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Arts & Life

Former foreign correspondent shares stories of Michigan and the world in new memoir

Author photo and photo of a white farm house
Courtesy of Mission Point Press
Charles Eisendrath wrote an essay every year for about 30 years at his summer home in East Jordan, near Charlevoix. Those essays formed the basis of his new memoir.

After working as a correspondent for Time magazine in Europe and South America in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Charles Eisendrath came to Ann Arbor.

For 30 years, he directed the University of Michigan's Knight-Wallace Fellowships, a program for journalists. 

But his love of Michigan began further north.

Eisendrath's new memoir, Downstream from Here, is a collection of essays about wars and fishing, current politics and ancient Greek philosophy, all written at Overlook Farm, his summer home in East Jordan near Charlevoix. His parents bought the property in the 1940s.

In this excerpt, Eisendrath recalls a fishing trip when he was 9 years old. He and his dad set out from his grandparents’ nearby home on Lake Michigan.

My father somehow produced a twelve-foot, green plywood rowboat with a five-horsepower outboard.

Not that Dad was a boater.

He neither knew nor cared to know anything about the outdoor life that so powerfully called me from every magazine and boy’s adventure book.

The idea was for my father and me to set out alone from the shore in front of my grandparents’ beach “cottage” and fish all the way to Overlook Farm, fifteen miles and two lakes away.

Huge, albeit unconscious symbolism at work here: to be departing from in-laws my father detested, with a son to whom he had only recently taken interest and an activity the son knew more about than he did.

When the steelhead hit ... I thought at first that something terrible had happened to the rod, the reel, boat, maybe the world.

As we planned the day at breakfast, the Big Lake was calm. It almost always is at that hour, usually signifying nothing about what might follow.

By the time we flipped the boat over on the sand, there was considerable surf. As Dad pushed off, each wave broke, first over me, then the stern, then heaving my father back on the stones.

I flailed away at the oars. The propeller sounded like a hammer on steel as it bashed into rocks. Somehow, we got beyond the first line of breakers.

Somehow, we got the engine started, with him holding the boat steady in chest-deep water.

Problem: He was out of the boat, which did not have gears. He hung from the bow, one leg over a gunwale. My instructions were unspecific, “Keep going.”

We made it to the Charlevoix channel light where waves from the rear pushed us any way they wanted, sometimes helplessly toward the cement breakwater.

Then we were through Round Lake, the town’s natural harbor, and out into the main body of Lake Charlevoix. My father, visibly relieved, said, “Aren’t we supposed to be fishing?”

When the steelhead hit?—?I still remember it?—?I thought at first that something terrible had happened to the rod, the reel, boat, maybe the world.

As steelhead do, this one jumped repeatedly, took line, dove. I don’t remember anything about my father’s reaction except that he seemed to have no concept that anything unusual was happening. To him, the consummate non-angler, when you went fishing, you caught a fish. When you’d caught it, you pulled up your line and did something else.

That’s what we did.

Me? Thrilled.

Him? I don’t know about him.

That was the summer he’d come into the living room where I was dreaming over a copy of The Fisherman’s Encyclopedia.

I was nine.

“Charles,” he said, “let’s become acquainted.”

He must have thought a boat might float a new relationship.

Excerpt from "Downstream from Here: A Big Life in a Small Place" by Charles Eisendrath. Copyright 2019. Republished by permission of the author.

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