A PLACE CALLED PARADISE
By RON CAMPBELL
Senior Voice America
By the shore of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
At the doorway of his wigwam,
In the pleasant summer morning,
Hiawatha stood and waited.
All the air was full of freshness,
All the earth was bright and joyous …
PARADISE, Mich. – “Never in my wildest dreams,” the English Lady is saying over the roar of crashing waves at Whitefish Point, “did I imagine that I would one day stand at the shore of ‘Gitche Gumee’ and collect rocks for my Michigan garden.”
Against the ominous backdrop of the early rumblings of World War II in England, she had been enthralled by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem, “The Song of Hiawatha,” when Miss Ratcliffe recited the verses in English class. Hitler rained bombs on her childhood, but Longfellow brightened it with beautiful words about legendary characters in a beautiful land.
There was a time, during intensive Nazi air raids in 1940, when she huddled with her parents and two sisters in their backyard bomb shelter almost every night. But to the tall, shy, pretty 11-year-old girl, “It was kind of exciting. I didn’t know what it all meant.” And it was around this time that her lifelong love of poetry was sparked by the classic tale Longfellow wrote in 1855 about the noble Iroquois chieftain, Hiawatha.
If the Luftwaffe had not terrorized her country, the English Lady wouldn’t be here on this cold, windy, overcast October morning. Indeed, she probably never would have seen the awesome grandeur of Lake Superior, which Native Americans called “Gitche Gumee,” and the rest of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – affectionately known as “The Land of Hiawatha” – first-hand. The irony is not lost on her.
She met an American GI who was stationed near her hometown of Widnes, a city of chemical plants and factories in northern England, about 12 miles southeast of the busy port of Liverpool, and began exchanging countless letters with him when he returned home to Pontiac, Mich. after the war. “There was something about him that attracted me: his manners, his intelligence, his thoughtfulness; his fine qualities just came through,” she recalls fondly.
I am going, O Nokomis,
On a long and distant journey,
To the portals of the Sunset
To the regions of the home-wind …
The English Lady married the kindly U.S. Army corporal her parents had taken an immediate liking to at St. Paul’s Church in Widnes on September 15, 1951, at the age of 22. When she embarked on her honeymoon cruise across the Atlantic on the R.M.S. Scythia five days later from Southampton, she bade tearful farewells to her family, her friends – and her beloved homeland.
“Our wedding day was the happiest day of my life, and the day after was the worst,” the English Lady says, her eyes moistening as she recounts the scene at her home more than half a century ago while the newlyweds waited for the taxi that would take them to the train station in Liverpool. “Everybody was crying. That was an awfully emotional moment, leaving home. It just about broke my heart to leave everyone behind.”
The American soldier felt he had a better chance of landing a good job in the States than in battle-scarred post-war England, and that was that. She sent letters home as often as she could. Her parents passed away, her sisters raised families and her childhood friends faded into memory while she brought up three boys of her own with “my GI” in the country she’d learned about at Fairfield Senior School all those years ago. She returned to England only four times in the six decades since then.
All the wildflowers of the forest,
when on earth they fade and perish,
blossom in the heaven above us …
Her husband died in 1996, but he is never far from her thoughts. Especially not when she’s in Paradise, not when she revisits places of breathtaking beauty he introduced her to almost half a century ago.
“I remember him with every step I take through Michigan’s scenic landmarks. We enjoyed traveling to the U.P. to see the Soo Locks, the Porcupine Mountains and of course Lake Superior and the Tahquamenon Falls area. We loved walking through the woods to the falls,” the English Lady says. “I’d never seen a waterfall in the U.K. There is rugged countryside in Wales, with mountain streams cascading down rocks – water pure enough to boil for picnic tea – and Scotland and the Lake District are especially noted for their beauty. But I’d never seen a waterfall like Tahquamenon. It was a thrill to see this spot for the first time, and the association with Hiawatha made it even more so.”
In the solitary forest,
By the rushing Tahquamenaw,
When the birds were singing gayly,
In the Moon of Leaves were singing,
And the sun, from sleep awaking …
The sun has broken through the thick clouds of morning and the English Lady is now admiring the Upper Falls on this crisp afternoon in Tahquamenon Falls State Park. Glorious golden rays glisten on the swirling black water before it tumbles down into the rapids in a blend of amber and white foam. The reds, yellows, browns and greens of the surrounding forest frame and complete the picture-perfect postcard view.
“I really think fall is the best time to visit Tahquamenon,” the English Lady says, then adds wistfully: “How I wish I could have brought my mother and dad here! They would have had a tale to tell back home. Strangely, my mother also remembered parts of “The Song of Hiawatha” from her school days. And since my dad loved to walk, he would have enjoyed the trail through the park. It would really have been an earthly paradise to him.”
… Beautiful is the sun, O strangers,
when you come so far to see us!
All our town in peace awaits you.
All our doors stand open for you …
According to local legend, an early logger named Curly Lewis took one look at the pristine wilderness surrounding the point where the mighty Tahquamenon River meets storied Lake Superior and had the same thought the English Lady’s father would have had: “This is paradise!” So that’s what the lumbermen named their settlement on Whitefish Bay.
“Farewell!” said he, “Minnehaha!
Farewell, O my Laughing Water!
All my heart is buried with you,
All my thoughts go onward with you …”
She marvels at the magnificent myriad of colors above her head and beneath her feet as she follows the short path from the mist-shrouded overlook by the crest of the Upper Falls to the parking lot. Finally, reluctantly, she prepares to return home to Berkley after three days in Paradise, and her thoughts turn back, as they always do, to her husband.
“Maybe he was with us in spirit, as Hiawatha’s spirit lives on in this gorgeous U.P.,” the English Lady – my mother, Gwyneth Rose Campbell, formerly Gwennie Morris – says softly.
“He” is Robert Campbell, a man she never would have met if a terrible war had not ravaged her homeland, the man I will be forever grateful to for instilling in me a deep love and respect for Michigan’s “Land of Hiawatha.”
Of course the spirit of her husband was there. Of course the spirit of my father was there.
If you can’t believe that a loved one’s spirit is with you in a place called Paradise, then there’s nothing left to believe in.
–Detroit-based freelance writer Ron Campbell can be reached at email@example.com.