Five, Four, Three, Two
In second grade the assignment given to a group of roughly forty seven-year-olds required the memorization of the acronym “HOMES.” Having been absent the day of the lesson, I missed the homework, and when I asked David, the designated chatterbox sitting next to me, he could barely remember what the class had been instructed. We had to provide five names of something, but he couldn’t remember what we were to have learned. One word summed it up, but he could not remember the synonym of “house,” much less the term “acronym.” In my head I remember wondering how he managed not to walk into walls. I think the word for which he was searching should have been, “moron.”
As student after student stood to recite their five words, far too many had no recollection of what “HOMES” abbreviated. When my turn arrived, I stood up and stated all five Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie… and David still had the same blank stare as if he continued to struggle with remembering the assignment. When I finished, Mrs. Nelson reminded everyone I had been out sick and I still managed to learn all five names. (I always liked Mrs. Nelson.) Yes, I had learned all five Great Lakes, but one lingering thought remained: I wonder where they were and why we were learning them.
Fast forward a couple decades and I finally get the opportunity to put faces with the names. The first glimpse of the Fab Five appears as I climb the hills west of Duluth and see the big lake they call Gitchigumi. On a road trip to the bustling city of Green Bay, Wisconsin, I sneak along the northern bays of Lake Michigan. I catch a snippet of its neighbor when crossing the Big Mac, suspended across the upper and lower peninsulas, but it wouldn’t be until our road trip to Sudbury that I would see the entire northern length of Lake Huron. Surrounded by trash and nearly lifeless flora, Lake Erie reminds me of the dirty, industrial seventies that changed the lifeblood canal connecting the prosperous Atlantic Ocean to the blossoming Ohio Territory into a lifeless, murky pond. Perhaps I shortchange myself by driving through Toronto without stopping, but its skyline in the northern distance above the calm blue waters of the final waterway offers the payoff view of tiny, yet splendid, Lake Ontario – the last one of the five upon which I gaze.
In truth, I get to see a little bit of every lake from more than one angle: park side in Marquette on Superior’s southern shore as the ice chucks bang into the rocks, Michigan bumping up against the Windy City, Huron in the cold mist and Erie pouring into Ontario at Niagara. Children recite their names in the simple five-word mnemonic device, but from Duluth to Cleveland, from Buffalo to Chicago, cities thrive on the waters of the Great Lakes carrying ships and supplies, freezing and flowing, and inspiring a second grader to make a plan to see them all, even if it takes twenty years – one more checkmark on the bucket list.