Things can get foggy when I try to put my earliest life memories into chronological order. It’s probably because they are not complete, but more like fragments, bits of events, or things I recall. I remember a wooden privacy fence in a backyard with vertical boards that seemed to go all the way to the sky. The enormous green dinosaur, way up on the hill at Dinosaur Park, and Mount Rushmore, the four giant heads carved into a rock in Rapids City, South Dakota; were places our family visited when we lived there.
I always seemed to remember cars. Dad drove a Cadillac and bought an American Motors Rambler station wagon; I think it was pink and white; I clearly remember it smelled terrible inside. One day he came home with a new, green and white Chevy Greenbriar van. Mom was happy about that.
I recall a cement building inside a fence. One of my brothers told me it was a prison for bad people. It had a large door that was usually open. Although we couldn't see what was inside, my brother said there was an electric chair and explained its purpose. I have no idea what the building was, but it was creepy, and I wouldn't say I liked going by.
One day two of my sisters, in their early teens, decided to sneak out after Mom told them they couldn't go. I'm not sure they remember the story the same way I do, but we all agreed there was big trouble when they got back home. I remember thinking Mom might take them to the prison; she was mad!
I have a few memories of water in those early years. As kids, we ran through a water sprinkler in the yard. My brother and I collided and crashed to the ground. I went into the house, crying. We went to a swimming pool where I had to stay in the little pool while older brothers and sisters went to the big kid's side. I also remember the day the creek at the end of Jane Drive flooded.
Although it never got into our house, the floodwaters covered the street and rose into our front yard. Mom was worried and wanted to know where all the kids were. Dad didn't seem overly concerned except that his car was in the street. I always remember that creek being considerable in size. Maybe it was because of the flood or because I was four years old, and everything seemed larger than it was.
When I was five years old, my family moved to Ottumwa, Iowa. The Des Moines River runs through the middle of the town, and it was huge compared to the creek in Rapid City. As a kid, we went swimming in the lagoon at Ottumwa Park. There was a sand beach and a shower house, and we had a lot of fun swimming there. The lagoon, the largest body of water I'd ever seen, presented opportunities I'd never known.
One day my brother and I were going to sneak under the rope with buoys, swim to the far shore and back. I was worried about making it all the way. We took deep breaths of air before going underwater and coming up outside the boundary line. We only made it a few feet before the man with the white nose, sitting in the tall chair, started blowing his whistle and called out, "You two boys get back inside the ropes. Now!" The authorities thwarted our adventure; we would have to try it another day. This wouldn't be the last of our daring big water adventures.
When I was eight years old, we moved to Wisconsin. It took about ten minutes to walk from our house to Lake Monona, the second largest of four lakes in Madison, by far the most significant lake I had ever seen in my life. As kids, we spent plenty of summer days at Sandy Beach in Olbrich Park. From our side of Lake, we could see the state capitol building downtown. It was stunning at night when lighted.
Dad bought a boat, a 17’ Lone Star. It was a metal boat, painted white on the bottom and red on top. It sported a 45 horse-power Mercury outboard motor, and I thought it was the fastest boat in the world. My older siblings could water ski behind the boat, but I was too young. I would reach over the side in my orange life jacket and make my hand skip across the top of the wake, just like my brother did on skis in the water behind the boat.
One day, we launched the boat in Starkweather Creek. Dad took some of us kids for a boat ride, the rest of the kids went with Mom in the van. Passing through the Yahara River, we left Lake Monona and went to Lake Mendota – the biggest lake in Madison. We had to go through the locks to get from one lake to the other. Mom met us with the rest of the family, and we had a picnic at a park on Lake Mendota. I was so impressed by the bigger lake I went home and got the map out to see just how much bigger it was. I asked Dad if I could use the boat someday to take a trip across the lake. He said no.
By the time I was ten, my brother and I had met a lady who lived on Lake Monona. She was a widow who needed a little help around the yard. She had a rowboat, and we were two boys with plenty of energy and time on our hands. We worked out a deal where we would rake her yard and do other odd jobs to use her boat. Our arrangement was working out fine until one day when Gerard and I decided to row her boat across the lake.
We set out early in the morning - even before Mom left for work. We took three lunches, a thermos jug of Kool-Aid, two fishing poles, and a sack of worms. We pointed the boat toward the big white dome across the water. We knew that Mom worked in the city building next to the lake, just down from the state capitol building; Dad pointed it out one day when we were in the car. We would surprise Mom by taking her lunch. It was farther across the lake than we anticipated.
While one of us would row the boat, the other would cast a line to catch fish. Unfortunately, while launching the boat, we somehow managed to launch our paper sack of nightcrawlers into the water as well. The fish weren't biting on hooks without an entrée attached. It was just as well; I didn't know what we would do with our fish while visiting Mom. As the morning went on, the boat became harder to row.
The sun was hot, and the water was getting choppy. The little boat surged up and down with the pulse of the water; some of the waves would splash over the edge. Gerard said it was harder to row because we were heading into the wind. He was smart about that sort of thing, although I didn't even know what it meant. I thought about Gilligan's Island, envisioning such a fate for ourselves, but there was no island insight when I looked out over the water. We both sat on the center bench, each taking an oar, and rowed together the rest of the way.
We finally made it across the lake, pulled the boat up onto the steep bank of lime-stone rip-rap. We stretched out the chain connected to the bow and laid rocks on top of it so the boat couldn't drift away. Then we walked up to the city building and started asking people if they knew where Beverly Palen worked. A nice man asked us in what department she worked. We weren't sure. "She Mr. Gordon's secretary."
"Oh, in the water department." He said, then took us to her office, showing us to her desk, "Wait here. I'm sure she'll be right back." We knew Mom would be surprised to see us – and boy was she!
Mom and Mr. Gordon came out of his office. Mom was carrying her notepad with all the squiggly lines (short-hand) and telling him, "I'll type this and have it back for you to sign, this…" She stopped talking when she saw us. She forced a smile on her face, "Mr. Gordon, these are two of my sons, Gerard and Tommy, and I don't know what they're doing here." Keep in mind this was in an age when all the men wore suits and ties, and the women wore dresses in a professional office setting.
We stood out from the crowd; two hot, dirty, skinny little boys dressed in cut-off shorts, T-shirts, and sneakers with no socks. We told Mom we came to surprise her by bringing her a lunch – however, we had no meal to offer - we ate them on the ride over, including hers. Mom walked us to the front door and told us we were to return the boat and go straight home. She probably would have been happier if we didn't eat her lunch.
Rowing back home was eerie. I suppose it was at least a couple of miles, and we didn't have a tall white dome to use as a landmark. I was a little scared, but Gerard said he knew the way – he was smart about that sort of thing.
When we arrived at the lady's house with her boat, she was standing in the yard waiting for us. "Where have you two been? Did I give you permission to take my boat out all day? I was worried sick." She was furious, "This will be the last time you two use my boat." We got fired, but still, she reminded us, "You didn't get all the leaves out from under the bushes, so I will expect you back here tomorrow to finish the work you owe me."
By the time we walked home, Mom was off work and chewed us out again. The day didn't turn out to be the exciting adventure we expected as we set out in the early morning hours, but it didn't deter us from future big water adventures.
In 1972 my dad bought WGLB Radio in Port Washington, Wisconsin, just north of Milwaukee on Lake Michigan. It was my first time to see any of the Great Lakes, and I was in awe. One day Dad took us to a beach on the lake. I scooped a handful of water and drank it. "Don't do that!" Dad scolded, then told me lake water had to go through purification before drinking. I didn't care; I just remember the lake was so big, we couldn't even see across it. Oh, the adventures I dreamed of.
The family continued to reside in Madison while Dad commuted to Port Washington on Monday, returning home on Friday. Gerard and I would go with him whenever we could. One summer's day, we walked from the radio station into town. It was only a couple of miles. Near the Smith Brother's fish house on South Wisconsin Street, we discovered a large, old white boat stored on dry land at the end of the marina. The wooden cabin cruiser sat on top of pallets and barrels with tall grass and small trees growing around it. She seemed abandoned, so we climbed inside to have a look around.
There were two long benches below deck, one on each side of the boat, with windows above that had old tattered curtains. There was a galley for cooking and even a tiny bathroom with a head and a shower. In the front of the boat was a small bedroom we could share. I imagined what it would be like to live on this boat. It would take some work getting it seaworthy again, "Mom can make new curtains for us,” I offered.
Gerard lifted a trap door on the floor of the back deck. Below were two big motors, "I'll bet they don't run, but I can probably get them going again." The ship was missing one propeller and a rudder, "It's supposed to have two – one for each engine," he said, "We can find a new one." He was smart with that sort of thing. There were some spots of rotted wood on the outside. I figured we could cover those holes with the lids from tin cans, the same way we patched mouse holes in the wood floors of the barn. We were anxious to get started.
We told Dad about our discovery back at the radio station and even got him to drive down by the boat with us after work. "Can you help us find out who owns it so that we can buy it?" Dad didn't share our enthusiasm, saying there were probably boats available that didn't need as much work, if we really wanted to buy one. He also suggested that the boat belonged to someone and we should not climb on it anymore. His negative attitude didn't sway our determination to become boat owners – of this vessel, and take to the sea. We decided to start saving our money.
When the next school year started, I told my science teacher, Mr. Savoy, about our find. I wanted to know what was on the other side of Lake Michigan from Port Washington. Mr. Savoy had a big map and helped me find White Lake; it had a canal coming in from the big lake. That's where Gerard and I would take our first trip with the boat.
Mr. Savoy told me there was a lake even bigger than Michigan and that Michigan was just one of five called the Great Lakes. He showed me on the map how all of the lakes were connected. I became more interested and decided our first trip should be an adventure sailing all five lakes. We could do it next summer – if we came up with the money for the boat, made some repairs, and got Mom to make new curtains. Walking home from school, I told Gerard about the new plan. Although we never bought the boat, my interest in these lakes continued to grow.
My family never moved to Port Washington; instead, Dad bought KLEE radio, and we returned to Ottumwa, Iowa. I traded my dreams of exploring by boat for something more affordable – motorcycles and cars.
In the summer before my senior year of High school, my friend John and I rode our bikes to Port Washington - mostly so that I could show him Lake Michigan. I told him of my dreams to explore all the Great Lakes. The year after graduation, and with a better-paying job, I traded my Kawasaki 650 for a Kawasaki 1100 full dresser – a real touring machine. At different times I rode to Lakes, Michigan, Erie, and Ontario. At each lake, I would scoop up a hand full of water and drink it. When I rode over the top of Superior – I forgot to get a drink from the lake. I guess I was too excited to get to Canada.
Years later, when I met Melissa, she told me how much she loved Duluth, Minnesota, and wanted to move there. One day, to surprise her, I was going to fly her to Duluth for dinner. When she figured out where we were going, she asked if we could go to Two Harbors instead – just up the shore. She wanted to take me to a place she knew of called Betty's Pies. "They have the best pies in the world." (at this point, she didn't know of my mad pie-making skills) I called the Duluth tower on the radio and gave them our new destination. I canceled my flight plan, then lowered the nose and went screaming down toward the water. We flew full speed along the shoreline a few hundred feet above the lake to the next town. I wanted to go out and buzz an iron ore boat but thought better of it. Okay, we did go circle the ship, but I gained a little altitude before doing so just to be legal. We waved at the captain in the pilothouse as we flew by.
After dinner, we drove down to the harbor and stood looking out at the big lake. It was calm and beautiful. The sky was full of stars, and a ship was passing by. Moved by the moment, I knelt and scooped a handful of water from the lake and drank it. "Don't do that!" She scolded, "You can get sick drinking water that isn't purified." At this point, I figured she must really like me – a lot. Actually, she was head over heels crazy about me, but that's another story.
Melissa and I got married and eventually moved to the north shore. We've enjoyed a trip known as the Circle Tour a couple of times, driving around Lake Superior. On one of these trips, we stopped to watch ships pass through the Soo Locks, at Sault Ste, Marie, Michigan – the route from Lake Superior, to Huron, then the other Great Lakes, and even to the Atlantic Ocean. It reminded me of the day Dad took us through the locks between the lakes in Madison, but on a much grander scale.
Watching the Michipicoten, which came in from Lake Huron, pass felt like we were even closer to the ship than watching the big boats go through the canal at Duluth. Maybe because we were on an observation deck looking down at the boat in the narrow lock. It was impressive watching the ship's propeller engage and the thrust of water hitting the back gates as she took off from a dead stop. I told Melissa Huron was the only Great Lake I had yet to visit. One day I would get there, but it wasn't in the cards for this trip. I do love the Great Lakes.
A few years ago, I had finished a working trip out east. My trek home began in Hamlin, New York - west of Rochester and not far south of Lake Ontario. I was too tired to start driving home, but it was also too early to go to bed. I had an idea.
There was something I'd long thought of doing but had not yet done; I didn't know anyone who has done it either. If I followed through with my idea, I might very well be the only person in the world who has done this. I took my Atlas, went to a restaurant, and sat down with a cup of coffee and a notepad.
The following day, at the crack of dawn, I was at Hamlin Beach State Park, on Lake Ontario. I climbed over a small concrete wall and walked down to the water's edge. Greeting the new day, I said a prayer, then knelt. Cupping my hands together, I filled them with water and splashed my face; then I did it again. I did it three more times before walking back to my car. A man sitting on the concrete wall asked me what I was doing. "My friend," I said, "before this day is over, I will splash my face five times with water from each of the five Great Lakes."
"Why do you want to do that?" The idea seemed pointless to him.
"Have you ever done it?" I challenged.
"Can't say as I've ever even thought about doing it."
"And, do you know anyone who has done it?" I continued.
"No. No, I don't," the man admitted.
"I don't either," I said, explaining, "so as I see it, that's reason enough for me to do it."
He seemed a little more spirited when he added, "Well I hope you make it and don't fall in." I thanked him for his good wishes; we said farewell, and I went back to my car.
I crossed over the Niagara River, north of Buffalo, headed across Canada via Ontario 403 – part of the QEW – Queen Elizabeth Way. I felt like royalty as I traveled these roads. At London, Ontario, I turned south toward St. Thomas (I had to take this route for my name's sake), then down to Port Stanley. I said another prayer at the water's edge, then knelt, splashing my face five times with the water of Lake Erie.
I crossed back into the United States at Port Huron, Michigan, then drove north to Bay City, where I found my way to the shoreline of Lake Huron in Saginaw Bay. The water was murky, with plenty of green stuff floating on top. "Maybe I could find another place." I said out loud, then reminded myself, "You're halfway there, don't blow it now." A deal is a deal. I said a prayer, then knelt. I pushed the algae to the sides seeking clearer water below. I dipped my hands into the lake and splashed my face five times. I refrained from taking a drink, even though Huron was the only Great Lake from which I had not done so. I used a couple of wet wipes at the car to clean green dots from my face before heading north.
My next stop would be in the UP. I programmed the GPS and drove away laughing at the little voice in my head, "I'll bet Huron's water would have been clearer at Mackinaw City."
Two and half hours later, I took a break, fueled the car, bought a snack and an ice tea. The Mighty Mack Bridge spans the Mackinaw Straights, which connect Lakes Michigan and Huron. Before crossing, I drove down through town.
I parked and walked down to the water. I cupped my hand, dipped it into the lake, and sipped Lake Huron's water. Finally, I drank water from each of the five Great Lakes. As I stood up, I imagined Dad was on my left; Melissa was to my right. They preached in unison, "How many times do I have to tell you, don't drink lake water. Unpurified water can make you sick."
Walking to my car, I laughed, "I guess we'll know tomorrow."
In the tiny town of Naubinway, I made my way down to the next lake, where I repeated my ritual. It was almost dark; Michigan's water felt icy-cold against my skin. Despite the dark of night coming on, I was confident I would make it. About an hour and a half later, not far west of Christmas, Michigan, I pulled over at one of the roadside parks. With a small flashlight in hand, I made my way down the steep, dark trail that led to the beach.
I took a deep breath. “The Big Lake - Superior.” The largest of the Great Lakes and the largest freshwater lake in the world was also the calmest of the five lakes I'd visited that day. Reflections of the stars danced on the smooth water's surface, and the lights of two different ships twinkled on the horizon as they made their way west. They were most likely coming from the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie, making their way to who knows where.
In the tranquility of the night, I offered a prayer of thanksgiving. When I knelt, the knees of my jeans soaked up water from the wet sand of the beach. I smiled warmly as I recalled the advice offered that morning by the man sitting on the concrete wall at Lake Ontario; "Don't fall in." Wouldn’t that be a hoot if I did? I dipped my hands into the ice-cold water and splashed my face, then did it four more times.
I stood up very much refreshed and at peace with myself; a sense of accomplishment swelled within me because I did something I had dreamed of from time to time for much of my life; I visited all five Great Lakes in one day, refreshed by the waters of each. It might not have been a big deal to most people – but it was to me, and I did it.
I dried my face on the tail of my flannel shirt. My flesh was chilly and felt soft and smooth, not sticky like it does when you come out of saltwater. As the T-shirt says: “Superior. Unsalted and shark-free.”
I stayed there for a while, basking at the moment. I taxed my memory to think about all the water adventures I had experienced. Some changed from how I viewed them as a child. For example: visiting Rapid City as an adult, I found the huge creek was just a trickle running through a gulley until it rained hard. The lagoon in Ottumwa was just a small to average-sized pond. Others didn't change. Lake Michigan is just as massive as I recalled when first seeing her.
I've been to the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and the Gulf of Mexico. Lake Superior isn't the biggest body of water I'd known, but it sure is the greatest.
Seven hundred fifty miles, and about 15 hours later, I had completed this journey. This dream had now become a memory; it was time to move on to another. Maybe this year, we'll drive to White Lake, the opposite shore of Lake Michigan, from Port Washington, where my Great Lake adventures began. Where they'll finish is anybody's guess.
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