Lost in St. Ignace

Story corner is here. Today’s story takes me back to when I was 15 years old, vacationing with my cousin, and Aunt and Uncle. We traveled north in Wisconsin to the locks at Sault Ste. Marie and then South down the Michigan coast to Muskego. It was a wonderful week, with the exception of a horrible misunderstanding.

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LOST IN ST. IGNACE

Copyright 2013 Barbara Celeste McCloskey

“Nancy, go look for your father. He got up about an hour ago and said he was going for breakfast.” Aunt Jo yelled from behind the hotel bathroom door.

My cousin pulled on her shorts and sandals. “Where should I look, Mom?”

“Just look around the hotel. He’s probably bending somebody’s ear.” My Uncle was a very social guy and could strike up a conversation with anybody.

The first place Nancy and I looked was the St. Ignace Hotel Café. Uncle Marco loved his coffee. He always said that his first “Cup of Joe” was like putting premium gas in an eight-cylinder Buick. He needed it to get going. He wasn’t in the café, so we tried the lobby. No Uncle Marco there, either. Even worse, no one had seen him. About the only place left to look was the pier down by Lake Michigan. At home, he liked to feed the birds, so he’d take bread scraps to feed the gull. We had no luck there, either.

We went back to the room where Aunt Jo had finished packing. “Sorry, Aunt Jo—we couldn’t find him, and we looked everywhere. We even asked people we met if they had seen him this morning. Nobody had. It’s like he’s disappeared.” I said.

I saw a redness spread over Aunt Jo’s neck like cherry Kool-Aid spilled on a white tablecloth. She picked up the suitcase and halled it out to the car. One the way out, we heard her mutter. “That man! I told him I wanted to leave early. Damn him!” The next thing we heard was a loud thud as the trunk slammed slam shut.

“I hate it when this kind of stuff happens.” Nancy said as she twisted her hair. “She’ll rant for the rest of the day. I hope he’s got a good excuse.”

“Don’t worry cuz. We’ll find him, and then she’ll cool down.”

“Yeah, after she drives a couple of hundred miles with her foot in the carburetor.”

I laughed at Nancy’s image, but she didn’t smile. Aunt Jo and Uncle Marco were known for their fiery blow-ups. Nancy gave me a “cut it out” look.

“Girls!” Aunt Jo barked like the WWII Army Lieutenant she used to be. “Get out here ON THE DOUBLE!”

We scurried out to the car. We knew nobody messed with “the lieutenant” when she emerged.

“Get in!” She ordered.

Nancy and I climbed in the backseat.

We heard her mutter under her breath.  “I’m gonna find that man and then I’m going to kill him!” She fired up the 1960 Rambler four-cylinder sedan and peeled out of the hotel driveway.

We cruised up and down Main Street like teenagers looking for a Friday night pick-up. Safe behind our sunglasses, Nancy and I did our surveillance like a couple of TV homicide detectives—she looking in one direction and I the other. Meanwhile, Aunt Jo kept a choke hold on the steering wheel. With every pass through the sleepy resort town, her square jaw grew tighter and her eyes got darker. The best thing I could do was say a silent prayer for the wanted man.

“There he is, Aunt Jo!” I yelled and pointed out the window.

“Where?” She slammed on the brakes.

“Over there by that white picket fence. He’s talking to an old guy in bib overalls.”

Sure enough, there was portly Uncle Marco in his Bermuda shorts, Hawaiian shirt, white socks, and Roman sandals. As usual, he had a Panetela cigar between his lips. I prayed it wouldn’t be his last.

Aunt Jo parked in front of the picket fence, rolled down the window, and yelled, “Marco!”

Uncle Marco turned. He tipped his Milwaukee Braves baseball cap to her and waved, “Hi Honey!”

Aunt Jo yanked the parking brake, opened the door, and marched over to him. She grabbed his sleeve and dragged him back to the car without saying a word to the old guy Marco had been talking to. She opened the passenger door and gestured for him to get in with a “don’t give me any shit” look on her face.

“Bye Steve!” Uncle Marco waved to the guy in the overalls. “Thanks for the great breakfast.”

The man stood watching with his mouth open.

“What are you so steamed about, woman? I told you I was going for breakfast.”

“Breakfast? Is that what you were doing? Well, Mr. Bigshot, the girls looked all over at the hotel and café, and nobody saw you there. It looks to me like you were just shooting the breeze and making us late like you always do.”

“The food in that café is crap, so I decided to go uptown to the diner.”

Aunt Jo ignored him. “We even checked the gas stations, thinking you ran out of cigars. But did we find you? Noooooo!”

She looked backward to check for traffic, dropped the old Rambler into gear, popped the clutch, and lurched into the main street. She stomped on the accelerator. We heard the engine’s shrill whine, and she shifted again. In the backseat, Nancy and I remained silent and just hung onto the door and prayed.

She shouted, “The girls even looked around the lakefront thinking you might have fallen in feeding those damn gulls.” She threw up her hands.

Uncle Marco sat with his arms across his abundant chest. “Are you through? I was fine.”

She growled, “You were FINE. Now isn’t that just GREAT! While you were FINE, we missed breakfast. You’re just a damn juvenile delinquent, Marco. A damn juvenile. . .”

He interrupted her, “You didn’t eat? Why not? You knew I went out early to . . .”

She cut in, “We’ve been looking for you for almost an hour.”

In a soothing voice, Uncle Marco said, “So, let’s go and find a place right now. I could stand another cup of joe.” He laid his hand on her right hand that rested on the shift lever.

She threw off his hand. “Don’t touch me.” She said without looking at him.

Uncle Marco looked like a scolded little boy. “Will you at least let me explain, please?”

She didn’t say a word.

“I went to the diner,” he began, “but there was this long line that went all the way out to the sidewalk, see? I guess everybody staying at the hotel thought the café food was crap, too!” He looked over to her. When he realized she wasn’t smiling, he cleared his throat and continued his tale. “The line wasn’t moving very fast, so while I was standing there I struck up a conversation with Steve. . .”

“Steve? Steve? Who the hell is Steve?” she barked.

“I’m trying to tell you, if you’d just SHUT UP for a minute, woman.”

Nancy and I sunk deeper into the vinyl backseat. I had never seen a grown couple fight before. My parents never raised their voices at each other, so this argument had me biting my fingernails.

“Steve—the guy in the bib overalls—the guy you scared the crap out of—that Steve. He was in front of his house watering his tomatoes, and I said, “Hi. Isn’t it a nice day?”

Aunt Jo stayed silent. The speedometer read 70 mph and the car shook.

“Anyway, I got to talking with him—and then he said, “How long have you been waiting in line?” I said, “Almost 20 minutes. Well, he did the damnedest thing. Steve said, ‘Marco, why don’t you come on in, and Mary will fix you a couple of eggs and toast.’ Well, that was really generous, so I thought, What the hell? Why not? This guy is nice enough to offer, so I should be nice enough to oblige. The next thing I know, I have my feet under his kitchen table, downing two of the best sunny side-ups I’ve had in years.” Uncle Marco took a long drag on his cigar.

Aunt Jo glared at him. “So now you have to rub it in that I’m a lousy cook?”

Uncle Marco sighed. He knew whatever he would say wouldn’t be the right thing right now. “No honey—I didn’t mean—“

She cut him off, “Let me get this right. You mooched breakfast off perfect strangers? Honestly. You’re unbelievable!”

Uncle Marco grinned with an enticing smile. “That’s why you married me—I’m unbelievable.” He winked at her.

After that crack, I thought Aunt Jo would pull over and make him walk home. But instead, she grinned just a little bit and the tension in her face melted away. She even slowed down to 50 mph. “Don’t do this to me again, Marco.”

“Do what?” He paused. “Hey you weren’t scared that something happened to me, were you?”

Aunt Jo took a deep breath. “I hate to admit it, but yes, yes I was.”

“Oh, honey, I’m sorry.” He looked at her with his brown cocker spaniel eyes and reached for her hand again. This time, she let it rest on hers.

Believe it or not, that was the end of the Lost in St. Ignace caper. Nobody said a word for the next twenty miles and we stopped for breakfast as if nothing had happened. By evening, things between the two of them were so relaxed they were laughing together, while we watched the Red Skelton Show.

The next few days were wonderful. Uncle Marco stayed within earshot, and Aunt Jo was able to stick to her planned itinerary without any glitches.  We went from one small Michigan town to another, and after supper we played Yahtzee on the hotel card table.

This vacation was a real adventure for me, and the last day was going to be something special. We were going home to Milwaukee from Muskegon, Michigan by way of the SS Milwaukee Clipper—a car ferry that made this trip across Lake Michigan a couple of times a day. Aunt Jo had been talking about this ship all week. It was hard for me to conceive a boat that could carry 120 cars, 500 passengers and crew.

When we arrived at the dock, The Clipper was the biggest boat I had ever seen. It looked like an ocean liner I had seen on television. Aunt Jo drove the car into the belly of the ship, parked, and then she said Nancy and I could go exploring. During the week, Aunt Jo told us the Clipper had a movie theater, a dining room and a dance hall. I couldn’t wait to see it. We ran toward the front of the ship and climbed to the top deck.

Once we were underway and out into the lake, it got very cold on the top deck. And after about an hour “at sea,” Nancy didn’t find the trip much fun at all. She got nauseous and light-headed and spent most of the next four hours leaning over the ships’ rail.

The motion of the ship didn’t faze me, so I ate the sit-down dinner with Aunt Jo and Uncle Marco. Afterward, I danced with one partner after another to the live dance band. I also had the pleasure of watching Uncle Marco lead Aunt Jo around the dance floor. For a big man, he was very light on his feet as he expertly led her around the shiny dance floor. I watched them in awe. They steps were in perfect sync. Never in a million years did I figure a crusty Army lieutenant like Aunt Jo and a guy the size of Uncle Marco could move in harmony like that. She put her cheek on his, and he held her tight. I wondered if they were thinking about another time or another place as the Big Band Music propelled them around the floor. I’ll never forget the look in Uncle Marco’s eyes as he held his wife close. It was beautiful. No one would have ever guessed the St. Ignace caper ever happened.

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