The older I get, the more I’ve come to realize I may be among the most smiled-upon Human Beings in the history of the world. Of course, when you are in the midst of it all –growing up, and all– you don’t really notice the blessings when they are coming at you faster than mayflies splattering on a windshield.
I now realize that I may have grown up in the high summer of the American experiment. I hope this isn’t the case, of course, that there are good days ahead (I still tend to take delivery of the happy-happy America’s Best Days are Still To Come bromides), but, the more shoulder I have to look over, the more misty it all becomes…
Indeed. I never had to worry about the draft. College tuition was something on the order of $32 a credit when I started at LCC.
…I never had to practice the duck-and-cover like my older brother’s did. Vietnam’s body counts were just an annoyance on the evening news before Charles Kuralt did his folksy on-the-road shtick. I didn’t hear about Pol Pot until it was all over and Sam Watterson was already starring in the movie.
Carter, while being a complete feckless dolt, was at least a Christian Gentleman. He was a guy you could vehemently disagree with, but not viscerally despise. He lived modestly despite his agriculural success, and vacationed by going fishing in rural Georgia. And then, by divine guidence, we were blessed with President Reagan.
As I say, it was a golden moment, one to be trapped in amber, if I could.
Communism was defeated, the Sandanistas were driven from the hemsiphere. My first little sign business flourished. I bounced around, married, had children of my own.
My splendid little life-span…
I was never persecuted for my faith, having to hide under the porch in Odessa from the Cossacks like my Gramma did. I wasn’t incinerated in an oven in Buchenwald. I didn’t live out my painful and nasty and brutish life living with the scars of Cold Harbor in the days before the existence of aspirin.
….My life has included a tiny slice of Lake Michigan. For fifty years –more, actually– my family has owned a (very) small cottage right on the western-most bump of Michigan’s lower peninsula, which, for the cartographers among us, is called “Little Point Sable”.
You will not discover finer beaches anywhere on earth. I’ve been to Maui (-more blessings), I’ve been to Negril. West Michigan’s coastline, especially where our cottage is– is, well, perfect.
My mom and dad purchased the vacant property in 1960 for $2,700– roughly $45 a foot. I know, I know– unbelievable. They will tell you it was the one thing they couldn’t afford at the time, but it was the best splurge they ever made. $20 a month, for twenty years. They sent the checks every month.
Dad was a signpainter, and he bartered for lumber, and electrical supplies to build the little frame cottage. He bought used window-sashes, and re-glazed them, and built new mill-work for them in his tiny work-shop in the back of our house. The final cottage was 24′ by 24′– barely the size of the walk-in closet of many homes I’ve subsequently visited. We added on another eighteen feet in the Reagan years. But, it’s still the same size now that it was then. And dad bartered for materials on the addition, too.
But, the cottage is a part of my American idyll. I was born slightly after mid-century, my signpainter father could own a lot on Lake Michigan, and drive there from the mid-part of the state on weekends. We’ve seen half a century of seasons come and go on the Lake. Half a century…
For years, the neighbors were sparse on the little gravel county road that winds around to the dunes to the cottage. Every spring we’d come up to take off the plywood shutters from the windows, the dunes would grow and recede. So would the water-line. Occasionally, in the early 1970’s, a new cottage would spring up down the road. Nowadays, of course, all of the beachfront lots are filled, mostly with metastasized monstrosities. The signpainters have long ago been replaced by patent attorneys and thoracic and vascular surgeons on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Somewhere in there, long about the time Richard Nixon was resigning, we got a knock on the door of our little cottage. The only door faced the Lake, and we could see a couple approaching through the front picture-window –a window made, again, by my Dad. It was made quite simply of quarter-round, 2 x 6’s, and single panes of glass.
But, what a view. And the people knocking on the door that day turned out to be our future neighbors.
They were, I was soon to learn, Mr. and Mrs. Bell. They said they’d bought the empty lot next to our cottage. It took me years to forgive them in the recesses of my boyhood nostalgia for bulldozing the high dunes to our north to make way for their cottage: Another modest thing, really. Maybe half again as big a place as our own little “plywood box”, as my Dad called it.
But, the Bells were the sort of folks that were decent, good people. They wanted to introduce themselves, tell us –their new neighbors– about their plans, and ask what concerns we might have, if any, with their building plans. The didn’t have to do any of this. They were just being good citizens…
…A really lovely, friendly, outgoing couple. Kinda loud, but, I came to really love them as the years went by. They were the sort of neighbors you prayed you’d get. They had three sons and a daughter, all of whom were ages different than my brother and me (some older, some younger), so we never meshed with them that well. But, Mr. and Mrs. Bell were terrific, terrific neighbors.
I didn’t see a lot of Mr. Bell: He worked back home in Kansas City, and came up only during the big holiday weekends, mostly. But, during my junior-high and high-school years, I saw Mrs. Bell freqeuntly. She’d come over, all rolly-polly in her blindingly orange terry-cloth robe, with a big mug of iced tea. Mrs. Bell smoked at ton back then (she gave it up in later years), and it gave her a bit of ruddy appearance. Her laugh was loud and lusty. My mom LOVED Mrs. Bell.
As I say, they were our next-door neighbors at our little cottage for years. I’d help feed their dogs, or what-have-you. They’d bring us their left-overs after a big dinner party, or I’d help move their wooden picnic table up from the beach. They seemed like all the other neighbors: Solidly middle-class, working on their little cottages, having a nice time at the beach.
The Bells had the only TV at the time (most of us thought it was sacrilegious to have a boob-tube available while at the Lake, when you had one of the most glorious scenes right out your front window), a little 18-inch portable black and white jobby, with the rabbit ears. From that geographical location, we could only pull in stations from Milwaukee– none from our side in Michigan.
For some reason, she invited us over one day to watch the re-runs of the Royal wedding of Charles and Diana. I didn’t get why it was such a big deal (I still don’t), but, hanging out with Mrs. Bell on her front redwood deck was always good for some laughs and some of her homemade “Garbage Dip”– melted Velveeta, and whatever else she could find in her Gibson refrigerator.
So, it was Garbage, and Coors beer, and the black-and-white TV on the deck, watching the Royal Wedding. Mrs. Bell kept fiddling with the dials and antenna– and I noticed something:
Mrs. Bell had a GIGANTIC diamond wedding ring. I’d never seen it before, but then, I’d never looked, I guess.
Later I asked my mom about it, wondering to her when Mrs. Bell decided to start wearing such a gawdy piece of obviously costume jewelry.
“Oh, no,” Mom said, “It’s real. I don’t know how many carats. But, then, you know about the Bells, right?”
Well, actually, I didn’t, I guess. I knew they lived in suburban Kansas City, Mr. Bell came up when he could, their sons were cool, even though they were older than me. Blah, blah, blah. What was there to know?
“You’d never know it. The Bells are wealthy. Really, really wealthy. Jill doesn’t like to talk about it, though, so…”
And, it was true. In subsequent years, I learned more: Mrs. Bell came from a very, very well-to-do family of Chicago-area retailers and department store owners. But, there, on the Lake, Mrs. Bell was like all the rest of us: Drove a five or six year old Chevy station wagon, and had an old Jeep Wrangler in the garage. She bought her groceries with my Mom sometimes, from the IGA in town, using the same ad circular my Mom did.
They were (are, still) multi millionaires. But, we never knew the extent of it, really. They were such good, decent neighbors, human beings, and friends.
They sold their cottage years ago to a young airline Pilot and his young Pilot wife, with their one later-in-life baby. They set about immediately to add onto to Jill’s cottage, and turn it into what most of the “cottages” on Lake Michigan became: Multi-thousand square foot monstrosities more befitting a track-development of McMansions than the quiet shores of western Michigan.
The Bells live quietly now in Naples. She’s in middling health now, rummaging about now in her eighties, as is her husband Bill. They have a very small place near the ocean.
I could never imagine Mrs Bell, or her Bill say anything remotely like “I’m rich. I’m really, really rich,” –even though they were.
Which, frankly, is why I detest Donald Trump. Really wealthy folks tend not to say “I’m rich. I’m really, really rich“. They avoid the subject, or, at least, in America, it’s always been seen as rather bad form to go on and on about your wealth, and surround yourself with the trappings of wealth and brag endlessly about it. To do so is boorish.
…or, worse: A con job.
Meanwhile, the Bells have given millions (and I mean millions) to aid in Alzheimer’s research. Jill’s mom died of it. By the way: Have the Veterans gotten Donald Trump’s show-checks yet?
The Bells were really, really rich. And I never knew it…