Gull Lake

When I was three, we spent the summer in Gull Lake, near Battle Creek, MI.  We left Chicago because my father got a job as a trust officer of Battle Creek’s largest bank, the Security National Bank, and we spent the summer of 1935 on idyllic Gull Lake before moving to Battle Creek.


When we lived in Chicago, my father and another man, I think his name was Dave Smith, started a company called Bondex, which was a service that tracked and indexed the prices of bonds. During the depression, stocks weren’t doing well after the market crash of 1929, so a lot of institutional and conservative private investors put a major portion of their money in bonds.

My father traveled and sold the bond index to customers such as banks, so I suppose the Security National Bank was a customer, liked my father, and hired him.

We had a small cottage on Gull Lake with a big screened-in porch, and, as usual, the entire family visited.  Aunt Louise spent most of the summer with us. Aunt Margaret, Uncle Woodney, and Sally Lou came to visit, as did Marion and Glen Brown.

Marion and Mort Brown, Bob and Dorothy Graham, Mother

In the 1930s we visited our family and our family visited us.  We didn’t go to resorts alone, we visited our family because we liked spending time with them, playing penny stories and jokes.

The cottage had a big kitchen with a tan linoleum floor and a big pot bellied black iron stove.  I remember the stove well.  It had an iron door in the middle of its big belly and a handle to open it that looked like a thick, tapered spring.

In the kitchen, there were several wooden crates full of excelsior, thin curly-cues of wood shavings that were used to pack dishes and glasses in the crates.  The excelsior was extremely flammable and my father had told me never to get it anywhere near the stove in the kitchen.

One morning when it was chilly and there was a fire in the stove, I did what most curious three-year old boys would do, I opened the door to the stove and pushed in as much of the excelsior as I could carry.  It ignited immediately and set fire to the kitchen.  All hell broke loose.

I don’t remember much about what happened, but Louise and Sal told me that I started screaming and mother and Louise ran into the kitchen and started beating out the fire with blankets.  Instead of trying to put out the fire, my father came after me.  Apparently he pulled down my pants and started spanking me.

As my mother was beating out the fire, she screamed at my father, “Dyp!  You’re killing him!”  I was told my father’s reply was, “Yeah, well maybe.  But if he lives, he’ll never disobey me again!”

I don’t remember him ever spanking me again, and I don’t remember ever directly disobeying him again until I became a teenager, and then the inevitable happened.   But until then, I was afraid of him because I knew he “meant business,” his euphemism for corporal punishment.

As I grew up, from time to time when he wanted me to do something or told me not to do something, he would say, calmly, quietly, expressionlessly, “and I mean business.”  I knew what “business” meant, and one spanking was enough for over a decade of strict obedience.  Fear worked (it usually does with the young).

Sal used to say that my father was too tough on me, but I never looked at it that way.  When I was older (probably in my 40s), I realized that my father was his father’s son and that he was probably trying to keep me from being spoiled by my mother and five aunts (mother’s three sisters and his two sisters) and Sal.  I didn’t have any uncles to whip me into shape or be role models, so my father had to do it.

The uncles I had were uncles by marriage.  Mother’s older sister, Josephine, lived in California and had divorced the father of her two children, Jill (Jo Ellen) and Billy.  His name was Al Anderson and he was a terrible drunk.  Fortunately, the only time I ever saw him was at Jill’s wedding, at which he got smashed and was obnoxious.

Mother’s youngest sister was Margaret and her second husband was Woodney Millis.   He had adopted Sally Lou after he and Margaret (whom he always called “Honey”) were married.  Woodney was a great guy and a perfect uncle.  He had a marvelous dry sense of humor and a warm laugh that, when it came over him, rollicked his body and lit up the nearby space.

Woodney loved to tease me and I loved being teased by him.  My father was a tough and serious disciplinarian, Woodney was the ideal jolly anecdote.

My father’s older sister, Marion, was dour and serious and controlling.  She was married to Glen Brown, who was from Ava (which is how my mother and father met), and Glen and Marion had four boys:  Charles (nicknamed Bus and named after my father), Morton (nicknamed Mort and named after my grandfather, Perry Morton Warner), Bill, and A.G. (nicknamed Angel or just A).

My father’s younger sister, Dorothy, was married to Bob Graham and they had two children, Marianne, who was three years older than I was, and Billy, who was two years younger.  I may be off a year, but these ages are close.  We didn’t see as much of the Grahams as we did Louise, Margaret, Sally Lou, Woodney, and the Browns, but we visited them in Greencastle, IN, at least once a year on the way to Ava to see my mother’s family or to Rossville to visit my father’s family.

Uncle Glen was a banker, but not a dour, serious banker.  He was a red-faced jolly (in those days; he later turned sour) man who my father loved and admired.  I called Uncle Glen, “Paw,” and used to say him (I think it started at Gull Lake), “you old Paw, you,” to which he would always chuckle.

But Uncle Woodney and Uncle Glen were not enough bitter tonic to offset the sweet love I got from mother, Louise, Margaret, Sally Lou, and, somewhat, from Aunt Marion, so my father never let up on being tough on me.

Over the years, Sal loved to tell the story about me trying to learn to swim at Gull Lake.  She said that one day while everyone was sunning themselves and chatting, I walked out to the end of the dock and jumped into about six feet of water.  My mother saw me and screamed.  Woodney ran out on the dock, jumped in, and pulled me out as I was flailing and sinking.  When I could talk after spitting out lungs full of water, Sal said that I declared matter-of-factly, “I don’t think I’ll learn how to swim today.”

Sal loved the story because she felt it revealed one of my enduring characteristics – an impulsive recklessness.  Something, I, on the other hand, would interpret as being courageous.  The reality is probably somewhere in the neighborhood of risk-prone or even entrepreneurial.

If we were to put a marker on my life-long characteristic, the one from Gull Lake in 1935 would be impulsive recklessness, which as much as anything else, I think, explains three wives, eight kids, and the financially disastrous  But looking back on it, if I had to do it all over again, I’d still jump in the water of life recklessly because deep in my soul I believe it is better to have jumped and risked and loved and lost than never to have jumped and risked and loved at all.

This may be a rationalization for recklessness and impulsiveness, but I don’t believe you can, over time, change your essential nature…fortunately.

Charlie Surronded by Girls

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