A few years after he went to New York and started his work in advertising, my son came home for a weekend visit with a skateboard under his arm. He said he rode it to work. Over the next day or two, he stepped outside the house a couple times and rolled around the neighborhood on it. It was a nice board, almost three feet long, with the same lines as an actual surfboard and heavy duty wheels underneath it. I’m pretty sure he called these wheels “trucks.” He rode it with no protective equipment, no helmet, no wrist or knee guards. I tried to picture him rolling around Manhattan like that. His mother was not happy.
“Wanna take it for a ride?” he asked me.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
I passed through the skateboard phase when I was a kid. We didn’t call them “skateboards.” They were “sidewalk surfboards.”
This would have been in the early 60’s. Surf culture, thanks to popular music, was taking the US by storm. In the summer of 1963 “Surf City” by Jan and Dean was all you heard on the radio. The chorus had a catchy handle: “Two girls for every boy.” And went like this: “Well I’m goin to surf city, gonna have some fun. Goin to surf city ‘cause it’s two to one.” So clearly, the song was as much about budding summer romance as riding the wide surf. The west coast was being romanticized on television and in music. “Malibu” was a magic word. I felt the magic. The summer of 1964 we went to the movies and and saw “Ride the Wild Surf” on the big screen. I just thought: I want to do that. I want that to be me.
As far as I know you couldn’t actually buy a skateboard anywhere. There weren’t any skateboards in the local hardware store. Pat’s supermarket, across the street from our house, didn’t have a Malibu aisle. On the radio Jan and Dean were singing a song whose chorus was “Grab your board and go sidewalk surfing with me.” We did what most industrious kids living in farm towns thousands of miles from Malibu would do. We made skateboards.
At that time you could buy a cheap pair of roller skates that you clamped to a pair of shoes. The skates came with a “key,” a little wrench thing that tightened a clamp on the front and back of the skate. Lots of kids had these all-metal skates. They were terrible. We threw the keys away and took the skates apart. Obviously each skate had a front and rear axle. From a pair of skates you could make two surfboards. You also needed an actual board. Our dads must have had lumber lying around. We found planks. We had saws and screws and screwdrivers. These were not precision creations. No one wasted time using a square to make sure the wheels were mounted perfectly straight on the boards. We just slapped them on and went for a ride. It was a joke. The song was a joke. In the chorus, a refrain repeated: “Bust your buns, bust your buns now.” There must have been a lot of bun-busting.
That was my first and only skateboard. Along with Jan and Dean came the Beach Boys. They were all California all the time, singing about surfing, cars, and girls. In Michigan you couldn’t quite get close to this, except in your imagination.
It wasn’t really love. And it wasn’t the first. But the vague and thrilling possibility of having a girlfriend swept over me that summer up at the lake.
That’s how we said it in our family. Up at the lake. We’re going to the lake. That meant Lake Missaukee, in Lake City. For 3-4 consecutive years my mother and brother and I spent 3-4 weeks in the summer up at the lake, staying in a 22 two foot house trailer in the county park. The trailer had four bunk beds in the back, two on each side, along with a kitchen that had a four-burner gas range and sink with a faucet that was connected to park water access by a rubber hose. The water always tasted like rubber. The trailer also had a little dinette, with a diner booth, seating for two on either side of a table. Just outside the door was a sitting area covered with an awning, where we had a wood picnic table the park provided and a couple folding chairs.
Lake City was my Surf City. Every sunny day we walked a hundred yards to the lake, past a pavilion with picnic tables, past a playground, to the sandy beach where we swam, and I got a good tan and my hair bleached out. I wore shorts all day. Two girls for every boy….
At the edge of the park, opposite the lake, was a little red cottage where a family stayed. I got to know a kid named Bob Patterson, who told me, with obvious pride, that his family lived in the heart of Detroit. He and I became good pals, and it was with him that I enjoyed a brief flirtation with a couple girls, Jeannie and Judy. They were identical twins. He and I walked down the beach into town, a distance of a few hundred yards, where there was a city beach with a slide. That’s where we saw Jeannie and Judy. They were san-tanned little beauties who went up and down the slide. The girls’ long blond hair fell over the shoulders and down their backs when it was wet. It seemed natural that one of them would be Bob’s girlfriend and one mine, but we never quite worked that out. I couldn’t tell one from the other.
Bob had twin sisters a few years older. Maybe for that reason he understood girls better than I did. When I crosssed the road at the edge of the park and shoved through the bushes into his yard, I would see them, Pattie and Margie, lying on sheets spread on the lawn. They smelled like suntan lotion and seemed totally, completely not interested in their brother’s new friend.
Up and down the slide we went. Up and down went Jeannie and Judy. Along with Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys, whose music fired my imagination, there was a song by Gary Lewis and the Playboys that played in my mind. “Save Your Heart for Me.” The catchy melody was whistled at the beginning of the song by Gary (I assume it was Gary). I could whistle. If I could whistle, I figured I could probably kiss too. Jeannie and Judy kept away from us, just far enough that we never really even talked. But there they were, in the water, happy to see us, climbing the ladder to the top of the slide, screaming as they slid down into the water.
One day when I crossed through the bushes into the Patterson’s yard, along with Pattie and Margie sunning themselves in their two piece bathing suits, Mr. and Mrs. Patterson were sitting on lawn chairs on the lawn. It was a little conversation group. I said hello and engaged in parent-to-kid small talk, noticing as I did that Mr. and Mrs. were drinking a beer. I mean a beer, one between them. She had a glass, he drank from a short brown Strohs bottle, from which he had obviously poured some of the contents into her glass. After a minute or two Bob came out of the house carrying a large stringed instrument. Mrs Patterson announced that Bob played the cello. Next to his mother was a kitchen chair that had been brought out into the yard for this purpose. He smiled at me, said hello, sat down and began to play.
It sounded good.
It sounded strange and exotic. No one in my hometown, at least that I knew of, played the cello. We did not listen to the cello or any kind of orchestral music in our home. Around this age I had begun to take music lessons at school from a kind and avuncular teacher, the school band director, named Karl Nemvalts. He introduced kids to music in 30 minute sessions during which we played flutaphones, an instrument I would now call a recorder. We learned about the scale, about whole, half, quarter, and eighth notes. And whole, half, quarter and eighth rests. And what to do with your tongue. It was sort of like kissing.
Bob played the cello, and I watched his parents take sips of beer. The way they sipped it seemed dignified. Once or twice Mr. Patterson poured a little more from the bottle into Mrs. Patterson’s glass. I got the idea they were a one-beer couple.
There were no stringed instruments in our home; neither was there any beer. Ever. Around the Missaukee County park where we camped those summers, I saw lots of people drinking beer, saw the empty bottles in cases underneath house trailers and next to tents. One night, riding by a small trailer on my bike, I recall a woman standing outside her trailer, her head thrown back and a long neck bottle upended in her hands. She was draining it. I can still see the muscles in her neck working as she swallowed. On the radio or a record player nearby, I heard John Lennon’s voice: “Well I told you before, you can’t do that.”
When Bob put down the cello, we walked down to the lake together and headed for the city beach, thinking we’d find Jeannie and Judy. They weren’t there. Or they were there. It didn’t matter. They were just part of the longing and confusion I was beginning to experience. Back home my friend Ron Fritz described a girl he met when his family was up at the lake (not our lake, a different lake). Her name was Sharon, he said. Two or three summers, he said, when they went to camp there, he would see Sharon. They hung out. It was a thing. Once, he said, in a special moment, she turned to him and said, “How about a kiss?” Wow. That’s what he said. And I guess they kissed. Though now I suspect Sharon was as real as Jeannie and Judy. Real, yes. But fleeting. A powerful figment of imagination, like Surf City.
One hot summer afternoon my brother and I did something stupid. When we walked from our trailer to the beach and back, or from our trailer to the park restrooms and back, we passed trailers with sixpacks and cases of empty bottles left in plain sight at other campsites. Usually in their cardboard containers, usually underneath the trailers to keep from getting rained on, they were there because they were returnable. Each bottle returned cashed in a two cent deposit. “Twenty bottles, 40 cents,” my brother said. He would later become an accountant. We could use that money to buy snacks, bottles of Royal Crown Cola, Payday candy bars, licorice or wax lips at the park store.
We must have taken paper grocery bags our mother saved. We knew which trailers were not occupied, in which ones people didn’t come up mid-week. We had cased the park. We walked from trailer to trailer and took one or two bottles from each stash and shoved them into the bags, looking over our shoulders like cat burglars.
Collecting only pop bottles. For two reasons.
One, we had convinced ourselves that it was risky taking beer bottles to the store bottle return window. We weren’t old enough to buy beer, so they might suspect that they weren’t ours, that we had come into their possession by illegitimate means. And two, there was no alcohol in our family. Unlike Mr. and Mrs. Patterson, unlike it seemed to us nearly every other family we knew, our parents did not drink beer or any other alcoholic beverage. Those long necks were forbidden, they were anathema, they were corruption. Merely touching them would come with a stain. A candy bar was just not worth the risk.
After a quick sweep of the park, loaded with this booty, we hiked up into town, to the IGA grocery store. There we did something stupid. Somehow the idea had entered our minds that returning many bottles, and an assortment of them, could be construed as proof that we had stolen them. This was our guilty conscience speaking. So we went to the window one at a time, first Tom, then me; then we swapped shirts outside the store, stripping them off on the sidewalk and trading, so when I went back in the store I was incognito. Same face but different shirt. Different kid?
We only pulled this caper once. Either because Methodist rectitude kicked in or because the absurdity became apparent to one or both of us.
We had to maintain appearances. The county sheriff’s department was only a block or two from the IGA, and we knew the county sheriff. He was our uncle, Sheriff Hartley Davis, Jr., called, by those who knew him, Junior. Our Aunt Jean called him Junior. Our parents called him Junior. We called him Uncle Junior. (For some reason the weirdness of that name never occurred to us–was there an Uncle Senior?) Once or twice we had been to visit our aunt and cousins at the sheriff’s department. Usually they stayed in their house outside of town, up the road in Merritt, where our mom was raised. But during summers, to be close to the lake, they would come down to live at the department residence.
We thought of it as the jail. How cool it was, and how frightening, to live at the jail. Visiting them there once, I noticed these strange guys wandering around. Who were they? My mother asked. Trustees, our aunt replied.
What’s a trustee, I asked my mother later. A prisoner, she said. A prisoner who has promised to be good.