Within Close Range: At the Edge of the Bluff

It’s an early spring day in the heartland.

Anemic, damp and miserable.

Clumps of stubborn snow and ice, grey and grimy, still dot the lawns and sidewalks.

Faces look pale and anxious for change.

After the usual Sunday sermon of incense and absolution, followed by stacks of buttermilk pancakes and syrupy sausages, we know something is up when Dad drives past the walled entrance of King’s Cove, our subdivision, further and further from home.

Past unfamiliar towns and unfamiliar faces.

Boredom is beginning to grow horns, when just past a sleepy village appear several white, storybook farm buildings down a long, straight-as-an-arrow road. Enchanting and inviting, tidy and bright – even on this gloomy day.

My heart beats faster as we near.

And sinks as we pass.

Before I have a chance to exhale my displeasure – long and loud for all the car to hear – a glorious mural of colorful birds, ever taking flight on the north side of a barn, comes into view in the rear window, mesmerizing me until it’s out of sight and Dad signals a turn to the right.

“Shoreacres Country Club. Members Only. Est. 1916.”, reads the uninviting sign, as we turn into the dark of the woods just past the storybook farm. Mom and Dad keep silent as the wide, low wagon drifts down the winding road, flanked by a small, trickling creek, past long stretches of green grass and tall trees.

Everything is covered in a fine, frigid mist, including another set of elegant, white buildings belonging to the famously snobbish club (who will eventually and wholeheartedly reject Dad), silent and still on this dreary Sunday afternoon.

As we pass a green, faded, old water tower, headless and frightening in the fog, Dad finally begins to divulge our destination: a new home.

The inside of the car goes instantly silent.

I sink further into the wagon’s rear seat, where the strange, unfriendly neighborhood disappears and I can see nothing but the thick, dark clouds smothering the day.

The silence is broken only by the sound of gravel crunching beneath the wheels of the station wagon, now weighted with disappointment, as it twists down a long driveway and stops.

I inch my way back up in my seat to peek at the house.

It’s grey and sullen.

Like the day.

And my mood.

Mom and Dad turn to the back of the car with smiles from ear to ear. Not one of us can fathom what there is to be smiling about.

“We’ll just take a look,” Dad says. “If you don’t like it, we won’t buy it.”

But even I know that means: “You WILL like it.” and “We ARE buying it.”

Like prisoners into an exercise yard, we file from the car and stand in an unhappy cluster on the cold, stone patio in front of the house.

Which isn’t yellow, like ours.

Has no signs of neighbors, a school, OR the Good Humor man, like ours.

And most certainly doesn’t have the new tree house in its backyard, LIKE MINE!

Without keys, Dad and Mom look in the windows and talk excitedly about all they see.

I see nothing but despair.

Until Dad coaxes us to the long stretch of windows that look through the front hallway, into the living room, through its windows and beyond, where we see an expanse of lawn.

And water, for as far as the eye can see.

Five figures, all ranging in size, race to the rear of the house and the edge of the bluff, looking down to where the vast lake rolls onto the beach eighty feet below.

We take turns on an old tire swing at the very edge, watching the lake below and trees above disappear and return.

Serpentining down the overgrown path to the beach, we skip the first of thousands of flat, smooth stones across the cold, dark water of Lake Michigan; marveling at the silhouette of the Chicago skyline jutting out 40 miles to the south and the Great Lakes Harbor dotted with boats just a mile to the north.

I can feel the growing excitement as Jim lifts Mark so he too can peek through the windows of the property’s outbuildings, mostly hidden from the main house by a small patch of woods.

Breeding grounds for mischief and unsupervised merriment.

First cigarettes. First beers. First bongs.

Secret rendezvous for young loves and safe havens for fainthearted runaways.

More than once I’ll pack my technicolor suitcase and run to the greenhouse office, seeking solitude and distance from those who fail to understand me. Only to find that a short time later, I’ll long for home just a few hundred feet away.

The greenhouse office will become a verdant vessel of creativity and fantasy, with floor to ceiling cabinets where surprise attacks will repeatedly surprise, and where a wall length desk (lined with electrical outlets), beneath wall length windows overlooking the great lake, will become our cockpit, our control center, our helm.

In the attached, sunken greenhouse/laboratory/operating room, a deranged, mad scientist will run from staircase to staircase, table to table, laughing maniacally; while faithful minions, at his command, throw the elaborate array of switches that light the building like a giant firefly, and open and close metal shutters** on its plexiglass walls and ceilings.

Turning day to night and eyes to starry skies.

With the flick of another switch, an enormous vent in a small, windowless antechamber**, will belch and blast air at its latest victim or adventurer, and suddenly turn the strange, metal room into a tornado, or a torture chamber, a time machine, or space ship.

Our imaginations will rocket in the greenhouse.

Just north of here, the two-bedroom cottage is where newlyweds will test the waters and where Dad will keep a watchful eye over his seven acre kingdom when his own marital tides turn; where older siblings will taste independence for the very first time and I’ll pretend the tiny house at the very edge of the bluff is all mine.

Change will be ever-present.

The swimming pool will be added and give Mom nightmares. She’ll wake, paralyzed by the thought of one of her children drowning as she stands helpless and hopeless; and she’ll secretly wade into the pool every morning that first summer, where she’ll teach herself how to dog paddle.

Her head will never dip below the surface.

For which we will tease her mercilessly.

But Mom will never say a word.

In the decades ahead, a barn will go up, where playthings of the turbine and equine kind will be housed and I’ll first understand the responsibility of caring for another life; where I’ll curse our ponies, Chief and Billy Gold, on those bitter, winter mornings when I’ll be required to muck stalls before school; and where mice (at the bottom of the grain barrel) and I will constantly frighten the crap out of each other.

A barn will come down, lost to growing teens and changing needs.

The cottage will be sold and land subdivided, to help keep Dad precariously afloat.

New houses will encroach upon our woods.

Our world.

The swing at the edge of the bluff will be consumed by erosion, as will the greenhouse and its office.

Lives will scatter.

Life at the edge of the bluff will be lost.

But what a life it will be.

**Built in 1959 by Dr. John Nash Ott, the Shoreacres property included seven, wooded acres of lakefront, the main house (a New England-style country home), a small, two-bedroom cottage and an office/lab and greenhouse, where Dr. Ott did much of his groundbreaking research.

A former banker turned photographer, cinematographer and inventor, Dr. Ott’s achievements include the development of full spectrum lighting, light therapy and time-lapse photography. Ott was also a pioneer in the newly developing field of photobiology and had the first color TV program to be broadcast from Chicago, called: “How Does Your Garden Grow?”

The greenhouse’s windowless antechamber not only kept unwanted light out of the greenhouse, it’s large blower precisely controlled temperatures (blowing hot or cold air) when someone entered or exited the main building. The ceiling and walls of the greenhouse had fully-mechanized, metal shutters which allowed Dr. Ott to meticulously control light entering the space.

Dr. Ott’s book, “The Ivory Cellar” records his earliest work at Shoreacres.

Within Close Range: Summers on the Edge

There us peace in the familiar sounds of summer at Shoreacres.

The Northwestern train keeping to its schedule.

Bank Swallows calling to their colony as they swoop to and from nests pockmarking the sandy bluff wall.

The harbor’s baritone foghorn warning boats buried in Lake Michigan’s mist.

Even the sailors at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center to the north chime in, drilling up and down the parade grounds.

Marching.

Grunting.

Singing and rhyming.

Voices hovering in the air like ancient tribal chants.

Laying on the lawn overlooking the lake, I close my eyes and ease into the familiar sound of the sailors’ strong, low voices.

And the marching band practicing its spirited battle hymns.

Miles away, but strong and clear.

Carried to my ears by the lake winds cutting through the thick, moist air that smells of fresh cut lawn and freshwater fish.

Sun-filled days of climbing up and down the bluff where the path used to be before the lake rose and stole chunks of land, leaving little but swallow holes and sand – and killer cool ledges for daring leaps by reckless kids who take to the skies, then aim for the beach, landing in the soft, thick sand below – hot on the surface, but damp and cool just inches beneath.

Wriggling my toes further into the moist earth, I try to recapture the wind knocked out of me in the landing, until voices from above goad me into action and I’m forced forward again, down the soft, crumbling bluff, to a rugged line of boulders Dad had dropped on the beach in his failed fight against this infamously wicked lake.

Then one by one, into the water and waves we wade, trying to dislodge sand from our swimsuits and butt cracks. Feeling the lake’s strong, cold undertow at our feet and the strong, hot sun on our heads.

Watching our Lab, Heather, joyously and tirelessly swim after a stick bobbing on the waves.

Silly dog.

Then up to the top we head to bound down again.

And again.

And again.

Long summer days invade the nights, inspiring late nights of Ghost in the Graveyard and Sardines and a world of hiding places scattered around our acres and outbuildings, where we squat amid the fireflies’ ambitious flickering and whisper above the crickets and cicadas charging the atmosphere with their measured, mesmerizing songs.

Reminding me that I am never really alone.

Standing at the edge of the bluff on the Fourth of July, with the comforts of home just steps away, we watch the fireworks displays from Chicago to Waukegan, “Ooohing” and “Ahhing”, mimicking the faraway crowds and slapping at mosquitoes determined to disturb our private celebration.

Mom unfreezes boxes of brats and burgers to feed a small army, which eventually arrives with empty stomachs and pockets full of bottle rockets, sparklers and Roman candles ample enough to light the skies and the lake, and disturb our quiet neighbors long after the distant festivities have ended.

But the best displays I witness from the brink are the summer thunderstorms rolling over the Great Lake, and the lightening exploding in sky-wide, silver-white bolts and bursts.

I feel fortunate.

And irrelevant.

On gentler nights when the moon is full and bright and we can see our way down the bluff to the beach, my siblings and I wade into the vast, still water.

First, up to our knees. Then our bellies. Then our chests.

Eventually emboldened by the bright moonlight and calm, glassy water, I swim further from the shore and my companions.

Through strange patches of warm in the perpetually cold, inland water.

Scanning the dark stretch of water in front of me and turning to see the sparsely lit shoreline now well behind me, the calm in my mind begins to churn and I begin to worry about what lurks just below my feet – and in those warm patches – and start paddling madly toward the beach and the nearest sibling.

Not stopping until I’m close enough to feel the sand below my feet, or see a smile in the moonlight.

Finding enormous comfort and calm in the motion of another’s treading water.

In their laughter.

In their teasing.

These are the endless days spent layered in sand and sun tan oil. Brown and blissful.

These are the days of sleeping well into the afternoon, or until the smell of breakfast cooking below wafts into my room…

or my class schedule arrives in the mail all too soon.