The Lake Effect
Memory is the place that we come from, the little pieces of our lives that build up inside us and make us who we are. I come from Michigan. A state cradled in the five Great Lakes and dotted with hundreds of inland ponds and rivers. A place so infused by water that the land becomes secondary to it. So much so, that when the French trappers and traders sailed down the Saint Lawrence Seaway and asked the indigenous people where they were, the Chippewa answered meicigama, “great lake” or “great water.” The Chippewa come from Michigan, too. The Chippewa come from water. I’m not Chippewa, but we share the same home, so when I think of Michigan I think of water too, only in a different form. When I think of Michigan, I think of snow.
Beginning in late autumn, jet streams push dry, arctic air from the northwest down across the Canadian Shield. When that arctic air is driven over the Lakes, condensation occurs and clouds begin to form. Once the wind reaches the other shore, the temperature drops rapidly, the clouds form ice crystals and the areas on the southeastern shores of the lakes are blanketed in snow. Sometimes, sudden and severe snowstorms, called snow squalls, are created. Storms with winds that change direction so quickly they seem to blow from all directions, and clouds so full of ice that they drop endless curtains of snow, sometimes more than thirty inches in a single day.
It’s called the lake effect. It’s what makes Michigan winters so harsh, so particular to that place, and it’s what I think about when I think about home.
Funny thing is, even though I was born in 1976 and lived in Michigan the whole time, I don’t remember a single winter before 1983. To be fair, I don’t remember spring, summer or fall either. I’m not saying that for those seven years there was no snow, no blooming flowers, no lemonade, no falling leaves. I’m just saying I don’t remember them. I remember that we had to be quiet, that my father drank, and that my parents fought—sometimes violently. Looking back now, it’s as if those first seven years of my life—from the moment I was born to the moment my mother herded my sisters and me into a moving van—were stretched out over one long, featureless day.
We lived most of those years in Bath near the center of the state, too far from the shores of the lakes to feel the full extent of the lake effect snowfall, down in the heart of it where the other element of Michigan burns. See, there’s more than snow in Michigan, more than water. Michigan has a history of fire. Fire in the copper smelts. Fire in the arc welders of the assembly lines. Fire every October during Hell Night when the abandoned houses of Detroit are set ablaze. Even the water burns. Lake Erie’s been known to catch fire on more than one occasion. Its waves capped with the strange, green glow of chemical burn. And we lived in the heart of it, home of Andrew Kehoe and the Bath Consolidated School bombing, home of the biggest fire Michigan had ever seen.
Kehoe’s mother died when he was very young and his father remarried a much younger woman. When he was fourteen, his stepmother set herself aflame trying to light an oil stove. Kehoe, the only one home with her at the time, dumped a pail of water on her, but it only spread the fire. She died from the burns. There were whispers, quiet talk that a boy Kehoe’s age should have known better than to pour water on a grease fire, and quieter still that maybe he did.
In 1927, Kehoe was a member of the Bath County school board. His wife was ill and the bank foreclosed on his 185-acre farm. He couldn’t pay the rising property taxes levied to expand rural Michigan’s antiquated school system and keep up with his wife’s medical bills. Things fell apart and, when all else failed, Kehoe turned to fire.
Over a period of months, Kehoe loaded Bath Consolidated with huge amounts of dynamite and Pyrotrol and rigged every inch of his property with a system of firebombs similar to the ones he had installed in the school. On May 17, 1927, Kehoe loaded his pickup with every piece of spare metal he could find—tools, steel siding, nails and chicken wire, then went inside and beat his wife Nellie to death. While her body lay discarded behind the hen house, he went about his business, running the last of the wires needed to complete the loop.
The next day, the Kehoe homestead exploded, erupting in a massive wave of flame. Pieces of debris shot into the air landing in his neighbors’ yards. His neighbors ran to his home to help and Kehoe met them at the edge of his property in his truck, pausing long enough to shout, “Boys, you’re my friends…you better get out of here…and head on down to the school,” before he pulled away.
The school exploded next. Kehoe pulled up moments later. Firemen and nearby farmers were already braving the flames to search the rubble for survivors. Crowds of children milled about in front of the burning effigy of the schoolhouse, struck dumb by the blast. Plumes of smoke still rose in columns from Kehoe’s farm. The whole world seemed to be on fire and Kehoe was at the center of it all, watching it burn.
He set off a third explosion. One rigged to his truck. Streams of shrapnel seared into the crowd. Kehoe was killed instantly, his body nearly disintegrated in the blast. Dozens of other were injured or killed. An eight-year-old boy, named Cleo Clayton, who had miraculously survived the first explosion, was struck a hundred yards away by a bolt expelled from Kehoe’s pickup and died in the road.
The day my mother packed up and left, there were no arguments, no pleading, no promises to change. My father sat in his chair—a hardwood rocker with an uncomfortable spring cushion seat only he would sit in—and rocked—back and forth, back and forth—the wood creaking while we packed. Maybe he thought it was for the best, that things had gone too far to cross back, that the time for pleading and promises and screaming were done. Maybe he knew he wasn’t going to change, that he was what he was, that he drank whiskey from a coffee cup, that he disappeared for hours—for days—pounding and sawing in the basement on projects we never saw, that he’d sunk everything he was into a line of vinyl care products for records just as cassettes commandeered the market. Maybe he knew that some paths, walked for so long, wear the earth beneath our feet until we’re trapped between two parapets, driving us from station to station along the same line like rails for a train. But I don’t know because he didn’t say a word. He just sat there swaying, watching us leave.
He wouldn’t make it a year without us. He set fire to the house in hopes of claiming the insurance money, but the adjusters found him out. It was a small fire really. Just some papers in a wastebasket. Just enough to darken the walls with smoke damage and to give the house that well cooked smell. Not even really worth mentioning in the face of the flames that had burned before. Just a pop. Just a flash. Here and gone.
One of the last times I saw him alive, he took me fishing. We stood on the banks of the Saint Joseph River with our lines in the water. I caught a monster of a catfish. After we reeled it in, I lifted it from the water and held it against my chest. I can still feel it fighting, beating against me like a long, black muscle. My father knelt in the mud between me and the water to pull the hook free. He put a hand on my shoulder to steady himself as he knelt down. I felt it slide across my back and grip my other shoulder. It’s the only time I can remember him touching me without anger. Pop. Flash. Here. And Gone.
I didn’t look back when we left, but I imagine his silhouette, still swaying in the living room window, as we pulled out of the driveway, down the street and out of sight. Kehoe was the bogie man of my childhood, our hook-handed mental patient, our Bloody Mary. He came with his fire to haunt the dreams of truant little boys and girls, tormented young lovers who slipped away during study hall, stalked the darkness just beyond the drunken bonfires of underage high school seniors. Everyone was afraid of Kehoe. As I grew older, Kehoe receded into that place where childhood nightmares go, but the fear and the sense of truancy remained. The memory of my father’s silhouette would not recede.
We headed south and west, toward Lake Michigan, toward the town of Niles. My mother’s hometown, the place she grew up, where her parents were waiting to help her start over. We moved into my great aunt’s old house, next door to my grandparents. My mother talked the whole way there—everything would be fine, everything would be different.
It was living near Lake Michigan that brought the winters I remember. Fire is supposed to purify, but watch a snow squall blow in, and you watch the world wiped clean. Snow covers everything: trees disappear, hills are swallowed, entire houses become nondescript mounds. What the storm doesn’t cover is blanked out by twirling torrents of snow. In the middle of a snow squall, you can’t tell the sky from the earth—everything is white, white, white. When it’s over, the world remains partially hidden, cleansed of all color and description, a sea of form and shape. The world is made new, again.
This is where I found myself during my first winter in Niles, the first winter I remember. I woke early in the morning as the first storm died and the mad struggle to get all my snow clothes on, to be the first outside. Blue snow pants. Transformer moon boots. Green and brown jacket. Black cap. Red mitts. Pastel-colored scarf. I waddled out the door, and down the ice-covered stairs. My hand sliding down the black wrought iron rail, bulldozing a tiny wall of snow as it went.
And then, with my first step into the virgin snow, everything changed. My leg sank up to my knee. I tried to pull it up, but it was stuck. The snow had me. I couldn’t take my hand off the rail. I was afraid. I thought to shout, to cry out for help, but then I noticed the silence. There was no one else. It was early enough to still be dark, and the street lamps were still on. A breeze blew wisps of snow like smoke across the white, and for the first time in my life I felt alone. I felt like an interloper, a mass of mismatched color stumbling into a secret world untouched in a cocoon of ice.
The wind picked up and slapped my face so I’d remember. So I’d remember what it looked like before the world woke up and trampled it down, before the sun came up and burned it all away. So I’d remember that even when the snow was gone, the world would never be the same—never the same grass, never the same leaves, never the same.
I heard the screen door open behind me. My mother was leaning out the doorway.
“Come inside and eat before you go play,” she said.
I had no complaints. I didn’t want to be the one to sully the snow first. I yanked my foot free and ran inside where it was warm and safe, and breakfast was waiting. When I came back out, the snow plows had started clearing the streets, and someone had left a track of winding footsteps through our yard.
There came a time when the winters got to be too much. When squall after squall began to freeze me from the inside out. So, I tried the other side of the lake first. Chicago. The windy city. See, the lake effect only works one way, and when northern winds blow through they don’t dump as much snow if you’re on the other shore. But without the warm waters of the lake to shield you, those winds blow too cold, so I headed south. Savannah first, then New Orleans, Florida for a while, always somewhere warm, trying to sweat the winters out. Finally, I joined the Navy. I guess one country wasn’t big enough a reservoir to hold the deluge of melting ice in my belly.
The Navy took me a lot of places. Everywhere I went added some season or flavor to my heart: rain storms in Singapore, the unrelenting heat of Guam, the chill of Chinhae air, the pleasant calm of San Diego, the crumbling buildings and iron statues in the drifting snow of Vladivostok. But the most import place it took me was back to the lake, back to the lake effect, to North Chicago and the Naval Training Center.
I was living in a trailer in Rincon, Georgia about forty-five minutes north of Savannah. I was going nowhere, spending my nights unloading trucks at Wal-Mart and my mornings making barbeque ribs and Brunswick stew for a steak house up the road. I’d run myself out, and I didn’t have the will or the means to run anymore. I was stuck.
After years of sporadic contact, my mother and I had begun the long, hard-fought task to reconnect. I walked out to the main road to get my mail one day and found that she had sent me a letter. It was in one of those large manila envelopes. The ones I use now to diligently send out my stories and wait for rejection letters. I still have it—the postage stamps hard and brittle, coming loose like scales, the mouth where I cut it open torn and frayed, worn soft by age. There was a short letter inside. She wrote that she was well and that she hoped I was the same, that my sisters were also doing well. Tracy had a new job in Chicago, managing a nearly thousand-unit high-rise near Griffith Park. Paula and her husband were expecting another child. They showed my niece pictures of me and she often asked—I had only met her once or twice—when I was coming home.
She also included a stack of photographs, pictures of my mother, my stepfather, my sisters, my niece. They were at the lake, drinking sodas in the sand and standing knee deep in the water with their hands raised in salute to shield their eyes from the sun. My niece drifted in the water, floaties on her arms, a matching inner tube shaped like a duck around her waist. Her father’s hands poised at the edge of the photograph, giving her just enough room to kick freely and yet ready to snatch her up at any moment. At that point, I had never met her. We were just people in photographs to each other.
But there were older pictures, too. Pictures of my father.
In a postscript to the letter my mother had written, “I found these in the basement. I thought you might like to have them. He loved you more than he knew.”
I’ve thought a lot about that last line over the years. I think it was a mistake. She meant to write, “He loved you more than you knew.” But words are funny. They sometimes say more than we mean. I’ve never asked my mother whether she meant to write what she wrote. Some words are best left to stand on their own.
I took the envelope and the photographs back to my trailer, turned on the television, sat down on the couch and emptied the envelope onto the coffee table. I spent the next couple of hours looking through them. It had been years since I’d seen his face and it was like looking at photographs of a stranger, of someone I had never met, as if I had found this envelope on the side of the road, addressed to someone else and inside were photographs of that person, like peering, uninvited, into someone else’s life.
Some of them were more familiar than others. A photograph of him hunched over his workbench, some indecipherable project, vaguely electronic, laid out before him. His eyes glazed in fierce intensity. He looked mad. Others were far more foreign. A Polaroid of him sitting on a couch surrounded by a group of people with drinks in their hands. My mother pressed against him. His head thrown back, laughing. But one, more than the others, kept drawing me back. An old black and white of my father posed in his crackerjacks just after boot camp. He was younger than I was then. (In a few years, I will be older than my father ever was.) We looked the same, same eyes, same mouth, same line drawn down from the side of the cheek to the chin. The strange mechanism of time and memory slipped, and, for a moment, I was my father’s brother. I was my father’s older brother. I got the strange feeling that something had been arrested, left undone and horribly awry.
A week later, I went down to the naval recruiter’s office and enlisted.
The Recruit Training Center is in Great Lakes, Illinois just north of Chicago. I flew out of Jacksonville with six other recruits. We landed in the middle of the night and we had to walk across the tarmac from the plane to the airport. It was late January and I wasn’t ready for the cold. I’d been gone for years and I’d gotten used to the perpetual summers of Savannah. When I stepped out of the plane and on to the scaffolding leading down to the runway, I walked headlong into that familiar wind, waiting to smack me across the cheek once again. It was blowing drifts of snow across the asphalt. They moved like side-winding snakes, like the crests of low waves, and I was afraid. I had never faced anything in my life. I had never turned in to the wind. I had always kept it at my back. I had run from it. And, now, here I was, standing on the edge of a precipice in the dark ready to leap—all because of a single photograph and some mysterious and, perhaps, misguided sense of connection.
“Let’s go,” I heard a voice behind me say and someone nudged me in the back. I took the first step and followed my feet down the stairs.
I survived boot camp and excelled in my advanced training, graduating first in my class in common core, mech-core and GSE-A school. Over the course of eight months, I advanced three pay-grades without having ever set foot on board a ship. By the time I was halfway through e-core, I was already a full-fledged naval petty officer. Then came the storm that changed everything. The biggest storm of my life and it wasn’t any snow squall. It was a firestorm. A storm that made Kehoe look like a pan fire.
They lined us up in formation outside the barracks like any other day, but things had already changed. There was an urgency in their orders. All the casual camaraderie that had seeped in over the months after boot camp was stripped away. But we weren’t worried. It was just another exercise, just another test to see how far they could push us before we broke. We knew their games—break you down to build you up. But we were past the point of breaking. We were hard forged. Pieces of iron. We’d done thousands of push-ups, run hundreds of miles, been cycled and recycled, broken down into smaller and smaller pieces and then reformed, harder, stronger, faster than before. What more could they do? What limit was left? We jumped at their orders, marched double time from station to station, but there was a swagger we couldn’t shake. We were impenetrable. We stood rigid in the September dawn, trying hard—but not too hard—to hide the smug smiles on our faces.
That morning in e-core, the instructor was late. He was never late. An ex-senior chief with salt water in his veins. Anchors to the core. Hooyah. He came in his lab coat and goggles as usual but this time he was wheeling in a television. He didn’t say anything, just plugged in the television and hit power. Planes were flying into buildings.
“Get ready boys,” he said. It was on a loop. It just kept happening as if there were hundreds of planes, hundreds of towers, as if every building in every city was exploding, a thousand Kehoes, a thousand adepts of fire opening a thousand seals, releasing Revelation. “We’re going to war.”
War. What is war? Like in the movies? Like John Wayne? Like The Green Berets? Or The Fighting Seabees? Or Martin Sheen sailing down a river toward Kurtz? War. What the hell did I know about war? I didn’t sign up for this. I didn’t join the Navy to risk my life, to lose it, to sacrifice it for anyone or anything. I signed up to find it, to save it, to make something of it. I could have run. I thought about it. Because of my rank, I was allowed to have a car and an apartment off base. I could have driven off the base one day and turned left instead of right, driven to the interstate and away from Great Lakes forever. It was only a few hours around the horn of the lake to home. I could have run, but every day when I came to that turn I went right. I never saved a life. I was never pinned down in a firefight. Never rushed in to the crumbling smoke to draw out another body or searched the rubble for weeks after for signs of life. I just turned right every day for a few weeks until I was assigned to a ship. It wasn’t much, not even really worth mentioning, but it meant everything.
Not every snowfall in Michigan is a squall. Most drift in, almost gently, dusting the earth with an inch or two. That’s the kind of snow you go out in. Let it fall around you, stick to you, get caught in your lashes. That’s when you tilt your head back, open your mouth and hold out your tongue. Catch that special one whose intricate form dissolves into you, becomes part of you.
Under the right conditions, memories, like water, can be frozen, even fire. They gather at your center and make you who you are. Sometimes you get dumped on, as if in a squall, changing everything. But most of the time they comes a snow flake at a time, building up as the years go by. History is a kind of memory. The things we choose to remember, those we forget and the few we just can’t, the things that make us who we are. Because it’s you, you know. It’s you loading up your pick-up with shards of metal. It’s you fingering the box cutter in your pocket. It’s you stumbling down the road away from the schoolhouse. It’s you in your office on the sixty-seventh floor calling home to say you’re going to be a little late. It’s you. It’s us. It’s us that turns left or turns right.
As for me, I keep turning. Because I have to. Because if you don’t turn you’ve got no chance of going right. And I want nothing more than to go right. I sneak a few right turns in now and then, just like everybody else, even though for the most part it feels like I’m circling to the left. But I try. I try real hard to turn right. And those turns build up at my center too with all that fire and all that ice, mixing in the strange alchemy of who we are. They form crystal spires branching from a diamond of ice in which a boy dances with the ghost of his father in the drifting snow. Their heads upturned catching snowflakes on their tongues.