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Comings, goings, driftings in and out

Former Alpena resident John Kissane wrote most of this week’s column.

He’s my son Matthew’s friend, and writes here by invitation.

John’s segment begins, “The problem with being a warm and friendly port is that anybody might drift in.” He describes drifting into the port of Alpena and spending a few teenage years with us.

Being a teenager is being in a state where many of us are not recognizable. John drifted away before I recognized him. Following different paths, both he and my son moved off into the world — away.

Years later, John was at my son’s wedding in England; he was Matthew’s best man. As best men do, he rose to deliver a toast.

Out came words — adult words — intelligent, perceptive, moving words from a boy who had drifted in, then drifted away to become a man — before I knew him.

We don’t take enough time, sometimes, to recognize a time — before it drifts away.

The John who drifted away, now recognized, wrote the words that follow:

***

The problem with being a warm and friendly port is that anybody might drift in. It was 1995, the summer before my junior year. My family had moved from Cheboygan and, before that, Bay City. I was painfully shy; years later, I would read Raymond Chandler’s description of his own character (“an unbecoming mixture of outer diffidence and inward arrogance”) and wince in recognition.

Mostly, I kept my headphones on and my nose in a book. I might have remained in my shell (thick walls, fine roof) had it not been for the teachers. We had a wealth of teachers then: engaged and engaging professionals who challenged us — who brought out our best — and who did so with panache. Best among them may have been John Meek, who managed to coax sestinas out of 16-year-olds.

I tentatively stepped out of my shell and found that there were some pretty interesting people outside: Mary Beth Kline (now Stutzman), a one-woman newspaper; Adam Minnick (now a cinematographer), who knew about the great movies and who wanted to share that knowledge; Matthew Pugh (now living across the sea), who sent me his fiction and suffered through reading mine, and who still does; others, too.

Alpena was a treasure chest. Shamelessly, I lined my pockets. I saw “Guys and Dolls” four times at Thunder Bay Theatre. I mastered the intricacies of the course at Lee’s Miniature Golf, including the dreaded Ant Hill. I wrote a series of monologues for friends and had them recorded; I still regret losing that tape. One Fourth of July night, I stood on Judge Pugh’s boat and waved to the beautiful, sparkler-bearing girls in white standing on a passing vessel.

I stayed out too often. One morning, my mother came to me and said, “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were out doing drugs.” I’d spent the previous evening at a now-defunct coffee shop, mainlining caffeine and the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Sometimes, I’d stand before a mic and read my own poems.

It was the natural exuberance of youth, I guess, or the slightly manic joy of a formerly shy person who had begun to find his niche and his people. It resulted in some regrettable choices, including dyed hair, a creative beard, and a pirate’s silver hoop earring. These days, I keep my hair short and undyed, and I avoid mirrors.

At Alpena Community College, I wrote a newspaper column with more self-assurance than was warranted. After later moving to Grand Rapids, I would open a notebook only to find that someone had written, in a delicate, feminine hand, the following: “Dear John, I think you are so arrogant. I just thought you should know. — A.”

You were right, A. I’m still working on it.

Before he left for Grand Rapids himself, Adam Minnick held a big, outdoor party. Without irony, he shouted, “I love Alpena!” And he asked us to shout it, too. Some refused, but not me.

Many of the people who meant so much to me left. But not all. My sisters live there, as does my mother, aunt, and grandmother (my father, who lived there, too, died at home, not long after a visit from a fellow veteran). Mary Beth is there, throwing off her customary sparks.

Whenever I return, I’m struck by Alpena’s coziness. Let’s be honest: it’s not a big place. But it has an outsized place, not just in my heart, but in the hearts of many of its sons and daughters, who found in it, yes, a warm and friendly port: a welcoming place, no matter the flaws of the vessel.

Doug Pugh’s “Vignettes” runs weekly on Saturdays. He can be reached at pughda@gmail.com.

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