Vonnegut at Lake Maxikuckee
When summer came, everything was always better. There was a second home for the Vonneguts where the sunlight put a blush on everyone’s face, and the water for swimming and bathing was pure as rainwater. The name of it, in the language of the Pottawatomie who once lived there meant “clarity” or “transparent”: Maxinkuckee— Lake Maxinkuckee. It was “an enchanted body of water to me,” said Kurt Jr. remembering it many years later, “my Aegean Sea, perfect in every dimension.”
— And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life
Kurt Vonnegut was not one for small talk. Or discussing things that bored him. The signal that he was about to flip into OFF mode was an impatient sigh.
Not that he wouldn’t regale me at times with his favorite remarks and anecdotes, like the one about how his family’s cook, Ida Young, had read aloud to him when he was young. (Ho hum…. I’d read that one a dozen times in interviews and in his nonfiction work.)
But there were two words that broke the spell on the restless, and slightly rehearsed or daydreaming Kurt Vonnegut. They acted like a charm. He practically snapped awake. They were “Lake Maxinkuckee.” His face softened, he lowered his voice, bent his head, and clasped his hands thoughtfully as if paying homage to something sacred.
Lake Maxinkuckee is ninety miles due north of Indianapolis, straight up Route 31. It’s a spring-fed glacial lake, two-and-half miles wide and a mile-and-a-half long. The meaning of the word Maxinkuckee in the language of the Potawatomi Indians who once lived there is “clear” or “transparent.” On a visit there a few summers ago, I drank the water by cupping my hands and it tastes like rain. The thirteen-mile shoreline is rocky beach and ringed by old forests of oak, beech, and maple. On the northeastern side sits the small town of Culver.
Kurt’s large German-American extended family owned a handful of cottages on the eastern shore, a sort of freshwater Hyannisport built by his wealthy merchant relatives. In home movies, Kurt, his older sister Alice, and brother Bernard leap into the water from the dock built by their father, or paddle over the silvery surface of the lake in a boat Kurt named for him and his siblings: the Berallikur. By the Great Depression, the Vonneguts had been summering at Lake Maxinkuckee for four generations.
Kurt didn’t keep a diary of his days at the lake, or if he did it hasn’t come down to us. But his cousin Walt Vonnegut did, and his entries portray a teenage Kurt as a youngster at ease with himself. Walt, referring to Kurt by his family name, introduces him as “K. or Kay: Son of Uncle Kurt and Aunt Edith; is about three weeks my senior; my second cousin. I like him. Is tall: 6 ft. Witty; humorous; lots of fun.” Kay was full of noisy nonsense, in fact, bidding for attention with puns and jokes. One evening at dinner he was carrying on so much that one of his aunts told him please, for everyone’s sake, shut up.
All summer long, a passel of cousins, Kurt, Walt, the three Glossbrenner sisters— Emily, Mary Ellen, and Catey— all of whom were about the same age, spent their days wandering in a kind of Hoosier Arcadia. Walt wrote:
Thursday, August 11, 1938: “Kay and I walked to the [Culver] Military Academy and played Ping-Pong in the canteen until 12:00. A swim before dinner. Kay and I walked to Rossa’s for gun oil. I got a bottle of pop. Kay cleaned his and my guns (.22 rifles). Read and finished “Mt. Moto is So Sorry” from the Saturday Evening Post. It was a serial. Bed about 10:30. Kay is still reading some of E. A. Poe’s stories downstairs in the living room.”
One night, Kurt and Walt, two young men with all their lives ahead of them, sat under the sky, talking about their big plans and “watching the stars and the meteors as they flew across.”
At the lake, Kurt was a member of a tribe— a community of affectionate adults and blood relatives. He could walk up on the porch of a cottage where the adults were chattering in a patois of English and German, and the children were playing Pinochle, take a seat at the table and be dealt a hand. He belonged.
“Most of us have a place where our hearts come home,” Kurt’s cousin, Catherine Glossbrenner Rasmussen wrote many years later, when she was an elderly woman, alone, and the last of the clan living there.
Lake Maxinkuckee, which flashes up at you like a lost mirror in a sea of green farmland as you look down from an airplane was where Kurt’s heart could be found. “No matter where I was on its circumference,” Vonnegut wrote about the lake in Architectural Digest when he was sixty-six, “all I had to do was keep walking in one direction to find my way home again.”
Charles J. Shields is the author of And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life (Holt 2011).