This old photo of me captures a moment with our family cat. I was in college, studying literature, and I was home for Christmas. People from my small upper Michigan hometown are forthright folks. When I’d first left for college, crossing the border to Wisconsin for freshman year, they freely shared their opinions about studying English lit. Most thought it fine, but one person memorably furrowed his brow and asked, “Why would you study that?” Then he counseled me to take a class in shorthand so I could support myself. I didn’t do that. I wanted to be a writer. So I went off to study what other writers had done. My favorite thing about a university is that you meet people from everywhere. I loved taking my more urban college friends to my hometown, driving up from Madison in the wee hours. I’ve been thinking a lot about one of those trips. The memory is a mess of emotion, tied up in love and loss, and lately, in realizations about the thin line between generations. I should warn you—there are flying saucers involved.
Still with me?
When I say I’m thinking about that trip, what I’m really saying is that the poem below, which I wrote afterward, keeps coming into my head. It’s a poem out of my own life. My first husband and I were newlyweds. He was also from a small town, about an hour from where I grew up. Our companions for the trip I’ve been remembering were an older married couple in their late twenties. They’d both grown up as “city folk,” one in the Midwest, the other from the East Coast.
I’ll beg your understanding with my keeping them anonymous. I do it for their privacy, but also so that, as you read, you will have room to imagine people from your own past. What matters in this story is that the meeting of minds between us when we first met was profound. They were married; we were not. They were vegetarians; we were not. They had been around Madison long enough to have absorbed a good deal of hippie culture; we’d transferred in as juniors from a smaller campus and were pretty much right off the farm. Lastly, they’d graduated and were working real jobs; we were still students. Those were the days of not trusting anyone over thirty, an idea we would joke about. For my part, it was only a joke. The line between generations in my family was very thin indeed. My relationship with my elders was strong—my home, a sanctuary I could always go to.
The four of us oddly matched friends were products of our time. The Vietnam War had been a constant on our TV screens, growing up. The era’s national draft loomed over us. We’d watched the senior classes ahead of us at our high schools send conscripted graduates to the war, some coming home in body bags. There was no one on the UW-Madison campus who didn’t know that Sterling Hall had been blown up in 1970 in protest of the Army Math Research Center and the university’s connection with the military during the war. A researcher died in the explosion.
If you’d like to circle back later for a deeper sense of that time on campus and the far-ranging effects of the bombing, I recommend a lengthy and moving 50-year retrospective on the bombing (here’s the link), published in On Wisconsin, the UW alumni magazine. I was in high school at the time of the Sterling Hall explosion, but I felt its reverberations. Between my sheltered childhood and teenage insecurity, the news coverage of the Madison bombing distressed me, as did constant coverage of student protests. I remember thinking, “I would never go to school there.”
Ironically, and predictably I suppose, some years later I did exactly that. And so it was that Madison was the backdrop for the marathon discussions that the four of us friends had. The call to activism, to live an engaged life, was quieter but still strong on campus. We debated issues and explored ideas—among them, the ethics of war, overpopulation, feminism and civil rights, the political divide between the generations, how to live ethically and sustainably, spirituality, even the possibilities of extra-terrestrial life. We’d laugh and talk and strive intellectually, one against the other, late into the night or over breakfast at some “hole in the wall.”
One thing united us completely. Coffee. Cup after cup of it washed down the ideas we were debating. Each of us was an idealist, in our own way. There was nothing “cookie cutter” about us as friends—still, no other friend from those years left a deeper mark. After my boyfriend and I married, I was eager to drive these new friends north to the family farm, but more broadly, to the place I’m from. That conservative little town and the people in it were the bedrock that supported my growing and changing. I wanted the new people I loved to meet the place that I love, and they were as eager to meet it, having heard tantalizing stories.
Here is the poem.
* * *
Looking for Flying Saucers in the Middle of the Night
in Northern Michigan
We are the only car on county highway O.
The road stretches ahead, unpopulated,
flanked by midnight snow banks.
We are pleased that there is no moon.
It is as black as we have always claimed
to our friends from the city.
We have been telling stories of UFOs
that hover outside house windows
and follow the headlights of snowmobiles
or some lone car on the highway.
A few miles north of Chaney Lake we
stop and venture out.
Our moving feet crunch loudly.
The cold ignores our jackets. It
awakens our bones, makes our lips tremble.
Listening to our breath fog, we search
the night sky. We hope for something
that must scare the hell out of us.
* * *
What were those tantalizing stories I had told our friends?
When I was a kid, during the 1960s and into the ’70s, sightings of strange craft in the sky were routine. Our family farm seemed a hot spot. My maternal grandparents had built it and been lifelong sky watchers there. Grandpa suddenly began reporting that a saucer-shaped craft would come near the house at night, hovering above the apple orchard. From the window on the stairwell landing, he could see the craft’s colored lights.
No one in the family knew what to make of it. It was tempting to think my grandparents were suffering the effects of old age. But then, one evening, my mom and dad went to the farm alone, leaving us kids at home. Some of us had a cold, and Mom didn’t want to take it to my grandparents. Now, I’m unendingly curious about UFOs, and I have always lamented that night as a missed opportunity. Well after dark, my folks got into the car to come home. Driving down the gravel road to the highway, they noticed a lighted craft hanging above a clear-cut area that runs beneath a row of large power lines. They were astounded, stopped the car, and got out. My father lived his life a skeptic. He’d been sure his father-in-law was imagining things—and now, here he was, seeing it for himself.
A bright light suddenly lit up the craft’s backside, and then they could see its saucer-like curve. A smaller light appeared across the horizon, and the little light made a beeline for the craft. When it reached it, it flew around back, and everything went black. There was no craft—no shadow—only the night sky.
About that same time, my family stopped by to visit other close relatives. One of their girls and I spent the afternoon, into the evening, bombing around on a snowmobile. After it had turned dark, my parents flagged us down, and I was summoned to the car. We got home to our phone ringing. It was my snowmobiling partner, so excited she could hardly speak. She’d gone for one more ride—and suddenly an unusual flying craft appeared above the tree line and followed her for much of her very fast ride home. Again I was chagrined. So close . . . mere minutes.
The fields where we’d been snowmobiling were a stone’s throw from Lake Superior. Sightings of flying craft were occurring nightly at that time over the big lake, the lights appearing in grouped, ever-changing formations. I saw those myself—but too far away to discern much. There was an Air Force base not far from us, prompting speculation that the Lake Superior lights were part of night training exercises.
As for the other strange, unconventional craft that people were seeing, including the one my parents had seen that night when leaving the farm, my practical father didn’t believe they were alien in origin. He thought them evidence of our government at work on secret technology. I keep myself open to other possibilities, but I mostly expect his rational explanation was right. If a governmental agency needs to test-drive a secret, where better than where few people live? And where better than in the neighborhood of folks who much of the country would dismiss as being ignorant and superstitious when those folks started talking about it?
Do I think we were ignorant and superstitious? No. But I’ve been around enough to know that a lot of others would.
Those were the stories I had told our friends before we drove north, and we would have liked nothing better than to see a flying saucer that night by Chaney Lake. But we saw nothing but the cold winter sky. My parents lived on the farm for nearly forty years after my grandparents passed, and they continued to see strange flying craft—not often, but occasionally, sometimes as close as a drone-sized craft that, in later years, would fly alongside them as they drove at night down the lonely, two-lane highway to the farm. To my continued chagrin, I never happened to be there to witness any of it.
After my husband and I graduated and had left Madison, we lost close touch with those friends. That is a sad thing about university life—friendships are deep but transitory. We learned later that they had divorced, as my husband and I eventually did, as well.
Eight years ago, the husband of that couple found me again through Facebook. He was living far across the country, remarried to a woman I’ve not met. When I published my novel and began to blog, he would read my essays and share his thoughts. But then, a few months back, he went silent—no more messages or e-mails, no comment on my latest blog post. I was thinking I should write him, when a post appeared in my Facebook newsfeed, written by his new wife. He had passed away—apparently after a protracted illness that he had never let on about.
It’s the loss of my friend that is prompting my flying saucer poem to keep coming into my head. I loved the man—a connection between souls. He was so big a part of my formative years, intellectual and kind. Around the time he began responding to my blogs, he sent an e-mail, spontaneously telling me what the trip to my family’s farm had meant to him. I think he wouldn’t mind my sharing it, so I’ll let you hear him tell the story in his own words, minus a mention of his former wife’s name:
* * *
“I was pretty excited about being there. The whole atmosphere: the home, the incredible quiet and dark at night, being in the north woods in winter. I slept well after the long trip, but woke up early and excited. It was around 4:45 a.m., quite dark and still. I couldn’t sleep, so I got up, couldn’t see a thing in the room [. . .] and, in my pajamas, managed to find my way to the door, down the hallway, then downstairs. Nobody was up yet, so I just sat down in the living room and took in the peace and quiet. My thoughts and heart were just racing. I had not been down there long, when your mother came down in a nightgown and slippers. She seemed glad to see me – not at all alarmed. We were both just as comfortable as could be.
“She asked if I would like some coffee – of course I did. And we sat in that quiet and peace drinking coffee, and conversing quietly for maybe an hour before the house began to wake up. You know, I don’t remember much about what we talked about. What I remember all these years later is the genuine warmth I felt from her, and how at ease I was with her. It was all the more meaningful to me because I had not had such a close conversation with an ‘adult’ since the days when discussions of civil rights and the Viet Nam war shattered the peace in my own home. I can still picture that room on that early morning and the warmth I felt as we talked.”
* * *
Did you notice—he mentioned coffee? My heart swells, thinking of his expressive eyebrows above the rim of a coffee mug, his quirky smile and self-deprecating intelligence. I wish I could sit down again with him over a freshly brewed cup. But writing this reflection is the only way I have now to conjure him across a coffee table.
You might be thinking, why does any of this matter to someone who didn’t know my friend? Well, first off, most everyone loves a mystery, like those lights in the sky, and we have to share the available space on this small planet. Consider the emotional climate we’re living in now. In some ways, little has changed since my circle of Madison friends came of age. We’re still talking about war and civil rights, among a raft of other issues.
It grieves me that, rather than working through disagreements, people are choosing to drive wedges—between themselves and “strangers,” even between themselves and their loved ones, just as my departed friend’s young adulthood had been marred by division and argument in his family. Family disagreements are one thing, complicated and personal—national disagreements are something else. Our national well-being is at stake. I don’t suppose I need to tell you that I think it well past time for us to stop political grandstanding and work through our differences. And I will never see senseless violence as the answer to problems—whether it’s the blowing up of Sterling Hall, or the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
All I have to do is think about human nature, the human condition, and it tells me that the line between any of us, from all generations, is a thin one—nothing much separates us in terms of our human need. There’s a part of me that thinks I need to make up for never taking that shorthand class, so I keep putting pen to paper in hopes that the stories I tell will move someone, somewhere, to open their heart and mind to someone else, whoever that someone might be.
Still, this reflection grew out of my puzzling over the things that separate human generations. When my friend’s e-mail arrived, sharing his thoughts about our trip to the farm, I was moved to the point of tears. He was a scientist of the natural world, fascinated with every rock and star. He was also an able writer who could evoke a scene, a feeling. I learned from his lyrical words tripping across my computer screen that, though we had not found a flying saucer on our trip, he’d found something better. He’d found his way across the thin line between generations. It comforts me to know that he found it in my parents’ peaceful living room, in my mother’s quiet way.