A Michigan Boyhood
THIRD OF FOUR INSTALLMENTS A FAMOUS HISTORIAN RECALLS THE COUNTRY WHERE HE GREW UP
June 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 4
This is how it was in the old days. A family that wanted to go from here to there went by railroad train because there was no other way to do it. If the distance was very short, ten or a dozen miles only, you might hire a rig at the livery stable and let the horses do the work, and if you lived on deep water you might go all or part of the way by steamboat, but as a general thing to make a trip meant to take a ride on the cars. The process was slow by later standards, the journey was apt to be bumpy and dusty, and there were inflexible schedules to keep, but it was exciting, especially for children past the time of actual babyhood. It differed from modern travel in that the mere act of departure was a great event.
We always began by going to the railroad station at Beulah. Mr. Benner had a wagon that left the Benzonia post office in time to meet all the trains, under contract to receive and deliver the mail; he carried our baggage, and his wagon had crosswise seats for passengers, who could ride for a modest fee, so he usually carried us as well. The trip to Beulah was unexciting—no driver in his senses drove down that hill at anything but a plodding walk—but once we reached the depot the atmosphere changed and we began to understand that we were really going somewhere. Actually, we already understood it. Mother felt that her children ought to be presentable if they were going on the cars, so the night before we all had to take baths, even though it was not Saturday night —a gross violation of custom that led us to utter vain protests—and when we got dressed on the morning of departure we had to put on our Sunday suits, so that the special quality of the event had already been impressed on us. But when we reached the station platform, the reality of the whole business came home to us.
For all that Beulah and Benzonia together made no more than a decidedly small town, this seemed like a busy place at train time. Somebody would be wheeling a platform truck down to the spot where the head-end cars were to stop: empty ice-cream freezers going back to the distributor at Cadillac, ice-packed containers from the Beulah creamery bound for assorted destinations downstate, a travelling salesman’s sample cases, somebody’s trunk, a few suitcases, a mysterious cardboardbound parcel or two, and so on. People who were going to get on the train stood about looking expectant, while behind the platform teams waited for passengers or packages coming down from Frankfort. The station agent was out, keeping an eye on the platform truck while he assured some anxious woman that this train would infallibly reach Copemish in time for her to catch the Manistee & Northeastern going southwest. Miss Marshall, who collected personal items for the weekly newspaper, would be moving about with pad and pencil, asking people where they were going and when they would be back, and there was always the usual assortment of men and small boys who had nothing in particular to do and had just sauntered over to see the train.
Then at last, just as the tension was almost more than we could take, we would hear the train as it rounded Outlet Point and came along the lake shore, the clear notes of its whistle sounding across the water, and finally it would drift around the last curve and swing up to the platform, smoking and hissing and clanking, with the locomotive putting on its characteristic act of looking and sounding like something alive. A few passengers would get off, and the conductor would call a longdrawn “All abo-o-o-a-r-d!” and we would scramble up the steps and into one of the cars, racing down the aisle for a pair of facing seats. By the time Mother arrived to settle the inevitable argument as to which of three boys would occupy the two places next to the windows, the train would be moving again. Wisps of smoke and steam would whip past the windows as we took the first curve and left Beulah behind; then came the familiar East Hill crossing, and Will Case’s sawmill with men putting lumber into a boxcar, and we were really on our way. In some ways the mere act of leaving was the high-water mark of the whole trip.
The next big moment came fourteen miles down the track when we reached Thompsonville, where we changed cars. No matter where we were going, we almost always began by changing cars at Thompsonville, where our Ann Arbor railroad crossed the north-south line of the Père Marquette. The Ann Arbor went all the way to Toledo, 280 miles away, but somehow our affairs never seemed to take us in that direction; we usually were going to visit Grandfather in Petoskey, one hundred miles to the north, although once in a while we went south, around the foot of Lake Michigan to Chicago, and in either case we got off at Thompsonville, lugged our suitcases across the tracks to the Père Marquette station, and lightheartedly went through the whole platform routine all over again.
If there was time we strolled down the main street to see the sights. These were not numerous or startling—after all, Thompsonville was a mere village—but in those days it was a busy little place, with two hotels, two railroads, a saloon or two, and several little sawmills, and it struck me as decidedly metropolitan. Compared to Benzonia, almost every town was metropolitan; and anyway, this was the gateway to the outer world, bound to the great cities by steel rails, definitely though remotely in touch with the main currents of life from which our city on the hill was so completely insulated. One thing puzzled me: one of the mills at Thompsonville announced itself as a clothespin factory, and that seemed odd; how could there possibly be a demand for the unutterable quantities of clothespins that could be produced by an entire factory working ten hours a day, six days a week? It just did not seem reasonable.
Sooner or later the northbound train arrived, and again we sat by the windows to enjoy the delights of travel. It must be confessed that after a while these began to wear a bit thin. We had to stay in our seats—Mother refused to let us roam up and down the aisle, annoying our elders—and presently we began to get somewhat bored. We never admitted this because we knew that travelling by the cars was exciting, but it was there just the same and we resented it. What we could see out of the windows took on a monotonous sameness: acres and acres of stumps, low hills covered with uneven second growth—usually aspens packed so tightly together that you could not imagine playing Indian among them—and weedy farms with tired-looking houses that had lost all their paint and most of their prospects. It was nice to go through a little town because we could see people hanging about and we could reflect in a superior way that we were travelling while they were mere stay-athomes, but most of these places were dying lumber towns and they were depressing to look at. It was always a relief when we finally reached Petoskey and took the carriage up the hill to Grandfather’s house.
It was even better when we took the night train, because to ride in a sleeping car was to touch the summit of human experience. This did not happen often, but every other summer or thereabouts Mother took us children to Minneapolis for a visit with her sister and the sister’s husband, Aunt Vade and Uncle Ed. Aunt Vade’s given names, by the way, were Sierra Nevada; Grandfather had quite a few daughters, and he gave the rest of them workaday names like Emma and Kate and Ida and Belle and Adella, but when this girl came along he spread himself. As an aunt she was as dignified and in many ways as impressive as the mountain chain she was named for, although she was not at all icy; on the contrary, she was warm and affectionate, and although I was a little bit scared of her I was a little bit scared of all adults, including my own parents—they lived in a different world and seemed to be accountable to strange gods, and it was necessary for a small boy to watch his foot in their presence. I realize now, although I did not know it at the time, that my aunt probably sent Mother the money to pay for these trips to Minneapolis, because the academy paid starvation salaries and Father could not possibly have financed them.
In any case, when we went to Minneapolis we usually went by way of Chicago, which meant that we got to Thompsonville late in the afternoon and waited there for the night train, and sometimes we had supper in a Thompsonville hotel, which to my mind was another bonus. Later on I came to see that meals in a village hotel in that era were pretty bad. A typical supper would include stringy pot roast with lumpy gravy on a boiled potato, a bowl of stewed canned tomatoes laced with hunks of soggy bread, and rice pudding under blue milk; but small boys eat to get full and not for pleasure, and this stuff at least was filling. After supper we went over to the Père Marquette station, to wait in the darkness, looking up a track spangled with green switch lights, watching for the far-off glow of the engine’s headlight, listening anxiously for the first haunting note of the whistle, which came in like an echo of all the horns of elfland.
This train arrived, I suppose, somewhere around ten, mysterious and magnificent, long shaft of light shining down the track ahead, red glow from the cab if the fireman opened the firebox to shovel in coal, baggage man lounging in the open door of a baggage car, smoker and day coaches brightly lit, with passengers drowsing in their seats … and then the Pullmans, vestibule doors open, thin strips of light coming out from below the green curtains here and there, porters swinging down to the platform when the train stopped, planting footstools in front of the steps and chanting quietly: “Pullman car for Chicago … Pullman car for Detroit …” When we went aboard, the berths had already been made up, and it was nice to go down the curtained aisle to our own places.
Getting undressed in the berth of an old-style twelve-section sleeping car meant that you almost had to be a contortionist. Getting your pants off, for instance, required you to lie on your back, arch yourself until you were supported by your heels and your shoulders, and start fumbling. I always shared a berth with one of my brothers, and how the two of us managed it I do not quite know; but we always made it, wadding our discarded clothing in the hammock netting over the car window, getting into our pajamas somehow, and then sliding down beneath the covers and turning off the light. Nothing on earth today is quite as snug and secure as a Pullman berth used to be once you were fairly in it, and it seemed to me at the time that to lie there feeling the swaying and jiggling of the car’s motion, listening to the faraway sound of the whistle, getting up on elbow now and then to peer out the window when we reached a station, and at last drifting off to sleep, was to know unadulterated happiness. It was best of all if one happened to wake up when the train reached Grand Rapids, which it did along in the small hours. Here there was a cavernous train shed, with cars on other tracks, a switch engine puttering about, people coming and going—none of your small-town depots where the station agent doused the lights, locked the door, and went home after the last train went through. This place was in action all night long. From the car window you could see the station dining room, with its gleaming silver coffee urns, doughnuts stacked under glass domes on the counter, belated travellers here and there having a final snack before going off about their business, and it looked so inviting I used to want to be there myself—except that it was so cozy in the berth, and it would be even cozier when the train began to move again, and it was sheer heresy to wish to be anywhere else.
If we went to Chicago we finished the journey to Minneapolis on railroads which I considered far superior to our lumber-country lines. Our roads were deteriorating as the lumber business declined—the Père Marquette was often in receivership, and was half-affectionately referred to as the Poor Marquette, while the Ann Arbor, although solvent, never did have any pretensions to style—and with their bumpy roadbeds, cinder ballast, and aging passenger cars they offered transportation without frills. But at Chicago we boarded the Northwestern, or the Milwaukee, or the Burlington, and these were famous railroads: double-tracked, with rock ballast, automatic signalling systems, and steel cars, according to the blurbs on the timetables, which I read with great interest. To ride on these was to be part of the great, bustling, well-groomed outside world, and it was noteworthy that instead of stopping at every run-down hamlet, these trains would go hammering along for two or three hours at a stretch, halting at only the important places. (There did not seem to be any important places in Michigan.) Furthermore, on these trains we ate in the dining car instead of getting along with the shoe-box lunch Mother always prepared for lesser trips, and that was highly glamorous. To this day I do not remember anything I actually ate on one of those diners, but the experience was memorable just the same; the table linen was so white and crisp, the waiters so starchy in their fresh white coats, the silverware so impressive and, I judged, so expensive that what you finally got to eat was not of great importance. Just being there was enough.
The trip back home always had a moment of anticlimax when we left Chicago. After coming down from Minnesota on one of the big-time railroads, here we were, boarding the old, familiar, slightly seedy Pere Marquette again, descending from the first class to the jerkwater. For the first half-hour after leaving the Chicago station the train ran on somebody else’s right of way, with two, three, or even four parallel tracks flanked by innumerable sidings, and it was possible to imagine that this railroad had miraculously been upgraded so that it was the equal of the fabulous New York Central or Pennsylvania. All too soon, however, our line would branch off and we would be jolting along in the old accustomed way on an unkempt single-track line, leaving the great world, heading for Thompsonville—which, after Chicago, no longer seemed metropolitan. Oddly enough, this letdown always passed away before we got back to Benzonia. This was the home town, and although we understood that in some ways it was nothing much, we liked it, and it was always good to be back. Maybe the warmest, most uncritical patriotism on earth is the feeling a small-town man develops for what he can see when he looks out of his bedroom window.
Railroads were all very well, and I was always glad to ride on them, but there was excitement of an entirely different order when we travelled by steamboat, as we sometimes did. To do this we took the cars to Frankfort instead of to Thompsonville. There was a tidy little harbor at Frankfort, where the mouth of the Betsie River broadened to make a modest lake, and although the town was not large, it was most active and a good many vessels called there. Originally it had been a great port of call for schooners, taking lumber from the Frankfort mills down to Chicago, and although this business was just about gone when I was born, plenty of steamboats still came and went because the western shore of Michigan was becoming a substantial summer resort area and people from Chicago liked to come north and escape the Illinois heat. There was a line of passenger steamers that cruised north from Chicago from early summer until well along into autumn, putting in at any number of little port towns and going on to the straits, and sometimes we took this way to go to Petoskey; two or three times we went down to Chicago on one of these boats instead of taking the sleeper from Thompsonville, and this twenty-four-hour trip on the lake beat even the Pullmans. Here again the moment of departure was the big thing. To wait on the beach and watch the boat come over the horizon from the southwest, to scamper back to the dock while the vessel came in past the pier heads, to stand there while it came alongside—so silent, so unhurried, so purposeful, coming so close that you could read the name on the bow and see the words “U.S. Mail” just below—and to watch while the heaving lines came spinning through the air, and the dock hands drew in the hawsers and made them fast: this was even more exciting than watching the night train come in, because it was touched with the mystery and terror of the open water.
For there was always something faintly scary (to me, anyway) in going aboard a boat for an overnight passage. We went up the gangplank through an open port in the side, aft, and found ourselves in a lobby on the lower deck, purser’s office on one side, stairway to the upper decks on the other, and between the two the slanting column of a mast came up through the deck and disappeared through the overhead. It was usually fluted, painted white, sometimes with gilt trimmings, but it was obviously a mast—if I asked, reliable adults told me so—and that was certain proof that we were leaving the certainty of dry land behind us and entrusting ourselves to a ship . In Great Lakes parlance, to be sure, it was a boat, because the word “ship” was never used, but I had read books about journeys at sea and I knew that masts went with ships. I also knew that ships were subject to unpredictable perils, including one that was incomprehensible and apparently beyond remedy—if nothing else happened, a ship could always spring a leak and go to the bottom before anyone realized that anything special was wrong. That might happen to us. I did not really think it would, and once the boat got under way and steamed out into the lake I forgot all about it, but the faint tinge of unease that it created gave a special flavor to the excitement of the occasion.
People who lived near the Great Lakes had plenty of reason to know that these seas were dangerous. In the summer months, when all this vacation travel took place, they were usually harmless enough, but at other times they were definitely to be respected. Literally hundreds of commercial craft have been lost in Lake Michigan during the past century, and some of them were passenger liners—like the side-wheeler Alpena , which disappeared mysteriously in an unexpected storm on the run from Grand Haven to Chicago, and the Chicora , lost with all hands somewhere between Milwaukee and Benton Harbor. My own family’s history had a case in point; Uncle John went to the bottom of the lake when his boat went down in the nineties.
This happened before I was born, and the circumstances were a bit special, not likely to be duplicated on any passenger craft, but it was something to remember. Uncle John was Mother’s older brother, and he was sailing on some freighter, and the story in our family went as follows: his boat was in harbor at St. Ignace, up at the straits, taking on a load of pig iron, and a howling autumn gale was coming in from the southwest, but the captain fancied himself as a dauntless sea dog and elected to put out into it, regardless. Furthermore, the captain was drunk, and he cast off his mooring lines and went out to sea without bothering to close the cargo hatches—time enough for that, once they got clear of the land. Unfortunately there was not time enough. The big waves swept solid water in over the decks, the water poured down the open hatches, and the ship sank like a stone, taking the wooden-headed captain, Uncle John, and all but one member of the crew down with her. The man who escaped floated ashore on a wooden hatch cover. According to one version, his hair turned white because of this terrible experience, and according to another, he became insane, although I never could understand how he could tell his story if he had lost his wits. But whatever the truth about the survivor may have been, it was undeniable that the steamer had sunk and that Uncle John had gone down with it, and the story remained at the bottom of my mind, along with all the bookish tales about losses at sea, to stir fitfully whenever we boarded a steamboat. Lake Michigan was beautiful, but like those starry winter nights, there was a subtle understood menace somewhere in the offing.
However, none of this made me lose any sleep. Once the steamer got out into the lake my fears vanished; the boat was too real, too solid, too much a part of the established order of things, and the officers and crew were too matter-of-fact and active to leave room for worry. If bad things did happen on the big lake they obviously were not going to happen on this trip. There was nothing to do but relax and enjoy it. I do not remember that these boats gave us the feeling of luxury that seemed to go with Pullman sleepers and railroad dining cars, but they were always comfortable and the staterooms were undeniably snug and inviting. Also there were things to see. If we were coasting along the Michigan shore there was the endless line of sand bluffs, all white and shining when the late afternoon sun touched them, and out to seaward one could almost always see a freighter trailing a plume of lazy smoke. These freighters were often spoken of as “lower lakers”; they were long, low in the water, pilothouse and officers’ cabin in the bow, smokestack and cabins for lesser folk at the stern, with several hundred feet of open deck in between, and they got their name because they carried bulk freight to and from the lower lake ports like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo. They were not fast, and seen from a distance they did not seem to be moving at all, and I used to wonder how anyone could stand it to go on boats that moved so slowly. When I grew up I spent a summer as a deck hand on a lower laker and learned that that leisurely progress was one of the best things about them. Besides, they were not quite as leisurely as they looked; they lost precious little time in port.
Some of the things you could see from a Great Lakes steamer were not really there; now and then you skirted the enchanted isles, although as far as I know no one ever actually went ashore on any of them, and nobody ever talked about it because there was no sense in getting a name as a romantic. But there were moments … One time we took a car ferry from Frankfort to go to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, whence by shuttle train we could reach some town where we could board a Soo Line express for Minneapolis, and we sailed at midnight or a little later. We had to get up early because this crossing of the lake took less than six hours, and I got out on deck just at dawn and looked west at the Wisconsin shore, seven or eight miles away. We were passing the town of Two Rivers, a small manufacturing and shipping center, and the sunlight came up behind us, reached over us, and touched this unremarkable place with a magical light. The factory chimneys became slim golden pillars against the western sky, the little buildings were all transfigured, and suddenly this was a seaport in the land of fable, the place everybody sailed for but never reached, unattainable, existing only at the moment of dawn. Roads no doubt led from it to the Land of Oz, or to the Island Vale of Avalon, but you could never get there; you could only remember what it looked like. One of the ship’s officers came along the deck, saw me staring, and stopped to take a look himself. Then he turned to me, grinned, and said, “Pretty, isn’t it?”
With the perils that might arise on the seas, or on the steel-bound rights of way through the stumpy plains, the boat and train crews were well qualified to deal. However, they could see no farther into the misty nowhere of changing times than any of the rest of us could see, and what they and we looked upon as an established order of things was in fact subject to constant alteration. Nothing that we considered fixed was really settled. We lived by the best light the past could give us, but we were going to live in the future, and the proper guiding lights were veiled by something impenetrable. We might understand it when it came—or, for that matter, we might not—but we could neither foresee it nor influence it. We were at the mercy of a series of accidents that had already happened.
We lived where we lived because the wealth of the state’s great twilight of pine woods had been discovered just when the nation needed unheard-of quantities of pine boards. The exploitation of that resource had gone more rapidly than anyone supposed it would go because as rising demand met unlimited supply the growth of technological knowledge made it possible to turn trees into boards faster than had been done in all the history of mankind. The unlimited supply disappeared altogether, because in fact it was sharply limited by man’s capacity to use every last splinter of it, but the technological progress remained and exerted its own pressures. The one certainty was that everything was going to change. We might well have altered that old saying: Whatever is, is temporary. That is a hard truth to live by.
So over most of the state of Michigan the forest was destroyed, with single-minded dedication and efficiency. Sometimes it seemed as if men of that time definitely hated trees, although it was noted that once a lumber town was built its people hastened to set out little saplings in the yards and along the streets to soften the harsh outlines—which could be extremely harsh, in a jerrybuilt backwoods village—and to provide shade. But the original growth was made up of enemies, and no quarter was given. I remember a characteristic incident from my innocent home town of Benzonia.
On a hillock back of the girls’ dormitory there was a nice stand of second-growth hardwoods, mostly maples and beeches—the same in which I played the part of Daniel Boone with my trusty broomstick rifle. In the middle of this little wood lot there was one towering tree that had somehow escaped the axe and saw when the village was built. I do not recall what sort of tree it was except that it was a hardwood, and it was a noble tree, rising far above all the other trees, a landmark visible from anywhere in town. Now there lived in Benzonia a man who served in some official capacity—member of the county road commission or the county surveyor’s crew, or something similar. This man looked upon this tree every day, and apparently it offended him. It had survived, the only tree in the whole township that dated back to the original forest, and he seems to have felt that he ought to do something about it. He consulted the blueprints on which the village had been platted and discovered that this tree grew right in the center of what had been marked out as a highway. The highway had never been built, and never would be built because it would be a dead-end street at each end, it led neither to nor past anything of consequence, and to build it would have required the builders to cross two deep ravines. It was wholly impractical and everybody knew it, and to this day it remains unconstructed. But the plat said there was a roadway there, and the big tree was a trespasser. So this petty official got a few men with saws and axes, went up to the hillock, and cut the tree down.
It came down with a soul-satisfying crash, and it lay, butt-end upward, on a steep hillside, leaving a flat stump as broad as a dining room table. It stayed where it fell, slowly rotting. Nobody cut it into logs or did anything else with it; nobody had ever intended to do anything with it, it was just a big tree that deserved to be laid low. A number of people shook their heads and made noises of disapproval, and my father, thinking that the tree was on ground owned by the academy, lodged a protest. But there was the plat, the tree grew in the middle of what had been laid out as a public highway, and nothing could be done. Presumably its destruction satisfied something in the soul (if that is the word for it) of the man who felled it. Anyway, what was one tree more or less in Michigan? It was gone, and my small sister found that the big flat stump made a fine place for her to play house with her dolls.
It was not often necessary to hunt down survivors in that way because as a general thing survivors were most uncommon. Land that had been combed over for its pines got another combing, and if necessary it got a third, and in the end the lumber crews missed nothing. (If it has roots, cut it down.) The narrow-gauge network that had expanded so mightily contracted with equal speed, rails and rolling stock carried away, ties left to crumble where they lay. Open places surrounded by secondgrowth saplings, unspeakably desolate yet at the same time throbbing with life, terminal points once for busy little carriers, complete with sidetracks, water tank, an uneven wye to turn locomotives around, and donkey engines to pile logs on flatcars—these disappeared altogether, everything removable gone, tangled underbrush covering the barren ground, roadbeds turning into low grassy ridges and at last losing their identity entirely, so that now only a local antiquarian or two can come within a mile of saying where they were.
My father became principal of Benzonia Academy in 1906, and he fitted in perfectly. At a time when the state as a whole was waging war on the visible surrounding wilderness, this little school saw itself as waging war on the wilderness of ignorance, whose tangled undergrowth was also visible out in the clearings the lumbermen were creating. The sense of mission was powerful. The forests were being destroyed for a purpose: so that men and women could have better lives after the forests had been removed. That the physical obstacles to achievement were being taken away was interesting but not particularly important. What mattered was to teach men and women that the obstacles to their mental and spiritual development could be destroyed. Man had control of his future, but that control did not in the least depend on improved machinery or mechanical progress. According to Holy Writ, the kingdom of Heaven lay within; a man who hoped to enter the kingdom had to blaze a trail through his own heart, and to do that was the whole point of human existence.
It sounds quaint and faraway, now. To suppose that man’s real antagonist is himself rather than his environment is to turn workaday standards upside down. We know how to conquer the environment—or at least we would if it would just stay conquered, once beaten—but how do you defeat that inner antagonist? With education, transmitted by an uneducated man through a school that had not a tenth of the resources it needed? At this distance that seems an odd way to build the road to the future. Yet the desperate and dangerous chaos of today is the future toward which men seventy years ago were moving. Perhaps the road actually chosen was a trifle odd, too.
Looking back, I sometimes wonder that I never learned more about my father’s early years; the full story would be interesting, if I had it, but I never asked him about it. He was a warm-hearted man, but somehow he was out of my reach; our relationship was slightly Biblical, and I was very much in awe of him. I once mentioned this to one of my uncles, and he expressed surprise; my father, he said, was one of the friendliest, most approachable men he had ever known, and I remember that Mother once remarked that Father was an extremely easy man to live with. Certainly I remember our home as a place without tension, where there was a good deal of laughter. But there it was; there was some kind of cutoff.
Long after his death, when I asked men who had known him to tell me what sort of man he was, almost all of them began by saying that he had a quiet but highly alert sense of humor. One man told how he and Father once walked down a street in Grand Rapids and came up behind two women, one of whom was saying that she had never in her life seen a really bald man. At this moment Father and his friend swung out to walk past this pair. Father said not a word and looked neither right nor left, but as they got in front of the two he removed his derby hat and held it over his breast in the manner of a good patriot saluting the flag, thereby exposing one of the shiniest bald heads in Christendom, all agleam in the afternoon sunlight. There were gasps and muffled sounds of laughter from the ladies, but Father paid no attention. He never talked about it afterward, but he had to listen a good many times while his friend told the story, and each time Father would chuckle quietly.
He played for chuckles rather than guffaws, and I think he usually meant to amuse himself rather than others. He savored small jokes, and he liked men who made him laugh when they did not mean to—like the acquaintance who sold a thriving small-town restaurant and retired to a lonely farm on the far side of Crystal Lake. Father asked him why he had done this when the restaurant was doing so well, and the man replied: “Mr. Catton, I just got tired of eternally cantering to the public.” When Father travelled about our county his life was brightened by the roadside signs that had been painted to advertise a store in the neighboring town of Honor. The store was owned by a man named Case—brother to our local speedboat man—and he had hired a man to go about daubing the words “Try A. B. Case” in all suitable spots. Unfortunately the man was a Pennsylvania Dutchman who spelled words the way he pronounced them, and for years the fence rails and wayside boulders for miles around bore the legend: “Dry A. B. Case.”
Father was easily amused. Now and then at the dinner table, after he had asked the Lord’s blessing and had taken up carving knife and fork to serve, he would discover that someone had forgotten to put on any dinner plates. He would look at Mother, very serious, and say: “My dear, since I’ve been sick I find that I can’t serve without plates.” Once in a while when we set the table one of my brothers or I would intentionally leave the plates in the pantry just to evoke this remark. It never failed. I suppose it was pretty feeble, but it helped to lubricate things. Our village barber, John Whiteman, was divorced and remarried, and a young woman who taught at the academy told Father not long after her arrival that at some church social she had met two women each of whom was presented as Mrs. Whiteman: were they, she asked, related? Father took it in his stride. “Only by marriage,” he replied.
The early teens are a hard time to live through, but not for the reason that is usually cited. The arrival of adolescence, with its physical changes and its abrupt disclosure that life has an unexpected dimension, is not really so bad. It is unsettling, of course, to realize that half of the world belongs to an entirely different sex, and some of the entrancing possibilities that derive from this can dance and shimmer along the skyline in a rather disturbing way, but the adjustment is usually made without too much difficulty and the mystified expectancy that results is on the whole quite pleasant. The real trouble is that for a few years one is lost between boyhood and manhood. The present hardly exists, and there is no past; nothing but the future matters, and although it is so close that it dominates the mind it seems very far away. Until it actually arrives one is marking time, and it is possible to get bored doing it.
You never know where the road is going to fork. That summer of 1912 Father read to us certain magazine articles by a political expert, Samuel G. Blythe, dealing with the Republican National Convention in Chicago, at which Theodore Roosevelt felt boxed-in and moved out to run for the Presidency as nominee of his own Bull Moose Party. Father was a consecrated Roosevelt man, and he read Blythe’s analyses of the situation with a deep interest that rubbed off on me. Finishing one of these articles, Father remarked that these reporters certainly did get around, see interesting things, and dig up interesting facts, and apparently the remark took root in my mind. A year or two later I spent several hours a day, during the summer vacation, working for a retired minister who had a little chicken farm on the edge of town, and during a pause in the work the old gentleman turned to me and asked: “What are you going to make of yourself when you grow up, Bruce?” As far as I can remember I had not consciously made any choice, but now that the question was asked I replied unhesitatingly: “I am going tobe a journalist.” I finally did, too—although I must say that that was the only time in my life that I ever applied the word journalist to myself. I have never known a newspaperman who uses it. Anyway, I had made up my mind. Whether I would ever have gone in that direction if Father had not read those Samuel G. Blythe stories and made the comment he did make, I have no idea. Maybe the moral is that fathers ought to be very careful what they say to growing sons.
If I had made up my mind at such an early age I did not know it for quite a time. Indeed, there was a period—during which I must have been a great trial to my elders—in which I imagined that I was going to be a violinist.
It was not as if I had any especial talent. I liked music, I had a sensitive ear, and the sounds that can be drawn from a violin stirred me deeply, so when I was asked if I would like to take violin lessons I said I would like it very much; but of the deep, instinctive, all-consuming response a born musician makes at such a time I had not a trace. I wanted to play the violin, but it was never something that I wanted more than I wanted anything else. The music world lost nothing of any consequence when in the course of time I let the dream die and went off in another direction.
Still, some sort of desire was present. Underneath everything else, I suppose, was the notion that a violinist was a romantic figure. I wanted to be a violinist in much the same way that I wanted to be a locomotive engineer, a cavalry officer, or a star pitcher for the Detroit Tigers. I needed to see myself performing to the admiration of everyone, including myself, in some very public place. These other roles were clearly beyond my reach, but apparently the violinist bit was attainable—and after all a concert hall was just as fine a stage as a locomotive cab, a battlefield, or a big-league ball park. So for a number of years I nursed the idea that I was destined to be a musician. I never really took the dream very seriously, but it was a nice thing to play with. It gave me a fine role to enact in the theatre of the imagination. I noticed also that some of the loveliest academy girls used to listen, all entranced, with a faraway look, when they heard the right kind of music.
The facilities for developing a virtuoso in Benzonia were limited. There was an estimable lady in town, a Mrs. Planner, who gave violin and piano lessons, and I was entrusted to her care. She did her best with me, but I had not progressed much beyond the sawing-andscraping stage when she moved away and my training lapsed. Then, just as my parents were saying that it was a shame I could not go on with my music, Mr. Bucholz came to town.
Mr. Bucholz was far and away the best violinist I had ever heard. The concert stage in the early igoo’s did not lead musicians of even the third or fourth rank into our part of the state, and here was a man who, by our standards at least, was straight from the big time. He was not, to be sure, a soloist, as the word would be understood in Chicago or Boston or New York, but he was no backwoods fiddler either. He had played for years in the first violin section of the Minneapolis symphony, and now some freak of fate had brought him to earth in Thompsonville. (I have often wondered how a man like that got to our county in the first place, and how he stood it there—for a professional musician it must have been like the heart of the Sahara desert—but I never did find out.) He came to Benzonia to give a concert, and for the first time I heard what my chosen instrument could do when the right man was using it; and afterward he let it be known that he would come over from Thompsonville every Saturday to give violin lessons. My parents immediately signed me in as a student.
My first meeting with him was an experience. He had taken over one of the classrooms at the academy—it was a Saturday, so the building was not in use—and when I came in he was striding up and down, violin under his chin, performing what seemed to me the most dazzling pyrotechnics, just as you can see two dozen violinists do backstage in a symphony hall half an hour before concert time. He laid his violin down, shook hands, and invited me to produce my own violin. I did so, wondering how it was to be tuned because there was no piano; and I immediately learned that Mr. Bucholz needed no piano for this job. Once the instrument was in tune he ordered me to tuck it under my chin and play something.
I made no music that first day. It was given over to basic training: how to stand, how to hold the violin, how to get my left arm in position, how to grip the violin with my chin. Nothing that I did was right, and Mr. Bucholz obviously felt that I needed rebuilding from the ground up. He pointed out that you did not hold the violin with your left hand; you held it with your chin and shoulder, leaving the left hand free for more important tasks, and to prove it he put his own violin under his chin, dropped his hands to his sides, and ordered: “Now—take it away from me.” I hesitated because I understood that a violin was fragile, but he insisted and I grabbed the neck of the instrument and tugged. Nothing happened. He had it clamped in place, and I was much impressed. Then he spent a long time showing me how to apply that sort of grip to my own violin, and when I began to catch on, he tried to get my left hand into the proper position. It seemed to me that he was going to dislocate my wrist, but he kept at it, explaining why things had to be done his way; and while he was at it he took my hand away from the instrument, studied it carefully, flexed my fingers, and then for the first time looked at me with approval.
“You are very fortunate,” he said. “You have a monkey’s hand.”
The ordinary hand, Mr. Bucholz said, was not really designed for the violin, and before he could make music the violinist had to conquer his anatomy, forcing his hand and wrist into an unnatural position. The monkey’s hand was different—in its shape, in the way it was attached to the wrist, and in other ways which I do not remember—and it could be put into the proper stance without strain. The rare human being who had a hand like a monkey’s had a profound advantage when he undertook to play the violin. He could do easily what the ordinary mortal could do only by constant effort.
I was tempted to ask if that meant that monkeys could be better violinists than people can be, but I refrained. Mr. Bucholz was much in earnest, and besides I was somewhat impressed with myself. I had an asset other people did not have. Perhaps I really was meant to be a violinist. My opinion of myself rose, although it did seem too bad that I owed it all to a monkey.
I took music lessons from Mr. Bucholz for perhaps six months. I say “took music lessons” rather than “studied” because I did not really study very seriously. Mr. Bucholz grew disillusioned; the Lord had given me as fine a left hand as any violinist could want, and I did not rise to my responsibility. I wanted to be a violinist, but I did not want to do all of the hard work that was necessary. He caught on and became somewhat bitter. Apparently he had thought, just at first, that something could be done with me, but I was just another teen-age fiddler and I suppose he had seen more than enough of them. I will not forget our last meeting.
Mr. Bucholz was leaving, getting out of Benzie County and going somewhere out of state to resume his professional career. He told me this, and then ordered me to run through the exercises he had prescribed at our last lesson. Unfortunately I had not been practicing very much. This thing and that had come in the way; as Harry the odd-job man would have said, I had had so much to do and everything else. This became self-evident in a short time and Mr. Bucholz shook his head and told me to put my violin away. He looked at me sternly, and when he spoke his German accent was mildly intensified. “You haff a monkey’s hand,” he said. Then his look became a glare, and he added harshly, “But you also haff a monkey’s head!”
Well, that was that, and I went away. I never saw Mr. Bucholz again, but wherever he went and whatever he did I hope nice things happened to him.
All of this was more instructive than I realized. By the time I left Benzonia I knew that I was not going to be a musician, and in college I took a straight liberal arts course, preparing for the day when, as I told the chicken farmer, I would be a journalist; but for several years I clung to the old romantic image, telling myself that I was actually a thwarted violinist and that things would be so different if fate had only been a little kinder. Eventually, however, I came to see that all of this was nonsense; I abandoned the romantic image, and got along much better without it. I had not been thwarted at all, and fate had not been in the least unkind. Mr. Bucholz had opened the door for me and had discovered that that was not where I really wanted to go. Reflecting on my experience with him, I at last made the same discovery for myself.