David J. Dukesherer
BENTON HARBOR – 1943
Along Lake Michigan and bays like the Little Traverse, there are many towns and small villages with strange French and Indian names, like Wequetonsing, Charlevoix, Huron, and Mackinaw. The fishing is good, and you can catch coho and king salmon, steelhead, lake trout and herring. Lots of city people from places like Chicago and Milwaukee and St. Louis and other places keep cottages up there and spend the summers on the lake, or other lakes like Torch, Leelanau, Elk and Paw Paw. My grandfather had a cabin up on Lake Macatowa that he built by himself when he was sixteen. It burned down in 1931, and he took me up there once, in Ottawa County, and when he saw the old burned out foundations and the remnants of some of the timbers that he had hand-hewn, I think that I saw a tear in his eye. He died the next year.
I used to listen to him for hours while he told stories about all the ships that had sunk on Lake Michigan – – ships with names like the Nina Bailey, the Bancroft, and the J. Barber, the ship that went down with all hands and a load of his father’s apples onboard in 1871.
Before the turn of the century, my grandfather built a string of small trading stores, beginning at Benton Harbor and ending way up north on the U.P. He and his relations would load wagons full of fresh produce, groceries and other trade goods and haul them up to the stores in the early spring when the roads were clear and stock the stores for the season. At regular intervals throughout the summer, they would replenish the stock at the stores with more produce, most of which they grew on the old family farm.
Some families would write my grandfather in advance and order special groceries and other provisions. He would fill those orders special and crate them up, and they would be waiting for the people when they opened their cottages. He never turned down a request if he could help it, and once he hauled a live goat all the way up to near Muskegon for a man from Chicago who had a sick baby that needed the fresh goat’s milk.
Later, when the steamships were running more regularly, he could send my father up the lake with a special order, and sometimes he used the trains. My old man used to love to make those trips and would normally get a good tip for his trouble. In those days, ferries ran between Milwaukee and Muskegon, and Chicago and Saint Joseph, and on up through Muskegon, Ludington, Frankfurt, Mackinaw City, and Saint Ignace. He would often stop at a trading store, if he was near one, and see if they had any news or other orders for my grandfather. My grandfather had a pretty large grocery store in Benton Harbor, and he used the back room to supply the stores up north. Now this store belongs to my old man, and he sold off the trading stores because just about every town has a grocery store now, and most of the produce is sold at a big open market here in town.
I had heard a rumor once that he was shipping bootleg whiskey up to the stores too, but my mother got real sore when I asked about it. Her brother, my Uncle Joe Riley, who I was named for, did operate a tavern here in town, but I never saw him drunk, nor did I ever hear of him having any trouble with the law.
My Uncle Joe is a good guy, and we go fishing together down on the St. Joe, near to the fort, whenever we can. One night last summer he brought along some sandwiches that the cook had made for us down at his tavern, and a few bottles of beer, and he let me have one. Like my old man and his before him, I went to work in the main store when I was just a kid, and I guess he always thought of me as being older then I am. His new wife, Sadie, made him sell the tavern, and he is now a partner with my old man.
The next day, I was telling Bob Storey about the beer while we were playing catch out front of my house on the lawn. I didn’t know my mother was there on the screened porch folding clothes, and she overheard me. She gave my uncle hell and asked my old man to speak to me about it, but he never did. I work at my old man’s store almost every day now, all summer long and during the year after school, and he must have known I didn’t mean to cause any trouble.
My father’s people are German, and my mother’s are Irish. Our family was one of the first to settle in this part of Michigan and homesteaded a section just out of town. Some trouble happened way back, and they split the land up into four parcels. Two of the 160-acre pieces are farmed by uncles of mine, and the third by my Great Aunt Carrie and her son Pete. Carrie’s a widow, and her husband, Wil, who died when I was ten, fought with the old Third Michigan Infantry in the Civil War. The fourth section, the one my old man inherited, still has the old family place sitting vacant there. My old man never liked farming much, and he donated half of it; eighty acres to the Lutheran Church, and the main German cemetery is there. When he met and married my mom, she insisted that the Catholics needed a new cemetery too, so he donated most of the rest of the acreage to the Catholic Church. The only land he kept was the few acres where the old home place and barn are. All the old family furnishings are still there in the house, and I still like to rummage through the attic and basement. There is one big trunk full of blankets made by the Miami’s, and some arrowheads too. My dad keeps his old guns and my grandfather’s old guns down in the basement in a big dark cabinet, on account of my mom not wanting guns in her house.
When my folks got married they built the house in town, and it’s close enough to the store that he can walk to work. We have a nice running Ford, but he normally only drives it on weekends. My mother never learned to drive, but in this town you can walk most anywhere anyway.
I went down to the store with my old man today to help out. My old man was butchering a side of beef when Mrs. Storey came in. I was sweeping out the back room and breaking some crates out back. When I came back in, my old man was tying binding string around the tails of a bunch of puppies – – the kind of string that you use to stitch ups a roast or a chicken with.
He reminded me of a doctor, standing there at the cutting table. He had a big brown stogie in one corner of his mouth, like he always does, that had gone out, and his white apron was covered in bloodstains where he had wiped his hands clean. Those hands were cracked and chapped and full of cuts from knife slips, and he had to soak them in hot water every morning before he could make a fist or bend them.
The puppies, six of them, were yelping like crazy in an orange crate that Mrs. Storey had brought them in. She was on the grocery side of the store and was settling her bill with my Uncle Joe.
I looked out the big front window at the passing cars that made steam clouds in the air as they passed by, and it was cold and damp and wet out there. The window was new and cost my old man plenty because glass was short and rationed sometimes. We have a German surname, and although my mom’s name was Riley, and my uncle had fought in the Spanish American War and a few other relatives had fought in World War I, and my family had been here for close to one hundred and fifty years, someone had broken the window and had painted swastikas on the sidewalk in front of the store.
My old man never said anything about it. He just had the glass man come and replace it, and me and my kid brother used kerosene to take the paint off of the sidewalk. He paid cash for the glass, and paid the sign man cash to re-letter the window, and we have been eating a lot of mutton at home.
My old man had me hold the puppies down on the butcher table, and he brought the meat cleaver down on their tails, just past where he had tied them off. The puppies yelled like hell, and there was still a lot of blood and their tails swirled around in it even after they had been severed. My old man didn’t even flinch when he did it. He just picked the puppies up and plopped them back into the crate.
“Why you doing this, Pop?” I asked.
“These are mutts, son. And these tails belong to some other breed of dog. Mrs. Storey won’t be able to give them away with ugly tails like those,” he said, and he swept the tails into a waxed paper bag and rolled the top of the bag down shut and tossed the bag in the can out back. Boy, were those puppies making a lot of racket.
Mrs. Storey came and got the puppies while my old man was scrubbing down the counter with a pig-hair brush. He didn’t seem to notice or mind the noise the puppies were making. He put disinfectant down first and then hot water from the big canning kettle that he kept boiling on the stove. She tried to give him something for it, but he wouldn’t take it. He just smiled a little past the old cigar and handed her the crate. The puppies were screaming like hell, and there was plenty of blood all right, but my old man had lined the crate good with plenty of butcher’s paper so none of it could spill through the wood slats.
My old man went on scrubbing the counter without a word. He hardly talked much anyway. The wooden counter was concave in the middle – – he scrubbed it so much – – and the wood was smooth like the bottom of my rowboat. Some lady came in and my uncle wouldn’t let her charge a couple of dollars worth of groceries since her account was past due, and my old man overheard them talking.
“Nope, Mrs. _________,” said my Uncle Joe, “Nope, I am sorry, but I got bills to pay too.”
My old man called for my uncle and took him in the back room and gave him hell, and the lady took her groceries home. She had been crying terribly while they were talking, and I didn’t know what to do for her. The lady had lost two boys over France, and my old man was plenty sore with my uncle. The lady had a plaque in her window with two flags on it, and President Roosevelt had written her personally. Her husband was drinking hard since the second kid had been killed, and my mother had been baking her apple pies and bringing her preserves from our cellar.
My uncle got real red in the ears when my dad let him have it, but when the lady left he got back to business. My old man cleaned and then sharpened the cleaver and started to cut chops. He brought it down easy – – the first cut – – and then, bang! He cut it all the way through on the second cut. I got a two-cent pickle from the barrel, and it was nice and hard, and I ate it and watched my dad do the chops.
“Now, son,” he says, “your hair is getting too long. Here’s a quarter.”
He reached in under the apron and past his suspenders and pulled out a leather coin purse and handed the quarter to me. I put the piece of waxed paper that I had held the pickle with in the trashcan.
“Now, son,” he says, “you go down to Harry’s, and listen up now, you stand out front and watch good.”
He was re-lighting the cigar, but it was hard to draw on because the end was all spitty and closed up where he had been chewing on it.
“Now, you watch good. If anyone is bleeding in the chair when Harry shaves ‘em, or shaves around their ears, you come back, see.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
I walked down Main Street towards Harry’s in a light snow, and there were still a few leaves on the trees, and the leaves were wet and russet and orange, and the last of them were ready to fall off the tree limbs, and if you stepped on one laying there on the sidewalk, you could slip and fall. Harry was a good barber and the only barber in town, but he had lost a kid at Pearl Harbor. He had the shakes bad sometimes. I walked the block or so down to Harry’s and stood out front and watched like my old man had said. Harry was finishing up a Negro man I knew.
It was Saturday, and I had gone down early with my old man at seven. I swept out the inside of the store, and out onto the sidewalk, and then I had scraped the snow into the gutter. I had loaded up a few dozen cases of canned goods for my Uncle Joe, and it had been slow in the store all morning, so I guess my old man hadn’t minded doing the puppies. He never seemed to mind doing anything.
The Negro man came out of Harry’s and said hello to me, and he looked okay, so I went and got my haircut. Harry had a good supply of magazines and comic books and a big stack of Saturday Evening Post’s. I had sold him the subscription to The Post in ‘41, and he had renewed it. I didn’t read anything that day, and I sat as still and straight as I could in the chair. I really sat still when he shaved me around the ears and down my neck. He put pomade on my hair, and it felt funny when I got outside again – – like the air had frozen my hair. My ears were real cold too.
Snuffy Smith came into Harry’s while I was paying for my haircut. I had nicknamed him Snuffy because he looked like the Indian on the snuff can, and the name had stuck. Even his mother called him Snuffy. He had a cousin on the steamer, the Saint Joseph, which went down last year at Eagle Harbor. The Saint Joseph was one of the first lakers to carry a wireless on Lake Michigan.
We agreed to meet down at the gym later that day. My old man and I were going to go down to the cemetery and clean up the family gravesites. He insisted on doing it, even when it was cold and most of the grass had stopped growing under the snow.
He is like that, my old man. He cares a lot about people, and he hardly ever asks for a thing for himself. He is a good butcher and a good father too.
Benton Harbor is a good town and I like growing up here, and I like the Saint Joe’ River and Fort Miami and especially Lake Michigan. There is something good and simple about all the water in these parts—the lakes and streams and ponds, and all the history of people who have made a living from them, and of the many who have died on or for them.
When I was a small boy, the newspapers carried more stories about local things, and local events—births and people who were visiting for the summer, or about the Cubs, Cardinals, or White Sox games. Now, most of the news is about the war and about the boys being lost overseas.
I think when I get old enough, I would like to join the Navy and see the Pacific and fight for what we have here, and I hope that when I return I find that it hasn’t changed much.
©Copyright September 14, 2002 by David J. Dukesherer