Growing Up on Isle St. George

by John M. Morton

    Indian summer pours out a wealth of beautiful days on the islands of western Lake Erie. The waters sparkle and the air is clear all around you. On such a day in 1894 sixteen year-old Larry Morton met a momentary delay in his march toward the gates of manhood. He met this block to his progress on Isle St. George, a flourishing square-mile island of green farmland that rises a few feet above the surrounding lake on a platform of limestone.

     God meant the island’s stony soil and long growing season to be the perfect spot for growing wine grapes, the cash crop that Larry’s family produced. Cash was in short supply at the Morton farm in 1894. As that beautiful day began, the Mortons sat at their breakfast table considering their cash problem. The mortgage payment was due at year end and they needed the cash from their grapes to pay it. Larry’s mother and his brother Raleigh worried aloud that this year’s vintage might not fetch enough money to make the payment.

    Raleigh brought up the subject, announcing that he would leave the island the next week for a job in the city. He’d stayed this long to bring the grape harvest in, but now with a city job waiting he had to go, so he could send more cash back home. Sharing these worries with Mother Morton and Raleigh were the three youngest Mortons; Larry, Clifford and Kathryn.

    “But Raleigh,” Mother Morton began to protest.

    “You can't go,” Clifford joined in. He would be lost without Raleigh, who had headed the family since Father Morton’s death six years before.

    Larry held his tongue. He itched to be head of the family when Raleigh left. For months every mirror he had looked in, looked back at him as a man. He yearned for the chance to prove himself.

    Table talk halted when Simon Fox knocked at the door. Fox was the leading citizen of Isle St. George. He had bought the whole island twenty years before, then sold off enough farm plots to create a self-supporting township of a hundred people with its own school, post office and church.

    “Come in, Mr. Fox” said Mother Morton at the door.

    “Good morning, Mrs. Morton. Good morning, Raleigh. Good morning all of you.” he said.

    This blanket greeting of the younger Mortons nettled Larry.

    “Sit down, Mr. Fox. Won't you have some coffee?” asked Mother Morton.

    In a single sequence Mr. Fox at once declined the coffee, begged pardon for intruding and accepted the hospitality with pleasure, seated himself in a straight chair against the kitchen wainscoting near the door.

    He looked up, smiled briefly and then said; “I'm wondering if Raleigh can give us a hand this winter, now your grapes are in?”

     The question was poised between mother and son: it hung there for a moment.

    Without hesitation Larry rose and said, “Raleigh can't Mr. Fox, but I will.”

    “You, Lawrence?” asked Fox in mild surprise.

    “Lawrence!” said his mother, “Goodness, we aren't even sure what Raleigh's going to do yet!”

    Raleigh squirmed. “Mr. Fox, I’ve just told everybody I’m going to Cleveland this winter. My brother Howard's getting me a job.” Then toward her he said “Mother, I know Larry can handle what needs to be done here: maybe he can help Mr. Fox, too.”

     Larry turned to Fox and asked, “It’s fishing, isn’t it, Mr. Fox? And morning and evening chores and ice cutting. Am I right?”

    “That's right, Lawrence, but that's a pretty tall order and I know you're big for your age, but -- ?”

    Interrupting him, Larry said, “Mr. Fox, I’m through school now and I’ve been working our farm since I was eleven years old. And I’ve fished and cut ice, too. Try me out. If you don't think I’ve earned my pay, you keep it.”

    “Well, Lawrence,” said Mr. Fox, “That’s a fair offer and I’ll take you up on it if your mother approves. It’s ten dollars a month and a fifth of the catch.”

    He turned to Larry’s mother.

    Before she could answer Larry said, “I'll be up to your place in the morning, Mr. Fox.”

    Fox smiled and said, “Breakfast at 5:30, young man,” as he rose to go.

     It was then that Larry might have heard the creaking gates of manhood swing open before him.

    First light broke next morning at 5:45. Larry had already put away a large farm breakfast in the Fox kitchen; watered the livestock, and pastured the bull. Now he and Mr. Fox walked down through the chilly mist to the fishing dock.

     There, where two graveled roads met at the northeast corner of the island was the stone-and-shingle fishing barn and the earthen ramp leading down to the pole-and-plank dock. Two other men waited for them on the dock: Leroy Wires, a young farmer and Louie Larsen, a Swede in his sixties; Fox's fishing partners. They would be fishing for channel catfish, in the cold waters running through the bedrock valleys of the lake bottom. They would be partners in the catch, but Larry and the other two would be fishing alone in their own boats at separate fishing grounds.

    The catfish would bite on baited trot-lines that led down at intervals from a heavier line stretched across the surface of the water on buoys and anchored at both ends of its thousand foot length. This morning the lines were freshly tarred and dried and carefully coiled in tubs to keep them from snarling. Later that day the powdery dry tar would cause trouble for Larry.

    As Simon Fox and Larry came down the dock ramp Louie Larsen was nesting his tubs together and putting them in the bow of his shallow, flat bottom dory. Leroy Wires set his last tub on the dock and stood waiting for the two of them.

    “Good morning, Louie. Good morning, Leroy. This is Lawrence Morton” Mr. Fox said to them. They nodded and stood looking at Larry. As partners on equal shares they were likely pondering Larry’s chance of bringing in a fair share of the catch.

    “This being Monday,” said Fox, “Lawrence will fish the week with us, equal shares. By that time, if you don't like it or he don't like it, or I don't like it, he'll quit.”

    If this was news to Larry he didn't show it.

    Louie Larsen spoke up. “Oh, I know dis young man. I know him... eh Larry?” he said, smiling. By this time his knobby fingers were untying his painter and pushing his dory away from the dock. He said, “Good fisherman, him.”

    Leroy Wires raised a hand to Larry and stepped into his dory. Larry’s empty dory was tied at the end of the dock.

    Fox took Larry by the arm and said, “Now, Lawrence,” he said, “your lines are up in the barn. You set them on the buoys in the channel between Hen Island and the Hen shoals. My buoys are yellow and you’ll see six of them anchored out there. There's two boxes of bait with the lines in the barn.”

     Larry nodded, comfortably. He knew the ropes; he and Raleigh had fished together all last season.

     “You stop and have your Dutch lunch when you get to the buoys,” said Fox, motioning to the peck basket Mrs. Fox had made up for him. “It's hard work son and a full belly helps. Good luck,” and he was off up the road.

    It was a five-mile trip to the fishing grounds over the international boundary line. Fish were so plentiful that neither Canada nor the U.S. policed the fishing either side of the line.

    While Larry loaded his dory, Leroy and Louie were rowing out from the island heading for different fishing grounds. In case they were still watching him, Larry rowed hard to keep a respectable wake behind him. He was bound north for the limestone reefs, called the Hen, Big Chicken and Little Chicken islands. The tops of these stony islets were barely above the water, but be it their steep walls formed a valley of cold, clear running water where the big channel catfish fed.

    He’d been rowing an hour when a prickle of sweat rolled down Larry’s back. The rising sun had warmed the air. He paused and grinned: though no one else had noticed, he was sweating like a man.

    Suddenly, right there in the middle of the lake, resting on his oars and squinting at the horizon, he had a vision of the party to coming up Saturday night on Pelee Island. The dance was going to be at the Silverthorne place on Pelee. The Silverthornes opened up their big log barn with the smooth wood floor for a community parties several times a year. Word went out to everyone on Canada’s Pelee Island and the nearby islands on the American side of the line. Whole families came, infants, parents and grandparents alike. They all brought provisions to share at a midnight supper, while the Silverthorne family provided the music for square dancing.

    As he sat there Larry’s ears reddened: there would be girls there. He would have to wear his brand new suit. And the necktie Raleigh had given him. And...well, this daydream wasn’t catching any fish. He’d better get going. Still, as he bent over the oars he thought of Marie, Simon Fox's pretty, blond niece. He hoped she’d be there with the other girls, and he’d get to dance with her.

    With that he began to pull the oars, strong and fast. The wind was behind him so reached Hen Island in less than two hours. There he anchored and opened the lunch basket. Quickly two large slabs of corn bread and a pint of butter-milk vanished before he set to work.

    There were no lines to be retrieved, so he found the first pair of buoys and began to put out the newly tarred lines, baiting the hooks while he drifted downwind and the lines uncoiled slowly out of the tubs and into the water.

    Baiting the first thousand foot line took over an hour: then he rowed back to the head of the grounds, found the next buoy and paused to eat again.

    This time he chewed his food more slowly and looked about. To the north a half-mile away was the rocky backbone of Hen Island. It was only a small mound of smooth, flat limestone with one scrawny tree clinging to its cracks. To the south, barely breaking the surface of the water, were the solid rocks of the Big and Little Chicken reefs. Only the fish swimming below could see their steep sides forming the channel of cold, clear water in which the catfish fed.

    Beyond the reefs, the solid dark blue of the lake stretched away to the pale blue sky at the horizon. A perfect Indian summer day. Close by, the wind coaxed the water to an uneasy chop, which broke up the sun’s flashing reflections and made the flat-bottomed dory do an ungainly dance.

    Larry looked at his hands. They were hardened by work but still the newly tarred lines had irritated them. Little spines of hemp had broken off and burrowed into his sweat-softened skin; they itched and burned.

    The sun had lowered itself halfway to the western horizon by the time Larry had set all the trot lines. With the weight of the hooks, lines and bait overboard, the dory bounced high in the water. Puff by puff the wind pushed on the pile of tubs and switched the dory from side to side.

    A short tug on the oars aimed the bow into the breeze to stop the random swaying and Larry began to stow loose gear out of the way. He reached over the side to wash the tar dust from his hands. The water was soothing, cool and inviting. He scratched the irritation around his neckband and pulled off his shirt. He stripped to the skin, grabbed the painter and slipped over the side feet first.

    The dory slid sideways and bobbed away from him. The plunge took his breath away. Then, when stopped larruping about he let go the painter to scrub himself with both hands. Once the tar dust had washed away, he had take a few quick strokes catch the painter and stop the drifting dory.

     The day’s work was over and the cool water exhilarating. He dived and lunged up like a porpoise to celebrate his first skinny dip as man. When he wiped the water from his eyes again, the dory had skipped much farther away.

     He started after it but it quickly danced over choppy little waves, flirting its pointed stern this way and that. At water level his eyes magnified the growing distance between him and the boat. Once, the dory stopped, turned and waited, then mischievously whisked away again.

    The harder he tried to catch it the farther ahead the dory skipped. Sud-denly thunderstruck, his heart pounding in his ears, he knew that he would never catch it. Panic sat on his shoulders as he tried to reason his way out of this trap. His victorious march into manhood was over. He was alone, wallowing in the waters of Lake Erie with a long, long way to swim home. He hated being a fool. His anger rose up and pressed him to focus on what to do next.

     He looked around at Hen Island. He could reach it easily but now the choppy waves nearly covered it. He wouldn't last the night there. He had to swim for it. He'd have the sun to guide him for a while. He shut other perils out of his mind, knowing he must swim to stay warm and alive.

    Once under way he realized that he had to keep swimming doggedly for hours. He'd jumped in at four o'clock. It would be two hours before Mr. Fox would come to the dock to look for him. Worse it would be four hours before he’d be close enough to the island for anyone to see him in the water. By then it would be full dark. 

     Panic rolled over him in waves. When it came, he would stop, take some deep breaths and have another realistic look at his problem. Once he strained up, looking around, hoping to see a sign of life, a neighbor's boat, anything. There was nothing. He knew his only way was to keep stroking steadily until he was home. He settled down to counting a hundred strokes at a time. When cramps came, he would stop, rub them out and go on to count another hundred strokes.

     When the sun sank below the horizon he’d been counting steady strokes for an hour. The setting sun left little warmth behind for him. He slipped into a trance. He forgot time. He forgot discomfort. He forgot everything but the steady rhythm of the strokes.

    Fatigue coaxed him to rest. When he did, panic took over. So he swam on. Once he broke into sobs and tried to call out. He was instantly shamed by the pitiful sound he’d made. How his brothers would laugh at that miserable croak! He vowed to get out of this fix by himself and never to cry for help again.

     He simply swam; stroke by stroke by stroke. He might be swimming in circles. He’d tried to check his direction, but the choppy water slapping at his right cheek was only guide he had.

    He swam for an eternity. Maybe it was evening. Maybe it was midnight. He didn't care. When weakness seeped into his arms he slapped and pummeled the water until the exertion renewed his strength. He went on and ignored the fear that swam beside him for the last hour.

    He heard a bell faintly but he refused to believe in it. He kept swimming until the bell rang again. He stopped and listened. Nothing. As he struck out again the distant bell sounded out clearly. He knew he had heard it. He knew the sound of it. It was the schoolhouse bell calling him home to Isle St. George.

    Safe! He was safe! The adrenaline pumped into to his arms and legs and lungs. He shouted. No answer: he swore. The bell pulled and pulled him toward its voice. He struggled now, painfully gaining distance toward that sweet sound.

     Suddenly, listening for the bell again, he heard Simon Fox’s voice. He laughed and choked and nearly went under. His arms were limp as seaweed. He could barely flail them. He stretched his lungs and sang a long drawn out,

    “Here!” as he lunged up out of the water high enough to see a bonfire on the shore. It was so far away it pierced his hope. He swore and swore and swore, the most powerful words he get out of his mouth. The flaming profanity bought him a final ounce of strength.

     He put his head down he pulled and pulled not counting the strokes. As he struggled along, a new sound dimly penetrated wind and water; it was the breaking surf! He lowered his legs to feel for the bottom. Not yet! More strokes and try again. Still nothing.

     So on he went, stroke after flailing stroke, until finally raised his head and saw the bonfire on the beach. There outlined by the flames was Simon Fox, deep in the surf, swinging a lantern. At last he touched bottom and tried to stand. As he lost consciousness, Simon Fox gathered him up like a baby and carried him ashore and wrapped him in a blanket.

    He was barely conscious, when the folks on the beach put him into the buggy, wrapped in a buffalo robe with a hot soapstone at his feet. He knew he’d won his battle: that he was on his way to warmth, rest, and food. Leroy Wires drove the buggy and Louie Larsen returned the lantern to the fishing barn.

    At the Fox house there was hot wine and a mustard plaster. There was thick, hot pepper pot soup and a warm feather bed. Instantly he gave way to a tidal wave of the deepest, purest, most healing sleep known to mankind.

    Many hours later he awoke to promising sounds in the kitchen. The rocking chair by the bed wore a blanket draped over its arms. A lamp still burned low on the dresser. Sliding to the edge of the bed he saw that he had on someone’s nightshirt. He padded to the door and opened it a crack to peer into the kitchen.

    “Oh, Lawrence, there you are,” said Mrs. Fox. “Are you all right? No cough? No flu? Let me listen to your chest!”

    She thumped him and prodded him and finally laughed and shook his shoulder.

    “I'll bet you could do with some breakfast now,” and turning to her son said, “Thomas, put on your boots and hustle down to the barn and tell your Father that Lawrence is all right. Then scoot right over to Morton's and tell everybody there. Lawrence, you go to Thomas' bedroom; I laid out some clothes for you there.” Everybody moved.

    Soon he was at the table with biscuits, gravy, cornbread, jam, fried potatoes, a steak, gallons of coffee, an apple pie, fresh milk and country butter. He worked like a man, so he could eat like a man. As he ate he learned that it was towards three in the afternoon; that his mother had come down to sit through the night in his room; that old Dr. Townsend had stopped late in the night and listened to his chest and left him to the “tender ministrations of Morpheus to heal the young pup quicker and better than I can.”

    As Larry finished his meal Mr. Fox was stamping on the porch and coming in the door.

     “Well, Lawrence! Finally up? What happened, son?”

    Painfully, he told his story in every sheepish detail. He was quiet for moment: then with a deep breath he said, "Mr. Fox, I thank you for saving my life. I feel bad that all I’ve done for you is lose your boat and gear."

     “Lawrence, the boat is my risk: that's why I get two shares to your one. All you owe me is a trip up to Hen Island to bring in the catch from the lines you set yesterday.”

    ”You mean I’ve still got a job? After making such a damn fool of myself?“ Larry asked, surprised.

    “Lawrence, I think you learned something yesterday. Likely, you'll do just fine from now on.”

     “As far as the boat goes and the gear,” said Mr. Fox, “I expect this north-west wind will fetch them up near Silverthorne's. We'll get'em when we go over to the dance on Saturday. You're coming to the dance aren't you?”

    Speechless, Larry nodded.

     “Then,” said Fox, “why don't you come over with us and keep Marie company in the boat.”

     Still speechless, Larry blushed furiously but nodded.

    “But,” said Fox, with a smile, “you'll have to row back alone. It's part of your job to bring that dory back here in time to set nets on Monday morning.”

    With those words, Larry--had he been listening carefully--might have heard the iron gates of manhood clang firmly shut behind him.

 

The End

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