Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Lake

I am a city boy, born and bred, yet nothing held sway over my formative years more than my time at “the lake.”  The lake in question was Raccoon Lake, a large reservoir in west central Indiana, and the label of “the lake” referred to not only the body of water but also the woods surrounding it and the trailer park that we called our home away from home for over two decades.  Every weekend from early spring to late fall, every spring vacation and a few long stretches in the summer were spent either on the water or traipsing through the woods.  Millionaires may boast of “weekends at the Hamptoms,” but I can assure you none was every happier than I was with my weekends at the lake.

Grandma Bess, Dad, Uncle Earl, Grandpa Jesse and my cousin, Maggie enjoying a game of cards
I was first introduced to the lake when I was about five years old.  Often on Sundays my parents would pack us into the station wagon with a picnic lunch and fishing poles, and we’d go to a reservoir near Indianapolis to fish.  But that fateful weekend was different.  We left early in the morning and drove for nearly two hours before we turned off the highway and started winding through gravel covered country roads.  That in itself was new to me and only added to the excitement of what was to come.  After an endless number of turns and twists, we came to a small country store run by the family who lived in the back half of the building.  While my father bought bait for the day’s fishing, my siblings and I eyed a wall that was nothing but candy, all at the grand cost of a penny a piece.  Sure, there were a few expensive items for 15 cents, but the majority was to be had for a single penny.  My father gave us each a dime, and the decision was almost overwhelming.  I can appreciate how someone who has just won the lottery must feel because at that moment I felt every bit as rich.   With our little brown paper bags full of assorted gum, paraffin pop bottles and licorice, we climbed back into the car and headed to our final destination.

Our first trailer.  My Aunt June, my brother Jerry, me, Dad and my sister, Sheila
I can still recall how magical it seemed as we drove through the heavily wooded road and past a pair of small ponds before emerging at the trailer camp.  I had never seen mobile homes before, and I was certainly not aware of the stigma that goes with most trailer parks now.  Rather than being dismayed by these small, flimsy living quarters, I was enthralled by the myriad of shapes, sizes and colors.  Each trailer had its own little gravel lot with an outdoor fireplace and those classic metal lawn chairs of the 50’s and 60’s.  Surrounding each parcel were strings of lights hung like Chinese lanterns.  To me it looked like Christmas in the middle of summer.  As we slowly made our way down the hill that held the camp, my siblings read some of the signs people had hung on their trailers.  There was a mailbox mounted high on a pole with the words “Air Mail” painted on its side.  Next to this was a trailer named Malfunction Junction.  It was a totally foreign and mysterious world, but one I knew I would love.

Nick frying fish
Our destination was a very small trailer with a large attached porch enclosed in heavy plastic.  It belonged to the father of one of my dad’s postal employees.  Nick, who had long since retired from his years of living, working (and drinking) in the big city to settle for a quieter, sober life in the woods, was the sole permanent resident of the camp.  A short, bow-legged man with a bur haircut, Nick came walking out to greet us.  He invited us to the back of his property on the other side of the porch where a fire was crackling in a fireplace and his coonhound, Queenie rested.  Her belly was large, her breasts were filling with milk, and I was allowed to rest my hand on her stomach to feel the wiggling puppies within.  A widower, Nick’s sole companion throughout his years at the lake was always a dog.   Nick, his son, Jim, and Pete who owned the trailer next door, were gathered around a table nailed to a tree along the ravine that ran behind his property.  They were all busy cleaning fish from that morning’s catch.  After scaling each fish, they would pick up a knife and deftly fillet it before tossing the remains in a hole dug behind the tree in the woods.  It was a routine I would see repeated over and over again for years to come.  I suspect the soil behind that tree had to be some of the richest in the state given the years of fish deposited there.

My brother Jerry and I showing off our catch
Fishing was the main pastime during our years at the lake.  That day would to be our first experience, with Nick loaning us one of his boats.  In those days, the lake was quiet and the only boats you saw were either row boats, flat-bottomed John boats or the occasional pontoon.  I was still using a cane pole to fish in those days, but it didn’t lessen the fun.  I don’t recall if we caught anything, but I do know as the day wound down Dad walked across the road to talk to the family in the blue trailer.  What I did not know was that my parents were actually in discussion to buy that trailer, but  I soon learned that this magical camp would become our weekly destination, and that little blue trailer was to be the first of three trailers we were to own there.

My weekdays may have been filled with bike riding, swinging or shooting baskets in the backyard, but from the 1960’s through the early ‘80’s, my weekends were spent boating, fishing, hiking, and learning the flora and fauna surrounding our camp.  The woods became my classroom, and I began a lifelong love of nature.  In fact, I am sure that early fondness of nature and animals led to my current profession as a veterinarian.  In the 60’s, the woods around our trailer was still unspoiled.  Insect life was abundant and varied.  My sister and I would frequently return from a hike with a collection of colorful caterpillars or perhaps a large walking stick that looked more like it belonged in the Amazon than an Indiana forest.  I became adept at identifying the various wildflowers that bloomed in the spring, and I eventually created my own little wildflower garden on the edge of our lot which I suspect still blooms even now.  Thus was born my love of gardening.
My sister-in-law, Debbie, Mom, Dad and me

Our neighbor Ginny eating fish with Mom
In the Midwest, we are blessed with four very distinct and glorious seasons, and my time at the lake taught me to appreciate the unique qualities of each.  We would anxiously await the spring thaw that would signal our return each year.  At the first sign of warmth, Nick would tap the maple trees.  He would boil the sap to make sassafras tea which we drank as our “spring tonic.”  A little later, as the soil warmed more, the sponge mushrooms would make their appearance.  We were fortunate in that the morels would spring up in our very lot, although I enjoyed searching for them in the woods.  Raccoon Lake was used as flood control for the Wabash, so each spring its waters were retained, and the lake level would rise into the grove of silver maples and willows that grew on the opposite point.  Dad would nose our boat in amongst the trees, and we would fish for the spawning crappie through their branches.  Summer slowed things down and I would fish for carp from the bank.  Using a dough ball made from Wheaties and garlic powder, I would sit and watch for the telltale bob of the slack fishing line.  It would suddenly grow taut, then relax, then grow taut again before racing out across the water’s surface.  That’s when I knew the fight was on, for although carp was not a fish we ate, it was the most fun to catch since it put up the biggest fight.  For a small boy it was the equivalent of deep sea fishing.  For bluegills, I would dig up worms, grab my pole and walk to the small pond that sat beside the road into the camp.  Here the fish were not big, but they were hungry, and an active day of fishing was guaranteed.  In my high school years the summer meant early morning water skiing.  By then the lake had grown busy, and only in the mornings could I enjoy a smooth surface.  Autumn brought with it the changing of the foliage, and the ever present smell of burning leaves.  
An early morning ski run

Cooking sausage and potatoes over the fire
For me the most powerful memories are evoked every time I smell wood smoke or burning leaves.  I’m instantly transported back to those days at the lake when we always had a fire burning in the outside fireplace.  Our camp was somewhat primitive with only electricity provided to the trailers.  We hauled water from the few spigots in camp and answered the call of nature in an outhouse.  (The smell of an outhouse in August is a memory I would rather forget.)  We did have propane tanks to fuel our furnace in the trailer, but the fire was our source of outside warmth during the coldest days.  Many times we melted the tips of our shoes as we pushed our feet closer and closer to the flames to heat them.  Water for bathing or washing dishes was heated in a big black coffee pot, and of course all meals were cooked over an open fire.  Nothing has ever tasted better than those meals.  I can still picture my dad relaxing by the fire in the falling snow, beer in hand, watching supper cook on the fireplace.   Even as a young boy, I was allowed to make my own little fireplace over which I heated the smaller kettle of water to make hot tea.  I felt like a true pioneer. And it was during those years that I got my earliest experience with physical labor, helping Dad collect and cut firewood.  There were enough dead or downed trees to supply a steady source, but you had to make the effort to collect it.

Winter was the season we stayed home.  The owner turned off the water and chained the entrance to the camp; however, on a few adventurous occasions, we decided to brave the elements and make a visit.  Dad would drive as close as possible then park the car, unload our supplies on a sled and we would pull them down the hill to the trailer.  This was one of my favorite times to visit because we had the whole place to ourselves.  The snow stood deep and untouched on the tables and fences, and the camp was silent except for the calling of woodpeckers.  I would quickly head off into the woods to track the animals who had ventured near the abandoned camp, and Dad would start a fire in the pot-bellied stove we used to warm the porch.  One winter he managed to get it so hot it cracked the nearby window.  I still promise to someday relate the story of Dad’s sledding adventure during one of those winter trips, but that is a story for another day.

My friends Dan, Maris, Jim (in rear behind me) and Paul
Finally, the lake was the one place I seemed to fit in.  At home in the city, I was an awkward child with few friends.  A klutz at sports, I was shunned from joining teams and would sometimes be offered up to the other side in advance.  But at the lake, I was in my element.  I was small, light and exceptionally agile in the woods.  It was the one place I could outshine even the most athletic of my friends, but it was rare I was there with a friend.  I relished the solitude of the woods.  Whether napping on a wooded hillside or floating quietly on an inner tube, I was alone with my thoughts.  I learned to be independent, and it was there I plotted my future.  Even now when pressures become too great, I slip outside and smell the fresh air, follow the creek or listen to the birds.  Like Ishmael in Moby Dick, “It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation.”

Dad working on the Honda.  Nick's little trailer is in the background.
There are many stories I could tell of the lake- nights on the water when the Milky Way painted its cloudy path across the sky, the fall that broke my mother’s leg and began her physical decline, the loss of a precious puppy, the death of a dear family friend, lightning strikes, fossil hunting, the sinking of my sister's raft, adventures on a minibike, and sadly the change from a quiet lake and empty woods into an active and dangerous waterway with a diminished woodland encroached upon by houses.  But those remain stories for the future.  For now, I want to just sit back and reflect upon those glorious early days when I was introduced to the natural world around me and began a lifelong love affair.


  1. As a single dad I am very happy to have what some would perceive to be a “small family”. three children, two dogs, one cat, and yes the pets are part of our family. It’s not the size of the family that counts but the family inside that counts. Have a great day....

    help for single Dads

  2. What a lovely walk down memory lane this was. I envy you the familyness of it all. I am an only child, raised mainly by my mother as you know from my post about her as my father was away working most of the time, only home a few days each month. She only had one brother in this country, so two cousins there but they lived hundreds of miles away and were rarely seen. On Dad's side a snooty sister and her two sons, a bit like Frasier and Niles Crane as children, so we didn't get on at all, and again, were seen even less often than the other lot. I didn't have more than one close friend, have never surrounded myself with 'friends', so was an only child, and probably seen as lonely, but wasn't. Then, as now, happy in my own company. But there have been times when I have wished it were different, when I wanted, longed for a big brother. Or even younger brother, any would have done!
    Thanks for sharing yours....Maggie

  3. Oh Scott~ Bravo! Once again you have taken us along on a wonderful trip through your memories. I felt as though I was there too.
    What a wonderful thing your family did, taking you all on these weekend trips. I would have loved that!
    We had a few camping trips...but they were not so wonderful. We took them with family friends, and the son & I would escape our dysfunctional campsite and explore the beautiful woods and the extraordinary fascinating nature. I did have a great time on Texas camping trips to Lake Medina. That was completely different! I was often the only kid, and was showered with Adults wanting to teach me everything there was to learn about nature & the wonderful lake magic.

  4. Janis, that was the beauty of my situation. My parents let me learn on my own by exploring. I knew every rock and flower and tree that grew in that woods. We would lift logs to find salamanders, bring back coccoons or a chrysalis to see what would hatch (my sister cried for a whole day when her monarch butterfly died after hatching,) and gather frog eggs and watch them hatch and change into frogs. I had my Euel Gibbons book and made my parents try deep fried day lilly blooms or sliced cattail stalks. It's a wonder I survived. It was the best time of my life.