Sunday, April 20, 2008

Back to the Lake

Back to the Lake


Browns Mills. Before the Jersey Shore it was always Browns Mills for the summer, and usually a late Friday afternoon when my family and friends would pile into my father’s car, leave our home in Camden and head for the small community nestled next to Mirror Lake in the middle of the Pine Barrens.

I knew every landmark on the 40 mile route from the city to the country, having traveled it so many times, and couldn’t wait for that roller coaster pitch in my stomach that would come when we got to the “hills,” actually just bumps in the road, not far from the Pine Barrens Commission headquarters that signified the entrance to the town that held some special magic for me.

Not far from Fort Dix and McGuire Air Force Base, Browns Mills is now famous as the home of Deborah Heart and Lung Hospital, but those institutions don’t reflect onMirror Lake, which you can’t see until you leave the main part of town and turn the corner past the bus station.

There was the Pig N’ Whistle Inn, a colonial era tavern and stagecoach stop, on one side of the road and a house on a hill that was Kay’s Gift Shop. Down a bit further there was a pizza restaurant next to the damn that flowed into a stream that, by canoe, would eventually carry you to the Delaware River.

The inn burned down years ago, and there’s a McDonald’s there today. The bus stop is gone too, and the gift shop is now a bank. But the lake is still there, and the places that meant something to me growing up haven’t changed all that much.

The road still winds around the lake that was once lined with private docks belonging to families with homes nearby. Most, like ours, were vacation homes, country retreats for those who wanted to escape the city in the summer. Our white stucco house, which my father and my uncle built with their own hands, brick by brick, is the last of a few small cottages at the end of a dirt road. It has a fireplace and a picture window facing the Little Lake, the small lagoon off the big lake, Mirror Lake, at the other end of the street.

In the winter, when there aren’t many leaves on the trees, you can see the house across the little lake where my Aunt Jane and Uncle Jack lived in the summer and holiday weekends. You could walk across the 100 yards if the lake was frozen, as it was much of the winter. My father was the biggest so if the ice would support him, it was good for everybody. A fire in the barbeque pit was good for hot dogs and marshmallows.
In the summer you visited them by row boat or canoe, or walk around to the bridge my uncle Babe built along the path through the woods they used to get to the dock on the big lake. You might pass aunt Jane on the trail, heading for the dock with a towl and a bar of Ivy soap, the kind that floats.

Uncle Jack always had something going on. He was either oil painting ships, putting up the hammock, tether ball pole, or badminton net, but always took a break to take us in his little Porsche to the bus stop market for ice cream and a ride around the lake. I don’t know how six cousins fit into that little car.

Then he’d drop us off at the dock where we’d dive or cannonball into the lake, driving Aunt Jane out of the water, and race to the neighbor’s floating pontoon platform out in the deep part. As we’d pull ourselves onto the bobbing float I’d swallow the brownish cedar water, and then lie in the sun until dry.

There were drownings all the time, and you thought about it when you heard an ambulance screaming around Lake Shore Drive, but they were usually city slickers out of their element. We had been baptized in this lake when we were born and felt invincible. But we did practice the buddy system, wouldn’t go swimming alone, and if you wanted to swim across the lake you had to follow a row boat.

Power boats weren’t allowed on the lake, so it was often filled with rowboats, canoes and sailboats in a soft breeze, gently floating nowhere.

We would take a canoe to explore the swampy source of the lake. Catching frogs and turtles with your bare hands is a patiently crafted skill, and dusk is the best time to catch fish. Rolled up pieces of wet bread make good bait for catfish, and you only feel squeamish the first time you learn to grab the flopping fish from behind the gills to remove the hook.. No matter what the size of the catch, the fish are thrown back to be caught another day.

Sometimes, on really dull days, we’d cast off a plastic model ship into the little lake, a toy that took hours to build and only a few minutes to sink with a BB gun.
Then there was the time a state Fish, Game & Wildlife agent came out of the woods behind our house and gave a ticket to my father for fishing without a license. Dad had his day in court, explained how he was teaching my brother to cast a line, and besides, the agent had to trespass on our property in order to catch him. Not guilty.

Breakfast with Uncle Jack meant blueberry pancakes, wild berries you had to go pick yourself.

After dinner we’d meet at Uncle Jack’s to play flashlight tag in the dark while the older folks played cards on the porch.

If you stayed overnight at Uncle Jack’s house, which was usually crowded, and didn’t get a bed, you had to sleep on the bathroom floor, which would earn you name painted in oil on the bathroom wall.

There were seven brothers and sisters in my father’s family, so there were always a lot of cousins running around, and their names are all on that wall.

We would sleep either in the bunk beds in the side room, or in the attic, where the stars would shine in the window through the pines, and we’d fall asleep to the sounds of crickets and frogs croaking into the night.

In the morning, a woodpecker would wake us up and we’d go outside to pick blueberries that Uncle Jack would put into the pancakes.

Then we’d have to wait for an hour before we could go down the path through the woods to the big lake for a dip in the lake, because one of the rules was you couldn’t go swimming on a full stomach.

We didn’t put our shoes on until Sunday, when we went to church – St. Ann’s in the Pines.

It went that way every day, all summer, from Memorial Day until Labor Day, for years, until we became teenagers, discovered girls and rock & roll, and started going down the shore where the action was.

And now I find myself sitting across the table from Uncle Jack, drinking his iced tea that tastes just like the big lake, saying how every time he runs into a cousin they say, “Browns Mills. Let’s go back there because they were the best days of my life.”

And Uncle Jack said, “We still go up there for weekends in the summer, but nobody comes to visit us anymore.. You’re welcome. It’s still the same. You can get everybody back there if you want to, but that was a special place at another time, and it’ll never happen again. That, I think, is what Thomas Wolfe meant when he said, ‘You can’t go home again’”

[Originally published in the column Kelly’s People – The SandPaper, Friday, Dec. 16, 1988]

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