The Family Equation


I began my archery journey alone.

It is the one thing I jumped into on my own. My friends weren’t interested. My brothers weren’t interested. Even my Dad, who was always willing to plunge into the depths with me, wasn’t interested. My wife thought it was just another “thing” to sop up time and finances. There was no influence of any kind save for a Green Arrow comic book and I had no intention of fighting crime. Especially not in green tights. Still, something drew me to the bow and arrow.

The lack of support didn’t stop me. I had a habit of keeping the pedal to the floor whenever I set my mind to doing something. A few months later, I’d gathered a bow, arrows, a place to shoot, and people to shoot with. Dad came around a month later. Jessica’s support was the only thing missing.

I suppose I could’ve carried on without it. I knew folks in similar situations who immersed themselves in the culture, living from season-to-season and shoot-to-shoot without their families in the picture. It brought them newfound happiness, but it also brought (or often threatened) divorce.

I didn’t want that. I married a woman who was interested in her own things. I just happened to share those things. She didn’t this time and that was okay. I tried not to overdo it – for her sake. I was the one who flipped our relationship on its ear, after all. I altered the agreement with this new adventure. However, history has proven archery isn’t a mere hobby to be “dabbled” with. There are no “sort-ofs” in traditional archery or bowhunting. The desire for a bow to be pulled and the need for the archer to pull it are one and the same. The arrow must fly once it touches the string. It was an unshakable urge that only grew with time. Jess and I were at an impasse – albeit a minor one – but an impasse all the same. It would only get worse with children.

Fortunately, Dad always had a fresh take on these things:

“Ya know…your Ma used to pulled that shit with me whenever I went salmon fishing. You already feel guilty enough for leaving, but they always gotta twist the knife!”

Only Jess didn’t have a knife. She never had a problem with me going anywhere. Sure, she’d make a comment here or there, but it wasn’t anything argument inspiring. I felt guilty for leaving her out of an activity that was becoming such a big part of my life. That scared me. I knew it wouldn’t get any better as our family grew.


Enjoying a perfect morning with our St. Joe River longbows.

And it did. Our second daughter was born two years later. We were now a family of four and bound for trouble if we didn’t find a way to make the longbow a family activity. So, I did what any guy would do and bought Jess a longbow for our anniversary.

She loved the gift and understood the sincerity behind it. I even made sure the color matched the bow we bought our oldest daughter. I wanted her to understand this was a family investment and not something I intended to do on my own. It worked somewhat. We began attending shoots and camping as a family, but I noticed Jess spent more time at camp than on the range. I couldn’t figure out why. I combed my husbandly insecurities for the answer. Was I not helping out with the kids enough? Was she nervous? Was I “coaching” her too much on her shooting?

I vented to a friend about it. Someone who had lived a similar situation, but was now engrained in the longbow lifestyle. Her answer wasn’t what I expected.

“Its because she’s shooting with you.” She laughed. “You have to get her shooting with other ladies.”

“But I’m not even hard on her.” I whined. “I don’t ridicule her or anything.”

“It doesn’t matter. Shooting with you is going to make her nervous and she’s going to take anything you say as patronizing her. That is just the way it is with spouses. She is competing with you. She may not even know it.”

It was tough to hear, but she was right. But, just when I thought all hope was lost, Jess joined a ladies league and began shooting weekly. She was making friends, shooting well, and having a fun. And all without me. To make matters worse, her league night was on my league night, which meant I no longer had a league night.

I’d created a monster. I was okay with that. The woman I loved was enjoying the activity I loved. It was the first brush stroke, in a much bigger picture.

Then, one sunny summer Saturday, something awesome happened.

“Its a nice day.” She said. “Let’s take the girls to WMAC and shoot the course. It’s only $25 a family.”

What a great idea. The fact she initiated it made it even better. We had arrived. We were the archery family I wished for. This kept me going while weathering the heat, the whiney “Daddy lets go homes”, and digging for arrows in the pricker bushes. We only made it through 15 targets, but it was the best 15 I had ever shot.

I’m looking forward to more and will cherish every one.

Did you make archery a “family activity”? Was it a challenge to do so? Feel free to share! And check out if you want good examples. This is what they do.








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Leaving Town


(l-r) Stephen and John Viau outside of Viau’s Clothing in 2013. Photo credit Richard Crofton, Cheboygan Daily Tribune.

When you’re a teen in a small town, there isn’t a whole lot to do with your time, so you do a lot of driving. When you do a lot of driving, you do a lot of thinking. And when you do a lot of thinking, you think about getting out.

You feel guilty about it when you do. Somehow its always yours. You tend to drift back because its yours. But this gets harder to do with time and responsibility. Your visits become less-and-less frequent until you eventually move on without the town. Then the town moves on without you. You know when it does. You pack up the family and take the same route you always have. You tell them the same stories and make the same pit stops. You arrive eager, pointing out every landmark, and torturing them with the “way things used to be”.

Then you reach Main Street and realize you don’t know anyone.

You don’t know the businesses either. You may recognize the building or name, but you don’t really know them. Small town businesses aren’t branded and crammed into boxes like their big city counterparts. They are the reflections of the people that own them. That is what makes them special. But people move out and move on. They change their minds. They get divorced. They sell out. They fall on hard times.

They die.

Its an eerie feeling…to be haunted by places you used to haunt.

My family owned a store on such a street – “Viau’s Clothing” – next to the Kingston Theater in Cheboygan, Michigan. Dad owned, operated, and was a tailor. My Grandfather did the same. My Great Grandfather before that. I spent my entire childhood in that store. I vacuumed and wiped the racks and mirrors for baseball cards and comic book money. I watched Star Trek on an old black and white TV, while they hemmed pants. I stitched little pouches out of the scraps piled up beneath the ironing counter. Sometimes, when fresh inventory would come in, I’d nail the boxes together with roofing nails and turn the entire back of the store into a fortress. Grandpa loved that one, especially when I didn’t pick up the nails. I got my hair cut the same way by Larry Roberts (aka “Larry the Barber”) at the barber shop a few doors down. I watched hundreds of matinees at the Kingston and bought candy at Rivertown Cargo across the street.

I had coffee with Dad and Grandpa at Kretchman’s. They alternated, which meant walking there several times a day for a doughnut and a chance to sit at the counter like an adult. I learned a lot about being a man at that coffee shop: how to harass your friends for no particular reason, how to ease drop a conversation and tell someone what “actually happened”, and how to agree on how bad the weather was when there was nothing else to agree on.

When I wasn’t actually in Viau’s, I was calling it. The store had three phones located in strategic places and you never knew who was going to answer. I used to dial the number and bet on who would pick up. Sometimes you got Dad; sometimes Grandpa; sometimes Grandma; and sometimes you got a combination. Grandpa was my favorite. He always answered the phone the same way with the same mellow tone: “Good afternoon Viau’s. John speaking.” It never changed. When it was one of us kids he’d say, “juuuuuust a minute,” mutter something under his breath, put the phone down on the counter, and yell at Dad through the service window. It didn’t matter where he was. The reply was equally hilarious: “WHAT? What do they want NOW?” No one on this earth could rant, rave, and carry on like my Dad and Grandfather. And they didn’t care who was around to hear it. Not that it would’ve mattered because the customers expected it.

Leaving for college was difficult. I loved life in Grand Rapids, but my compass still pointed North. I missed my family and my friends. They became my reasons for the trip when the independence of a college campus begged me to stay. I loved coming home more than anything in the world, especially during Winter break. I loved the drive – even in the nastiest of holiday blizzards – and the thought of Mom’s beef stew on the stove. I loved spending Christmas Eve with two sets of family and waving to old friends at midnight mass afterward. I loved the annual Christmas Day Monopoly games with my brothers and the brawls that followed. And I loved that damn store.

There was something about Viau’s on the holidays. Everyone worked late, which meant taking in the festivities of downtown Cheboygan. I loved how the flurries caught the lights of the Kingston and how the wreaths on the street lamps made the air smell like pine. I loved the sound of Christmas commerce most of all. Watching dozens of smiling people buying gifts for their loved ones left a mark on me. I think that was what kept the store going. It may not have made a lot of money, but it made up for it in memories as a staple of the community.

But, as Pony Boy Curtis discovered, “nothing gold can stay”.

I graduated, got married, and had children. The economy tanked. Gas prices soared. Tourism declined and the store began to fail. Dad did what he could, but had to move on. He was offered a job as the floor manager of an outfitter and had to take it. It hurt him. I know it did. It was just something he had to do. Grandpa hung on awhile because the store was what he knew, but there was no denying it was the end.

I couldn’t ignore the cloud of inevitability that hung around it. I avoided it like a downed wire, stopping only to give my grandparents a hug on my way out of town. I hated myself for it, but seeing it linger was too painful. This went on for a few years until Grandpa’s health began to deteriorate, which signaled it was time to close up shop and rent the building until someone bought it outright.

I tried not to dwell on the news when Dad gave it to me. Being 200 miles away helped, but I’d have to come home at some point. It was difficult when I did. Driving by the building and seeing another name painted on the window was strange, especially with the old, wooden “Viau’s Clothing” sign still hanging above it. Grandpa passed soon after. My timeline is hazy, but it feels right to link the events together in my head. Its difficult to imagine one without the other. I tried not to think of either one after the funeral and avoided downtown as often as possible.

A call from Dad would bring me back home in March. The building had finally been sold, but needed a new boiler to complete the deal. He and my uncle had found one and asked if I could give them a hand getting it into the basement. I agreed, but wasn’t looking forward to going back inside. I’ll never forget the way my stomach knotted when I stepped through the door. It felt the same at Grandpa’s wake. There was so much of him still there. So much of my father. So much of me.

It still smelled like Viau’s. The red and black diamond-patterned carpet was the same. The box shelving, which once housed hundreds of Levi’s, was the same. The back room with the obnoxious orange counters was the same. The old hand-painted driftwood signs above the bathroom and dressing room were still there (including the “Poop Deck”). And the wooden boards and iron table-leg that barred the back door since before my birth were still being used as the primary security measure.

You couldn’t help but laugh about it, which was exactly what we did. We joked around. We reminisced. We finished the job. That was that. I walked out the front door, chimed the bell, and knew it would be the last time. The town I knew was gone and a chunk of my life was over. The quiver once filled with three decades of experiences was empty. The task of filling it belonged to someone else.

That was okay with me.

I had parted ways with Cheboygan and found the separation was mutual. I didn’t leave it. It didn’t leave me. We just moved on. That is the blessing of small town America. It leaves a mark on you. You leave a mark on it.

Our mark was Viau’s Clothing and it was a damn good one.

Do you have a small-town story you’d like to share? Feel free to do so in the comments below.





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