Repost from July 2013, edited and corrected
It is a warm summer day in Manistee, Michigan. A man and his wife of thirty-five years get out of their black Ford Fusion to view Lake Michigan. They love the water, and if their life’s journey had taken them on another path, perhaps they would live in a cottage on the shore of one of the Great Lakes or in a small fishing village on the Atlantic coast.
But as fate would have it, Ohio has been their home for most of their marriage. No matter where they moved, be it Texas, Michigan, or Arizona, they always came back, like the proverbial bad penny, to Ohio.
For the past six years they have lived in rural northwest Ohio, in a small community with one stoplight, two bars, two churches, a grain elevator, gas station and 345 people. They live in a town where nothing happens, and the safety and stillness that “nothing” affords is fine by them.
They have made their peace with Ohio. After all, it is where their children and grandchildren live. This is home, and it is here that they will die some moment beyond their next breath.
But from time to time, the desire to dip their feet in a vast expanse of water, to hear the waves crashing on a shore and to walk barefooted on the beach calls out to them, and off they go.
They can no longer travel great distances; four to six hours away is the limit. The man’s body is used up and broken, most days he needs a cane and some days a wheelchair to get from point to point. Long trips in the car extract a painful price from his body, a toll that is paid weeks after they have returned home.
But today, the water calls, and on a warm July day they travel to South Haven, Michigan and then up the eastern shore of Lake Michigan to Manistee. Their travels will later take them to Sault Ste Marie before they return home to Ohio.
Few people are at the Manistee beach, so unlike South Haven, where the beaches and streets are filled with pushy, bustling, impatient tourists. The man and his wife have been to South Haven many times, but as they see the scarcity of people and the quietness of Manistee they say, I think we have found a new place to stay when we vacation.
The beach is owned by thousands of Plovers. It is an amazing sight to behold. The man and his wife are mesmerized by the birds, and the man, ever possessed of his camera, begins to take pictures.
Soon the serenity of the place is ruined by a stupid boy who sees the birds as worthy of his scorn and derision. The birds are covering the landscape of HIS beach, and he will have none of that. So he runs through the mass of birds screaming and waving his arms. This put the birds into flight, complaining loudly about the stupid boy.
The man and his wife turn their attention to the pier and lighthouse in the distance. She asks, Do you think you can make it? He replies, Sure. So off they go.
As they begin their slow, faltering stroll on the pier, they notice a sign that says, No Jumping or Swimming off the Pier. The man smiles quietly to himself as he sees four teenage boys doing what the sign prohibits. He remembers long ago when he, too, would have looked at the sign and proceeded to do exactly what the sign prohibited. He thinks, the folly, wonder, and joy of youth.
As the man and his wife pass the boys in the water, one of them calls out and says, How are you today, sir? The man thought, Sir? Am I really that old? He knows the answer to the question before he asks. For a few moments the man talks with the boys, then haltingly continues to walk down the pier with his wife.
Not far from the boys, the man, and his wife come upon a pair of ducks: a male, his female, and their brood of ten young ducklings. New life. The man wonders: How many of the ducklings will survive their youth? He knows the answer and this troubles him a bit. A reminder, that, for all its beauty, life is harsh, filled with pain, suffering, and death.
The man and his wife turn back to where the boys are swimming. The man thinks, as he looks at the shallow water with its rock-filled bottom, this is a dangerous place to be diving into the water.
But the boys are oblivious to the danger. The man’s mind races back to the days of his youth, remembering a time when he too lived without fear, enjoying the freedom of living in the moment.
One of the boys climbs back up on the pier and prepares to jump into the water. The man, a hundred feet or so from the boy, points his camera toward him. The man quickly adjusts the shutter speed, focuses the lens, and begins to shoot.
The man and his wife laugh as they watch the boy. Collectively, their minds wander back to a hot summer day in July when they joined their hands together and said, I do. Thirty-five years ago, they embraced one another and jumped off into the rock-strewn water of life, and survived.
Together they turn to walk back to the car. As they pass the boys, the man shouts, I am going to make you famous. The boys laugh and continue on with the horseplay that dominates their day.
The boys will never know that their innocence, their sign-defying plunges off a pier in Manistee, Michigan, warmed the heart of the man and his wife.
Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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