Monday, June 23, 2014

Cabin stories, part 3

A summer vacation at the UP cabin would not be complete without a trip to Grand Marais, MI to see the dunes. It took about an hour to get there over dirt and gravel roads. My mother and Rae (her best friend since college) were the “activity planners” for the five kids while the fathers got the day off from the family to fish Grand Sable Lake nearby.

Tote bags of sandwiches, hot dogs and snacks were packed along with soda pop, OFF, suntan lotion, towels, bathing suits, books, chocolate and other things we insisted we needed for our day trip. When we arrived at the Sable Falls there was no parking lot like there is now; no blacktop, no concrete, no wooden staircase to guide you down the falls to Lake Superior and no signs. . .of anything or anyone. We’d take a primitive (and in some years treacherous) path down the scenic falls and when we arrived at Lake Superior at the mouth the whole place was ours. To the right was a pristine beach for as far as we could see and the same went for the dunes to our left. It’s hard to imagine having the place to yourself today since so many of the destinations now have such easy access.

One year my brother Steve and our Pal Norman, decided to walk across the river and climb the dunes ahead of us so they didn’t have to change into their bathing suits in front of everyone. The rest of us walked down the path and arrived at Lake Superior. While picking out the perfect spot on the beach one of us (perhaps the youngest) let a tote bag drag in the water just enough to wet the small box of Diamond White Tip matches, rendering them useless.

Diamond matches were made to strike anywhere. At the cabin we’d strike them on a stone to ignite the gas stove, on a dry log in the outhouse to light our mosquito coils or with the friction of our thumbnail just to be cool. But the most entertaining method was striking it on the zipper of our blue jeans.

When it came time for lunch my Mom and Rae tried to start the fire, but the matches were too wet. Then, one by one, I watched Steve and Norm strike the remaining matches against the black strip on the side of the box without success. They were too wet; some of them fizzled or broke apart and others just did nothing. Strike after strike on dry beach rocks brought nothing but grief and the wind didn’t help either.

We all knew what was going on and were gathered around Steve holding the lone remaining match stick in his hands; the same ones that earlier held the latest issue of Mad Magazine. This was it; there was no build up, no suggestions, no crossing of fingers, just my brother Steve, holding our afternoon in his hands as he took the last diamond match and reverted to the last resort; the zipper method.

The red part of the tip fizzled in smoke for what seemed like a minute though I’m sure was only seconds. Then, the tip flared and a small white bubble of a flame perched itself on the end of the match. We held our collective breaths as he moved it down to the crumpled piece of newspaper surrounded by a pile of brittle beach sticks we gathered from the shore. When those took, more driftwood was placed on top to make the fire complete. Hot dogs would be ours that day and the unusual treat of having smores as a dessert after lunch made the afternoon complete.

It seemed amazing at the time, but in hindsight, stuff like that happened all the time when we were there making it not so extraordinary to us. But as I look around today I don’t know any city kids who can lite matches off their zipper, split a log, gut a fish or know how to perfectly adjust the choke on a temperamental outboard motor as the bruised puff of smoke disappears and leaves behind the sweet aroma of a gas/oil mix.

It was only a trip to the cabin but it brought happiness; a kind of happiness that to this day, none of us have become ready to part with.

Cabin Stories, part 2

If Reveille and all the hubbub downstairs still wasn’t enough to get us kids out of bed, my Dad would resort to plan B; letting loose with the old Brunswick Victrola. It had two volume levels; loud and soft, the latter of which was never used. First he’d try “Stars and Stripes Forever” as performed by the NHU Military Band. If that didn’t work, he’d try the B side, which was “The Caisson Song.”

If those didn’t work, the next selection would be the DeCastro Sisters. They were the dark haired, Brazilian version of the Andrews Sisters and their harmonies were just as lush and the toe-tappers, just as peppy. I would be awake and downstairs by the time they came on, sitting on one of the long pine benches bellied up to the kitchen table for flapjacks and bacon doused in Mapeline syrup.

I kept the fact I enjoyed the DeCastro Sisters a secret for years and I still love them to this day. I know every crackle and pop in Rockin’ and Rollin’ in Hawaii and Crybaby Blues. My Dad may have gotten wise to that, because there was a shift in repertoire one year and after “Stars and Stripes” and it went to all polkas all the time. I believe teenagers would sooner light their hair on fire and put it out with a sledge hammer than listen to polkas, so it always worked as a motivator for me.

One morning-mid seventies-in June my Dad and I went fishing after breakfast. The sky was overcast and soon the thickest fog I’ve ever seen invaded the woods and covered the lake like cotton. Back at the cabin the others began to wonder about us when we had not returned at our expected time, but the fish kept biting so we kept fishing. We carefully navigated through the fog until we heard a strange noise in the distance.

It was unmistakably one, J.P. Sousa.

My siblings, mother and other mother had carried the Victrola down to the lake and placed it at the end of the dock as a sound beacon to guide us home. It worked and I don’t think anyone who was there has ever forgotten it.

I’ve never been to the top of the Empire State Building. I’ve forgotten what rides I waited hours in line to ride at Cedar Point and I can’t remember much about the Magic Kingdom. But I know what quiet sounds like. I know how to catch and fillet a Northern Pike, pick wild blueberries at the right time, safely build a fire outside, make the perfect smore, cook for a family of twelve, shoot bottles in the dump, build a fort in the forest, catch minnows, pollywogs and garter snakes. And I still know how to scare my sister while walking through the woods; something that never grows old.

Cabin Stories, part 1

On summer mornings at the cabin we were often jarred from our sleep by the sound of the screen door slamming. It was intentional. It was Papa letting us know he’d arrived from his house up the hill and if he was ready to start the day, we ought to be ready too.

From upstairs you could hear his feet shuffle across the wooden floor covered with beach sand from the activities the day before. He'd stop in front of the piano and with one finger, this World War I Vet would tap out a version of "Reveille" in no identifiable time signature; one he could never duplicate again if he tried. Then he’d shuffle back to the kitchen and take his seat in a chair at the head of the table, where’s he’d set down his coffee cup, bang it on the table a few times, laugh at himself and wait for one of the parents to wake up and begin the process of filling it.

First there was the squeak of the pump priming itself as the pressure on the pump handle tightened while the water gushed out of the mouth and filled a large tea kettle. This was in the 70's and since the wood stove was replaced by gas the process of heating the water in a large tin tea kettle became a little faster. Then, Papa would wait patiently for his oatmeal, or whatever was on the menu that day.

It all began with a sneeze. Dr. Albert C. Carlson was a dentist in Lombard, Illinois and nobody in town went without dental work, even if they could not afford it. In lieu of money people would bring him eggs, chickens or IOUs when they could not pay. Nobody was ever turned away.

His hay fever was so bad in the summer (imagine a time without air conditioning) that he traveled to the UP for relief at the advice of a friend. He immediately fell in love with it and bought some property on Muskallonge Lake in Luce County. Over two summers in the 1930’s some of the men who owed him money came and helped him build the cabin that has not changed much in the past eighty two years. Though I’m not a blood relative to Papa he always felt like a grandfather to my siblings and I in the same way our friends always felt like cousins.

Would I have discovered the Upper Peninsula with my family or on my own? Maybe, but after all this time I am still wide eyed, excited and anxious to arrive each summer, where I never know what memory awaits me inside the walls of this log cabin fortress in the north

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A Very Special Birthday

Recently I had the pleasure of hanging around a group called Horses Heal Hearts of Michigan. We attended the birthday party of a three old girl I didn’t know.  The girl’s mother and father planned a special party for her; one they hope their daughter will never forget. There were ample amounts of cookies, candy, cakes, pizza, soda, presents, decorations and three horses who were giving free rides!

Sometime people think a party like this is excessive, especially for a three year old, who may not even remember it later on in life. Her mother has a terminal illness and I pray this is a birthday the girl will never forget.

Can horses really heal hearts? While that may be scientifically impossible to prove, one thing is for sure; that day they carried the burdens of a family who needed a lift. They also provided memories which will be held in the hearts of everyone there, ensuring they'll be with them when it comes their time to heal.

The Royal Oak Train Tower

Growing up in south Royal Oak, westbound Lincoln Ave was the gateway to almost everyplace I went. This tower stood behind Redford/Cashway (formerly Erb) Lumber on the Grand Trunk line just east of Main Street. It was like a beanstalk and remained a lost fascination of my youth until I came across this photograph.

Passing it in a car was one thing but the one and only time I got the courage to walk up to it, I was enthralled while I looked at this fortress. I wondered if it was where “the engineer” slept or how far down the tracks you could see from its majestic perch. Detroit maybe? Chicago?

As a kid I was more aware of the trains at night because my young life was filled with walking to school, eating lunch, playing kickball at recess, getting home on time for supper and riding my bike around my neighborhood as I played with friends and passed the time with people who have disappeared (or happily reappeared here on facebook)

As I got older I could figure out if the train was heading north or south by the frequency and strength of the train whistle. If it was northbound I’d hear the first faint blast down in Ferndale at the intersection of Hilton and Nine Mile. As it moved north I would hear its rumble getting closer and it would continue blasting its horn as the volume increased while it passed the crossings at Hudson, Lincoln, Main St, Fourth Street and finally Washington Ave. There might be one more toot as it passed the old commuter substation near where Vinsetta Blvd crosses 12 mile, but otherwise it faded as it made its subtle ascent toward Birmingham.

If it was heading south, the sound of the steel wheels on the rails would hang in the air, like distant traffic and after the first horn wailed, it would get louder as it gained speed and rolled into downtown. Most people don’t know that there is a topographical difference of about 140 feet in elevation from the north to south tip of the city. This is but one reason for the difference in speed of the trains coming and going.

I can still hear trains from my house but it is different now. How I hear them defies logic, as the closest open space where they pass is about a quarter mile away where the tracks cross Normandy. The front of my house faces west, toward Woodward, yet somehow their sound weaves its way between the houses, and trees and I can hear it out of my front window.

I still dream of trains and of that time of my youth, when the train tower became haunted at night with ghosts of all the Hobos who walked the tracks while it remained a mystery shrouded in secrecy during the day because nobody really knew with complete certainty what went on inside.

The train tower is but another one of the landmarks of my youth that the modern age has claimed. It’s gone, but not forgotten and still a permanent snapshot in my mind.