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.