Well, it turns out that end-of-summer vacations do have something to recommend them.
Stern duty -- namely, the urgent need to be the 501st reporter camped in Ames, Iowa, to analyze the larger meaning of that remarkable exercise in $25-a-head democracy called the Iowa Straw Poll -- kept me from reaching this haven at the top of Lake Michigan until mid-August.
So I missed most of the big events of the summer: Museum Week, with its fascinating lectures on the history of the Mormon Kingdom of St. James and the stirring tales of the Irish emigre fishermen and the Native Americans they found here; the Fourth of July parade and carnival; and Homecoming, with its fiercely contested softball tournament, celebratory drinks at the Shamrock and Sunday dinner in the Parish Hall.
I had resigned myself to the dregs, coming as I did after most of the off-Island families were packing up and heading home to school and jobs. But now that vacation is ending, I can see that there are consolations in coming late. For one thing, the hot, dry summer -- and maybe that Global Warming that Al Gore is always talking about -- has left Lake Michigan far more welcoming than the frigid waters to which we are accustomed. That means that kids can stay in the waves as long as they want, without hearing mothers or grandmothers, always vigilant for signs of hypothermia, shout, "Come here and wrap yourself in a towel. Your lips are blue."
Also, if I hadn't been here in late August, I would have missed the memorial service for Matt Hahn, the founder and longtime director of the Central Michigan University Biological Station on the island. A world-class botanist, Hahn was noted for the "bog walks" in which he enlisted devoted vacationing nature lovers in muddy slogs in search of exotic plants. The wetter and dirtier they returned, the more they seemed to like it.
The memorial, held in the sunlit common room of the biological station, was a feast of gentle, good-humored academic reminiscence. A former kitchen helper, now a CMU professor himself, recalled how he had once asked Hahn where the extra aquariums were stored. No answer. After a long, uneasy pause, the question was repeated: "Where are the aquariums?" Stony silence. Then the light dawned -- a sudden flash from first-year Latin. "The aquaria?" Hahn smiled and immediately responded: "Second shelf. Toward the back."
But for sheer drama and entertainment, nothing could top the annual meeting of the Beaver Island Historical Society, which packed the firehouse on a Thursday night. This had many of the elements of the impeachment of President Clinton -- and just as muddled an outcome.
In what can only be called a legally staged coup, three members of the board of trustees who were seeking new terms were voted out and three new members, nominated from the floor, were elected. Many of the association members, it seems, were upset that the board had not filled the vacant position of museum director -- or even interviewed applicants. I was sorely tempted to point out that the world's greatest deliberative body, the U.S. Senate, had taken more than a year to confirm Richard Holbrooke as ambassador to the United Nations. But as a journalist, it would of course have been unthinkable for me to express an opinion.
Just as in Washington, a budget fight polarized the Historical Society members. The old board proposed to balance the books next year with $20,000 from projected sales of island histories at the museum. Some nit-picker asked where the figure had come from -- and why it was almost double the actual book sales last year. I fully expected Doubting Thomas to be told that it came from the same place as the $3 trillion budget surplus everyone in Washington seems to expect over the next 10 years. Instead, there was a lot of mumbling about missing paperwork.
So the coup was executed and the new board members immediately elected Alvin LaFreniere, a holdover member with a lifelong passion for island history, as the new chairman of the board -- only to find out the next day that a little mistake had been made.
It was actually Alvin's term that had expired this summer and not that of one of the three men ousted by the members. Alvin accepted his fate graciously and gave up his chairmanship 24 hours after he had been chosen. The fellow who we thought had been voted off the board was back on, struggling to look no more vindicated than Bill Clinton did the day after the Senate voted against convicting him.
I hate to leave this drama unfinished to go back to humdrum Washington politics. But duty calls.