September 1, 2015

FTV: The Huron Mountain Years

   Multitasking isn’t something that arrived with the computer age.  In the old days, multitasking wasn’t something you could do sitting in one place with the digital platform of your choice in front of you.  No, in the old days, multitasking usually involved frequent relocation from one jobsite to another.

    There was a two year period of time where I spent my summers working in the kitchen at the Huron Mountain Club six days a week while still playing band jobs two or three nights a week.  I lived across the street from the Northern Michigan University campus so it made sense for me to live at home while in college.  I got my share of ‘living away from home’ experience during the summers of 1971, 1972, and 1973 working at the Huron Mountain Club.  The first year wasn’t a problem as I was between bands at the time.  When I talked to the new kitchen manager before my second year, I explained that I would not be able to work at the club if it meant canceling three months of band gigs.  Ted Pilto, the head chef my first year there who had recently been elevated to the manager position, said ‘Well, if you think you can do both, we can cover for you as needed’.  That was a nice gesture on his part, but that is the kind of boss Ted was.  

    The challenge here was not going to be ‘can I work two jobs at once’.  The biggest hurdle would be the commute.  From my home next to the NMU campus, it was approximately 25 miles to Big Bay along the notoriously twisty County Road 550.  They had improved the road a great deal from Halfway location to Big Bay, but that didn’t cut down the number of deer who loved to hang around the road sides.  From Big Bay, there was another ten miles of narrow, paved road to the club gate, beyond which normal civilians were not allowed without club permission.  From here, the gravel road to the club complex itself made the twisty parts of County Road 550 look like a straight line.  The drive to town wasn’t terrible in the daylight, but each post gig drive back to the club was between 2:00 and 4:00 AM, depending where we played that night.

    With the help of my work mates, in particular my second year roommate, John MacDonald, I would leave the evening shift early on Thursday, typically 7 PM, and head for Marquette.  My dad would avoid using his truck if at all possible, which meant all I had to do when I got home was to change clothes and swap my car for the truck full of band equipment.  If we were at the NCO club at Sawyer, we just left our equipment set up for the three night gig.  The other three weekends of the month were all populated by one night jobs so we would have to load everything back in the truck and head back to Marquette after each one.  Luckily, two restaurants were open all night (Big Boy and Sambo’s) so I was able to grab a meal before heading back to Big Bay.   (Cultural side note:  The Sambo’s chain was founded by Sam Battistone, Sr. in 1957 and themed after characters in the book The Story of Little Black Sambo.  By the early 1970s, the theme was increasingly seen as racially insensitive and in many urban locations, the name was changed to The Jolly Tiger.  By the early 1980s, the theme issue and management problems lead to the bankruptcy of the company.  Some franchises were sold to chains like Denny’s, and all the rest, save the original restaurant in Santa Barbara, CA closed.  The founder’s son, Sam Battistone, Jr. is the original owner of the NBA’s New Orleans Jazz, now located in Salt Lake City, UT.  The site of the original restaurant in Marquette is now occupied by the bank located in front of Shopko).  After catching breakfast or a burger,  a quick vehicle swap was made and I was on the way back to the club.  Upon arrival,  I would flop in bed and grab a couple hours of sleep, work the breakfast shift and then take a quick nap before the lunch shift.  

    This whole scenario would be repeated on Friday night, but mercifully, I was able to stay in town after Friday night and actually get to sleep in thanks to my scheduled Saturday day off.  Of course, there were places to go and important people to meet before departing for Saturday night’s gig.  The trip back to the club was just as long after Saturday night’s gig, but Sunday breakfast was an hour later than the rest of the week so I got a bonus extra hour of sleep before heading for my first Sunday shift.

    The two years I played with the guys from KI Sawyer overlapped the two summers I commuted from the club for band jobs.  The only two weekends we had off in those two years were at Christmas so I know I spent a lot of time on the road.  There were some morning when I would open my eyes and my first thoughts would be ‘okay, where am I and how did I get here?’  I employed every trick I knew to keep from dozing off on the late night drive back to the club and the two that worked the best were loud music and open windows.  At that time of the night, I pretty much had the road to myself, save the critters.  Having a deer or coyote dart across the road was good for an adrenaline charge that got me wide awake in a hurry and kept me on alert for a good ten miles.

    The retired guys who were hired to man the gate house were never happy to see me tapping on their window at 3 AM until I figured out the secret code.  I would tap on the window with a bottle or can of beer,  wait for a hand to snatch it, and the gate would mysteriously open without the occasional blue words I would hear the first couple of trips I made.  I knew I was getting close to my final destination because I met the same family of coyotes on a sharp turn about halfway between the gate and the club. At first, they would scatter but as the summer wore on, it almost seemed like they were waiting for me.

Instead of heading for the woods, they would be sitting in groups of three or four on the sand bank on either side of the road and would just watch me motor by.

    Living at the Huron Mountain Club was as close to living on a mountain top as I will ever need to experience.  There were no phones and no TV at the club so we lived blissfully out of touch with the rest of the world (sorry kids, social media didn’t exist then).  I felt like the town crier on some of my Sunday afternoon shifts when everyone wanted to know what was going on in the world.  There were two great benefits gained working so far from civilization.  First of all, I banked most of my kitchen and band salaries because there just wasn’t any place to spend it outside of gas and the occasional pizza at the Lumberjack Tavern in Big Bay.  Secondly, going back to a normal schedule of ‘just school and band gigs’ seemed a lot less hectic.   There was a lot of satisfaction derived from both my kitchen and band jobs and I often tell my students ‘if either had paid better, I probably would still be doing that today’ (and of course, they know that I am kidding – at least I think they do).

    The third and final year I worked at the club, I was asked to report to work the second week of May, a full month earlier than the rest of the kitchen employees.  There was one chef and a two helpers who fed the maintenance guys who worked on the cabins and club facilities as well as a few members who would come during the off season.  Ilmi Saari, the older of the two kitchen helpers, was in her early 80s and had begun to slow down a bit so I was hired to help the helper.  When she was a young woman, Ilmi had worked at the Blaney Park Resort and Golf Club east of Manistique when it was one of the premier resorts in Michigan.  Her stories of those days were always fascinating and when she found out I would be student teaching after my next year in college, she said, ‘Do your student teaching in Eben (where she spent her winters) and Ilmi will rent you a room and see that you get good homemade food.’  Ilmi loved to listen to the radio when she worked in the kitchen and each morning we had the kitchen radio tuned to her favorite show.  Ironically, I spent May and part of June in 1973 listening to all the assorted goings on being reported on the Jan Tucker Show – fully two years before I was interviewed for the teaching job I have held in Ontonagon for the past forty years.

    In moments of bravado, I tell myself ‘I could still do that today’ before the realistic voice inside me says ‘yeah, for about two days’.  It is a good bet that had gas prices then been what they are today, I may have had to find a third job just to pay for my commuting.  Still, I wouldn’t trade the memories of those busy summers for all the tea in China, but that is the way summers go when you are young and frisky!