Oct. 12, 1990
Californians have done it again. At a recent election they voted to double the gasoline tax. Why? To raise millions for building new highways in a last-ditch effort to ease an impossible traffic problem.
Helen and I are delighted. But we had already worked out a solution—one which unfortunately is not available to most other Californians. The solution? Stay at home for a while. In these last eight-and-a-half decades we have been to almost every place we could think of. Faced with the prospect of having to wrestle with California’s stop-and-go traffic we have, at least temporarily, just stopped going. Instead, we have been staying put long enough to relive our adventures, getting them down in writing.
We have been pushing the pen instead of the throttle. In place of highway gridlock we turned our door lock, enjoying a world-class ocean view while we recreated our comings and goings of the past eight decades.
No more trying to shift into high in bumper-to-bumper traffic; for us, every day has brought a high of an emotional and spiritual nature as we have relived past experiences. Instead of singing “California, Here We Come,” we changed the words to “California, We are Here.”
We have lots of room in this Memora-mobile of ours. Jump in and come along with us, on a journey that will carry you from the literary haunts of Boston, through Midwest tornados, to snow-capped western peaks. Timewise, you will journey from the teen years of this century to the frenetic 1990s.
Fasten your seat belts and enjoy the ride!
This Book Is Dedicated To You, Its Readers.
The Lore and Lure of Howell Lake
HOWELL LAKE of the 1910s and all those tangled woods and fields which turned its five-mile
circumference into a world of wonder—probably belonged to someone, although no signs and few fences suggested such a possibility. We kids were the real owners. From the time our family moved to the small town of Howell in southern Michigan, when I was six, until I graduated from high school there, Howell Lake was one of my favorite haunts.
How many American towns have an enormous sprawling surface of clear blue water lapping right up to the end of some of the streets—almost to the edge of the school playground?
After school or on Saturdays: “Hey, Mom, we’re going down to the lake”—and my brother and I,
often with some of the neighbor kids, were off to one of the swimming holes, or a rendezvous with a hidden scow, an icy adventure in winter, or sometimes the five-mile trip of exploration clear around it. There was always adventure; the lake was different every time we went there—filled with new mysteries and excitements to tantalize a small boy’s taste buds.
Saturdays were the most likely times we would head over to the deserted log cabin, almost half way ’round, on the far side. As I recall, it was the only structure of any kind that we encountered, from the time we left Wenk’s Mill not far from the foot of Lake Street near our home, until we reached Hutching’s Mill by the dam, clear at the other end.
The log cabin was just a one-room shell—with a loft—but we always liked to explore it. That area had the fewest touches of civilization and was good for all kinds of discoveries.
A small boy is blessed with a double set of exploratory powers. He tackles every exploration both
physically and imaginatively. The physical searching didn’t last long—after we had dug between a few logs for secret treasure, and found that the loft was so rickety it couldn’t conceal a thing. But our imaginings peopled that cabin and its surrounding field and woods with every kind of hardy and romantic pioneer of some dim past. Who knows but what we were right?
Surrounding the cabin, there really were things to explore. I think it’s probable that my sense of
wonder, which has been one of the greatest blessings of my life, must have been born—or at least received some marvelous nourishment—around those fields and swales, and along the tiny creek, over there on the far side of Howell Lake, and on the whole trip around it. There was a fine woods just beyond the cabin. They say the grass on the other side is always greenest. I don’t recall the grass over there being green, but it was tall and windblown—fun to run in. There were lots of snakes; once, with much hunting, we found 22 in a single visit. Kids love snakes.
Once Chuck Platt and I found a partly-rotting rowboat sunk in a marshy strip near shore. We pulled it out, and every few days after school we went down to nurse that old hulk back to life. It was a sunken pirate’s treasure right in our own back pond. The launching came on a Saturday. Using a board for an oar we got about a quarter of the way across the lake—one of us bailing breathlessly—before the hulk finally sank. We swam back to shore.
In winter, when the lake had frozen a foot or so thick, men would mark off a section as big as the high school football field and saw the ice into great oblong crystal blocks. Big draft horses pulled the blocks into the straw or sawdust-packed wooden ice house on shore—our town’s ice supply for all summer. There was a lot of wonderful noise around there at those times; the enormous saws biting into the ice; men yelling at the stubborn horses; occasional explosions as the ice sheet would crack; the horses puffing and straining like steam engines, accompanied by neighing and snorting.
What mattered to us was that the open water—after the cutting—would freeze back over and make the smoothest, glassiest skating of the winter, as slick and shiny as the marble soda-fountain counter down at Barron & Wines drugstore. We always had to be careful, though, to wait until it was thoroughly frozen again. I think one or two people fell through by using the new ice too soon. I know a lot of dogs did. There were signs: “Thin Ice” but how many dogs can read signs?
Approach of spring was when the lake was most dangerous. Once my brother and I, coming across, fell through when the ice had become thin near the edges, below Wenk’s Mill. It was Sunday and no one was around. We didn’t go clear under and ‘somehow helped each other to get to shore. By the time we reached home—running most of the way—our clothes felt as though they were frozen stiff. We felt that way, too.
As spring advanced, the shore ice would melt more and more, until a strip of tempting open water a quarter of a mile wide would lie between shore and the big ice sheet still out in the lake. That’s when my brother and I would go over to the west swimming hole, strip, and swim out till we touched the ice. We would shake with the cold, but I guess it was fun. At least we were there to do the same thing again the next spring.
There were two swimming holes. The one east of Hutching’s Mill, on the far side beyond the island, was where we swam out to the ice, and that was the one we used as we grew bigger. The first swimming hole that I remember was on the opposite shore across from Wenk’s Mill. It was a little muddy—just a 15- or 20-foot mud-bottomed clearing in the reeds that some unknown philanthropist had made in the past.
Often on Saturdays—and much more frequently when school was out in summer—we’d hike around to that swimming hole and plunge in. No one was ever around.
Except once. As a bunch of us boys—I think it was Chuck, Hank, and Sam Platt, Rod and Gerd
Hubbell, my brother Winfield, and maybe “Dad” Tupper—were approaching the swimming hole, we heard voices. Then, just as we got near, cries of dismay. Some girls rushed out of the water, grabbed their lacy clothes which were on some of the bushes, and ran away wildly. Women’s Lib was a long way off in the 1910s. Girls weren’t supposed to use Howell Lake for swimming—not in those days, at least not when boys wanted the swimming hole.
Frisbee’s Woods was close to the lake. There we kids could hide from each other, then have a world of fun trying to find one another. The young hickory trees were so limber that we could climb to the top of one, start swaying, and almost reach the ground as we swayed back and forth.
Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan of the Apes had just come out. I remember Dusty Purdy and Chuck
Platt running up breathlessly to our house to ask if we’d read it yet. For a time, that book turned Frisbee’s Woods into an African jungle, and the hickory trees became giant teak forests—or whatever Tarzan swung on.
In the fall we sometimes gathered hickory nuts in Frisbee’s Woods but there were better places—with the shaggy-bark kind—farther out from Howell. In spring, these woods were the best place of all to get violets and May Flowers for making May Baskets, which we’d hang on our favorite girl’s door the night of May 1, give a loud knock, then run away.
The only “inhabited” part of the whole lake except for the areas near Wenk’s and Hutching’s Mills was the cemetery, on a heavenly tree-shaded strip of land sloping right down to the water’s edge. A speaker at our weekly school assembly, A. Riley Crittenden, once said: “Howell’s cemetery possibilities are better than any other town in the state.” C.V. Courter, the school superintendent who was in charge of the assembly, didn’t know whether Mr. Crittenden was speaking seriously, or giving us all a dig. I think he was serious.
The cemetery was beautiful—the place we’d nearly always take visitors for a drive. On three sides it was surrounded by water.
We kids used to spend a lot of time reading the gravestone markers. We were genuinely interested in seeing the dates—’way ‘way back—when some of the people had been born, how long some of them lived, and things like that. We liked to read the “sayings” on the markers, too. Sometimes the printing would be partially blurred or worn away with time. We made wild excited guesses at the illegible dates on some of the oldest markers. We were rubbing elbows with history. When one of us found a really old date, we’d yell for the other kids to come look. Chuck Platt’s father, Mayor S.S. Platt, had carved and ground a lot of those more recent markers in his little downtown monument shop. Chuck was my closest friend in early school days.
Most of the time, our view of the cemetery was from the lake itself. In summer, we’d row from near Wenk’s Mill, going clear around toward the dam at Hutching’s Mill, sometimes stopping to reconnoiter on the island. And in winter we’d make that same route on skates. When the ice was smooth and the wind just right, two of us would sometimes hold a bed sheet between us. It was better than a sail and, if we could keep from falling, the wind would whirl us around the cemetery point and the length of that lake faster than we could go in Mr. Hamilton’s Maxwell. Traveling that fast was cold. But it was more exciting than a ride on the whip at the county
Sometimes we’d visit the lake at night—when some of the older fellows were fishing through the ice. That was a different world. The far dim boundaries of the lake made it seem like an enormous ocean and the woods over by the swimming hole looked a million miles away. Everything was big, and quiet, and sort of mysterious. Sometimes, if there was a moon, it would be wonderfully beautiful, especially in winter after a snow storm when the lake was covered white.
I can’t very well imagine how a boy can grow up without a lake in his town.
Francis was born in New London, Ohio but grew up in Howell, Michigan, where he and Helen were married. Marked route shows where he and his brother and father made bicycle trip to the ancestral home of Linesville, PA when he was 11, and to Milwaukee, thence by ferry and land back to Howell, when he was 12. Linesville is close to famed Pymatuning Lake and Wildlife Sanctuary, where “the ducks walk on the fish’s backs.”