There was this old bar out at the State Park near the water that came off Lake Huron. The place tried hard for the resort-bar look – it was, after all, very near one of Michigan’s Great Lakes – but no matter how many sailboat paintings and glass chimes or colored lights were hung, it really couldn’t achieve the effect. Even so the place did have its own charms. The exterior was sided with old boards from grounded ships, the wood weathered and gray. The plank floorboards inside squeaked in all the right places. The bartender was, dare I say, salty? And those glass chimes and colored lights hanging from the ceiling? Well, they were actually quite beautiful especially when the overhead fan made them sing. My 10-year-old nephew, Matt, was particularly fascinated by the colors they cast against the walls that day we walked into Salty’s Bar.
Strangely enough, I had never heard of Salty’s Bar which was odd in itself because if you lived in Bay City for any length of time, you were well aware that there was a bar on nearly every corner: Smitty’s or Bud’s or, the most obvious one of all – The Corner Bar.
I had grown up in Bay City but still – I had no recollection of Salty’s. I thought it had escaped my attention simply because it was located across the bridge. You see, Bay City is bisected by the Saginaw River and, just like the proverbial train tracks, you were either from one side of the river or the other. Our side was, well – home – and the other side was known as the South End. As a child the entirety of Bay City was beyond my grasp – it seemed huge and endless – and the South End was the other side of the world to me. Returning to my home town to visit as an adult, however, rewrote my perspective; my bedroom was much smaller than I remembered, the high school was really only blocks away (no wonder my parents said I didn’t need a car!), and the South End was merely a five minute drive.
My sister, Linda and I, had returned to Bay City that weekend to visit family, and we were out and about that Saturday with our nephew, Matt. I didn’t spy Salty’s at first; I was focused on the sign that pointed to Bay City State Park.
“Is the State Park really just down that road?” I asked my sister and she nodded, yes, smiled, and took the turn.
I was surprised.
I couldn’t believe how close my childhood home had been to an actual beach/State Park. As a kid I vaguely remember my mother driving past the beach on the way to my favorite place, Funland. With my best friend, Alice, in tow we would ride the Ferris wheel and circle in the Merry-go-round. There was a pastel-colored confectionary store (Taffy! Fudge!) and a silver diner that served the best Coney Island hot dogs around. To us, it was heaven.
Funland was always the destination when we drove to the State Park; we never visited the beach. I knew that my older siblings went to the beach often when they were young, but by the time I came around, the water was no longer clean enough for swimming. Even as teenagers my friends and I didn’t hang out there – it just seemed too far away and besides, we had a place of our own on our side of the bridge known as The Hill.
The Hill was a small mountain of grass where you could park, climb a short distance up the hill and settle in to drink. My friends and I were there many nights, especially in the spring of my senior year. We would sit under the stars and pass a bottle of Asti Spumate back and forth telling each other we’d be friends forever. That’s how everyone feels when you are but 17 years old. My memories of The Hill were all coated with dramatic melancholy and over-the-top sentimentality that I now no longer felt it deserved.
When Linda pulled over at the beach I could see remnants of past campfires and empty beer bottles scattered about. It looked like teenagers from the other side of the river did use the State Park beach as their hangout, now. Linda, Matt and I stood on the dirty beach and stared at the water for a few minutes in silence. I was still surprised by how very close the beach was to my parents’ house.
When we got back into the car, Linda headed through the park and out the opposite way and that’s when we spotted Salty’s Bar.
“Matt,” Linda said as she eyed the place. “Are you hungry?”
I smirked and she smiled back at me because she knew what I would say: ‘when did the two of us ever need a reason to go to a bar?’ …but then again, we did have a ten-year-old with us. Before I could put too much thought into it, though, Matt piped up from the backseat.
The three of us sat in that bar for an hour or more that afternoon. It was peaceful inside and mostly empty, and the bartender brought over endless refills of Coke to Matt’s delight. Matt happily ate his French fries and Linda and I savored our cold beers near the windows in the front. There was a prettiness to the place as those sea glass chimes chirped in the breeze and the sun’s pale yellow strokes splintered through the windows.
It was, I remember well, a sweet moment in time.
“We should get going,” I said eventually and the three of us headed through the door and back home to our parents’ house. The minute we pulled in the driveway, Matt’s younger sister, Tracie, marched her eight-year-old self out of our parents’ house, arms crossed. Tracie looked at us with such indignation that Linda and I shrugged our shoulders at each other. We had no idea what could be wrong with such a sweet eight-year-old.
Just then our brother – Matt and Tracie’s father – came out of the old brick house with a grin.
“Her turn,” he said.
Off we went.