain that you pulled his hair too hard, and there was always the danger of sticking a wooden scalping knife in his eye. On the whole, it was better to be Indians than to be frontiersmen; we had an excuse to yell, giving the bloodcurdling war whoop, and off in the woods there were no adults to lean out of windows and tell us we were making too much noise. We had the world to ourselves.
Now and then we fought the Civil War. The voods were not so good for this, unless we elected to do the battle of The Wilderness, but there was a twelve-acre park, officially the academy’s West Campus, and it was open enough for any battle. It was not possible to do the Civil War properly with just two actors; at least half a dozen were needed, and it was not always possible to find half a dozen boys who all felt like playing the Civil War game at the same time. We got along without officers, because nobody was willing to take orders, and the enemy of course was always imaginary. We were invariably the Union Army, and we never lost. Johnny Reb died by the platoon and the battalion before our unerring musketry. One of the town’s authentic Civil War veterans told us that our village cemetery, off on rising ground to the southeast, was quite a bit like the famous cemetery at Gettysburg; it looked out over the rolling countryside just as the Gettysburg cemetery does, and the main road that came up from the south went past the base of the hill much like the Emmitsburg road that Fickett’s men had to cross. But we never went to the cemetery to fight our battles. Our parents would not have approved of boyish fun and games around the burying ground, and we probably would not have tried it in any case. It was a pleasant, friendly sort of cemetery —if you have to be buried I can’t think of a better place for it —but it was not a site any of us wanted to use as a playground.
The game that got most of our attention was baseball, which we played with great enthusiasm and a considerable lack of skill. We were under a special handicap here. Because our town was so small, it was never possible to create two full teams of small boys. When we “chose up sides” we did well to get half a dozen players on each team, and to play with three infielders and one outfielder was not uncommon. Only the fact that none of us could hit the ball very hard kept us from rolling up tremendous scores. For the most part we did not try to field two teams. We just played scrub. Scrub was played by one team; and if there were as many as six or seven boys present, you could have a game in which it was each player against the universe. Everybody got a turn at bat, and in the end—which was when we got tired of the game—the boy with the most runs was the winner.
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.)
There was one unexpected gain; Crystal Lake now had a beach. Also, at the southeastern end of the lake, at the foot of Benzonia hill, there were acres of dry land where there had been a swamp; a town was built there and given the nameof Beulah; it prospered and eventually became the county seat. When the railroad was built southeast from Frankfort in the l880’s, it reached the lake by way of the outlet valley and ran for several miles along land that had been under five feet of water a few years earlier.
All of this, to be sure, had happened long before any of us small boys were born. We knew nothing about it, or if we heard our elders talk about it, we paid no attention; we simply accepted the lake and its unending beach as something put there for our benefit, and all summer long we devoted our afternoons to swimming. There were a good many boathouses along the shore, where people who owned boats stored them in the winter, and we could usually persuade someone to let us use his boathouse for undressing and dressing, but mostly that was too much trouble; we simply went into the woods overlooking the lake, hung our clothing on the branches of saplings, put on our bathing suits, and ran down hill to go into the water. There were two schools of thought about the way to go in. The water was cold, and the first plunge was agonizing. The hardiest ran straight ahead, splashing vigorously and yelling like men under torture; and when it was thigh deep, they threw themselves in, face down, and took the worst shock all at once. Most of us preferred to wade out slowly, adjusting ourselves by degrees, and the only trouble with this was that anyone who had got in ahead of you was certain to splash you. Whatever we did, we knew that once we were wet all over the water ceased to feel cold. It became just exactly right.
There was a good deal of energetic floundering and thrashing about, and all of us learned to swim after a fashion—nothing stylish, but enough to get by. If a gasoline launch was moored somewhere offshore, we would scramble aboard and use it for a diving platform; the owners must have been tolerant, because I do not remember that we were ever told not to do this. It seemed to me that the best thing of all was to float on one’s back, wriggling the hands just enough to keep from going under. The water was an invisible support, lying there was like floating through the air, and you could look far up into the sky and wonder what it would be like to be up on one of those fluffy white clouds. We stayed in the water until its friendly warmth began to seem chilly again; when our lips turned blue, we figured it was time to come out. Then we would scramble up into the woods, get dressed, and go off in search of further adventures.
This usually led us into the town of Beulah, where there was much to be seen. The railroad went through here, and a freight train might be switching cars on the siding behind the station; or the afternoon southbound passenger train might come in, three open-platform cars behind a modest locomotive which panted in a slow, highly realistic fashion during the stop as if the trip down from Frankfort had been exhausting. Here was the point of departure. When you left Benzonia for the outer world, you came to this depot and got on a train like this one, and sooner or later all of us would do it, leaving town and lake and woods behind us forever; but that was a long time ahead, and we did not give it a thought, because the present moment was next thing to eternal. Still, there was a vague premonitory thrill in watching those cars swing off around the curve beyond the station, heading for the unknown.
Whatever else we did in Beulah, we always went to Terp’s place. This was a waterfront pavilion operated by a man named Terpinning—I don’t believe I ever did know his first name: first and last, he was just Terp, a lean, friendly businessman who did not seem to mind having small boys under foot. His pavilion included dressing-room cubicles for bathers, a dance hall, two bowling alleys, a T-shaped dock with a long rank of rowboats for rent, and an ice-cream bar. Anyone who wanted to go fishing could get a boat from Terp, and if he needed bait Terp would sell him a bucket full of minnows. In a shed somewhere Terp had a gasoline tank, to service the summer people who came in by launch. He also sold cigars and cigarettes, and against the wall by the soda fountain there were two slot machines. They seemed singularly innocent, and it never occurred to the authorities to proceed against them as gambling devices.
If we were in funds, which was not often the case, we bought ice-cream sodas or pop; if we were not, there was always something to see. There was a steady coming and going out on the dock. The summer people who had cottages at various places around the lake relied on the launch rather than the automobile to come to town and do their marketing. The automobile age had not yet reached northern Michigan, and the road that went around the lake was nothing but a track through the sand, and an automobile that tried to follow it was almost certain to get stuck; so the cottager who wanted to go to the grocery or the drugstore came down the lake by boat and tied up at Terp’s dock. Terp himself owned two launches, open boats with canopies overhead and side curtains that could be let down if it rained. Anybody who wanted to give a picnic party somewhere on the beach could hire one of these, and Terp had a regular twice-a-day schedule to the far end of the lake.
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.
We did a good deal of skiing, in a makeshift sort of way. All of the skis were homemade—a local carpenter would produce a pair for a modest sum—and they lacked modern refinements; there was simply a leather strap on each ski to put your toe through, with nothing to go around your heel and bind you firmly to the skis. Maneuvers that are taken for granted by present-day skiers were utterly beyond our reach, but we could go swinging down the open slopes at a great rate, and glide across country in fine style, and since we did not know that we lacked anything, we were completely satisfied. It never entered our heads that we ought to wear special costumes, or that to go skiing was to indulge in a sophisticated, socially rewarding activity. We did it because it was fun.
The best sport of all in the winter was coasting downhill. Go where you chose, from the center of the village, and you soon came to a road that went down a long hill. The one to the west went down such an easy slope that it did not offer much; and the one to the north was too dangerous, because it was steep and it led straight into the main street of Beulah, where some farmer was apt to be pulling away from the curb to make a U-turn with a two-horse team and a heavy wagon box on runners just as a bobsled full of youngsters, moving at better than thirty miles an hour and all but out of control, came barrelling along for a disastrous collision. In the end the village council made coasting on the Beulah hill illegal, and the rule was pretty generally observed.
The east hill road was equally steep but less dangerous because there was no town at the foot of it. There was a railroad crossing there, to be sure, but the Ann Arbor railroad did not run many trains and we had a fair idea of the schedules, and there were massive drifts along both sides of the highway in case one had to bail out in a hurry. When a bobsled ran into one of these drifts at high speed, there was always a hilarious mix-up; the sled would come to a most abrupt stop and the five or six occupants would be catapulted off into the snow, landing head downward as likely as not. One time Robert and I took our mother down this hill, because she had never gone coasting and wanted to see what it was like. Just as we went down the steepest part, whirling along at a prodigious clip, she concluded that it was like nothing she wanted any more of and she firmly ordered: “Robert! Robert, stop it! ” We were dutiful sons and always did what our parents told us to do, so Robert obediently guided the sled into a deep drift. As anyone but Mother would have known, the sled stopped but its passengers did not. Mother, who was no lightweight, shot through the air like a rocketing partridge, going completely over Robert’s head and coming down wrong end up in five feet of powdery snow. It took us several minutes to get her out, because she was laughing so hard that she was unable to act in her own behalf. I do not recall that she ever went coasting again.
The best coasting was down the long road that went to the south. Here the slope was more gentle, but when the snow was packed right you could move fairly fast, and you could go on almost forever; with luck, a bobsled could reach the Betsie River bridge, a full mile from the starting point. That meant a long walk back, to be sure, but nobody seemed to mind. Going down the long slope was effortless and silent; and since we were not more than eight inches off the ground, the speed seemed ever so much greater than it really was. A ride like that was worth a long walk.
I remember once some of us went down that hill after dark. We went all the way to the bridge, and as the .sled slowed down to a halt we sat motionless as long as there was the least chance of gliding forward another foot. We gave up, finally, turned the sled around, and started pulling it back uphill. It was cold, and a north wind was whipping dry snow off of the surrounding fields with a soft, rustling noise. The wind seemed to come straight down from the North Pole-- really, there was nothing between us and the Pole to stop it—and it came out of the emptiness of the everlasting ice, as if the old darkness once again was sliding down from the top of the world to swallow everything; perhaps that was what made the ghostly creeping little sound out across the snow drifts. I shivered, not because I wanted a warmer coat but because I wanted some sort of reassurance, which did not seem to be forthcoming. Yet overhead all the great stars were out, and on the frozen road I could hear the sound of laughter.