German Park Picnic
Beer and polkas
by Charmie Gholson
Weaving among the older folks, families, hippies, and leather-clad Harley bikers are gaggles of barely-twenty-one-looking kids carrying buckets of beer. They don't look German. They look like partyers.
I approach a white-haired gentleman in traditional German dress: brown velvet knickers, white stockings and shirt, and leather suspenders. Strung between the suspenders, at chest level, is a leather-embossed breastplate. Arnold Surdyk has a sharp nose and ocean blue eyes, and was president of the German Park Recreational Club for eight years. His whole family is German. "My little granddaughter's name is Heidi," he says with raised eyebrows. "And we all speak German."
A carpenter by trade, Surdyk played semipro soccer in Hamburg before coming to America in the early 1950s. At that time, the area that is now the club's parking lot was used as a soccer field. He helped build or remodel many of the rustic, heavy wooden buildings.
Surdyk says the club bought these ten wooded acres off Pontiac Trail in 1938. At first only members could attend the picnics. "We had a hard time during the war," he says. "Nobody liked Germans." Today there are 140 members, and on the last Friday of June, July, and August, the picnics are open to the public (admission is $5, food and drink extra). If you're an active member and work the picnics, the club pays for half of a trip to Germany for you.
The women and men working in the kitchen are laughing and joking, even though it feels like about 500 degrees. I buy a sausage and sauerkraut and sit down at another picnic table to ask the man sitting across from me how long he's been coming to these picnics. "Since 1958," he says. "Today is my birthday." The woman on my left surprises me by requesting my last food ticket, which I give to her. The band is playing "Edelweiss."
"My dad was a welder and fabricator," the man says, searching his
memory for the German word for his father's trade. "He worked for the company that built the Mackinac Bridge." The woman next to me who took my ticket is his sister, her blond hair pinned up in tight, tiny ringlets at her ears. They start tracing their parents' lives: where they were born, when and where they met, where they lived. "Show her the necklace," he says. She does. It's a lovely flower encased in glass. "This is an original edelweiss," she says. "The national flower. It's supposed to have a black velvet chain. It was my mom's." She looks at her brother. "Now it's mine."
The sister gives me a beer; she says I get the first one for giving her my last ticket. Her brother's girlfriend gives me a pretzel and tells me to put mustard on it. It's good.
Now the polka band players are hiccuping in the background. I leave my new acquaintances to their memories and go to the stage. The traditional performance of the slap dancers was earlier, and now the huge wooden dance floor is whirling with couples. There are adults dancing with children, skipping, turning. Laughing. A big, sunburned man comes up and hands me a beer, as if we're old pals. "They need to do this every weekend," he tells his friend. "Yeah," the friend agrees. "I rather be here than anywhere else."
The summer's final German Park Picnic is Saturday, August 27.
[Review published August 2005]