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The Thunderbird

By Jim Rink
Summertime. For some people, it's a mind-blowing ride on the tallest, fastest roller coaster in the world. For others, it's a stretch of sandy beach at sunset, with a cool Lake Michigan breeze blowing pure peace into the soul. For me, summertime is the Thunderbird Gift Shop.

Parked forever on the south side of M-204 just east of the Narrows in Lake Leelanau, the Thunderbird is more than just a gift shop. The words "gift shop" debase and demean this cultural icon, this portal to summertime pleasures past, present and future. The Thunderbird is the very definition of summer--it's shelves lined with the magical trinkets and talismans of tourism: authentic Indian moccasins, plastic bows and rubber-tipped arrows, coonskin caps, stone-polishing kits, swimming masks and snorkels, beach balls, towels, SQUIRT GUNS and those fantastic, surreal slices of lacquered wood with the absurd sayings and religious scenes preserved for all eternity, like a mosquito in amber.

These items connect us to the past, to a time when we were happy -- no fears, no foes, no woes: only a bright summer day with a wind just strong enough to hold a homemade kite. Trips to the beach with mom or dad. Friends and relatives on the porch with pie.

Imagine, if you will, a 10-year old boy with his first allowance. The same 10-year-old, by the way, who had to sell pickles at a roadside stand for two summers in a row to afford a hot yellow race bike with banana seat, and then had to share it with his younger brothers, and then, was only allowed to ride from his driveway to Otto Road and back, a distance of perhaps 100 yards. Colonel Hogan had more fun in a German concentration camp.

"Hogan, where do you think you're going with that hot yellow racing bicycle?"

"Into town sir, for a little nightcap with the boys."

"Into town? Oh well, in that case...Hogaaaaaan!"

"Just kidding sir...actually, Kinchloe here though of a neat way to generate electricity by pedalling really fast."

"How industrious Hogan, but what could this possibly have to do with the Thunderbird Gift Shop?"

"Nothing sir...nothing at all...but thanks for asking."

For a 10-year old, things like a yellow racing bike and Hogan's Heroes are the epitome of life. There is nothing else. The same is true of the stuff they sell at the Thunderbird Gift Shop. If it's summer, then it's time to go to The Thunderbird.

Squirt guns were a big item. You got these early, before school let out. Mr. Sells--Catholic school teachers are not allowed first names--had low tolerance for squirt guns in class. If caught with one, the offender had to stand silently while Mr. Sells emptied the gun into his face. And then it went into Mr. Sells' desk drawer. By the end of the school year, he had about 10 squirt guns in there. Nowadays, metal detectors at some schools check for real guns, but that's another story.

At the Thunderbird, with, let's say an allowance of $10, you could buy some really neat stuff. I can still remember the jingle of the bell above the door; the pure excitement of just entering the building. To try and recapture some of this excitement, I paid a visit to the Thunderbird recently, curious to see if things had changed. The bell is still there, and so are longtime owners Mark and Henrietta Plamondon, who have run the place for 51 years. I am not making this up. Mark caught me rummaging through the squirt gun section.

"You one of Bernie's Boys?" (we didn't have actual names).

"Uh, why yes, Jim...the oldest."

"How did that coonskin cap work out for ya?" (Bought in 1967).

"Just fine...the Batman outfit, though, is a little small now."

"And that Beatles lunch box...still got that?"

"Actually, it's at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland."

"Uh huh. Well, here's a nice grape sucker for ya--no charge."

That's the thing I love about Lake Leelanau--you can come back in 20 years and the place hasn't changed. At all. It's a little scary; in fact, I think they're planning an X-Files episode about it. And the government has officially labelled two square miles of the town as "Area 52."

Next summer, I think I'll bring my daughter Katie to the Thunderbird. She'll be a year-and-a-half old by then. Too young for the squirt guns, but just about right for the beach balls. And you know what? Twenty or 30 years from now, she'll be telling her daughter about the bell over the door and the moccasins and maybe the coonskin caps. Because that's summer; not the other stuff. Forget about the sun and sand and surf -- it's incidental. Summertime is the Thunderbird Gift Shop. Nothing else can even come close.

P.S. You can call the Thunderbird at (616) 256-7141. Mark or Henrietta will answer the phone. Tell them I sent you (I get free squirt guns).

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