Digging for Treasure

It made sense to a 7-year-old boy who could see Lake Huron from his upstairs bedroom window. On a lake so vast you couldn’t see across it, there must be pirates. Long ago, maybe in the 1920′s, they pillaged far-off ports of call like Saginaw or St. Ignace. Then, wrapped in the blanket of night, the buccaneers crept ashore and buried their treasure behind our garage in Rogers City.

My younger brother Greg and our pals Aaron and Joe Veselenak liked my logic. A stand of lilac bushes and a neck-high wooden fence that marked the frontier of my backyard kingdom also shielded the back of the garage, making it the ideal spot for pirates to bury their booty. And surely, after 50 years, they weren’t likely to reclaim it. So the four of us embarked on our great summer adventure and dug for days under the shade of the lilacs.

Seagulls squealed overhead as we churned the soil with trowels and hoes and shovels twice our height. Soon the knees of our Toughskins were caked with dirt and our palms creased an earthy black. We lamented slicing worms in half with our shovels — “this one would have been good for fishing” — and killed centipedes with innate hate just in case it was true they were poisonous.

Long John Silver hobbled through my mind as we unearthed pirate artifacts: chunks of pottery, a tarnished spoon, fragments of glass and animal bones that could have been from the arms and legs of monkeys. Would a cutlass be next? Maybe a musket? Then, a chest brimming with gold?

Our fantasy wasn’t unlike most adults’ reality. Rogers City’s men were digging, too, at Calcite, which every kid knew was the world’s largest limestone quarry. Those that didn’t dig manned the freighters that shipped the limestone to steel mills. They knew they’d never be millionaires, but Lake Huron and its natural partner, the quarry, provided steady jobs.

Calcite’s workforce was more than 400 strong in the early 1970′s, which really meant 400 middle-class families in the days when four or six or more kids per household was common. There were 16 in the Szymanski family. Kids crowded summer’s beaches when Lake Huron shined royal blue. When it turned limestone gray in the fall, they headed to school.

My dad taught at the high school, where he also coached football. Every other dad worked at Calcite or on the boats, and most of the old men were retirees from one or the other. Like our neighbor Mr. Smolinski, who plowed our driveway and thrived on telling Polish jokes, they still wore their Godzilla green quarry clothes while puttering in their gardens and garages. The retirees never shuddered when Calcite blasted for limestone. Everyone else did, pausing to utter “That was a big one!”

The quarry was miles away, but the whole town shivered. Windows rattled and pencils rolled off our desks at school. Mom complained about the ever-present dust. The blasts were less frequent than the freighters’ foghorns, especially during spring and fall. They belched all night, a two-note symphony of tubas and baritones. The first note was as low as a bottomless well, the next even lower. But it wasn’t distracting. The soothing dirge confirmed that the familiar lurked in the frigid shroud of fog instead of a sea monster or carnivorous creeping seaweed with a taste for boy flesh.

Calcite and Lake Huron were intertwined with life in Rogers City. And with death. Rogers City was the home port of two freighters — and most of their crews — that met tragic ends: The Carl D. Bradley sank in a Lake Michigan storm in November 1958 with 33 of its 35 sailors; the Cedarville sank with 10 of its crew after colliding with another ship in Lake Huron in May 1965. Memorial lifesavers hung on the walls with sundry nautical doodads at Karsten’s Dairy, where dad took us for sundaes after football games.

We moved away from Rogers City when I was still a boy. And I recall the innocence of youth — not death — whenever my mind wanders to the view from my upstairs bedroom window. I still see a freighter’s silhouette and perhaps the sails of a pirate ship. I hear the foghorns and the sea monster’s roar. And I’ve found the treasure. I’m rich.

Freelancer Ken Marten writes from metro [email protected]

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