|Publisher:||Gibson House Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)|
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THE BLUE CANOE
We called it "Godspeed the Warriors" and we did it every year on graduation night. It was a peculiar ritual, where the seniors got together, in the hour before sunset, with canoes and paddles in a cove beneath the high bluffs on the southern shore of Lake Superior and rowed across the shallows to Otter Island. Our observance of this rite went all the way back to World War I, when the people of the peninsula bade a patriotic adieu to four brothers from Ashton who'd joined up. Folks had heard about what went on over there and expected, no doubt, that some of the Olson boys would not be coming back.
The year our turn came around was the first hot day of the season. We were sweaty, high, and sun-weary from two hours that morning getting roasted like heretics in our black robes on the soccer field behind the gym. For the rest of the day we had drifted from one crepe-papered back yard to another, drinking champagne from the Kroger.
The local newspapers back in 1918 recorded that the pageant lasted three days. There was a parade, Indian dances and foot races, a professional baseball team, and on Sunday the first Godspeed. It had been the idea of Alfred Bigelow, the mayor of Ashton, to capture the military spirit of the moment by recreating another savage battle, one fought on these waters centuries ago between the Ojibwa of the island and an invading party of Sioux.
Whatever happened to the Olson boys? True to the fears of the locals, none of them made it back home. None of them died in France, either. The war was over before they reached the front lines. They lived through the war (and for years afterward as far as anyone knew) but didn't come back home. And so Godspeed became for the grown-ups about going away and for us kids about the chance to never return.
After the Armistice was signed — an event also recorded in the local papers of that year — no one wanted another pageant, but they liked Godspeed the Warriors, and so it was kept and performed every year on graduation day. Since kindergarten I had watched from the bluffs with Grey Reed and the other kids my age, jealous and admiring of the seniors, who looked as grown up as we ever thought we'd want to be, and counted off the years until it would be our turn. Now that day had come, and we stood on the shore next to our boats.
Grey Reed was shirtless, with his hair leather-strapped into a ponytail. He stood surveying the water in front of us and the island beyond it, and flicked a caterpillar off the prow of the canoe, which was wood and twelve feet long and belonged to Callie's stepdad, Ray, until Grey offered to take the thing off of his hands and hauled it out from behind the barn on the Dobbses' property where it had sat hull-up across two sawhorses for so many years that the sun and the elements had stripped the wood bare of paint. Grey had refitted the ribbing in the hull and the benches and laid on three coats of polyurethane marine paint, indigo blue (because he said he'd seen his share of red canoes). When he was done, Callie said it was "pretty," which was a hard word for her to part with, since she'd made no secret of how much she resented the time he put into the job. Ray Dobbs admired the work Grey had done so much he told him he wanted the boat back.
Nobody needed to be told what to do: carry boats to the water, line them up in even rows, and wait for the signal to begin, which was three blasts of a whistle. When it came, we flipped our boats over and waded into the rocky shallows. The water was frigid and snatched at our ankles as we launched the canoe, which glided across the surface of the lake like an eager mallard, until the three of us jumped in at the same time and the hull groaned and settled among the waves. At the bow, Callie sliced the water in easy, shallow j-shaped strokes. Grey steered, and I sat without paddle on the center bench. "Riding cargo," Grey called it.
Somewhere in the history of Godspeed the idea had become to tear across to the island as fast as you could. Coming up on our right, Kurt Rossmeier and Randy Storer — two-thirds of the first line of the Norsemen varsity hockey squad — slashed at the waves with their paddles. Grey and Callie maintained their measured pace. None of the three of us, least of all Grey, was in any hurry for the maiden voyage of the blue canoe to come to an end.
The water churned as dozens of other canoes plowed past us, making the whole spectacle seem more like a water ride at Great America than like the actual historical event that this ceremony was supposed to recall.
Callie stretched her paddle over her head with both hands and twisted her hips, baring the copper skin of her lower back. "God," she said, "it's good to be out of that dress." She was talking about the black velvet number she had worn to graduation, which had looked stunning, no question, on a tall and slender girl, but wasn't a wise choice to wear under a graduation gown on an early summer scorcher. "Dolores picked it out," she said. "I only wore it because I thought my dad was coming." However, her father hadn't arrived from La Crosse like he said he would. Now she was barefoot and wearing the blue fake-satin shorts that Dolores bought her in Duluth on an otherwise perfectly good spring afternoon.
Our original plan was to stick together, Grey and Callie and me. We were going to go down to school, the three of us, and Grey and I were going to room together and Callie would live in a girls' dorm nearby with some girl from Oostburg or someplace, who we would talk to or not, depending on how we felt. Then Grey went and flunked AP English. Walt Smalley, our principal, only let Grey go through graduation on the condition that he make the credits up in summer school, which Grey had no intention of doing. Instead — jacked by his success with Ray's canoe — he was going to make boats. So now Callie was staying behind, too, and she was going to take classes at the Catholic college in Ashton.
The shadows cast by the birches on the bluffs at our backs stretched far ahead of us into the channel. Grey steered us clear of traffic, until even the slowest of the other boats had passed us up, then we idled just off shore until everybody else beached their canoes and had nothing to do but stare at us as Grey and Callie put their paddles to the water and we glided in on the waves.
* * *
Otter Island is basically a sand bar, a narrow spit of land, jutting two miles into Superior to the northwest from a point above the mouth of the Mulberry River, separated from the mainland by two hundred yards of shallows. The otters that gave the island its name are gone, victims of the timber trade, which stripped the shoreline of trees, and of the lumberjacks, who spent the hours they weren't laying waste to the forests drinking whiskey and blasting their furry ilk off the rocks with Colt revolvers. Here the Sioux raiding party swam the shallows and ambushed two Ojibwa boys from St. Raphael. Then the Ojibwa came swiftly by canoe to cut off the enemy's escape to the mainland. The result was a slaughter, with knives and fists and bows and rocks.
None of us knew much about that battle but we laid up our boats — like the Ojibwa did — on the beach that stretched northwest along the leeward length of the island.
Standing on a granite boulder among the dunes was Craig Hauser, senior class president (elected, after three defeats, in a pity vote). Fidgeting at Craig's right was Delva Cleary, our diet-pill-hoarding class treasurer, at his left Mimi Keegan, vice prez, busting out of her letter sweater, her knees pink with sunburn. Behind them the flames from the bonfire already poured upward. "Three lines," Craig called from his rock through the cheerleaders' megaphone. "Form up." And we did, wandering to the back of the third ribbon of teenaged impatience that stretched from the beach to Craig's rock to the fire beyond.
And there we waited. When you got to the head of the line you received a brown paper bag, stapled on the top and stamped with the red image of Odin, the bearded, broad-sword-swinging Viking who was the Ashton mascot. Inside the bag was a long black candle, a Dixie Cup, and a smudged sheet of carbon paper with a diagram that looked like this:
though anyone who needed a drawing to tell them what to do with a candle and a cup had no business being let loose on the SAT with a sharpened no. 2 pencil.
Our grandparents performed this ceremony with torches, maple boughs as long and thick as your arm, wrapped in rags, and doused in kerosene, and, man, I bet there wasn't a kid there who didn't wish we still did. But the school board had long ago ruled all this a safety menace. For us it was kitchen candles and Dixie Cups decorated with Hanna-Barbera characters. On mine was a Flintstones barbecue scene: Dino swiping a drumstick the size of an acoustic guitar, Fred chasing him, arms reaching, chubby legs a blur, while, on the other side of the cup, next to a Weber grill made from rock, Wilma, Barney, and Betty watch and laugh from the picnic table that Bam Bam is holding above his head, Pebbles at his feet, a bone in her hair.
Following the defeat of the Sioux, the story goes, the Ojibwa built a fire in the sand. So each year we build a fire in the sand. One of the warriors, it's said, held a Sioux lance to the flame and waved the burning shaft above his head. We do the same. After we pushed the base of candle (a) though the bottom of Dixie Cup (b), as the last rays of the sun reflect copper on the windows of the waterfront houses across the channel on St. Raphael, at no one's command, we gathered together, closer and closer, until we were standing in a lazy huddle about twenty feet from the water. And when it was dark and, on this night it is utter dark, because of a new moon (a condition that is not required by the traditions of this ceremony, only a lucky coincidence, like the absence of rain), we held our wicks to the bonfire as the glow rose on our faces.
We were summoned alphabetically. Craig boomed Melissa Aaron's name into the megaphone louder than he had to since she was standing right next to him. Holding her candle above her head, she said, "I'm not deaf, dork," and began walking, to general laughter, northward toward the far end of the island, as we sang "Never Again Our Ashton." After she walked ten steps Troy Anderson followed after her. He counted off ten paces. Then came Camille Atkins. And like that, we proceeded, one after the other, walking into the dark as all of us sang
By Hiawatha's shining banks Where the black bear roams Shall we ever give our thanks To the guardians of our homes.
Grey saw me looking at him and shrugged. We never showed much of the old school spirit, but this was Godspeed the Warriors. Even if you weren't inclined to sing along, the weight of history forced the words to your lips. Callie sang too, rolling her eyes when the voices rose up at the chorus. Then it was her turn to go and she went, tugging at the belt loop of Grey's shorts as she did. We watched her walk until only her T-shirt was visible beneath the candle, and then it was Alvin Deere, obscuring Callie with the relative brightness of his flame. Grey's turn didn't come until after we had sung our way through the song a second and then a third time. "How much would you give me to fuck this up?" he said as he went, leaving less than a dozen of us.
Two more times through the song and no one was left but myself and Darrell Young, who was nursing his candle and keeping an eye on Chip Walter, the last to leave ahead of him. I counted off Chip's ten steps. Then eleven. I told Darrell, "Go." He did. Then I followed him. I walked my ten paces. Which was as far as I went. I was supposed to stop then and yell out "Zwiggy," the signal that we'd reached the end of the line. This came from — the story goes — Arnold Zweig, the name of the last boy to carry a torch back at the very first Godspeed. The word echoed down the line. When it reached Melissa Aaron, the last chorus of the Alma Mater was sung. We turned to the west, then to the east, holding our candles as high as we could above our heads, waved them to the north and then to the south, to the north again and sang the fight song,
Fight Ashton, fight, fight, fight Fight, fight, fight For the old red and black.
Then it was my turn again: holding the candle above my head, I walked north toward the far end of the island, along an alley of light formed by the candle flames on my left and the reflection of those candles on the water on my right. I walked too fast at first. My candle sputtered and almost went out, and I had to slow down until the flame returned. Tilting the cup backward to shield it from the breeze that even a slow walk created, I kept on, past Chip and Darrell, Candace Vukovich and Sissy Talbott and on down the row. The sand cooled under my feet. I heard Darrell kick up a twig and cuss and was relieved that the procession was forming up the way it was supposed to, each of the kids I passed falling in ten steps behind the last in line, until we looked (I'd always thought when I watched this from the bluff) like a thread of light being sewn through the dark fabric of the sand.
Grey was tracing the sand with his toe when I came even with him. In his right hand he held the candle propped against his hip. This was not a day he would remember fondly: having to walk across the stage, shake Walt's hand, and get handed a diploma case they both knew was empty. Dolores, Callie's mother, made sure he didn't forget it, either. Pecking him on the cheek and then saying, "Here come the college kids," when Callie and I walked up behind him. As much as I hate to admit it, I was happy to hear Grey had flunked a course, after the way he used to ease through classes without opening a book, turning in all his work at the last minute. I liked the idea of him sitting in summer school, while I spent a lazy summer contemplating my brilliant future.
That was when I thought he would go to summer school.
But true to his style he would do his best to turn that defeat into a victory, coaxing the town council into letting him lease a boat hangar for his business, getting his dad to write a story about it in the paper, and going around acting like he never wanted to go to college in the first place. Like anything having to do with school was positively juvenile.
Up close, the line of candles looked ragged — arms held at different heights, some candles out of step with the others, some candles burning out, having to be replenished by a neighboring flame. There was Alvin Deere standing as straight as anyone, when only the week before he was saying that his uncle and the tribal elders were going to boycott because they thought Godspeed made them out to be savages. Grey had agreed, and said that the fact that they didn't go through with it showed that Alvin and his uncle didn't have any guts after all.
Two candles after Alvin came Callie, slouched at the hip like Grey, though holding her candle higher. Her lips were fixed in the same steady frown she wore the first time I'd ever seen her, at the ferry dock, on our first day of seventh grade, trying to wrestle her binder back from Terri Gustafson.
I was moving faster. I looked over my shoulder to see if Darrell was keeping up, and I saw the blur of his flame close enough so that I didn't have to slow my pace. I wanted this to be over. I passed Cammy Atkins and then Betsy Aaron and then ahead of me was only the beach and the darkness. To my right the candle lit only as far as the tops of the dunes that hid the windward side of the island from view, to my left, dim reflections of the flame flickered across the incoming waves like heat lighting. The candle split the darkness ahead of me. I looked again at the sand to my right and saw the projected image of the scene from my cup on the sand. Magnified by the distance of the projection, Dino enlarged to the size of a city-stomping Godzilla stalked down by a hulking, hate-inflated Fred, his arms raised and fingers curled in predatory intent.
If I had looked over my shoulder again I would have seen the procession following behind and Betsy Aaron's candle growing smaller, as the line doubled back upon itself until it was no longer moving in two directions at once, but became one line, moving in one direction, north, with me in the front.
Then just as we had when the procession began, we turned to the west and waved our candles and then to the east and sang the Alma Mater for our last time as students. And when the song was over, I blew out my candle, which was the signal for Darrell to blow out his and then Chip, and so on. I turned to the south and watched the candles going out all the way along the line, until the last was gone, and I was left standing in the dark, as far away from where we began as you could get.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Simple Machines"
Copyright © 2018 Ian Morris.
Excerpted by permission of Gibson House Press.
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