Monthly Archives: March 2015

Looking Back and Forth: A Sense of Place

by Erlene Woollard

Erlene 1I grew up as a quietly feral child in the deep US South in the midst of a conservative, highly traditional and even rigid decorum. My earliest memories are of much family chaos juxtaposed with the serene visits to my grandparent’s farm in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was orderly and wonderful with its large “gingerbread” house, scuppernong vines, gnarly apple trees and enticing barn with scented hay bales that my handsome young uncles fed to the dubious looking cows and horses. The huge lawn welcomed us with its old oak trees and much needed shade by day and evening gatherings of family and friends.

Once the day’s hot, hard work was done and the evening meal of local bounty was over, we would gather for respite and fun. We children chased lightening bugs and each other in the approaching dusk, trying not to hurt bare feet on the sharp acorns scattered about. Our evening treats of freshly churned ice cream full of farm cream and locally grown strawberries or peaches made the evenings complete and we happily settled into sweet smelling and seemingly ancient beds for dreamless sleeps.

Then my family moved farther south and these visits became less frequent but just as sacred while I entered a new life of being a “town kid,” learning to ride my bike on tree lined sidewalks, walking to school and starting piano and tap dancing lessons. At the age of five I was allowed to go to the store for mom who had two smaller kids napping at home. I roamed and roamed, collecting Spanish moss hanging from cypress trees and the velvety blossoms that had fallen from the huge magnolias, all perfect for making homes and comfy beds for the frogs and bugs I nurtured. One August day as we swam in the local pool fed by a natural creek we had to leave very quickly. An alligator had found its way into the pool area. How exciting!

Then, horror of horrors, we moved two miles out of town to an isolated two acre place with a flat stone house, huge pine trees scattered about in a disorderly fashion and just fine sandy dirt, pine needles and cones for a front yard. Was I now destined to become one of the country kids donning overalls and saying “upehre” instead of “up there”? Little did I know what opportunities this move would provide. I was still close enough to town for lessons and friends but now had a huge garden where we could grow exotic vegetables and fruit.

I learned about freezing, drying and canning and remember being able to relate proudly to my town friends where pickles came from as they had no idea that cucumbers could transform in such a way! My dad planted two rows of tender pecan trees that turned into a lush orchard and is still there today some 60 years later. We had puppies and kittens galore and even two pigs that magically produced six piglets that I sat on our wooden fence and watched for hours. There was a hoop towards which we threw basketballs and a large yard where we ran and played with abandon.

Best of all were the long, lonely walks along and then across the distant railroad tracks that divided our property towards landscapes that beckoned my wandering spirit. Finally, trees that I could climb, hide and daydream in, while watching the bugs, clouds, and birds. The parched landscape that had first seemed boring now was alive. One of my treasures was a runt of a wild plum tree struggling to survive in this loveless hot dry environment. I watched and offered the love that later in the summer I was sure had helped it produce blossoms and scabby yellow plums. It struck me then that I was possibly the only person in the world who knew or cared about this little tree. For years I went to it on many spring and summer days. No one in my family ever asked me where I had gone or what I was doing or even cared where I was during these visits to that tree. As I reflect now, I realize that was the only time in my life that I was ever truly alone and able to become meditative in a way that still provides a grounding sense of luxury and peace.

I left home at the age of 17 and wherever I have lived during the many years to follow, I have always sought out and wandered between natural but cultivated urban environments and more isolated wild places for reflection, peace, and a claiming of “my sense of place.” My two grandchildren are still lucky enough to have access to wonderful wild environments and choose them often over more defined activities. I hope that when they are approaching 70 years of age they will be able to sit down in a healthy natural place and peacefully write about such long term memories while their own grandchildren play happily at their feet and have the peace that comes with knowing that the natural world will be safely offered to many generations to come. grandparents farmhouse 2

When Are We Going to Get There?

by Lillian Ireland

“When are we going to get there?” I pleaded for the umpteenth time, as I sat huddled between my two brothers in the back seat of the Volkswagen Beetle. Through the eyes of a six year old, everything looked the same; the long road, blaring headlights, and blowing snow. How I wanted to see my Grama! I ached to be with her on her farm. From southern Saskatchewan, the endless road seemed to stand in the way.

She and Grampa homesteaded the land which they had cleared by hand and by horse. I’ll never know how hard they worked to make it livable, to build their tiny home from timber they cut, to draw water from a well they established, to grow crops and vegetables and to raise cattle to feed their many children.

There was respect for the Cree who lived on nearby land for a season each year. They brought their children and families, their horses and tepees, travelling annually to set up for a few months near Strawberry Creek on their journey through north central Alberta.

There was respect for the Hutterites who farmed nearby.

Grama couldn’t converse with many, but there was mutual respect for those who chose this part of Canada to live in. She knew very little English but through her heart and actions, I absorbed much of her love of life and her knowledge. She couldn’t read or write, but she was a profoundly wise, strong and tender woman, educated by her many experiences of survival. Her diploma was written in the deeply etched lines on her face and hands.

Walking with her in the nearby forests and bushes which edged the fields of hay, wheat, oats and barley, we picked wild strawberries, raspberries, mushrooms and Saskatoons. Walking silently through the bush, she would bend and try to explain by simple words and actions what was edible and what was not. Sometimes we munched on the berries and sometimes we would gently place them in her apron which became her basket. Even though the berries were miniscule in comparison to the commercial hybrid ones of today, my mouth still waters as I think back to their delectable flavours while we quietly walked hand in hand.

It was there I learned to revere the land.

I was always surprised how she could stretch everything to make it last until the next harvest. The berries miraculously turned into jam or preserves which she stored in her underground cellar. The root cellar was accessible through a tiny, creaky door on the side of the bank underneath her house. Even though I was a child, I had to lower my head getting into the tiny, earthy treasure store.

The year’s garden vegetables hid there too. When she wanted potatoes in the winter or spring, we’d put warm coats and boots on and I’d accompany her around and down the side of the house, remove the sun bleached, twisted branch which propped the door shut, and we gradually adjusted our eyes to the dim light offered by the small flashlight. Slowly we would find our way over to the large bins of dirt at the far end of the cellar.

Grama would ask me to reach into the mounds of dark, rich soil to pull out some potatoes. Sometimes I’d find other surprises which were stored there months earlier. She tenderly smiled at my amazement as I discovered huge, hearty carrots or plump, purple beets from which I excitedly brushed the dirt. To me, these were hidden treasures. To her, they were a necessity fashioned with patience, faith, fortitude and sacrifice.

At the side of the cellar, along with the jars of fruit, there were jars of canned chicken, fish, pork hocks and pickles she had canned earlier in the year. Even though the cellar smelled musky and was dark, it was an exciting place to explore. Years later, Grampa cut a hole in the kitchen floor and strung a ladder. A tiny light bulb was hung which made the treasure hunting not nearly as thrilling.

“When are we going to get there?” I wondered. I was now a teenager, living in Calgary and it was a much shorter ride. Yet, I still longed to go to the farm, especially in early autumn. The rich scents of fall on the farm continually captivated me, drawing me back. As a city girl, I yearned to get away from the busyness of activity which at times was too much. I longed for the quiet of the farm, sitting with Grama in the kitchen, shelling peas or making perogies. The primary audible sound was usually the drone of the buzzing flies at the window or occasionally a car driving by on the road, spitting up gravel and leaving a thick, gray trail of dust separating Grama’s farm from the neighbours.

By now, I had learned a little Ukrainian and Grama knew more English. Yet, even without many words, we still shared a quiet satisfying communion.

When the kitchen chores were finished, we’d go out to the fields where I couldn’t take in enough of the powerful fragrance of the freshly cut hay. I’d watch my Uncle Tony with the horses while brushing the annoying flies away from us. The hay which had stood nearly as tall as me only a few hours earlier had transformed the field into a stubbly blanket of yellow shafts.

I knew that very soon, with pitchforks in hand, we would stook the hay. We would excitedly lift the sheaves and stand them on end. To my brothers and me, it was something we looked forward to each year. Some years, we would heave the hay high onto the hay wagon. Standing at the edge of the hayfields, the wind seemed to blow the fresh, sweet scent deep into my soul. I stood and breathed it in. It filled me, this was home.

Again, I learned to revere the land.

Many years later, the scents and memories flooded back as we visited Grama’s farm with my own teenaged children. “How are we going to break it down?” they asked as we pondered the fresh beaver dam near the farmhouse.

Grama and Uncle Tony desperately needed help since their home and farm were endangered by the rising water. Strawberry Creek was no longer a gently meandering creek but a huge pool of foreboding water perilously close to their home.

Back then, a naive urban west coaster, how little I knew about the natural environmental landscapers! The beaver within days had changed the countryside. Even though beaver can establish flourishing, future marshes which benefit wildlife, farmers often wish they would do it in a different place! It was unbelievable how quickly her yard was converting into an infringing, unwelcome wetland!

Horrified by the news that the county was going to dynamite the dam, our children wanted to take the dam apart by hand. And they did! The three of them and my young Sister surveyed the situation, and with careful savvy, moved the various sized trees, branches and rocks. Many hours later, with dedicated teamwork, concentrated effort and heavy sweat, the creek flowed again. Grama’s home was spared. Her farm survived and so did the beaver. Surprisingly, they moved on and didn’t attempt a new dam in that area.

Another generation had learned to revere the land.

Twenty years later, I wondered, “How are we going to get there?” as I prepared for some important meetings regarding farmers’ rights on a return trip to Alberta. I yearned for solitude prior to the first meeting. I needed time to collect my thoughts while catching up with the latest readings about the Alberta Energy Regulator and its encroachment on the lives of many Canadians.

There seemed to be a strange parallel between the beaver and the oil industry. Both did what they wanted with little thought or concern given to the landowners. Both make unspeakable changes without long term consideration. People learn, sometimes grievously too late, that once major changes are implemented; it takes immense effort and resources to turn things around. And often that’s not possible.

The farm still exists, the wind still blows, and the flies are still annoying, but sadly, underneath much of Canada’s and the world’s fertile soil, damage is being done that will forever rob the soil of its ability to raise crops or feed cattle. These are changes which cannot be reversed by a few energetic young teenagers in an afternoon. These are changes made with a very narrow, short term viewpoint.

There is unprecedented damage to hunting, fishing and gathering areas of Aboriginal people, there is havoc to the water systems, there is widespread loss to animal, plant and human habitat, there is toxicity of the air we breathe, and there is irreversible destruction of soil.

We need long-term perspective, we need viable solutions, we need healthy, sustainable practices, and we need conscience with respect for the environment and Mother earth.

When are we going to get there?20141016_102121

Ever Lived a Moonbow?

by Roger Sweeny

For this retelling I invite you to be my shadow as we climb to the open, moonlit bridge of the Light Cruiser HMCS ONTARIO to begin the Middle Watch (midnight to 0400) on this Battle of Atlantic Sunday, 20th May 1951. Also, since the story involves moon, stars and water, I have asked the Spirit of our own St. Francis of Assisi, lover of all nature, to be with us on the bridge.

Homeward bound from a training cruise to Australia, we left Suva yesterday and are now about 900 miles south of the equator, steaming North-East at 15 knots toward the Trans Pacific Cable Station at Fanning Island.

The bridge crew includes the Officer of the Watch (OOW), a seasoned lieutenant, who already has assumed command of the captain’s chair and called for his first mug of sweetest hot chocolate (kye); the Second OOW, a sub lieutenant working on his watch-keeping ticket, busily keeping the ship on track, doing all the things and gathering all the information he will need when writing up the log; the Midshipman, myself, lowest species of officer, general dog’s body and go-for, tasked to watch, listen and absorb all goings-on and to ensure a constant supply of kye to my seniors; the Signalman, and the Port and Starboard Lookouts, constantly scanning the horizon.

It’s a warm, starry night with a bright full moon high in the western sky astern (which casts you, shadow, in front of me). A gentle South-Easterly breeze coupled with our speed of advance puts the apparent wind on our Starboard bow at about 18 knots. Air scoops surrounding the bridge deflect all wind over our heads so we are in a calm zone. Sky and sea ahead are velvet black, with a scattering of clouds faintly visible along the horizon. Five hundred shipmates sleep soundly as the turbines far below hum on.

So far it has been a quiet watch, routine and uneventful. The stars seem so close we could almost reach out and grasp them. Now the time has rolled on to 0230. The moon is drawing down towards the sea fine on our Port quarter; another hour should bring the first hint of dawn.

“BEARING GREEN THREE ZERO, FAR, A LIGHT” calls the Starboard Lookout. Immediately all binoculars are trained on the bearing … and there, yes – looks like a tiny patch of light … a faint greyish glow on the horizon. “CHALLENGE IT” says the OOW to the Signalman, who switches on the big signal lamp, swings to the bearing, and flashes out the morse code message “WHAT SHIP, WHERE BOUND?” There is no response.

Within minutes the sighting has become a distinct semicircle of pale grey sitting upon the sea beneath a cloud. Minutes more and we are watching, fascinated, as the apparition, relative bearing unchanged, grows ever larger and comes on to meet us. By 0245 a great arc of softly shimmering grey light has blocked out the stars and filled most of our field of vision ahead. It must be within half a mile now … and look at that! – a perfect rainbow, faint but clear, running all around the rim from sea to sea. It seems alive! … (and in my mind I see the Francis Spirit gazing upwards beside us, eyes gleaming).


The ship’s bow slices into the veil. For just an instant the light is everywhere, we within it. Then it is gone and the line squall engulfs us. Our calm zone transformed into a chaos of laughter, wind and driving rain.

Five minutes and we’re through it … but we’ve hardly time to catch our breath before “BEARING GREEN THREE ZERO, FAR, A LIGHT” calls the Lookout again.

ONTARIO’s log entry for 20 May ‘51 confirms that our Captain Hugh Pullen, a Battle of Atlantic veteran, was on the bridge for our second moonbow encounter that night. There is no mention of a Spirit, though of course he was there only in my imagination (or was he?) – he whose Canticle of the Sun inspired the inscription on our church’s memorial window: “Thou did’st make our Sister Moon and Stars. For Sister Water praise to thee, Good Lord”


My Little Hakka Village

by Cynthia Ho Lam

CynthiaI was 3-years-old when I left Shanghai, my mother’s hometown in Mainland China, with my extended family, in the great exodus to flee the Communists, and to retreat to the island of Taiwan, in 1949.

Having been colonized for 50 years by Japan, Taiwan was now all of a sudden seeing a great influx of mainland Chinese arriving, ready to take charge of the island, and to build on it the Free China, and to prepare for the recovery of the mainland that was bitterly lost. There was great confusion and it was tumultuous time!

Being of Hakka descent, we were advised to move to the town called Miao Li, where many local Hakka people of the island have made their home. We the newcomers would hope to be accepted more easily, sharing the same dialect, living among people from the same ancestral Hakka village from mainland China! And this did turn out to be a great foresight, fortunately.

We rented a farmhouse from a couple who grew orchids among other things. The house was big enough to house us all—three generations, my paternal and maternal grandmothers, my uncles and aunts, my Mom and me, while my father was in Taipei the capital, trying to work out a long-term settlement for the family.

The town of Miao Li was so small and rural that there was only one road. But our house was lovely with a spacious living room in the center and bedrooms on both sides. Outside the front door, there was a big open court yard, where our three generations would often have dinner together enjoying the cool evening air, listening to the cicadas, the toads, and other nameless insects. And the farm behind the house was even bigger! There was a big orchard with many kinds of fruits trees, so big that I was scared to go in there alone. I remember clearly of that chicken coop where we raised more than 200 chickens, of different kinds and feathers—white ones, colorful ones, and dark ones. Every morning I would go with my grandma to collect the eggs. We tried to sell them to subsidize our income so as to help pay for our rent. There were two goats by the barn that I would help milk it and to drink the milk too. I would tell my friends in high school, years after, that it was the delicious goat milk drink that gave me my fair skin! There was a small pond by the side of the house, where my youngest uncle and I had great fun wading and raising small fish and shrimp, and feeding the pigeons that came beside it, then watching them fly high. And then of course there was that skinny and gorgeous papaya tree, standing tall right outside of the round window by my bed!

HakkaVillage1That was indeed a perfectly idyllic childhood dream come true, and I lived it for two years. During that time my courageous Mother single handedly built up the first ever “Miao Li Experimental Kindergarten.” I was among the proud first group of graduates., Then came the sad time for our family to move to Taipei, where my father worked and the family settled. We never did return to Miao Li, except on visits.

My first visit back to Miao Li occurred when I was about 10 years old. The house was showing neglect already. I remember walking with my Mom and my aunt around the graveyard behind the house. There were big oval stones standing as tombstones, and I remember feeling bewildered as I listened to the adults talking, half-jokingly, about which stones they would prefer for their own tombs.

The second visit I came during my college years with two schoolmates, who had heard enough from me of my Miao Li village and were intrigued to want to see for themselves. Alas! I was stunned to see how the house and the farm were in such disrepair. It looked altogether abandoned. The broken screen windows are still vivid in my mind now.

The last visit was about five years ago, after an interval of 40 years. Miao Li was transformed beyond recognition! It was now a modern city with infrastructure to support the hustle and bustle of city life. We were all curious, trying to re-orientate ourselves. We were drawn to the many wonderful local attractions there where we saw the unique local products, the art and craft display, both indoors and outdoors. We tasted the yummy Hakka food in the neat restaurant, next to the coffee houses by the lovely creek. We were delighted to play tourists immersed in the new Miao Li in front of us. But my childhood farm house was gone, without a trace; and so was the eerie graveyard. We were left wondering whatever happened to them.

Taiwan had gone through huge overhauls with the tremendous political and economic forces over the years. With the political stability came the enormous economic growth that earned it the nickname as one of the Four Little Dragons of Asia in the 70’s and 80’s, with products one could find everywhere that said “Made in Taiwan.” Now with China becoming a world super power, Taiwan has unavoidably been caught up in constant geopolitical disputes, though continues to spare no efforts to prove to the world its economic prowess. As a result, my farm house in the little Hakka village there never stood a chance for a comeback in all those bygone years. And in all likelihood, it never will ever again.



My Neighbourhood – Then and Now

by Ellen Leslie

050-aI grew up in Westridge, a post-World War II development at the eastern margin of Burnaby, below what is now Simon Fraser University. They skinned the ground to make way for family housing. It was, in those days, a neighbourhood of stay-at-home Mums and working Dads. There were lots of kids. Families had as many as five children. At the foot of our street was an area of undisturbed land that belonged to Shell Oil. We played “down at the bush”. We dragged props and costumes to a clearing in the woods. Big and little kids all played together, with games and stories created by the older kids. Weather permitting, we played outside until dark.

We walked to school on a trail through the bush to the main road. Sometimes I rode my bike. When the salmonberries were in season I parked my bike and dawdled. One day I found a tiny bird, blue veins showing through pink skin, no feathers. I could see that it had fallen out of the nest above the trail. I had never seen anything like it and it frightened me a little at the same time that I was fascinated. This gave me lots to wonder about – nature and how creatures sometimes died before they had a chance to live. I was alone when I found the bird. This was an extremely important ‘contact with nature’ event in my life, too precious to share with anyone, then.

We swam “down at the Inlet” (Burrard Inlet). There was no formal beach. To get there, we walked down our trail, crossed over the train tracks, and scrambled over the rocks. For family picnics at our beach, my mum packed dinner in an old green wicker picnic basket. She almost always included potato salad and cold chicken. We ate all together on a big plaid blanket. My father taught me to swim down there.

My father, now 95 years old, still lives in the house in Westridge. When I visit him the neighbourhood is familiar, but changed. So much has changed over the 64 years I have known this place. There is a chain link fence around Shell Oil property. When I walk to the bottom of the road I can see a set-up of booms around the shipping dock, to contain an oil spill. A little east from where we swam is now a municipal park and beach. Our trail to school is the Barnet Highway. The few kids in the neighbourhood play hockey on the paved lane, close to home. They are driven to school. The Vancouver real estate market has hit there, and tract houses are rapidly being replaced by 3-storey, multi-million dollar mansions.

A few years ago, I received a disturbing phone call. A young woman RCMP officer was on the line to tell me that she “had my father”; he was safe and they would keep him until it was okay for him to go home again. The Kinder Morgan pipeline buried under Barnet Highway had burst and oil spewed into the air and drenched several houses, the closest two properties away from my father’s. His house was untouched, but the stink of oil saturated the whole area. The neighbourhood became a huge construction zone for several months thereafter. Workers and equipment and fences and the noise of re-building the houses that had been most severely damaged, the ones closest to Barnet Highway. Most people had not even 057-aknown that they were living next to, or above the pipeline.

My father was deeply disturbed as were his neighbours – the ones whose homes and gardens were damaged and the ones whose homes had barely escaped being covered in oil. I used to accept the Shell Oil flame and oil tankers as part of my natural landscape and now I know they are a threat. Kinder Morgan pipeline with its ‘twinning’ proposal would hugely expand the capacity of the refinery and the activity in the inlet. After my father is gone, I will not choose to return to my old neighbourhood unless I am carrying a picket sign.

Teens at Camp

by Karl Perrin

Karl PerrinWhen I was 14, I had the spiritual experience of my life. In those years, the late Fifties, the world was waking from the long sleep that came inevitably after the long exhaustion of World War II. The Cold War had settled in, but the rabid anti-communism of Senator Joe McCarthy had waned enough that liberals were once more speaking out. In Detroit, the United Auto Workers under Walter Reuther had never been stronger. Auto workers were voting Democrat and liberals were doing well politically and religiously.

My church in downtown Detroit had just changed its name from “Church of Our Father” to “First Unitarian-Universalist Church of Detroit”, and at 14, my mentor was our Assistant Minister, Scott Mitchell. I asked him once what his religious sources were and he said Buddhism and Existentialism. That made a lot of sense to me. Once I learned what the Beatniks knew about Buddhism and Existentialism, I could imagine Scott with a beret and a goatee. He was a non-conformist among non-conformists.

My church was home to about ten teenagers. We mocked grownups in a friendly way, imagining their disdain for all teens, “Teenagers! Rotten to the core!” we said in our mock adult voices. In fact, we were proud that as teens we had exceptionally good relationships with the grownups at our church—if not our parents, who were sometimes our natural enemies too concerned about “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” But aside from our incessantly worrying parents, we were very free at church, freer than anywhere else in the world.

We were the new wave of heresy in our heretical church, or so we thought. We thought we had discovered atheism, and that gave us tremendous freedom. But we also had profound respect for the brave men and women in our congregation who were teaching us about Gandhi and social justice. And even in the late Fifties we were fully integrated, black and white, while the rest of the city seemed still asleep to the racism that infected North America. We were ready for a Brave, New World, a world that we, the leading-edge baby-boomers, would soon be building in the very Unitarian Sixties.

Our name was Liberal Religious Youth, or LRY, and we felt precocious. Some of us were bright, or talented, or both. I tagged along, in awe of my LRY buddies and proto feminist girl friends. Gorgeous? You bet. But they were friends who were girls, not “girlfriends”. Sex was on our minds, but it was a bonus, if it ever happened. We loved each other the way that friends love each other, with great respect and affection, never domineering—that wouldn’t be Unitarian. We only vaguely suspected that, in terms of social justice, we were twenty years ahead of the times. We were encouraged to organize ourselves. A token adult might hang out in the hall while we had our meetings but we raised our own money, organized our own conferences and our own summer camp.

That summer camp is what I’m getting to. It was called Bridgeman, the summer camp for Unitarian teens from Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and all the campus Unitarian-Universalist congregations dotting the U.S. Midwest. Every summer about a hundred of us would bus or be driven to Bridgeman on the shores of Lake Michigan, a hundred miles across the lake from Chicago. Bridgeman was a church camp without crosses—just plain wooden buildings. There were two giant dorms: one for the boys and one for the girls—and yes, we did have a curfew.

It was such a thrill to be back at Bridgeman, with the best one hundred teens in the whole world, smart and/or talented, and our own chosen chaperones, some of the most radical, smart and talented Unitarian ministers and youth leaders we could find. This was a nursery for the Sixties: the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-War, Anti-Nuclear Weapons Movement, the Feminist Movement, and the artistic environment that made it all fun. We memorized the progressive comedians of the day: Lenny Bruce, Shelley Berman, Mort Sahl. Our banter was peppered with quotes from all of them.

That’s where it happened, one summer day. We had just arrived, anticipating another summertime week of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll”—figuratively speaking. As for drugs, the only illicit one was tobacco. As for rock and roll, we made our own by singing. Four of guys from Detroit, including my best friend Ross, me, and two older guys, made up a quartet. We called ourselves “The Sextones”. We called ourselves by that name with our ever present tongue in cheek, for we had high hopes of kissing, hugging, and who knows what lay beyond first base in our 14 year old imaginations. But as a group we were good, doing a little a capella doo wop and Buddy Holly teen heart throb songs. Everybody knew the songs. All of us sang a lot at Bridgeman, especially the irreverent songs of Tom Lehrer, and eventually, the more upbeat Pete Seeger and Kingston Trio stuff.

The whole place was built on sand dunes, so we could lie down on the sand anywhere, with or without friends. The sand dunes were immense and weird to those of us who lived on very flat floodplains turned into cities. They were steep, but forgiving. You could run, fall, roll to the bottom and never get hurt. Getting back up was hard because the sand gave way beneath your feet, so once down, you stayed down, which wasn’t bad because down was where the beach was. To get back up to camp and the dining hall, we climbed a wooden stair case that zig-zagged up five stories.

Back in our flat cities, landscapes were limited. Sight lines were blocked by trees and houses, and there wasn’t anything to see but more trees and houses. We could ride our bikes for an hour to get to the Detroit River where we could see a mile or two across to Windsor, but vistas were not part of our lives. When a storm came up we could hear the thunder, and see the flash of light. But you were lucky if you could even see a big piece of lightning.

Not so at Bridgeman. From the dining hall, five storeys above the beach, we could see a seemingly endless lake across the western horizon. Even Chicago was below the furthest horizon, glowing faintly into the sky, on clear moonless nights. This was part of the romance of the place. Beautiful girls, smart and talented, and Nature in all her power and beauty, laid out before us like a treasure waiting to be found.

And then, on that one summer day, the clouds rolled in. We weren’t scared, because our buildings had weathered years and years of Midwest thunder storms. Even tornadoes could whip across the lake without shaking our sturdy buildings. But this was better. This was true “Sturm und Drang”, a storm at sea, with us buddies and girl friends safely ensconced in our well-worn Bridgeman buildings.

As the storm built up, we went out onto the stairs and landings, all hundred of us, to see the light show that was coming. A mile out to sea the clouds were turning black, and the rumble was starting like the earth purring. Or would I then have said, like “a chopped down Buick with wide open mufflers, gunning its engines at the start of some street race”? That was the thunder getting ready to rock and roll. Then came the sheet lightning turning the heat of a hot humid day into a furious night-time symphonic finale. Some of us knew Beethoven, so we could appreciate the musical qualities of this storm at sea. Then that flash. That brilliant flash, that left us screaming—even tough teenage boys wanted to scream—but didn’t, because the girl were screaming as if Elvis had appeared. We knew the show was just getting started.

And it was quite a show. More thunder, so loud across the water that it seemed to cry out from the bowels of the Earth. More lightening, as if God were speaking in light flashes. “LISTEN, YOU IDIOTS. THIS IS NOTHING.” Then as those words sunk into our atheistic brains, God spoke again, “You think you’re something. This is nothing. I could have you begging on your knees. You’d be believing whatever I demanded.”

Then we were afraid, because the weather had never spoken to us so clearly. “I COULD CHEW YOU INTO BITS, IN AN INSTANT.” KABOOM! FLASH! And then we laughed because this was really real, but still we were safe with each other, with our chaperones, with our trusty buildings. We were SURVIVING, with nary a hair out of place. It was WONDERFUL, in the literal sense of WONDERFUL, so full of wonder, and awe, and reverence for the power that was only partly unleashed. We were so grateful to be alive.

There we were. Alive, extremely Alive! with our best friends, gorgeous girls and shining boys, at the peak of our beauty, smart and talented, preserved by God for better things to come. We were needed, and God had plans for us–the God we didn’t believe in. That God was there, parting the Red Sea in front of us, as we huddled together, at Bridgeman dining hall, waiting for the Sixties to start, waiting for Love.

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