Part 2 of the series Small Town America
When I was very young, my family lived in Hancock, Michigan. This was definitely a very small town and still is. The current population is 4581, which is pretty much the same as it was when I lived there.
Hancock is right up on the end of upper peninsula Michigan and about as close to Lake Superior as you can get. My father taught at a small university in the town of Houghton, across the canal that divides the two towns. We lived in Hancock between 1941 and 1947. I don’t know how much my father’s salary was, but I’m guessing it was pretty much nothing. We were a pretty poor family, but it didn’t seem awful to me. My mother made most of my clothes, I remember a snowsuit made out of an old army blanket. We had an icebox that was cooled by a chunk of ice brought by the iceman. We skied in the woods in the winter, I went to kindergarten and first grade in what seemed to me a just fine school, there was always food on the table, and as far as I know, ours was a happy family.
The first thing that I can remember is standing in our backyard and looking up at my mother who was looking out of the second story window of our bathroom. I was pulling my wagon and my Mom wanted something so she called down to me. I was probably maybe three or four years old at the time.
Hancock, Michigan wan’t the midwest, it was more like the far north. The upper peninsula of Michigan is not actually in the middle of Lake Superior, but it felt that way to me. Hancock is an isolated place a long way out in one of the largest bodies of water in the world. I don’t remember wind, but surely the wind swept across hundreds of miles of northern Lake Superior and then across Hancock, especially in the winter.
This was a land of trees: pines and birch and all kinds of hardwoods. It was a land of copper mines and immigrant Fins who built cabins with Saunas on wild and deep lakes in the North Woods. And it was a land of snow, lots of snow, like six, eight, ten feet of snow right in town. I don’t remember it, but my parents always told me of the hard winter when the snow came up to the second story windows. My Dad shoveled a narrow but deep trench from the front door of our house out to the street which eventually got covered over with snow, as the tops of the trench crept toward each other and then the trench became a tunnel. This doesn’t seem very likely, but maybe. Maybe it was just a deep two story trench.
Even I remember that Hancock was a small dot in a cold, crisp, lonely, beautiful country. When I think of upper peninsula Michigan I see blue skies, green pines, vivid black and white birch trees, snow and blueberries.
On the other side of the river from Hancock was Houghton, Michigan. This was where my dad taught, at Houghton Tech. This was a pretty small college. Dad taught German, French and I’m not sure what else there. It was his first job.
I’m sure Hancock and Houghton had their grimy side also. I can remember looking down into the canal between the two towns and seeing freighters from all over the Great Lakes and probably the world. This was a pretty big river, almost a bay. It had a drawbridge across it. Hancock was on a steep hillside that sloped down into the river. I think we could see the river from our upper stories but I’m not sure. If you walked over to the corner of our street and looked down the intersecting street you could see all the way to the end of the street, and then a coal yard with huge piles of coal, big grimy buildings and then the river.
I remember one day my friend Tommy and I found an old car tire. We lugged it over to the corner where you could look down the steep street that ran to the coal yard and the canal. We lined up the tire and let it go. And it really went. I have very vivid memories of this. It bounced thru intersections at high speed, screamed down the middle of the sidewalk until it finally jumped the final intersection, shot into the coal yard and half way up one of the gigantic piles of coal. We were quite impressed. Unfortunately my Dad wasn’t nearly as impressed. I got a very long lecture about the dangers of such activities. The more he described all the awful things that could happen: dead pedestrians, car wrecks, destroyed windows, maimed animals the more guilty I felt.
When my Dad finished I was sure I was a secret murderer. I’m sure he didn’t intend to create all this guilt, but I can remember feeling an awfully guilty about something in my early childhood. I’m sure this didn’t come from just the tire rolling incident but I suspect that my parents did a lot of their disciplining through guilt. I don’t think they did this deliberately, they were just trying to instill moral values, or something or other in me. And maybe they succeeded and the guilt bit was just one of the side effects. However, seventy years later, I still feel a lot of guilt that isn’t really attached to anything. Maybe this isn’t a universal human thing, but it seems to happen to an awful lot of people. Read my essay about why people often confess to crimes they didn’t commit.
Tommy, my tire rolling buddy, seems to have been my main friend at this age. I don’t know how I met him or why he was my friend but he was. I suppose our parents must have been friends. His father was the local postman.
There was one more little adventure with Tommy that my mother used to regularly remind me of before she died in 2009.
One day Tommy and I were playing on the street corner and I grabbed his hat off his head and stuffed it in the nearby mailbox. It was one of those refrigerator-sized, blue mailboxes, except in those days I think they were green. When I dutifully confessed this sin to my mother, she insisted that I wait at the mailbox, all by myself, until the mailman came to collect the mail. I don’t think the mailman that came was Tommy’s father but he didn’t think the whole thing was funny at all. I got another long lecture, this one about the sanctity of the US Mails. More guilt.
One of my other early memories, shortly after the one of my mother looking down at me from the bathroom window, was a memory of sitting at the kitchen table on a gorgeous summer day eating a bowl of cold cereal and milk. The part of this memory that is really strong is the feeling of what an incredibly beautiful, cool, balmy, wonderful summer day it was and how this somehow got all mixed up the feeling of how this would go on and on forever into an endless balmy, beautiful, summer. It was a feeling of total relaxation and joy and bliss and awe at the wonder of life. It was kind like the feeling I got years later, on the first day of summer vacation: school is out and the whole wonderful summer stretches ahead into infinity.
A lot of my father’s friends were Finnish. I suppose this was because there were a lot of Finns in Northern Michigan at the time; Hancock was pretty much the capital of Finnish America. One special Finnish family was named Souyounan. I’m sure this isn’t spelled right, but that’s the way it sounded.
Anyway, the Souyounans had a wonderful old cabin on the shore of Lake Superior near Hancock. I remember lots of birch and pine trees, a large log cabin and a long narrow wooden dock that ran out into the lake. At the back of the cabin was a sauna with a big potbelly stove. They would stoke up the stove until the room was 120 degrees or so and then throw buckets of water on the hot stove to fill the little room with steam. The sauna had wooden benches that began on the floor and got higher and higher until they were right under the ceiling. The kids sat on the lowest benches which were the coolest and the dads sat up high where it was hottest. It was a definite hierarchy of toughness. The room would fill with steam and we would get hotter and hotter. Everyone would swat themselves with willow switches to get the blood going. When you could stand the heat no longer you would run out of the cabin, down to the lake, out to the end of the pier and jump into Lake Superior. It was definitely a wonderful experience. Later, when we lived in Corrales, New Mexico I tried to repeat the whole experience by building a sauna onto the back of our adobe house but it was just never the same. Maybe you have to be a little kid to really enjoy such things.
There is one other memory I have about the Souyounan’s cabin. The cabin had a low attic above the main floor. The attic was floored with wooden planks that had gaps between them about a half inch wide. All of us kids, and there would always be three or four of us, would play in the attic. One day we were all up there and decided to look down thru the cracks in the floor. The dinning room table was directly below us and in the middle of the dinning room table was an open pot of jam. Very soon the game became who could spit between the planks and hit the jam pot. I’m sorry to say that there were a good number of bulls eyes. No one confessed to this adventure and the jam was very popular only among the adults for the next few days.
In Hancock we lived in a two story duplex. There was a glassed-in front porch and a back porch that was quite a way above the ground because the house was built on the hill that sloped down toward the canal. The back-porch seems to me to have been six or eight feet above the ground. We wen’t supposed to, but all the neighborhood kids would congregate on our back porch and dare each other to jump off. This was great fun until the day that little Billy from across the street jumped and broke his leg. Taking him away in the ambulance was a high point of that summer. Billy’s Dad was the local doctor, so he got hell from a number of directionsl.
The Hancock house had a staircase along one wall of the living room that went up to the second story. One of my main memories of this staircase is riding my trike down it when I was four or five. My mother tells me it was quite spectacular. Evidently she never got over the experience as I heard about it for the rest of my life.
All of the bedrooms were upstairs. I had my own bedroom, my Dad had a study at the front end of the house and my parents bedroom was at the rear.
The kitchen was at the back of the house behind the formal dinning room. I remember spending a lot of time in the kitchen. At the back of the kitchen was an attached pantry and at the back of the pantry was a dark, narrow, spooky staircase that connected to the upstairs hallway. Somehow I was always afraid of this staircase, you could run into large scary things any time here.
On one wall of the kitchen was the icebox, and this was a real icebox with ice in it to keep it cool. I remember it being wooden, probably oak, with inset panels and shiny metal locking handles. Inside there was a large block of ice that sat on wet wooden slats and slowly dripped into a pan underneath it. The best part of this ice box was the iceman who brought the ice. Every week the iceman, complete with huge dray horse and cart would show up to bring a new block of ice. If you were lucky, he would give you little chunks of ice from the cart that you could suck on for the rest of the afternoon. Did this kind of thing actually happen in the 1940’s or am I imagining it? If so, it seems awfully real. This was probably the early 1940’s as we had a small Montgomery Wards refrigerator by the late 1940’s
When I was four my brother Tom was born. About all I remember of this was when my parents brought him home. My main recollection is that my Dad said it was a special time and we could have popcorn, so he popped popcorn in the extra-large special kettle we had for the purpose. I’ve always kind of associated brother Tom with popcorn ever since.
When I was five I went to Kindergarten at the local public school. I think we mostly sat around in a circle and banged sticks together in time to music, had to take naps on little rugs we brought from home or waited in line to hang our coats on little hooks in the long dark cloakroom.
The next year I went to first grade at the same school. The first grade room was on the second floor and the street side of the room was tall floor to ceiling windows. I remember spending a lot of time looking out of these windows looking for my Mom, waiting for her to come and pick me up. I remember one dark and stormy day waiting for Mom at the windows and being very worried about something. I think I was afraid my Mom wasn’t going to be able to pick me up because of the storm or that she would be very worried about me because of the storm or something. Anyway I was quite worried and upset.
I think I probably was quite worried about a lot of things at this age. I remember spending an awful lot of time worrying about all kinds of imaginary things. I think this probably happened because my mother worried about all kinds of bad stuff, mostly bad stuff that could happen to me and her obsession with bad stuff rubbed off on me. She was always worrying I would get polio, or TB, or some other deadly disease. Mom had a brother that drowned when she was quite young and a sister who died of TB. These deaths had a large impact on her life. Looking back, I understand why she was always so concerned about me. However I do think the obsessive worrying about death and doom and destruction had a fairly large impact on me. I’ve always worried obsessively over the safety of my own children; even when they were young adults, if one of them is overdue for a half-hour, I’m irrationally sure they are dead in a horrible accident. And I worry not only about my children but to this day I still have anxieties of impending doom, that something, I don’t know quite what, is terribly wrong.
So, looking back, life in small town number one seems to be like it was pretty good. There were problems, but nothing overwhelming. We didn’t have much money, but I remember life in Hancock as being basically pretty good. But, I was sever years old, so who knows.
And then in the spring of 1947, my father got a job in Casper, Wyoming. And we were off to a totally new and different world.
My next small town essay is about my life in Casper, Wyoming between 1947 and 1960.