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Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014

Who says you can't go fishing anytime you please?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

In the time it took my teller last week to verify my account balance and count out $20, I took a trip to Iron Mountain, Mich., and back.

I'm not saying my teller was slow. Actually, my body never left the counter.

A framed print in the Bank of Thayer lobby caught my eye as I waited for my cash. I needed my withdrawal in small bills so I could get a cup of cappuccino at Fun and Friends Senior Center. (I'm not really old enough to shop there, but no one has caught on yet.)

I don't know why I'd never noticed the lovely picture before. It was a simple scene of a barefooted grampa putting a worm on a fishing hook as a boy of about 4 watched intently. Grandpa's toes just barely touched the satin water below the old wooden dock they sat on. The boy's feet dangled a foot above the cool, dark lake.

As my teller clicked away at the computer keys in front of her, I floated off to Michigan's remote Upper Peninsula. Therein rests some of the happiest moments of my childhood.

The first week of August every summer, from the time I was 10 to 14, my sister, mother, Dad and I drove from our rural Wisconsin home for a week of vacation "up north." Geographically, it was not far -- 104 miles according to Yahoo Maps -- yet, it seemed like another country. Until I joined the Navy at age 18, it was the farthest I had ever been from home.

I still can remember my first car ride up Highway 141 as my Dad took us on our inaugural family vacation. I learned many years later that he loved the Upper Peninsula as a child, and likely went with his parents to visit family there.

This time, my dad did not make reservations anywhere. I guess he just assumed things were as they were in his youth. We drove around for hours looking for any sort of lake lodging. He'd stop at every lake we passed, and inquire about a cabin. We knew as he walked back to the car with his head down, that no units were available.

Finally, it was dark and raining when he tried at Lake Emily. All the cabins were full, but the resort owners kindly rented us their personal camping trailer for the week. They dashed out to retrieve their blankets and whatnot before we climbed in.

It rained a lot that week, but my sister and I didn't care. We couldn't wait to get in the lake. There was no sandy beach, just squishy mud and mowed grass leading to the biggest expanse of water we'd ever seen. I learned the meaning of "whitecaps" that first day.

My mother said we couldn't go swimming until the whitecaps disappeared. But, the news wasn't all bad. Since we had no entertainment along, my dad took us to the local Ben Franklin store to buy us each a Currier and Ives' colored pencil kit. What a thrill for two country kids to visit their first five-and-dime store.

While we waited for the sun to emerge, my sister and I carefully colored in sketches of steamboats on the Mighty Mississippi and New Englanders dashing through the snow in horse-drawn sleighs. Then, we'd play in the water until sundown. At night, the bed felt as if it was floating like the homemade raft we jumped off all day.

It rained a lot, it seemed, the first week of August in Michigan. In subsequent trips, we came home from Ben Franklin with paint-by-number kits, board games and puzzles. My favorite rainy-day pastime was a woodburning kit, a skill I would use many years later when my dad began carving shorebirds. He carved the snipes, yellowlegs and curlews, while I burned in details of their delicate feathers.

I guess we also apparently never brought along enough clothes for a week at the lake, as I also visited my first laundromat in Iron Mountain. I was fascinated by the immensity and heat of the clothes dryers with the glass doors. At home, my mother had a wringer washer, galvanized rinse tub and clothesline until she was in her 40s.

 I can attribute many other firsts to those vacations. While my sister preferred to sleep in, I got up early with my dad while it was still dark out. We'd drive 20 miles to Lake Mary, which must have been a favorite from his boyhood.

There were no resorts on the secluded lake, but there was a tiny bait store. My dad would let me get a couple cans of Jolly Time cream soda for the cooler (also something we never had at home) and a pack of Zotz candy. Then, he'd put our little rented boat in the mist-covered lake and we'd head out for walleyes.

I sat on the bow with the cold water spraying my face and soaking my sweatshirt. I loved that free feeling, and knew it would be too hot by 10 a.m. anyway for all the clothes I had on.

One time, a skunk followed us all along the bank as we trolled past my dad's favorite inlet. I got my first lesson about rabies as my dad warned me about animals that don't act normally.

I may not have caught the biggest walleye on those trips, but, to hear my dad tell it, I did, especially after I found an old Rapalla lure washed up on the shore. Even though the paint was peeling from the wooden minnow, I used it for years, mostly because my dad said it was the best lure ever made.

I learned to swim in Lake Emily. I told my friends at school that my dad threw me out of the boat in the middle of the lake and said, "Sink or swim." I hope they understand now that I embellished that story terribly.

As I stared at that print in the Bank of Thayer, more memories poured over me --like recalling the first meal I ate in a restaurant. It was on one of those early-morning fishing trips. The sun wasn't yet up, so my dad bought me breakfast in an old, smokey diner, the kind with the high-back wooden booths. I had never read a menu before, so my dad ordered eggs and pancakes for me. The waitress, surely a local teenager, asked me (a kid!) how I would like my eggs.

I never knew there were choices. I suppose I looked lost, as my dad answered for me. "Over easy," I think. I told my mother later that there where about five different ways to make eggs. I'm not sure she believed me.

On a trip a few years later, I learned what an omelette is. The funny thing is, my omelette was burned, and I didn't like it much. I figured out years later that omelettes are not supposed to be black and crunchy on the bottom.

I also saw my first parade in that old-fashioned mountain town. My grandparents met us up there that year from Green Bay. I can't recall a single float or marching band, but I see my grandpa, a World War I cavalryman, and my father, a Korean War sailor, standing side by side at attention as the U.S. flag passed.

I was drawn back to reality when the teller counted out my bills for me, but I wasn't ready to leave the Upper Peninsula yet. Over the next two days, I revisited often those long-forgotten places of my childhood.

This morning, I stopped in the Bank of Thayer just to learn the name of the artist who captured in paint such emotion.

As it turns out, Arizona artist Brent Benger's grandpa in "The Fishing Lesson" was not barefoot at all. Neither was the boy beside him.

Other details of the print also were not as I envisioned them. The mind is funny that way, isn't it?

Still, I am thankful for the brief trip to a cherished place where I can still hear the slap of water against the boat as I look back at my dad pointing the shaky outboard toward the best fishing spots in all of upper Michigan.