A mixture of color and light
Nostalgia is a tricky thing. It lures you into its comforting thrall with a scent, a song, a vision. You smell Coppertone and you’re a blissful 11 years old at Lake Michigan. You hear Dionne Warwick and you’re bouncing along in a 1972 station wagon with no seat belt. You see a hand-painted sign that reads “Cold Pop” and you are home.
But nostalgia also can break your heart – in the best possible way. The fonder the memory, the sweeter the tears and Peter Damm, BA ’71, plays with that tension in his wistful and sensitive book of essays, Wild Blueberries: Tales of Nuns, Rabbits & Discovery in Northern Michigan (O’Brien & Whitaker, 2019). The youngest of six Catholic children growing up in Flushing and Grand Blanc, Mich., Damm spent his boyhood summers at the family cottage on the south side of Platte Lake. The setting is as much a character in the book as the people who animate Damm’s stories. The wild blueberries are a recurring theme.
Now based in the small town of Albany, near Berkeley, Calif., Damm writes about autumn in Northern Michigan with lyrical wonder. When late September and October come to California, he writes, “I experience an almost physiological need to be amidst trees that are changing colors, to walk in the autumn forest. This is a feeling beyond my ability to describe.
“It is memory, connection, reverence, and sensation. There exists in those trees for that short span of time a mixture of color and light, of dryness and moisture, chill, warmth, and foreboding that moves me to silent awe. It portends death while being unshakably bound to a basic force of life and renewal.”
Read it and weep. I did.
Wish you were here
As summer 2020 heats up and COVID-19 rages on, Damm’s book transports the reader to another time, another place, for much-needed respite from the present.
The writer was born in 1949. But at age 71, his vivid boyhood is at the ready. He goes back to a world with only two camps: people who love snakes and people who are terrified of them. In this world, boys marvel at the shiny chrome bumper on the front side of a sled – ideal for slamming into oak trees without damaging the vehicle. They take pride in getting as dirty as possible, start working for pay at about 12 or 13, and travel to each other’s houses through backyards and over fences.
There are potato chips that arrive on one’s porch in gold metal tins, mysterious places to play like the “Bomb Hole,” and a mother who barely survived “an assembly line of traumas visited upon her by her darling and decorous children.” Damm’s attorney father is that classic mix of warm and remote (raising five “Damn Boys” and a girl) who showed up at the cottage every weekend.
“Dad was a major Tigers fan and we would listen to Ernie Harwell on the radio,” says Damm, who also writes of his own obsession with baseball and a mitt that rarely left his hand. “My identity was as a centerfielder. Al Kaline was my guy, even though he was a rightfielder.”
What are words for
While they bonded over baseball, the father and son clashed over the youngest Damm’s choice to major in literature at Michigan with a minor in speech. The plan had been to study law or medicine, like his siblings.
But after graduating with honors from U-M in 1971, Damm studied writing in the Master’s Creative Writing Program at San Francisco State University with Guggenheim Fellow and National Jewish Book Award winner Leo Litwak. (The book is dedicated to Litwak.) Damm also holds a doctorate in clinical psychology from the Wright Institute in Berkeley and has worked as a psychotherapist and grief counselor.
A longtime freelance writer and editor, he began writing Wild Blueberries some 30 years ago, shortly after his father died. It was nearly published three times, the author says, yet it crashed “in utterly unforeseen ways that had little to do with the book and more to do with circumstances.”
Wild Blueberries was a finalist for the Great Lakes Great Reads Award. Damm also is a published poet. At the Water’s Edge (O’Brien & Whitaker, 1999) chronicles a five-month trek through Bali, Indonesia, and New Zealand.
A narrow escape
The author marvels at the turn his life could have taken if he’d been drafted into Vietnam. He attended antiwar protests on Michigan’s Diag but when it came time to light his draft card, he knew he couldn’t burn it.
“I would fight the war, not because I supported it, or supported the government,” he writes. “But because if I didn’t I would shame my father. I would go off to war instead.”
He recounts the harrowing night he was washing dishes in his meal job at a frat house while the draft lottery played on the TV upstairs. He missed the first 40 minutes of the broadcast.
“As I sat there, date after date came up but never mine. And I became more and more certain that my birthday had been drawn in that first batch I’d missed. I was convinced I was going off to war. Then, suddenly, almost at the end, there it was: number 345 out of 366. I was safe.
“I was just crawling the wall the whole time,” he continues. “It was an evening like few I’ve ever had in my life, sitting with all those young men, knowing our lives would be profoundly affected either way. Afterward, everyone went to the Pretzel Bell and got blasted drunk, either because they were going to the war, they were in limbo, or they were safe.”
Instead of shipping out to Vietnam, Damm graduated and left the U.S. for a nine-month journey through Germany, the U.K., Holland, France, Switzerland, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, parts of the Middle East, and India. He traveled with his Michigan roommate Pete “Nasty” Newell, a former All Big Ten defensive tackle and philosophy major. They are still friends today.
During this trip, Damm’s affection for Northern Michigan blossomed into the full-blown, true love he expresses so exquisitely in Wild Blueberries.
“I remember telling my Dad once that I always loved being Up North at the lake, especially in the autumn, but I had no idea what a special place this was,” he says. “I’d be in some gorgeous place in Scotland, or the Swiss Alps, or the Greek islands and as soon as I returned to the lake, I’d think, ‘This is as beautiful as any place I’ve been.’”
And the wild blueberries are terrific.