Au Sable River, Michigan
On a July afternoon, looking across the broad, blue channel of the Au Sable River can easily draw me into a gentle journey in time. Memories of my boyhood summer vacations are reflected from the still water, and if I reach out, I may touch them. Scenes of bright summer days from long ago merge into a single day, and they all speak of the passage between then and now. I remember the promise of dawn…
Upon awakening, I rubbed my eyes and looked out the window to see the dawn gray clinging to the pine woods. The white frame cottage, one of three, nestled in a small clearing. Somewhere through the silent trees, maybe a half-mile, and then down the steep, sandy Rollways, the Au Sable River lapped ashore. This swift trout stream, uncoiling through the upper part of Michigan’s mitten, pooled to a broad, silver lake behind Cooke Dam, which checked its flow to Lake Huron. Never warm, the river cooled to icy overnight. By afternoon, it would still be brisk when we clambered down the hill for a swim, now chased, now led, by my sister’s collie, Lixey.
It was still too early, not to mention too cold, to consider getting up. Pulling the woolen blanket up further, I watched the first rays of sunlight filtering through the trees. My grandfather, in his flannel nightshirt, clomped down the hallway and was soon stirring about the living room. “We’ll have this old fire going in two shakes, Tommy,” he said, while lighting the gas heater. Warmth percolated into the room, subduing the morning chill. I have never felt safer.
While the cottage grew toasty, it was my grandmother’s turn to make an appearance. Even at this early hour, her white hair was neatly brushed and she wore a green print dress. Certain proprieties must be maintained, even on vacation.The hare to my grandfather’s tortoise, she bustled purposefully into her domain, the kitchen. This was around a corner from my bed, but a clatter and clanging of steel pans announced her activity.
Outside the window, the sunlight now breathed a hint of warmth into the morning air. “Anne, Tommy, come and get your breakfast—before your grandfather eats it all.”
My sister and I scrambled into our seats. Bill Leiter, the cottages’ owner, and our neighbor for two weeks, had fashioned the furniture from local pines. While we buttered the cinnamon-topped coffeecake, my grandfather was slicing the thick cantaloupe he had spotted at a farmer’s roadside stand.
“Grandpa, are we going swimming in the Au Sable today?” Anne asked.
“Can’t today, Anne. Bill and I have to catch supper. There will be plenty of time for swimming another day.”
Carving the melon with what looked like a scimitar, he seemed to remember something weighty. “You know, kids, I never learned to swim until I was thirty,” he began. Anne and I exchanged smiles; we knew a tale would follow. My grandfather was a realtor by trade, but his specialty was raconteur.
“Nope, never had the chance. Why, I was that old before I knew what a vacation was. It was year-round work on the farm, always more chores to do. Time off? We never heard of it.”
He scooped the seeds and pulp from the cantaloupe. After slicing the halves into quarters, he placed them at my grandmother’s place, then before my sister and me.
“Would have liked a couple weeks up North, but who would’ve milked the darn cows. Who would’ve hitched up the team at 2 a.m. to take the fruit and vegetables to market? No sir, no vacations on the farm.”
We had heard this many times, but I never tired of my grandfather’s yarns. As a magic carpet, they conveyed me to a strange world, when barnyards and fields sprawled across Dearborn. Imagine: horse carts on Michigan Avenue!
“Franklin, you big goose,” my grandmother called from the kitchen. “To hear you tell it, the men did all the work on the farm. What did we girls do, play with dolls all day? I should say not. You think cleaning and cooking and baking for everyone was fun and games?”
Anne and I looked at my grandfather. He appeared amused, not chastened. Wagging a finger, my grandmother added, “Don’t you kids believe it; we girls worked like the dickens.”
With her territory staked out, she placed the steaming bowls of oatmeal before us, as if it were the most important thing in the world. Just at that moment, of course, it was.
Before we had finished the oatmeal, banging on the screen startled me. “Gladys, yoo-hoo, it’s your nosy neighbor,” Emily Leiter greeted my grandmother, in a grating tone only a macaw would have liked. While her voice did not drip honey, we welcomed her panoply of sweet baked goods.
They were almost the same age, yet Emily seemed older than my grandmother. She always wore her steel gray hair in a net. Her eyebrows barely rated notice. Wrinkles creased her face, and her mouth was pinched when closed.
This was not often, I observed, because Emily loved to talk. Most mornings, she dropped by to gossip, and stayed to bend my grandmother’s ear, by the hour. My sister and I called her the Au Sable Gazette.
Since the nearby hamlets—Glennie, Tawas, Oscoda—represented an earlier, rustic era, far from suburban Dearborn, I could immerse myself in her anecdotes for a short time. While listening to her stream of north woods stories, visions of my grandparents’ childhood appeared before me.
That day, Emily’s donation was thick muffins, bulging with blueberries. Fresh from the oven, they were still warm, and the tantalizing aroma wafted in the windows. Emily and Bill, while tramping through the ferns along the Pine River Road, had likely picked the main ingredient.
The Leiters had raised their two sons just a few doors from my grandparents, in 1930s Detroit, truly a mythic era to my sister and me. The neighbors began vacationing together in Au Sable country when tourists were still rare. The older Leiter boy, Jack, was my father’s age; they became fast friends as summer followed summer along the Au Sable.
“Back then, Tommy, these old woods were empty, except for a few cabins along the river,” my grandfather had once explained. “We drew our water from the Au Sable springs. Highway 65 was just a dirt road then, and we had a Sam Hill of a time getting up that Five Channels grade. But we kepta goin’.” The last I never doubted about my grandfather.
In the late 1930s, Bill Leiter had built three cottages, hidden from passersby on the dusty Bissonette Road. The solitary silver mailbox at the access trail marked his concession to the outside world. Summers, he rented a cottage to my grandparents for two weeks. A family tradition was born; my sister and I were the 1960s beneficiaries.
When I knew him, Bill had a thatch of snow-white hair, and bushy eyebrows, accenting his ruddy complexion, like whipped cream on rhubarb pie. White paint often bespattered his cotton slacks or saw dust might fleck his flannel shirt. Before speaking, he often drew a breath through his nose and then exhaled while talking—which impressed me that he chose his words with care.
Bill and my grandfather, like bookends, made for a comfortable matched pair. Searching for huckleberries along the Pine River Road, or easing Bill’s weathered rowboat into our Au Sable cove to fish, they belonged together, it seemed.
By early afternoon, the sun had warmed the pine needles carpeting the ground and the sandy soil. I heard my grandfather’s Oldsmobile, tires jostling over ruts, pull up beside the cottage. I ran to the window, anticipating a harvest of pike and bass. Bill and my grandfather opened the trunk and hauled out two buckets of fish. After exchanging a few words, they each went to their tasks.
My grandfather cleaned, at his wife’s insistence, on a board propped between trees. This kept the cottage free of “bouquet of bass.” He went about his task in a workmanlike manner.
“Grandpa, watch out for the yellow jackets,” I said.
I knew his answer by heart. Ignoring the cloud of bees, he said, “Tommy, if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.”
Watching my grandfather clean fish amused me for a short time only. Walking over to Bill’s garage, I saw him absorbed in his usual sideline.
Two days before, wooden crates filled with cow horns had arrived, their labels indicating exotic origins. Bill pried open the slats with a crowbar. The horns joined their brethren, stacked by the score in his high-ceilinged white garage.
He was polishing cow horns on a grinding wheel and they were loudly complaining of the rough treatment. Motioning me to keep a safe distance, Bill let me watch and then showed off the finished products. They were taller than I was. Looking dingy at first, they emerged with a luster and color patterns which had been invisible—except perhaps to Bill. Content, he slowly ran his hand over the satin finish.
“Well, Tommy, these I’ve sold to Gene Autry,” he proudly announced. He’ll put ‘em in a couple restaurants he owns out West.”
Besides sharing his craft, Bill had initiated me into an important ritual. A flagpole stood before Bill’s cottage. The white paint was chipped, and the pulley complained, but it was a serviceable flagpole. Every morning Bill raised the flag; at sunset he struck the colors. When I was seven or eight, he had tutored me. I learned to send the flag past the green pines to the azure sky. At dusk, he had taught me precisely how to fold it, so the stars occupied the upper left corner. This mystery solved, I imagined myself with the Union blue at Gettysburg, or with Phil Sheridan galloping on his great black horse Rienzi through the Shenandoah Valley.
The afternoon waned and my grandfather finished filleting the bass. Bill gave them to Emily for frying. She smothered them in a thick, crumbly batter and slid them into the bubbling Crisco. The delicious aroma wafted to our cottage, like a dinner bell being rung.
Arriving at the Leiters’ cottage, we exchanged the customary greetings. Bill wanted to know what recent discoveries had Anne made during her hikes along the Au Sable. Turning to me, what was my favorite baseball player’s batting average that year?
My grandmother went to the kitchen with Emily and they soon emerged with the evening’s repast. Conversation was sparse during the meal, as Bill and my grandfather set the trend by attending to the business at hand.
After the feast of fresh fish from the Au Sable, the men pushed back their chairs and brought out toothpicks. They sipped their coffee and talked about the old days at the Eastern Market, or why there were not as many deer now.
“Why, Franklin, the woods are growing up. Trees are taller. There’s just not as much for the deer to eat.” Bill paused to admire his toothpick. That was so, my grandfather agreed.
“And, then, those jets from the airbase. The noise, it’s a son-of-a-gun for the deer,” Bill added.
“Well, the government ought to keep the brush cleaned up, like they used to.”
“Can’t argue with you there, Franklin.”
“You know, the CCC was the only good thing Roosevelt ever did,” my grandfather said. “The fresh air and hard work did those city boys good.”
Bill nodded and took another sip of coffee.
My grandfather, who had a picture of President Eisenhower on his living room wall, almost never complimented Franklin Roosevelt. He made an exception for the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal forest reclamation project. In the 1930s, the CCC had pitched a camp not far from the Leiters’ cottage. Young men, fresh from urban jobless lines, “cleared the brush” in the North woods. They had hacked out many local roads to create firebreaks. We could not drive far without meeting evidence of their handiwork, for which my grandfather expressed admiration.
“Tommy, see those CCC boys knew what they were about,” he might comment. “Planted those white pines, neat and straight. They made it look like something.” Probably much like his father’s farm, I thought.
The CCC’s reclamation was timely; the forest was healing from the ravages of lumbering. Across the broad river from our cottage stood the Lumberman’s Monument, honoring men who had made timber, in the late 1800s, Michigan’s signature industry. Cut trees had tumbled into the Au Sable, clogging the river as it flowed to the mills.
On one exploratory trek, my sister had discovered an abandoned logging camp. The cabins’ foundations remained and the cove below was carpeted with bleached logs gently rolling in the Au Sable. Picking our way through the ruins, she and I imagined the rough-and-ready lumberjacks who lived there decades before. The platform still stood, and Anne had photographed my grandfather, one hand on the pulley, gazing toward the Au Sable.
While Franklin and Bill ruminated over fond memories, my grandmother and Emily attended to the clean up. As Anne and I cleared the table, we caught snatches of gossip.
“Well, Gladys, like I started telling you, Ezra and Esther’s car went kaput on the Glennie Road. Well, don’t ya know, they could’ve waited hours, but the Methodist preacher drove by…” Emily began. Anne and I rolled our eyes, knowing Emily’s story would be lengthy. My grandmother spliced in, “Yes, yes” or “You don’t say,” but nothing longer.
Supper and its tasks finished, all thoughts turned to the evening card game. We pulled up chairs at the white pine table, Bill’s handiwork. The game was Flub (some books gave it a pithier name, but Emily and Gladys would not hear of it!). In short, each player bet how many tricks she would take. Guessing right, she earned points. Guessing wrong meant a “big goose egg,” as Emily said.
My grandfather and Bill shared a friendly rivalry. Close to the vest was their watchword. They scanned their cards, as if reading a weighty passage of Scripture. They placed their bets (I do not mean to imply that money was involved—perish the thought!).
My grandfather, a logical man, relied on a keen sense of timing. Alas, my grandmother’s impulses often upset his schemes. He might cast a treasured trump into the fray, expecting to wrap up the hand, only to be frustrated by my grandmother.
“Gladys, what the Sam Hill are you doing?” he would blurt out.
“Just mind your own business, you big goose,” came the reply.
“Ah, nuts! Why didn’t you play that jack before? You’re just not making any sense.”
Her lower lip quivered and she glared.
At crossroads of the game, Bill was sure to hold an ace or king. “Well, Frank, I made mine.”
Over time, I sensed a sea change in the card games. Bill and my grandfather had always dominated with their expansive style: “Go for big casino.”
My sister coolly analyzed Flub, breaking down its components. She developed Flub minimalism, as it might be called. Betting lower, discarding when necessary, she played by probability, not bravado. The score sheet reflected the mathematics: Bill and Franklin began appearing second and third.
Bill Leiter died when I was ten. I was considered too young to attend the funeral. The memory of Bill lingered, popping into my grandfather’s conversation as we slowly cruised the back roads, on our evening searches for elusive deer. It often happened that my grandfather stopped at a familiar glen. “Now Anne, keep your eyes peeled. See, there’s a salt lick where Bill and I saw a doe and two fawns one year.” As we pulled away, my grandfather sometimes said, with reverie, “Things haven’t been the same since old Bill Leiter passed away.”
© Tom Schultz, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express consent from this blog’s author is prohibited.