Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Christmas in October

This is an important news break from our regularly scheduled flashback. We will return to our program after this significant bulletin…

On the evening of Thursday, October 12 I was driving across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula- homeward bound. The wife had called me that morning all giddy and excited.

“It’s snowing!” she exclaimed, “It’s just like Christmas!”

After three years in Texas, we had missed out on three autumns and three winters, so the wife and I were just beginning to remember what they’re like. In Houston, winter means you stop suffering through 100 degree humidity and pull on a sweater for those crisp 75 degree days.

“But it’s not Christmas,” I said glancing at my calendar just to make sure I wasn’t the crazy one, “It’s October.” (For a brief moment, I was worried that perhaps I had thoughtlessly squandered two and a half months of opportunities to buy the wife a Christmas gift)

“I know it’s not Christmas! That’s not the point!” she said sharply, irritated with my matter-of-fact response. Her tone softened, “But it’s just so pretty…” (I breathed a sigh of relief that I still had 73 shopping days left to find a gift for the wife… meh, I’ll do it later)

With the exception of a chilly wind, the weather crossing the U.P. was uneventful- not even any signs of precipitation (wet or frozen). I was beginning to wonder if I would miss it all together. I headed south across the Mackinac Bridge and the wind picked up. The instant we got to Mackinaw City, the snow started coming down. The plows hadn’t hit the streets yet and the roads were in terrible condition. This bothered me. The second thing people say to you when they find out you’re moving to Northern Michigan after, “Oh man, you’re in for some harsh winters…”, is “… but they do a good job keeping the roads plowed”.

By the time I rolled into the Boyg around midnight, at least eight inches of snow had accumulated on the ground. The pale moonlight reflected off the snow-covered fields making it look like the surface of the moon. It all seemed so surreal and foreign. Truth be told, I may have even hummed a Christmas carol or two in my mind. When I got home, the wife gave me a forlorn look that said- “It’s going to be a long winter…” Maybe God was trying to warn us for what lies in the months ahead. We don’t own a snow shovel yet and seriously lack appropriate winter attire. We broke out the catalogs and began looking for the perfect down parka, hats, gloves, scarves and long underwear.

The next morning I awoke early to the sound of large trucks and amber-colored strobe lights. I went to the window and peered into the darkness. A plow was diligently clearing our rural road. The wife was right- we would certainly be tested this winter. Our survival would ultimately depend upon keeping morale up long after the holiday season was over. I am always up for an adventure. Besides, that which does not kill us… TBD.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Welcome to the Boyg

The wife’s reaction to our new assignment was much more muted than I had anticipated. It’s a funny thing about the wife- she doesn’t fully appreciate all of life’s little adventures and ironies. Growing up in the constancy of sleepy and rural western Pennsylvania, “change” is a dirty word to her. However, she was starting to get used to the bright city lights and the plethora of shopping, restaurant and entertainment choices that went with it. Mentally, she was still headed for Seattle or California or Rhode Island and the relatively stable life of a grad student- anywhere miles away from bucolic northern Michigan. Suddenly she was thrust into being the wife of a military officer at the pointy end of the Coast Guard’s spear. Her gears didn’t shift as quickly as mine. I, on the other hand, was reveling in the intoxication of my own pride in having my cake and eating it too. To me, this was a great victory and I was ready to celebrate.

So when I came home from work that night, I didn’t exactly expect her to greet me at the door in skimpy lingerie holding a Domino’s pepperoni pizza in one hand and ice-cold cheap domestic beer in the other- but I sought something close to that. Instead I found her in front of the computer- fully clothed- looking at Michigan websites and nervously pouring over the road atlas.

“There’s no mall, Ben… NO MALL!” she said franticly.

This, I assumed, could only be a reference to the shopping situation in Cheboygan (Indian word pronounced “She-boy-gan”) - our future home town. Based on our latest credit card bill, I could think of much worse situations. I glanced at the website over her shoulder,

“…But hey, they’ve got a Wal-Mart!” I replied with an optimistic smile, “How bad can it be?”

These words would come back to haunt me, of course. Weeks later (we're up to April now), the wife and I found ourselves driving down Main Street in Cheboygan (or “The Boyg” as I affectionately refer to it, though many Coasties refer to it as “CheVegas”) for the first time. We had flown up to Michigan for a few days of area familiarization and house hunting. She said nothing as she inventoried her shopping options (or lack thereof), but I could feel her glare like a hot iron burning my face. To me, the novelty of Small-town, USA was its own quaintness. To the wife, this would be the ultimate test of survival skills and forced optimism. Bless her heart- no one tries harder.

* * * * *

For those of you unfamiliar, northern Michigan was first settled by French fur traders and some missionaries who had a fairly amicable relationship with the Ojibwa and other local native tribes. The English came in after that and shook things up. As with the rest of their colonies, they saw dollar signs everywhere they looked and often trampled the locals to squeeze out every cent. Needless to say, their relationship with the Indians was less cordial. So after the Revolution, northern Michigan was slow to re-settle with Americans. Few were interested in living in the wilderness, surrounded by pissed-off Indians and freeze their tails off for 88% of the year. Then along came the lumber industry, and thus The Boyg came into its humble beginnings. Things began to pop up quickly in the small town, and for a brief moment, the early leaders believed they were on the cusp of founding a major metropolis. But, as with every industry in the United States, environmentalists immediately moved in for the kill. They decided it would be better to cut down forests in places you’d be less likely to notice- like Canada- and The Boyg never came into its destined greatness.

The Boyg lies on the southern shore of the Straits of Mackinac (pronounced “Mack-in-aw” thanks to those cheese-eating surrender monkeys). Mackinac being the phonetic spelling of the Indian word for “Place of the Great Turtle”- a vague reference to the shape of Mackinac Island (discussed in tome to be developed). The Strait is the narrow strip of water that connects Lake Michigan in the west to Lake Huron in the East and separates Michigan’s Upper Peninsula from the rest of the state. If you can imagine for a brief moment that Michigan’s Lower Peninsula is a left-handed glove or mitten, then The Boyg, rather ironically, is the tip of the middle finger. The town is centered on the T-like intersection of Main and State Streets- home to one of approximately four streetlights in the county. Main runs south along the Cheboygan River, out of town and toward Mullet Lake (one of three inland lakes that dominate the county) before veering west toward the interstate highway. State runs west to Mackinaw City and east over the Cheboygan River and into the wilderness before running into Rogers City. The River connects Mullet Lake to the Straits. Two bridges cross the river in town- the draw bridge on State Street and the Lincoln Street Bridge. Just south of city limits the Black River branches off Cheboygan River and extends southeast to Black Lake (second of three inland lakes that dominate the county).

If there is an official baseline for the definition of civilization, The Boyg probably would make the cut- but just barely. I would imagine such a baseline guidance to include:
- Wal-Mart
- McDonald’s
- Electricity
- Running water (flushing toilets optional)
- A gas pump
- At least one functioning piece of machinery/technology designed no earlier than 1960 (this, of course, does not include the deep-fat fryer at the McDonald’s or late model cars on cinderblocks in front of your home)
- At least one paved road (no mention of quality)
- There is currently debate as to whether or not “civilization” must include a stoplight.

The wife, I’m sure, would have vastly different guidelines. The Boyg, in fact, meets all these minimum requirements, plus a few extra perks. The usual smatterings of fast food joints (minus Taco Bell), one of the last remaining operating (Bob’s) Big Boy restaurants in the country (complete with statue of said “Boy” out front with one hand on hip and the other raising his hamburger proudly as an offering to the Gods), a post office, a small hospital, a county courthouse (of course) and a dilapidated K-mart with an empty parking lot. More importantly, we haven’t had any trouble flushing our toilets thus far. Additionally, the McDonald’s has a rather cozy little fireplace. One chilly morning the wife and I stumbled in for a quick breakfast and found a homely booth near the fire. I looked around the room and noticed that we were, by far, the youngest people in the restaurant. All the old men had gathered on one side of the fireplace and the old women on the other. The old men sipped at their black coffee and griped about young people these days, politicians, local high school football prospects and the coffee being too hot; while the women gossiped about whose daughter was getting married to a Lutheran (everyone here is either Catholic or Lutheran- and never the twain shall meet), whether or not said girl was pregnant already, which boy was going off to college and someone else’s daughter returning home from college to announce to her parents she was gay (maybe she went to UW?). It was almost too cliché.

“All the world’s problems are solved right here in this McDonald’s,” I whispered to the wife with a smirk. I don’t think she found it as cute as I did. What an immense burden it must be to lack a sense of humor.

For recreation, there are several boat ramps (everyone here owns some form of water conveyance… though some are more seaworthy than others) for the summer and snowmobile trails for the winter. There is an ice rink and a horseshoe pit where the old guys accumulate on Tuesday evenings to drink beer, smoke cigars and occasionally toss a steel horseshoe at the sandpit. The Boyg is also home to the county fairgrounds which hosts a wide variety of colorful events, not the least of which is the semi-climactic Cheboygan County Fair. At the main entry gate, one is greeted by an inordinately large, Paul Bunion-sized axe and logroller- a tribute to The Boyg’s bygone glory days. The town has little to offer in terms of quaintness. For that, one would have to travel sixteen miles to the west to the more touristy Mackinaw City. Regardless, summer crowds find their way into town for the fishing and boating… or they got lost on their way to Mackinaw City. The Boyg was founded solidly upon blue-collar values and has little use for, or interest in, tourism …except for the dollars in their pockets.

Industry never really found its way back into The Boyg after the lumber industry went bust. The Cheboygan Lumber Co. of today is essentially a hardware store- with little to offer in the way of actual lumber. It would seem that most people in town are employed by Wal-Mart or the Coast Guard. However, half-way down the river, on either side of Main Street, lays two large, brick buildings with no windows. This is the Great Lakes Tissue Company- a manufacturer of paper towels and napkins. The two buildings are connected by a small enclosed footbridge that spans Main Street. The one on the eastern side of the road has a tall, skinny brick stack that dominates the local skyline. Small wafts of white smoke drift out of it to remind locals that some semblance of an economy still exists in The Boyg, but the light wisps are also analogously just as weak and fickle. Over the Lincoln Street Bridge, just to the east of the fairgrounds lies Cheboygan Cement, which houses a large dirt lot full of thousands of neatly stacked cinderblocks… there are no cinderblock buildings in The Boyg. These businesses survive to the extent that they do because of local familial loyalties… and because each other is all they have. The harsh winters are a constant reminder that strength- and survival- lies in numbers. A few years ago Proctor & Gamble opened an office in The Boyg, perhaps to throw the fledgling community a bone. But the locals looked at the national giant in their small town as if they were from outer space- “Who did they think they were?”. It didn’t last long, of course, and right now some ex-Proctor & Gamble executive is sitting at home watching commercials for trucking schools, eating potato chips and shaking his head, “Cheboygan? What WAS I thinking?”.

The people who live in The Boyg do not come here looking for work. There are three kinds of people here.
- People who found themselves born and bred here by some sick family tradition and failed to find a way to escape (These people also find themselves getting nervous if they venture south of Detroit).
- Snowbirds that vacation here to boat and fish throughout the summer and flee by Labor Day.
- Coast Guard families who pass through on two to three year stints before disappearing into some other assignment in some place far from The Boyg.

They are generally a friendly people, but none of them are in any kind of hurry. After all, where would they go? Their lives don’t slow down in the winter either, because what would that leave them with? They possess a unique regional accent, not unlike a Minnesota accent (doncha’ know?), that makes them incredibly amusing to listen to. I sometimes find myself randomly snickering in the middle of completely benign conversations. They don’t have high expectations for themselves or anyone else for that matter. They are not flashy or glamorous and are quite fond of alcohol- though crime outside of the usual teenage-angst shenanigans and tom-foolery is miniscule. Additionally, they have a relationship with the Coast Guard unlike any other community in the country. They see the WOLVERINE, the largest Coast Guard cutter on the Great Lakes and the newest in the entire fleet, as their own. They would cry bloody-murder if anyone were to suggest moving it to a more hospitable location. And yet, having spent more time around the ship than most of the ship’s crew, they have no problem pointing out what we are doing wrong. “… That’s not how the old skipper did things…,” a local once smugly remarked to the captain after examining our mooring. The rest of the crew blushed and looked away. On a ship, the captain is one step below God and none of us, Lutheran or Catholic, would dare speak to him with such a tone. Nevertheless, if history has shown the WOLVERINE one thing, it’s that nothing is more critical than our relationship with the locals. Those skippers who choose to ignore history suddenly find their lives extremely difficult and unpleasant.

This puts us, the crew and our families, in a particularly uneasy situation. It forces us to fit into a community that seems to know more about how we are supposed to live our lives than we do our own. So, we smile and agree and try to blend in. No one just picks up what they’re doing and moves to The Boyg, so when your conversation turns up that you are new in town (which the local more than likely already knew), they look at your short haircut and smile.

“Ah, you must be Coast Guard then…” And you become theirs.

* * * * *

There are those among you reading this right now that are familiar with the writings of one of my favorite authors, Garrison Keillor, saying to yourselves, “Hey, this town sounds an awful lot like Lake Wobegon”. Before you accuse me of plagiarism, take a trip to The Boyg and see it for yourselves. I would submit to you that I live in Lake Wobegon. Mr. Keillor himself may very well have used The Boyg as the inspiration for his stories.

One day, while browsing at an antique show on the fairgrounds, the wife picked up a green button that read: “I'm from Cheboygan- A nice place to live.” She set it back down on the table. I thought that summed it all up perfectly. I bought it with the last two dollars in my wallet.

… That’s the news as it happens in The Boyg where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average.

NEXT: The hunt for a new home… stay tuned!!!
COMING (very) SOON: Pictures!!!