Sunday, August 21, 2011

GERMFASK Chap I - (A novice look at American Christianity)

It was a land that had been reinvented over many times. In just the previous ephod the ice slid out of Ontario like a giant spatula pushing down the trees and the hills; clearing out the mastodon and chasing away the bear-skinned hunter.  The ice gouged, scored, scraped . . . then ground, abraded and finally polished the granite and ancient basalt bedrock into a perfect and pure outcropping.  An old Algonquian legend told how the land was so smooth and full of colors that the sky became jealous.  In her jealously she poured down a rain of black dirt to cover the refined stone and to hide its magnificence.

In other folktales, it was the seed, born of the wind or the droppings of birds that found its way into the fissures and cracks. There the brief life gave opportunity of the next seed to fare better. Then on and on the cycle played out where a blade of grass gave out to scrubs, brushwood and finally, a million cycles later . . . sparely gathered trees.

By the time of this story, the only trees viable were birch, aspen and a few small pines.  The birch, with their bright, white skins don’t seem natural but like garrisons of soldiers made of cigarettes wearing drab overcoats. In the autumn their coats turn to bight, yellow, accented now and then by orange maples, and are so brilliant that they are the envy of the hardwood forests of New England.

The thin, organic loam lay gently on the polished bedrock like a resting moss.  In the shallow breaks formed creeks and rivers.  Although their waters were as clear as the most transparent crystal, the dark soil made them look like streams of crude oil. The land was so flat that the tributaries were puzzled on which way to flow . . . either south towards Lake Michigan or north to Superior or Huron.  In their uncertainty they coiled and twisted . . . sometimes being so timid that they formed small lakes where they could gather their waters as they contemplated their course.

One of those streams was the Manistique River.  It was the major drainage for this flat, forgotten plain.  This land was in great need of such bilge because the snows, the same which had given birth to the ice long before, fought each winter to bring the land back under their submission.  While the thin, black soil could be measured in inches, the snows were measured in articulations . . . the ankle depth of one brief, October storm would become knee depth by November, hip by Christmas and neck before spring started the slow taper.  The brief lukewarm summers teetered on such a fine balance, that if there was but one or two degree Fahrenheit change in the average temperature, the snows would not melt before they began again and the sheets of ice would appear once more and reclaim the stone.

As Europeans came to this land, they found riches of iron, copper and towering white pines in the distant western hills.  To access these treasures they build railroads that linked the steamships of the Huron and Superior.  These were arteries of rails which were vital until the locks were opened at Sault Ste Marie.  The locks allowed a single ship to complete the entire journey without the need for land. 

Where the railroad, also known as the Manistique, cross the river of its namesake, a bridge was built and a switch was hammered between the tracks.  The switch directed trains that ran west to the resources, south to the ports on the Michigan and north to the ports on the Huron.  The Manistique RR needed a switch-master so a house was built to accommodate him and his family.  Soon they had a few neighbors to set up a store and to bring supplies to beaver trappers and hunters.  Before long, these eight families inhabited this remote place; the Grants, the Edges, George Robinson, the Meads, The good Doctor French, Ezekiel Ackley, the Sheppards and the Knaggs.  It was the combination of the first letters of their last names of each family that gave the village its odd name.

As time went on, Germfask only grew to a township of half a thousand. The track switch became automatic so the only reason to continue living there was the fact that the people had already homesteaded.  It is difficult to give up a place you have built with your own hands and move on. So they struggled to find a way to live.  The crops could not support them in the brief thaw which they called summer.  The locals did find ways to lure the few tourists off the main highways which ran east and west either north or south of them. 

The Manistique River was also kind enough to pause and ponder just to the east in large lake also called Manistique.  There, vacation homes sprang up and on the west end, Germfask was a reasonable distance to call “town.”  In those homes lived the people from the city who had come to make peace with god’s country.  After all it was this far northern land which had given the city folks their means of living through its gifts of metal and wood. The iron became the steel of the Model T and the Dodge Ram. The dense white pine became the sticks which held up their roofs over the places they reared their children.

Germfask has one restaurant, not counting the hotdog merry-go-round inside the Quick Mart out on the highway.  The restaurant was built by John Sheppard, the great grandson of the original settler Oscar Sheppard.  Finally John got too old to run it and then his daughter tried. But with most of the giant white pine in the west gone, the traffic had slowed and she gave up. The Liberty stood empty for almost a decade during the sixties.  However, just before her decline was irreversible, a chain of retired people came into ownership. They were blessed with the circumstances of running a restaurant out of personal enjoyment and without the necessary of financial sustainability.  The last owners, Arnie and Sharon, moved up from Chicago in the early 90s. 

Arnie had a career as a lineman from the power company. He was electrocuted in 87 at the age of thirty nine.  It wasn’t the shock which disabled him but the fall from a 75 foot tower.  It took him a year and a series of multiple orthopedic procedures to walk again.  Sharon was a nervous woman and after their house was ransacked by robbers, there was nothing more she wanted than to move.  She loved cooking and the Jolly Inn, their new name for the bar and grill, fit her like a glove.  

If America had a back door to its culture, Germfask would be as good of a point of entry as any.  If there was a literal door, through which you could enter our world un-noticed, the front door of the Jolly Inn may have been the best.