For at least that one week, we had him all to ourselves. Every Monday through Friday, Dad was designing bridges, buildings, and who knew what else for the Corps of Engineers all day long, but for one week and two whole weekends—one on either side of it— he was ours. As soon as school was out and summer was in, the family car was loaded and all seven of us would pile in for the four hour drive to Lake Martin. In the early years, it was the white station wagon with blue vinyl interior, but later it was the wide, yellow Ford LTD Galaxy 500 sedan. Except for that first summer when the LTD was brand new, and my mother backed into a fire hydrant in the Shopper’s Fair parking lot after buying supplies for our vacation, which was to take place in our brand new car the next day. The car was creamed. Back to the white station wagon that year.
I liked traveling in both cars for different reasons. In the LTD, as the youngest and smallest of five children, I got to ride curled up in the back window. If I saw that today, I would call the police. In the station wagon it was cool to sit in the rear-facing jump seats and make faces at the people behind us. But when we took that car on vacation, the back was packed, so the only place I could stretch out was in the floorboard, among my siblings’ dangling feet. That was okay, too, once you got used to the hump. And the places where the front seatbelts were bolted to the hump. Man, you had to watch out for those. I think I still have a tattoo branded on my hip from the scalding metal.
It was all worth it, though, because in four short hours, my father would manifest his one magic power. Somehow, he knew, every year, when we were exactly ten beats away from our destination. “10, 9, 8, 7…” and when he got to zero, we would turn off the main road and onto the long driveway to the cabin. We knew we had arrived, as we passed the little arrow-shaped sign that said “Whispering Pines,” and heard the welcoming crunch of the large, smooth rocks that filled the two tire ruts, down a gentle hill, up another, curving to the right, turning left, to pull up at the door. After the unpacking and bladder relieving, our week on the water commenced.
Every year, I counted the number of boards on the pier, from the shore to the plywood deck at the end with the green canvas rope that served as some kind of rail, although I can’t remember for the life of me what that number always was. What I do remember was how I stepped faster at the end because my feet were burning. We jumped a thousand times into the deep, green water from that pier each day, and floated inside enormous truck tire innertubes for hours on end, continually splashing cool water on the black rubber and trying not to get impaled by the three-inch long valve stem that always seemed to find its way around to your back.
But no matter how much fun the five of us kids were having, the excitement level went up when Mom and Dad came down to the pier. Mom would slather Coppertone over everyone again, but I think it was just fragranced hand lotion in a Coppertone bottle, because we all got sunburned just the same. Then Dad would dive in, and it seemed the most perfect dive ever performed. Granted it was only two feet from the edge of the pier into the water, but there was always so little splash that we figured that our father had a secret history of Olympic diving achievements that he just never told us about out of modesty.
During that week each summer, we would be awakened before dawn to motor away to the best fishing spots, and we would come back in a few hours to the smell of breakfast. After a few hours of swimming, we walked to Real Island Marina for Chocolate Snaps and Yoo-Hoos and Coke in glass bottles. When it rained, we laid on the bunk beds on the screened-in porch and watched it move across the lake like a curtain. On at least one afternoon, sometimes more, it was our job to assist with the homemade ice cream by one of us sitting on the freezer while Dad turned the crank, stopping periodically to smash up a frozen milk carton of ice with the side of a hammer. On other afternoons it was our grown up thrill to shoot his .22 pistol at cans on the hillside, or to unload a million BBs into ketchup bottles at the dump. At night, we fried the fish caught during the day, and caught lightning bugs in a jar as the starlit lake lapped against the shore. Then, back upstairs in the cabin, we played every kind of game imaginable—card games, board games, push-your-arms-into-the-doorframe-as-hard-as-you-can-for-thirty-seconds-and-watch-them-float-upward kind of games. My favorite of those was one night when I was about 6 years old. I was blindfolded and told that I was going to take a magic carpet ride. My siblings sat me on a wide, sturdy board and flew me around the room, until I bumped my head on the ceiling, which was actually just a dictionary that one of them held just above my head. For years I was convinced I had flown.
It has only recently occurred to me that those times at Lake Martin were only seven or eight days long, but when I talk about it, I find myself telling people that I “spent my boyhood summers” on the Lake. Today, my most powerful memories of summer swirl around that time and place; the fragrant pines, the fresh, clean smell of the lake, the distant thrum of other boats, the small splash of a perfect dive, the night songs of a hundred frogs, the Carpenters, Bread, and Seals and Croft rising from the tinny speakers of a Panasonic portable tape recorder on a gloriously hot afternoon on the pier. And I know the reason why my memories stay tethered there. Because that was where we were all together. My mother has since passed away, we all now have families of our own, and the cabin was sold years ago.
And now I am a Dad in Summer. A few days ago, I taught my daughter how to ride a bike in a local park. A few weeks ago, we had homemade ice cream at my brother’s house, and nobody had to sit on the freezer. My wife and children and I spent a week in a house at Gulf Shores, where there is a store that smells just like Real Island Marina and sells Yoo-Hoos and Coke in glass bottles. During the day, we swim together, and at night we watch the sunset, cook fish, and play all kinds of games. And we are all together.
The last time I was near the Lake, I took my family to see where my summers had been made. I counted down from 10 and turned off the main road, and heard the crunch of rocks under the tires. The “Whispering Pines” sign is long gone, but I followed the drive down the hill, up another, right, then left. I could hardly see the house behind the overgrowth. It sat, solitary and neglected and I noticed that part of the roof had caved in. It was the same roof, I remember, that I bumped my head on one night when I took a magic carpet ride. And somewhere, on a warm summer evening, that house is still there, with the lingering smell of supper, laughter ringing against the walls, and the easy comfort of nowhere else to be. It is there, in my childhood, where we are all still together.