Essay: North Lake, I Remember by Michael Royce

In my earliest memory of North Lake, I sat in the backseat of our 1950 forest-green station wagon, my sister and brother next to me. Mother rode in the front passenger seat beside my father as he drove us fifty miles to our grandparents’ summer home outside Milwaukee. The original farmhouse had expanded over the years from a modest dwelling with adjacent windmill into a sprawling structure. Similar family compounds dotted the lakes sprinkled throughout the terminal moraine created by the last Ice Age, serving as country retreats for Wisconsin’s German American upper-middle-class in the intermediate decades of the 20th century.

I was five, dazed by the sun pouring through the windows of the car and half-anesthetized by the smoke of my father’s cigar. “Look,” my mother said in wonder, breaking the comfortable silence which had settled over us. I snapped up to stare at branching maples, sturdy white oaks and soaring elms stretched in greeting as we made our final turn onto Highway 83.

Fifteen minutes later, we crunched over the limestone-graveled drive and passed two towering spruce trees, lonely sentinels in front of a large garden surrounded by a lattice fence. Corn, carrots, lettuce of several kinds, and spinach commanded their own plots. Flowers, particularly pansies on sunlit days, gave the garden the appearance of a bright quilt. In the elevated section to the north, Concord grapes dangled from trellises spread along tiered landings.

The car halted before my grandmother, standing under the ivied archway to the kitchen patio. She was dressed in light gray wool buttoned to the neck and appeared ancient to me. We followed her into the main house where the temperature remained cool, except on the hottest days, because the floors were tiled and the ceilings high.

In the living room, Gothic lettering on the soffit above the window seat pronounced, “With Mirth and Laughter Let Old Wrinkles Come.” Now, with my own wrinkles and occasional difficulty in discovering laughter in the world, I remember these words as I do the jingles my older brother Chris chanted to me in the back seat of our car as we whisked by them in the early fifties: “Within this vale/of toil/and sin/your head grows bald/but not your chin/use Burma-Shave.”

To reach the lake, we walked a mile by winding gravel road from the house. Little North Lake joined to North Lake by a shallow sand bar, and, from the air, the two resembled a pair of kidneys. North Lake was half-mile wide and over a mile long, deep with a sandy bottom of silt, casting off a gray-green color in the sunlight. Panfish, Bass and Northern Pike populated the waters.

We swam every day at North Lake, unless thunderheads boiled up and jagged bolts of lightning and sheets of rain forced us indoors. I learned to swim that summer by imitating my friend Jenny, our fifty-pound black and white Springer Spaniel. When I tired, I grabbed her tail, and she pulled me in slow motion around the pier which extended into knee-deep water. I soon graduated from a dog paddle, however, to a more refined stroke, and a rich aquatic world opened for me.

A pioneer’s log cabin that had nestled on the lake’s shore for over a hundred years served to store our water equipment. In two dingy changing rooms—one for boys and one for girls—we wriggled into swimsuits, avoiding omnipresent cobwebs. A double-seater outhouse lay up a small path into the woods. The cut-out of a heart decorated the door at five feet. Spiders lurked in this opening. The interior was dark. Mice invariably chewed the toilet paper, leaving pellet-mounds in the corner. On the rare occasions necessity forced me to use the outhouse, I lifted the lid for one of the two seats, situated comfortably beside each other, and peered into the depths to ensure no horrible animal was prepared to attack from below. Only as an adult did I wonder at the meaning of this arrangement. Was the outhouse built long ago for a young couple unable to bear the thought of separation?

One night when I am seven, I wait for sleep. I share a room with my brother, Chris, each of us nestled in a twin bed resting on a white-painted wood frame, adorned with a spindle-post headboard. The animal mustiness of young boys fills the room, cut only occasionally by the sweet odor of white pine when we open a drawer of the bureau to scrounge for clean clothes. Our room once belonged to older cousins, but, of course, we always insist the bedroom is “ours,” even later, when younger sisters replace us.

I listen, as usual, for the whistle of the ten o’clock train as it crosses the north side of the lake. My grandmother will be the first family member to die during my lifetime, but her passing is then still six years off. The hard reality of death remains an abstraction, but the concept of being without my parents, alone in the world, worries me.

“Why do people die?” I ask Chris, interrupting the silence.

“They get old,” he says from his vantage of three-and-a-half years seniority. Not much of an answer, but it is enough to calm me, for the moment.

The whistle sounds, piercing the mystery of the night, and we shuffle off to sleep.

***

As I entered adolescence, the days, the long ones of summer at North Lake, merged into a magical, undulating unity. They belong to a different reel of memory than those of my childhood.

Some days, I went frogging with a BB gun on a little stream, meandering down from the woods to finally discharge into the lake. I became a modest connoisseur of frog legs. Family principles were quite clear: if you shoot it, you eat it

Jean Marc, the son of my parents’ French friend from World War II, spent July 1959 with us. By then, I was only three months from turning thirteen and found him, at eleven, immature. He had dreamed of the Wild West forever and developed an obsession about hunting. Unfortunately, however, he had not understood the rigidity of mother’s precepts regarding nature.

From one outing, he returns with a dead songbird. The rest of us, who love birds, are outraged. Mom does not falter. She dips the wren in boiling water and plucks it. We eat hamburgers that night, but she presents Jean Marc with the pitiful, roasted body of his bird, announcing, “It’s not right to kill any creature for fun.”

“I’m done with hunting,” Jean Marc responds, glaring at his plate. He outwaits my mother, and the wren is eventually deposited in the garbage, uneaten.

My mother also held the strong belief that chores build character. Before we descend in the late morning, my brother and I made our beds by pulling the coverlet over the sheets and tamping down any lumps. Our meager efforts remained a constant source of tension with our mother, who cherished more exalted standards.

“Did you make your bed?” she greets us, grumpy that noon approaches and we are only now appearing for breakfast.

“Certainly,” we lie.

At lunch, we’d walked down a long screened-in hallway, which stretched to the back of the house, expanding, in the end, to a circular open-air space with a round table. My brother and I hauled trays filled with food— sausage, pickles, various cheeses, especially a wonderful and stinky one called Mapleton after the small country town where we bought it—along with salad, lemonade and beer. Growing up German American, it was natural even for young teens to drink beer.

The porch opened to a driveway curving around a clump of bushes to a graveled circle in front of the garage, big enough for four cars or farm equipment. Instead of vehicles, however, we stored tools to clear the pine forest and to attack sumac, a spindly invasive shrub which harbored disgusting nests of tent caterpillar worms. We also kept mowers, both sitting and push; ladders and stacked firewood; Dad’s duck-hunting skiff; and, my favorite, an old grinding wheel powered by a foot pedal. The garage exuded a distinctive scent of concrete, used automotive oil and the rich earthy odor of wood.

As part of her “Work Is Good for You” campaign, Mom embraced responsibility for maintaining the trails and trees on the property. Clear paths must be maintained—although she never clearly articulated a rationale for this rule. Nevertheless, she apprenticed her children to this obsession. My brother, two sisters, and I collected tools from their hooks and followed her, a tall woman with black hair, who appeared most comfortable in bib overalls and my outcast sweatshirts. She marched us to the Pine Woods, carrying our cutting instruments in single file behind her and whistling, “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it’s off to work we go.”

In that summer before I turned fourteen, I replaced Chris on the chainsaw. I loved the feel of sawdust sticking to the sweaty skin of my half-naked body. I would have hacked to the far corners of the woods except for mother’s mandate that we stop to haul debris down the path for burning. Thorny branches scratched me from wrist to shoulder in the process. “No glory in dragging” became my mantra. I wonder now what sense of purpose prevented me then from pausing, to gaze through the silent and protecting canopy above in awe at the wider and complex world surrounding me.

Once sufficient cuttings accumulated, Mom ignited the bonfire like some high priestess before dutiful acolytes. We created an assembly line to keep the flames fed. Pushing still-green ends into the glowing center, we danced around the fire, demonic elves before the flickering light.

As for my father, a visionary whose ideas were often, but not always, quite good, he conceived of a small pond on which ducks would float serenely. He negotiated for a contractor to excavate the appropriate hole and to dump the necessary clay to seal the bottom, but he announced that his two teenage boys would do the compacting.

In an attempt to create an impermeable surface, Chris and I drag a roller that was heavier than our combined weight. After what seems an eternity of pulling, we believe the project ready and fill the “pond” by diverting a nearby stream. Overnight, the water disappears. The imported ducks vanish as rapidly, no doubt broadening the diet of resident raccoons.

On our third attempt, my brother mutters with disgust, “Sisyphus had it easy. He climbed over rock on his fool’s errand; we slog through mud.”

Existentialism is in vogue with bookish teenagers in the early 1960s, and we both have read The Myth of Sisyphus by Camus. “The struggle itself […] is enough to fill a man’s heart.” But I am still thirteen and not sure yet that is true.

We spend most of the summer with this project. After repeated failure, we lay down a rubber membrane to prevent another run-off of the water. To our amazement, the water holds. A respectable little pool is, at last, created. The family came to refer to the whole undertaking as “Dad’s Folly.” Whether it was genius realized or madness consummated is still undecided for those of us who remain alive at the end of the second decade of the 21st century.

It was not all work, however, even to a sometimes-disgruntled teenager. After dinner, I loved to stay up, often all night, reading while splayed across the down-filled green couch in the living room. I spent long, comfortable hours with the tale of a complex, drum-playing “dwarf” in Nazi-occupied Poland in Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum; with the intricacies of moral struggle and doubt Dostoevsky explores in The Brothers Karamazov; and the proto-feminism of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.

Several times a summer, the family enjoyed gatherings at the lake. We picnicked on bratwurst, corn and beer. A fire pit of rock and concrete stood three-and-a-half feet tall, near a pump on one side of the cabin. Water high in iron content waited at the ready in a pail for when flames surged, threatening nearby bushes. Drinks cooled in the lake, tied to the massive elm that leaned over the steps leading to the pier, while brats sizzled, and the ballooning smoke enveloped us in a delicious fatty odor. I can still smell them.

For birthdays, Mom organized Treasure Hunts. She threw herself into these games, scattering clues over the breadth of the property. We revelers—Chris, Sam, Johnnie, Doug, Carlson, Gail, Susan and others—rushed from the Giant’s House (in reality, an abandoned pumping station) to the Pine Woods, down to the log cabin at the lake, and back up to the garden beside the house, following cryptic riddles such as, “Where giants did once bed.”  The younger children, befuddled by these hints, slowed in confusion while the teenagers rampaged toward the finish line.

For several of these later summers, Judy, the daughter of a local dairy farmer, worked for my parents. I was two years older, but she became a wonderful friend. We devised elaborate tricks to spring on each other. I took her sailing. As the boat tacked, the swinging mast knocked her into the lake. Fifteen-year-old me delighted in this prank—until Judy invited me to ride horses at her parents’ farm.

We enter the field on horseback, at a brisk trot. Judy’s horse breaks into a gallop, and mine takes up the challenge. A fence approaches. I realize with despair that I no longer have control. I scream “Whoa!” in desperation and hug my horse’s neck, hoping to survive the landing. Inches before disaster, the horse kicks back into a sudden halt. I catapult over its head to hit the ground with a thump. Only my dignity is hurt. After a shocked moment, I laugh along with Judy, who, knowing all along that the horse would stop in this fashion, cackles shamelessly.

We knew other families at North Lake, the Eschweilers, Cooks, Dykemas, and from across the road, the Czyzynskis. But most important for me were the Franks. They purchased a parcel of land from my father in 1959 and built a white house with an airy screened porch on a hill overlooking the lake. Doug, the son who was a year-and-a-half younger, was my primary companion during the summers from 1959-1963, and his sister Gail was a year-and-a-half older.

Mornings after breakfast, if mother had not yet assigned me some task, I walked the half-mile past the “Slow Children” sign where you turned left toward the lake or right to the Franks’ house. On sunny days, we swam off their pier or uncovered their motorboat to waterski in lazy circles. One afternoon, swerving sharply over the wake, I leaned deeply toward the water. I lost my balance and cart-wheeled like a stone skipping across the surface of the lake, followed by the music of Gail’s laughter. Other days, we played King of the Mountain on a white wooden raft buoyed by 55-gallon drums in deep water off my family’s dock. We attacked each other to throw the loser overboard, until only one remained.

After dispatching Doug in one such contest, I turn toward Gail, the remaining survivor of my crafty attacks. My mind twitches with the possibility of contact and anxiety of being misunderstood or understood too well.

“In your dreams,” she whoops and charges, but I sidestep.

“Have a nice swim.” I pin her arms and inch her to the edge before dumping her into the water beside her brother. Alone on the raft, my hands tingle from touching her, and I remain conscious of the freshness of her skin.

In the evening, the three of us sat mesmerized before “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in the Frank’s rec room or listened to records. Shuffling to the music of Elvis’s “Marie’s the Name of His Latest Flame” with Gail one night, I held her close but did not attempt a kiss, unable to resolve the balance between desire and anxiety.

***

During college, I continue to visit North Lake for short periods, but after I marry, I rarely return. In 1979, I graduate from law school and my mother watches our three children at the lake while my wife and I travel in Europe. For that month, our kids share the magic we grew up experiencing: playing dress-up in lederhosen and dirndls, lazing in the sun on the pier before rolling into cool waters, adventuring in the Pine Woods, and listening for the whistle of the train at night. But when we return in August, my parents have sold the house. Pictures, furniture and the miscellany collected over fifty-nine years is packed, tossed, or parceled out to children and grandchildren.

Since the sale, the land has divided and redivided. Oversized modern homes for unknown families multiply. Ties to North Lake fade over time, but childhood remains a mythical place where I learned to do things for myself—wielding chain saws, shooting guns, running risks, drinking, smoking, exploring big ideas, and feeling something very akin to the pull of love.

I could not see beyond the horizon, during those youthful summers, to what will confront me in the future. At age eighteen, I will experience jail and beatings in Mississippi as a civil rights worker. My early twenties will be defined by the draft and war in Vietnam. When I am thirty-nine my brother drowns in a kayak accident, and I am left to tell our parents of his death. And in 2005, my best friend is murdered, and I journey back to Portland over sixty hours by foot, Jeep, bus, and plane from a remote Karen village on the Burma-Thai border to preside at his memorial.

Yet, North Lake, I remember.

Michael Royce has published fiction and creative non-fiction  in Bartleby Snopes, Euphony, jmww, MacGuffin, PANK, Prime Number, and other online and print journals and anthologies. His series collectively called “Mississippi Freedom Summer in Eight Vignettes” was published in the “Best of the Net 2011” by Fringe/Sundress Publications.  He is the  coauthor of Sustainable Homes for the 21 Century.

One response to “Essay: North Lake, I Remember by Michael Royce

  1. Pingback: Newest piece I edited for JMWW Journal – About Childhood:·

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