Part 2: The Arrival
I walk toward the woodland entrance and as I start down the pathway I look up. Something seems wrong—- because it looks exactly the same. The same roots jut across the trail, and the same underground springs have washed away the sand, creating small hills and valleys that have tripped up vacationers for decades. Just ahead, around the bend, will be the bath house, the one built between my first and second summers at Wellington State Park. Surely it will have changed, yet through the evergreen and swamp maple branches it looks perfectly familiar too. I stroll on, and walk into the clearing, feeling an inner glow unmatched by any childhood Christmas morning. The fact is nothing has changed.
I walk toward the state-park-brown bath house, and on the women’s side I see the toilets on the left, the changing rooms on the right. “Yup, all the same. Even the worn spots on the doorway thresholds are the same.” I quickly change into my bathing suit, no longer self-conscious of my older, larger body. I am eager to move on so I grab the tote bags and chair, leave the bath house, and turn right to walk along the lake shore. This is what I came for, to see my past come alive again, and there it is—the Snack Bar.
Memories wash over me in every shade from Anxiety Blue to Romantic Rose. In that little shack I had worked for a neurotic, half-blind woman whose recipe for tuna salad was as closely guarded as one for nuclear fuel. In these cramped quarters I had lived for two summers ‘on the beach’ yet trapped in an L-shaped hut, scurrying between the meccas of ice cream freezer to the east and deep-fat fryer to the west. Here I had known the joy of freedom (when Mrs. Wilson had to run errands in town for an hour) and the despair of failure (when she returned to discover I had put too much tuna, mayo, celery, or special spice in her incomparable tuna filling.) I never knew which ingredient was the precious one, the one that I was abusing. The balance of all four seemed to be her pride and joy that no one could possibly duplicate.
It was also here at the sand-sprinkled countertop that I fell in love the first time. And the second time. First it was with a jaunty maintenance man (quite old—he was twenty-one), and the following year, with a husky lifeguard whose sparkling eyes and filthy jubilant laugh I can still hear just thinking of it. John, the lifeguard, had me spellbound (much to Mrs. Wilson’s disgust), as he told me about an adventure he’d had. I was his captive audience, locked in my fry-shack, and over that thick pine countertop I fell in love with both John and his storytelling. I was quite shocked a year later at college when I heard Arlo Guthrie tell the same story about a place called Alice’s Restaurant. I wondered how he had learned it from John, how this guy Arlo could have known my lifeguard. It took longer than I like to admit for me to realize that John must have struggled to suppress his own laughter, knowing this wisp of a girl hung on his every word, believing that his stories were spontaneously inspired by her laughing eyes. What a rube I was. But no matter. No harm was done—that summer, we all won.
The ‘customer side’ of the snack bar window is an unfamiliar perspective for me. I smile, glancing at the menu. No grilled tuna sandwich. Seems fitting, Mrs. Wilson took her recipe to the grave. As my turn in line comes up, I make the most decadent, typical-tourist request I can think of. “One hot dog and a bag of chips, please.”
I hope the boy behind the counter is on drugs today. I’d hate to think he’s always like this. His face registers nothing as he shoves his none-too-clean hand into the institutional food box of wieners and grabs one. He trudges over to the grill, turns up the heat, and lets the dog fall. Unfortunately, there is no resulting sizzle, no sound at all, so I figure it might be a long wait. Or a cold dog in ten minutes. Either way, I don’t care. It is such a joy to see someone behind that counter who truly, blatantly, doesn’t give a damn. I had worked there for the two longest summers of my life, caring way too much about way too many things. This guy was turning into my hero.
The young man hands me the bag of chips, then slowly looks at the line of ten or so people who have gathered behind me. His eyes drift over to the next customer as he mumbles, “Yeah?” The somewhat nervous woman looks at her two grandchildren, then orders three hot dogs. She winces as she sees the boy go through the same routine, grabbing the dogs bare-handed and shuffling the length of the shack to toss them on the grill. Suddenly he notices that my hot dog is just sitting there, slowly decaying in the summer breeze, so he bends all the way over to half-mast to inspect the flame. I think he is stuck, or maybe just fascinated that the flame either is there or isn’t there. Either way, he isn’t moving, the hungry tourists are piling up, and I am having the time of my life.
Part 3: Dogs, Dads, and a Decision
Eventually he decides my hot dog is up to room temperature, so he forks it into the cold damp bun that is resting in its cardboard sleeve, and shoves it at me across the dirty counter. I flinch at the sound of cardboard plowing up grains of sand, so I get a box of Cracker Jacks for back-up. I pay my bill, grab my tote bags, chair, and lunch, and walk over to the nearest picnic table. I tear the end off the little plastic condiment tube, tip it up, and watch a lime green river ooze out followed by the reluctant relish. I take a deep breath and bite the dog anyway, then smile and pick at the soggy bread stuck like glue to the cardboard holder. Ah, the sounds, the smell, and now even the taste are pure summer-at-the-beach.
I finish up my lunch, discard the remnants, and gather up my belongings yet again, scoping out the available lakeside picnic tables to see where I will live for the next few hours. As I walk past one particular evergreen I recall a moonlight rendezvous with George. Later, passing the staff picnic table in the woods, I think of my young coworker Cathy, without whom I never would have survived that second summer. I keep walking.
Finally I spy a table and park my gear. The warm breeze feels good on my skin, and the shade from the towering pines is easy on my eyes. I look around at the rocks with pine needles nestled in the cracks, the little pine cones hiding beneath the arched tree roots. I try to find a scene to sketch but instead I simply eavesdrop for a while on the families around me. The kids’ crazed splashing and laughter drowns out the moms and dads most of the time. I listen to fathers choreograph the Dance of the Grill—”Okay now, we got dogs and burgers, who wants what?… Are you listening to me? Jennifer, dog or burger? Okay, burger. How do you want it done? Jennifer? Jennifer?!… I give up… David—where the hell is David?” And you wonder why fathers aren’t mothers.
I sketch, paint, and write until my neck gets stiff, then decide I need to stretch my legs and walk the beach. I take only my car keys and change purse with me, leaving my belongings at my picnic table. My faith had grown since my Parking Lot Paranoia. It feels good to trust the total strangers in my “beach neighborhood”.
By six o’clock I feel both full and spent, so I gather up my gear and head for the car. I unlock and open the door, and am blasted by a wall of damp heat. I open all four doors plus the hatchback, and wait until enough time has passed for the steering wheel to cool off. I realize it must look like a bomb has gone off in the car, blowing all the doors open. I sit there on the back bumper with a dumb-happy smile on my face. I stare at the trees, the families trudging to their cars, the kids suddenly fighting over God-Knows-What in their usual late afternoon way. Slowly, gently, I walked around my car, closing doors, closing the day. As I drive past the gate, I wave at my Summer Santa who is biding his time until he too can go home. It’s hard to spend your days watching people on vacation while you are working. I know, I understand, I remember.
At the corner by Frosty Kone I stop and think a moment. If I turn left, I will head back to my home and husband in Ashland, eighteen miles away. If I turn right toward Alexandria I will arrive at another, even older ‘home’, one that welcomed me in 1954 when I was two years old. An old farmhouse, fifteen rooms, attached woodshed, barn, hayloft, and an elegant five-holer outhouse. I haven’t been there in sixteen years because my mother sold our house when I was away at school, and her move to Bristol closed an unfinished chapter of my life. Today my real home is beckoning, so I turn right and drive the final three miles into my past. But that’s another story of course.