Saginaw County, Michigan, 1955
One of my first memories was a dream.
I was very small. We lived in the flat farmland of Saginaw County, two houses from my Grandma, my father’s mother. My cousins and I called her ‘Ma’ because that is what our daddies called her.
The land was not exactly treeless, but the virgin white pine forest that covered most of Michigan when the French Jesuits had arrived in the 17th century had been wiped out fifty years earlier, and all that broke the monotony was second growth poplar and birch. Great for brambles and berries, but all that flat land looks a lot prettier today, now that the hardwood saplings of my childhood have grown tall.
Most of the land was cropland, though, as this is deep black soil, among the best in the country. My Grandfather and Grandma had moved south to Saginaw County from the Ogemaw Hills fifty miles north, after the War. None of Grandpa’s sons were interested in farming, and from what I have been told, neither was he without his sons to do the hard work. For some years he ran a pool hall in town, while my father, the eldest, ‘stared at a mule’s ass all day’, as he later put it.
No wonder Dad was mystified years later when I lived on a communal farm that used horse power, the real kind. And no wonder my dad, a WWII vet who had to carry heavy packs through rough terrain (10th Mountain), thought I was insane for wanting to spend weeks hiking in the wilderness.
Grandpa had died when I was a baby, in his early 50s, so Dad’s mom had not been long a widow.
I liked to go see Ma, and one of my earliest memories was of the sweet and yeasty smell of her house when she was baking bread. It was white bread, but if those words evoke dead food, all air and chemical vitamins, you have never tasted real home baked white bread. Slathered in butter, before food was ever anything but local.
This was probably 1955, when I was two, and it was a different world, a world only a few years removed from the primitive life my parents had lived as children in clear cut northern Michigan, life without electricity or indoor plumbing, without cars, frigid for much of the year.
To get to my grandmother’s I had to walk through the neighbors’ land. They were Germans, and their son Hansy and I played together. It was only much later, of course, that I realized how strange that was. My father, only a few years earlier, was fighting Germans. I mean, I have a brother in law, a Vietnam vet, who cannot stand to be in the presence of a southeast Asian, even if he knows that they fled the same people he was trying to kill.
But of course maybe winning a war makes you more amicable.
But I remember Hansy’s parents’ rooster.
He was bigger than me, aggressive and frightening.
And those eyes, otherworldly and enraged, circles of malevolence, scared me like nothing else in my small world.
In the dream I was walking to Ma’s, wary as always. I did not see the rooster and was almost across the yard when He suddenly appeared, fierce, fire in his scary eyes, talons, which seemed as big as my daddy’s hands, flying at my face.
And then, out of nowhere, was my father. He had a hoe in his hand and he struck the attacker until he was dead.
And I was delivered.