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A cabin in the woods
The editor travels through time, revisiting an old haunt and old friends
By Charlie Haeffner
ODESSA, July 22, 2011 -- After 28 years, it was an idea whose time had come.
Where it came from, I don't know. What triggered it remains as mysterious as its absence across nearly three decades.
Call it, perhaps, a hidden albatross. For I realize now it had heft and substance -- the weight of a personal curtain that closed off, kept shielded, a significant portion of my life ... but not from other people so much as from myself.
The idea occurred to me on Friday, July 15 -- the day before I left the Island upon which I was vacationing.
Normally, I return from such a vacation by traveling straight through Michigan and into Ohio before turning left and heading toward New York -- although on occasion I'll stop along the way for a night's rest at a motel.
This time, I thought, I might change the pattern, and this was the idea: I would veer west after traveling south from Cheboygan and Mackinaw City in the extreme north of Michigan's Lower Peninsula. My turnoff would come an hour south of the Mackinac Bridge, at Gaylord -- a community in which I, long ago, resided from time to time across a span of years.
You see, my parents bought a cabin in the woods there, five miles or so west of Gaylord, back in the mid-1960s, during my teen years, and enlarged it into a four-bedroom home (although we always referred to it as "the cabin"). It served us in the winter during ski trips and accompanying Christmases, and during summer as a place to beat the heat. It was on the shoreline of a small body of water called Lake 27, which once -- we were told -- was the site of a logging camp.
I partied there in my college years, lived there for the better part of a year early in my adult life -- a sabbatical to try my hand at writing (an attempt that failed miserably, since I hadn't come close to learning the craft) -- and revisited from time to time after my father had retired and relocated there with Mom for large chunks of time. When they decided, finally, to sell it and move full-time to Florida, I mourned the loss of the place. I had long lived in New York State at that point, and couldn't afford to purchase the cabin myself, and neither of my two brothers bought it either, and so it slipped away from our family's hands.
I'm not sure of the year of sale, but I suspect it might have been 1985 or shortly thereafter -- a thought perhaps borne out by paperwork meticulously recorded by my father in a trio of file folders handed down to me by my mother after Dad died in 1994. In one folder, he recorded all of the purchases made for the cabin from our first year with it, 1966, and continuing until 1985. There was one purchase listed that last year: a pair of upholstered swivel rocking chairs that together cost $1,178.32.
During my years there, I struck up various friendships -- in particular with a couple named Bud and Joanne Gee, who resided in a split-level home just up the street from the cabin. Bud worked for the Georgia-Pacific company, which had a facility in Gaylord. Joanne had her hands full raising four children. They were a kind couple, very devoted to one another and to their kids.
There were other friends and acquaintances, too: a retiree named Earl Kuhn, a farmer named Walter Godlewski, and a dog named Ivan. I will touch on each of those later.
The point is, I had established roots of a sort there. I had firm footing on a plot of land and in a structure that was part of my life for the better part of two decades -- until 1983, anyway. That's the last time I recall being there, when my youngest son was mere months old. He is 28 now.
But as deep as my roots went, and as firm as my footing was, the cabin and the residents I knew there seemingly ceased to exist for me at some juncture -- perhaps upon the sale itself, and perhaps earlier. I suspect the sale was the turning point, though; and now, after pondering the day described below, I suspect what I missed in the selling was a sense of closure, of adequately saying goodbye.
But that's armchair psychology. The fact, closure or not, is this: After my parents sold the cabin, it and the accompanying neighbors and woodland simply dropped from my consciousness. All facets of Lake 27 ceased to be a part of my world. They were consigned to some compartment within my mind that was firmly closed.
A decade later, I was compelled by memory and emotion to start writing about another place that meant a great deal to me -- a place from my childhood, a time of my life preceding the cabin. I refer to the place where I was vacationing on this most recent trip, and on trips for portions of the past 16 summers: Bois Blanc Island in the Straits of Mackinac.
For some reason, the Island has been receiving all of my attention where the matter of my formative years is concerned. It is as though a compartment in which Island memories had been stored was pried open in the mid-1990s, the thoughts within and their attendant emotions flowing outward and onto the written page: I wrote four novels either situated on Bois Blanc or near it.
But the Gaylord compartment remained firmly locked -- despite the fact that I passed by that community each time I journeyed to the Island. I even spent three or four nights there in motels across the years, and dined once at an upscale Gaylord restaurant during one such stay.
But Lake 27 didn't, seemingly, enter my consciousness on any of those occasions.
I reached Gaylord at 2 p.m. on July 16 and pointed my car west on M32, which used to be a ribbon of blacktop running through farmland and woodlands -- but now, I found, runs between encroaching restaurants, gas stations, shopping centers and housing tracts.
There is a point about four miles out where the westward-bound road curves sharply to the right. That is still as it was, sided by stands of undisturbed trees. As a vehicle exits the curve, it soon comes upon a golf course on the left: the Gaylord Country Club, which was new in my final years in the vicinity.
"Now where's the turn?" I wondered aloud as I passed the country club. I couldn't offhand remember the road name, but as soon as I neared a cutoff to the left, I read the street sign -- Hallenius Road -- and nodded. This was it.
I was almost there. And now, for the first time, I was having second thoughts about it -- about my plan. I was, I had decided the day before, going to march right up to the cabin -- the cabin of my long-ago past -- and explain to its current owners who I was and why I was there.
But now doubt was pushing inward. What if I arrived and was greeted rudely by them? That was, fleetingly, foremost in my mind. What if I was simply ordered off the property?
What if this potentially promising -- and certainly interesting -- venture turned into a rout that sent me packing, heading sheepishly back to New York?
But then I thought: So what if they're rude? I can't control what other people do. I'll just get there, take some pictures (my brothers would likely want to view the current state of the place) and see what happens.
And so I continued along Hallenius Road.
I noticed first that Hallenius is blacktopped. It had been, in the time I knew it, a dirt path.
I passed by -- and slowed in the passing -- the old Godlewski home, a small two-story white house facing the road on the left. Next to it is a very old, tan-shingled shack that used to house Walter Godlewski and his wife Julia. They were a friendly, caring couple, weather-worn from always scratching their living off the land. Memory told me their kids had helped build the newer house as Walter and Julia entered their golden years.
Walter -- long since dead now -- was a wiry, weathered little man with an affinity for nature and its inhabitants. I saw him once with a squirrel resting placidly on his shoulder, and on more than one occasion I watched mesmerized as he held out his hand, birdseed on it. First one chickadee and then another would fly down, land on the hand, pluck up the morsels and take flight again.
Walter, I recall, was also a handyman. In the cabin papers handed down to me, there are a number of checks from 1968 made out to him and signed by my parents for work he did landscaping for my family and installing eaves and drains on the cabin. He submitted a written invoice, signed in a surprisingly neat hand.
Walter Godlewski serves as a touchstone for me for another reason, as well.
I once, while living along Lake 27, was caring for a large black Labrador named Ivan -- owned by my then-father-in-law. But Ivan, an animal full of curiosity, wandered off and got killed by a semi out on M32. He was buried, at Walter's insistence, in a plot of land behind that old Godlewski shack.
Walter had, in the short time Ivan had been with us, struck up a kinship, I think -- found another friend, in Ivan, among nature's non-humans.
I visited Ivan's gravesite regularly in the weeks that followed his passing, feeling both sadness and guilt. But time lessened the pain, and my visits waned -- and then, eventually, I moved away. Passing by now, in 2011, there was no longer any sign of that gravesite, but the memory of that time, and those visits, came pouring in upon me.
Farther up the road, after a bend to the right, I came upon the old Gee home -- still looking spry and fresh these many years later. "I wonder if they're still around?" I thought as I cruised past. There was no name on the mailbox, no sign out front, so I just couldn't say for sure if Bud and Joanne were still the residents.
Then, after a curve in the road to the left, I spotted a sign on the right that said "Hoffmans" and a driveway sloping down from the shoulder. Was this the one? No, it wasn't, I realized as I slowed the vehicle. But a moment later, I found the driveway I sought, a path that slopes sharply downhill. Where there used to be a parking area halfway down, now there is a garage.
I parked on a grassy area at the side of the road, and glanced across the street -- toward a dirt entrance leading to what struck me as a country palace: a large wooden home, sprawling, sparkling in the bright sun, and overlooking a pristine pond.
"Where did that come from?" I wondered. For years back in the 1970s and '80s, the woods across the road, stretching for acres, had been for sale -- but seemingly never sold. They remained forever thick and wild during my residency.
They were owned by a man named Anson Priest. I always loved that name; it sounded melodramatic. I never met him, to my knowledge, but he was well known throughout the region for his extensive landholdings -- and for the fact that he didn't actually sell any of the property out near Lake 27, specifically across the road in a tract known as Deer Lake. Word was that he offered parcels for sale far in excess of their value, supposedly for tax-write-off purposes. Clever, I used to think he must be, without really understanding any of his strategies.
I just knew that I was glad for the lack of housing in the woods while I lived there. I loved the solitude.
But now, the scene here in front of me, the wooden palace on the pristine pond, was evidence that Mr. Priest had relented, or perhaps died. (The latter, I found out later, was indeed the case.)
"Alas," I said now, and turned toward the driveway behind me, leading to my old home. There was a sign along the drive's entrance that identified the owners as The Walls, Steve and Mary Jo. I took a deep breath, grabbed my camera from the car, entered the driveway, and started the walk downhill.
At the point where the garage now stands, I could see through the trees ahead, farther downhill -- to a sight that in years past would have consisted primarily of the cabin's roof and chimney. But there was something else there now. On the southernmost end of the building sat a second story -- an addition -- thrusting upward, with an approach along a catwalk from the hillside I was now on. An alternate approach soon came into view: a stairway running up to the addition's doorway from the ground beside the cabin. I shook my head.
"What else will I find?" I wondered.
After negotiating the steps from the old parking area to the cabin -- a fairly steep descent on wooden risers that were built over our old stone walkway -- I knocked on the cabin door in the nearest corner of the building, and looked inside through the screen. I could see past the open kitchen to the living room, and thought it all looked incredibly unchanged. I called out for someone -- anyone -- inside, but received no answer, and so walked around the structure and down the final slope to the shoreline. I was surprised to find the shore covered in thick sand, where grass used to dominate. Here was an improvement.
I started snapping photos of the shoreline, and then turned to get some shots of the cabin -- the expanded cabin. The second-floor addition was not the only change; there was also a wooden deck on the lake side of the screened porch on the northeast corner, and what looked like new doors leading to a storage area that housed the furnace, low on the southeast corner. Beyond, that, I thought, it was still "the cabin" I had known.
"May I help you?" a female voice called out, and it took me a few seconds to locate it. I finally spotted a woman in a hammock in the shade on the far side of the property, on a slope above the beach.
"Yes, I hope so," I said, approaching her. She eyed my camera, clearly suspicious.
"My name," I said, as I climbed the slope toward her, "is Haeffner."
There was a perceptible pause, and then the woman gasped.
"Oh my gosh," she said. "You used to own this place!"
I chuckled and nodded. "Well, my parents did," I said.
She climbed out of the hammock -- she was wearing a bathing suit in keeping with the heat of the day, which had climbed to 90 degrees -- and shook my hand. "I'm Mary Jo Wall," she said.
And we started talking, she about how she and her husband had purchased the place 16 years earlier, and the changes they'd instituted, and how their children and grandchildren loved it there. The family used it for summer getaways and an occasional ski weekend.
I in turn talked a little about some of the history of the lake.
"Is that still a religiously affiliated camp over there?" I asked, pointing to a shoreline across the lake. There were what looked like rowboats there, and several swimmers.
"Yes," she said. "Camp Sancta Maria."
"Did you ever hear about the drowning from there?" I asked.
"No," she answered. "What happened.?'
"Well, a novitiate -- or at least a young fellow in the church -- was out by himself in a boat, maybe a canoe, and capsized, and drowned. This was probably back in the '60s. The police wouldn't let anyone swim or boat until they dragged out the body. It was out there," and I pointed toward a section of water between our shoreline and the camp's.
"Well, that's a shame," said Mary Jo, and we stood gazing out upon the water -- at a couple of powerboats with skiers going by, and at the properties on the far side. I recognized one house over there, but a couple of others had been built since last I visited.
Finally, she broke the silence. "If you'd like," she said, "I'll give you a tour of the place."
And it was in the minutes that followed that I felt as though I was stepping through a portal, back to the 1960s, '70s and '80s.
We had just reached the interior -- had walked into the living room -- when Mary Jo's husband entered the cabin through the door upon which I had first knocked; he had apparently been out on an errand or visiting someone. He greeted me warmly, and encouraged me to look around the cabin.
And I did, a smile on my face.
It was almost too much to absorb, right off; and I'm not talking about changes. I'm talking about the absence of changes.
"That's the same dining room table and chairs we had," I said, marveling. The blonde-colored table and the cane chairs looked exactly as I remembered them.
"And that hutch," I said pointing to a piece of furniture in the kitchen.
That wasn't all: The porch furniture was the same, as was a rocking chair, an upholstered chair, the couch, the bunk beds in a side room, the light fixtures attached above the bunks, a chest of drawers in the entry room, and a cabinet in the space underneath the cabin, near the furnace.
Beyond that, the feel of the place was the same as I remembered -- almost as though I had not left, had not disappeared from this lakeside retreat for the better part of three decades.
"I think I'm having heart palpitations," I said to the Walls, trying to convey the import of this visit. "This is ... unbelievable. It doesn't seem any different."
"It's pretty much as it was when we bought it," said Steve Wall. "Except for the expansion, which we needed for us, for when all the kids are here. It gives us privacy, and gets us out of their way. But we couldn't see changing it much. It was the charm that sold us on it in the first place."
They had purchased the property from a man named Tobias, who they thought had been the sole owner after my parents. And Tobias evidently had done nothing to change the place during his tenure.
"We did rebuild the porch," said Steve, "but we built it exactly how it was. We had an infestation in the original one, so it had to go."
We talked on for awhile, and then they took me up to see their suite -- a self-contained bedroom and bathroom with a balcony overlooking the lake.
"Come see this view," Steve Wall said, urging me on to the balcony. I edged ahead, carefully peering down at what seemed a sharp angle to the shore and dock below.
"You have issues with heights?" he asked, reading my caution.
"Yeah," I said. "Always have."
He laughed and patted me on the shoulder, and suggested we go up the hill to meet a neighbor, Dwayne Hoffman, who he and Mary Jo thought could fill me in on some of the personalities in the area. I had determined that the Walls -- being part-time residents -- didn't know the Gees or, I gathered, many of the year-round folks who populate the area. Thus they couldn't say whether Bud and Joanne still lived up the road.
But Hoffman, a large, garrulous man who the Walls said loved to respond "No problem" to just about anything, told me the Gees were indeed still there, and that one of their daughters -- Chrissie, who I had first met when she was a child, and who I had probably last seen in her teen years -- lived next door to her parents. Chrissie was now in her 40s, Hoffman said.
Hoffman had purchased his place from a former neighbor of my parents, Art Drinkert, who had also sold Chrissie the land where she now lived. Drinkert, he added, had passed away some years ago.
The update digested, I thanked Hoffman for the information, to which he reponded: "No problem."
A short time later, after another, last trip down the hill to the cabin, I said my goodbyes to the Walls and headed for my car. I was still on overload, grappling with the senses of a past that I had discarded, but now was suddenly embracing again.
And, after starting the car, it was in that spirit of embracement that I turned in at the next driveway, backed up and drove in the direction from which I had come, back along the road that had delivered me to this destination, this portal to my past.
There was another piece of the past that I needed to address, to face head-on.
I had decided to stop at the Gee house.
"Are you Bud Gee?"
I was at the front door of the Gee home. A man wearing -- as I do -- the vestiges of age had answered my knock. He wore thick glasses -- I didn't recall a younger Bud wearing any -- and his hair had gone thin. But he had the same compact build I remembered, and so I was relatively certain of his identity. And I was right.
"Yes," he said. "Who are you?"
"My name is Charlie Haeffner," I said. "I used to live around here."
Bud Gee nodded, and held out his hand. "Thought so," he said. "Come on in, Charlie."
We sat at his dining room table, and he told me how his children -- all long since grown -- were doing, and about some of the work he'd done on the house. He was retired now from Georgia-Pacific, he said, and recovering from some shoulder surgery. "Rotator cuff," he said, "and some other damage."
I asked where his wife was, and he nodded toward a sliding glass door nearby.
"Out in the backyard, in the shade. Working on a puzzle."
"Well, let's go out and see if she remembers me," I suggested.
We exited the house onto a porch, and then started down the steps.
"Jo!" Bud called out. "You have a visitor."
And Joanne Gee, who I had last seen as a fairly young woman, arose from a chair set beside a table near the back of the yard. She shaded her eyes to try and see me better, but there was no recognition from that distance.
"She doesn't know me," I said softly to myself and, I supposed, to Bud. He was only a couple of steps ahead of me.
Finally, I called out to her: "I don't know if you remember me, but my name is Charlie Haeffner."
A smile crossed Joanne's face -- a face mildly lined now but still notable for a bright grin and stunningly blue eyes.
"Oh, my God!" she said, and walked toward me, and as we met, gave me a big hug.
She was full of questions -- about the course my life had taken, about what I was doing now, about my oldest son, a boy from my first marriage who had played with her youngsters back in the early '70s.
"How long's it been?" she asked. "How long since you were here last? Twenty years?"
"Closer to thirty, I think."
And we all sat down by her card table, in the shade of the tree above. The puzzle was forgotten as we talked about our lives and our shared past. There were brief silences, but not awkward ones. We were at ease with one another, as we had been so many years before.
There are rhythms in life, and especially between friends. Sometimes conversations interrupted one year can be picked up a decade or more later from the point of the interruption, as though one of the friends had merely taken a short breath between words.
This was one of those conversations, one of those comfortable interactions, where words and silences are valuable in equal measure.
It was after one such silence that Bud struck on the theme of the meeting.
"It's funny," he said, shaking his head, "how quickly we get old."
Joanne and I both nodded assent.
"You got that right," I answered.
The visit lasted an hour, at the end of which I snapped a photo of the Gees and was told by Bud that Gaylord was currently hosting its annual Alpenfest -- a celebration of its skiing heritage.
I recalled, at the mention of that festival, that just east of the village lies Otsego, a country club notable for its winter skiing.
My family and I had long ago, on many occasions, skied Otsego's hills. One memorable Christmas morning, my brother Jim (two years my senior), my father and I had taken to the slope just outside the Otsego lodge, in virgin powder that had landed overnight. We were the only skiers at that hour -- a time when most families were still opening presents. We had opened ours quickly, and hurried to the slope to partake of the fresh snowfall.
Somehow, in all of that openness, my father -- who had difficulty controlling the direction he went on skis -- and my brother (a marvelous skier who has been a part of the National Ski Patrol for most of his life) collided out there. As I recall, Jim wrenched his knee and was less than pleased. It was probably one of the few mishaps he has ever experienced on any slope -- and it became part of the family's lore.
Now, on a much hotter day several decades removed from that winter morning, I said my goodbyes to Bud and Joanne. I had decided, upon hearing about the Alpenfest, to postpone further my journey south through Michigan. I had decided to visit the festival
"As I recall, Alpenfest used to be an excuse to drink beer," I said to Bud as I turned toward my car.
"Still is," he answered.
Gaylord had closed off two blocks of its Main Street, along with some side streets. They were full of rides and vendor tents and games and, yes, a block-long beer garden.
It was intensely hot, the sunlight reflecting off the blacktop; there was no relief anywhere on the street. But the place was abuzz with people, and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.
I walked along, spotting some storefronts that I knew as a teenager, and some I did not. A sporting goods store called The Alphorn Shop, I noted, was vacant, recently closed. Thinking back, I recalled it had once been owned by the father of a boy who attended the same college as I did in south central Michigan, little Albion College.
On the other side of the street sat The Sugar Bowl, a restaurant that has been operating for several decades. A man I mentioned above, Earl Kuhn, used to work there in his retirement years. Earl had lived in the house next door to the cabin on Lake 27, and we had forged a friendship over the years of the 1960s and '70s, playing hundreds of games of Canasta at a card table in his living room. He won most of the time.
Now, standing there on Gaylord's main street, I could almost envision Earl -- a short man with a shock of white hair. He wore bifocals, and always seemed to be smoking a cigaret. He had a large supply of personality, and that was why, I always figured, that the Sugar Bowl had hired him. I never visited him at work, and so I'm not sure what his role was -- but I imagine it was as an engaging greeter.
Like Walter and Julia Godlewski, like Art Drinkert and Anson Priest, like my father and like a big black Labrador named Ivan, Earl was gone now, too.
They were, in my visit to the past on this hot Gaylord day, shadows giving texture. They were valuable touchstones on a journey of ... of what?
Perhaps it was a journey of self-discovery, of self-fulfillment.
I stopped at one festival tent where some prints of pencil-drawn likenesses of various celebrities caught my eye. The drawings featured the Beatles, and Elvis, and Bobby Kennedy, along with other musicians, actors and politicians.
A middle-aged man sat behind a counter, looking miserable. His face was sweat streaked, and his hair matted. He clearly was wishing the day would end, or at least that sunset would bring relief in the heat index.
I noticed right away that the signatures on the prints weren't his. They were of a female, Sara Gauthier.
"My daughter," he said.
"How do you pronounce that last name?" I asked. "Is that yours, or her married name?"
"Hers," he said. "The marriage ended, but she held onto the name. Depends on how you want to say it. Some say go-theer, and others go-tee-yay."
I nodded. "Go-tee-yay it is. Does she have a website?"
He handed me a postcard with likenesses of actor James Dean on one side and her website address on the other: www.saragauthier.com.
"Can you order prints there?" I asked.
"Sure can," he said.
Since it was the only exchange I experienced at the Alpenfest, my only personal interaction during a late afternoon of traditional small-town fairdom, I pass it along to you with the understanding that Sara Gauthier's prints might not have been part of my past, but in a real sense will now be entwined with a day unlike any other I ever experienced -- a day in turn entwined with that past.
So by extension, I suspect every time I see or think of one of her prints, it will trigger, as though prompted by Pavlov's bell, a mental return to the day or to one of its component parts.
With the postcard in hand and the heat wearing me down -- and a nod to the time, which was 6 p.m., with me still 10 hours from home -- I decided to depart, to head south. I wouldn't get home that night, for sure; fatigue was already touching at my edges.
But I figured that reaching Ann Arbor or beyond would put me in good shape for a seven-hour journey the next day.
And so I retraced the route from downtown Gaylord back to I-75, turned south, and made tracks -- away from Alpenfest, away from old friends, and away from a past that, oddly enough despite some changes, was still there in the trappings of my young adulthood.
There is a saying that you can't go home again. That is true to the extent that things always change, that an immutable truth of the universe is that we all move forward toward our inevitable ending, relinquishing our hold on the world to that of the generations that follow.
But back there, in the woods along the shoreline of a small lake called 27, my past still existed in a physical, if not ownership, sense. I had gone home, much to my surprise -- had crossed a time barrier of sorts and, in viewing part of my days gone by, had remembered things and felt things long since put to bed.
They were out of their compartment now, back in the forefront of my mind, in the center of my conscious and reviewable personal history.
And with their freeing, I found myself energized and smiling -- and in a spiritual sense that came as surely and as smoothly as the sun setting and the moon rising on that Michigan evening, I felt unburdened.
Photos in text:
Top two: The cabin, with its expanded section reaching up toward the trees.
Third: The cabin interior, looking toward the fireplace and a small bookshelf to the right.
Fourth: A view from the garage area, looking down the hill toward the cabin.
Fifth: The sign alongside the road, at the entrance to the driveway.
Sixth: Artwork of the cabin, pre-expansion, created by a daughter of the Walls.
Seventh: Steve Wall on the porch, which still utilizes the same furniture as it did thirty years and more ago.
Eighth: The dining table and hutch, with the kitchen in the background. The table, chairs and hutch are unchanged from many years earlier.
Ninth: Mary Jo and Steve Wall.
Tenth: Joanne and Bud Gee.
Eleventh: At the Alpenfest, artwork by Sara Gauthier on display.
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