Everyone in my family was excited to finally be going on our ‘much overdo’ vacation as mom has been calling it for almost a year now. Dad had been working seven days a week as a restaurant manager in Detroit as far back as I can remember; which really is not all that long as I am only eight years old. I am the oldest with a younger brother, Matt, and sister, Beth or Little Bit as we call her. Mom and Dad have been talking about how we as a family need to get away, far away from the hectic fast life in the big city. I basically think of my world as the block we live on and school on the next block as a whole so how much smaller are they thinking we need.
The trip my parents decided we needed was way up north in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. They planned a week of camping at the Tahquamenon Falls State Park. First of all what does Tahquamenon mean and what are the falls. The only response I received from either of them was ‘fond memories’ of their own personal trips with their families when they were children. Great that sure tells me a lot.
During the final weeks of getting ready I remember hearing dad mention deer, moose, cranes, black bear, coyotes, beaver, and otter. They made it sound like we were going to some sort of zoo up north. Wait, what – coyotes, bears, and moose. I sure hope they are behind tall fences. The most I have seen in Detroit is dogs, cats, rats, and mice.
Dad had to work late on the night we were to leave so mom had everything packed in the car ready to go as soon as dad came home. With stops they told us it would be a seven to eight hour drive and we were expected to sleep through the drive. Everyone except daddy that is, we need him to stay awake to get us there safely.
Our final stop before going to the campground was to be a small town about 5 miles away from it. Dad said we would stop there for a hot breakfast, stretch, and get any last minute items before our final destination. Sounds like a plan worth following. Matt took the whole back seat while Little Bit and I had the seats behind dad and mom. Mom helped us get cozy while asking once again for the umpteenth time ‘last chance for hours to use the bathroom’. Really – like we don’t have this routine down by now. Dad hops out of the car for one last look around the house, to make sure all faucets and anything electric are unplugged and to use the bathroom. YEAH! This is it; we are off headed up north to the Tahquamenon Falls State Park with one scheduled stop in a small town for breakfast.
The next thing I remember after dad getting on north I-75 was the sun beating down on my face waking me up as mom was saying we are in Paradise. Paradise, we’re in paradise. The sign along the side of the road said ‘Welcome to Paradise’. I straightened up to look around it was late morning and wondered if it was too late for breakfast and we would have to have lunch for breakfast. Mom said not to worry as dad parked in front of the Berry Parch Gifts, Bakery & Restaurant. We got out of the car and looked around, doing a circle of sorts to see what Paradise, Michigan had. Not much was my first thought. There was a blinking light in the middle of town that really acted as a four way stop for the cross roads. One corner had the Paradise Food Pantry Market and A-1 Piece of Paradise Seasonal Apparel, another had a gas station, library and credit union, another had Bearadise Gift Shop, and the fourth was the restaurant we were standing in front of. I stretched my neck to see if there was any other shopping but didn’t see any. Yep, this certainly would be classified as a small-town. Actually, I would say this was more of a mini-town. ‘
We entered the restaurant and were greeted with friendly ‘Hello’s’ from everyone. When I say everyone, I mean everyone. Even the cook poked his head out to say Happy 4th of July. We sat, ordered our pancakes, bacon, and orange juice then began talking about the plans after we finished eating. The restaurant door opened with a bell ringing above the door to notify others someone new had arrived. Funny, I didn’t notice it when we walked in but it rang every time the door was opened. The man who came in was very old. He could barely walk and was hunched over a little. He was wearing some sort of old uniform. He spoke to everyone in the restaurant passing out small American flags reminding them of the parade that was scheduled for 1:00. We immediately pleaded with mom and dad to stay for the parade. Dad was so tired from working and driving all night but replied ‘we’ll see’. That was a good response as he did not say ‘no’. Wow, when the food arrived the portions were HUGE. Dad said he should have remembered small towns especially in the north tend to serve generous portions. There would be taking no leftovers unless we wanted to eat them cold as we were camping in tents with no microwave. The pancakes were as big as my plate. I had never had such thick slices of bacon and the orange juice tasted like I was drinking straight from an orange. Mom said it was fresh squeezed and promised we could make our own sometime. As customary we used the bathroom before leaving the restaurant.
As we walked to our car it was obvious the decision had been made for us. People were sitting in chairs lining along the road right behind our car and every other car as far as I could see. Where did all these people come from? The town is so small to have so many people waiting for the parade to start. There was a pickup truck next to our van full of folding chairs. The owner offered to lend us chairs for the parade.
I spotted the old man in uniform passing out more flags as a church bell rang to signal it was now 1:00. Yeah, the parade is going to start. Well as I discovered 1:00 really referred to when everyone was lined up and ready for the parade to begin. The old soldier was slowly walking down behind the Paradise Food Pantry Market. Just then I heard a bagpipe and the lone marcher came down the street to signal the start of the Annual Paradise Michigan 4th of July Parade. Behind him were two ladies carrying a sign ‘Paradise Michigan – where everyone wants to be’. Following the sign were a few girl scouts and boy scouts. Next was the mayor who looked a lot like the cook from the restaurant we just came from. The final group was soldiers from different wars. Dad and mom began to tear up as did every other adult around me. They called them veterans from World War I and II, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf, and Afghanistan. The World War I veteran was in a wheel chair pushed by the youngest soldier from Afghanistan. I recognized the old man who gave us all flags was from World War II. Everyone stood waving their flags and began to sing ‘God Bless America’. Right hands over heart, voices singing together, some waving, some wiping tears from cheeks, all waving their flags as high as their arms could reach. Then the parade ended along with the singing. It was the shortest parade I had ever seen but by far the most memorable.
I sat down and listened to the adults’ conversation. One couple was telling my parents how they had moved from outside Detroit to Paradise because they wanted a slower pace to raise their children. The dad was a photographer and had gone up there one summer while attending Central Michigan University. His roommate was from Whitefish Township and talked often of all the fun things to do up there. The Upper Peninsula is for nature lovers along with hiking, biking, four-wheeling, kayaking, bird watching, camping, fishing, and photography. They told my parents we should plan on visiting the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point and come back for the Wild Blueberry Festival in August. Another family was talking about the games they were going to at the White Fish School Grounds and how excited they were for the fireworks later on. Dad asks a native of Paradise about the population. The man replied proudly ‘less than 500’. That is definitely a very small town.
My first experience and subsequent interpretation of small towns and America contributed to my patriotism. Our country started with small towns that grew into bigger cities. No matter how big the town remains the spirit of what made our devotion to our country great. Men and women served in our military to protect our freedom. That special 4th of July and every one since has reminded me it takes a village to make a town a home to all its habitants and welcome every visitor passing through as a long lost relative. The warm welcome and friendliness of everyone we spoke with proved the sign to be true ‘Paradise Michigan – where everyone wants to be’.