Posted by jdg | Tuesday, September 24, 2013

They were both wearing shirts of that orange only hunters, convicts, and ten-year-old boys can get away with. I didn't know much about them---just what you can glean from conversations between strangers overheard on a boat. The mother of one (or both) of them was wearing a Harley Davidson t-shirt and denim shorts that were maybe a little too short and she was just dating the bald-headed park ranger, judging by the flirtatious way he fed her peanut M&Ms that he bought from the little concession booth amidships, standing together at the very tip of the bow as the boat plowed through the choppy water. He wasn't the father of either boy---they seemed far too impressed by him for that to be the case. In his distinctive ranger flat hat, with his patches and tags and badge he was all authority. He was cool, even in khaki shorts, and today he was introducing them to all that made him so, describing the things they could do on his island. There would be swimming, hiking, and fishing, of course. But they could also climb the sand dunes or explore the houses abandoned by farmers who found island life too difficult and moved to the mainland. There was a shipwreck and an old schoolhouse and creepy old cemeteries. "I'm on duty from seven to three every day," he told them. "But after that we can do whatever you guys want." The mother smiled as the boys adored this man. I could not tell what the future held for any of them, whether a man tethered to an island in the wilderness could make this work, but I wanted him to. I could not help but root for them.

The boat was traveling southwest in a direct route to the island.  The two boys were innocently leaning against the port bulwark when the first spray hit them. They looked at each other with saucered eyes and a slow contagion of smiles and then laughter. Seconds later the prow slapped right into an even larger wave and a real splash of lakewater arced over the edge and the boys were soaked, all shock and laughter as they turned to show each other just how wet they now were. I leaned back against the bulwarks on the dry starboard side, having caught a bit of their joy, and watched them as the waves painted the deck.

* * * * *

The last time I stood on the deck of the Mishe Mokwa was eighteen years ago when I was eighteen-years-old, half my lifetime ago. A college class took a camping trip to the island and I stood out there leaning against all that graypainted steel letting the waves crash over me again and again until everything I wore was soaked. It was mid-September and the only other people on the boat were my new classmates, including numerous girls---girls from all kinds of different places with all kinds of different hair and none of them had any idea what I was in high school and this would be the first thing they would ever notice about me, an act of stupid joy so much easier than words, standing alone just above where the prow broke into the waves sending them splashing again and again and again and I stood there shouting into the wind and the wet because I was in college and on a boat heading into the wilderness with girls and I was just so excited to be alive.

* * * * *

After the two boys in soaked orange shirts left the deck I entertained the thought of standing where they'd been, then thought better of it. I only had the clothes I was wearing and just the one pair of boots. I leaned over the bow and soon found myself there anyway. After the third wave hit me I looked up at the captain behind his glass with his oldfangled steering wheel and wondered how many simpering idiots he'd seen do this. Had he seen me eighteen years ago? Had he seen ten thousand fools like me? Wet beard, wet clothes, wet boots: I left the deck to show my family what I'd done. My wife guffawed but my wide-eyed kids fought for the chance to get wet too. I propped them up against the side and we cackled and screamed as the waves hit us, each proclaiming that we were the wettest. It had been warm but now we were cool, and my daughter insisted that we do this on the ride back to the mainland too. How could I have known, eighteen years ago that I was about to meet the most beautiful girl I'd ever know, that eighteen years later our eight-year-old daughter would be standing there with me in that spot between my arms catching as much of Lake Michigan as we could in our faces? Our son rested in the crook of my arm, almost too old to be carried (almost) and she was watching us from the back of the boat. We shouted to the world's driest wet blanket to join us but their mother had the good sense not to. I looked back at her and she just shook her head and smiled at what we'd done.