We were “hicks.” That was the insult of choice directed at us Chardon High School Hilltoppers. Rival school children would call us that or sometimes “farmers,” which said more about the insulters than the insulted.
We were not “hillbillies” (our Hilltopper mascot being something of a misnomer). And so, while reading Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance, I had the feeling that not only was his family not my family but his culture was not my culture. (Not to say my culture is crisis-free.) Was his Ohio my Ohio?
The story of Vance’s life begins in Kentucky, where his people–of Scots-Irish working class–are from, but he spends much of his childhood in Middletown, Ohio, about three hours south and west from where I grew up. The Rust Belt scenario there is familiar: the rise and fall of industry–especially steel. However, the terrain is not.
The story of my Ohio childhood is awash in water. Lake Erie connects my mother’s side in the Buffalo-area to my Dad’s side in Port Clinton, Ohio, to the local places I loved most: Grand River, Ohio, where my dad docked his boat and where Brennan’s Fish House serves the best fried Lake Erie perch; and Headlands beach (Ohio’s longest stretch of sand), where we’d swim, picnic, and watch the sun set.
Lake Erie is an underdog in the Great Lakes scene. No one’s calling it pristine; its famous Cuyahoga River caught fire in the 60s; its beaches still close for high bacteria levels; zebra mussels cause algae blooms. Still, who can resist the pull of a Great Lake in summer?
In winter, the lake brought us the lake-effect snow for which my hometown is known. It seems very long ago now, but there was still sled dog racing in winter on the public golf course, next door, where we’d also cross-country ski. For all it’s pluses, the downside to life near the lake is danger, especially for those who venture out on the lake ice.
Growing up in the Great Lakes region, every family has stories of danger on the lake. My dad, a boater from childhood, has a few. In one, he fell through the ice in winter and was fished out. That story must have inspired parts of this one I wrote.
My “Betting Blind” appeared in the spring 2017 issue of Sou’wester, a literary journal published by Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and edited by Joshua Kryah (poetry) and Valerie Vogrin (prose).
The gist of this piece of short fiction: An Ohio man with a fear of the water must confront a childhood incident on the lake ice in order to learn to swim (from an instructor with her own heavy baggage)–as a gift for his swimmer/diver daughter before she heads to college.
Here I’ll provide the flashbacks the main character has. (Consider ordering your own issue of Sou’wester, which includes my story in full, along with a lot of wonderful prose and poetry!)
From “Betting Blind” by Rebecca Moon Ruark:
She runs through the marsh grass toward the lake, her eyes fixed on the back of my head. Evening, my mother is dressed for a Valentine’s Day party on Erie Street in our lakeside town of Port Chardon. The county seat, it seems everybody’s dad is a lawyer and everybody’s mom is pretty. But mine is the prettiest. This is generally agreed upon by us boys who trap muskrats and sail model boats at the water’s edge, little sisters trailing us like kite tails. I have Pinup Peg. This is what the neighbor boys call my mother, who spends the summer in a white bathing suit and red lips, sunning herself in an Adirondack chair on the lawn, watching us through opera glasses. I sock my friends in the arms when they gawk at her. But even my eight-year-old self can marvel at the perfect symmetry of her features and form, like a hothouse flower. I have Pinup Peg, but I also have Annoying Anna, the toddler sister I try to forget.
A good girl from Hudson doesn’t swim, my mother is fond of saying. She can’t swim; this is the truth her pride won’t let her admit. But here she is now running toward the water, iced over, as it does each winter, in her purple dress. She heads for us boys hauling our soapbox derby cars out onto the frozen lake. I glimpse her over my shoulder, but still I trudge on, unwilling to return to the house just yet. I am the caboose in this derby car train. My load is heavy. My car is weighed down by a snow-suited Anna stuffed down into the cockpit. Her milky cheeks are flushed with cold, but she grins. I’m happy for the whipping winter wind that drowns out my sister’s squeals, for the squall is a train whistle.
The silk swishes and her pearls dance at her neck. My mother’s eyes will me to do something, to retrieve my derby car that slipped away from me when I stopped to clap my small, cold palms together. I want to yell to the other boys to wait for me. But even my clapping makes no sound over the wind. And I hear no squeals or shrieks as my car slides to an area of the ice where there’s a fishing shanty.
Back at the water’s edge stand the other little sisters. Two of them suck their cold fingertips; one spins and spins and never stops. But Anna, my Annoying Anna, is not with them. And I’ve lost track of the rope that pulled my derby car, still sliding along the ice.
My boyhood self stands before me on the ice. Turned toward the shore, I watch my mother’s frantic pantomime. Her red lips open and close like a dummy’s. (Later, we would all learn to sign.) I try to decipher what she means. I remember Anna in the cockpit and realize my mother isn’t running for me. I skate toward my car, slip, fall and scramble on the ice. I fish the rope from the slush and yank at it. But my car doesn’t budge, half submerged in the remnants of a large ice-fishing hole, or a series of them. Anyway, my hands are frozen, the orange flames I’d painted on the flanks of the car a cruel joke. Anna’s mittened hands beat the air as the car sinks. I cry for her and for my friends who are specks of blue and red on the icy horizon.
Men in hats and suits, cuff links glinting in the twilight, try to hold my mother back. At the water’s edge, their wives hold themselves around their middles. Their girls stand behind them. The other boys have gone on unencumbered to where the ice is smooth, where you can see in the distance the island’s dance hall all aglow. I see myself across the slushy gash from my mother. Between us, under the water, is the car I’d built myself. No one has taken an interest in it before. But she jumps in after it now.
Pinup Peg swims, a textbook breaststroke, this woman, my mother, who can’t swim. Her head of chestnut curls is slicked with ice like a hood. Three perfect strokes, and the street dads have her out of the frigid water and cocooned in blankets. Her red mouth is stretched in a grimace and her cries make no sound and it is terrible. She clutches a blue-lipped Anna, my two-year-old cockpit stowaway. Later, I watch a turquoise Edsel pull my derby car out of the ice. …
Be sure to check out my next post, where I will link to a great article about another Great Lake.