Monday, April 24, 2017

Being a Yooper

Dear George,
When I was a kid, the term “Yooper” hadn’t yet come into existence.  As far as I can tell, it entered mass circulation in the early 1970’s.  Once out there, however, it crystallized a lot of people’s life experiences, providing a shared identity based upon place.  Like being a Texan or a New Yorker or a Hoosier.  A narrow definition of “Yooper” simply means somebody who lives or grew up in and identifies with the U.P. (Michigan’s Upper Peninsula).  However, the meaning of the word is a lot broader, with associations to geography, climate, population, economy, rural/urban context, the natural environment, lifestyles, attitudes and values.  I tried to capture some of what “Yooper” means to me in the poem below.  Everybody’s associations to being a Yooper are to some degree unique, but this is my version.

Being a Yooper

Driving north on M-35
Green Bay is just to the right
Blue-green water glistening in the sun
Tipped by the whites of the waves
To the left, pine forests stretch for miles
A six-point buck pauses, darts across the road
Lunch stop at Paddy’s Bar, Cedar River
Butter burgers that melt in your mouth
Soon we’ll be in Escanaba

I grew up in the Upper Peninsula
The people there call themselves Yoopers
Yoopers are those who live in the U.P. 
While Downstaters are known as Trolls
Trolls, of course, are beings who live under the bridge
The Trolls, we believe, are envious of Yoopers
So we let them cross the bridge in the month of July

The U.P., in large part, is a wilderness
Its forests cover millions of acres
Pine and spruce, cedar, maple and oak
Here a pristine lake, there a waterfall
A Great Blue Heron skimming over the pond 
In hidden places a bear or a moose                 

My home town is named Menominee
“The Land of the Wild Rice Eaters”
Nine thousand, the U.P.’s fourth largest city
One stoplight, one high school, eight taverns
The Marina, Henes Park, the Interstate Bridge
It’s spread for three miles along the bay shore

People in Menominee are friendly and kind
They’re fanatic about the Green Bay Packers
Strong passion for boating and sailing
For hunting and fishing and camping
For Jim Beam whiskey, creamed herring, and pasties

Our family lived out in the country
In a house built of Norway pine
We spent summer days in the river
Splashing and swimming, diving off our raft
Searching for golden doubloons in the mud
Backstroking across the Pig Island

Our treehouse was in the great oaks
The willow was best for climbing
Steven and I had daily acorn fights
We raced barefoot on the gravel driveway
Searched for antlers in the woods
Shot at tin cans with the twenty-two
And played night basketball all winter long

Deer came to feed in our garden
There were porcupine nests in the maples
Huge pine snakes lived next to our chimney
The chipmunks stole seeds from the feeder
At dusk the snapping turtles swam by

U.P. winters were harsh
Sometimes zero, even ten below
Our cheeks got red, our noses burned
The snowdrifts reached three or four feet
My father towed our toboggan behind his car
Icicles stretched from the eaves to the ground
Snowbound, the county road would close, vacation time

At sixteen we went to hunting camp
Our dads played cards and drank Silver Cream beer
We rose at five to take our posts
Freezing, I sat motionless for hours
Waiting for a wayward deer
No luck

In high school we borrowed the family car
And cruised the Twin City loop
Drag-raced at the stoplight
Waited at the drawbridge
The girls walked in pairs along Ogden Ave.
Waiting for the boys to pick them up
Root beer at the A&W
Perhaps the 64 drive-in

Menominee was a blue collar town
Many grownups worked with their hands
College degrees were infrequent
And there wasn’t much gap between rich and poor
All of the teens went to Menominee High
Every one of us, I’d say, was a Yooper

I’m lucky I grew up in the U.P.
It’s a thoroughly remarkable place
Perhaps we were lacking in big city smarts
No ballet, museums, or opera
But people were warm and honest and caring
And as kids we were free and secure
Life was filled with high adventure
Who could ask for more than that?

1 comment:

  1. We had a charmed childhood. Our parents, too, had deep affection for Menominee and the whole UP (remember the trips to Iron Mountain for the ski jumping competitions?) Since none of our generation of our respective families remained there in adulthood I sometimes wonder, had we done so, if our affection would have maintained. Loved your reminisces!