A Heaven Called Michilinda

I don’t remember the details, but I think what follows is approximately how it happened that the family went to Michilinda.

In 1938, Nano rented a red clapboard cottage from Ed Wilson, a gristly, tobacco-chewing local man who owned several beach cottages in an area called Michilinda, and my mother, dad, and I visited Nano and Ese, for how long I don’t remember.

Charlie Looking for Pirates

Nano must have liked Michilinda and being near her cousin, Maude, because over the winter she bought two of the cottages – the North Red and the South Cream, so designated because of their weathered red and ochre colors.

The clapboard cottages were built on pilings, which looked like stilts, on top of the dunes about 40 yards from a wide, flat white-sand beach. The sand on these Lake Michigan beaches was very fine grained and squeaked when you walked on it. The cottages closest to the beach and up on the dunes (the North and South Red) were raised three or four feet above the sand so that as a young boy I could walk and play under the cottages.

Ese, Helen, Loretta, Honey, Woodney

We spent eight summers in the little cottages in Michilinda, and they were the happiest times of my young life. My only responsibilities were to play and to be a boy – nothing else. And being a boy in pre-WWII America, in the Depression, meant I had to use my imagination because there were no TVs, no portable radios or iPods, and no video games.

Both Sal and I spent the entire summer in Michilinda. She was seven years older than I was, and we were both only children. We slept on the front screened-in porch of the North Red on metal Army cots, she on the north side of the porch, me on the south side.

Sal and the North Red

Sal’s mother, Margaret (who everyone called Honey) and her step-father, Woodney, had one bedroom in the one-floor cottage; my mother and father were in another bedroom; and Nano had the third bedroom. Ese slept on a cot/couch in the main room that served as both living room, dining room, and kitchen.   My father and Woodney came up on weekends, so during the week I was spoiled by five women – another reason why Michilinda was heaven for a boy whose main duty was to be cute and amuse Nano, mother,  Ese, Aunt Margaret, and Sal, who at the time I called Sally or Sally Lou (her given name was Sarah Louise).

My lack of responsibility and duty only to be cute probably set me up to expect to be the center of attention and to be a smartass the rest of my life.   Also, my distractibility (the clinicians hadn’t invented ADD or ADHD back then) and reading difficulties made me a slow reader and learner, which in turn led me to being a clown, a rebel, and a trouble maker, largely, I suppose, in an attempt to deflect attention away from my not being a good student.  So, cute it was, instead of being smart.

There was a big wooden round table on a single pedestal in the cottage’s main room where we ate and, most importantly, played penny poker every night using wooden match sticks as chips, although I do remember that the second or third summer we used red, blue, and white cardboard chips.    I wasn’t allowed to sit in on the poker games until I was 10 or 11, but until then, I watched ravenously.

My father, who played poker in the Army in the trenches during WWI, disliked wild-card games and would cringe as the women, who he thought were silly and crazy (an attitude he had for virtually all women and government officials), would play outrageous wild-card games such as Baseball (3s your out, 4s get another card), Night Baseball, and Barbara Hutton (5s and 10s wild). Some of the men (Uncle Glen Brown) like to play Red Dog. My father’s attitude toward women, government officials, and poker was my intellectual and attitudinal role model until I was in my late 30s.

Pop on the Beach

My father and Woodney were traditionalists; when they dealt, the games were either “the old Army game,” which my father loved to announce officiously, of five-card draw, nothing wild, or five- or seven-card stud, with nothing wild.   I don’t remember Texas Hold ‘Em ever being played.

The Yacht Club

We weren’t rich, so we didn’t own a boat, but we did belong to the White Lake Yacht Club where they raced Class C and Class A scows, and the younger kids raced Comets. Sal and I would hang out at the Yacht Club and on racing days (Wednesdays and Saturdays) we would try to crew.

Sal generally had regular crew gigs because she was the right weight and, more importantly, was pretty, vivacious, and popular.   Because I was smaller, I only got to be a crew on days the wind was blowing a little harder than usual and the C scow skippers needed a third crew member.

I remember the intense excitement of being chosen to crew – it was better than being picked to be the first kid to go on a flight to the moon – and the intense disappointment of either not being chosen or when the air was light and I wasn’t needed.  But in the crewing process I learned to sail, and I loved it, which, of course made me covet a boat to sail.

The treat other than crewing on a C scow that I remember was devouring an ice cream cone.   The yacht club had three flavors, vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry – one dip on a sugar cone.   The ice cream cones cost a nickel, and Sal and I could only have one a day, which was tough because a lot of the other kids could have as many as they wanted (or at least more than one a day). I had to be strategic in choosing when to have my ice cream cone so I could have it when other kids were having theirs and be one of the bunch.  But Sal had to be around because she had been given the money for cones by Nano.

I loved the yacht club, I loved the boats and sailing, I loved the ice cream cones, and as I got older (12 and 13), I loved the girls at the club.  But I loved Sal most of all.  We did everything together, I followed her like a puppy, and it was puppy love.   As I look back, it was Sal who was my first love and sex icon.  She loved me, she took care of me, and she was my pal.

Because we didn’t live together year around, we didn’t have sibling fights, rivalries, competitiveness, or jealousies.   When we saw each other at Michilinada, we were delighted to be together again.   The seven-year difference was critical, I think, because it made us far enough apart so as to lessen any competitiveness and close enough so that we could communicate as pals, not as her being my baby sitter.

As I look back, I realize that my image of ideal beauty and sexiness probably was modeled on Sal when she was a teenager (16, 17, and 18):: lilting, loud laugh, large breasts, flirtatious, cuddly, open, vivacious, smart, fun, and funny. Sal.

And as I look back, I realize that because we couldn’t afford a sailboat at the White Lake Yacht Club that I have always craved a sailboat bigger than the C and A scows.  I finally got what I wanted when I bought an Aden 44 for $180,000 in 1998 and named it Helen after my mother.

The Wabaningo Club and Sylvan Beach

The other club we went to was the Wabaningo Club which was on Murray Road, just before you got to Sylvan Beach, an exclusive neighborhood of substantial summer houses that were built on high dunes topped by majestic pine trees. The dunes were so high that some of the homes on Sylvan Beach had small trolley tracks that were built next to long wooden staircases. The trolleys would carry groceries and luggage up to the elegant homes (or what seemed to me at the time as elegant).

The Wabaningo Club was used for summer activities during weekdays – knot tying, theater rehearsals, and games for kids – and church services on Sunday which featured the hugely popular and charismatic Presbyterian minister William Hodgson from Wilmette, IL.  Also, in August each year, the club hosted an original, locally written variety show, or revue, put on by adults in the community.  The revue featured a series of skits and dances that featured men, including the Rev. Hodgson, in dresses cavorting and dancing to everyone’s glee. The kids loved seeing their parents acting silly and having fun on stage – it was the biggest event of the summer.

Charlie Rehearsing

The Dune

About 300 yards from the dunes that overlooked the beach was the Lower Red, Ed Wilson’s former cottage that was on the east side of Murray Road on the way to the Wabaningo Club and Sylvan Beach.   Behind the cottage were a couple of sand dunes that rose up from a sandy plain that was littered with ancient grey driftwood washed up by what seemed like century-old storms. Mother and Ese’s friend, Loretta Graham from Chicago rented the Lower Red every summer and lived there with her son, Percy.  Loretta smoked Pall Mall filtered cigarettes, as Ese did, and was very pretty, very rich, and very weird, as was Percy – a wild, spoiled, inventive boy, who was the same age I was, and an a perfect companion.

Ronnie, Denny, Charlie

Every morning during the warm Michigan summer, Percy Graham and I would meet under the North Red after breakfast.   The sand slanted down from the dune on which it stood at a steep angle, and Percy and I could drop our bathing suits (that’s all we ever wore) and shove our small, erect penises into the sand and pee.   We’d then dig hard at the sand under where we had peed and soon a round wet glob of sand about the size of softball would appear and roll down to the sand floor under the cottage. We called these wet urine balls “pee bricks.”

We had enough sense not to throw them at each other, not that we didn’t think of it, but because we wanted to put them up on the boardwalks for people to step on.  Of course, they dried out before any one went out and walked on the boardwalk, but we didn’t care; it was the idea that was exciting.

Once we had strategically placed the pee bricks, we ran off to The Dune .   We crossed the road, ran past the Lower Red, and into the sandy plan.   On the plain, there were small knotty shards of driftwood that served as a wide variety of guns and two large dark grey tree stumps with dead, hard tangled roots sprouting out that ten-year-old boys cold sit on.   The shattered trunk of one large stump pointed up at 45 degrees toward the biggest dune about 30 yards away.   To boys it wasn’t a driftwood tree stump and trunk, it was a huge cannon.   We’d sit on the roots and call out orders, “Raise the angle,” Aim higher,” “Ready, aim, fire.”   We blasted the bad guys in The Dune to kingdom come, and then we would dash to The Dune and scramble up to its sandy floor.

The Dune was shaped like an upside-down ice cream cone.   The bottom ice cream was steep sand slopes.   The floor of The Dune was where the upside-down top of the cone would have been, and the tapered crest of The Dune consisted of trees surrounding a tall, grey dead tree that had been split by lightening years ago and whose top tapered to a sharp needle-like point.  The dead tree was ensnarled with vines and was not connected to the ground, so Percy and I could move it up and down.  We’d pretend The Dune was a tuft of dune grass and we were operators of the sharp needle within the grass that we’d shoot up into bad guys’ bare feet as they walked through the dunes.  We’d hurt them like the grass had hurt our feet.

Before we played our sting-the-bad-guys game, we’d take off our bathing suits and play naked.  It felt so good.   We’d run all through the dune, climb trees, and wallow in the leaves – leaves, it turned out, of poison ivy.

Within a week of wallowing in the ivy, my ten-year-old testicles had swollen to the size of a playground ball and my face was so swollen that my mouth and eyes were mere slits in red face the size of a small basketball.   I couldn’t see and had to be fed through a straw – lots of milk shakes and orange soda.  To ease the itching, I’d take three or four oatmeal baths a day.

Mother, Ese, Aunt Margaret, and Sal would take turns reading to me: Treasure Island, Kidnapped, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations.  I must have listened to Treasure Island so often that I could repeat it in my dreams.

The first book I remember reading to Will when he was ten and came to spend a month with me and Julia was Treasure Island. I loved reading it to Will and re-living Jim’s adventure with Long John Silver, Dr. Livsey, and Squire Trelawney.  Several years later, I became addicted to listening to books I bought on Audible.com and downloaded to my iPod.   I told people I preferred listening to books rather than reading them because I thought I had an auditory learning style.   Perhaps.  But in may have been because listening took me back to the comfort of listening to books being read by mother, Ese, Aunt Margaret, and Sal sixty years before – their sweet, calm voices penetrating the pain of a poison-ivy swollen head — and no voice was heard more often or calmer than my mother’s.

Memory is especially activated by comfort as well as pleasure.   In fact, comfort might be an even stronger squirt of dopamine-activating juice than cocaine, pleasure, or sex.

The Summer of 1945

The last summer I spent in Michilinda was 1945, when I was 13, and the last year of the war.   It was also the year that I realized that girls were not just silly gigglers, but could be attractive, seductive objects of desire.   That they were also people didn’t occur to me for many years.

The overwhelming instinct that summer was the desire to kiss and touch some of those adorable objects, especially Margot Hodgson, the minister’s daughter.  She was the most popular girl in her group.   She was tall and had short brown hair and a smile that melted me.  I was afraid to talk to her.  All I could do was to act silly to try to get her and the other girls’ attention, behavior that persisted until I was 18, when outrageousness replaced silliness.   But it was all about adolescent, peacock mating strutting, the remnants of which were manifested in later years by wearing Polo ties, shirts, suits, socks, and pants, and sporting Gucci loafers. See me, girls.

The Japanese surrendered when Emperor Hirohito gave a recorded radio address on August 15, that summer.  I remember that all the families that lived in the cottages on the dunes gave a party that evening on the beach to celebrate.  We had hot dogs and marshmallows, and the Thigues were there.

We weren’t crazy about the Thigue family.   They owned a bakery in Muskegon and had three children – Peggy, Neil, and a younger girl.  Peggy was 14, short, with long, curly hair, but a fully developed body.   She had bulbous breasts that seemed to stick straight out and which I couldn’t keep my eyes off of.   We called Neil, “Knee-all,” because that’s what his mother seemed to call him when she summoned him home for meals.   He was small for 11, thin, and had huge buck teeth.  He seemed to take pleasure in annoying anyone near him and he slobbered when he talked.

Late in the evening, after the adults had left the beach, the kids hung around the fire, eating marshmallows and singing songs. It was a little chilly, so we were under blankets. I carefully placed myself under the same blanket as Peggy Thigue, tentatively put my arm around her, and then after no response from her, I began fondling those lovely breasts.

My bliss lasted several seconds, enough for me to firmly imprint the rush of excitement into my young brain, before Peggy realized what was going on.   She hesitated another couple of seconds, I suppose to consciously experience the sensation, then she asked, “What are you doing?” and gently pushed my hands away.  I said, “Nothing,” and stopped.   I turned and we both looked at the fire and continued to sing as if nothing had happened.   But something had happened; I had discovered the excitement of sex, which would, of course, change my life.

The next week, the Thigues went back to Muskegon, and my mother and I went home to Alexandria.   I never saw Peggy again after that evening, which was probably a good thing, because I would have had no idea at that age what to say to her. Years later, when I returned to Michilinda in 1988, and revisited that beach for the first time in 43 years, I thought about that evening in 1945, and know what I should have said to Peggy – “Thank you.”

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