Nothing seemed simpler...
Flying from Australia to Chicago; driving a rented car through small-town America: catching up with friends in Indiana; attending a Detroit conference; driving further east to Niagara Falls; then tracing the Erie Canal and following the Hudson River to New York, to see a ballgame at Yankee Stadium - a personal pilgrimage for my teenage baseball career, when baselines were shorter and baseballs were bigger.
A (standby) New York shuttle flight back to Chicago would connect with my flight home…
But then the Chicago car-rental agent cheerfully told me my post-Detroit odyssey would cost five times more than returning the car to Chicago. My affordable options narrowed - to driving west from Detroit, into an unforeseen Michigan agenda.
Where the surprises kept coming …
On a Sunday evening in Flint, a city bursting with signs of a faded prosperity, I passed block after brooding block. Until I found a lighthouse: worship at a black Pentecostal church, whose seventy-five-year-old fireball pastor’s silent praying had scared off a would-be gunman at his bank’s automated teller machine earlier that week.
Monday’s cold calls on Christian publishers in Lansing and Grand Rapids were warmly received, with tips on their preferred protocols.
And that afternoon I discovered idyllic, picture-postcard Saugatuck!
Driving across the bridge almost became a time-warp: onto the set of “On Moonlight Bay,” an old Doris Day-Gordon MacRae musical. Reliving the songs, I turned off the highway; to explore two relaxed days among immaculate cottages, boat moorings, gardens, guest houses, gift shops and restaurants.
First up, with peckish confidence I ordered a double-waffle ice-cream, to find my expected two scoops becoming six mountainous dollops – with no navigation warning for low-flying planes!
Do fools ever learn? Maybe not, for the next day a waiter staggered to my table with my requested turkey sandwich. On his tray, towering over a mountain of French fries and salad, he had placed a complete bird with a loaf of bread tucked under each wing!
As I left Saugatuck, driving south along the shoreline to have dinner with new-found conference friends, my mind kept whispering: “Sunsets over Lake Michigan!” From whom I can’t recall …
Later, booking at Bridgeman Inn I asked about these sunsets, to find I was only five minutes away.
The entrance sign to Weko Beach loomed out of a clearing in the surrounding maple forest, indicating a five dollar parking fee. But with no attendant and nowhere to leave payment, I drove through like everyone else.
Few spaces were left near the lakeside restaurant where families, friends or couples were inside enjoying meals or drinks after the heat of the day. But people in the car park expressed an unfathomable mix of expectancy and sombreness as they gathered near the access ramps to the restaurant’s boardwalk.
Out of the pale blue western sky, the fiery orb of the setting sun split Lake Michigan’s leaden waters with its dazzling reflection.
As darkness silently encroached from the east, I commented to the man on my right: “There’s only one headlight, and it’s on high beam!” He politely chuckled, but noticed my accent’s flat vowels: “You’re not from around here, are you?”
I confessed to being an Australian Baptist pastor and Christian writer. He warmly replied: “I’m Vinnie, and this is my wife Sandy. We were baptized in the lake three years ago!” Instantaneous, unexpected fellowship.
After relating his military career he began explaining why everyone was there, but then paused in the stillness capturing the crowd.
The distant fireball was just starting to melt onto the darkening horizon, when a young woman in a blue uniform appeared at the boardwalk; a cornet held to her lips. She quietly began to play Taps, closing it perfectly in time with the sun’s final glow.
Vinnie continued: “Every sunset for twenty years now, someone comes to play Taps. Everyone comes to honour our troops. We don’t all support the wars they’re fighting, but we think of them and we pray for them.”
The crowd needed no speeches, no ceremony, and no other music. Taps’ haunting strains wordlessly infused their pride, their grief or their anger, with solidarity that bridged the vast distance separating them from their loved ones.
And for this Aussie visitor, who had only ever heard Taps in movies, this experience of solidarity has become a deeply evocative memory – from right out of the blue.
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