That happy little boy

Happy fiftieth anniversary?

1968 is as memorable a year for me as it is for the USA. It was then that my gender identity issues began.

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Looking through pictures on my computer last week, I saw the class photo, below, from when I was in fourth grade. Since school pictures were taken in the autumn, that means I was nine years old at the time.

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Each of the friends, whom I name, below, is in this picture. Are you able to find me? Give it a try, before you scroll down the page to where I post a close-up.

We lived in Hart, Michigan, having moved there in 1964 from Montague. We would live in Hart just shy of four years, returning to Montague in 1968. This class picture was taken at almost exactly the halfway point of our forty-six months in Hart.

I had just begun second grade when we moved to Hart. I have only a couple of vague memories of Montague before that. My memories of Hart are many and magnificent, resounding in resplendence. I consider them my first memories of life.

So wonderful was 1964-68 that by the time I got into high school I fondly remembered our Hart years as one long vacation. As with the best vacations, there was nothing about those years that I didn’t love. (Well, I was scared witless of the basement of our house. It was a Michigan cellar—dark and musty and cobwebby, with a low ceiling, and because it could only be entered from the backyard I was convinced that escaped criminals were regularly using it as a hideout.)

As with a grand vacation, my memories of the setting, the people I got to know, and the events which filled those Hart years all were the stuff which stuff cherished photo albums.

Our house in Hart. From the front, it wasn’t much, but . . .
. . . from the rear, one sees that we were on Hart Lake, and we loved that! (Thanks, Rhonda, for the pics!)

Our neighborhood was loaded with kids. We were always playing baseball or football, going fishing in Hart Lake, amusing ourselves with kick the can or hide and seek, going to a movie or riding bikes, sliding down our neighbor’s driveway or skating at the community rink.

I had wonderful pals: Doug and Rhonda, Glenn and Bob, and many more. The typing of these names floods my mind with pictures of some of the places I enjoyed their friendship.

These were the days when school was still a breeze for me. Ours was a home where our parents gave us plenty of love and affection, provided us with rules and discipline so that we knew the score, with a healthy balance of everything. I knew my place in our family, among my friends, in school, and in town.

Safe. Content. Joy-filled. Happy. Loved. The list could go on with all of their synonyms and not a one of their antonyms.

No, I didn’t have a lip thing going on. It’s something on the photograph. And dig the bow tie. Man, was I a cool cat.

If any of my guy pals had told me that he secretly thought he was a girl, I would not have known what to do with that information, just as I did not yet have any clue about same-sex attraction. While I was still young enough to find gross anyone kissing in a romantic manner, I certainly knew that I liked girls in a way different from how I felt about boys.

And I knew that I was a boy. Of course, I was a boy. Girls don’t stand on the hill behind their house and have contests as to who can arc his pee just so, with the most force, to go the farthest down the hill.

Just before we departed for Montague, there was one thing that happened during those Hart years which did trouble me. Indeed, my memory is so vivid that I recall where I was when I found myself pondering the event, trying to grasp how it could have happened, remaining terribly troubled by it.

It occurred fifty years ago this June. Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed. I couldn’t get over it. For days. Then weeks. And months. (Perhaps because it was the first trauma I ever experienced, I never got over it. I recently watched the Netflix documentary, “Bobby Kennedy for President,” and when they got to the shooting, I cried hard.)

I was six-and-a-half when John Kennedy was killed, a bit too young to feel the impact. I have only one memory from that, when the caisson carried Kennedy’s casket.

Martin Luther King, Junior, had been killed only weeks before Bobby Kennedy, but I don’t recall that having bothered me. Vietnam, turmoil in our country, the political strife of the summer of 1968—none of that landed on me.

But, when Bobby Kennedy was killed, my little brain grew up to adult things, and my little heart felt the loss, and my little life took the first step toward maturity.

Two months later, we left Hart. It was Labor Day weekend. I cried.

As we proceeded out of town, we drove by the Oceana County Fairgrounds, where the fair was underway. I had enjoyed the fair a lot. That’s when I began to cry, as we drove past. I felt the loss. All of the losses flooded my heart; the entire town and the vacation-life it gave me.

As I began to cry, I recalled how I hadn’t cried when we moved to Hart. Seven-year-old Greg didn’t sense a loss when we left Montague—at least not enough for it to tug at the emotions. Now, eleven-year-old Greg was sad to leave, and wondering if he would pick up in Montague where he left off, with the same friends.

While I would take up with none of the same friends—they had formed new bonds—resuming life in Montague was easy. New friends came quickly. I loved being back in our old house, in our old neighborhood, with the same families and the many kids which filled Wilcox and Sheridan Streets, and Mohawk Court.

Sixth grade began, and soon I took note of two girls in my class. I found them cute and pretty. I liked their clothes and hair and everything about them.

And I wanted to be either one of them.

And thus began the thought, which turned into the dream, which erupted into the nightmare.

“All I want in life is to be a girl.”

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It’s the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of my questioning my gender.

Might it finally be a thing of the past?

Meet Hart

The bridge, to the right, is the spot where we hauled in dozens of crappies.

Our address?  316 E. Main Street.  Our phone number?  873-3830.

But don’t ask me the zip code.

I was pretty young when we lived in Hart—second through fifth grade—and still I remember our address and phone number as if they were mine, today.

Dad had been the chief of police in Montague, where he and Mom made their home after marrying, and soon built the house at 4931 Wilcox where I would live all but four years of my young life, but not from second through fifth grade because Dad had a chance to take on a new challenge as city manager, a half-hour north in Hart.

316 E. Main Street was only a block from downtown. Living in Hart from 1964 to 1968, the American downtown was still thriving. I have vivid memories of shopping in Gambles (think of a small version of Walmart), the Rexall drugstore, Hegg’s department store, the five and dime, and Lorenz’s party store. The Hart Theater was where I saw The Sound of Music.

Lorenz’s was on the way that we walked to and from school. When I had a penny, I bought a piece of Bazooka bubble gum. One piece, however, did not produce the size of bubbles I loved to blow.  Being the poor kid that I was, I once plotted to introduce my own buy-one-get-one-free sale: I slipped one into my pocket as I took one to the counter to purchase.

I enjoyed the twice-sized bubbles I could blow until the guilt got to me, which came that night as I lay in bed. I repented. I begged the Lord’s forgiveness. I did that every night for many days. Finally, the budding theologian in me said, “If you believe God has forgiven you, stop asking and trust that you are forgiven.” As a pastor, when teaching the kids the commandment, “You shall not steal,” I always told that story, and they always loved it.

Hart’s downtown was a block to the west. The neighborhood kids were a block to the east. Typical of the ‘60s, there were kids galore, and plenty for every age. On summer days, we could be found everywhere, all day long, just messing around, with nary a mother in sight. Evenings commonly contained games of kick the can, hide and seek, blind man’s bluff, and the like.

Because we lived on Hart Lake, and kids did not have to purchase a fishing license, we spent a lot of time at the lake with pole in hand. For bait—since we were kids with no money—we headed to John Gurney Park where on its edge the city piled leaves, which created our store for worms and night crawlers.

John Gurney Park.  How many hours did I spend in this place?

We were not always broke. At times, when she had the money and we had not infuriated her so badly that she once again declared, “I’d leave you kids if I wouldn’t be arrested for desertion,” Mom might give us ten cents. “This is not an allowance,” she always announced. “It’s a gift.” Sure, Mom. Whatever. Just give me the dime so that I can head to the nearest store—the bakery—and either buy ten penny candies or two candy bars.

We also earned our spending money by picking up pop- and beer bottles. In those days, they netted two or three cents. We tried to return them to the places that offered three cents. Before the age of ten, I learned what fifty-percent more looked like.

Dad got to know the owner of Harry’s Boats and Bait, Harry Fatseas, and my folks became good friends with him and his wife, Dorothy. Harry was a Greek and Dorothy was from the Ozarks. What a couple! She was an excellent cook, and laid out tables-full of dishes from both cultures. I favored her pinto beans and corn bread.

We could not afford a boat. Harry had a sunken row boat. He told Dad he could have it. Dad took it. He resurrected it from its three-feet-of-water grave and generously lathered it with tar.  He dubbed her The Mayflower, and we made many a fishing hole pilgrimage in her.

My father was not one to play ball with us kids, but he generously gave his time by taking us fishing, patiently helping us with tangled lines and fish that swallowed the hook, and surely ruining many an outing for himself by looking out for us.

One summer day, when the crappies were running, we kids headed for the bridge that ran between downtown and Harry’s place. There were so many crappies, we pretty much needed only to drop our line and we had yet another fish.

We took buckets home. Too lazy to scale, gut, and filet them, the fish waited for Dad to be done with work. Once again, Dad displayed the patient work ethic which finally blessed me when I grew up. He made quick work of those fish, and we had bags and bags for the freezer from which Mom could fry them into what we delightfully called “potato chips.”

Hart Lake and Gurney Park proved to be wonderful sources of friendships, the longest and best when my folks met a newly-married couple from Chicago, Dean and Gerri Koclanis, who were frequent visitors to Hart, keeping their trailer in Gurney Park, because they loved to fish.

Quicker than you can bait your hook, Dean and Gerri were family friends and our surrogate parents. When, in 1968, we moved back to Montague, they always stayed at our house, heading north on US-31 to Hart when they wanted to fish.  After Mom died in 1986, they resumed camping in Gurney Park.  Until I moved my family away in 1992, for me to attend seminary, my first wife and I took our four kids up to Hart many a Saturday evening, when I could be heard saying, “The questions are not ‘When are we eating?’ or, ‘What are we eating?’ but, ‘How much are we eating?'”

Water was always part of my life, growing up on both White- and Hart Lakes, and near Lake Michigan. Another blue body, Silver Lake, with its massive, towering, constantly shifting sand dunes, is a quick fifteen minute drive from Hart. It became a go-to place. The lake is shallow, which means you can walk way out into it before it gets too deep—read that: mothers can keep their noses glued to the latest steamy novel—and it warms up quickly, way faster than Lake Michigan. The dunes are a fun challenge to climb and walk. The dune rides are exciting. And, of course, the ice cream shops are plentiful.

In Hart, neighborhood friends also were plentiful, as were those at school. Two classmates stand out, with whom I have been pleased to be reunited via social media: Rhonda Vanderputte (now Bogner), and Doug Campbell.

With Rhonda and Doug in 2013.  Rhonda remains the cute red-haired girl and Doug the goofy guy.  Wow, none of us changed a bit!

If Charlie Brown had been in our class, Rhonda would have been the cute little red-haired girl with whom he was smitten. I was smitten with her, but not because I noticed that she was a cute girl. In those grade school years, she simply was my buddy because she was fun, one of the kids I loved to hang around with.

Doug was a kid that was just like me: goofy. The classic Doug story comes from the day that he was over at our house, and he, my brother, Dave, and I were playing dodgeball in the back yard, and we broke the basement window of the next door neighbor, the Hagens.

Scared to death, we headed into our house. There, Doug rehearsed, over and over, how we would explain the broken window, always beginning, “MIS-ter Hagens,” in ways so serious/silly that Dave and I laughed ourselves into fits.

I believe it was Rhonda who connected us via Facebook. In 2012, Doug paid a visit to two brothers and me at our deer camp the day before the season opened, east of Montague and not too far west of where he lives. Forty-four years apart melted away in a heartbeat over the morning he spent with us.

The next deer season, Rhonda joined Doug and me for lunch. What a fun reunion! The chatter and laughter and reminiscing easily outlasted the burgers and fries and copious cups of coffee. That was 2013, and they didn’t know I was falling apart. Since my transition, both have remained great friends.  Thanks, Rhonda and Doug.

I recall Hart for the final time I ever saw a doctor make a house call—Dr. Barker making the block-and-a-half trek to check on my youngest brother, Mark—and the first time I rode the Tilt-a-Whirl and Scrambler—at the Oceana Country Fair, which Mark has faithfully attended all these years, perhaps in search of Dr. Barker—and the time all three of us “little boys”—that was me, Dave, and Mark—all came down with chicken pox on the first day of Christmas vacation, Dave getting them so bad that he had painful boils—and the only time I ever saw my dad tipsy—he came home from the office Christmas party with a lot of holiday cheer, driving Mom to play the role of Scrooge.

I never thought myself a particularly wise kid, but I recall a sense I acquired after a few years in Hart which now seems it was beyond my years. Hart always felt like a vacation. Everything was good. School was a breeze. Friends and activities were aplenty. My parents made a wonderful home and life for us kids. The only things I feared were our spooky basement and the occasional wrath of my older brother, Tom.

After four years, in 1968, when I was eleven and entering the sixth grade, we moved back to Montague, Dad’s having tired of city politics and now working for the Muskegon County Road Commission. As I grew into my teen years and adulthood, the Hart-years-as-vacation deepened.

Last spring, my best friend, Tim Todd, and I took a drive that led us up to Silver Lake and into Hart. I reveled at pointing out this cool place and that fun spot. We parked right across from our 316 E. Main Street house, in the old Sinclair station. I called my sister, Sue, to tell her where I was.

Once again, I was in that moment the Hart kid—the little boy without a care in the world.



Uncle Bill with some family on the trail that now bears his name.

Michigan’s first recreational trail created from an abandoned railroad exists because of William Field.

Thanks, Uncle Bill.

I began thinking about this in February, when I attended my first family funeral as Gina. My Dad’s sister, Betty, helped to assure me, after two wonderful phone conversations, that all would be fine for me to attend. Their boys, my cousins Ross and Bob, had been very kind to me through these past months. I had a nice reunion with all of them at the funeral.

But not with Uncle Bill. He was taken by death in 2005.

I mentioned to Aunt Betty my interest in writing about the rail trail. A few weeks after the funeral, Bob informed me that she had something for me to read. Two weeks ago, I spent a few days in my hometown of Montague. Before landing in Montague, I drove north another twenty minutes and directly to Shelby, to see Aunt Betty.

I commented to her that this was the first significant conversation I’d ever had with her. I never had a need for anything more than the usual hi-and-bye stuff that a kid does with an aunt, and then I moved away to be a pastor and hadn’t seen her in, well, I couldn’t even remember.

I certainly never had a significant conversation with Uncle Bill. The man scared the living daylights out of me. When I was a kid, I was positive that he was nine feet tall. Compared to his voice, God’s surely sounds like a squeaky teenager’s. All Uncle Bill had to do was look at me and I was prepared to choke out a “yes sir.”

Two specific memories of him are all I have. Both occurred at their farm in Shelby, where I knew Uncle Bill for his cherry orchards, only one of many things to which the man applied himself with gusto.

One Sunday afternoon, when I was perhaps twelve, we were visiting. I was outside with Ross (my age) and Bob ( a couple of years younger and full of, um, let’s call it creativity). Bob pointed out how one of the panes of glass in their garage door was broken and challenged me to see if I could throw a stone through it. Dumb me, I took the challenge, never considering all of the other, unbroken panes of glass in the door. Sure enough, first throw, I broke one. Soon, this was Uncle Bill’s reaction: “That will be $5.00, young man.” “Yes sir.”

Two years earlier, when my mom was in the hospital, I stayed at their house. I saw that Uncle Bill was a regular human. At breakfast, I marveled at how he ate an entire spoon of jam with every bite of toast. And he got away with it with Aunt Betty right there watching. My new hero!

Two weeks ago, Aunt Betty treated me to all sorts of stories, each one, it seemed, based on which of the nine houses—or was it ten, or more? She could not count them all—in  which they were living at the time. After more than two hours of a wonderful visit, I departed Aunt Betty’s with plenty of fodder for a story about her, but my mission was to get the dope on Uncle Bill and the rail trail.

The rest of the story comes from the nifty article in the 2015 issue of Michigan Trails, pictures were grabbed from various trail websites, then some of my own reflections round out the events which began in the mid-1980s.

The rail line from Montague to Hart, with Uncle Bill’s lifelong home in Shelby mid-route, had been abandoned. He wanted his county to purchase it. Cousin Ross is quoted, “Very few in politics here in Oceana County wanted to touch that thing.” His father, with a keen entrepreneurial spirit, took it into his own hands. For $175,000, he purchased it.

Shelby, Michigan’s native son made this possible: “Michigan’s First Rails to Trails.”

Uncle Bill was a Field of dreams.  He envisioned a gorgeous bike and hiking trail, as the rail bed runs through lush woods, along fruit orchards and into open expanses, passing in and out of quaint villages. No way, said the farmers whose land abuts it.  They were concerned that trail users would vandalize their property, steal their fruit, create a nuisance. I was a young adult in those days, and I recall the talk: Uncle Bill finally bit off more than he could chew. In some eyes, he went from respected businessman to town clown.

Not so fast. In 1986, Uncle Bill and two others approached the Michigan Department of Natural Resources with an offer to donate the land to the state and a plan to develop it. They bit. After all of the machinations that you can imagine and working on the twenty-two mile stretch in stages, they finally saw the entire route paved from Hart’s Gurney Park, which is only a few blocks from where we Eilers lived from 1964-68, to my hometown Montague’s riverside stretch.

In Gurney Park, with the trail in mid-frame, our house in Hart was across Hart Lake, behind the left end of the pavilion.

That was 1989. By 1992, the trail saw 59,000 visitors. The tiny villages which line it, including Rothbury and New Era, saw a return of tourists to recoup some of what they lost when US 31 bypassed them about twenty years earlier. Bike shops and cafes provide economically, and tourists are served properly.

And the fruit orchards are not being vandalized.

And the trail users are seen as the benefit to the area that Uncle Bill always knew they would be.

And now not a discouraging word is heard about what some were sure was going to be Field’s Fruitless Foible.

Not bad for the town clown.

Uncaptioned where I found this photo, I imagine Uncle Bill is speaking at the opening of the trail.

My youngest brother, Mark, lives between Montague and Rothbury. His back yard butts up against the rail trail. When visiting him in nice weather, one sees constant activity on the trail. Shoot, even Mark gets onto it several times a year on his bike, then calls to exuberantly tell me about his day.

This spot on the trail looks like it could be near my brother’s house.

The capper is that after Uncle Bill’s pioneering play, the state of Michigan is now littered with rail trails.

Michigan’s rail trails got their start in tiny Shelby, in West Michigan, by a man who not only could see something really good to be created, but was not afraid to put his money where his dream was.

Appropriately, in 2013 the rail trail was renamed in honor of its founder. Now, thousands burn some calories and enjoy the beauty of West Michigan on the William Field Memorial Hart-Montague Trail State Park.

The name might be a bit of a mouthful, but it tastes as sweet as jam on toast—a spoonful at a time.

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Cousin Ross, with his aunt, Uncle Bill’s sister, Marjorie, and the new sign for the renamed trail.
Ah, autumn in Michigan!  The trail crawls over a roadway, making a lovely scene all the more beautiful.
My Montague, as seen from the trail.
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I took this picture two weeks ago as I jogged the trail extension that winds through Montague.  I once preached for a special worship service at this band shell.  Halfway through the sermon, I asked the folks, “How are those lawn chairs feeling about now?”
The old station still hears the familiar, “Chuga, chuga, chuga,” but now it arises from humans, whose cabooses endure the ride.
If this doesn’t call to you, “Let’s go for a ride,” nothing will.