Sunday, January 07, 2007

Lake Superior

[This is another one of my "set pieces." I wrote it down back in 2002 and revised it a bit last week.]

In the summer of 2001, while we were planning our trip to Upper Michigan to visit my grandmother, everyone kept saying that Lake Superior is too cold to swim in. So we didn't plan our trip to include a stop there, especially as my grandmother lived close to the Michigan-Wisconsin border, a long drive both from Lake Superior and from Lake Michigan. But as we flew into the Marquette airport, we did get close enough to the lake to pay it a quick visit on the afternoon of my 37th birthday.

We had left Basel the day before, by train to Zurich, where we caught a flight to Newark and then to Boston, where we spent the night in a hotel near Logan Airport. Miles was then twenty months old and new to jet lag, so when he woke up at 2 a.m. (eight a.m. Basel time), he was ready to start the day. We managed to keep him in bed with us until 3:30, by which time we, too, were wide awake. We passed the time until the hotel's breakfast room opened at 6 a.m. by opening a couple of small presents Andrea had brought along for me and by reading books and playing games. Breakfast took long enough, then, that it was time for us to go to the airport to catch our next flight, to Detroit, where my mother met us at the airport and joined us for the next leg of the trip, the flight to Marquette. (As her children and grandchildren never ceased to point out to her, my grandmother was then living in the middle of nowhere, and it took a long time to get to her place for a visit!)

At the Marquette airport, we were met by my Aunt Marge, my mother's younger sister, who had come to pick us up for the trip's last leg, by car to Iron River. It was a beautiful August afternoon, and after we had realized that we would probably not get another chance to see the lake, we decided to go into Marquette to look for a beach — not with the intention of going swimming but only to look.

We found ourselves on Lakeshore Drive (echoes of high-rent Chicago penthouses) and parked by a beach separated from the road by a small brushy dune. The beach was nearly empty, but there were a few people around, including two guys in baggy swim trunks throwing a Frisbee back and forth while standing in the low waves. The water looked cold, but it didn't seem to bother the Frisbee players, so I slipped off my sandals and waded in a little bit. At least at this beach in the bay in Marquette, the lake belied both its reputation and its appearance: while the water was not really warm, it was not freezing cold either, and on such a warm, clear day, it was positively inviting.

But there was a slight problem: our swimsuits were packed away in the trunk of the car, and it had been hard work to get all the luggage stowed there. So, despite the lure of the low waves, Andrea did not want to get her swimsuit out, and I didn't really want to get mine out, either. Skinny dipping was the obvious solution, but there were just a few too many people around.

But it was my birthday, and I wanted to celebrate, and I wanted to be able to say that I had swum in Lake Superior on my 37th birthday. (The day was already becoming a story.) So I took off my jeans and my T-shirt and charged into the water in my underpants —which had a plaid pattern that, from afar, made them look like a Speedo bikini swimsuit.

Oh, the water! So much for the story that Lake Superior is too cold for swimming! I was so exuberant that my shouting and splashing almost upset Miles, but Andrea managed to keep him calm. Our camera was also stowed away somewhere, so I have no photographic evidence of my birthday swim, but wife, mother, and aunt were witnesses. (Miles was, too, of course, but I can't count on him to remember it later, except as a story his father likes to tell.)

When we walked back to the car, I solved the next problem by putting my T-shirt (which had also just served as a towel) on the car seat and sitting there in my "swimsuit" to dry off while we began the drive to my grandmother's house. About halfway there, Marge stopped at a little tiny crossroads gas station, so I took the opportunity to change out of my wet "trunks." I put on my T-shirt and sandals, grabbed my jeans, and headed for the toilets, which were inside the station's little shop. And then came the story's unexpected punch line: there, on the door, was a sign that had not anticipated a case like mine: No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service.


Donald Brown said...

Oh the water,
Oh the water,
Let it run all over me

And it stoned me to my soul
Stoned me just like jelly roll
And it stoned me

--Van Morrison

Andrew Shields said...

Still water — laying over ...

— Daniel Lanois

Anonymous said...

August 2001 was pretty damn hot over there. It was the time I arrived in Indiana. I also flew in from New York, then to Detroit a few days later, and from there to Indy Int'l.

We probably missed each other at the Detroit airport by only a couple of days. It really is a small world.

Unknown said...

I can't get near any of the Great Lakes without going in, no matter what I'm wearing (or not wearing). Cold as it can be, I love that water.


Andrew Shields said...

I used to live in Toledo in the seventies. And we *never* went swimming in Erie back then. We went to South Haven to see my grandparents, and then we swam in Michigan, but Erie was just too polluted at the time.