1 Not That Kind of Camp
As the husband of a former mayor and presidential candidate, I realize that I’m the sort of public figure who, in Hollywood, might be described as D-list, if I made it onto any list at all. The problem is not just my awkward positioning in the middle of the Venn diagram connecting “figures the kids know about” and “figures people who watch cable news know about.” The last name Buttigieg obviously stands out, but my unusual first name can sometimes throw the whole name-recognition project off track before you get there. Buttigieg’s husband? What’s his name? It’s not uncommon for me to have to repeat it over and over again at the coffee counter until it is ultimately shouted back as “Chastain,” “Justin,” or “Charles.” I used to take great offense when my name was mispronounced—I always liked that it was unique, so why didn’t anyone else? With age, there came the realization that this would be my normal, that baristas are overworked and underpaid, and that if I wanted to streamline the coffee-ordering process I would have to assume an alternate identity. If it’s prudent, I tell people my name is James and move on with my life.
Unfortunately, when it comes to understanding just how I got this unique name, the story is dissatisfying and inconclusive; there is an answer, but an incomplete one. My mom used to take on shifts as a nursing assistant in addition to doing the books for our family’s landscaping business, and she swears that a woman she worked with at the hospital was putting on a Christmas play that featured a character named King Chasten. As soon as she heard it, she loved it. Of course, I’ve done extensive research, and I can’t find a King Chasten anywhere. There is an Arthurian ballad that contains a command “… king, chasten thy wife…,” but based on the way that text continues, I really don’t think my mom’s friend would be in a play based on it. Regardless, it’s not pronounced like the verb, which means “to have a restraining effect on” and which is the opposite of my personality (I hope). It’s pronounced with a short a and a hard t: CHAS-ten.
If anything, my name is an expression of my parents’ creativity. My parents, Terry and Sherri Glezman, are loving, dedicated people who live for their friends and family; they always made sure their children’s lives were full of little adventures (and some bigger ones). Their parenting philosophy was neither hands-off nor helicopter, which allowed me to develop my independence in a genuine way without feeling totally unmoored. Though we’ve had our hard times, certain clichés ring true: they always wanted the best for me, and they absolutely “made me who I am today.” Since understanding that is part of the point of writing a memoir, this is where I have to begin.
My grandfather moved between Traverse City, Michigan, and coastal cities for years before ultimately planting permanent roots in 1959, when he was relocated for the National Coast Guard. Since then, the extended family nearby has grown so large that we can’t fit into a single house for our holiday gatherings—we now squeeze close to forty people at a time into my father’s finished barn. (We’ll talk about barns a bit later.) The woods and waters of Northern Michigan provided a lot of necessary set elements for my “rub some dirt in it, you’ll be fine” childhood. Some of the best illustration I can think of happened at Fish Camp. What’s Fish Camp, you ask? Well: Fish Camp was the annual father-son tradition in our family. The name refers to what we did (fish) and the vibe (camp, and not in the Susan Sontag sense). My mother’s uncle, Uncle Gene, has a cabin in the middle of nowhere, just outside Baraga, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and every summer my dad, two older brothers, and I would make the multipart journey together. The four of us would pile into Dad’s truck and make the seven-hour drive north with a truckload of coolers, gear, and a bag full of beef jerky. Along the way, Dad would stop at the Mackinac Bridge so we could take in the view and buy a pop from the convenience store. We’d play car games across the UP, listening to talk radio or the local country music station, which was probably called The Moose, until the only signs of civilization were the occasional pasty stand, bait shop, or gas station (which most likely sold pasties and bait). Once we made it to Baraga, we’d stop and say hi to Uncle Gene and “Aunty Mares” (that’s Aunt Marilyn in “Yooper” speak). Gene would probably tell us something like “The skeeters are bitin’ real hard—make sure ya lather on da bug dope.” (That’s, uh, mosquitos are biting and be sure to wear bug spray… dontcha know.) A few more miles into the forest and the real adventure began—not only do you have to drive into camp on a dirt road, you used to have to take an ATV part of the way, and in the winter, the men who went to the cabin to hunt deer would have to snowmobile into camp. Ultimately, Gene was able to dig a road out to the cabin, which, honestly, is kind of a bummer. The act of parking the truck, throwing on your backpack, and trudging through the rich copper mud was thrilling. There was no electricity or running water. In the daytime, in addition to fishing, Dad would bring rifles for us to practice shooting clay pigeons or targets; I became a really good marksman, even though I never lost my unease around guns. Just seeing the guns on the picnic table made me nervous, and although my dad has gifted me a few guns for birthdays over the years, they remain in his safe back home in Michigan. Dad was also very adamant about gun safety, and took pride in teaching the three of us boys responsibility in every sense. This became something I could share with voters on the trail who, for better or worse, had a lot to say about guns. I learned a lot, and my dad always made sure I wasn’t too far outside my comfort zone—but my unease never went away.
My favorite part of Fish Camp wasn’t shooting combustibles; it was the fish. Evenings were spent cooking what we’d caught that day. We’d pump water from the well, filet the fish, toss them in some batter, and fry them over the fire in a skillet. The simplicity was remarkable. The sun would set, we’d build a bonfire, and Uncle Gene would tell scary stories about man-eating wolves, close encounters with bears, and the occasional camper-abducting alien. Once the fire died down, we’d be left with the bright northern stars. We slept in sleeping bags on bunk beds, with Dad closest to the door, a gun propped up near his bed just in case a bear or wolf came too close to camp. One part safety, the other, I’m convinced, just to scare the shit out of Chasten. Right when I’d start to doze off, my dad would say something like “Shh. Did you hear that?” Of course, there was nothing outside, and Dad couldn’t keep himself from snickering.
I always prided myself on my performance at Fish Camp—throughout my childhood and adolescence, I was driven by a desire to be out in front. We were a competitive family, and sticking my neck out, both to win and to impress my parents, was always the name of the game. At home, my older brothers were Dad’s boys, while one of my favorite pastimes was singing Celine Dion songs to my mom while she folded laundry. But I was secretly very good at a lot of things involving the Great Outdoors. I knew it drove my brothers nuts that I excelled at school and, occasionally, at being an outdoorsman. (To give them credit, while I preferred to sleep in and watch cartoons, they often found the energy to wake up at the crack of dawn and hunt and skin a deer.) They were always messing around and getting in trouble, in fairly elaborate ways. There was the time they almost started a forest fire because one of them had stepped on a bee’s ground nest, gotten stung, and needed to seek revenge on “those fucking bees.” They returned to the scene of the crime and proceeded to pour gasoline all over the nest. This came to my attention when Rhyan, the oldest, zoomed into camp on a four-wheeler and jumped off so fast that the ATV kept rolling a few more yards. Just as a small plume of smoke became visible on the horizon, Dad came rushing out of the cabin with my brother, grabbed a jug of water and a shovel, jumped on another ATV, and zipped off into the woods. It was a small fire, easily extinguishable, and the forest was saved. Rhyan and Dustin had a good laugh, but Dad was furious. The entire time, I remained in my folding chair reading Harry Potter.
Fishing was where I excelled. I was great at tying hooks—one of my brothers hated touching worms and putting them on the hook, but I never minded getting my hands dirty, a quality that has helped me excel equally at raising cows and, eventually, working as a barista at Starbucks. As a result, I always caught the biggest fish. Everyone at Fish Camp probably says this, but for me it was true. I swear. (Upon publication of this book, I’m sure all the reviews will come with headlines like “PETE BUTTIGIEG’S FATHER-IN-LAW DISPUTES CLAIMS MADE IN HUSBAND’S EXPLOSIVE NEW MEMOIR: ‘Chasten didn’t catch the biggest fish.’ ”) One summer my dad lost his favorite lure after his line snapped while he was reeling in a fish; about an hour later, I caught a largemouth bass, and when we finally got home and began gutting it for dinner, there, lodged deep in the fish’s throat, was Dad’s favorite lure. I was really pleased with what this said about my fishing skills, though of course I never would have said that out loud.
Just kidding. Everyone hears this story… annually.
My dad is a no-bullshit kind of guy, reserved but very funny in his own way. He had very high, unspoken expectations that he put a lot of stock in, but most people know him for his generosity and love of surprises. (He once bought my mom a Persian kitten that we named Sheetah, as in “sheet of ice,” which was an appropriate description of the weather when we brought her home. Sheetah seemed to hate all of us, but that was part of her charm.) It’s always a pleasure to hear my dad laugh, because it happens so rarely. It happens especially when he is playing a practical joke, which, in a very dad-like way, he absolutely loves. When I was young I thought I was his easiest target, but now I wonder if he played those tricks on me so much because he thought the opposite—because he saw pranks as tests and learning opportunities, peculiar gifts that I could be trusted to handle without setting anything ablaze.
Some examples: In the summers, Dad would take us out on our small pontoon boat (which he named “the Pleasure Patrol”), and after I watched Jaws—at way too young an age—he would swim under the boat and pull my legs from below so that I thought I was being attacked by a shark. At Fish Camp, our usual fishing hole was a big, muddy, tree-lined riverbank; if you navigated the mud well, you could walk out into the slow river all the way up to your chest. One year a sturgeon jumped out of the river about ten or twenty yards down from where I was standing; I’d never seen a fish that big before (they can grow up to eight feet long), and my dad shouted from downstream, “Get out of the water! They’ll eat your legs!” You’d think that, as a teenager, I’d have been able to recognize when he was teasing me, but when it came to monsters in the water, I never took my chances. I waded as fast as I could out of the river, and my dad couldn’t stop laughing. My scream was most definitely heard from miles away.