Synchronous Summers: Photos and Stories

We’d just driven down scenic M-22 after camping at the Betsie River campground outside of Frankfort, Michigan. We had spent a few days in Grand Rapids before we were to drive to Saint John’s, for a quick visit with grandpa on our way to Waynesville, Ohio, to see my mom’s side of the family, and then returning in time for my return flight to Turkey. Dad was showing mom and me some old photographs that he’d been scanning to show his dad for his 83rd birthday.  He was really eager to show us one photo in particular, of grandpa, sitting next to a campfire in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, in a white fedora and white Converse All Stars, proof that his dad had been the original hipster. This was 1966, when his father was living through his thirty-first tour of the sun.

The original hipster

There he was, unaware of the moniker that would later be given to his outfit, staring intently at the fire, deep in thought. The family had just come back from two years in Turkey, where grandpa had been posted as an Air Force officer at the Incirlik air base in Adana, in southern Turkey.

While still in Turkey, grandpa had put in an order for a 1966 White Ford Fairlane, and by the time the family got to Michigan that summer it was ready for them, except for the six seat belts that the family insisted on being installed, seat belt regulations being different in those days. This car has attained legendary status in family lore, forever known as The White Whale. They bought a grey canvas tent, a set of pots, silver aluminum plates and silverware that the family packed up and then drove north. They stopped first at Barakel, reliving a nostalgic summer for grandma and grandpa, as they had been there years earlier at a Bible camp together. They continued north to the Upper Peninsula (also known as the U.P. for short), with more photographic evidence of the trip from Monocle Lake.

The white whale and the grey canvas tent

In Adana, where they had spent the previous two years, it is so hot that there are legends of people losing it and shooting guns at the sun. In the U.P., however, it has been known to snow every month of the year. The family was unprepared for the cold, rainy weather of the U.P., so they bought matching red sweatshirts in a dime store, sweatshirts which would reappear in dozens of family photos.

This summer, in my thirty-first tour of the sun, I was back in Michigan for the first time in five years. I’ve been living in Istanbul, Turkey for the past several years, and while I’ve been to the states a few times more recently, this marked a much needed return to the Mitten. I headed north from almost the moment I landed, to see an old friend who lives in Elk Rapids. My parents met me up there a few days later to drive to Frankfort, Michigan, for some recuperation in the woods.

I like my life in Istanbul but one thing that is absent from my life is camping trips in northern Michigan. I’ve been camping a few times in Turkey but it’s not quite the same. It’s a complicated process to get out of Istanbul and driving out to spend time in the middle of nowhere isn’t a part of Turkish culture as much as it’s been ingrained in American culture, particularly for those who have grown up in Michigan. After camping on Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula, nowhere else seems to feel as remote or peaceful.

Olympos, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, though, is an exception. (The Mediterranean is warm, unlike Lake Superior. Swimming in the Mediterranean is pleasant, whereas Lake Superior is a character-building experience.) When I need to recuperate after Istanbul gets too much I head down there. It’s a rock beach, and on the far left-hand side of the bay one can find hundreds of flat, smooth stones, perfect for skipping. When I was there just before heading to Michigan, some friends expressed amazement at how I could get stones to dance across the water. I explained that I had learned when I was small, vague memories of the summer dad had taught my siblings and me the subtle art of stone skipping coming to my head. We’d always stop for a snack and to skip stones at the Mackinac Bridge on our way up to Lake Superior. I tried to instruct them in my broken Turkish that they needed to spin it from the finger and wrist rather than throw from the shoulder, but despite my instruction they couldn’t quite manage it.


Frankfort isn’t in the Upper Peninsula, but our time was limited and it was close to where my parents had picked me up. It supposedly was a very wonderful place, as my friends in Elk Rapids informed me when I told them where we were camping. When we drove through town after setting up our tents in the Betsie River campground, however, we were a bit let down to find only a Family Fare supermarket and a Subway that was closed for the night. As we drove back to the campsite laden with groceries from the Family Fare we remarked that Frankfort sure looked bigger on the map. Our dinner that evening was brats over the fire on the silver aluminum plates from 1966.

The next day, we woke up and ate our breakfast on those same aluminum plates. Our activity for the day was kayaking down the Betsie River, admiring the herons, ducks, beavers and other wildlife as we snaked along for two and a half hours. For lunch we stopped in the Cabbage Shed, a waterfront restaurant/pub that looks to be a lively place on weekend evenings. After lunch we drove around and saw that there was a lighthouse. We parked the car and walked towards it, passing restaurants and pubs and tourist shops. We saw the Family Fare and Subway one street parallel to the main road and realized our error from the night before. I jumped in the lake by the lighthouse and we watched a beautiful sunset over Lake Michigan before returning for another meal over the campfire. For our drive back down to Grand Rapids the following day we decided to take the scenic M-22, which neither mom nor I had ever been down before.

Sunset over Lake Michigan in Frankfort
Scenic lookout on M-22

So there we were, back in Grand Rapids, and over coffee dad was showing mom and me the photos he’d recently scanned of grandpa and their family camping trip back in 1966. He wondered what he had been doing the summer of his thirty-first tour of the sun, which would have been the summer of 1989.

In the summer of 1989, dad also returned to Michigan after having spent time in Turkey. The previous year he had received a study grant from the American Research Institute in Turkey (ARIT) but having just begun a new position at Calvin College, and with mom pregnant with their fourth child, he decided to put his research trip off for a year.

At the end of his first academic year at Calvin College, during which time Geoffrey had been born, dad began his trip with two weeks in Budapest to participate in an Ottoman studies conference. By chance, he was able to witness the tumultuous days of the end of Communism, arriving three days after the public reburial of Imre Nagy, Hungary’s elected Chairman during the failed revolution of 1956.

There was a meeting of the Ottoman scholars, half Americans and half Hungarians, for three days in the Gellert Hotel in Budapest before reconvening at a refurbished monastery on the shores of Lake Balaton.

Gellert Hotel from the back

He then spent a month in Turkey, with three weeks in the archives in Istanbul followed by another week poring over the Ankara archives. Meanwhile, mom was going crazy back in Michigan with four children under the age of 6. The difficulty of the situation was not something that she had anticipated beforehand. We had only been in Grand Rapids for one year, and she had been used to the closely-knit graduate student community at Indiana University in Bloomington, where everybody helped each other out. In those six infamous weeks she realized that Grand Rapids was a different kind of community. She was able to remind herself that there would be an end to the madness, however, by putting up numbers 1-42 on a posterboard in the kitchen, and we’d tear one off every day we managed to survive.

Everyone was relieved when dad got back, and he made an immediate assessment of the situation and decided on the spot that we needed to go on vacation. Everyone piled into the van for an unplanned trip to northern Michigan for some much needed respite.

In the car everyone immediately fell asleep, leaving dad awake at the wheel, trying to guide the van through impenetrable fog for two hours on a two-lane highway. Once in Cadillac the fog lifted, everyone woke up, and we stopped for lunch. The shaken driver tried to pull himself back together, trying in vain to explain the harrowing experience we’d managed to survive but to which he was the only witness.

Snack break on the drive up

Our next stop was what would become a staple for every trip to the U.P.: the Mackinac Bridge pit stop to refuel and skip stones. Looking at the photos I realized it was from this trip that my vague memory of being taught how to skip stones originates. My older brother Graham learned easily, and I remember the sense of frustration I had at seeing it done and not being able to do it myself. I can sympathize with my friends in Olympos.

In the Upper Peninsula we stopped first at Marquette to see grandma and grandpa and put together an itinerary for our impromptu vacation. We went to Lake Michigamme, where we had understood that we’d stay in a nice lakeside cabin. What mom and dad found to their dismay, however, was a one room motel room, the two double beds inches apart. The four of us got the beds and they slept on the floor. From Michigamme we went on to see the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and Tahquamenon Falls before returning to Grand Rapids.

The “cabin”
Relief: mom and the children at Tahquamenon Falls
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Location: uncertain, possibly Chapel Rock

Time spent in the forest in northern Michigan that summer of 1989 helped us to put those six weeks behind us and we returned refreshed. Memories from 1966 are a bit too distant to remember the states of mind prior to and after that trip to the U.P., but to me, hearing that grandpa and grandma had a nostalgic return to Barakel and also the image of grandpa gazing into the fire tells me that it was a trip that either restored them to, or helped bring about, a state of inner calm.

People always ask me why I live in Turkey and I never quite know what to say that will satisfy their curiosity, but saying that I’m the third generation of men in my family to live in Turkey often does the trick. And now there’s the discovery of another example of synchronicity, my being the third generation to return to Michigan from Turkey in the summer of my 31st year to recuperate in the woods. We continued to reflect on this idea during my time back, noting that life is full of these moments. Dad, during the course of one of our conversations on the subject, realized that he’d been in Turkey in 1965, 1975, 1985, 1995, 2006 (missed a year) and 2015.

There is beauty to be found in these moments of discovery, of reflection on our lives with a slight tweak of perspective. The trick is being able to adjust the viewpoint to be able to see them. I’ve since returned to Turkey as my 31st summer draws to a close, and recently took a trip down to a little village on the Mediterranean. One evening there were reports that there was to be a meteor shower, so a few friends and I climbed to the top of a hill to watch the stars. Though we were all looking at the same sky, I was only able to see two shooting stars, whereas my friends counted upwards of ten. I wasn’t looking the proper way, but my friends, from how they had directed their gaze, had a much more enriching evening. These moments in life, too, I feel are the same. They’re there, though you might not see them. A slight change of vantage point, however, can result in a much richer experience.

Photographs, memories, stories: dad, grandpa and me

Special thanks to Stephen M. Tomic for editorial assistance

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