I fried catfish tonight. In an instant, the smell took me back to Coldwater, Michigan, and happy family times at The Lake, where home away from home was on the water and whiling away time was time well spent. Located in the south-central region of Michigan’s lower peninsula, about 10 miles north of the Michigan-Indiana state border, North Lake was in a chain of lakes surrounded by woods, farmland, and access to fishing holes. I grew to know that place better than my small hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio, on the Auglaize River.
I remember how the cool currents and white-capped waves channeled narrowly into warmer flat waters. Green fields rolled on the distant shores, cattails stood tall and thick in the marshes, curly-leaf pondweed and coontail crept up the channel banks, mild-mannered painted turtles sunned themselves on fallen trees, fussy snapping turtles hid in the mud, frogs practically jumped into our pockets, and fish made our bobbers bob and our lines taut. Bluegill, yellow perch, sunfish, small and largemouth bass, and black crappie on our lines made us shout with glee, “I got one!” But hooking a black bullhead catfish was something to scream about, “Help! Daddy! Help!” Catfish had stingers.
Catfish typically fed at night in the shallow, murky, often weedy waters near shore and in the quiet, warm-water channels between the cold-water lakes. As bottom-dwellers, they swam through the base layer of lake vegetation to bite on our worms and nightcrawlers. Sharp spines on their fins made them hard to handle. They tasted a bit muddy if not prepared in a way to remove that earthy taste. Mom went to a lot of work to clean and cook catfish. Today, I buy my catfish already filleted. I season, bread, and pan fry it.
Not only does the smell of fried catfish take me back to North Lake, so does the distinctive smell of boat motor fuel. My sensitive nose is a time machine turbocharger. Familiar smells fire it up and power me back, way back. Suddenly I’m putzing along in our 14-foot rowboat with its Johnson Seahorse 5 1/2 horsepower outboard motor clamped tightly on the stern. I’m sitting on a boat cushion on the rear thwart with my orange life jacket on, and my twin sister is on the front thwart with her eyes on the lookout for turtles and frogs.
Carole and I learned to read the surface of the water, the currents, the waves, and the whitecaps. Our boat moved through the bright-green-algae-covered channels, zigzagging here and there, passing floating mildewed buoys on nylon ropes and rugged handmade boat docks. When the old Johnson died, Dad bought us a 6 horsepower Evinrude. At full throttle, we zipped along on calm water, with a pleasant breeze in our faces and a frothy wake at our backs. With Carole at the bow basking in the sun and me at the stern steering the motor, we could keep the Sue-Lou fairly plane, even in waves.
I’ve forgotten so many things over the years, and that can be distressing at times. But I can still remember the name of every lake in that long, scenic chain of seven — Craig, Morrison, Randall, North, Cemetery, South, and Messenger. North Chain of Lakes, Coldwater, MI
We learned every channel, cove, and fishing hole on those lakes. Playing adventurers and explorers, we pulled our boat up to the shore, anchored it, and set out where creativity came to life. As teenagers, entertaining our visiting boyfriends, we took them to our secret place, climbed up the wooded hill to an opening in the fence, and lay in the tall grass to evade a horseman in the pasture. Although there were no signs posted, the wooden fence made it clear that entering the pasture was banned. We meant no harm sneaking into the property; we were simply following a youthful tradition from a long, long time ago.
We disappeared for hours in the afternoons and discovered all manner of stuff. One day we happened upon a vacant little trailer by a willow tree and giggled at the unholy girlie calendar we spied through the window. Lighthearted and carefree, we rewarded our adventures with an Orange Crush, a Big Red, or a Mountain Dew from the cooler at Snyder’s Landing store. I always had a rock and a few coins in my pocket, and the Snyders were always glad to see us.
On hot summer days, Carole and I took our boat on the 30-minute ride to Messenger Lake, to the swimming beach, where we sank our feet and toes into the sandy loams and muck and practiced diving off the deep-water dock. We learned where every steep drop-off was so we could safely practice our cannonballs, can openers, and watermelons to make the biggest splash possible. Mom and Dad trusted us, and we had each other.
One day, while Carole and I were swimming in Messenger Lake with a neighbor’s granddaughter, a thunder and lightning storm came up suddenly, as they were prone to do in the summer. We looked at the slate-gray sky and knew we needed to get out of the water, secure our boat higher on shore, and head uphill to shelter. Our friend, not knowing the lake and the present danger, begged us to get in the boat and take her home. We knew better. So, we secured the boat, grabbed her hand, ran to the shelter, and used a pay phone to call home.
We learned that the storm was even worse toward home, where our friend’s folks fretted about us. Mom told us how they had all watched a distant small boat get washed to shore in fierce wind and whitecaps. She said that she and Dad had tried to reassure everyone with, “Our girls know what to do. They’re smart. We’re sure they’re safe.” Dad sloughed off the words of accusation and indignation hurtled at him from our friend’s landlubber parents. People can say and do hurtful things out of fear and ignorance. Carole and I knew the lakes, and our parents knew us.
Our family loved time together at The Lake. That’s where we were every weekend from Memorial Day to Labor Day, sometimes even three whole weeks at a stretch for vacation, especially after Mom and Dad bought a 10×50 foot trailer and rented a space for it at Raymond’s Landing, just up the road from the cottages at Snyder’s we loved. We caught our legal limit of bluegill and bass, cleaned them, froze them, and ate them all year long. A Midwestern Friday night fish fry in the Kuck house was the best.
Occasionally we all hopped in the larger, family boat for a ride to The Narrows for a rare dinner out. With either Dad or Carole at the wheel and a 65 horsepower Evinrude motor to power us across the chain of lakes, an evening boat ride was a thrilling adventure. Mom especially loved watching the lights on the water, observing life in the cottages on the eastern shore, and gazing at the farmed hillsides that lined the western shore.
It was at The Lake where I had my first sweet kiss, from a boy named Tom. He was from Cincinnati, and I wore his class ring on a chain. We wrote each other long, newsy letters between weekend get-togethers; his were full of Outward Bound adventures. The Lake is also where I had my first taste of hard liquor. Our neighbor, Mr. Bushy, gave me a shot of Peppermint Schnapps when I had a terrible cold. It helped, I think.
It was at The Lake where Mom treated herself to a couple hours or so of gloriously uninterrupted, “unproductive” time. She deserved so much more. And it was at The Lake where Dad relaxed and let go his worry that he, like so many “old-timers,” would be released from Unisteel before retirement. He was raising teenage girls in his 60s; he was 49 when we were born.
Mom was 37 when we were born. After she had had a difficult birth with our brother 12 years prior, her doctor told her she would never be able to carry a baby to term again, even if she could get pregnant. Her new doctor, concerned for Mom’s wellbeing, told her and Dad about Coldwater, Michigan. He advised them to rent a cottage at Snyder’s Landing on North Lake, where they could relax and let their worries go. They did. And that’s how it all started, our home away from home.
I’ve occasionally thought of flying back to Ohio for a Class of 1976 reunion and renting a car for a road trip to Coldwater to see those lakes again – maybe pitch a tent and take a boat ride. But I don’t know if there’s even public access anymore to where we used to vacation, fish, boat, swim, explore, play, relax and let our worries go. Like me, the lakes are rapidly aging. For now, I’ll fry catfish and remember them the way they were.
Composed between May 4 and August 8, 2017 — on evenings after frying catfish for dinner and remembering Kuck family times at The Lake