Kal ZoneBlog

My dad would have been 101 this year

June 11, 2011

My dad, Karl Nemvalts, lived the last third of his life in Freeland, Michigan, from the 1950s to the early 1970s. In my memory of that time, Freeland was small-town America, where everyone knew everyone else. Where my dad directed the school band and the church choir and taught German at the high school.

But he grew up in a different world, in Estonia (Eesti in the native language) in the 1910s and 1920s, in rural northern Europe. Where the winter ride to town — this was about as far north as Juneau, Alaska — would involve a horse-drawn sleigh. His dad was a country schoolmaster. The details are sketchy to me. I imagine farms surrounded by birches and pines as in northern Michigan or Canada — dirt roads, horses, bright winter moonlight, rustic houses heated with wood stoves, saunas down the hill by the pond....

Northern Europeans


He went to high school (called "gymnasium") in the city and then on to music conservatory, where he studied trumpet. My sister Marju recalls that he earned a degree in music from the University of Tartu. He studied Russian, German, and English, languages that would turn out to be useful to him later in life. He saw American movies and heard American jazz on the radio. From these role models he learned how to dress sharp and be cool. American culture had already permeated Europe, pre-TV and pre-Internet, and he tuned it in.

World War II is a gap in the story, a near-complete blank. I know now that Estonia was occupied by the Soviets in 1940, then by the Germans in 1941, then by the Soviets again as they pushed the Germans back out toward the end of the war. It was a chaotic, horrible time, and I never got a clear idea of how my dad lived through it. (For that matter, I don't have a clear idea of how Estonia was affected by World War I, or by the Russian Revolution of 1917, which took place only a few hundred miles to the east. Somehow it managed to emerge as an independent nation between the World Wars.) As far as I know, my dad stayed in Estonia until the Soviets returned, then fled the country, joining the waves of refugees that crisscrossed Europe at the close of the war. He never really talked about it. I do remember as a kid, at an age when I liked to play soldiers, asking him if he fought in the war; he made a vague comment about resistance against the Soviets, something like, we took a few shots at them as we retreated through the woods. That's all he wanted to say.

Just last year, one of my Facebook friends wrote to me about a POW camp that had been set up on the outskirts of Freeland during WW II — a camp where the inmates apparently had some interaction with the local people — and passed along a rumor that Karl Nemvalts had been a prisoner there. (Apparently there were a number of POW camps in Michigan in the later years of the war.) I suppose there is a possibility that my dad, like many Estonian men, might have been conscripted into the German army. But even if that were the case, he would most likely have been deployed on an eastern front, facing the Soviets, not anywhere he would have been captured by Americans. In any case, it's unlikely that I'll ever find out how he got through the war.

I do know that soon after the war he had made his way to southern Germany, to a Displaced Persons camp somewhere near Munich. (It seems unlikely that he took a detour to Freeland, Michigan, in the meantime.)


In southern Germany, in the postwar years, he and a handful of Estonian refugees put together an orchestra that played dance music and jazz to an audience of American soldiers. There he met my mother, another Estonian refugee ten years younger. Years later my mother recalled that, back then, he lived a typical musician's lifestyle and enjoyed a few drinks from time to time.

Marju remembers being told that my dad and mom already knew each other in Estonia, but had to flee the country separately, on short notice and and without any opportunity to communicate. They hooked back up in Germany after the war. I always had the impression that they met in Germany for the first time, possibly because they each had had other romantic involvements before they finally got together.

I still have the trumpet — or what's left of it after being knocked around by my generation of kids — that he played back then. It's a Jazzmaster, a rotary-valve job with extremely short-throw keys for fast fingering. He brought it with him to the US and played it until he joined the Saginaw Symphony, where music director Josef Cherniavsky made him replace it with a more modern horn. I remember going with him to a music store on Federal Avenue in Saginaw to buy a new Olds Studio model, which left the Jazzmaster at the mercy of the kids. He had a violin, too, a musty, resiny-smelling thing that came out of the hall closet once in a while.

My dad played occasional gigs through the 1950s. I remember one dreary New Year's Eve — the kind of foggy, drizzly night that I associate with New Year's — when he dropped us off (mom, sister, and I) at a house party in Saginaw (bubble lights on the Christmas tree) while he drove off with some local musicians to play an engagement in Kalamazoo, returning a little tipsy in the wee hours. He was mainly a classical musician, but also kind of a jazz head. When I was in high school I found his stash of jazz books, including a hand-copied book of Roy Eldridge solos — Roy Eldridge, aka "Little Jazz," was an early role model for Dizzy Gillespie — and a book of "progressive" jazz originals by Bugs Bower, "endorsed and recommended by Charlie Ventura".


My parents lived in the vicinity of Munich until the summer of 1950, when we moved to Freeland, to a farmhouse out on Hospital Road. I was just two years old. Why Freeland? Why even America? My parents had been exposed to American popular culture, certainly, and probably had met and befriended American soldiers. They spoke some English. They probably saw America as the place to be — at that time in history, the glamorous world leader in culture and technology. They couldn't go back to Estonia, and Europe generally had been laid low by the war.

Immigration records available online show that our original destination was Rancho Cucamonga, California, not Freeland, Michigan. Potential immigrants to America had to have a sponsor who would guarantee their employment — in our case, such sponsorship was arranged through a Lutheran charity. It's still a mystery why we went to Freeland and not California. Certainly there must have been some appeal to landing within an hour's drive of Hollywood, and our alternate-universe life there would have taken an entirely different path. In my imagination, my dad had the kind of Jimmy Stewart looks that could have put him in the movies. But — even assuming they had a choice — my parents probably decided in favor of a more familiar cultural setting, a social environment and climate closer to that of northern Europe. Maybe the name of the place — Free Land — even had something to do with it. They went to work for a German-American farmer in a German-speaking parish between Freeland and Bay City.

We came over on a ship, the USNS Gen A W Greely, checked in at Ellis Island, and continued on to New Orleans, where we debarked and took a train north to Michigan. I can imagine my parents arguing over Michigan versus California — my mom would have wanted California and my dad would have been more conservative. Or maybe vice versa. And I think another reason for going to New Orleans may have been a kind of jazz pilgrimage to the source of the music — my dad revered Louis Armstrong as a trumpet player.

In our first year in the US, we lived on a farm where my dad did farm work and possibly some construction — our patron Mr Feinauer was also a licensed contractor. My dad soon bought his first car, a maroon 1949 Ford Custom V8 coupe — hot-car heaven for a European refugee. Certainly very few ordinary people in postwar Europe owned cars. He must have learned to drive on Mr Feinauer's pickup truck. One of my earliest memories is of riding in the Ford on ice-slicked winter roads, my mother distraught that we would end up in the ditch. The farmland between Freeland and Bay City is dead flat, part of the ancient lakebed of Saginaw Bay off Lake Huron, and crisscrossed by huge drainage ditches big enough to swallow a car.

Marju remembers being told that the maroon Ford had belonged to a young guy who went off to the Korean War.

My dad got a job as a janitor in the Freeland schools, and we moved to town, to the two-story pale-brick apartment building on the corner of Washington and Third. Within a year or two, his conservatory training became known to the school community, and he was offered a position teaching music. I remember that his first music room was in "the Barracks", a red tar-shingle building consisting of six wings connected by a central hallway, repurposed from some kind of military use during the war. Freeland has a regional airport (Tri-City then, now MBS International) that would have been strategically important in case of an enemy invasion — an highly unlikely possibility in hindsight, but one that had to be considered at the time. Some of the roads connecting the airport to Bay City (Garfield Road, Salzburg Road) had been paved on one side only — a single concrete lane in one direction and gravel in the opposite — to facilitate millitary movements, and stayed that way through much of the 1950s. This made for some interesting driving experiences, as drivers in both directions would use the paved side and move over to the gravel side only when necessary to yield to oncoming traffic. Kind of a game of chicken, with a jarring bump between the concrete and the potholed, gravel side. If my dad had the right of way on the paved lane, he would complain about the "crazy drivers" who would wait until the last minute to yield. If he was going the wrong way on the paved side, my mom would have to shout, "Karl! Get over!"

More driving difficulties arose on a family trip to Racine, Wisconsin, to visit another Estonian family. In the factory district of south Chicago, the traffic signals were, at that time, mounted horizontally above the road. My dad was color-blind and couldn't distinguish green from red — so was the red light at the left end or the right? Not as clear-cut as up versus down. Again my mother had to act as copilot.

Another early trip in the 1949 Ford took us to visit an Estonian couple in Buffalo, New York. I remember going over the Blue Water Bridge from Michigan to Ontario, high up in the sky above Lake Huron, on a sunny summer morning. At Niagara Falls, my mom got very upset with my dad for letting me climb out onto rocks in the fast-moving river just above the falls.

One of the last trips in the old Ford was an outing to School Section Lake, near Mecosta, about 20 miles west of Mount Pleasant, with another Freeland family. My dad, like many adults of that era a smoker, flipped his cigarette out the side window and it somehow eddied over the car and back into the open rear window on the passenger side, where it lodged between the rear seat cushions. Soon smoke was filling the car and the kids in the back seat were yelling at my dad to pull over. Everyone jumped out of the car, and someone dumped a bottle of pop into the seat to put out the fire.

Music teacher

When my dad started teaching music, the Freeland schools only went through the ninth grade, with older grades busing to Arthur Hill High School in Saginaw. Then in 1961 a new high school opened on the south side of Freeland. My dad's responsibilities expanded along with the schools, eventually extending to the high school concert and marching bands, as well as courses in German. During the summers he painted classrooms and did maintenance on the school buildings.

At the same time, he directed the choir in the Lutheran church every Sunday morning. One of my earliest public performances on trumpet was a duet with my dad at a Sunday service.

When he first started teaching, he didn't have a credential, but it was agreed that he could continue on a provisional basis until he earned a teaching degree, which he finally did, at Central Michigan University. For years he would get up every Saturday morning to drive the thirty miles to Mount Pleasant to take classes in educational psychology, English, and other requirements for a degree in teaching. I think he managed to convince the Central Michigan music faculty to give him credit for his conservatory training, probably based on auditions and interviews, since communications with the Soviet Socialist Republic of Estonia were difficult or impossible at the time.

My dad was "Mr Nemvalts" to the kids at school and just dad (isa in Estonian) at home, which left me somewhat conflicted — I wanted to fit in with the other kids and not be seen as a polite, school-loving, teacher-pleasing good boy. When I was around kindergarten age I was approached by some older girls — probably fifth or sixth graders — who wanted to know if I was Mr Nemvalts's boy. I denied I knew the man.

The first Freeland band was at the junior high (middle school) level. There was also a choir, led by Mrs Smith, and Flutophone ensembles, starting in the fourth or fifth grade, to teach kids how to read music. Flutophones were kind of like recorders, with open finger holes, but made of whitish plastic that smelled of sour milk.

To have a proper band it was necessary to get uniforms and at least some of the larger instruments — tubas, baritone horns, bass drums, cymbals — that were too expensive or impractical or nonsensical for families to buy for their kids. (Who would want to buy their kid a pair of crash cymbals?) So some of the interested parents and teachers formed a Band Boosters organization that raised the necessary money. I was too young to remember the details, but I do remember them putting on evening dances at the Tittabawassee Township Hall at the corner of Church and First. This was a one-story, high-ceilinged brick building with a wooden dance floor and a curtained stage at one end. People of all ages paid a small admission to get in and could also buy soft drinks, pastries, cabbage rolls, and coffee from a service counter at one side of the room. Other events at the building included school assemblies and plays, Boy Scout troop meetings, Lions Club spaghetti suppers, town meetings, weddings, and November elections.

The Band Boosters dances would feature a small combo playing the hits of the day, plus standards like Star Dust and In The Mood, plus polkas for the older folks, plus, by popular demand, the Hokey Pokey and the Bunny Hop. My dad probably had a hand in lining up the musicians, which might have included a guitar, accordion, saxophone, stand-up bass, and a guy playing a stand-up snare drum and hi-hat in the rockabilly style later adopted by the Stray Cats. I was probably six or seven at the time, and fascinated by the rhythmic energy these guys could put out, playing by ear or from memory. This was probably a year or so before Elvis made his debut on Ed Sullivan.

The first set of band uniforms, in the mid-1950s, consisted of light-blue military-looking shirts with dark-blue ties and matching fatigue caps. A year or two later, the school got proper band uniforms — red wool jackets with gold shoulder braids, black pants with gold-piped red stripes, and officer-style caps. I'm pretty sure the Band Boosters bought the lot of them used from some other area school. Unfortunately they didn't match the official school colors, green and white (possibly chosen by partisans of Michigan State University, or possibly just a wintry color combination), so after the new high school opened, the Band Boosters raised money to have new uniforms made in school colors, with FREELAND embroidered on the shoulders.

During the summers, to make ends meet, my dad continued to do maintenance work at the Freeland Schools, waxing floors and cleaning and painting classrooms. I remember summer days in the late 1950s hanging around under the big pine tree east of the North Building waiting for my dad to finish painting one of the Barracks classrooms with Mr Skeba, so we could go home for lunch. My dad, like many musicians, continued to earn a little extra income by taking on painting jobs through the 1960s. So much for teachers having their summers off.

Estonian Americans

At my mother's funeral, in 1996, the minister focused his talk on my mother's childhood in Europe, that being the most outstanding thing about her life from his perspective. But I thought he missed the more important point that Freeland had been her home for nearly two thirds of her life. My dad passed away back in 1971, so his life was two thirds in the old country and one third here. But Freeland was where my parents settled, had careers, raised a family, built a house, and lived out their lives.

My dad was, in his own way, prominent in the community. As the director of the school band, he presided over concerts that were attended by hundreds of parents and other townspeople — a large fraction of the community of two thousand people. And he served in the Lutheran church as the choir director. He was recognized in the stores and the streets. The grownups would greet him as "Karl". Once he began to teach, he dressed the part, with suits and ties, a fedora hat in the style of the time, a stylish overcoat in winter.

My parents adopted American ways right from the start. The V8 Ford was acquired in the first year. They loved to go to movies. I remember being traumatized by "Bambi" when I was maybe four. And I remember being taken by Greyhound bus from the corner of Main and Washington in Freeland to the Court Theater in Saginaw, to see movies like "Bus Stop" and "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers". This was when Main Street — US 10 at the time — was still a two-lane road. Back then there was an old, high-celinged store on the northwest corner of Main and Washington that sold used furniture, maybe even antiques. Next to that was a row of Old West–style wooden stores stretching down toward the river, including Joe Bauder's electrical repair shop with used appliances and dusty boxes of replacement tubes for radios and TVs. The last time I visited Freeland in 2004, that whole row of stores had been replaced by a Burger King parking lot .

My parents already had pretty good English when they got here, but tried for many years to keep speaking Estonian (Eesti keel) at home. Sometimes I heard them speak German, when they were visiting older German settlers. I don't think I spoke much English until I started school, at the age of five. I remember a few times when I got the lanuguages mixed up — I would start off in Estonian and suddenly realize, embarassed and confused, that I wasn't making sense to anyone else. Sometimes I think that this led to psychological problems later in life. I did at least develop a strong desire to blend in with the crowd.

My sister Marju was born when we lived in the old apartment house. My parents (and I) were naturalized as US citizens a few years later.

We didn't have TV when we lived in town — I used to have to go to the Bennetts', three doors down Third Street to get my dose of "Pinky Lee" and "Howdy Doody", but once we moved out of town to River Road we got our own black & white Admiral 21-inch set connected to a tall aluminum antenna on the roof. Which I swear once got hit by lightning. During a summer thunderstorm there was a sudden WHACK that shook the house — right there, not some perceptible distance away. Good thing it was grounded with a cable to a rod into the soil. That TV got three staticky stations. I liked to watch Disneyland, Davy Crockett, Roy Rogers, reruns of the Little Rascals, cliffhanger serials, Laurel and Hardy, cartoon shows, Popeye, Woody Woopecker, Donald Duck, and later Rocky and Bullwinkle, as well as the Three Stooges. My parents were big on variety shows and comedy — the Honeymooners, Sergeant Bilko, Steve Allen, Sid Caesar, Jack Paar. My dad used to watch Lawrence Welk and Liberace for the music. And the Hit Parade. But my dad was also into the Friday Night Fights, brought to you by Gillette. There was radio too, playing pre-Elvis popular music by people like Perry Como and Frank Sinatra, but it didn't make much of an impression on me compared to TV.

When I was little my parents tried to keep us speaking Estonian at home. There were maybe a half-dozen other Estonian families living nearby, in the Tri-City Area — Saginaw, Midland, and Bay City — and they would all get together one Sunday a month for Estonian-language church services in various borrowed churches around the area. The minister, who came up from from Detroit, had a stern visage and dark, bushy eyebrows a la Leonid Brezhnev. It was pretty well understood that the kids had to behave around this man. After the service we would gather for a luncheon at one of the families' houses and the kids would struggle with Estonian until after lunch, when we would finally get to go off on our own. That's where the older kids helped me with my knowledge of English, specifically with Anglo-Saxon profanities and related information about human reproduction.

Another childhood illusion was shattered on a dreary Christmas Eve in Saginaw, at a gathering at the ornate, downtown house of one of the Estonian families. My dad was supposedly away at some gig, but when Santa Claus arrived bearing his bag of gifts, I noticed, looking down, that he was wearing the exact same shoes as my dad. Hey, wait a minute....

A house by the river

Around 1953, now with two kids in the family, my parents rented a small house west of town on River Road, on the bank above the flood plain of the Tittabawassee River. I remember they borrowed a rickety, jerry-built trailer and hooked it up to the Ford to haul our few pieces of furniture, taking several cautious trips across the old iron bridge.

The house itself was not that much bigger than the apartment. Built of concrete blocks (aka "cinder blocks") on a concrete slab, it had a kitchen and bathroom/shower at one end, a liviing room in the middle, and one big bedroom at the other end, which was partitioned by curtains hung wall-to-wall. I had the back corner and my parents had the front half, and I think my baby sister had a crib in the middle. I don't remember much else about the layout, but I do have a distinct memory of crawling under my parents' bed and sticking a hairpin into an electrical outlet. I was probably saved by the insulating effects of the linoleum flooring. My other memories are of various illnesses — measles, mumps, chicken pox, and so on. One night, suffering from a bad earache, I had to be rushed in an emergency visit to old Dr Ostrander, who lived in an elegant, wood-paneled house in the middle of town, across from the Lutheran church.

We arrived on River Road in summer weather, when the house was at its best, nice and cool, with metal-framed jalousie windows that cranked open, and shade trees overhanging the roof. My parents liked the large yard, with its ancient twisted apple trees and a shed at one end that contained all manner of antique farm implements belonging to the family who owned the property. Below the house, on the flood plain, was a woodland of oak and maple, leading all the way down to the Tittabawassee, which, at that time, was a dead river, suffering from a giant Dow Chemical plant eight miles upstream at Midland. Its bare-mud bed supported little plant life and no fish except huge, lazy carp. Part of the problem was that Dow pumped the river through heat exchangers to cool its chemical processes, heating the water below the plant to eighty degrees F or more. But also, in early spring, the river would overflow with spring runoff, carrying chunks of styrofoam and probably chemical wastes from Dow's huge settling ponds on the river banks. The spring flood would rise to within 50 feet of our house, which fortunately was at an elevation about 10 or 15 feet higher than the flood plain. In later years, the Tittabawassee basin was found by the State of Michigan to be contaminated with dioxins. Other than that, it was a great place for kids to explore the woods and river banks.

Summer was lovely there. We had a nice yard and vegetable garden, and the apple trees were easy to climb. We had visits from other Estonian families, bonfires, and a tent for the kids to sleep in at night. In June there would be millions of firelies drawing their J-strokes in the dark. After 10 o'clock, once it got really dark at that latitude, there would be millions of stars in the sky and you could see the Milky Way and even, on occasion, the Northern Lights. Mornings, the grown-ups would take the kids to Bay City State Park to swim at the beach, or to go fishing out of a rented rowboat. This was back when Saginaw Bay, only about 15 feet deep on average, was still clean enough for swimming, even near the mouth of the Saginaw River.

On summer evenings the Saginaw Symphony played concerts in a band shell on Ojibway Island, in betwen the main channel of the Saginaw River and a lake formed in a parallel flood channel. On these concert outings we would be accompanied by Howard Vasold, who played French horn, and some elderly ladies of the Vasold clan, all of whom lived a mile or so down from us on River Road, plus some of the Saginaw Estonians. The audience sat in rows of metal folding chairs on the grass near the stage, or on blankets at the sides and back. I remember being backstage with my dad as the players did their warm-ups. As the orchestra took the stage, I went around to the side of the platform with a friend, an older Estonian boy, and started to climb up, trying to get under the risers where the trumpet section sat. My dad saw me and frantically waved me off, giving me his fiercest glare.

My dad hated the traffic jams getting off the island after the concerts and, especially, after the Fourth of July fireworks. There was a circle road around the island that would be parallel-parked full of cars, with some overflowed onto the grass, and all had to exit over a two-lane bridge, guided by traffic cops waving red flares. And on the way back to Freeland, Saginaw Road west of town was under construction, being widened for access to the new Green Acres shopping center. The road had been narrowed down to two bumpy lanes delimited by smudge pots — the spherical, black, oil-burning lamps that were used on road construction sites before the more modern yellow electric flashers came into use. In hindsight it was kind of like that Godard movie where people are trapped in an endless traffic jam on a freeway lined with burning cars. (My dad would have hated the traffic in California, where those kinds of backups are a daily routine.)

Sometimes my dad would have us wait until the crowd cleared out a little. This would give us kids a chance to visit the concession truck that parked on the island during events, dispensing hot dogs, popcorn, orange drink, and caramel apples under yellow bug lights. Bugs didn't seem to be much of a problem on the island. There was a scent of bug spray, probably DDT, on the lawns. Behind the counter there was always one familiar lady with metal-rimmed glasses and steely gray hair in a bun, spinning cotton candy onto a paper cone.

Summers were easy. But the Michigan winters on River Road were another story. The house was uninsulated and drafty, with concrete walls and single-pane windows that would frost up with fantastic flowery patterns on cold mornings. There was no central heat, only an oil-burning stove in the living room, where everyone would huddle in the mornings trying to get warm. One redeeming factor was the snowy slope at the back of the house, where the kids could sled down onto the river plain.

Home owners

We stayed on River Road for four years. In 1957, my parents bought a lot in a new subdivision on the east side of Freeland, across the tracks from the old part of town, and lined up various local contractors to build a house. There was a trip to downtown Saginaw to meet with Mr Burmeister, a banker who happened to live on River Road in Freeland and whose wife was the Den Mother of my Cub Scout Pack, which included my classmate John Burmeister. My parents took out a mortgage for $15,000, putting up $3,000 of their own savings. They bought a set of blueprints out of a home-improvement magazine that offered various ranch-house designs, made arrangements with contractors they knew through church or school, and started construction. We took almost daily trips over to the site to check on progress. I was excited to see a house being built, climbing down into the excavation and up into the framing. By the end of summer, the house was shelled in, roof and siding in place. The roof shingles were pinkish, and my dad chose to paint the sides turquoise, a very 1950s color that was soon changed to a more modest pale pink. Enough of the interior work — plumbing, furnace, electrical, drywall, floors, kitchen cabinets — was done in time for us to move in by the end of the year. My family had achieved the American dream, within just eight years of moving to the country with whatever we could carry in suitcases. Not bad.

The interior of the house wasn't completely finished, and my dad, with help from local craftsmen, would take several more years to complete the work. But we had our own three-bedroom ranch house with attached garage, full basement, Formica countertops, In-Sink-Erator, and, best of all, fully insulated walls and weatherproof windows.

Along with the new house, we got a new car. The 1949 Ford was showing serious wear and tear, not only with the cigarette burn in the back seat but, more recently, as the result of a mishap when my dad, with the car again full of unruly kids, tried to back out of the new garage before the passenger door had been fully closed. The door snagged the garage wall and sprung its hinges. It was repaired enough to be usable, but would never work smoothly again.

My parents made the rounds of the car dealers in Bay City and Saginaw, even checking out the new Edsels with their push-button automatic transmissions. They finally settled on a Wedgewood Blue two-door 1959 Ford Custom 300 with a six-cylinder engine and three-on-the-tree stick shift, from Bill Hackett Motors in Freeland. No options on the car, not even a radio. Seat belts were optional equipment at the time, and my parents elected not to install them. (They got after-market seatbelts a few years later.) The only safety concession was that the car didn't have back doors that the kids could open while the car was moving.

The new Ford arrived just in time for our once-ever family vacation to the north country, to a rented cottage on North Manistique Lake in the Upper Peninsula (aka "the U-P"). I had been reading Jack London books such as White Fang, Dog of the North, and had a romantic attraction to the idea of the north woods, so much so that I unsuccessfully lobbied my parents to consider moving the family to Alaska. But for now the U-P would have to do. So one August morning, we loaded our suitcases in the trunk and headed up US 10 and US 27 into the north woods, past Higgins Lake, past the sign near Gaylord marking the 45th parallel, halfway between the equator and the north pole! I remember my dad being very careful about breaking in the new car, keeping it under 60 and never driving too long at any one speed. Somewhere around Mullett Lake we were allowed to buy souvenir glazeware depicting varieties of fish — a sunfish and a smallmouth bass — as well as an ashtray that had two pearly clamshells symmetrically embedded in a plaster base, along with a Day-Glo–painted sprig of coral. The latter seemed to represent Florida more than Michigan. But no matter. We were on vacation. We had a late lunch — some kind of golden-fried breaded treats such as shrimp or onion rings served in a basket — at a fancy-ish restaurant in Cheboygan. We drove across the recently-finished Mackinac Bridge above blue sky and water stretching eastward to Lake Huron and westward into the afternoon glare off Lake Michigan.

More stops at tourist traps, at Castle Rock in St Ignace, and at the Mystery Spot off US 2, where, to my dad's great annoyance, someone installed a Mystery Spot bumper sticker on the back of our new car while we were inside trying to figure out why balls were rolling uphill.

We had a nice week at the lake, in a modest cottage that we had found advertised in a teachers' association newsletter. I got to go boating with my dad, and one afternoon we bushwhacked through the swampy woods along an unpopulated stretch of the lake. In hindsight, I don't think outdoorsy stuff was exactly my dad's thing. On various occasions Mr Scherzer, a man he knew from church, would take him hunting or fishing. He would go along out of politeness, but always seemed kind of queasy about it.

We spent nights at North Manistique Lake playing cards with the family next door, up from Flint. My mom was pregnant at the time, so she mostly took it easy. But my dad was into hanging out and having a few beers with the neighbors. One drizzly morning we took a day trip to Tahquamenon Falls and the Soo Canal, where I got to take pictures with the family camera. The vacation wound up with a drive down around Lake Michigan to visit an Estonian family in Milwaukee, then back through Chicago and up into Michigan.

My younger sister Tina was born at the very beginning of the 1960s.

Within a decade of moving to the US, we had become a thoroughly American family with three kids. My parents worked hard and deserved the modest success they had, but it's clear they didn't make it entirely on their own. We were lucky to be part of a welcoming and supportive community, school, and church that provided help with work, housing, and childcare, and made it very easy for us to fit in.

Freeland was actually a pretty hip place

There was Lawrence Welk and country music and Elvis and the Beatles, to be sure, but many people were also jazz heads. At the home of my late friend Dave Turnbull, we checked out his older sister's record collection, which included Miles Davis's "Milestones", with Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane, and "Kirk's Work" by Roland Kirk. My friend Don Leman had Brubeck's "Time Out" and Miles's "Sketches of Spain", and even a copy of Jackie McLean's "Let Freedom Ring" that I talked him into buying at the jazz record store in Saginaw. This was a shop on Washington Ave (I forget the name) that had all the jazz records, and listening booths in the back where you could try before you buy. Jackie McLean's band had a whole other sound — intonation and rhythmic feel — that was worlds apart from Brubeck. That record was also my first exposure to the great drummer Billy Higgins.

My friend Gary Bennett had a Ray Charles greatest-hits LP that showed us where British blues bands such as the Animals got their material. Jim Story, an alto player in the school band, turned us on to his parents' collection of Savoy 78s featuring Bird and Diz. Many years later, at my mom's funeral, one of the Freeland teachers, Mrs Delano, told me how she and her husband had heard Charlie Parker in person, back in the 1940s or 1950s. My friend Dave Campbell, also an alto sax player, had a copy of Basie's "Chairman of the Board", with arrangements by Thad Jones, Frank Foster, and Ernie Wilkins — the true big-band sound.

Another early lesson in American music: my dad arranged for a school bus to take a group of band kids to Central Michigan University to see a film biography of George Gershwin.

Once my dad started teaching high school, he put together a "stage band" (in the terminology of that era) that played various big-band jazz charts including Dizzy Gillespie's "Salt Peanuts" and "Groovin' High"; Gil Evans's arrangements of "Maids of Cadiz" and "La Nevada Blues"; and various charts written for the Stan Kenton band. We got a taste of "cool" chords such as major sevenths and major ninths. My dad got the school to approve the purchase of a drum kit and a bass violin. Inspired in part by Herbie Lewis's bass playing on "Let Freedom Ring", and by beat coffehouse aesthetics, I took up the string bass and played it in stage band and at "hootenannies" in the school auditorium. I also remember learning a couple of Thelonious Monk tunes on piano ("Brilliant Corners", "Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues Are") and playing them at a school assembly with Don Leman on drums. Another time we played Paul Desmond's "Take Five", with Gary Bennett doing the Brubeck vamp on piano and me playing the melody on trumpet. None of this stuff was recorded — perhaps fortunately — but it was our first step into the jazz world. My dad was somehow in the middle of it, encouraging us.

One of my dad's early students, the drummer Pete Woodman, became a local star with The Bossmen, which was Saginaw's answer to the Beatles. I used to see them rehearse at Pete's parents' house off Midland Road, in the woods on the east bank of the Tittabawassee. The Bossmen got their 45 single into the playlist on WKNX, a big step toward actual stardom, and drove the kids nuts with their wild shows at Daniel's Den, which was a former Saginaw movie theater converted into a teen dance club, and at Francis Grove on Sanford Lake. They did R&B standards such as "What'd I Say", "Shout", the "Hand Jive", and some of the Bo Diddley guitar riffs. They had dramatic show-biz moves. Dick Wagner would end his guitar solos playing behind his head, and pianist Warren Keith would do "Great Balls of Fire" with authentic Jerry Lee Lewis moves such as dropping his Beatle-booted right foot on the upper octaves. As a climax to the number I swear he would douse the piano keys with lighter fluid and drop a match, pounding the keyboard through the flames. Given that Daniel's Den remained open for business, I'm pretty sure that trick escaped the attention of the fire marshal. Pete's drums were clad in green fake fur, as was Lanny Roenicke's bass, if I remember correctly. Dick Wagner went on to form the Frost, and later played guitar for Alice Cooper. Warren Keith went on to perform with Hank Williams, Jr. Pete Woodman still performs around Detroit.

At the Woodmans' we drank dollar-a-six-pack beer (Falstaff or Goebel's) and I got turned on to a lot of new music, most memorably Bob Dylan's "Bringing It All Back Home" and "Highway 61 Revisited", and James Brown's "I Feel Good" and "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag". A new bag is exactly what it was. A few years later, Miles Davis would pick up on James Brown's open-ended concept.

At my house, strangely enough, we never had a proper phonograph, I guess for financial reasons. But jazz would turn up on TV — I remember Dizzy Gillespie as a musical guest on the Tonight show, and there were Henry Mancini's jazz-flavored soundtracks for "Peter Gunn" and "Mr Lucky".

And there was always radio. My friend Ron Hinkley played guitar, had records by Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, and turned me on to station WLAC out of Nashville, Tennessee, which I would tune in late at night to check out soul, gospel, and R&B performers. And then the Rolling Stones started up. I distinctly remember the first time I heard "It's All Over Now" (a Bobby Womack tune) on the car radio — I was in someone's car on Ashman Circle in Midland. The Stones were rawer than anything else on top-40 radio, funkier even than the Beatles with their R&B covers. Rock music was about to be transformed by an infusion of Chicago blues, by way of London.

Stevie Wonder was born in Saginaw, and Sonny Stitt grew up there. Madonna grew up in Bay City. In a much earlier era, Isham Jones, the Tin-Pan Alley composer of "It Had To Be You" and "There Is No Greater Love", grew up in Saginaw. So it wasn't just a farm district. When I was in high school I heard about jazz jam sessions at bars in Saginaw, before I was old enough to go. But there were also teen venues such as the Battle of the Bands at the outdoor Roll-Air-Rink near Bay City State Park, where in the summer of 1964 I heard the avant-punk band ? and the Mysterians playing their big hit, "96 Tears".

Music was happening all around, if you looked for it. In the late 1960s, before he became hugely famous, the singer Meat Loaf stayed briefly in Freeland, at a house about a block from my parents'. while working with Popcorn Blizzard (which also included Pete Woodman and his wife Susie).

High-school teacher

Once Freeland High started up in the early 1960s, my dad branched out from music to German. Awkwardly, I was in his classes just at the age when kids don't want to be associated with their parents. But he was cool. I appreciated the way he handled the kids, especially the 40 or 50 in band. He would get visibly annoyed at people (including me) who were acting up, but generally kept us focused on interpreting and rehearsing the music.

In the high-school years, he led the marching band at Friday night football games and local parades. So he was kind of a public figure. He seemed to get into it. In Freeland, of course, many people were public figures: the teachers and coaches, the high school sports stars, the ministers, the doctors and dentists, the owners of stores and gas stations, the milkman.

In the mid-1960s, probably between my junior and senior years, my dad got a chance to return to Europe for a summer program for teachers of German. He was away for maybe a month or six weeks, and returned with gifts for the kids. He brought me a slide rule and a German-made set of drafting instruments — compasses, ruling pens, and such. I think I was getting encouragement to study something practical, such as engineering, in addition to music.

My dad had made a comfortable home for himself and his family, and established himself in the community as a teacher and choir director. He was the family breadwinner — my mom never had to take an outside job during those years. He sent his kids to college. He influenced many students, built a house, set many things in motion that are still in motion today. He was still a teacher at Freeland High when he passed away at the relatively young age of 61, on a dreary Thanksgiving weekend in 1971.

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