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.

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.”

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…