Any expedition proposed by my Uncle Jeff was pretty sure to be high adventure, though it didn't always turn out happily for all concerned. He had the spirit of a Magellan, but his neck was too long and he stuck it out too often.
A succession of mishaps over the years had left him undaunted and eager for any new experience, and it was only natural that when my father bought a little four-horsepower Oldsmobile Uncle Jeff should urge a trek into the hinterland. None of this sissy stuff, riding up and down on South Bend's pavements; get out and see something of the country. There was a wonderful place to camp on Lake Michigan, just above Benton Harbor, known as Double-L Gap, and the yellow perch would bite like crazy. He'd been there the year before, a tough two-day trip, by horse and buggy for the 40 miles.
"If one horse can do it in two days, by simple arithmetic four horses should do it in half a day," Uncle Jeff pointed out. The car's single cylinder was supposed to be rated at four-and-a-half horsepower. "That extra half will give you a reserve for the hills," he added, persuasively. Father was a bit on the conservative side but, proud of his new car and anxious to prove its ability, he consented to the expedition. I was plumb ecstatic to be included.
Sixty years ago (it was in the spring of 1902) a camping trip required a lot more duffel than in this day of light and compact equipment. We took a bulky wall tent of heavy canvas, tent poles and stakes, three blankets, a roll of mosquito netting, water bucket, two barn lanterns, a bull's-eye hand lamp, a gallon can of kerosene, assorted groceries, plus a shovel, ax, coil of rope and a collection of wrenches, pliers, nuts, bolts and spare parts in a canvas bag. There were also a cigar box full of worms and three bamboo poles. And, of course, a hammock, for no camping trip was complete without one.
June 3, 1962
Father had made two neat iceboxes to hang on the arms of the dos-√†-dos seat. They were insulated with sheet cork and lined with tin, and had a grille in the bottom and a drain tube. We were up at dawn loading our cargo. The fish poles were lashed to some of the bundles on the left side; in fact, everything was tied to everything else, and if one package started to come loose there probably would be an avalanche of all the others. When the last item was aboard I could just see over the things stacked beside me on the dos-√†-dos seat.
On the way
At last the big moment arrived. Father flipped the switch, put his heel on the compression release, held the tiller with one hand and cranked at the side of the seat with the other. The good little engine took hold at once, and we were off amid the cheers of the neighbors and cries of "Don't come back without fish!"
"We'll bring you more'n you can eat," Uncle Jeff promised.
It was wonderful to be chugging along on that bright morning at double the speed of a fast horse and good fishing in prospect. After leaving the city pavement our cantilever springs bumped pretty hard, but we were happy as long as the engine pulse was regular. All was well until we met up with Hardscrabble Hill just beyond Buchanan, an easy enough high-gear ascent today but a tough one then on account of the sand. Here Father pulled into low and unleashed our "half-horse reserve power." The engine responded manfully for a few yards but couldn't quite make it alone. So Uncle Jeff and I hopped off and pushed the rest of the way. We'd barely reached the top when the overheated engine backfired and steam billowed from underneath with the smell of hot oil. Bad news; water tank and filler cap were under the rear deck. Off came the luggage, the ice boxes, dos-√†-dos seat and deck lid. Everything was sizzling. It was not surprising that the water boiled away after that long uphill grind, because the radiator was merely a dozen or so one-inch brass tubes installed flat under the footboards. There were no fins and no fan—just the passage of air at three miles an hour. It was a mile to the nearest horse trough, and you know who got the job.
Under way again we began looking for a place to lunch. The shade of a huge maple in front of a farmhouse tempted us, but across the road a horse tied to a post began to mill around and snort as we approached.
"Hold on a minute, Albert," Uncle Jeff cautioned, "let me get there first; I can handle her." And in fact, the animal did calm down as he stroked her neck. He motioned for Father to come ahead, when suddenly the horse reared back. She uprooted the post with Uncle Jeff still hanging on and high-tailed it down the road. They clanked together a few times until, luckily, the strap broke and man and post rolled in the dust.
Just as Uncle Jeff got to his feet a husky young farmer charged out of the house with what appeared to be a carving knife. Uncle Jeff limped to the car as fast as he could and muttered, "Better skin outa here quick!"
But Father elected to stand his ground as the farmer, still chewing food, came up. Without so much as a glance at the departing mare he began, "Doggone, I've been waiting to see one of these here machines," pointing at this and that with the carving knife that turned out to be a table knife and asking all manner of questions.
"You mean to tell me there's four horsepower in that buggy?" he said, shaking his head dubiously. "Tain't safe. Supposing it gets out of control?"
It was slow progress in the afternoon; halting for many teams, a puncture (a trick to fix in a single-tube tire) and a slipping clutch.
Weary and gray, with dust from head to foot, we pulled in at camp site at suppertime and took a quick dip in the lake before setting up the tent. After a cold supper we were too tired to do any fishing. We didn't sleep much, either, for in spite of net and smudging, mosquitoes were terrific in that bosky dell.
"Dagnabit," said Uncle Jeff as he slapped away, "I'm going to swing the hammock on those poles out away from the pesky bugs."
The poles Uncle Jeff referred to had been set out by commercial fishermen in a big rectangle some 200 yards from shore. They were spaced about 15 feet apart and supported nets that formed a trap for whitefish and lake trout.
Stripped to his long underwear, which he wore all year round, Uncle Jeff paddled out in a leaky old skiff he found pulled up on the beach. He tied the hammock to two of the poles, waved happily to us and stretched out comfortably for a night's sleep.
I envied him—till next morning. At dawn we were awakened by some explosive seagoing language. We piled out of the tent and beheld arms and legs thrashing from a hammock sagging in the water, the poles leaning more and more toward each other every time Uncle made a frantic lunge for the boat's painter, which was barely out of reach.
Finally, with a last supreme effort, he managed to grab the rope, but in doing so one foot went through the hammock. It was an old-fashioned kind, made of loose cords like a coarse fish net. The old skiff was half full of water, the wind was rising and Uncle Jeff was trapped with one leg in a hammock securely tied to a pair of poles which in turn were firmly driven into the bottom of Lake Michigan. The situation began to look so serious that Father swam out with a knife, cut our amphibious relative free and paddled him ashore in the half submerged skiff. Uncle Jeff was glumly noncommittal, and after getting into dry clothes he wandered off, muttering something about digging worms.
We had three blissful days of fishing; perch took the hook as soon as it hit the water, and there was no limit at that time, if I remember correctly. We were eager to get home and do a little bragging about this pioneer automobile trip. It was decided to ship all our equipment, except tools and fish, via freight from Benton Harbor. Uncle Jeff was to arrange for the shipping at the station while Father and I got gasoline at a nearby grocery.
Traveling light and without untoward incident, except for an occasional fractious horse, we made the return trip in a little under seven hours. As soon as they heard the chugging of our engine several fish-hungry neighbors rushed out.
"Show us all those fine fish you promised," they shouted.
"Hold your horses—got enough for everybody," replied Uncle Jeff generously as they crowded around. "Lemme see, now—who's first?" as he raised the lid of the icebox. There was an indignant howl. The box contained a few half-filled jars of jams and pickles, some soiled shirts and socks. Its twin, in which the fish were packed, would arrive—iceless—about a week later. The South Bend freight agent was not going to be very happy to receive it.