When you’re little, you think that every aspect of your life is normal because you don’t really have a grasp of what others may have, what they have encountered, or what they must endure. Whatever it is that you’re experiencing as a child is what every child your age is experiencing, and your expectations of that normalcy remain until you grow up, move away, and realize that those experiences were special. My life has been like that. Looking back, I realize that my childhood was unique in so many ways both good and bad, but blissfully, I mostly remember the best. Without a doubt, my brother and sister would agree with me that the most enduring experience we had in our youth was our daily summertime ritual of going to the beach. Because, after all, didn’t everybody grow up with a beach?
This wasn’t exactly “our” beach, and we did not live within walking distance of it. Nor was it a proper beach—it was neither an ocean nor a shore—but to us, in our naiveté, it was a paradise like no other. Geographically, Pymatuning Lake (or as my dad called it, the “Swamp”) is a large reservoir straddling the Pennsylvania-Ohio border between the two Pennsylvania towns of Linesville and Jamestown on the east, and the Ohio burg of Andover on the west. My father, 45 years my senior (more later about the advantages of having an elderly father), remembers that during the Great Depression, his father found work helping to dig out Pymatuning, created by damming the Shenango River to the south. I could wax historic here about the rich history of the building of Pymatuning, the spooky myths involving entire farms being submerged under water, and the scary number of men who died whilst digging out the mud hole (no, no, my grandfather survived), but those facts are not germane to my epistle. My fascination with the beach is.
The Saturday of Memorial Day weekend began each summer of beachiness. The beach did not open properly until 11 am daily, so our mornings—from 7 am until 10:50 am–were spent getting ready for the beach. This involved packing lunches—either peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or chip-chop ham sandwiches with mustard—a bag of Wise potato chips, and a large thermos full of Kool-Aid mixed with lemonade (such a creative mum!). If we had them, a box of Ho-ho’s were thrown in. We then retrieved from the clothesline our beach blanket and our crusty beach towels, which, I am almost but not quite ashamed to say, were, along with our bathing suits, our hair, and ourselves, never, ever washed during the summer, only hung on the line once we got home in the late afternoon. Towels, blanket, and bathing suits, not us.
Becky and I were nearly apoplectic waiting for Mum to get herself ready so that we could leave; Jamie less so. Those were the days of Little League baseball where, on a game day, coaches forbade their players from engaging in rigorous activities like swimming, and my brother, being the rule follower that he is, honored his coach’s demands. After all, it’s common knowledge that Little League baseball requires an inordinate amount of vigor and stamina from the average eight year old boy. Come to think of it, he probably should have taken a nap, too.
It seemed to take years for my Mum to get ready. Her toilette involved both hair and makeup; my mother did not discriminate when it came to glamor. Then she would wiggle into her bikini and preen in front of the full length mirror making sure that no stretch marks were visible. Once satisfied with her little sassy self, she would slip on a matching cover-up and an equally sassy pair of sandals. Yes, my Mum was a little hottie in a bikini back in the day—again, wasn’t everybody’s Mum?
You may be wondering why she bothered to do her hair when she was going to be sitting on a beach and occasionally entering the water to cool off, but let me tell you, Susan’s hair did not get wet. Ever. Her weekly trips to Jean’s Beauty salon were the only opportunity for those tresses to be washed, set, and coiffed, and woe to the child daft enough to splash around Susan while she was taking a dip…up to her shoulders. Like her daughter in later years, my mum had no problem yelling at other people’s kids.
Finally, finally, it was time to go! We were always the first to arrive at the beach; only the lifeguards beat us to the punch. My mum barely had time to put the car into park before my sister and I barreled out and ran barefooted (another shameful secret of my childhood: we did not wear shoes all summer) full speed from the gravel parking lot into the water, leaving my mum and brother to haul all of our stuff to our spot. My mum did not worry about me and my ability to handle myself in eight feet of muddy water. I don’t remember learning how to swim, so I can only imagine that when I was a baby, Susan tossed me into the deep end and hoped for the best. Lucky for me, I didn’t disappoint.
We swam, we dove, we turned front somersaults and back somersaults. We played tag, we poured mud from the silty bottom into our hair pretending we had beehive hairdos, and played endless games of Marco Polio—apparently we were more familiar with childhood diseases than with early explorers. We engaged in all of these water activities without the added benefit of any manner of flotation device. Flotation devices were listed as number three on the beach’s ‘strictly forbidden’ list, and to this day, I have no idea why. This prohibition of anything floaty was such a mainstay of the rules of the beach that we seasoned swimmers often laid in wait to watch some poor unfortunate about to break the rules. We cackled in delight whenever a child—most likely some wayward youngster from Pittsburgh, slathered head to toe in Coppertone lotion and unschooled in the rules of the beach–gleefully pounced into the water with his little animal-shaped floaty only to draw the shrill trill of the lifeguard’s whistle. Oh, the shame he must have endured having to plod back to his parents’ blanket and surrender his little seahorse. We delighted in our first taste of schadenfreude.
About every hour or so, the lifeguards would call a ‘safety break’, a time when all swimmers had to get out of the water so that the lifeguards could either take a swim and cool off or get out of the sun for a time. Safety breaks lasted no longer than 15 minutes, and at about minute 13, we were at the shoreline poised like runners at the start awaiting the signal that the safety break was over. Oh, some kids were still stuck on line at the concession stand, waiting for their giant pixie stix and their sno-cones, and some kids were stupid enough to have eaten their lunch during the safety break (and not before) and were forced by their mothers to wait a half hour before getting back into the water. But man, once that whistle blew, we nearly killed one another to be the first one into the water, and to this day, there might still be a body or two lying at bottom of the swimming area.
Five o’clock was our time to leave the beach. The sun would begin to wane, and it would begin to get chilly. Good mother that she was, though, nearly every trip home involved Susan making a detour to the Dairy Isle for ice cream, as if we hadn’t ingested enough sugary junk for the day. Once we were finally home, bathing suits, bearing the fishiness of the lake mixed with the smell of gasoline from the boats anchored near the swimming area were returned to the clothesline along with our towels and the blanket. My sister and I would attempt to comb out our fishy smelling hair, but eventually we gave up. After all, we would be repeating the day’s adventure in a few short hours, and who cared about combed hair anyway?
If you were to ask me today if I prefer to swim in a chlorinated pool or a in a lake, I would choose the latter. And if you were to ask me to recall my favorite smell it would be—yep—that fishy-gasoline-y lake smell. Go figure. That mud hole of a lake has provided me with so many memories—too many to recall in one entry. Prepare yourselves for more tales from Pymatuning.