Crossing the Straits!
By: Joyce Pitrone Hawkins
I was born and bred a southern (southeast Michigan, that is) gal whose roots were planted 100 years ago by my parents in Michigan’s Marquette area — God’s Country — the U.P.
In the 1940’s, the booming city of Detroit beckoned job seekers from all over the state and the country. My parents left the iron ore mines of Marquette County and headed south, as did many other fortune seekers, to the prosperous Detroit area searching for new and better opportunities.
After moving around a bit in southeast Michigan, on a snowy January day in 1950, my parents moved into a home they built in Dearborn Heights in the Joy Road/Telegraph area.
One of the first homes built in the new subdivision, they purchased two lots (just had to have room for a large vegetable garden) and moved into their new family-built bungalow where and I was born only days later…child number 4. Little did my parents know that in addition to the 4 they already had, there would be 5 more little ones after me that they were going to be raising in that house.
And like clockwork, my parents would make the annual return trip to their small hometowns in Ishpeming and Negaunee in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with all their children in tow, to visit with grandmas and grandpas.
So every year my parents would wake us in the wee hours of the morning to start the, then, 10 to 12 hour drive (depending on how long you had to wait for the ferry at the straits). The kids, yes, all nine of us, were so full of excitement that none of us got much sleep the night before we left. It was the only vacations we ever experienced as young children.
Our “luggage” (discarded cardboard boxes dad hauled home from the corner A&P) had been carefully packed the night before, and by morning, dad would be tying down our “suitcases” (my parents had a “real” suitcase – at least by 1950 standards) in the homemade “carrier” on top of the car. After dad hoisted the boxes to the top of the car, he would cover his precious cargo with tarp, weave a tight rope across the canvas, and off we’d go…sans seatbelts.
Ray Kroc’s McDonald’s chains hadn’t even been heard of yet, so we packed our own peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches to ease us through the long Michigan trip north. In our family, peanut-butter and jelly were two separate sandwiches and, heaven forbid, the two should ever meet!!
And then there was that big heavy, slightly-dented silver-green gallon-sized thermos filled with precious water from home! No matter how parched, only the smallest of small sips were allowed (I suppose just enough to make that plain PB sandwich slide down a bit easier!). My mother’s intent was for us to avoid guzzling water; otherwise she’d have nine whiny kids crying out for pit stops for you-know-what!
I clearly recall our car whizzing (no pun intended to the previous sentence) past the exits where we kids would beg and plead, year-after-year, to PLEEEEZE stop… Sea Shell City in Cheboygan, Call of the Wild in Gaylord, and the most intriguing to us…the Mystery Spot in St. Ignace.
Those signs along I-75 were more than enticing to us kids. Needless to say, with nine kids, we never stopped. But 20 years later, when I made that same trip, my first alone as an adult to the U.P., guess where I stopped…the Mystery Spot!
Some 300 miles after leaving home and arriving at the straits — the real fun began, for the kids, at least. I remember waiting in long lines in the car for the Ferry to load. Sometimes the wait for the Ferry was so drawn-out we became restless. But occasionally, if luck was on your side, our timing was perfect and boarding was not too much of a problem.
I recall during some of those long waits for the ferry, there were girls selling “samwiches”. I distinctly recall a young lady walking among the long lines of idling cars. She wore a “tray” similar to what the ladies in the old TV commercials wore when they cooed: “Cigars? Cigarettes?” Only this lady was selling sandwiches! Of course, we never purchased…we had our own PB & J (separate, please)!
Someone told me they sold pastys, too. FYI: I still make pastys today…pass the ketchup (the only way a true Upper Peninsula pasty should be eaten). Yummy! If you don’t know what a pasty is, give me a holler!
I can still hear the sound of the heavy steel platform that bridged the ferry to the concrete dock. boom-boom…boom-boom, as the tires of the cars rolled over…boom-boom…boom-boom. And I can still hear the screeching noises and deafening blare of car horns echoing off the interior hard-steel walls of the boat as the cars crossed the threshold into the deep belly of the ferry. Then the clankity-clank of footsteps as hundreds of us “sea-worthy sailors” climbed the dark cold open-steel stairway finally reaching the bright sun on the open-air deck above.
Standing on the deck of the ferry, I recall my dad with an outstretched arm showing us the construction of the five-mile span that was to come. An unbelievable feat!
Now the Mighty Mac has been goin’ strong for more than 50 years! A real Michigan icon, it is! I hate to admit it, but I was only 7 years old that summer when the bridge first opened to traffic and I crossed it.
Vacationing, and life, in the 1950s was a lot different than it is now. We were without all the luxuries of today. Didn’t even have air-conditioning for us to keep our cool. But you know what? Those memories are some of the best I have of my childhood, and I wouldn’t trade them at all.
Let’s hear your favorite vacation memory from long ago.