September 27, 2019

FTV: Little Pink Houses

   When John Mellencamp’s hit single Little Pink Houses shot up the record charts, I liked it immediately.  Why? Like the lyrics suggest, I actually did grow up in a pink house.  At the time it wasn’t my favorite color, especially when we did one of those elementary school art projects were we were asked to make a colorful drawing of our house.  Perhaps it was the color theme of 1957, but when the folks decided to paint it a dark loden green some years later, it was fine with me. Once Mellencamp’s song hit the airwaves, I had to reassess a bit and rethink why I didn’t like to admit to living in a pink house.  Maybe it was an elementary school ‘macho’ thing.

     The Norway Avenue house is my focal point when I think about my formative years.  It was a new house in a new neighborhood and part of the fun living there was observing the changes that would occur over the next fifteen years.  Pretty much everything that evolved into me happened when we lived in that house, so many of my memories are attached to that location.

     When we moved in, the long block of Norway Avenue down from Whitman Elementary School was still gravel (as were the short block of Center Street from Norway to Lincoln Street and Lincoln from Center Street to Wright Street).  There were no sidewalks or neighbors except for one house up the hill closer to Waldo Street. One of my first memories of that house is taking a trip to the site when the house was still being framed. While dad was helping the carpenter, Jake Rintala, I stood in what would become our front yard and watched a bulldozer knock down some of the tall Norway Pines that gave the street its name to create the street from Waldo down to Center.  I was always fascinated by heavy equipment (think of me as a little kid making motor noises playing with a tractor in the dirt and you understand how exciting construction projects were for me), so I was in hog heaven watching the birth of our street. Little did I realize that I was going to be living on the corner of Construction Road and Builder’s Way for the next fifteen years.

     Whitman School had been built in 1953 and my brother and sister were both students there when we still lived five blocks to the southeast on Kaye Street.  A block to the west of Whitman lay an old furniture factory called the Picqua. When they first announced that the site had been purchased for the new Marquette Senior High building, they opened the lot for a period of months so anyone could salvage what they could before the rest of the buildings were razed.  We spent many hours removing rough sawed boards, beams, and other lumber (plus straightening many bent nails which my father would not leave behind). There were several brick structures (as in small red bricks, not cement blocks) on the property and we hauled away several truck loads of those as well. We had built a small one room camp at the mouth of the Silver River between L’Anse and Skanee in 1958 and the lumber we recovered became additional bunk rooms, storage buildings, a boathouse, and a sauna.  We also salvaged several long, heavy sections of walkway from one of the factory buildings which were a lot of work to haul. When dad incorporated them as walkways in the new camp boathouse, it suddenly made sense why we hadn’t broken them down into individual pieces of wood. The bricks were cleaned of motar by yours truly and ended as a rec room partition/fireplace in the basement of the Norway Avenue house. Ironically, some of this lumber is now on its third lifetime: When the old boathouse succumbed to frost heave and river bank erosion, we took it apart and used some of the lumber to roof the woodshed attached to our current house in Ontonagon.  Who knew used lumber could be so well travelled?

     When we moved into the Norway Avenue house, the rolling field across the street (the area was cleared farm land once upon a time) was like an empty canvas waiting to be painted.  We could see across to the National Guard Armory to the north and all the way to the new Hedgecock Field House to the east. Next to the Armory stood the residence of one of my brother’s classmates, Joe Morse, with whom Ron would exchange Morse Code messages by flashlight.  Eventually this morphed into making DIY Morse Code devices straight out of The Boy Scout magazine’s project pages. We felt like junior Edisons as we turned scrap wood, nails, wire, and sheet metal from dad’s shop into ever more sophisticated code blinkers. This in turn stirred up a need to learn Morse Code so messages could be coded and decoded without a cheat sheet.  For a time I thought that Morse code had been invented by Joe.

       The rolling hills across the street were once home to the Upper Peninsula State Fair before it moved to Escanaba.  For us, it was our all seasons playground. In summer, we played baseball, shot at targets with our sling shots or bows and arrows, and did our version of mountain biking.  There was even a nice little creek flowing in a valley from south to north that was a raging torrent in the spring and a placid little stream hidden by the tall field grass in the summer.  Model wooden rafts with sails occupied our thoughts in the spring which probably made me one of the few students in Mr. Gill’s eighth grade English class who enjoyed reading Thor Heyerdahl’s Pacific Ocean rafting adventure Kon Tiki.  

      Next to the creek, there was enough of a hill that we could make a two track ski run that would get faster and longer with each ride down.  We didn’t mind shouldering our skis and marching back to the top of the hill. Sledding was done on Slick’s Hill on Fair Avenue next to Whitman Elementary because the volume of kids sledding there meant it was always hard packed and fast soon after a fresh snowfall.  When Bud Weisen opened the first Ski Doo ‘shop’ (he was actually working out of his garage two blocks up the street from us on Kaye in what was rumoured to be the very first Ski Doo franchise in Michigan and possibly the entire United States), dad was his first customer in our neighborhood.  He saw it as a great tool for hauling firewood and ice fishing equipment, which of course made us all the more eager to help. We also found it a great tool for grooming our little two track ski hill, towing skiers up the hill, dragging a toboggan load or tow rope of neighbor kids on skis around the field, and expediting the panking of the sled runs on Slick’s Hill.  If it sounds like we spent the bulk of our free time in the great outdoors, then you have a pretty accurate picture of life for us in the late 1950s and the 1960s.

     The valley in the field was ringed with Juneberry shrubs and Blueberry bushes so one didn’t have to interrupt adventures to get a quick snack.  My mother could be easily bribed into making a little sandwich picnic for us with either a container of fresh berries or a small bouquet of flowers freshly picked from the field. This practice started as soon as the knob of the biggest hill in the middle of the field was bare enough and the sunshine warm enough to qualify as spring.  When the temperature got a little higher, the expanding bare ground on the hill became kite central. Nobody bought kites in those days. If you had a couple of pieces of wood and brown grocery bags, string was the only thing that had to be purchased. Mom always had a rag bag in the closet so we got pretty good a tieing our own kite tails.  We even got better at making slip knots so the guide string could be adjusted on the kite harness without having to undo it. We patched and built new kites with religious fervor because we weren’t content to just fly them. No, we had to engage in kite wars. If one watches any of the ‘Battle Bots’ or ‘Robot Wars’ programs on TV or YouTube, one only needs to picture the same kind of battle taking place a hundred feet up with kites.  Trash talking was part of the game but no one went away angry when their kite was taken out – sometimes you won, sometimes you crashed and burned.

     My brother’s interest in model airplanes took his kite building to the next level.  He used a lot of balsa wood, model airplane paper, and time building a kite with the profile of a glider wing.  It was shaped like a kite but had a front and back side designed to give it more lift. It worked pretty well and tended to fly higher (as in closer to straight up) on a short tether.  One particularly windy day, he decided to go for a world record and we began attaching every piece of kite string we could lay hands on as the kite got higher. The added weight and drag of the string started to counterbalance the kite’s lifting properties and while it was now flying over the Armory on the other side of the field, it wasn’t anywhere close to straight over head (which would have been an impressive feat of kite flying).  I will never forget the look of horror on Ron’s face when the string snapped and the kite laid out flat in the wind and literally flew off to the north, out of sight and into the forest somewhere between Wright Street and the Dead River basin, never to be seen again.

    Brother Ron’s other obsession in those days was to build a free flying, motor driven balsa wood model which he wanted to eventually rig with remotely controlled surfaces.  He had cut his teeth on string controlled models (which required the operator to stand in the center of the model’s flight path and control the plane with a fly by wire hand controller) and his three foot long free flying model was the next logical step.  He always threatened that if he could get this to work, the next step would be to build an ultralight plane in the basement. The big model was never quite perfected and the ultralight plan stayed in the ‘someday’ file. When Ron got too busy with school and work, my neighbor Chris and I decided that we would take up the fly by wire hobby.  We crashed them and Ron fixed them, but he was happy enough that we got involved. We never joined the model airplane club that would meet regularly at the Armory but we always went to watch how the pros did. They flew acrobatics with an assortment of home made planes. They also had their share of crashes which for some reason always made me feel a little better about my habit of augering in more often than not.

     When NMU began building the new science building and the dorm quads in ‘our field’, it changed the view out our picture window a great deal.  The construction gave us an even better playground than we had when new homes were constructed because all of these buildings were multi floored.  At some point I developed a fairly good case of vertigo when confronted with high places, but back then, we didn’t think twice as we scaled the scaffolds that were erected around these projects.  Dad made it a point to walk us through a couple of the early buildings because he was also interested in the projects. His secondary reason was to point out that there were many places where there would be a hole waiting for an elevator or stairway that would be just that:  a hole with a long drop to the bottom. He knew that we would explore the buildings on our own and he wanted to make sure we were aware that a three story fall to a concrete floor would be our last mistake. It is hard to believe many of these dormitories have now been torn down and replaced.  

     The old joke used to be, “I went away to college and when I was gone, my parents moved.”  This happened to me in reverse. The second summer I was living and working at the Huron Mountain Club (1972), I drove one of the ‘keepers’ (re:  babysitters) to town on her day off because she wanted to see what Marquette was like. We dropped by the house and found my mother packing boxes of things.  She said, “We bought a lot just outside the city limits on Summit Street – your father is over there helping put up the basement walls. The house will be delivered in two weeks so they have to have it ready by then.  Oh yes, we already sold this house.” I spent a few more nights in the Norway Avenue house but I never really got to say goodbye. By the time I returned to school in the fall, we were in the new house. If I hadn’t been coming home on the weekends for band jobs, I wonder if they would have just moved without telling me?  That is one question I probably didn’t want to ask and for the record, the Summit Street house was not pink, it was a golden yellow color.

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