John Carlson: Memories from Up North

This seagull resembles another noteworthy one, sort of. Photo by: storyblocksThis seagull resembles another noteworthy one, sort of. Photo by: storyblocks

By: John Carlson—

It was writer Thomas Wolfe who coined the phrase, “You can’t go home again,” and maybe he was right. But as a recent mini-vacation reaffirmed for Nancy and me, trying to recapture good feelings from favorite days past is a worthy endeavor in itself.

The two of us drove north into Michigan to the town of Onaway.

It’s a quiet little burg near a beautiful body of water called Black Lake. I’ve probably spent week-long vacations up there at least fifteen times in the course of my life, beginning when I was a boy. For me, the place was magical, and remains so. Even at depths of ten feet and more, from the water’s surface you could see the tracks clams made scooting along the lake’s sandy floor. Surrounding the lake were charming cabins nestled among endless miles of thick woods, all crisscrossed by dirt and gravel roads.

Rustic cabins along the shoreline of pristine Black Lake. Photo by: Nancy Carlson

Rustic cabins along the shoreline of pristine Black Lake. Photo by: Nancy Carlson

And so this place remains. Pristine is the word.

Back in the day, besides the scents of forest and lake, the overriding smell around our cabins was barbecued chicken, smoking and spitting on the grill, which was chiefly tended by my Uncle Herby. Our recent trip being sans charcoal but with dogs, we took dinner at a table outside The Highway 211 Bar and Grill, the scents from which were also mouthwatering. My Black Lake Pulled Pork sandwich was fabulous, as was the beer that washed it down.

Speaking of which … back then, Uncle Herby and my father, Gordy, were confirmed Baptist teetotalers. Even then, though, I think they’d have gotten a kick out of my Belgian Style Ale’s name, it being Horny Monk. As they visited Black Lake again in later years, having come to believe the wine Jesus transformed from water wasn’t just some early Israeli form of plain Welch’s Grape Juice, they definitely loosened up.

Besides the saying “You can’t go home again,” another thing folks tell you is, “It’s a small world.”

That’s so true. As Nancy, a retired BSU professor, was about to bite into her reuben sandwich, a woman walked past our table wearing a “Ball State Mom” T-shirt. Turned out she lived up there. What’s more, her family was the same type of beatific Lutherans as yours truly, and her Muncie son’s college major was in religious studies. In fact, he was working with a campus group headed by our friend and local minister, the awesomely tattooed Rev. Robert Abner. Small world, indeed.

Anyway, the people we encountered in and around Onaway were very friendly and polite, just as I remembered them from years past. It was like they couldn’t hold open enough doors for you.

Seeing that gorgeous lake inspired memories of being there as a kid, and returning years later when we shared similar experiences with our own children. Quiet mornings with steaming coffee and butter melting into our fragrant “Black Lake muffins.” Paddling just offshore in heavy steel rowboats. Excitedly watching from our cabins as sudden, violent storms flipped over those rowboats like toys on the beach. Long blissful hours spent drifting on blow-up rafts, or imitating dorky versions of Lloyd Bridges on “Sea Hunt,” wearing our mask-and-snorkel sets. Waving goodbye from the beach in the afternoons as the womenfolk headed off to town, shopping for whatever treasures Onaway proffered. Waving goodbye from the dock as the menfolk headed onto the lake at dusk, returning with their catch a few hours later. The special night when my old man caught a thirty-inch muskie just trolling. Then our fathers filleting their catch at our cabins’ cleaning station, the night lit by a bright lamp overhead, with countless bugs flitting through the arc of its illumination.

None of us kids ended up as ichthyologists. Nevertheless, we all got firsthand looks at dissected fish and the gooey guts revealed therein. Then the innards were wrapped in newspapers and trash-canned for disposal, the tight lids keeping raccoons from snacking on them. You had to watch the wild critters up there.

Except, of course, for Honey.

Black Lake – being bracketed to the east by Lake Huron and to the west by Lake Michigan – was like Party Central for seagulls. One day we found a gull trapped in the bow of one of our rowboats, a broken wing keeping it from extracting itself. Lifting it out, we set it on the beach, from which it showed no inclination to leave.

The question then was, what to do?

Dad’s notion? Bestow tough love, meaning bop it on the head with an oar to put it out of its misery. The thing was, the gull didn’t seem all that miserable to the rest of us. Right about then, from out of nowhere, Uncle Herby christened the gull Honey. With that, something immediately became clear. Bopping an anonymous seagull on the head would be one thing. Bopping Honey on the head would be something else entirely. For the next day or two, Honey was easily the most popular member of our vacationing party, way more popular than Dad, who Uncle Herby kept ribbing as Honey’s would-be assassin. Still, before long Honey took off, though not literally.

I always liked to imagine she somehow healed up and lived a full seagull life after that. Of course, she was probably eaten by a weasel.

Being back at Black Lake last week brought many such reminiscences to mind. There was Honey, the smell of that chicken barbecuing, and swimming in such crystal clear water. In short, all the good family times we had with Dad and Mom, Uncle Herby and Aunt June, my sister Patty and cousins Karen and Gary. The older we get, the older everybody gets, it turns out the more pleasure is taken in pondering such memories, plus realizing how much they are to be treasured.

In that way, I guess we can go home again.


A former longtime feature writer and columnist for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, John Carlson is a storyteller with an unflagging appreciation for the wonderful people of East Central Indiana and the tales of their lives, be they funny, poignant, inspirational or all three.  John’s columns appear on Muncie Journal every Friday.