I Guess that’s Why They Call it the Lake
The center of all kids’ social, political and even military activities Up the Lake was, of course, wherever the beer was . . .
Ha Ha, just kidding parents! These are not the vices you’re looking for. Move along.*Jedi Finger Wave*
No, it is, without a doubt, the lake itself - hence the name, Up the Lake, for those of you not paying attention.
There isn’t a single spot on the lake which does not have at least fifty-seven stories tied to it, as any visitor who takes a boat ride soon learns. These stories are all highly hysterical to Up the Lakers, completely confusing to newcomers, and always told at maximum speed and volume. The problem with this is: every Lake person in the boat tells all of these stories at once, as each location comes into view. This causes the stories to combine in the listener’s mind, in order to prevent their brain from exploding. Nick's soon to be new brother-in-law came up for the first time, and was immediately accepted into the fold, partially because he was likeable and functioned well in the woods, but mostly because his name was Joe. He was subjected to one of these boat borne power tours with a bunch of the kids. After being told simultaneously about the abandoned Friary and the log where an old man was seen skinny dipping, he immediately stopped everything and demanded to know about the naked Friars. (Kim and Tracy assured me this is the funniest thing in the entire world; however, they were eight at the time, so your mileage may vary.)
Even though the entire lake is filled with tales and anecdotes, most of them took place close to our beach, as that is where the greatest concentrations of people were. Unless, of course, it was time to eat. Eating on the beach was never allowed. However eating next to the beach, or on the boat, was fine. (Logic and Up the Lake are not good friends.) This was one of many Up the Lake rules steeped in history and frequently ignored. There were some valid reasons for this one, though. A single Pringle dropped into the water could produce an oil slick rivaling the one created by the Exxon Valdez. Therefore, pretty much with the exception of the mass exodus at noon for lunch, or at 2pm for dinner on Sunday (Italian standard time), most people were at the beach. One could easily imagine the peaceful, idyllic setting:
children at play,
adults sunning themselves,
and everyone enjoying nature.
Then the one who was easily imagining this would be jolted back to reality by batches of loud Italian Bronx accents, all yelling about something. Common yells included the following:
Comments on the latest headline in the Daily News,
Questions about the Sunday crossword puzzle
Songs being sung last popular just before the Yalta Conference
Complaints that it’s hard to read with all this yelling going on.
Most of the yelling, though, was directed by parents at their children, and their latest limb endangering adventures.
Parental yelling experienced a decline on the beach in later years. Granted, it was still frequently used by all families on many occasions. Often the delivery of powerful threats and Italian obscenities were the last thing a child heard (and ignored) before engaging in some form of amusing (if life threatening) activity. For example: attempting to use a towel as a hang glider to cross the lake. (The record held for many years at a mind boggling sixteen inches.) The cries of motherly love were also often found in situations concerning the placement of mud, water balloons, and slimy lake dwelling creatures near, or upon, the previously mentioned mothers. Other tirades were directed toward youths who had been distracted by a bug, leaf, or grain of sand, and therefore did not notice their non-swimming age siblings attempting to walk across the lake, underwater. However, due to the dispelling of a long standing myth, warnings against trying to pick the water lilies mostly became a thing of the past.
Amazing as it may seem, the owner of the land managed to convince all the campers that there was a fifty-dollar fine for picking the water lilies. Guesses as to the reasoning behind it have ranged:
From the sympathetic: she liked the way they looked and didn't want to lose them all,
To the realistic: she was an aging control freak.
Either way the threat was a powerful one, as our families have been going up there since well before the Roosevelt administration. At that time the financial burden of a fifty-dollar fine was slightly greater than it is now. With the possible cost of a small bouquet of water weeds being comparable to that of a home in Mount Vernon, most folks let the lilies lie.
This rule had only one exception. Every year, on August 15, the Pope wakes up and blesses all the waters of the world. (For Our Lady of the Backstroke, or some such Holy Day.) The forbidden flowers could only be picked to be used to decorate the boats for a procession to celebrate that event. Since everyone up there was an Italian Catholic, the idea that the Vatican somehow held sway over New York state ordinances made perfect sense. (Logic and Up the Lake are not good friends.)
Although the processions ended years ago, the belief in the water lily fine was passed from generation to generation, along with gravy recipes, cleaning secrets, and guilt. It only vanished when I hit my question everything phase. (This is known to my family as the still existing smart ass phase.) While this phase did save us from the fear of picking flowers, it had some unfortunate personal side effects. When I was growing up, my grandmother would insist we swam on the day of the blessing of the lake, even when a few cloudy days in mid-August would drop the water temperature to a point that would cause penguins to wear leg warmers. I would tell her that I swam yesterday, which she claimed was not good enough. I would ask,
"How long does it last, and what kind of blessing is it if it wears out?"
Then she would hit me.
So I would try to stand in a puddle, which she would say was also not good enough. Causing me to ask exactly how much water there had to be in one spot to get blessed for this occasion.
Then she would hit me again.
Our fun filled question and answer period would continue like this, until I was numb enough from the bruises to not feel the water when I dove in.
Another rule that came and went for years was, "No pouring water on the beach." Fortunately, someone figured out that it does, in fact, rain in the woods of New York State, (Logic and Up the Lake are not good friends.) allowing the kids to build streams. While some beaches boast magnificent sand sculptures, these are nothing compared to the longevity of the incredible engineering talents which produced the manmade rivers on our beach. One stream was actually passed down through many generations of kids. I believe that it was originally made by a camper named Og (probably short for Oglino, he had to be Italian) sometime in the Paleolithic. The work was organized into layers based on experience.
The older kids were the Master Designers, defining the pathway, noting where the walls needed to be braced or reconstructed, identifying the input pouring locations, and overseeing the general well-being of the waterway.
The next level down were the Journeymen, slightly less experienced hydro-sand engineers, who were responsible for actual constructions of walls, digging of ending pools, and mixing of mud. (It was very important to have the proper consistency for the construction of each section of this technical marvel.)
Finally there were the Apprentices, who got water.
That's all. They got buckets full of water and either poured them into the stream at an assigned location, or splashed a little on individual projects as needed. The problem was that the young Apprentices were usually too weak to carry a full bucket of water, and also would easily get bored, and try to liven up the job site by dumping their water on a Master Designer or Journeyman. When everything worked properly however, (usually about twice a summer) the stream was one of the engineering marvels of the world.
The master designers could also choose additions to make the waterway more intricate or entertaining. A pink corrugated plastic tube became a four-foot Alaskan Pipeline.
Until it broke, and became two two-foot Alaskan Pipelines.
Until it broke again . . . etc.
Eventually, we ended up with countless, very short, Alaskan Pipelines that got buried in the mud, and lost in a matter of minutes. We were a little more persistent than bright sometimes…most of the time actually. (Logic and Up the Lake are not good friends.) Army men or plastic dinosaurs were also added here and there to be swept away, or partially buried as the tiny torrent of water flowed around and over them. We lost enough plastic on that beach to build three Pamela Andersons, two Michael Jacksons, and still have enough left over for a Cher and a half. The army men and plastic dinosaur tricks were also performed on unlucky bugs, frogs, turtles, and small children who happened to choose the wrong time to cross the beach.
Yes, the stream beds we built were sturdy, even able to withstand the deluge caused by the Master Designers stepping below their station to get one of the HUGE laundry pails full of water.
It was after one of those cascaded down that my mother heard my single digit aged sister yell, "DAMMIT TRACY, DAMMIT!" Ready to apply punishment as only an Italian mother can, Mom spun around to see her foul mouthed daughter, valiantly trying to dam up a huge leak in the pool at the end of the stream, and had a good laugh. (I still would have gotten hit, not that I'm bitter or anything.) A breach in the wall was always a cause for a mass alarm. A little, because much of our great effort for the day was about to be washed away, but largely because we were not allowed to let the "dirty water" back into the lake. I am not making this up, apparently the whole "rain" idea never quite sunk into the adults’ minds. (Logic and Up the Lake are not good friends.)
Sadly, there was a kind of lull in people coming Up the Lake for a while. Without the continuing chain of command, stream building entered the dark ages. Kids were trying to make water flow uphill, build unreinforced tunnels that would erode instantly, and even (pathetic though it was) digging with shovels instead of their hands. They were finally reduced to just making big holes and pouring water in them . . . it was a sad time for the few of us who saw it. Fortunately, following the years when various Joes began to have children, Up the Lake attendance (and stream building) had a renaissance. Amazing, complex waterways once again crisscrossed the beach, and mud coated children once again, tried to hug you hello before they jumped in the lake.
There are literally hundreds of regularly performed, hazardous, in the lake activities that could be described here. This is not even counting one-time events, like when four of us were fishing in a single boat and the guy in the front thought he was snagged. This thought vanished rapidly as whatever he was snagged on bent the pole in half and started swimming away, towing us at an alarming rate. We remaining three stood up and grabbed him as the craft shot across the cove, looking like a young, foolish and panic-stricken version of the Iwo Jima memorial. Eventually, the line snapped and we collapsed into a pile of terrified children. Not counting meeting this turtle (we think) and other occasional surprises, we usually provide our own danger.
The multi-tiered human pyramids alone have caused terminal back damage to those of us on the bottom, miscellaneous twists and buckling of the middle folks, and long distance free falls, ending in belly flops onto the lake or collisions with the lower structure’s heads, for the little guys on top. But, only one activity has managed to cause a hallucination. Therefore, I am compelled to detail the events surrounding the third most dangerous lake activity: playing with the surfboards. (Number two was the ridiculous pastime of swimming out to the deep middle of the lake and competing as to who can sink the deepest without actually drowning. The number one most dangerous lake activity was, for eighty years running, saying, "No" to your angry Italian mother.)
My uncle, and some others, first brought up surfboards back in the seventies. For some reason, from then on, almost all Up the Lake surfboards were yellow. Many scientists have gone insane trying to explain this phenomenon. There are no waves on the lake, forcing the boards to end up as a rigid, high speed rafts. Small children could jump off of them in the low water, while adults held it. Slightly older kids could either stand up after a good push, or water ski behind a rowboat with an electric motor. These activities were all almost completely safe, and therefore became dull very quickly.
The main use of surfboards involved a group of fearless thrill seekers paddling out into the deep water on a single board. Then the whole gang (anywhere from three to a hundred and forty-seven daredevils) stood up on the board simultaneously. The primary result was that the board sank under foot. The secondary result was that the shorter fun seekers sank in much the same way. Fortunately for the little people, this never lasted long. Some minor current, small shift of weight, or big weenie, eventually threw the whole thing off balance, and the people fell off. This is when the fun (and I use the term very loosely) began. The highly buoyant, extremely hydrodynamic board then had nothing to keep it six feet under the water. At this point it fired to, and through, the water to air boundary, looking like the illegitimate love child of a Polaris nuclear missile and a banana. On a good day, the board flew freely into the next county, requiring someone (usually me, not that I'm bitter or anything) to swim after the yellow projectile and retrieve it. On a bad day, something blocked the turbo charged trajectory. This blocking item was very often an eye, lip, forehead, or other easily damaged human component. The deadly flights of a surfboard have been responsible for uncountable bruises, sprains, bumps, and head traumas over the years. In fact there's only one thing that kept us all from never playing with the boards again . . . It was a heck of a lot of fun. (Logic and Up the Lake are not good friends.)
The strangest "injury" caused by a surfboard was more mental than physical. And, of course, it happened to me. When I was still light enough to stand on the board (so we're talking the distant past here) I fell off after a short ride. After my unceremonious entry into the lake, I saw standing (floating?) in front of me . . . A Little Purple Man.
He was three feet tall, had light purple skin, and was dressed in a dark purple top hat (as tall as he was) and a coat with tails. Had I been a little calmer, I might have thought, "What a well-dressed individual to be seen here under the water." However, my state of mind was some distance away from calm, and the only thought I had was,
At this point I rose from the depths, picked up the surfboard, and ran back to the beach across the surface of the lake, screaming about the man I saw under the water. This caught everyone's attention. All Up the Lake people had heard stories that someone drowned there at some point in the past. These legends are widely varied as to whom, how, why, when, and how many people had been lost, the only things they all had in common were:
(1)We think it was near the Friary.
(2) We're pretty sure he wasn't naked.
Everyone's attention rapidly vanished when I caught enough breath to go from saying, "a man," to, "a Little Purple Man."
After a quick, and undiscovery filled, swim out to where I had been, the crowd chalked it up to me being hit on the head by the board. (In fact, this is my sister's explanation for most of my behavior patterns.) My friends all said they believed me, although there was a LOT of laughing involved in this statement, which lead me to question its integrity. I also questioned it because of the one other sighting that summer, when one of the girls said,
"Look, I see him; it’s the Little Orange Man,"
And someone (not quietly enough) said,
Then she replied,
"Yeah that's it."
Despite their lack of belief, we did spend many afternoons that summer on fruitless, Leonard Nimoy narrated, rowboat excursions
In Search of . . . the Little Purple Man.