Dearest Rachel –
It’s hard to remember sometimes, but there was a time when the idea of ‘us’ wasn’t a foregone conclusion. On the other hand, as of this day, thirty years ago, it was, for all intents and purposes. It was but a question of when.
After all, you had spent time with us and our family earlier in the year, endearing yourself to the extended family. Granted, it wasn’t entirely by choice, but when such an abrupt halt was called to your J-term class trip, what was there to do?
And while we never made the formal deal out of it that our fellow students in the Greek system did, what with the whole pinned-lavaliered-engaged progression, by this point, it was all but inevitable.
Yet, when the moment came, I think I may have caught you somewhat off guard.
It was long-held tradition that classes didn’t start at Wesleyan until after Labor Day. This worked out fine, as Fort Wilderness held a singles retreat over that weekend. This was a Christian camp situated way up in the northern reaches of Wisconsin that for the longest time my dad was on their executive board. He and his parents were close family friends with their director, a garrulous old fellow (well, he was old when I knew him) named Truman Robertson, who had a penchant for tall tales, that, thanks to his name, he could still refer to as “Tru stories.” One of the ones I remember most clearly was the story of a kid who came up on the bus from inner city Chicago, took a deep breath upon disembarking, and fainted. The way Uncle Tru told it, the poor kid wasn’t used to the clean air of the camp, and “it took twelve buckets of smoke to revive him.”
Uncle Tru also touted the location of the camp, just a few miles northwest of Rhinelander, as being “about two hundred miles north of the Tension Line,” exemplified by life in the big cities of Milwaukee, Madison and, of course, Chicago. Sure, it was an eight-hour drive from my home in the northwest suburbs (to say nothing of the additional distance from Macomb), but he was confident that it was worth it, both from the quality of the camp and the quality are the Christ centered instruction to be had there.
Hey, I was raised on it, so it couldn’t have been too bad. Although I suppose I could be considered biased, so I’ll refrain from comment one way or the other. The fact of the matter is, we haven’t been back there since Daniel was very little – like, a year or two old. Don’t know what that says about things. Maybe I gave it up for the sake of the island? I don’t know.
Anyway, I think you were already up here visiting me, but I know that we had arranged to go up to this singles retreat together, and to do so a day early. They were needing volunteers to work at the camp to get it prepared for the weekend, and you were willing to join me to do so. So I’m thinking we must’ve headed up on Thursday, in order to free up Friday for volunteer work.
I wish I remember could remember what kind of conversations we had as I drove up there. Eight hours is a long time to simply be sitting in a car, doing and saying nothing; we must’ve made some kind of conversation. But those are the mundane little things of life that get lost almost immediately after they happen, like words written on the shoreline, and washed away by the waves.
I’m not even sure I remember where we stayed Thursday night when we made it into camp. I recall one of these weekends where you stayed in the Homestead cabin (where the girls would be staying) while I just slept in my car the night before the retreat officially started. But that might’ve been in 1992, because I think you traveled with either Ellen or Elizabeth that year. I’m going to guess that in 1991 we stayed at the Eagles’ Nest, the name Tru and Jan gave to their home located just outside of camp, that night.
I’m sure we did more around the camp to prepare the place for the upcoming weekend; we’d ask a staffer what they needed done, and we would go do it. But I know that the main task was putting a roof on one of the staffer’s family’s houses. Not exactly the sort of thing for somebody like me who is afraid of heights, but if that’s what needs doing, then I’d best go do it. By contrast, you had no fear, and you were well enthusiastic. It was quite the raucous group of staff and the few volunteers that were piled into the back of the pick up truck to head to the house, sitting on top of the supplies – shingles, tar paper and tools.
Since I had been going to Fort nearly every year since childhood, most of the staffers knew me. From this distance of time, however, I have no idea who was with us and who wasn’t. I recall asking Tom Robertson (Truman’s oldest son) about a restaurant to take you to after we were done, and he and one of the others made a recommendation, and drew me a fairly rudimentary map.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. It was fairly straightforward work, actually: just stapling shingles to the wooden roof. I don’t remember if I was five, ten or a dozen of us, but it was enough to make the task surprisingly quick work.
At some point, apparently you were doing the same kind of work on the barn – or maybe it was just a storage shed. And while I wasn’t there to see it (all of which makes for an ironic bookend to our life together), something gave way underneath you, and you fell through the roof. Fortunately, there was plenty of hay in the barn, stacked almost to the rafters, so you landed on that pile unhurt. There were others over there to extract you safely; I wish I could recall your reaction, because I think it was more one of exhilaration than being shaken up at your near-miss, but maybe that’s giving you a little too much credit for sheer fearlessness.
At any rate, many hands make light work, as the saying goes, and the job was done in fairly short order; couldn’t tell you the exact time, but I think it was well before five. Plenty of time to pop you into my old Benz (and that – coupled with the loss of my previous car – is a whole other story for whole other time) and drive to Eagle River for a nice dinner out at this place called the White Stag. I think it’s still in business, or at least it was shortly before the pandemic, but that’s neither here nor there at this point.
The map Tom and the others had given me wasn’t all that much to work with, as I recall. To be fair, the roads up there really didn’t have street signs; what they did have was a series of arrows at any given intersection pointing this way and that to whatever destination you might want to go to in the area. Picture the sign outside of the 4077th M*A*S*H, only considerably more arrows on it. But it wasn’t like we had reservations, so we didn’t have to fear being late.
There is so much about this story that I find myself saying I can’t recall very well. I don’t remember when we got there, or what we had (apart from my first encounter with a wedge salad, wherein an entire quarter of a head of lettuce was just served up on a plate – which at the time struck me as more lazy that elegant. Hey, what did I know?). I think I may have actually splashed out on dessert, which was something I rarely ever bothered with in restaurants growing up – but this was a special event, after all.
All I remember for certain is getting out of my chair at the end of the meal, and getting down on one knee to ask you if you would be willing to be mine forever, and that you said “yes.” I don’t remember how else you reacted (it would be totally in character for you to hug me for asking, but I don’t think that’s a thing that happened), or if the other patrons realized what was happening (I’m pretty sure there wasn’t much reaction from those who were there).
But I suppose none of that really matters what matters is that you said “yes.”
I don’t know if it was dark by the time we got back to camp, or if it was just that much later on in the evening – the only other thing I remember about that night was standing around together, looking up at the sky. I know that you could see a lot more of the stars down in Macomb than I could in the northwest suburbs, but this night at camp was so much more than anything we were used to. There were great swaths of faint light in the sky; you seemed to think it was the aurora borealis, and I probably didn’t make any effort to dissuade you from that thought. I’ve researched it since, and I’m pretty sure that would have been the wrong time of year to see that – we were probably simply seeing the river of stars that the ancients saw in their own night skies, and in naming it gave our home galaxy its name of the Milky Way.
Regardless of what it was that we actually saw, we both saw it as the Lord looking down upon us and offering His blessings.
The rest of the weekend was pretty much of a blur. I don’t even really thing else we did, or any of the lessons that we were taught. All I remember… was the day you said “yes.”