Gary Justis

Gary Justis
Bloomington, Illinois, US
April 04
Gary Justis has worked primarily in the area of kinetic sculpture for the last 34 years. He lived and worked in Chicago from 1977 to 1999. He currently resides in Bloomington Illinois, where he teaches and writes stories about his actual experiences. (please take a look at his "Sculpture" link for more info)


FEBRUARY 12, 2012 3:35PM

An Island of Mind and Ocean

Rate: 22 Flag


Beaver Island, Lake Michigan                                             NASA


We departed from a small airstrip on the shore of Northern Michigan, near the town of Charlevoix. Our destination was Beaver Island, referred to by locals as the “Other Emerald Isle.” It was situated in a small group of green atolls, thirty–some miles off shore.

In the firmament our plane was buoyant, incessantly lifted up and set into the next rising air tide. It was like a county fair joyride, the difference lay in the upward surges happening in feral air, straining the aluminum wings with an insistent flexing and groaning.

The pilot was 19-ish, rough built and quiet, lacking any fear and obvious emotion. He was a stark contrast to the moss-green forests below, where our forward motion revealed clearings and hidden lakes amid the dense charcoal-green expanse. The temperature of the island air, rising from the ground below, would hastily push us higher, and as suddenly as we rose, we would plummet, not feeling gravity for a moment or two. I was paralyzed with fear, but I soon realized we had returned to our original height, with the plane’s altimeter re-measuring a safe descent. We caught the scent of unfamiliar flora and dampness. Though we had fallen like a stone moments before, the new scent was a balm to my emotions. Just over the tops of the trees, we seemed to be bouncing on an amiable, invisible cushion.

When we neared the end of our descent, I felt relief as the plane ceased its creaking and bouncing, setting us slowly down onto a broad green pasture, where the gaps in the trees beyond the runway revealed an endless expanse of aqua-green water….this was the center of Lake Michigan.

We landed with a smoothness that reminded me of a curry brush across the flawless coat of a thoroughbred. We were gliding across a silky plait of perfumed tresses. It enveloped the wheels of our plane and held fast against our motion, cautioning our re-entry onto the ground. This was a splendid moment…

As we coasted to a stop, I bolted from the plane’s door onto the ground. The sudden lack of fear made me a bit giddy. I barely caught my bag as my brother threw it from the craft. He confidently stepped onto the grass. I was finding my breath.


“Dammit bro! How in God’s name did I ever let you talk me into this shit? Do they have any clothing shops around, I need a change!”


“What’s with you G?...What? Never been in a four-seater?”


“Yeah, but with a real pilot and some explanation about rising air and stuff…damn!”


My brother had that big-brother smirk that went back-and-forth between disgust and concern. He picked up his bag before the dust settled and he walked towards the cab waiting on the runway. He opened the trunk of the cab, threw his bag in and looked back at me. I could tell he was not surprised to see me still standing dazed, seeming to have more questions.


“Gary! Come on man! I’m paying this guy by the minute! Could you please let go of the drama? We’re here now…come on!”


The cabbie was doing the best he could to avoid potholes and wandering deer along the way to Saint James, the little harbor City of Beaver Island. Any ground transportation was fine with me after the plane-ride. The view from the ground, as we passed numerous lakes and natural meadows made me think of a few of the storybook illustrations that fueled my childhood imagination. For some reason I still believed in an unspoiled, balanced vision of nature. if you were a good person, you had simply to find it, hidden and waiting. It was nestled in the backwaters and dark corners of canyons and mountain valleys, or in deep in caves with natural springs, fresh air and great natural windows in the rock ceilings that exposed the sometimes torpid underground life to the glory of the sky. In these warm recesses, the earth could lock me in. Regardless of my fear, I knew the importance of flight , but waiting to arrive by ground in my travels gave me ample time, in my imagination, to experience air travel. That could suffice.

At the edge of the beautiful little harbor of St. James, we stopped at the entrance to the small public beach. My brother paid the cabdriver, we collected our bags and walked towards a small structure; the changing hut. I had recovered my nerves, but still needed something; perhaps a liquid refreshment.


“I thought we might have a drink in town before swimming. You said the Shamrock was the town meeting house. Let’s check it out!”


“Consider how deeply satisfying the cocktails will be after a vigorous swim G. You wanted me to teach you how to snorkel. Believe me, you’ll be ready for a drink when we get through.”


Under the surface of a warm lake, this lake, with water clear enough to see further down than the light was able to reach, I knew he was right and I could find some adventure and exhilaration to erase the terror of the plane ride. There was a small world to explore, and my brother’s instruction would offer possibilities I would have skipped otherwise. I’d really never swum any deeper than most conventional swimming pools.

We donned our trunks and headgear, waded to the beach-floor’s still visible edge and stood for a moment gazing out into the circular harbor. Looking back down to our feet, the water beyond the drop-off point was deeply hued in blues, aqua and reddish-green. The optical distortion made the space bellow seem endless.


“Now, you want to remember normal breathing is the best way to prepare to hold your breath. Normal breaths then hold it and plunge down. You want to get down and see the stuff on the bottom. Place your arms to your sides, and plunge down…like a javelin. Don’t push it. When you need a breath, slowly resurface and give yourself a few moments to re-oxygenate.”


“What’s down there?”


“Well…we can find out.”


“Don’t do that shit where you disappear and then come up somewhere out of sight. I’ll freak out.”


“I won’t do that. This is serious stuff. Come on!”


He dove into the darker water with me close behind. I saw him make his body vertical with his head down, then plunging like a pasty white seal, he disappeared to the depths beyond the sunlight. I floated a few feet away, and when I couldn’t see his body any longer, I was mildly alarmed. I wondered if I was seeing one of those visual metaphors poets write about where we confront our mortality...or stupidity. Seeing his kicking legs and flippers disappear into the darkness made me uncomfortable, but I sensed he would be okay.

In a few moments, I saw him coming back up to the surface. He was rising slowly and gracefully. Waving me up as we both broke the surface, taking a large breath in unison. He was smiling as we faced each other, treading water and laughing.


“Come on down with me this time. I saw something…I want to get it.”


“Ok…one, two, three!”


We both turned and plunged downward. My brother was slightly in front of me. With my arms at my sides, I pumped my flippers so vigorously that I passed him and brushed him as he turned into me, swimming to a certain spot on the bottom. I was astonished at the flecks of sunlight interspersed with the shadows that made it easy to see this part of the lake floor. He pushed my shoulder, then pointed to a spot where there were some large timbers scattered in a flat area. We swam deeper. He pushed ahead and touched the floor surface with his hand. I could see through the dispersed debris that he was clutching something. He pointed up and I shot upwards beside him. After a few seconds we broke the surface at the same moment.

We swam to the shallows and found areas to touch with our feet so we could stand. He held something up. It was a heavily corroded chain; a dog chain. Several aluminum tags were attached. They were anodized and less affected by the water. He read the engraving on the red, heart-shaped one.


“You won’t believe this. It says ‘Reefer.’ You had a dog you called Reefer. Back in the late 60’s…remember?”


“Yeah! Heh! Now that's a kinda' creepy coincidence. You remember him jumping out of the car in Riverside Park? I looked for him for a long time, but I really think he had a bowl and a bed at someone's house by evening. He was one of the great ones. I only had him for a couple of weeks. Remember when he swam in the Little Arkansas trying to follow us to the dunes?”


My brother thought for a moment. 


“He was really like another guy, just smaller and hairy. That’s the kind of dog to have on an island like this. He would probably be more popular than anyone. I’m sure that kind of dog would ride in a plane really well."


I was remembering.


“He would have been your faithful office dog Bro. Whenever someone showed up, he’d let you know. I think a law office needs a good dog. Maybe this coincidence is some sort of sign.”


My brother smiled.


“I need to lthink about it. I'd be happy with a dog like that. I think about him once in a while.”


It was such a strange, wonderful thing.This small discovery took us back to a time we both remembered so clearly. That dog was one of the things that brought us together as friends, finally understanding each other’s humor and moving beyond the sibling crap and general enmity most brothers have.

We were a little chilled, but also tired, in a good way. We dried, dressed and walked to the King Strang Hotel. We made small talk, but we had to yell between the sounds of an air-horn from a ship entering the harbor. The air was mild and smelled of lilacs. My brother’s room was small, but when I saw the couch, I knew it would be just fine. We dumped our things, strolled over to the Shamrock Tavern, and ordered a pitcher of Guinness.

The mood was warm, with the local folks laughing and singing across the tavern hall. The two of us sat and mused on what we might do tomorrow. The picher was already half empty.

My brother looked up towards the front of the tavern and held up his index finger, the waitress nodded and placed another pitcher on deck.


After a long draught he said:


“You know, the Hotel is named after a Mormon King. King Strang. He broke with the other Mormons about 14 years after the assassination of Joseph Smith in Illinois around 1830. He brought a group of followers to this island and was crowned as the only monarch to ever rule in North America.”


“What about The Mormons in Utah?"

I was curious.


“Strang broke with them and established his own sect. At one point they controlled this island, then, as with so many utopian societies, things went sour and Strang was assassinated too.”


“Man, there’s a book in there somewhere.”


“Yeah, a few have been written, but I’d like to write the definitive history of Strang and his Mormon Kingdom. That would be a great retirement project.”


We sat silent for a while. My mind was painting a complex picture of this former Mormon Kingdom, and I could almost see my brother’s mind envisioning the story. Then, as brothers often do, we drank more, and the subjects ranged wider. We traded our blubbering thoughts on family, the uncertain future, and building our collections of jokes and stories we could one day publish, or at least pass on to the little ones yet to come.  



Greg Justis Late70s
  Gregory George Justis         January 1951-June 2006

Northern Michigan, early 1980’s              photographer unknown



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What a nice read for a Sunday afternoon. You've posted many recollections of your brother, each one touching in its own fraternal way. This is a terrific addition to the collection. Your insightful thoughts and attention to detail always entertain, and more importantly, inspire.
Gary, I had no idea there was a group of islands like that in the lake before reading your story. So many great memories you have from those days and I was saddened to see that you lost your brother when he was age far too young to not be able to enjoy many more decades of living, especially in lovely spots like Beaver Island.
Thank you for sharing your story with of brother and the dreams you shared. I can only relate as a sibling to two sisters who are as close as you two were. I'm sorry he's no longer here, but you carry on for both with your touching work.
Thank you Steve, there's a lot to share about our adventures and misadventures. The magic of the moment always delivers the details in memory, and I'm grateful I had the idea of keeping journals.

Hello John, Yes, Beaver Island is the greatest of the island group, with a rich history and a still vital harbor. My brother eventually owned land on the island, with the dream of making a family compound where he could retire, surrounded by books, his writings and grand-kids. He made it half-way. I fantasize about his being a part of Open Salon. He would have loved this forum as much as I much as all of us.
What a wonderful story of family & brotherly love & memories. As John said, it so sad that you lost your brother so young. These are great remembrances.
FusunA, You are so fortunate to have those wonderful siblings. Hold on tight...very tight...Thanks for your sweet comment.
Trilogy, It's 6 years now. One learns to live with the grief. I cannot even come close to the hurt felt by his wonderful wife and sons. They have all moved on, but still missing his presence so much. thanks for coming over.
Your memories of your brother are always filled with such love. You have such heart, Gary, as well as an abundance of talents.
Thank you Lea, and I have to say...Jackie couldn't hold a candle to you....

I'm very happy you came by
The other Emerald Isle ... where two brothers shared so much. How lovely to read your words ... and then to see later words in this thread about your brother's dream of retiring to this isle and then your imagining of his being here. Thank you for sharing him ... here ... with us.
Anna thanks so much, I see you understand...
I loved this story, as I love my brothers and sisters so much, I fear this time of losing them and hope I go first.
The picture had me swallowing hard.
thank you for this.
I hope this is picked for the cover... beautiful work here.
Rita you are so sweet and supportive your first comment really struck me, and I had to pause...Writing about him is a way of remembering his goodness, and also a healing process. I say this alot: that creativity comes to our rescue...
This is a beautiful picture to read, especially with the added knowledge that it has healing powers, too.
What memories! I know they must comfort you -- and you write about them so vividly, with such affection that his personality and sharp sense of humor shines through. (Reefer? I'd love to be yelling that out the back door for all the neighbors to hear.)
What a great ride Gary ! Thanks for sharing my kind of story.
Wonderful memories of a part of Michigan and Lake Michigan that I love.
Beautiful, absolute beautiful in every way. I am ceaselessly amazed at your ability to work in word as brilliantly as in other mediums.

I've never been to BI, but being from Michigan, I am familiar with the fact that it is hunting grounds for lots of mainlanders -- or at least it used to be.

As for the plane ride, you don't know how tight your sphincter can get until you've flown Pilgrim Airlines from Bridgeport CT to La Guardia.
Gary ---that you are both a teacher and an artist is so clear. This is a towering piece and a lesson on how we all keep going.
Gary, you capture us and refuse to let us go until you get the last word! I know what you mean about losing a sibling. There is a special bond and they are never truly gone. Your brother was a special dude. R and hugs.
Thanks Catch, I think a good deal of art has a healing effect.

Bell, I think Dad caught on at some point. He would have been cross at first, then he would have laughed about the dog’s name.

Hello Jim, You are welcome and thanks for the visit!

John, it is easy to love Northern Michigan is it not? The summers need to be longer.

Thank you Tom! I appreciate your comment, and about the small planes…no thank you….I’ll walk…

Hello Roger, we need to keep going, reminding ourselves to strive to our sibling’s excellence. Thank so much
Thanks zuma...from one sibling to another...hugs back at you.
Please tell your wife that I am in love with the way you write.
I will Mary, and thanks for the visit and kind comment....
i read this very slowly, gary, hoping by the end i would have some words to use in this comment. i do, but they're in something of a jumble. while i sort them out, i'll say that i understand what you wrote on my red blanket dream piece tonight now in a more visceral way, the 'ordinariness' bit, that normalcy strikes deeper than grand allusion and fluffy language. my words but you get the idea. a brother who died too soon, in his fifties, and grief. now i understand, i think. i wish you still had this young man in your life.
Speaking of jewels...this. Thank you for giving me the link. I was offline for over a week, including the day this went up. I'm disappointed only that it didn't make Cover. It should be on Big Salon, too.
Hello Candace, thanks for taking the time to read this piece and see a piece of my life that I cherish after having lost my brother. You are coming to know the levels of grief, and I hope you come to see how immersing ourselves in our work has a healing effect...creativity will always come to the's healed, or at least patched up a broken heart or two....

Hello Matt, thanks for the kind words, I'm glad you stopped by to read, and you are so supportive of this piece.
You create art with your words and such descriptive imagery for us to feel at visceral levels. I have no doubt your mind paints complex mental pictures based on how well you've share them with us. This was especially lovely, combining ordinary details with an undertone of loss and special memories.
Thanks so much Sally, for coming by. I always appreciate your comments. The mental picture is still striving to make the words match. If I keep working, perhaps the images will come more vividly.
Best wishes.....
Nat "King" Cole ruled over the Land of Cocktail Lounge Piano for many, many years, and there was peace in the land.
Sharing your Dreams with a brother is something only brothers can fully understand. Maybe Beaver lake is really magical?
•.•♥╔╗╦╦╗▄║╔╗╔╗ & ╗╔╗╔╔╗╔╗•(¯ `v´¯ )◦•*✿
•.•♥╚╗║║║╦║╠╝╚╗ & ╠╣║║║╦╚╗(¯` ❤ .¯ )✿
•.•♥╚╝──╚╩╚╚╝╚╝ & ╝╚╚╝╚╝╚╝◦.(_.^._)•*¨✫
❊¸.•*´¨`*•.¸❊¸.•*´¨`*•.¸❊¸.•*´  ¨`*•.¸❊¸.•*´¨`*•.¸❊
Have a beautiful new week with love and happiness❤¸.•*¨✫
Yes, this is true Con, but it was a different kind of peace....Strang had a "piece" of all his follower's devotion......and assets....

Hello Algis, thanks for your visit...brothers have a very unique relationship because of the vastness of the shared experiences. I hope you have shared your life with a brother....
What a wonderful story of the adult adventures of brothers, I'm grateful to have read it, I smiled all the way through.

I'm so glad you had each other.
I read this on my phone, shortly after you posted it, but couldn't comment effectively from that piece of . . . technology. I know that airstrip. I might have even known that pilot, and/or his family. I know that island, though not the way you do. And I can say with certainty that you capture the wonder and beauty and gravity of all of it. If I remember correctly, your experience with Northern Michigan is closely associated with your brother . . . you write with love and reverence, and love and humor . . . and love . . . it's reflected in the way you write of the region, and Greg.

Incidentally, I recently heard a show on NPR where they were examining the musical tradition on Beaver Island which draws on the inhabitants ancestral roots in County Donegal, Ireland. In effect, the Beaver Island families preserved a lot of music which no one in Ireland remembered, until they heard it again . . . it was woven into the fabric of "the other Emerald Isle." Who knew?
I read and rated this last week. It haunted me. I think I dreamt about it. This piece was beautiful, nostalgic and heart aching. And a note of love and tribute to your brother. Thank you for sharing it.