The vicious downpour had surprised us just past sunset. We were camped on a weedy hilltop overlooking the swampy edge of Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay. The storm had howled off open water bringing wind, nonstop thunder and lightning, and a deluge as if the big lake was emptying on top of us.Rick was soaked and scared but unhurt. To the feeble light of candles, we stared at each other sitting in an inch of rising water, my canvas tent no match for the fusillade pounding outside. What were we thinking?
Still in high school that spring month, we had ridden our bikes 65 miles from our homes in Flint in order to camp next to the Great Lakes. Check out the scenery. Maybe take a swim. We had pictured a nice sandy beach, not a mosquito-filled marsh. Our ignorance was matched by our crappy gear. Take my bicycle, for example.Our family was poor. Few got rich working in the Fifties and Sixties as a fire-and-brimstone preacher and that was my dad’s calling. When I was nine years old, my parents scrimped and finally bought me my first bicycle – a shiny red-and-white Schwinn. I paid half.
Of course we should have known better. Even though there was no 24-7 weather reporting back then, the fierce winds we battled all the way north on M-15 should have given us a clue that we were headed into trouble.My antique bike’s frame and steel fenders were weighted down with camping gear, including a humongous sleeping bag and heavy tent – the kind of equipment you get when you have to buy the cheap stuff.
We struggled northward, Rick and me on our overloaded bikes, walking and pushing them when the gale in our faces became overwhelming. Arnold rode ahead on his moped – a glorified bicycle fitted with a sputtering motor that could reach a top speed of maybe 25 mph – then would stop and let us catch up. Exhausted, we reached the edge of Saginaw Bay barely in time before dark to find a weedy farm field to pitch our tents.We survived that ferocious, sleepless night but realized in the dawn light that we were finished. Everything was sodden. Arnold’s moped was wet and wouldn’t start. All I wanted was my bed. We agreed that Rick and Arnold would stay with our gear and I would ride home and send Arnold’s father to the rescue.
I left my friends and pedaled south through the flat farmlands. Early Sunday morning and the highway deserted. Soaking wet and chilled to the bone. Mile after mile. So tired. The blacktop was starting to dry in the early-morning breeze, and I discovered that it was warmer than my body. Several times I got off my bike and lay flat on the pavement, absorbing a few calories of warmth, trying not to fall asleep and get run over.I arrived home so dazed that I could barely talk and collapsed in bed. Fortunately, Rick and Arnold had found a pay phone and were eventually rescued later that day, no thanks to me. It would not be our last foolhardy adventure together.
* * *The winter following our aborted bike trip, the three of us went camping near Flint in the Hadley Hills, a wooded, semi-wild, state-owned land of moraines and kettle lakes – remnants of the mile-thick glaciers that melted away from Michigan 10,000 years ago. I had my new driver’s license and drove us through snow drifts to the back country in my parents green and white ’54 Ford. We lugged our mishmash of camping gear into the woods and tamped down snow for a campsite. We cut pine branches for insulation under our tents like I’d read in my outdoor magazines.
After the sun went down the temperature plummeted to ten below zero. Our water and eggs froze solid. We managed to stay reasonably warm huddled like mummies in our sleeping bags while wearing all our clothes, keeping just our mouths and noses exposed. The fog of my breath froze on the tent fabric, turning to ice crystals that rained back down.Sometime after midnight, crunching boots and a probing flashlight on the tent walls woke us. Arnold’s worried-sick father somehow had tracked our footprints in the snow from the deserted spot where we left our car to retrieve us. He wasn’t pleased when Rick and I refused deliverance, but insisted on dragging Arnold home with him. From our tent we listened to them packing up to the light of a hissing Coleman lantern, then tromping away into the darkness.
Rick and I should have gotten out when the getting was good. Heavy snow arrived in the morning. By the time we got our frozen tent packed up and the Ford loaded, the road out was nearly impassable. At the bottom of a valley between steep hills we got stuck, miles from the paved highway. We walked until we came to a farm house. No one was home, so we rummaged around an outbuilding and discovered a pair of tire chains. We borrowed them and managed to get the Ford moving. When we passed the farm house we were surprised to see the owners were home. Rather than stop and thank them for the loan, Rick flung the chains into the driveway as we flew by. What must they have thought?
* * *The next to last time I saw Rick was at my mother’s funeral reception more than fifteen years ago. In the years since our teenage misadventures, Rick had turned himself into “Crazy Rick.”
He definitely looked crazy – black hair and beard long and wild like he was channeling his West Virginia hill-country kin. Short, square-framed, and muscular, he likely would have been a coal miner in an earlier day. As we chatted at the reception in the church gymnasium, Rick’s dark eyes darted about the room, betraying the paranoia that had crept into his brain over the years. He didn’t stay long.
When I went off to college after high school, Rick had joined the Navy. Soon after he told me, “Biggest mistake of my life,” and shared his detailed, year-long plan to convince the Navy’s shrinks that he was nuts in order to get himself discharged. He said he had convinced everyone that he was the perfect sailor, but now was going to start acting, little by little, like a crazy person. I’ve forgotten the details, but his “act” worked perfectly. The Navy gave him a “general discharge” (preserving his G.I. benefits), and he returned to Michigan to attend college. That’s how we came to call him Crazy Rick, though not to his face.After college, we went separate ways. I started a career as an environmental activist. Rick got married, had some kids, and lived in squalor, based on what I saw during one brief visit. In a moment of local fame, he made the front page of the Lansing newspaper when he cut in half two surplus schoolhouse buildings he bought for next to nothing from the township, intending to move each half down the highway and then reassemble them – I don’t remember to where or if he ever succeeded.
When I arrived, Rick was waiting for me out front. Within minutes of going in, he was loudly complaining to restaurant staff about our delay in getting seated. It promised to be a long lunch. Once we had ordered I pressed him on the purpose of his sudden appearance.Rick responded by grilling me about where I’d been on certain dates, asking if I had made such-and-such phone calls to the government. It was all very mysterious, but the look on his face said this was no laughing matter. He leaned over the table, his deep, penetrating eyes hardly blinking, staring into mine like this was an inquisition.
I pressed him for an explanation, while professing innocence of whatever he thought I’d done. He was vague, saying it had to do with anonymous, untrue allegations that he was mistreating his children. For some reason, he assumed the caller had been me.I flashed back to the picture in my head of a couple of filthy, naked kids running about like free-range chickens in the dirt-packed yard of his house, back that one time I’d visited. The guy was creeping me out, but I finally convinced him I had no idea what he was talking about. At that point he abruptly changed the subject and pulled from his backpack a thick, dog-eared report and placed it face down on the table, his forearm guarding it. It felt like I’d just passed a test. In reward, I was about to be offered secret information about UFOs, aliens, and the big, government cover-up.
He explained that his father had been in the military and come across certain secrets. Now, Rick was keeper of this hush-hush information that the government refused to admit. My eyes glazed over; I remember little of his passionate description of the conspiracy to which he was privy. As for his secret UFO report, he demanded, “If I let you read this, will you promise me you will take it seriously?”I told him I was curious and would like to read it, but “Honestly, I can’t promise you that.”
Rick was visibly insulted – more with my narrow-minded ignorance than with my personal slight, I suppose. He put his report back into hiding and, with that, our lunch date ended. I paid our bill, left a generous tip, and Crazy Rick walked away down Liberty Street. Recently I heard a rumor that these days he’s toothless and homeless, but I couldn’t say.
* * *The last time I saw my other old friend, Arnold, also was at my mother’s funeral – at the visitation at the funeral home. We hadn’t been in touch since high school. I learned that, unsurprisingly, Arnold, far from ever a successful student, had spent his life working in a local auto plant. To my complete surprise, he had spent his spare time and retirement becoming a self-taught artist, sculpting metal into all manner of his visions. In the parking lot, Arnold opened his trunk and showed me several albums filled with photos of his fabulous creations. I gushed over his artistry and he beamed.
We reminisced about old times and laughed about our ill-fated ride to Saginaw Bay. He asked if I had seen our old high school principal inside at the visitation. “I had to get out of there,” Arnold said. “You know what he once told me?”I shook my head and he continued, obviously agitated. “Arnold, you will never amount to anything. He actually said that to me.” Despite the sting of the insult, lingering still after decades, it was apparent that Arnold was proud that he’d “proved that asshole principal wrong.”
A few months later, a small package from Arnold arrived in the mail. Inside was a strange-looking, two-tined fork, artistically fashioned from a pitted, foot-long cast-iron spike. Like a blacksmith of old, Arnold had heated, hammered, twisted, and split the heated spike into this fork. A note explained that while diving in Lake Huron, he had retrieved the spike from the deck of a ship that had sunk during a storm in the early 1900’s.Probably not unlike that storm off the big lake that had taught hard crazy lessons to us boys back when we still had a whole lot of life ahead of us and a whole lot yet to prove.
~ ~ ~
Third of a series, “Wayne’s Crazy Days.” See also: