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Read the Signs: Turbulent Water! Violent Waves!

Read the Signs: Turbulent Water! Violent Waves!

Read the Signs: Turbulent Water! Violent Waves!

The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead When the skies of November turn gloomy… Gordon Lightfoot

It would not have been a trip to Marquette without thinking of the time my brother almost got swept off a break wall there, during a storm. A couple of days ago I said the UP was fashioned by God’s kinder, gentler hand. That was compared to the force majeure in Florida, and it was unseasonably warm. But it was a fluke. There is nothing quite so terrifying as a storm on Lake Superior in the winter.


On you honor to not get wasted and stumble onto the break wall in a storm…

A drink called the “smorgasbord”

I was in college. My brother and his wife Bonnie came to visit. And my boyfriend at the time was famous for a drink he called the “smorgasbord”. This was a vile, unpredictable concoction made of any leftover liquor he had in his apartment. Spare rum, vodka, whisky, creme de menthe,  and the leavings from a year-old, gift bottle of Kahlua would be slopped into a tumbler. Sometimes, for effect, he’d light it on fire… He and Tim had several.


I was a big wine drinker even then. Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill – mixed with Squirt to cut the sweetness. And I was drunk. My brother and Mark were drunker. Bonnie was the designated driver (possibly drunk as well…). And for some reason, as drunks often do, we decided to load up in the car and check out the storm blowing in off the big lake they call “gitchee gumee.”


Why do drunks do dangerous things?

Drunks do stupid things like storm chase, because each drink affects the brain’s chemical messengers that tell us, “that’s a bad idea.” The neurotransmitters in the brain either excite or inhibit all of our control signals.  And alcohol increases GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter, while it decreases glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter.


This causes the clumsiness and slurred speech we boozers know so well.  But, alcohol also boosts dopamine – the pleasure chemical – tricking us into thinking we are having a blast. This combination is as bad as, well, a smorgasbord, because it causes us to chase a temporary “good feeling.”


Older, wiser, more sure footed… the view from the lighthouse – Lake Superior like glass…

Until it’s not good anymore. And when we drink, we might do something ill-advised, but we just don’t care as much about the outcome.


That my friends, is how one might find oneself slumped in the backseat of a car on a late night, back street. Watching the rain pelt the windshield, while your beloved brother decides to commune with nature. On a break wall being slammed with twelve-foot, Lake Superior waves.


Think about those scenes…

I can kind of remember the scene. It went the way many drunken scenes go after the dopamine begins to taper. We were sitting on a tar-black road looking at the storm and my brother opened the door and got out. He was still carrying his drink. I think my sister-in-law and I were crying. Yelling for my brother to stop. He, full of bravado and stale bourbon staggered onto the break wall, looking up at the heavens like the jester in The Tempest.


And we could barely see him in the rain. Mark was going to get out to rescue him when a huge wave hit and knocked Tim to the rocks. We could see that – we assumed he would be dead, swept out to sea (lake?). More crying and yelling. Sometimes I think drunkenness saves us – the disjointed looseness. Because there is no reason he stayed on the wall, except he was like a sack of sand.



He crawled back. Wet, everyone angry and relieved. And Bonnie backed off a two foot drop-off while scolding him and we had to be towed. We did not end up in jail, but should have…


It’s funny the things you remember…

I have forgotten so many things I did when I was drinking. And I don’t recall the details of that night. But, I remember like yesterday the blue-black horizon, the steel girders and the broken rocks. I remember the shape of my brother’s shoulders, barely there in the dark…


The old break wall is gone, I think. I looked for it, but it has been moved closer to Presque Isle. A solid slab of concrete with a warning sign. Plenty of parking and when I walked the length of it (agile as a cat), a lake like glass.


I have been sober for four years now. And I have become a person who heeds the warning signs. I am no longer misguided by a hodgepodge of contradictory brain chemistry. My brother died – just not that night. And (God forgive me) I still remember how dazzling it was to be that young and crazy. Don’t go back to your college town if you want to forget that, right?


But, we live. We learn.


Lake Superior near Copper Harbor


Today I’m not drinking, because I have lived and learned…



How come you’re not drinking?

E2E – Read the signs…

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Comments (7)

  1. Avatar
    Sep 15, 2017

    How come you're not drinking?
    Breaking the family chaiin.
    So true. The bravado of youth fueled by alcohol. We’re shocked and so sad when a young person loses their life due to poor judgement. And it so easily could have been me. No judgement. Compassion. And hope for our evolved species to grow wiser. Love your writing. Thanks for sharing.

    • Marilyn
      Sep 17, 2017

      Thank you. When you go back as see things through a sober lens, it gives you pause. Blind luck I made it out okay. Thank you!

  2. Avatar
    Sep 15, 2017

    What a great story and lesson

  3. Avatar
    Linda Pevac
    Sep 16, 2017

    How come you're not drinking?
    I'm not drinking because I don't HAVE to drink anymore. I discovered I am enough.
    Thank you for your real and honest blog regarding your journey to becoming/remaining alcohol free. I just happened to come across your blog via Google. I like and admire your approach to sobriety and share the philosophy of how much sweeter life can be when you’re present to enjoy it.

    • Marilyn
      Sep 17, 2017

      Thank you very much. Life is pretty sweet.


  4. Avatar
    tim s
    Sep 19, 2017

    “The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead When the skies of November turn gloomy.”

    Oh dear. November 1966, just out of Radioman school in Groton, CT, I was transferred to the USCGC Mackinaw in Cheboygan. I was there for two days, and totally unprepared for the job, 6 months’ training notwithstanding, when we were called out to rescue 29 crewmembers from the M/V Nordmeer on November 21. Scary, fun, and a damned good reason to get drunk when back in port.

    Well, that and Cheboygan. .

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