MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH MAE
Four-years-old is an eye-opening time in life. You may not know time and distanced traveled, but you do know that “The Lake” means fun with someone who loves and cares for you. You are at “The Lake” with Grandma Mae, and the required water wear is a Mae West life jacket. This was the start of FUN. That is me with the Mae West life-jacket.
Grandma came from a strange place they called Toledo. Weekends began with groceries being delivered from a store from my hometown— “Henry’s”. On Saturday mornings, our feast was glazed crescents with small chunks of pineapple, fresh fruit, fried eggs with bacon and toast. Swimming and playing in the sandy beach with your new best friends in the neighborhood kicked off the summer. This lasted until you returned to school in the fall.
Each summer as a kid also began with a trip to Brooklyn. A must was a new swimsuit and matching jacket from Cooper’s, and a new toy for the beach from the toy store across the street. One year the acquisition was a small boat with a battery-operated outboard engine on the back, just like the big ones on the lake. Digging a harbor in the sand occupied my friends and me for hours. Our cottage had a cold-water spring that not only fed the lake but also worked great for filling up our harbors. Spending summers at Grandma’s was the best.
Growing older, I began to discover that “The Lake” was big, I mean big. I could now venture away from the dock in the family fishing boat, a wooden one. I had to learn that a life jacket was standard equipment, and who was this Mae West? My boating education included learning how to operate the 5-hp Johnson. First, open this valve, prime this button, and pull the rope. To my surprise when it started, you immediately went forward. If you wanted to go in reverse, you had to turn the engine 180-degrees. So, everything you thought you needed to control the engine was behind you.
Dad gave my first lessons in running the boat. He told me to push to handle away or pull it toward you. At 5-years old, that was too much information. Neighbors, who were swimming in front of their dock, were awfully close to me as I tried to bring the boat home and tie it up to the dock. But all survived my driver’s training and there were no lasting problems.
Then came the day when I was told that I could take the wooden boat out on the lake. But I had to stay close to home. I believe my parents and grandma wanted to watch as they sat in the yard. I must have looked like quite the boater as I piloted the 5-hp wooden boat in circles in an 8-cottage area, equivalent to less than a city block.
As I became older “The Lake” continued to be my playground, and water skiing had become the sport of choice. I wasn’t alone. Others at the lake, like me, wanted to capture flat water, when the lake was like a mirror. Imagine sitting on your dock earlier in the morning and watching the summer fog lift. The lake was your world. Then came familiar sounds, the audible footprint of others who used the lake. You knew who had left the dock and ventured into your world.
The first light of morning brought a parade of champions—Lynn Vermeulen, Phil Curtis, Gary & Tony Krupa, David “Buzz” Belcher, Charlie Timberlake, Larry & Dave Failing. Every morning was great. The roar of the inboard, and the whine of the outboard, smooth water and BIG SPRAY. Sitting at the end of the dock was an unbelievable experience. Calm water, big spray and hoping to get on the water to barefoot and go longer than a minute. Those were the days.
Buzzy was the neighborhood hero. Sunday was the day to see the “hardware” that Buzzy brought home from a far-away tournament. Living two doors away, it was unbelievable. Many times I was requested to be a spotter in his boat as he went through his practice runs.
Once a year the west end of the lake became a water ski paradise. It was tournament time and Clark Lake’s own got a chance to show their stuff. National stars offered tough competition, like Jimmy “The Flea” Jackson and Warren Witherell. My involvement was critical. I had to swim out to the ski jump. My role? Water-boy. It was my job to keep the jump wet and slippery. That was my introduction to the Pine Riders Water Ski Club. The memories from those days are skiing all day and pulling into the marina and asking Flip to “fill it up”. As age added the responsibilities of adulthood, no longer did Dad pay for the gas. Before long, skiing on Clark Lake’s mirror-like finish became a distant, but pleasant, memory.
It seems true that formative years shape your future. My wife, Sandy and I recently acquired a “cottage” on the lake as a summer retreat for our children and grandchildren. I look forward to enjoying that morning cup of coffee as the fog lifts and a new generation creates “big spray” and slices through the flat water. Early memories have become distant, but they keep bringing me back to that bygone era. The summer cottages are fewer as many have been gobbled up by year-round homes. Nighttime lights that shone so brightly around the lake during the summer use to disappear on Labor Day. Now they shine year around.
Many things have changed over the years. Clark Lake has grown up. No longer is it a summer-only retreat. For some, the goal is to make it their forever home. My advice? Take time, sit with a Clark Laker—and hear, see, and feel the winds of change. Remember the next time you hear the roar of an inboard boat, look at it as not a nuisance, but it could be towing the next World Champion through flat water.