Childhood memories from ‘the lake’

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I realized yesterday while looking at the pictures I posted for Throwback Thursday that I miss a few things about my childhood, where I was raised and what we did. And the thing I probably miss the most is “the lake”. Sorry, this is long – but talking about it means a lot to me.

To my family, “the lake” means Cass Lake, in Oakland County, MI. It was about a half hour to 45 minute drive from our house and I believe that my parents started going there because my dad’s family had owned (rented? stayed at?) a house on that lake when he was a kid. Somehow my parents managed to afford the fee every year for the marina that we belonged to. It’s amazing what you can afford when you make things a priority, I guess. And I’m so grateful that they did.

The trek to the lake was made pretty much every weekend day and many non-rainy weekdays as well, every summer while I was growing up. Unlike those who own or rent a cabin or cottage, we packed up and drove out there and back every time. In my family, this meant that we didn’t arrive until mid or late afternoon – I think we were the running joke of the place since many people were packing up to leave by that point. In retrospect, it was probably the smartest thing that my parents never actually intended to do as we avoided the worst sun hours that way and my parents weren’t big into covering us with sunscreen. But hey this was the 70’s and 80’s when people slathered themselves with tanning oil – I can still remember the coconut smell and slick feel of my dad’s back when he was covered with the stuff. It’s no surprise that both of my parents have had issues with skin cancer – and one guess where my dad’s melanoma was removed from? Yes, his back, LOL. Not so funny really, but nobody knew much better at the time. Sunburns were just a fact of life in the summertime.

Even the trip to the lake was fun – we knew all of the landmarks along the way and watched excitedly since each one brought us closer and closer. We used to count various kind of cars that we spotted – and since we passed about every kind of car dealership on the way there, we usually could do quite well. I counted “Herbies” (VW bugs – the original ones, LOL) for a while since they were distinctive enough for me to recognize. I am not a car nut! Then later on I counted Ford Escorts or Fieros or Corvettes since I could recognize those as well. The trip home often involved a stop for ice cream.

So, Bayside Marina at Cass Lake. “The Lake” to us kids. I have such vivid memories of the place. I don’t know how many other places like this exist anymore – it was a perfect place for families and children though. I do know that it was owned by a ‘little old lady’ and last I heard she was still alive – my dad stops by sometimes when he’s in the area. She actually lived (lives?) on the property in a large white house that sat off to the back and which we kids were not allowed to go near. We didn’t see her very often but she was always ‘there’. The person we saw all the time was the caretaker, a ‘little old man’ named Bill. During the summer season, Bill lived in a tiny travel trailer also on the property. I assume he lived elsewhere in the winter, but honestly I have no idea – he was just always one of the fixtures around the place. Very quiet but friendly.

As a member of the marina, you got the right to enter the property (non-members were allowed only as guests) but security was pretty relaxed – only a rope with colored triangle ‘flags’ across the entry drive kept anyone out. As kids, we always argued over who got to jump out of the van or car and ‘open the gate’ for us when we arrived. Just one of the many traditions we had as part of the whole ‘lake’ experience. The parking area was unpaved – just dirt and grass with a few curb ‘bumpers’ to delineate where the spaces were. Depending on the day, cars would line up two and three deep since the parking area wasn’t very large. On hot weekend days when many members would bring guests, it was often hard to find a spot to squeeze your car into.

Members also each got a boat slip where you could keep your boat from spring until fall. The slips were defined by wooden ‘docks’ hand-built running down each side, so that you could walk all the way to the back end of your boat on either side and fish or just hang out. In front of each boat slip there was an area for what we called the ‘sea box’. I have no idea if that’s the ‘official’ name for it, but everyone there had one. Ours was green, and hand-made by my dad to match our green boat. The sea box was a large wooden ‘box’, usually with a padded, waterproof lid so you could sit or lie on top of it. Inside was your storage for everything from water toys, lifejackets, water skis and ropes, sand toys, as well as picnic supplies like paper towels, napkins, paper plates, salt/pepper shakers and whatever else you wanted to keep there. We kept the same combination lock on ours the entire time I was growing up. I wonder if one of my parents still has that lock.

In front of the row of sea boxes was open space that connected all of the members’ spaces. Here people would set out lawn chairs to relax in and socialize with their guests or each other. Most members were there for years so you got to know everyone well. The open space was defined on the other side by a row of wooden picnic tables – each member got one that stayed with the space. Beyond the tables were large trees that shaded them and places for people to set their coolers, grills and such. We had a charcoal grill that was anchored to the ground – my dad installed it at the beginning of the summer and brought it home in the fall. Dinner at ‘the lake’ was always hamburgers and hot dogs, tuna/pasta salad or sometimes on a special occasion my dad would run out for pizza. Beyond the trees was a large open space, great for Frisbee, lawn darts, volleyball (there were a couple of posts permanently set so you could just bring a net) and then on the other side, by the property’s fence, there was the “Little Red Barn”. The little red barn was, well – a little red barn. Honestly. It was basically a little shed that looked exactly like a tiny barn, and it contained a unisex bathroom and changing area. So, “I’m going to the little red barn” was pretty much our way of saying we had to go to the bathroom. Being told to visit the little red barn by our parents before we left was pretty commonplace and not something you probably hear anywhere else, LOL.
I haven’t mentioned the best part of the marina yet – at least to us kids. Over on one side of the open space area, at the end of our row of boat slips, sea boxes and picnic tables, was – the swimming area. I don’t say ‘beach’ because it wasn’t really a beach. There was no sandy area like you think of at a beach, but we didn’t care. The grass went right up to the water and there was a ‘wet sand’ strip that was perfect for sand castles and mud pies. And of course, the water. The swimming area wasn’t huge, but it was – perfect. Not too deep at first, which was great for the little kids. A red post at one side marked the area where the drop-off began and the water got deep. Kind of like the ‘shallow end’ and the ‘deep end’, LOL. As little kids, we weren’t allowed to go out past the post. As older kids, it became a landmark used in games of tag or keep-away. Out in the deeper end of the swimming area was the yellow raft. The raft was the most exciting part of swimming there because it gave us something to climb, sit on, jump/dive off of, and swim under, through and around (perfect for games of tag and hide-and-seek). The more daring kids would dive underneath and follow the chain down to see who could touch the anchor. I shudder to think of how many times we attempted that and I’m thankful that nobody hit their head on the thing when they came back up. Some of the best times of my childhood were spent in that swimming area playing a combination of hide-and-seek and tag around, through and under the raft. There’s a photo of me jumping off of it in yesterday’s Throwback Thursday.

At least once a day my dad would gather everyone up for a boat ride. Our marina was situated on a large bay which was well utilized for water skiing and tubing (and later, windsurfing) since it was sheltered from the rest of the lake and the water was much calmer. From our marina, you couldn’t even see the rest of the lake, only the bay, so it was almost like our own private little ‘lake’. In the boat though, we could explore the rest of the large, inland lake. My brother and I always sat in the front (bow) seats, bouncing along getting sprayed with water as we hit the waves. The two of us would sing songs at the top of our lungs (Flashdance and the theme from the “Greatest American Hero” were two favorites). Our boat would speed around and all of us would watch the other speedboats and sailboats and the many large houses along the lake’s edge. Donnie and I each had a favorite house picked out that we always said we were going to live in when we grew up. The boat ride usually culminated in a visit to the “State Park” – which is the Dodge #4 MI State Park. There were many traditions associated with our visiting the state park. First, since we came in by boat and not car, we didn’t have to pay to get in (although my dad had a state park sticker on our van anyway). We always were allowed to get one ‘treat’ – either something from one of the vending machines, an ice cream bar, cotton candy, etc. It was a full concession stand so I would often get french fries – the crinkly kind that I would smother in warm ketchup. We would play on the large cement planters and here was the ‘real’ beach where we could dig in the sand. The swimming area there was much shallower than at the marina so you had to go out a lot further to really ‘swim’. We usually just floated on rafts or splashed around. When we were little kids, the lifeguard towers were made of white metal bars that were the perfect size for a couple of kids to swing on and around, doing somersaults around them and hanging off of them. Later on, they hung signs from them in order to keep kids off for safety reasons. The state park also had a playground that included a fairly long trek up a hill into the woods, so it was a special trip when my parents would take us up there. Usually, after an hour or so it was back into the boat and another fun ride back ‘home’ to our marina.

As we got older, our visits to the lake involved many more things like water skiing, tubing, paddling around in inflatable boats, fishing off the back of our boat (for tiny sunfish that we threw back, using pieces of hot dog for bait), and bringing friends with us. Those were always the best times, when we were each allowed to invite a friend along. In high school, I often chose to stay home – something that’s hard for me to understand now that I miss the lake so much. I was not a ‘sun worshipper’ like my parents though and I liked having the quiet house to sit and read in. After my parents divorced, my dad and stepmom kept the marina slot for a year or two but they had moved even further away so it was a much longer trip and my stepmom was decidedly not a ‘beach’ person. So my dad let our slot go and eventually sold the boat.

When Abby was born, I realized how much I wanted to share experiences like this with her, but they are from my childhood, not hers. It’s so strange to me that she and Hannah and Becca will grow up never knowing ‘the lake’ or those carefree summer days when my stay-at-home mom could take us out there to play and swim. Beach trips for my kids are fewer and farther between and not always to the same beach. We do live close to Lake Michigan, which is a wonderful experience for my kids and I have to remember that they do not know what they are missing – ‘the lake’ is my memory, not theirs. I do miss having a boat though and hope that someday we can manage to either afford one somehow or make friends with someone who has one (LOL).