Outdoors North

Chance encounter sparks memories

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

“Kentucky rain keeps pouring down and up ahead’s another town that I’ll go walking through, with the rain in my shoes, searching for you, in the cold Kentucky rain.” — Eddie Rabbitt and Dick Heard

Through the mystery and miracle of happenstance, I bumped into an old friend while out shopping recently — one I hadn’t seen in more than 40 years.

In an instant, I was shocked, surprised and elated to see him. The space in the room between us seemed to warp and ripple, like heat when it rolls up off the desert blacktop.

Despite the decades, his face hadn’t changed one bit, it was just as I’d remembered. While I’d been out in the world, he sat here on the shelf for who knows how long.

His face was that of a clock, with a faint blue inline under the glass, black minute and hour hands, with an understated gold, sweeping second hand.

Just seeing the numerals warmed my heart, recalling memories from those halcyon days when the world was so much simpler. Days when finding a snake or a frog in the backyard was a big event.

There had been a small, wooden mantel clock just like this one in my room from as early as I can remember, up until the time I was about 10 or 12 years old. The model likely dates to the mid- to late-1950s.

I have a vague recollection that the one in my room had come from my grandmother’s house, on my dad’s side of the family. I had lost track of my old friend in my memory over all these years, but when I saw this clock I fell back in time instantly.

I recalled evenings in my kid room, trying to fall asleep in the summertime when it was still light outside. I remember watching the face of the clock, with the second hand going around and around as I lay there waiting for my eyes to get heavy.

No matter how much exploring, running around the yard, chasing turtles or playing “trucks” in the sandbox I had done, it was always tough to sleep on those warm evenings when the sun refused to go down until late.

The sun wasn’t sleeping, why should I have to?

The robins were still singing their heads off outside.

When it was time for bed, my parents let me stack four or five long-playing albums on an old box-style record player I would listen to — after closing the colored plastic and wooden shutters on my bedroom window.

This is where I used to hear “It’s All in the Game,” by Tommy Edwards, the story of “Tubby the Tuba” and the Elvis Presley soundtrack from “Blue Hawaii,” which came out the year I was born.

I used to lie on my bed and stare at album covers, studying the photos and other artwork, while listening.

On that Elvis album, my favorite song was “Can’t Help Falling in Love” — one of his best songs. The cover of the album showed Elvis posed with a ukulele. He wore a red Hawaiian-styled shirt and a thick yellow lei, lip partially “snerled”“Rock-a-Hula Baby.”

This week, we again remember the death of Elvis. He died Aug. 16, 1977 at age 42. I was in Canada at the time, visiting family. It felt so un-American to be in a foreign country when “The King” died.

Sad, and ironic, that I heard the news on the radio — the same medium that had brought me so much joy hearing Elvis and the Jordanaires over the years.

For those who think the King’s light had dimmed significantly in his “later” years, put a good set of headphones on and crank up “Always on My Mind,” from five years before he died, or “Burning Love” — also from 1972 — or listen to “Kentucky Rain,” which was written by Eddie Rabbitt and featured Ronnie Milsap on piano, from 1970.

Elvis was out of this world.

In my childhood days of the 1960s, kids were obsessed with space, given the amazing work NASA was doing at the behest of President John F. Kennedy.

Marketers took notice.

Fifty years ago, this month, NASA’s technical teams and astronauts were preparing for the moon landing — with the first manned Apollo mission to take place in October 1968. After several additional test flights, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would walk on the moon in July 1969.

I remember drinking “Tang,” which was a powdered, orange-flavored drink the astronauts used to make their water taste better. I also recall feeling cool because I was eating “space food sticks” — the first solid food developed for the astronauts by Pillsbury.

There were also all types of toys related to space exploration, especially in the lunar sense, in those days.

Over the past few months, I’ve seen a lot of kids wearing “NASA” shirts as the agency embarks on a resurgence.

This year, NASA is headed toward the surface of the sun — to explore the solar wind, which was first described by Eugene Parker in 1958.

The Parker Solar Probe — the fastest object man ever made — at its closest approach, will travel at 430,000 miles per hour, with its solar shield encountering temperatures nearing 2,500 degrees, according to NASA.

Anticipation of greater things to come is running high as the spacecraft is expected to provide the closest, best look so far at our closest star. The probe blasted off Aug. 12 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The event captured my imagination, thinking about the spacecraft being launched at the same time the annual Perseid meteor shower was peaking, and birds using the light from the moon to help them migrate.

It’s times like these when I feel my true ability to grasp the wonders of space travel, the vast mysteries of space and the intricacies of bird migration is akin to the likelihood a grasshopper will read and comprehend the works of James Fenimore Cooper.

Sadly, I don’t think it’s in the cards.

With the weather forecast calling for clear skies, I intended to enjoy some of the meteor shower, but darkness brought clouds and found me sleeping early on my love seat in front of the television set.

The closest I got to anything space-related that day was taking pictures of a bald-faced hornets’ nest that hung from the low branches of a tree.

The gray, papery structure, with a triangular bottom and a thumb-sized hole in the lower center looked, in an abstract sense, like a creepy masked face or the visage from one of those drawings of alien lifeforms with the small mouths and big black eyes — the “small grays.”

I did get to take a delightful walk barefooted down the blacktopped road, which alternated warm and cool, depending on the overhanging tree canopy.

Down at the lake, from the high rock lookout — “wishing place” — I sat watching fish jump, splashing loudly, while a doe stepped out of the trees to where the green grass poked from the mud along the shoreline.

Kingfishers, herons and grebes seemed to be out playing over, beside or in the water.

On my walk, the wind blew warm and light, the sky was clear and blue, and the sun felt fantastic. All this made it easy to breathe, easier to be alive.

I walked on thinking about the blueberries picked the day before and the latest addition to my reading room at home — a simple wooden mantle clock, with a cheery face and an understated gold, sweeping second hand.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.