Dorothy wakes us too early for a summer morning. Thin sunlight passes through pine trees dancing in the zephyrs to dapple the counter panes that cover Leonard and I in our cast iron framed, narrow beds in the darkly varnished bedroom of the summer cottage my Great-Grandfather built from the odds and ends of his lumber yard on a small lake in western Michigan. Rubbing sleep from my eyes, I watch Leonard pull on his bathing suit instead of underwear and remember: Picnic! Now it's all right to be up in the cool early. I too pull on my suit and then my corduroys and struggle into a shirt and shoes on the way to the closed steep stairs. Dorothy at the bottom calls for us to: "Hurry, we're waiting."
Henry and Ann are taking boxes of buns and eggs and bacon and matches and foil and hamburger and a watermelon and chips and chocolateandmarshmallowsandgrahams and the forks to cook hot dogs and the shovel looking tool to cook hamburgers and the frying pan and the old refrigerator shelf to serve as a grill and the catsup and the mustard and the picklelilly and the cheese and the Squirt ('cause we don't do sodas) and the milk (see last parens) and the water and the ... and the ... "Damn, what did I forget?" Queries Dorothy. And the salt and pepper and the cups and the napkins and the cookies and the wooden spoons and forks and the cole slaw and the tomato-cucumber salad and ... any thing else? The spatula and the ... "We'll live without it," says Earle and so we pile into the Chevy and the engine starts. "Everyone has towels?" inquires Dorothy. "Yes" we chorus and Earle lets out the clutch and the gravel grumbles under the tires as we move around the circle of cottages through the trees to the road that leads toward Lake Michigan. Another time we might take the 16' aluminum skiff, an Arkansas Traveler with a seven and a half horse outboard motor, to the end of our lake where it empties into the Big Lake. But that beach is too crowded on the holiday. At the end of our lake we bounce across the little bridge which spans the junction of our lake with its outlet.
On the other side we pass the bible camp and then the steep dune which, at the end of the month, will be crowded with motorcyles roaring their way to the top from a dead start at the bottom. Heat and noise and speed. Pure American. But now it is quiet. Next is the BPOE beach. "Yay for the Biggest Pigs On Earth." says Henry. "You mean," rebukes Leonard, "The Best People On Earth." "Just ask them." says Ann.
Earle turns into the trees at the park entrance. We pass the main parking lot and travel further behind the dunes to a less developed access point. Parked, we pile out and Dorothy vocally grabs each of us to make sure we each have our towels and a suitable box, bag or carton. Up the long flight of wooden stairs the forest loam gives way to sand as we mount the dunes. The steps lead to a saddle between two peaks. At the top they stop and a view opens of blue horizon flecked with whitecaps. The blue is lightest in a band following the shore line maybe five feet from shore. This is the first sandbar where the water is about half way up your shins. Follows a darker blue as the lake bottom descends to maybe four feet before rising again in the second sand bar -- not as light as the first, but just above the knees. A darker band where the water rises over my head -- this is the real swimming area, not just splashing and paddling and wading and lolling. The third bar gives an exciting place to rest as I can touch bottom standing. Beyond here is forbidden lest the dreaded undertow claim us. This bar is perhaps forty feet from shore.
But before that is the beach, an expanse of about sixty feet of sand which now is cool but, once the sun clears the treed dunes, will scorch. This has two striations. Near the water is compact dark sand good for canal and castle building and running and walking. It's covered in the seawrack of the waves: drift wood and dead fish and bird feathers and weeds. This is in two lines: one marking the higher winter storm line and one closer to the water that marks the gentler -- but still tempestuous at times -- summer extent. Between the wet sand and the base of the dunes is light dry sand dimpled with waves by the wind. Running in it is absurd as the sand gives way opposite to your impetus. But all that is at the bottom, farther vertically than horizontally from where I stand (or so it seems) and all of that same treacherous dry sand that flees my toes as I try to step. Bunches of saw grass turn the dune into an obstacle course requiring switchbacks rather than a straight plunge. This is good because the straight plunge leads to spilled boxes and broken bags of chips. Down I go, trying not to run, but sooner or later having to, just to keep my feet under me.
At the beach level a suitable spot is scouted, examined, squabbled and chosen. It needs large logs for adults to sit on or against. These must offer some protection from the wind for the fire. Everyone scavenges drift wood suitable for the fire and within a few minutes the Pyromaniac in Chief (supposedly a rotating honor) has a nice blaze going between two cooking logs. Dorothy starts to fry the bacon.
Henry and Leonard grab the melon and start to dig a hole in the dark wet sand. Kneeling they dig to the reach of their arms where the sand turns to a slurry of watery sand. In goes the melon and a mountain of sand is shoved on top. Great fears of misplacing the hole cause us to mark the spot well. After lunch, some hours ahead, the retrieved melon will be exquisitely chilled by the lake water in the sand.
The bacon gets crisp and makes lots of fat to fry the eggs. In they go. Rusk buns (a Dutch bread which is most often double baked to toast, is wonderful as a hamburger bun if only once baked) warm on the grill rack. When they crisp, Dorothy butters them, places bacon and then an over easy egg inside and hands it over. An essential though unplanned ingredient is sand which announces its presence with a grind at the end of a nice satisfying bite.
There is a thermos of steaming Droste's cocoa for us and a thermos of Chemex coffee for Earle and Dorothy.
It is the best of breakfasts.
The day passes in swimming and castle building and other activities -- once Ann paints a beachscape and can't get the sand right, so she just applies a handful of sand where she wants it. Works.
The fire is built up again to grill the hamburgers and hotdogs for dinner with chips and salad. the melon follows. Satiety.
Replete with water, sand, air and food we gather the modest remains into a smaller number of boxes. We make sure the trash is burned or buried and the fire out so that the beach is clean for the next comer.
Then the price is exacted. The dune we ran down in the morning must now be ascended. This experience gives me an instant understanding of the phrase "two steps forward and one step back." Each step is upward, forward then sinks and slides back. Somehow we make it and turn at the top to watch the sun over the still sparkling water. Down the steps and into the car for the homeward voyage.
That night we take our sparklers and squibs down to the dock which offers a fine view of two public firework displays and many private accompaniments.
Once Earle disposes of a few old railroad flares. I get one and am very happy waving it about until a drop of magnesium falls on my new shoes. They are canvass and the magnesium burns straight through.
I get out of those shoes in a hurry.
Another time Earle asked me "How far can you see?" I think maybe a mile or two, knowing that is the distance to the other side of the lake. "I can see 93 million miles," he said and pointed to the sun.
Points of view. Different ones. That's what I celebrate.
Happy Independence Day!
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