Heath Beach rocks

May 5, 1999 at 12:00 am

Ask yourself this, proud Michigander: When was the last time you felt free in a public place? When was the last time you weren’t under the view of a surveillance camera? Or being watched by a security guard/park ranger/usher/self-deputized cop/legal guardian?

Yes, you’ve learned to cheer without swearing, cook out without drinking, hang out without being rude to strangers, rock out without being rowdy, and dutifully keep your music to yourself, but do we really need to worry so much?

We say we fight wars and collect taxes because we are prosperous and free, so how come the more free we get, the less opportunity we have to exercise that freedom?

Risk management insurance policies as well as unfortunate racial and class cultural divisions have pretty much obliterated the central positive aspect of democratic American culture: That when you get off work, there are supposed to be some fine places to unwind. Places where you go to have fun, drink if you want, cook out, play games and check out the beautiful sight of other people.

Places where you can go to have a good time no matter what your definition, and as long as you stay cool and don’t invade the space of others, you can do whatever the hell you want.

Everyone would recognize the mutual benefits of the situation, and would take care of problems as they arise, so cops would be unnecessary.

If that just sounds crazy to you, you’re probably one of the millions who don’t go to Heath Beach.

Located off the Cone Rd. exit of US 23 South, this Milan institution may be the last place in the land of Engler that one can toast the land of the free and then hit the diving board to perform a spastic double summy with a twist.

Here’s the deal: On a weekend day (from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend) you and your friends pay $6 each to enter (less on weekdays).

You park your car in a large, easily accessible parking lot, grab your cooler and hibachi and towels and head toward the water. An easygoing-looking man with a red T-shirt will ask to check your cooler for glass. (There’s a rule: No glass. Another rule is that you can’t bring in a keg. Heath Beach ran successfully for 20 years without that rule, but things got out of hand in the early ’80s.)

Heath Beach itself is a nice-sized man-made swimming hole. An actual person named Charles Heath was paid money to have his land dug out by the government (they needed dirt). He filled the hole with water, quit his job and started a party that’s been running for two generations.

Heath Beach is America, simple and pure. Families with kids head to the right, by the shallow end with all the sand. Gaggles of young kids and young parents splash and gain some respite.

As you move up the ridge it becomes a long grassy yard. There are picnic tables in back and a large swimming area highlighted with platforms for midpond excitement, centered by the diving board.

The diving board is the locus of attention for daredevil divers, jovial spectators and budding strippers. Studly teenage boys and their aftermath provide an exhibition of styles not covered in the Olympics – Heath Beach diving is more of an ecstatic yet brute experience than mere art. It’s not about how you land in the water, it’s about how much you can possibly endure before you hit. It’s the punk jock kind of diving you do when you can only dive a few times a summer.

What will also catch your eye is the fashion. The kids are buff and the middle-aged may be sagging, but they’re all letting it all out for sun or being too sexy for videotape – it’s Michigan in a bathing suit.

The adult end of Heath Beach is raunchy and relaxing and thongs are allowed, if that’s your thang. Yes, gals, you will be catcalled on the diving board, and some of y’all won’t be able to get enough of it.

It’s a grand theater – you can stick to yourself and your party, or you can follow or join the drama on center stage. Either way, it’s fun for the tolerant and those who don’t bother anyone. More real than "Real World," better graphics than virtual reality.

Did I mention it’s only $6? And you can bring in canned beer?

Before I had experienced Heath Beach for myself, I heard the rumors you may have heard. It’s a biker beach (yes, bikers are there, God love ’em). It’s white trash (well, you gotta go somewhere to balance out that tan). But all I saw there was the people at play, those who don’t have boats or summer cottages.

It’s a party not sponsored by anyone (there’s a bizarrely small but functional hot dog/hamburger stand). There are no visible billboards or advertisements of any kind (incredible!).

Yes, the crowd is largely palefaced but I was more surprised by how multiracial it was, especially on the family end. Walk around and you’ll hear a collage of boomboxes kicking out the new rap/metal, straight-up hip hop, classic rock and whatever you bring.

But it’s so much fun, you just know it’s not going to be around for long. A cop does sit in the parking lot looking for drunk drivers (but the cops stay in the parking lot). The state/county governments must have their eye on it – it just seems like too much of a risk.

Would you fight for this? Buy the season pass and enjoy the summers while you can.