Blueberry Summers CoverBlueberry Summers excerpt

By Curtiss Anderson

Come summer I was packed off to spend those simmering days on a northern Minnesota lake, one among thousands that seemed strewn like blue confetti by the hand of God. Ours was one of three lakes that channeled into each other. We simply called it Middle Lake.

Even as these isolated lakes had been patient for a glacial eternity, it seemed to me our blueberry summers would never end. No one would really age. I would remain eight, nine, ten, or twelve, at most. The blueberry patches, as onerous and glorious as life itself, would continue to stroll along our trails, climb our hills, and saunter down our valleys.

Nature would always challenge, threaten, protect, and entertain us with its sweet and sad surprises: Things would happen that had never happened before and would never happen again.

That is the essence of wilderness and wildlife.

I started thinking about summer on our lake as early as Easter. Yes, it was our lake, not the lake. With so many lakes in the region families tended to identify them as if they owned the lakes and were their sole residents. “Where is your lake?” someone might ask.

The drive up north from Minneapolis was usually uneventful, except for the discomfort of four adults and three children packaged into a two-door, Model A Ford with storage racks on the running boards and the roof loaded down with makeshift luggage, boxes, and bags. In later years, seeing photographs of the Okies fleeing the dust storms on their way to the promised land, California, I thought about us on our way to the lake.

My father and his closest friend since childhood, Leigh Johnson, occupied the front seat, often with me - the smallest - sandwiched between them. Clara, “pleasingly plump,” sat in the back behind her husband, Leigh, who was usually driving. My mother was on the passenger side of the bookends with Clara, and Leigh’s daughter, Carol May, and my brother, Bobby, were encased between them.

Of course, the how-much-longer-is-it-now query was relentless on my part.

“It’s about five minutes closer than the last time you asked” was one of the many huffy responses.

The only real highlight of the two-hour journey was the stop in Elk River. We would each get an enormous homemade, vanilla ice-cream cone from the soda fountain at the red-brick drugstore. The shop also served “fountain Cokes” in the classic, flared fountain glasses, with ice, a squirt of secret syrup, and then the foaming soda. Never have I ever been able to recover those wondrous flavors and never did they go down so well as in those exquisite glasses.

If we had a late start, we often stopped to have a picnic organized by Clara. As far as I knew, Clara invented picnics. They were pulled together in minutes, usually featuring Clara’s potato-and-egg salad with diced-up slices of leftover ham to extend its longevity to breakfast hash, then ham-bone soup, and finally burial by my dog Shep.

One of these stops gave us a lifelong tale to tell. Leigh perched the car on a hilltop where we’d have a lovely view of a lake near Anoka, Minnesota. Within seconds, a white sky turned black and blue, battered and dark, and the lake rumbled like an ocean. The funnel that dropped from the clouds seemed without form or direction, just a billowing mass soaring in the near distance.

Seconds, not minutes, passed, and the rain and winds shook our car as if the force of nature was an enormous hand, fully capable of lifting the vehicle and tossing it into the nearby lake.

“There’s not one darn thing we can do, folks,” Leigh said, characteristically.

My mother repeated my father’s name with mounting horror: “Oh, Otto. Oh, Otto. Oh, Otto.”

She was terrified by routine thunder-and-lightning storms, even heavy rains, sometimes rushing us all down to the basement of our house in Minneapolis, where the flashes couldn’t be seen. But a tornado! This was Armageddon.

Her fear swept through me like a ghost, and it was years before I overcame it. It concerned my father, and more than once he snapped at my mother: “If you keep that up, you’re going to have that boy afraid of his own shadow.”

I wondered if we shouldn’t get out of the car and run. Then it occurred to me that this monstrous funnel would swoop down and inhale everything in its path, just like the fire-tongued dragons in the movie One Million BC with Victor Mature.

The famous Anoka tornado struck in 1936. Later that day we drove through the devastated little town. It was virtually flattened. Straws from haystacks pierced telephone poles. Chunks of bark were torn off the trees. Everyone had a story to tell. The sheriff was running to get to his office when he was picked up by the spinning monster and deposited intact at the jail.

The highways had few threats back then - no freeways, no traffic jams, no carjacks, no road rage - and no SUVs! But the trip could be unnerving all the same. Although Leigh held the steering wheel, my mother gripped an imaginary one in the back seat. She was certain every other car coming from the opposite direction was predestined to hit us head-on.

The occasions when Leigh announced he was about to pass another car became a sort of celebrated change of pace. “Blow your horn!” mother shouted.

“Kaw-ooo-ga . . . kaw-ooo-ga . . . kaw-ooo-ga.”

We’d all stare at the wildly rounded eyes of the occupants of the car being passed. I gritted back at the gritted teeth of the driver. Shep barked a sotto voce - “Woo-oo - oof” - that grew progressively louder.

Mother tapped Leigh on the back of his neck to let him know that he was passing too far over on the left. Always accommodating, he swung back to the right. Then she hit on my copilot father: “Otto, Otto, he’s going to swipe the side of that car!”

My father tried but seldom succeeded in controlling the growling circumference of his voice: “Long as you’re doing the driving back there anyway - why don’t we just stop along here, Leigh, and let Hilda drive from the front seat.” While my mother was fully capable of driving a car, the idea of her driving on a highway was met with gasps. Someone muttered, “Gimme a tornado.”

“Daddy, I have to go!” Carol May was emphatic. Any sort of excitement easily stimulated her. And when the event evoked laughter, she could become extremely incontinent.

Carol May’s familiar news was met with an equally familiar chorus of inharmonious groans.

“Dagnabit, kid!” Leigh was still a long way from getting angry. “We just passed that darned car, now they’ll get ahead of us, and we’ll just have to pass them again - if we ever catch up with them again.”

“Anyone who has to go had better go now,” my father warned. “Boys, do you hear? Or you’ll just have to use those coffee cans.”

“How about you and Leigh, Otto?” Clara giggled.

Clara was just fine. She had a deck of cards and played a game she called solitary confinement all the way.

By now my mind was occupied with a sign that read unequivocally:

DULUTH 86 MILES

“Criminy! Eighty-six miles! And we’re not even there yet.”

My brother Bob, two years older, broke his vow of silence. He hated these trips. “And that’s not even where we’re going. Geez.”

“I didn’t say that. What a dumb - I said - ”

“Just forget what you said,” my father advised. “We know what you mean.”

“Bob,” I said, never “Bobby” as the others did; and then I’d drag his name out: “Bo-awwww-b!”

“Whaaa-t?”

“Do you spell your name with one o or two?”

“Out-of-state license,” he interrupted my joke, which in itself had a few miles on it.

“Where?” I challenged.

“Back there. Parked there.”

“I didn’t see it, so it doesn’t count.”

“It was from Michigan. That’s one point.”

By then, Bob was usually ahead of me in spotting cars from other states, mostly Iowa where they don’t have any lakes. Wisconsin was only worth a half point because we sort of considered it the same place as Minnesota. Bob, of course, often won, not having all the distractions I had in my effort not to miss anything, even though there was seldom anything to miss.

Now and then Leigh came to my painfully impatient rescue, nudging me with a wink and a nod. Everyone covered their ears when they could see what was coming. Leigh first, then I joined him, singing a new verse or two of a road song that had no end:

My name is Yon Yonson,
I cum from Visconsin.
I verk in da lumberyard der,
All da peeple I meet
When dey valk down da street
Sa-ay - ‘Hey, whaz yo’ name?’
- and I tell ‘em da same-ame-ame . . .
Oh, my name is Yon Yon-son,
I cum from Vis-con-sin.
I verk in da lumber-yard der.
All da peeple I meet,
When dey valk down da street
Sa-ay - ‘Hey, whaz yo’ name?’
- and I tell ‘em da same-ame-ame . . .

Leigh was laughing too hard to sing, and I struggled to continue. “Vell, my name is . . .”

But my father invoked his own law: “Banned!” he shouted. “That song - song? - is banned, forever banned, in every state - east of the Mississippi.”

” . . . Yon Yonson. I come from Vis . . .”

Seeing my father break out of his glacial silence, Clara guffawed and applauded. Mother covered her mouth, but her sleek cheekbones filled fast, and she finally released a roll of giggles. Everyone stared. Laughter didn’t come easy for my mother.

Carol May just assumed we had all lost it, and Bob’s eyes rolled heavenward throughout the performance. Leigh and I nodded our mutual respect as performers. But more than that it was all worth it just to see my parents enjoying themselves.

By this time my exasperated query was well overdue: “When are we gonna get there?”

“We get there?” Bob said. “We really don’t care. You just want to know when you’re going to be there.”

“Okay, then when am I going to get there?” Carol May laughed but nobody else did.

Bob said, “That’s the dumbest, gaa-www-d!”

Mother snapped: “Watch your language, Bobby.”

Bob leaned over to my ear. “Dumb. We are all going to get there the same time as you do. Dumb. Spelled d-u-m-b.”

“No,” I said, “because people in the back seat will get there two seconds later. Than we do. In the front seat.”

Leigh looked down at me. “Youngster, you don’t want to be pushing that one too far. That could get irritating to almost anyone.”

“There’s a car!” I said. “Rats! Minnesota license.”

Bob said, “Oh, stop!”

“No, Leigh, don’t stop.” I turned to the back seat. “Do you know what the dumbest thing ever said was?”

Bob said, “All I know is you probably said it.”

Ignoring Bob, I looked at Carol May, Clara, and my mother. “I’ll give you a hint. The dumbest thing ever said was the same thing as the smartest thing ever said.”

Their eyes glanced off one another. “Huh?” Carol May said.

“It was that the front seat gets there before the back seat.” I smiled, a moment of triumph.

Eventually, the dreaded how-much-longer question dissolved into the insufferable, “Are we there yet?”

Sometimes I realized I asked the question because it defied my father’s no-nonsense reasoning: “We’re here. Right here. There’s where.”

At long last, the answer was a harsh but harmonious chorus of “Yaaaassss!”

 

All rights reserved by the Minnesota Historical Society Press/Borealis Books