South Bar lake sits quiet and still except for the croaking of frogs and occasional plop as a fish breaks the surface and leaves behind it the tell-tale rings that spread out and out until the motion of the disturbance disappears among the reeds of the lake. A mist rises off the water as the summer mornings can be cold against the rising sun and heat of the day. In the early days of Empire trains loaded with tree trunks rolled across the lake on the pylon bridge to their final destination and the large cutting wheels that turned it all into lumber. Even now the pylons jut out from the lake marking a trail that has long since disappeared from the landscape. Men and machine made for steady industry and employment for the small village in the early years. South Bar lake and The Empire Lumber Company were only the first stop on a long voyage to other towns and other rail lines.
I tend to forget, as I think back on those marvelous summer days at Springdale Farm, about the sacrifices made to afford us the opportunity to spend so much time there. Of course, when one is eight years old those kinds of deep thoughts are barely grey wispy clouds in the back of the mind, so prevalent are the more immediate thoughts of sun and sand, trees and trails. from my earliest memories my dad worked for the Grand Rapids Post Office. He retired from there in the mid-eighties as the senior supervisor. In 1967, however, he was still a mail sorter, and worked Monday through Fridays. Dad would bring us up north and then return home to work his shifts and come home to an empty house. (vacation for him?) We would spend upwards of a month and a half between Uncle Frank and Aunt Louise’s farm and My Grandparents cabin and woods near Mesick. During the week at Springdale farm we would run amuck through the fields and woods, go to the beach and dune climb, visit great-Aunts and Uncles in the village of Empire and wait for the weekend and dad.
Fridays after he got out of work, he would jump in the car with our dog Suntar, a beautiful Husky-Collie mix that he brought home one day in the palm of his hand, and he would head for the farm. He usually got there right around our bed time but that was ok because he would send us off with the reminder that there would be no sleeping-in in the morning. We were going fishing at South Bar lake! Oh, we could hardly contain ourselves. It wasn’t even dark yet and now we had to contend with the imagined monster blue gill we would catch! My dad liked to fish and he liked to take us fishing. Unfortunately, he hated the smell of cooking fish. It would turn him green! He always found somewhere else to be when my mom cooked up the mess of fish we had caught, descaled and cleaned. The fish were always cooked on the grill in the back yard. The picnic table was covered and set, and we’d all dig in…except dad. He’d make a ham sandwich and a cup of coffee.
Saturday morning we’d hear dad’s voice rising up the stairs “Mike, Kevin, Shannon, lets go!” Covers would go flying like a hand grenade had gone off under the blankets. Aunt Louise and mom were already up, They were still in their nightgowns and housecoats with breakfast on the table. Eggs, bacon, pancakes and toast with jam. Dad stood there with a cup of coffee and watched us eat. He had picked up a container of worms on the way north and had taken the time to strap our cane poles along the passenger side of the car. They must have been a good eight feet long. The line was wrapped around the pole with the hook poked into the bottom edge. There was a slight chill to the morning but the sun was already shining and it promised to be a golden summer day.
Mike and I clambered into the back seat of the car from the driver’s side and Shannon did the same in the front seat. We drove the few miles from the farm to the Empire beach which separated South Bar lake from Lake Michigan by a couple hundred feet. We ran back and forth between the car and the end of the short but wide dock that jutted out into the small lake about fifteen feet while dad untied the poles from the car. Dad used a rod and reel while we used the more kid-friendly cane poles.
We were already experienced in baiting our hooks, even Shannon. Shannon was fearless when it came to worms, toads, and other creepy crawlies. There were lots of times we’d find a toad in the yard and Shannon would be the one to pick it up so we could look at it.
She was only five or six at this time. She wore sneakers and overalls with some sort of plaid short sleeved shirt. Mike and I, nine and seven, wore the basic red ball jets, jeans and white t-shirts. Mike and I were trying to outdo each other in casting out our line. The poles and lines were the same length so the deciding factor would be our arms. We could swing the line out pretty good but the difference between them was almost nil. Shannon did not want to be out-done and wanted to get her line out by ours. A couple fish were caught and tossed back for being too small. The last of the morning mist was rolling off the lake when Mike and I swung our lines out to their maximum length; we were proud of our efforts. Shannon stood at the end of the dock and swung her line out in a mighty heave…and heaved herself right off the dock! Sploosh! Everything was commotion and excitement! All we saw was Shannon’s long blond hair spread out like a lily pad on the surface of the water. Her shocked eyes, just under the surface of the lake, were wide with fright, cheeks puffed and lips puckered as she held her breath. There was A mighty splash and dad was in the water. It seemed as if at the same time he was dropping into the lake he had ahold of Shannon and she was rising out of it. Dad held her up to us and we helped her onto the dock while dad got her pole and climbed onto the dock himself.
We had no words at first, we had no towels; no change of clothes. We could do nothing but strap the poles to the car and head back to the farm. Once the shock of the situation had worn off Mike and I couldn’t stop laughing. The hair, the eyes, the puckered lips…dad didn’t think it was funny. Of course, dad and Shannon were wet and cold, but we were seven and nine, and boys. I have this image in my mind of a Norman Rockwell-esque painting of a cut-away car with dad, grumpy and wet behind the wheel, Shannon, wet and shivering silently in the seat next to him, while Mike and I continue to laugh and make flailing motions with puckered lips in the back seat. We didn’t catch any fish that morning except the big blonde one dad pulled out of the lake while the mist burned off and the sun continued to climb into the day. We went back to South Bar lake on Sunday afternoon and caught a mess of fish. Shannon stayed dry, and on the dock and dad stayed away from the grill at dinner-time.
Some days at Springdale Farm were very normal and uneventful. The sun would rise and set with all of us doing very normal activities and rise to another day. There are some days, though, that prick at my memory and events parade across my mind. And that is as it should be; places become special because along with the daily and mundane there are, for one reason or another, events, actions, sunrises or sunsets that cement themselves in the mind to be brought into the light later, perhaps when they are needed, or perhaps to bring to mind a time when it seemed that we were, in our adolescence, doing life right.