Personal Story No. 3
| 9 minute read.
In Alabaster, our neighbor to the south had four children; the elder two boys were my friends. We dug holes to China. If the boys argued, their dad would make them put on the boxing gloves to settle the argument while we watched. They had the village rhubarb patch; we had the sugar. Three houses down was the self-proclaimed constable. At times he carried a pistol on his side, but for what reason we never knew, because the only people who got in trouble were the kids. Two houses over were three sisters who drew a lot of attention. We had a piano in our house and I invited the oldest sister, who I had a crush on, over to play so I could sit beside her. Crafty. Across the way was a gentleman who kept his home immaculate. His lawn was manicured, his house pristine, and he built bird houses for the martins that were so plentiful in our area.
If you had stepped across the street and gone up one house, you would have found a guy named Bob who was in high school and was a great baseball player. He was noted for going to the lake shore each day and batting stones till the bat was in shreds. Most of the boys in the village had a BB gun or 22-caliber rifle before the age of ten. I saved money and purchased mine from Bob. It was a Remington SportsMaster 22, which I still have and shoot to this day. I also purchased a bicycle from him.
My first bike had big balloon tires and her name was Nellie Belle, named after Roy Rogers’s Jeep. She was slow. At twelve, I was about to take over the paper route for the surrounding area and needed an upgrade, something quick and light to cover a lot of territory. Bob had a sleek used bike he would sell me for ten dollars. Before I bought it, I took it for a spin. I biked to the top of our hill, turned that baby around, and started down the hill proceeding toward the lake- fast. I was standing up, pressing hard and torqueing the pedals, to see what she could do. We were now screaming down the hill. All of a sudden the chain slips, I slide forward off the seat, and, with a slam, my crotch in now pressing firm against the handle bar post. Feet dangling, I’m picking up speed, I can’t steer; BANG, I run into Mrs. Bolen’s house full speed. “Ouch.” It was more than that, if you know what I mean. Doubled over, I couldn’t breathe, but by that age I could swear. I bought the bike anyway.
Clyde was two years older than me and my closest neighborhood friend. We did everything together, including hunting, fishing, working, and getting into trouble. In our high school years we worked together at the Singing Bridge grocery store, which you will hear about in the next chapter. We were blood brothers. That means we cut the palm of our hands with a knife to draw blood, and then we shook, swearing loyalty to each other.
They say that everyone has a story in them, but some are best kept there. This could be one, but it’s not. So I will press on. You be the judge.
When Clyde and I were younger, probably thirteen and eleven respectively, we decided to become real hobos for an afternoon. We packed our necessities in pillow cases, attached them to a stick, and set out toward what we called the “train track hills.” Gypsum ore was transferred from the quarry to the plant by rail. When building the railroad they piled the excavated dirt to one side, creating huge hills. Those were the hills where we were headed. The vegetation was thick with grass, bushes, and sumac.
As we hiked, Clyde saw a rabbit hole next to the railroad tracks. Being the eldest and, from his point of view, the more knowledgeable, Clyde was convinced we could smoke out the rabbit. So, we got out the matches, gathered grass and sticks, and built a little fire in the hole, fanning the flames, creating smoke. Suddenly, a gust of wind blasted through the hills, sucking everything with it, including the fire.
The fire was now the size of a large blanket. Come to think of it, if we’d had a blanket that would have been handy, but we didn’t. We tried desperately to stomp it out with our shoes and shirts, but it was out of control. Clyde’s white hair and eyebrows were scorched. We were choking on the smoke, both covered in soot.
Next thing you know we were on the run: full blast, down the tracks toward the plant, lowly slithering by the plant to get to the lake without anyone seeing us, turning south, crouching down along the lake shore until we were in front of our houses, and then we casually walked toward them.
Meanwhile, the entire village was out of their houses watching the hills burn; the local man-drawn fire truck is working the fire, traffic is stopped for miles on US 23, which was the main highway to get to northern Michigan, the miners were up on the hill fighting the fire with shovels and rakes, and neighboring town fire-trucks were on their way. We proceeded to the hills ourselves to act like we were assisting the men in fighting the fire because we needed to cover for Clyde’s burnt hair and eyebrows.
Thankfully no one was hurt and they never knew what caused the fire. It did headline the local paper. As blood brothers we swore we would never tell this story to anyone. Now, don’t think I’m telling on Clyde here, because about fifteen years after the fire, he told a friend of ours and the secret is now gossip.
Years later, when I had my own children and they were in junior high I told them this story at the dinner table. Oh, they were wide eyed. They couldn’t believe such a tale. Then they asked, “Does grandma know?” I responded by telling them I didn’t think so, so they immediately said, “Well, we’re going to tell her.” Imagine that, my kids tattling on their father.
There was a pecking order in the village for the kids. Typically the leader was the eldest boy. When the leader would leave town or be occupied by girls or high school sports, his successor would be the next eldest, only if he could handle the job. I took the position over at about age twelve, replacing Clyde. It was my first role as a leader and, because I enjoyed playing army, I decided to be general-like. I developed mock calisthenics in front of my house, an obstacle course around the village and, at the sand dunes, a battlefield. The kids seemed to enjoy the challenge and reporting to me; at least, that’s how I remember it. Forty years later, a neighbor who was under my pretend command concurred. I relinquished the post before high school.
We, the Lemons, did only one activity together: ski. You would think that since we went to church every Sunday as a family, in the neighboring town of East Tawas, that would be the activity, but it wasn’t as far as I was concerned. It was just a cover-up. Literally. You see, we all wore robes, except my brother because he was in Sunday School. My mother directed the choir and my dad was the lay-reader. My sister was also in the choir and I was an altar-boy, which is hard to believe because I was no saint. As soon as church finished we would disrobe, as if supermen, and underneath was our skiwear.
We rushed out of church, sins absolved, and drove twelve miles to Silver Valley, a winter sports area. It had a renowned 3100-foot toboggan slide that people from all over Michigan came to try. It was scary for most. The ski resort had three rope tows and about six ski runs. I enjoyed skiing from a young age; in fact, I made the front cover of the Detroit paper, at age eight, for opening day, which I’ve provided as proof. Plus I raced. Our whole family worked pre-grooming the slopes in the fall and performed annual maintenance on the chalet to earn ski passes for the season. Otherwise we couldn’t afford to ski.
Like you, all the stories from my younger years contributed to developing my personality. As a youngster there were enough events to fill a book, which would include bagging my first deer, skating on thin ice a mile out on Lake Huron, playing army in long sleeve shirts using BB guns, hopping the railroad cars for a ride, getting shot in the eye socket with an arrow, and the list goes on and on. From my Alabaster experiences, I gained tenacity, independence, loyalty, a sense of adventure, and patriotism.
Life in the village of Alabaster, not necessarily family life for many, was like a magical universe for kids because there was so much to explore and the freedom to do so. As I got older, that life started to wane. I knew there was something bigger beyond its borders. I became restless and there was the constant desire to leave. Starting at the age of fourteen…
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