Tuesday, September 9, 2008

"Notes On A Midwestern Vacation"

First Three Days: Temperature in the mid-eighties to low nineties. Not a cloud in the sky.

The perfect start to the perfect vacation. Except…

There are dozens of holes in the showerhead in the shower at our cabin on Chickadee Trail in Michiana, Indiana. But when you turn on the faucet, the water trickles down from just three of them. And it’s brown.

Until the plumber fixed it five days later, here’s how we took our showers. One of us squatted on an old-time, small, wooden shoeshine box, placed in the center of the shower stall. That was our stool.

Water was heated in a large pot on the stove. When the water reached “shower temperature”, the “recipient” of the shower held a large colander directly above their heads with both hands. The “shower giver” then lifted the pot high, and slowly poured, sending water spraying through the holes in the colander onto the head and other parts of the shower “recipient” below. Bath gel and shampoo were also involved. The process – for two people – took about forty-five minutes.

When I wrote Major Dad, there was a complainy eleven year-old girl character – representing the complainy portion of me – whose “take” on the camping experience was the following:

“Hey, we’ve got some free time. Why don’t we go somewhere and live worse than we usually do?”

Our Michiana cabin is exactly that.

Only it’s spectacular fun.

We attended an outdoor concert featuring The Platters. Not the real Platters – they’re a hundred. Or passed away. The concert featured replacement Platters. And they pretty much filled the bill. It’s interesting. When the lead singer introduces a song by saying, “And now, we’d like to take you back…” you get the feeling that, for many in the Michigan City audience, you weren't traveling all that far. A number of them are still back there. The men’s hair may be gray now, but they still sported the same haircuts Ricky Nelson wore when he was ten.

When the Platters rendered their hits, the audience was musically “home.” And so – though with a haircut of a more contemporary vintage – was I.

Ice cream at Oink’s. (Dr. M’s favorite flavor in the world is called “French Silk.”) Oink’s is a deeply entrenched local tradition. Pathetically, across the street, someone recently opened a competitive ice cream parlor called Moo’s. (I swear to God.) Not one car sits in Moo’s parking lot. Just two large wooden cows.

(There seems to be a “death wish” in the local business community. I mentioned earlier a famous hamburger place called Redamak’s, where they specifically announce – almost proudly – in their menu: “We do not serve lettuce or tomatoes on our hamburgers.” A competitor opens a hamburger place directly across the street proclaiming on their sign outside, “We serve lettuce and tomatoes on our hamburgers.” Not one car in the parking lot. Why do they do these things?)

There’s a “speed trap” near our cabin. Not on Chickadee Trail– we get about four cars a week – but on the street that Chickadee Trail runs into – Michiana Drive. Half hidden in the bushes to intercept speeders is a Michigan City police vehicle. And behind the wheel of that vehicle is…a skeletal-looking dummy wearing a Michigan City police cap. I’m not totally clear on the concept here. “Uh-oh. ‘Police Dummy.’ Better slow down”? Does that do anything at all?

Ballgame at Coveleski Stadium. “A”-ball adversaries: the South Bend Silverhawks versus the Lansing Lugnuts. It’s the bottom of the ninth. Down 4-1, the home team Silverhawks are coming to the plate for their final at-bats.

Suddenly, over the stadium loudspeaker, we hear Gene Hackman’s inspiring speech to his overmatched Indiana High School basketball team from the movie Hoosiers. We’re in Indiana. The speech has resonance.

“And most importantly, don’t get caught up thinking about winning or losing this game. If you put your effort and your concentration into playing to your potential, to be the best that you can be, I don’t care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game, in my book, you’re gonna be winners! Okay?”

Hoosier fans know this movie in their bones. And they know what comes next – the slow-starting, steadily intensifying “hand clap”, rising to a cacophonic clapping crescendo.

Exactly on cue, at the end of Hackman’s speech, the entire Coveleski Stadium baseball crowd goes into “The Clap.”

The first Silverhawks batter comes up, and on the first pitch, slams a towering homerun over the Left-Centerfield fence.

Did the Silverhawks win the game? Reread the speech.

The Fourth Day: A sixteen-hour downpour. From then on, the temperature begins to cool, accompanied by increasingly chilly nights.

We drive to the movies. Not me. I brake for shadows. But Dr. M agrees to brave the elements. We see Hamlet II. There are four people in the audience. The weather had kept people away. Either that, or they didn’t like Hamlet I.

During one drive to I don’t remember where, we heard the CD played on a local classical radio station get stuck in one spot for over two minutes before anyone at the station apparently noticed.

One morning, I drive, unaccompanied, to Al’s Market – about two miles from the cabin – to pick up some newspapers and some very good coffee Al’s serves at their recently installed coffee emporium. I secure the two coffees in a cardboard tray, place them on the floor by the passenger’s seat, get in the car, and start home.

When I turn down Chickadee Trail, a deer darts out from the underbrush, scampers directly in front on my car, and then leaps back into the forest. When I braked, the coffee cups fell over, but they were covered, so not much was lost.

(Subtext: I nearly killed a deer!)

While running an errand that took us close to Lake Michigan, we discovered that an 1860 replica “Tall Ship” had just arrived for a teaching demonstration. (When our daughter Anna heard of this unexpected encounter, she accurately observed, “Surprise ‘Tall Ships’ are the best!”)

We were invited on board to look around. The next day, the local newspaper printed a picture of me, standing on deck, chatting with the captain. I would post the picture if I knew how, but I don’t. If you want to see it, check out the La Porte County News-Dispatch, September 6. It’s on Page 5. The one who’s not the captain is me.

We went to an auction where you could bid on, among other items, a sausage stuffer, animal traps and various scythes. Then we drove to the nearby Door Village Harvest Festival, passing a local business offering “Vacuum and Shoe Repair.”

The Harvest Festival was a little gem. Model train exhibits, classic cars, vintage tractors. A man cornered Dr. M, insisting, “I can teach you to play a song on the dulcimer in less than five minutes.”

People dressed in period costumes – an elderly team of lady quilters, Civil War re-enactors from both sides, a man in an admiral’s costume proclaiming, “I am Farragut!”

If we'd returned the following day, we could have met a man who’d been honored as the top Lincoln impersonator of 2006. I really wanted to see Lincoln – I had missed him the first time around – but our travel schedule made a return visit impossible. I did get to see a Benjamin Harrison impersonator, who was also a president, though – and I believe most historians would back me up on this – he was no Lincoln.

These were the highlights of our activity-filled but, somehow, still relaxing Midwestern vacation. All told, we went to three movies, two ballgames, a concert in the park, and a live musical at the local theater. We spent time at the “outlet mall”, an antique emporium, an auction, a Harvest Festival, a “Tall Ships” exhibition, and a voyageurs fur traders’ demonstration. And I still had time to finish a novel called Netherland and read a substantial chunk of David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter.

It’s amazing how much you can accomplish when the television doesn’t work.

My favorite part? Besides Dr. M’s extended company? The insistent night sounds, crashing the silence through our bedroom window. This was nature’s symphony, the unmistakable song of the country, comforting us in our beds, and drowning out thoughts that many of our nation’s most shocking multiple murders were committed in the Midwest.

As we closed up the cabin and headed away, yellowing leaves fluttered down in isolated flurries. We had been there a week, but we had witnessed a seasonal changing of the guard.


Anonymous said...

I've enjoyed the shorter posts, too. Thanks for leaving them.

I was also glad to hear your survived your vacation, actually had a good time and managed not to kill a deer...an embarrassment of riches, in my book. :-)

Welcome back.

Keith said...

The shower procedure sounds like first-draft scene from Ghost. It could have been very romantic, although I expect even "Unchained Melody" gets annoying if left on repeat for forty-five minutes.

I'm thinking the speed trap may be like that episode of Star Trek: TNG. Some days there is a real-life cop sitting in the car, and no one knows when that will be. Does the penalty for speeding in Michiana Shores happen to be death? If so, then my analogy is pretty solid.

wcdixon said...

"Subtext: I nearly killed a deer!"


growingupartists said...

Welcome back! But how were the parking spots?

Max Clarke said...

There's an episode of Cheers when Frasier and Liluth decide to return to nature. They get a cabin in the woods and last a few hours before getting wise and bailing out.

As I recall, Frasier was striking rocks to create a spark that could start a fire on some newspapers in the cabin fireplace. Liluth tries to help out by singing a song that will set the tempo for Frasier's fire-from-rocks effort. She sings "My Funny Valentine," it's the only song she knows.

Anonymous said...

I found your blog via Ken Levine. I recognized your name from MASH credits. I'm a Midwesterner, so this entry resonates with me. I've taken showers using the colander method.