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That time James Gordon’s car broke down during hunting season in Michigan

Already a singer-songwriter, author, musical theatre performer and politician, James Gordon can add one more item to his resume: Roots Music Canada columnist.  He’s graciously offered to share some entertaining stories with us from his lengthy career in the arts.  Get ready to laugh!

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula should really be a Canadian province. It doesn’t quite belong with the “mitten” part of the state, and the landscape is more like that of northern Ontario, which lies just across Lake Superior.

When I arrived there, things were gearing up for the biggest U.P event of the year: deer hunting season.

The whole district basically shuts down for two weeks in November. The first evidence of the upcoming festivities could be seen outside most stores and gas stations. Deer food.

Huge pallets of corn and carrots were being sold so hunters not as inclined to stray from their own back porches could lure the little darlings into their yards and within shotgun range.

In Iron River, two days before the shooting commenced, the grocery store was filled with hunters, already in full regalia, filling up their baskets with supplies for their hunting camps.

I’m curious about the fashion sense of these “yoopers.” Most wore army-style camouflage pants and jackets, presumably so the deer wouldn’t mistake them for chartered accountants. The headgear of choice, though, seemed to be bright orange hats so that other hunters CAN see them and don’t shoot them. Perhaps the deer think that these are fast carrots and are drawn to them. I thought of developing special orange hats for the deer to wear.

Meanwhile back at the grocery store there was a great parade to watch. Hunters may know how to shoot future food, but they haven’t learned how to gather it. For most, it was obvious that they only venture into a grocery store once a year, usually leaving this task to their spouses, who are known during these two weeks as “deer widows,” (as opposed to the soon-to-be buckless does who will be “widow deers.” ) The hunter/shoppers cruise the aisles, staring blankly at packaged foods and wondering to each other how on earth one converts these boxes and tins into something cooked and edible. For the most part, they seemed to settle on the one item they understood best. Beer. They lumbered down towards the cash registers with as many cases as they could fit in their carts. (For deer hunting season, Budweiser will sell a case of 30 instead of 24 for handier carrying.) After all, nothing goes better with loaded weapons than large quantities of alcohol.

Everyone got into the act. Retailers of all kinds were advertising “Hunter’s specials”: A music store in Houghton offered to trade musical instruments for venison!

I did a school performance the day before the fun was due to start. At the assembly the principal reminded students to all wear orange on their way to school the next day, so they wouldn’t get shot on their way.

I was warned that attendance at my concerts might be low due to all the excitement, but of course, folk music fans are mostly wimps like me, so I wasn’t affected much by the backwoods bacchanal – until the Lovely Miss Sue Baru decided to get into the act.

On a gravel road even closer to the middle of nowhere than the rest of the U.P, (which is closer to the top left corner of nowhere than actually in the middle) — Miss Sue’s muffler gave up muffling. She was not sounding very lady-like for a refined car of a certain age. She was probably going to start scaring the deer away for the “road hunters,” whose particular slant on the great Michigan pastime was driving slowly along the highway and blasting at roadside deer without leaving their SUVs.

I had a little time to look for help before my next show, so I roared through the empty streets of Crystal Falls and stopped at a garage offering muffler service. Two old men who looked very surprised to see a customer greeted me.

“I’ve got muffler trouble,” I said.

“We heard,” they replied together. I guess Miss Sue was noisier than I thought.

Since the place seemed to have no work in progress, I was confident that they would be able to help me out right away.

“Nope. Deer Hunting Season,” was their next unison reply to my plea. They pointed out that, since all able-bodied mechanics in the U.P. had abandoned their wrenches in favour of guns, I was going to have a hard time getting any attention. I called every muffler shop within roaring distance and struck out every time.

I got to hear a lot of great yooper accents though. (To them, I was the one with the funny accent, however.) “Golly gee, we sure would like to help you out. You betcha. But ya gotta understand that nothin’ moves in deer season.”

My generous host for that leg of my tour, Dean, kindly got on the case for me and found an 82-year-old mechanic who promised to look at my poor car. After waking up everyone left in town the next morning, I pulled up in front of Chet’s ancient garage. Chet himself was a pretty spry octogenarian. He bounded out to greet me and promptly dropped to the ground, (which was covered in snow) and disappeared effortlessly under Miss Sue. After pinching and poking her for a while he sprung back up beside me and with a big grin said, “Yup. I know just what the problem is. It’s your muffler.”

Grateful for this remarkable insight, I asked if he knew what could be done. He said he COULD fix it, IF he had the parts… but of course no one would deliver parts in deer hunting season. He DID determine for me that I probably was safe to drive the next part of my journey without losing the entire exhaust system, and he mentioned that I was unlikely to get stopped by the police since they would be so busy with, well, you know.

Another fan from my show the previous night got into the act when he heard of my plight (it was hard NOT to hear).

Hal was from a town farther up Highway 41, and he knew Houghton/Hancock, the old mining towns I was booked into for the next day.

He called a friend who set me up with an appointment for the next morning in Houghton, and I successfully made the three-hour trip with battered eardrums but otherwise intact.

I arrived at a muffler shop called, somewhat appropriately, “The Muffler Shop” and was amazed to find a helpful mechanic who figured he’d have me all fixed up in less than an hour, which is all I had before I needed to be at nearby Finlandia University for a lunch-time presentation I was to give. (Ya. Lotsa Finns in the U.P.)

I told my saviour that I’d go for a walk while he worked and stepped out the door to find the overly generous Hal sitting in his van. He had made the drive just to see if I was OK. He took me for a quick tour of the city, (which claims to be the birthplace of professional hockey!) and returned me just in time to collect Miss Sue, who was purring quietly again.

I paid my bill and asked the Muffler Man, (who didn’t live in Drury Lane) why he wasn’t out deer hunting.

“You’re lucky,” he said.

“I’m a duck hunter!”

Lucky me. Not-so-lucky ducks.

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