In winter's ice and snow we closed our eyes and saw the green island and the blue lake and were comforted. I dreamed about the big wooden cottage painted green so that it disappeared into the trees. I knew every tree and every inch of deserted beach. It made the world better just to think about the summer afternoons that never seemed to end and the long evenings when we sat on the porch watching the sun sink into the lake like a great orange balloon. The minute school was out, we began packing.
This year we were more eager than ever to escape to the island, for in December the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States had declared war on Japan and Germany. The newspapers were full of lists of soldiers who had died and pictures of bombed cities. On the island we seldom saw a newspaper. On the island we would be able to forget about the war.
In past summers Mom and Dad had been with us on the island. Mom would stay all summer keeping an eye on us kids. She would wipe off her nail polish, take off her shoes, and catch up on her reading. Dad would spend a couple of weeks fishing and try not to argue with Grandpa over politics. This year everything was upside down. Dad had talked of going off to war and even started to do push-ups; but at thirty-seven and with four kids, he didn't interest the Army. That was a blow to Dad's ego, but it didn't stop him from wanting to do his part. He took a leave of absence from his position at Ford Motor Company to help supervise the production of B24 Liberators for the Army Air Force. It was a seven-day-a-week, fourteen-hour-a-day job.
Mom was going back to the medical practice she had left when we came along. She was needed because doctors were leaving their practices to join the Army and Navy. She hated to miss summer on the island, but she was excited about practicing medicine again. There were medical journals all over the house. "I've got so much catching up to do," she said. She brought out her white coats, moved the buttons to give herself more room, and modeled them for us. She let us listen to our hearts with her stethoscope and showed us how to make our legs jerk by hitting our knees with her little rubber hammer.
I think if we hadn't had the island to look forward to, we would have felt abandoned with Mom and Dad so wrapped up in their busy new lives; instead we felt sorry for them having to give up their summer vacations. Grandma and Grandpa would be on the island. Grandpa ruled the island. He was like an emperor presiding over a watery kingdom, or he was Shakespeare's Prospero on his uninhabited island and we were the spirits that attended him. Until Carrie came, no one considered disobeying Grandpa. Why would we? We loved him and we loved the island. It was Grandpa who formed our summers. We couldn't imagine a summer without him.
The first week in June, Tommy, Emily, Nancy, and I set off by ourselves for the island. At fourteen I was the oldest and as much in charge as my brother and sisters would let me be. I had two sisters, Emily, twelve, and Nancy, eight, and one brother, Tommy, who was ten. Mom packed chicken sandwiches, po-tato chips, and carrot sticks. Our suitcases were crammed with summer clothes. Instead of going in Mom's car, as we usually did, this year we would go by bus from Detroit to Mackinaw City, and from there we would take the ferry to St. Ignace. We would be on our own, which made all of us a little nervous, but since we were all together, we were sure nothing bad could happen.
We had followed the same route every summer of our lives, so it was like turning pages in a scrapbook: familiar towns, familiar farmlands, and finally, familiar forests and lakes. If even the smallest thing along the way was different—a new stoplight in one of the small towns, a barn painted green when for years it had been red—we were stunned by the change and couldn't stop chattering about it. Because of Mom's and Dad's new lives, we resented changes and worried that when we got there, something on the island might be different. We wanted everything to stay just the same.
The ferry brought us across the straits to St. Ignace on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The Upper Peninsula was more wild and more lone than the rest of Michigan. It was like the difference between a wolf and a dog. We scrambled up the stairs to the top of the ferry, where we would have the best view. Lake Huron stretched as far as you could see, and somewhere in the blue distance was the island.
Mr. Norkin was waiting for us with his ancient Chevrolet and four cold soda pops. We had known the Norkins forever. Mr. Norkin caught fish to sell and guided sportfishermen from downstate. He knew the lake so well, Grandpa said you could drop a penny anywhere in Lake Huron and Jim Norkin could find it. Mrs. Norkin sold vegetables from her garden and worked for us one day a week on the island. Since the war began there had been gas rationing, and I handed Mr. Norkin the gas coupons Dad had saved to reimburse him for the trip between St. Ignace and Birch Bay, and then we piled into the car, everyone but Nancy fighting for the front seat.
Mr. Norkin chose Nancy to sit next to him, probably because she was the one who wasn't pushing and scrambling. He collected the empty pop bottles and carefully put them into a paper bag. There was a rumor that he . . .