by Mark Potvin
A few nights ago I was up on the peak of the interstate bridge (old childhood habits die hard). I was straddling the big red light and striking that "Thinker" pose. I was clearing my head and contemplating the black depths of the river below and imbibing the humid vespers wafting by in the moonless black night airs. I could see the faint sands of John A. Latsch Beach dimly glowing there next to the river, and I let my mind float down there, over the last of the old train bridge, past the top of the granddaddy cottonwood, and came down, hovering about 6 feet over the sand and looked around.
I was thinking about my 50 years of life and times lived on this beach, and I was trying to imagine all the excitement back in 1924 when the bathhouse was first dragged over from the north channel and how it must have looked from the Levee, shining white, as tall and proud as any steamboat Taj Mahal. I tried to imagine what it might be like to be John A. Latsch that day, amidst a sea of familiar and smiling faces and jingling laughter. His 1907 success in reversing the flow of eminent usurpations of public land by the greedy manifest of the robber barons when his 99 year lease was secured on the eastern half of Island 72 was a serious victory. And now he was seeing his improved dream of bringing his beautiful bathhouse into a position of full acknowledgment for everyone to see. And when earlier that year of 1924, when every carpenter and mover contract had been shaken on, when every order sheet was filled, all balances calculated, money transferred from the private to the public trust, moving schedule set, when his confidence in his vision was total and when he knew he would see it happen. I wondered if Johnny ever came over here, by himself, late at night to walk these same sands in solitude, to revel in his plans, to settle his mind, to look up and down these same sands and know his dream was going to come true.
That was when I suddenly realized I was seeing the ghost of John A. Latsch, right there in front of me. There was no doubt of who it was — we've all seen the pictures. 80 years gone and there he was. Well, I think I actually saw him from the back of my head at first, and then spun around, which is not so hard when you're a disembodied mind hovering about 6 feet over the sand. Anyway, he was leaning with his legs crossed and his boney rear on the rim of the steel garbage can. There was nothing in it and the laid-back angle of his lean should have flipped it over, but he didn't seem to weigh anything. He had on a white shirt with a short collar and some rolled-up brown cotton trousers. He had some skinny black suspenders and bare feet. Just like the rest of him, I could see right through his feet and the sand below was littered with broken glass. But he didn't seem to feel a thing. I couldn't believe how comfortable he looked there, teetering on the edge of that can, perfectly relaxed and at ease like this was nothing at all. His arms were folded across a bit of a pot belly and he had almost a Mona Lisa smile. He really didn't seem perturbed at all, but that was early on in the conversation.
I thought to myself, God he looks happy, maybe being dead isn't so bad. But there was a distinct odor and his skin really didn't look that good, although I was trying not to stare. Anyway...
He said "Yeah I loved this place - but what's going on here? Nobody's been paying any attention to this beach since the river got all polluted back in the 70s and that big old line storm leaned the old place backwards at a 13-degree angle. All the local barn-straighteners I used to know were not consulted since they were dead, so the bathhouse was shuttered in 1972 and the whole thing went down in 1978. That first winter you can't believe how barren this beach looked to me. It was a blow and who thought you could feel a blow up here. Anyway..."
He continued, "I've seen people come down here - all those Citizens for a Clean Mississippi and those Mississippi River revivalists of so many stripes and passions and knowledges and urgencies over these last 36 years. I remember when everybody just about gave up in the early 70s — so much war and pollution and unknown chemicals coming down the river. Like when the nuke plant accidentally made a massive discharge of radioactive water traveling south and it reached Winona in only 24 hours. So if you happened to be taking a cooling swim with your kids out on some island it flowed right through you since they didn't bother to make it public for two weeks.
"The river was bad back then, but the people fought it back and raised up a stink about its sorry state, being practically nothing but a sewer, and all coming down on their heads. 'We can't all live upstream!' they hollered, because somebody always lives upstream, right to the ends of the earth. Finally it just became so obvious to all the hunters and fishers and boaters and watchers and swimmers and people who cared and they could see what was starting to be missing. The water couldn't be trusted. It wasn't healthy or fair, what was going on in there. So things changed and nowadays the river's a much better place. And really if you have an old-time immune system it's no problem these days, I swear. But I love to swear, and that's just me.
"The swimming's great," he said. "I counted nearly 300 people here on a 90-degree July Sunday last year. Somehow the fear mongers and the hope-takers put a dirty cast on Latsch Island and shut it out of any city revenues, with hardly even a trash can for many years. When the city finally did buy the lower half from the railroad in 1976 it cheered my little heart to see those tightfists finally give up a little of their loot and bring it back into the public trust — and hey! we're talking Island 72 here! The state had a half a stake in in too, and their money came with lots of stipulations which were finally forgotten, along with everything else. Some of the things they wanted were great. And I can totally understand the need for two of those ingenious Porta Potties, one for the ladies and one for the gents — who can't see that? And they were going to repave the road, but I don't remember it ever happening, and I see now that the remains of the rotting tar have begun to drift onto the beach and the beautiful sands are commingling with the parking lot and the boundary between the beach and the parking lot is disappearing, and the giant toy trucks are being confused.
"You can't call anything down there much more than history now, but even back then the plan called for it to be a park. And of course a park is groomed isn't it? Well I'd just like one of those city boys to come down here and take a stroll through the serious pricker patches that have been developing for years in the northwestern regions of the beach. The only thing that keeps them back is the sheer volume of eager but clueless troops of people hoping to find the shortest way through the burning sand. Every one of them takes a few spikey seeds home with them but the plants are winning. Now couldn't good old John A. Latsch Beach get some grooming like a real beach, like a real park?
"Once in a while, on a rare occasion, I go floating over to city hall just to see what's up, and last winter I overheard some city boy sayin' Latsch Island was not actually a park and Latsch Beach wasn't really a beach. I wanted to hit him over the head with a fish and then ask him what it was. These days you people make me out to be a saint and these days I do keep some pretty tight company, but in my livin' days some things did get my steam to boilin.' Like when old man Schamong turned me out in the rain. Now that was one time I was glad mother was a few years out of earshot, cause a couple of those things I said would have earned me a soapy mouth for sure — bless her soul. But it's true it got me thinking about things in a new way that was bigger and better. Sometimes I don't think the city can be trusted to make decisions from that side of the riverbank. They need to confront and admire the natural beauties of this place and contemplate a while with thoughts that need to be more loosely thought out, to avoid staying in ruts for 36 years.
"You know," he said, "I've seen you and your friends come down here over the last 36 years since they tore the bathhouse down, with your shovels and pry bars and hacksaws and cutting torches, battling the stubborn remains of those 88 pilings, once so proudly holding that bathhouse safely above every spring rise for 54 years, but the city should have taken the time to finish the job instead of walking away and leaving those iron rattlesnakes hiding under the sand.
"But I'll tell you Mike," he said, (I don't know how he knew my name) "That whole Facebook Coldwater Challenge thing was mighty scary, people usually aren't running into the cold floodwaters that are hiding those hazards, and man, watching those two boys, 8 and 10 years old, taking the challenge in honor of Mom on Mother's Day, running and diving only inches from a two foot long rebar spike hidden just below the surface — well, that was the worst. Holding my breath in pure fear isn't something I've done in a long time. It brought up an anger in me and I could see it was chewing you up too. I'm glad you got in after it, because I can't speak and something needed to be done. The Facebook sign was a start and marking all those rebars with those danger stakes was good for the emergency it was becoming. But I sure hope the present City Council doesn't pull a Rip Van Winkle all over again. Thank goodness no one was seriously injured or killed. Except of course for poor little Amanda's foot, with its fabric implant to bridge the crater left by that jagged spike. Of course her injury is only the latest of many caused by those things. I know you got spiked once," he said, "long time ago. '81 as I remember. Not too bad. But not too good either. You coulda kept it dry for a while. Stayed out of the river. Woulda helped, you know. But you were okay. You were young," he said. I couldn't believe the familiarity he was using with me.
Johnny's ghost continued, and his whole tone went up a notch. "That's my rebar that I paid for and I don't want my joyous contribution to be slicing open the guts of some poor kids just because I left my good fortune in the hands of some half-asleep city mothers and city fathers who think they want to make a 'river touching pool' on the wrong side of the river when if you want to touch the river you want to start with ankles maybe, then knees and the hips and then up to the neck! And you'll want soft sand and no rebar. Come over I say! Come over here and be touched by the river. Not at the Levee. The Levee is for landing big boats. This beach is where the baptisms are done, the wading, he cleansing, the plunging into the Ganges of the upper Midwest. This is where to touch the river! Starting in the shallow water with all the other pilgrims. Nothing but sand and water and sky. Mark Twain pissed here! More than once! Chief Wapasha owned the place till Millard Fillmore gave it away! So come on over to the sandy side of the river and baptize yourself in the mighty Mississippi. Come out of your houses, throw down your Facebook and leave your electronic handcuffs at home and make this mighty river your own!"
About then I slowly became aware of a soft rain and realized I had returned to the peak of the bridge without a farewell to my new friend Johnny A. I felt a strange kind of calm and exhilaration at the same time and started climbing back down. I thought about how the city had so patently ignored Johnny's beach of dreams. And how the beach and bathhouse were the public face of all his gifts for the last 26 years of his life. And no doubt the apple of his eye. I tried to imagine what it might have been like for him to listen to the music of the happy children swimming every day right across the river from his grocery business. He had to have been able to hear it and it must have felt awfully good.
They say that in life Johnny was secretive and selective with his inner world, but he didn't hold anything back when we were talking. I'll say this, the man is funny! And when he's really got something to say, he makes sounds like a steam engine gathering speed - snorts and pops and whistles, chuffa chuffa, then he really gets going - I'm saying the man I know is passionate! He really does care about that beach and what it still means.
Not many cities have a real-life iconic figure with the appeal of a Johnny Appleseed of social justice - bequeathing land for public commons and river access for all - which we can use to brand our city here in the present day, in the sense of creating a welcoming and enticing destination for tourists and a source of pride for its citizens. Johnny and his spirit are our own little gold mine and should be an inspiration for many a future generation.
The city needs to formally recognize the beach as a beach and the park as a park and take responsibility for John A. Latsch's commitment to Island 72 as the centerpiece of his river philanthropy. The present "roughness" of Latsch Beach is partly due to its 40 year descent into a state of "broken windows" which has set a tone for general disrespect of the beach by both the public and the city. We need to dispel the stigmas of "broken bottles and scary people" around Latsch Beach and also the stigmas of dangerous currents and polluted water. We need the beach to be safe and clean and well-kept. To change the negative perceptions we need to recognize Latsch Beach for what it is - a beloved public institution; a public beach! A place where Americans from Alaska to Vermont, from Oklahoma to Winona can meet their river. A place where visitors from around the globe are welcome to take a swim in the most mythically American river of all - The Mighty Mississippi!
P.S. So come on over, you might get to meet Johnny's ghost - although he's harder to see in the daytime you can hear him just as well if you listen right - you won't find him hanging around in town very often.
The John A. Latsch Beach Preservation Society will be meeting on the beach on Saturday, July 26, from 2-6 p.m. Toasts and speeches will commence at 5 p.m. Lemonade will be served. Check out our Facebook page The John A. Latsch Beach Preservation Society.