Near daily I pass Five Mile Rock east of Grand Marais. To show its size I took a few shots, but decided against their use. In telephoto the rock looks too large while in normal view it’s hardly noticeable against the expanse of lake. Seeing the MHD sign identifying this landmark, tourists often conclude the rock is five miles out to sea, but it is approx. ½ mile offshore. The meaning in the five-mile name is the distance by road from the middle of Grand Marais harbor where the old Gunflint Trail once met the lake. There is surely geological meaning in that small dome of rock alone challenging the lake and being slowly eroded, but that is not my tale; an account drawn from personal association not mine alone.

In 1956 when my family moved from Chicago to Cook County we shopped in Grand Marias once a week. Only extreme emergency justified a second eighteen mile trip where top speed was 50 if you were lucky. Grinding along Highway 61 at modest speed a boy in the back seat had lots of time to look at Five Mile Rock and wonder. My fascination was no doubt influenced by boredom, but I was not alone in the family with a curious interest in that lump of igneous whatever. After joining us my grandfather would observe the rock on our weekly town trips, point to it and say, “That Goddammit is where to live.” I don’t think we were so tough on the old man that living on a barren knob of rock was better. He meant different, but what that was I could only guess.

Grandpa Joe wasn’t originally part of our move north. Driving all day he appeared unexpectedly at our door, the front seat of the car covered in potato chips spilled from the “Jays” can (chips came in tall tins those days) and passenger floor littered with beer bottles. (I’ll get this part over. Joe believed water was for washing, kids especially. Drinking “water” came from brown bottles, quart size preferred) marked Schlitz, etc.) Joe’s arrival threw all of us a-kilter, me most of all because he was moved into my narrow attic room where I was demoted to near floor level closer to the mice of which there were many. It wasn’t that I disliked my grandfather, but sharing my room with him wasn’t a thing I longed for or desired. His sudden appearances were unnerving, as was waking each morning to a room filled with pipe-smoke-smog; enough to make a boy pass out when he stood, saved only by a fierce need to pee overmastering expiration from smoke inhalation. The best part of Joe living with us was playing life-and-death checker games he won nine out of ten, each victory celebrated with a hearty “Goddammit!” The trinity in Joes life were the three Ps: Pewa (Polish for beer), Pipe, and Profanity.

Whilst we in Minnesota were sorting out this new arrangement the rest of the family were, until we told them, asking where-in-hell Joe was. Told, they held us accountable for Joe’s flight, as if we put him up to it, which I certainly hadn’t seeing he invaded my fragile privacy and near gased me every AM with pipe fumes like a Nazi gas chamber only slower to kill. The breaking story that put we Minnesota few in the enemy camp against the Chicago many was this. Joe had a quarrel (nothing unusual there) with long suffering Helen (my grandmother) who was not at all shocked by Joe storming off in the car (she had no license so it was “his” vehicle). The surprise was he didn’t, as usual, return to camp in his fortress area of the house while she manned the barricades at her end. Joe didn’t go home because he was busy stocking up for his get-away journey north; a stop at Coco’s Market for a half bushel of smoked Polish sausage followed by the corner tavern for a plentiful supply of Pewa to wash down those salty Jays chips. Except for gasoline and stops to offload Pewa Joe drove his jalopy straight through: a six foot ten Polish homing pigeon with flowing moustache and an unerring ability to find his own. His flight had the side benefit of discomforting most of the family, especially the grandson deprived of privacy in his attic cubby.

Other than worrying the living soul out of grandma (who feared or perhaps wished the worst) Joe had no purpose in Minnesota. He liked smoked Cisco and pickled Lake Superior herring, but these things were no substitute for Polish from Coco’s. He had a grand supply of Revelation pipe tobacco he said was cheap because it was mostly horseshit with a little tobacco for aroma. By his reckoning it was about ten to one because, really, no one would pay if it was all manure. Pewa is pretty much the same everywhere. That along with Joe’s universal profanity, an ability to blurt out amazingly intricate and damning oaths in gas stations, grocery stores, or just about any place else Joe could make a Norwegian turn blue with pious shock. If Joe opened his mouth in public people in adjacent buildings took note.

After he left us for Chicago, taking cases of mushrooms picked and canned that fall, my dad began waving and saying “Hi Pops” when we passed by Five Mile. This wasn’t done only when I had a friend in the car so I’d be embarrassed. Dad did it every time. After Joe died the habit took a solemn turn, a salute to the old boy. Now that dad is gone, too, I find my head nod and the same words form as I pass Five Mile. Mentally seeing them I grasp some recognition of their viewpoint, near enough to see but separated by a gulf once seemingly impossible to cross but now so easily spanned by the heart.